American society is polarized to an extent that one can hardly recall. It is as if we have entered a cold civil war. There is another name for this war: culture war, which is a literal translation of the German Kulturkampf. Culture wars are not proper wars, and they are not about culture. They are ideological clashes.
Ideologies are secular constructs. They emerged from the European Enlightenment as substitutes for what its inventors considered to be a delusional religious perception of the world. Ironically, these ideologies have affected not only secularized societies but also the Christian churches with which they are supposed to be incompatible. Hierarchs, priests, and theologians all too often indulge in these culture wars, throwing themselves into ideological battle.
The culture wars have become internalized in many Orthodox churches. The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, has been badly affected by them. There is a tendency in this Church to conceptualize (a new) orthodoxy in terms of ideological conservatism—one of the culture wars’ poles. The opposite pole—liberalism—is seen in this Church as a form of heresy. An intrinsic irony of the culture wars in the Russian Church is that the same people who adopt the language of the American political culture publicly condemn everything American.
The culture wars are endemic in American Christianity. Evangelical Churches ride in their vanguard. The impact of the culture wars on American Catholicism has made it the most polarized part of the global Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Churches and their institutions in the United States are also affected by these ideological clashes.
The attempt to push the Orthodox community into either liberal or conservative ideological trenches reminds me of the confessional wars in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even though those contests had little direct relevance to the Orthodox Church, many Orthodox at the time believed that the Church should identify with either the cause of the Reformation or the Counter-Reformation. This led to what Fr. Georges Florovsky called the “pseudomorphoses” of Orthodox theology and ethos. The increasing engagement of Orthodox partisans in the current American culture wars is having a similar effect.
It would be historically incorrect to say that ideological clashes are unique to modernity. One could argue that there were proto-ideologies in premodern times. The Orthodox Church, in my opinion, experienced some sort of proto-culture-wars in the periods of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Indeed, if we look closely at some classical theological controversies, we can discern what we could identify as proto-ideological underpinnings. For example, the notorious Origenist controversy in the sixth century had little to do with Origen himself. It was rather a theological extrapolation of the clashes between more open and more closed mentalities. These two mentalities underpin our modern culture wars as well.
An even more straightforward example of the ancient proto-culture-wars, in my judgment, was the clash between two early Christian attitudes toward the pagan Greco-Roman culture. Initially, these attitudes were polarized. On the one hand, there were theologians like Tatian and Tertullian, who rejected the surrounding world as evil and inherently hostile to Christianity. They encouraged their contemporaries to think of the Church as a besieged castle, which is not unlike a position advanced by one of the poles in the current culture war within American Orthodoxy.
It should be noted that Roman hostility to Christianity at that time was much harsher than the challenges of modern secularism. Christians were literally killed for their faith. Those who say that, in contrast to modern secularism, the Roman persecutions endangered the body and not soul of the Church, should remember that the majority of Christians, together with their bishops, refused Christ when presented with the possibility of martyrdom. The refusal to yield the body clearly compromised the soul.
Yet, on the other hand, there were more “liberal” Christian minds, to put it anachronistically in modern terms, who wholeheartedly embraced the Greco-Roman culture. Some great theological syntheses eventually emerged from this embracement. Sometimes, however, Christian “liberals,” such as for example John Philoponus or John Italus, borrowed pagan ideas without properly verifying them by the criteria of the Christian revelation. For this reason, they were condemned by the Church.
Just as today, there was also a third way in the ancient Church, which avoided the two poles. This third way distilled the pagan culture by putting aside what was incompatible with Christianity and appropriating what was useful. The Christian reception of Porphyry of Tyre can illustrate this wise approach. Porphyry was a Neoplatonic philosopher who authored influential commentaries on Aristotle. At the same time, he was also a ruthless anti-Christian polemicist. He was probably the most anti-Christian philosopher of late antiquity. Yet, he became one of the most influential philosophers for Christian theology. His commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories constituted the basis of the theological language that helped the Church express the Trinitarian and Incarnational doctrines. In fact, the Cappadocian fathers developed the crucial notions of hypostasis and ousia from their reading of Porphyry’s distinction between particularity and commonality.
The case of the Christian appropriation of Porphyry indicates that it is possible to avoid the sort of polarization that paralyzes much of contemporary American society. There is a third way between being “liberal” and “conservative.” It is a way of wisdom and discernment that the Cappadocian fathers demonstrated when they built a bridge between Christian Revelation and the anti-Christian pagan culture of their world.
To be sure, there is value in some points of conservative criticism against modern liberalism, just as there is value in some points of liberal criticism of modern conservatism. These points can be legitimate from the Christian perspective. What is not permissible is to identify or define Orthodoxy with any of these criticisms.
Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun is Professor of Ecclesiology, International Relations and Ecumenism at Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy.
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 editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.