Over the past four years, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has become a catch-phrase for a certain kind of conservative Christian community in North America. Many Orthodox churches are striving to carve out a niche within this religious marketplace, promoting the stability of Orthodoxy in contrast to current Western Christian brands. Indeed, such stability is vital to the “BenOp” lifestyle, which envisions Christian village-style communities rooted in family life and communal worship as an antidote to a decadent modern society, unmoored from its traditional roots.
While Dreher does not promote Christian gated communities, encouraging Christians to seek allies in their cause across ideological, denominational, and religious lines, some Orthodox interpreters of his “Benedict Option” are seduced by the latent sectarianism of a BenOp-style “counter-culture” where most of the parishioners live around the corner from the Church, and where all the children attend the same parochial Orthodox school…
I would suggest that this inclination towards communities that distinguish themselves sharply from the rest of society are underwritten by a particular interpretation of the “Neopatristic Synthesis,” a school of theology that has predominated since the middle of the last century. Most often associated with the works of Fr. Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky, the movement sought to free Orthodoxy from the influence of (some would say “captivity to”) Western thought, restoring its identity in the patristic, spiritual, and liturgical heritage of the East.
Much of the criticism currently directed at the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine is organized around the idea that the Moscow Patriarchate is ideologically compromised and theologically unsound. With few exceptions, scholars, journalists, and opinion writers condemn leaders of the Russian Church as apologists for the Kremlin’s “Russian world” ideology, an expansionistic, chauvinistic worldview which makes prelates like Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Ilarion, and others complicit in a “new Nazism,” partners in an “unholy alliance,” peddlers of a “quasi-religious agenda,” and advocates of “blood and soil” nativism. Similarly, and often in the same breath, charges of “heresy” are leveled against church leaders, mainly on the grounds that supporting Russia’s war with calls to defend “Holy Russia” under the banner that “God is with us” is a form of ethnophyletism, that is, the heresy of aligning and conflating Orthodox Christianity with ethnic nationalism.
In making these assessments about the Moscow Patriarchate, critics regularly identify some moment in the past when things went wrong, a deviation from true Orthodoxy which has brought the Russian Church to this ignominious moment in its history. While often highlighting recent events, such as the Patriarchate’s public, if somewhat circumspect, support for Russia’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, several critics look further into the past for the moment when the Russian Church went astray. One such event is thought to be Joseph Stalin’s reinstatement of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943, an event which taints Russia’s post-Soviet Patriarchate as a relic of the Stalinist past. Another moment identified in the shift from good Orthodoxy to bad Orthodoxy is the 1920s, when some Russian Orthodox emigres began to embrace conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and reactionary politics. The implication of this analysis is that those who really care about Russian Orthodoxy should excise those institutions and ideas which embody and promote ideological and theological aberrations in today’s Church.
The identification of moral conservatives in the twenty-first century with historical periods that predate the experience of twentieth century totalitarianism reveals a fundamental blind-spot in contemporary conservatism. Conjuring up political constellations of the 1920s to 40s as analogies for contemporary struggles between conservatives and progressives willfully ignores the ‘lesson’ of totalitarianism. Nothing exemplifies this forgetfulness better than the recent closure of Memorial, the NGO dedicated to the critical memory of Stalinism, by Russian authorities.
On the pages of Public Orthodoxy, Aram G. Sarkisian recently pointed out the odd affinity which some American Orthodox cultivate vis-à-vis the time of the American Civil War and how ultraconservative Orthodox groups appropriate an eighteenth-century story to fit a twisted and ahistorical agenda of the twenty-first. The identification with past epochs it nothing unique to American Orthodox. In my own studies of moral conservatism in Russia and the US, I have also encountered this identification with the past, in particular with the period of the 1920s to 40s.
The recent dustup over Archbishop Elpidophoros borrowing the historic St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City for a celebration of the Divine Liturgy and then subsequently meeting with its rector, Bishop Dean Wolfe, highlights the perennial debate among Orthodox about how we ought to relate to outsiders. Throughout church history some have seen threats where others see opportunity. But opportunities can be threatening, because they imply risk and change. And for churches to make the most of opportunities requires leaps says Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian Catholic philosopher and author of the widely praised A Secular Age: “There can and must be leaps. Otherwise no significant forward steps will be made in response to God. Someone has to break altogether with some historic forms” (669).
This conflict over relating to outsiders is as old as the gospels. Jesus made a point of engaging with people “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13). While this was refreshing for some, among religious leaders and traditionalists it mostly ignited opposition. They saw Jesus and later the Apostles as threats to familiar and even God-given customs and traditions. Time and again throughout the gospels we see Jesus standing his ground in the pursuit of the mission to open new opportunities to generously advance God’s Kingdom through compassion, healing, offering a spiritual oasis, simplifying and widening access to grace. He does this often quietly and secretly, but at other times in open defiance of religious leaders and the expectations of his own family and disciples. Here are a few examples: