Politics is becoming messier by the year. The current decade keeps delivering shockers. The COVID-19 pandemic was followed by the Russian-Ukrainian War, and now we seem to be on the cusp of major warfare in the Middle East. Democracy and globalization seem in retreat. Nationalism—Christian nationalism in particular—is on the rise. Social ties that have held societies together are fraying. Technological breakthroughs offer fresh opportunities but present serious challenges as well.
In this situation, many are wondering whether Eastern Christianity can contribute to the current political discourse, perhaps in the form of a political theology that draws upon distinctly Orthodox resources.
Earlier this year, Christos Yannaras, a Greek Orthodox lay theologian, published a book titled On the “Meaning” of Politics. This short volume raised fresh questions about viability of what has been called “political hesychasm.”
Since this term was introduced by Russian philologist Gelian Prokhorov in the middle of last century, it has periodically attracted attention. John Meyendorff understood it primarily in terms of Byzantine foreign policy at the time of John VI Cantacuzene, the emperor, and Philotheus I, the patriarch. The hallmarks of this policy, says Meyendorff, were distrust of everything Western and support of Moscow rulers.
In his 2011 book titled The Revival of Political Hesychasm in Contemporary Orthodox Thought: The Political Hesychasm of John S. Romanides and Christos Yannaras, Daniel P. Payne offers an extensive examination of political hesychasm both at the time of its birth in the 14th century and since its rediscovery in the 20th century. Both thinkers operate in the context of debate about Greek identity in the modern world.
Romanides’ most pertinent contribution is his three-level theory of justice. The first level is that of the law. The second level is of those who have been purified and illuminated. They do not have the need for the law. The third, and highest, level is of those who have experienced the glory of God. Here the passions are stilled, and the person lives in perfect harmony with God and creation. This is possible to achieve in the church, which is the communion of transfigured people living in but separated from the state. Religious liberty is not necessary for the church to function. More detailed treatment of Romanides’ thought must wait for another occasion.
In his latest book, Yannaras speaks of three types of politics, or “forms of organized coexistence.” The first is structured around the “religio-metaphysical axis.” Here the guiding motif for co-existence is utility: bonded together, people can achieve greater quality of life than they would if remained apart. Religion serves to legitimate the political order. In practice, this arrangement easily degenerates into a rigid individual-centered office, where societal cohesion is achieved through coercion.
In the second type of political order, ratio dethrones metaphysical authority. It is a predictable reaction to arbitrary authority and religious hegemony. Politics is militantly divorced from metaphysics. Eventually, religion becomes a tool for serving human needs. Reason is the supreme criterion of what is good and true. As reason is accessible in principle to everyone separately, this political order leads to atomized individualism. This is antithetical to true personhood, which is communal in nature. This political organization is not capable of escaping the fortified narcissism of the ego, particularly on the part of those at the top. The remaining urge to dominate leads to imperialism, ecological crisis, and other forms of injustice.
In the third type, truth replaces utility and reason as the purpose and guiding principle of political organization. This has been exemplified by Greek polis and Mosaic law. Truth here is inherently communal: what is true is determined by what is commonly accepted as such. For Christians, this is exemplified in the Trinity: each member of the Trinity has a personhood in a loving relationship with the other two. The trinitarian archetype of politics facilitated by theosis is characterized most of all by the freedom in love that overcomes individual-centered priorities. This is an ascetic process where the reward is abundant communal flourishing rather than an individualistic survival.
Yannaras rejects utilitarianism and deontology as principles of justice. The first confuses what is useful with what is true, and the second takes truth out of communal context. In his earlier work, The Freedom of Morality, he rejected virtue ethics as individualistic. Therefore, Yannaras does not see any of the three approaches to justice dominant in the West as valid. In their place, he proposes the ethic of freedom. In addition, Yannaras rejects rights, including human rights. The true ecclesial community will experience rules and rights as constricting its freedom, which is necessary for a communal body to form valid approaches to particular issues and circumstances.
As a Protestant who believes the heirs of the Reformation could be enriched by greater continuity with Eastern Christian traditions, I find some of Yannaras’s insights worth heeding, if not outright compelling. His trinitarian anthropology can serve as an important corrective to individualism so prevalent in the modern West. Even though the importance of communal participation has received much attention in Western theology in the past few decades, few are ready to attribute to it the kind of soteriological significance Yannaras does. His thesis of the alignment between the ecclesia of the demos and the ecclesia of believers offers fresh ways of overcoming the chasm between the sacred and the secular.
That said, Yannaras’ model has a utopian ring to it. To imagine that trinitarian love, powerful and important as it is, can by itself be a sufficient safeguard against the reifying temptations Yannaras talks about is exceedingly challenging. It is difficult to avoid the impression that a dose of Niebuhrian realism is needed, Yannaras’ aversion to everything Western notwithstanding. Yannaras admits that nothing close to his approach has been implemented in the modern world, and it’s difficult for us to picture such a society. The polis of ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire of the 14th–15th centuries cannot serve as such models: they are too remote from us, and both fell short of including all their members in communal flourishing.
And we know how easily a society that ostensibly has living out the truth as its core value can slip into enforcing this truth by coercion, sometimes a brutal one—particularly, if people do not enjoy protection of rights. Examples are too numerous to mention.
Even so, I cannot help sensing something appealing in Yannaras’ approach. The root of this appeal I found in his earlier work, Orthodoxy and the West. In the penultimate chapter of this volume, he speaks of Westernization of Greek society as de-Hellenization and alienation. This did not lead to consistent Westernization. In other words, Greeks have been uprooted from their faith and culture but did not quite fit in the Western cultural milieu. This result is reflected in the dysfunction of modern Greek state: economic dysfunction, endemic divisions, a feeble system of education, etc. I could not help thinking of Russia, my motherland. Like Greeks, Russians have been uprooted from their traditions but did not quite find home in the West. Like Greeks, Russians had dysfunction, divisions, and an underfunded system of education. The current lamentable state of world affairs is in large part a result of these processes.
This leaves us with no easy answers. There is certainly a tremendous sense of malaise in the contemporary political scene. There is also a desire on the part of many Christians to contribute to a solution, even though they perceive those solutions very differently. Unfortunately, Yannaras’ model cannot be a solution because it does not take the depth of human sin with the seriousness it requires. At the same time, my hope is that some of his emphases will be a part of solutions that eventually emerge.
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