Eastern Orthodox Identity and “Aggressive Liberalism”: Non-Theological Aspects of the Confrontation

by Dmitry Uzlaner

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

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I am not a theologian, and I am not going to speak as a theologian. I am scholar of religion. And my perspective is that of an outside observer. It is the perspective of a person who has been studying contemporary Orthodoxy (in Russia) for many years—with special focus on religious conservatism in its different manifestations.

In the discourse of contemporary Orthodoxy (Russian), one of the most important topics in recent years has been the struggle with what is called in this rhetoric “aggressive liberalism” or “aggressive secularism.” “Aggressive liberalism” is a multidimensional concept, but the most threatening part of it which is often mentioned as an evidence of why liberalism is dangerous is “sexual diversity,” in particular non-traditional sexual relations, same-sex marriages, feminism, etc. It seems that Church’s vision of itself is structured around this confrontation, around this feeling of being attacked by an aggressive ideological enemy imposing some alien values and practices.

My first point: of course, this confrontation is theologically motivated, i.e., it is possible to find theological arguments in support of this harsh opposition to “sexual diversity.” In particular, some of these arguments were outlined in the corresponding official document of the Russian Orthodox Church “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights.” However, this opposition is not driven by theology. I would even say that there is a huge resistance to the very idea of making “sexual diversity” a legitimate part of theological reflection. The argument often given here is that of an “Overton window”: we discuss it and therefore automatically start to legitimize it. So I would say that in order for the issues of sexual diversity to receive an adequate theological solution, they must first become theological, i.e., be accepted as legitimate part of theological debate. But this has yet to happen.

So the sources of Orthodox opposition to sexual diversity should be looked elsewhere. Somewhere beyond theology, in non-theological factors that nourish this confrontation. What do I mean by non-theological factors? These are the factors that are determined not by theological arguments, but rather by political, ideological, and other influences.

My second point: opposition to “sexual diversity” is one of the key (perhaps the key) axes around which contemporary Orthodox identity is structured. Sex and gender issues are the cornerstone of contemporary Orthodox identity. Through this opposition to “sexual diversity” the construction of “we”-identity happens in opposition to “them.” Moreover, “we” are not only different from “them” (in Russian case “they” refer to post-Christian liberal West), but “we” are morally superior to “them”: “we” are moral, “they” are immoral; “we” are spiritual, “they” are material. This logic was perfectly illustrated by one of the speakers at our conference who contrasted moral Christians to immoral “new pagans”—he proved that the case of Russian Orthodoxy is not an exception.

There are a number of burning questions which require answers. What does it mean to be an Orthodox Christian today (as opposed to being an atheist or non-Orthodox Christian)? What distinguishes a true believer from a non-believer? Where are the signs of apostasy? What makes Orthodox Christians “the salt of the earth”? Where is the proof that Christians have not dissolved into the everyday reality of contemporary secular societies? Opposition to “sexual diversity” has become an answer these questions. This opposition has become a line which allows to differentiate “us” and “them,” to establish a stable identity and a stable system of coordinates in the rapidly changing reality of contemporary fluid societies.

So, to repeat: opposition to “sexual diversity” is the axis, the cornerstone on which contemporary Orthodox identity is constructed. For example, opposition to same-sex marriage is becoming in Russian Orthodox contexts a kind of “shibboleth” that allows “true” believers to quickly differentiate who they are dealing with: is he one of “us” Christians, or is he one of “them”—immoral liberal, pseudo-Christian, etc. Opposition to “sexual diversity” is not a theologically justified position, it is a mechanism for constructing contemporary Orthodox identity.

My third point: this Orthodox identity is always portrayed as if it is under attack. The enemy is not just liberalism or secularism, but “aggressive liberalism” and “aggressive secularism.” Orthodox identity is always persecuted and has to defend itself. Even the title of this conference has the traces of this logic: “Eastern Orthodox identity and challenges of pluralism and diversity.” You can’t just have identity and that’s all. This identity must be perceived as constantly challenged and, consequently, defended.

The narrative that illustrates this logics is very simple. One can come across it in many Church documents: there is a good Church that unites “millions of people in prayer, good deeds, care for the future of the people,” etc., and there is secularism and liberalism, adopted by alien anti-Christian forces, which tries to ruin this benign existence.

Of course, we are dealing with a standard ideological trick here. The Orthodox identity constructed through the opposition to “sexual diversity” is highly unstable in itself, for the simple reason that all identities are unstable. There are internal tensions in this identity, internal antagonisms. These internal tensions are externalized, are placed outside and embodied in the figures of “anti-church” and “anti-Christian forces.”

Challenges of “sexual diversity” that are positioned as external threats to the Orthodox identity are eating away this identity from inside. Not non-traditional sexual relationships and the Church, not feminism and the Church, not the crisis of traditional family and the Church; but non-traditional sexual relationships inside the Church (I should say that I was really impressed by the book by Frederic Martel In the Closet of the Vatican; this is a book about the Catholic Church, but it deals with problems that also exist in the Orthodox context), feminism inside the Church (I mean the problem of the place of women inside the Church), the crisis of traditional family inside the Church (e.g., the crisis of priests’ families, domestic violence in Orthodox families), etc. All these problems, which concern not only contemporary secular society, but also the Church itself, receive a simple ideological solution: they are externalized and portrayed as forces threatening Orthodox identity from the outside.

There is a burning undecidedness around issues of “sexual diversity” which is eating Orthodox identity—be it individual or collective—alive. Externalizing this undecidedness is a strategy to cope with it. This is a defense mechanism—in the Freudian sense—against something which is too painful and which cannot be approached directly yet. The fact that we sit here and discuss this issue—although under very specific limitations—makes me think that this is really a historical event.

Another way of overcoming this tension inside Orthodox identity is, of course, “scapegoating,” so masterfully described by Rene Girard. Internal antagonism is embodied in the figure of the scapegoat who is blamed for destabilizing the community and causing chaos in it. Then this embodied antagonism is thrown out of the community and the internal peace restores itself. I guess something like this happens with LGBTQ+ people being kicked out of parishes after coming out. But here I just don’t have enough information.

My fourth point: there is a bit different story that nourishes Orthodox opposition to “sexual diversity,” though this story is connected to the above-mentioned. This is the story of demographic anxiety (and of nationalism, which is connected to demographic anxiety). The anxiety that “we” will disappear, and “they” will come and take all our resources and territories. “They”, e.g., Muslims or Chinese, who are more vital, who have more children, etc. This anxiety is behind opposition to “sexual diversity,” and not just the position of Church Fathers. What is interesting is that this anxiety results not in attempts to achieve a realistic scientific understanding of the demographic situation and ways to improve it. This anxiety results in paranoid a la conspiracy theory narratives about gay or feminist or liberal elites trying to destroy Russia, to subvert its demography, to destroy traditional families (e.g. through propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations—that’s why you need a special law which prevents this propaganda from harming children!), etc.

My fifth point: the fact that this undecidedness is burning, that opposition to “sexual diversity” is saturated with anxiety about the future of Orthodoxy makes this confrontation overinvested and, consequently, closed to any meaningful discussion. It is just not possible to debate the issues of sexual relations and family in a rational way; these topics are explosive. I will give just one example: some time ago, a well-known and quite respected priest gave an interview where he said that families with a lot of children sometimes face burnout as it could be quite hard to live in poverty, etc. This provoked such a huge storm that the interview was retracted, and a refutation was published, basically saying that discussion of these issues in such a way is unacceptable. I don’t want even to touch the question of same-sex relations, because here the degree of overinvestment is so high that it becomes a question of life and death, of physical survival for those who dare to address this anxiety and undecidedness.

This means that rational theological discussion of issues of sexual diversity is almost impossible in the current situation. These issues must first become disinvested; only then could theological discussion become possible. But could it be that as soon as this disinvestment happens—and I am sure that it will happen one day—this discussion would no longer be interesting to anyone?

My sixth point: I am not saying that all Orthodox believers construct their identity around the axis of “sexual diversity.” This is the way this identity is constructed in the discourse of official and non-official but very influential Church speakers, and not only in Russia. To question this identity-building and to search for an alternative is a very easy way to become “an enemy of the Church.”

The most obvious objection to what I’ve said is the objection that opposition to “sexual diversity” could not be the cornerstone of Orthodox identity as the cornerstone of Orthodox identity is Jesus Christ. To this I can answer: first of all, I speak not as a theologian, I speak as an external observer who describes not what ought to be ideally, but what I see. Secondly, negative identity (identity against somebody or something) is stronger than positive identity (identity in favor of something or someone). At least, this is what one can read in the literature on identity and on opposition of “us” vs. “them.” But thirdly—and this answer seems to me the most convincing—because a huge number of Orthodox believers (out of 260 millions)—I would even dare to say majority—do not believe in Jesus Christ at all (in his Godmanhood, Resurrection, etc.). In Russia, one third of Orthodox Christian believers do not believe in God, one in ten (of self-proclaimed Orthodox Christians) is not baptized, etc. Faith in Christ cannot be the basis of Christian identity when belonging to Christianity is just a marker of national and cultural belonging. Faith in Christ may well be the cornerstone of Orthodox identity—but only for those few percent for whom their faith as faith makes any sense. For others, opposition to sexual diversity as the foundation of their religious identity seems like a logical option.

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I started this essay by saying that I am not a theologian and will not speak as a theologian. But I will dare to finish by asking a theological question. Constructing identity through opposing moral “us” to immoral “them,” ideological concealment of internal antagonisms, scapegoating, anxiety over the future, and search for whom to blame—these are typical, almost universal features of any human community, of any human identity (pagan, atheist, etc.). Does it mean that Christian community, Christian identity is in no way different from other communities (be it pagan or atheist ones)? Or is it different? And if it is different, then where to search for this difference? And by search, I don’t mean some theological explanation of what a Christian community ought to be in some ideal world. I mean, where do we look in order to see the difference?


Dmitry Uzlaner is Associate Professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Editor-in-Chief of State, Religion and Church in Russia and Worldwide, and a senior researcher in the “Post-secular Conflicts” project at the University of Innsbruck.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Fordham-Exeter project leaders, the conference as a whole, or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.