Toward a Multicultural Symphonia: Orthodox Solidarity in an Age of Diversity

by Chris Durante

With all of the controversies concerning non-attendance at the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church that took place in Crete this past June, I would like to propose that a re-conceptualization of the Byzantine religio-political ideal of symphonia might be able to speak to the issue of the Orthodox world’s internal cultural diversity and the tensions that arise amongst its autocephalous ecclesial communities. As an ethical ideal grounded in the pursuit of social harmony and concordance amongst distinct voices, symphonia can be re-conceptualized as implying a more robust and polyphonic understanding of its purview, whereby symphonia may serve as the foundation of an Orthodox Christian multiculturalism.

In Byzantium, symphonia was proposed as an ideal model of Church-State relations between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Emperor. Although it was rarely enacted in the actual political realities of the Byzantine Empire, symphonia was a response to a particular historical need: namely, responding to the question of how the Church can remain an active force of social transformation and personal spirituality in an age in which the imperial state promotes its existence as a means of ensuring the bonds necessary for a common collective identity. While this might have been the socio-historic situation that gave rise to symphonia as a social concept, the current socio-historical circumstances are such that one of the main obstacles facing Orthodox Christianity today is the task of finding ways in which a sense of ecclesial unity can be cultivated yet, to do so without eradicating the particularities of the various ethno-cultural communities of which its global ecumene is comprised. It must find a way in which it can recognize and respect the unique cultural identities of its members while simultaneously cultivating a sense of shared faith and common moral mission in the world.

As a term, “symphonia” implies a coming together of voices and hence, necessarily entails the idea of polyphonia; ‘harmony in difference’ is implicit within the concept itself. As a social concept, symphonia implies the existence of harmonious relations between a number of distinct perspectives and points of view being voiced and hence, inherently implies a type of “unity in plurality.” Historically, those voices might have been the ecclesial authorities and those of the State. Yet, symphonia does not need to be restricted to the binary Church-State model implemented by the Byzantines. Simply attempting to apply an unmodified notion of symphonia to current social realities is to overlook the fact that the proposal of the ideal of symphonia was itself a response to a particular set of socio-historical circumstances and hence, today it must be refashioned as a response to our contemporary circumstances if it is going to retain it’s ability to pursue its initial purpose of helping the Church make sense of its place in the social world.

As a multicultural ethos, symphonia will be realized when we are able to find that balance in which valuing our cultural traditions and preserving customs is not antithetical to adopting cosmopolitan perspectives.  There is much beauty to be found in the ethno-cultural and lingua-cultural dimensions of the ways in which Orthodox Christianity became manifest within the way of life of a community.  On a very basic sociological level, for a local church to become actively involved in the life of a community it will necessarily become involved in and influenced by the socio-cultural customs and practices of those people. By doing so the church then becomes intertwined in the way of life of a people and arguably is better poised to achieve its mission of guiding the life of a congregation of persons. A church’s celebration of an ethno-linguistic cultural community and its customs and heritage does not necessarily preclude celebrating a common faith with others. On the contrary, through such a celebration of the particular a religion is better equipped to highlight the moral commonalities that said culture shares with other cultures and, in the context of a shared faith, highlight the existence of shared beliefs, rituals and religious practices. As Aristotle made very clear, the universal must always actualize itself through the particular. Hypostasizing the ideal of symphonia will entail transcending cultural enclosure to recognize and respect other cultural communities yet doing so without losing the uniqueness of one’s own cultural community. This involves a horizontal transcendence within the immanent world in which the cultural communities become united in solidarity while retaining their distinct customs.

Phyletism may be overcome by recognizing the value in another’s culture. Instead of reifying exclusivist ethnic identities through cultural enclosure to other Orthodox communities, through symphonia, ethno-religiosity has the potential to be an avenue through which members of such communities can come to recognize one another as fellow carriers of historical ethno-linguistic cultures as well as adherents to a common faith tradition. Aiming toward an ideal of symphonia, members of the Orthodox communities are capable of identifying with the ways in which another relates to his or her faith through an ethno-lingua-cultural tradition – even when the ethno-linguistic culture is not shared. Such circumstances are a fertile ground for the cultivation of a type of intercultural sentiment in which an affection and affinity for one’s own particular ethnic and or linguistic culture is no longer antithetical to solidarity and unity with both other ethno-religious Orthodox Christian communities and other members of global civil society.

A symphonic response to the social climate of the contemporary era will be one in which the nation is de-sacralized: whereby Orthodox ethno-religious communities will be able to effectively de-couple their identity narratives from purely politico-nationalistic aims while still retaining the ethno-linguistic traditions that imbue them with a deep sense of fellowship. This will entail alternative ways of envisioning social solidarity as we come to terms with pluralism as an unavoidable social reality and persistent feature of human existence. A reinvigorated ideal of symphonia will be able to cultivate a multicultural ethos of “solidarity in diversity,” or “unity in plurality,” amongst the various Orthodox Christian ethno-religious communities, calling for a cross-cultural common-mindedness of faith and virtue while accepting diverse cultural expressions of its manifestation in the immanent realm. In our era of diasporas, diversity, and globalization, a religious tradition that is historically seasoned in the ways of pluralism and fostering a symbiotic existence between faith and cultures, as Orthodoxy is, seems to posses a potential strength which can make it well-suited to flourish in an age committed to multiculturalism, multilingualism and religious diversity.

Chris Durante is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Manhattan College.