The Christian world as a whole—and the Orthodox world, in particular—has been horrified by the invasion of Ukraine by the armed forces of Russia. It seems to be a distressingly indiscriminate campaign, in which thousands have been killed—young soldiers, men, women, and children—as well as hospitals, schools, homes, monasteries, churches destroyed, with millions of refugees fleeing from their homes and livelihoods. From the beginning, his Holiness, Patriarch Kirill, has spoken out in support of the military operation in Ukraine, using the same mealy-mouthed expression as President Putin to obscure the truth that a sovereign country has been invaded by its neighbor. This he seems to have done on his own initiative, for Putin shows no sign of interest in the support of the Church, but has rather sought to shackle the people of his own country by treating it as a criminal offence to call in question the actions of the Russian state. Nevertheless, insofar as any justification for the invasion of Ukraine has been offered, it has been in terms of the ideology of ‘Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir), which owes its origins to the initiative of Kirill (Gundyaev) in the years before he became patriarch, when, as Metropolitan of Smolensk, he established the World Russian Peoples Council, with its conservative and anti-Western agenda. Through its patriarch (our patriarch, for I speak as an archpriest of the Moscow Patriarchate), the Church of Russia has been thoroughly implicated in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Any voices of dissent, or even criticism, have been silenced throughout the Russian state (though it is noticeable that in the ‘diaspora’ there have been voices of dissent, even from senior hierarchs). This war has been going on for six months now, and despite protests and petitions from various quarters, the war continues relentlessly and news relating to the war has gone silent—or perhaps it would be better to use another metaphor—has gone dead. Putin’s policy seems to be (to adapt a remark of Tacitus’) to create a wilderness and call it…Russia!Continue reading
It was a great opportunity to express solidarity to Ukraine by taking part in a panel discussion at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv on July 1. Four ex-ambassadors to the Holy See—Ukrainian, Lithuanian, EU (originally from Poland), Georgian—were invited to speak about the history and contemporary challenges of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik. Ostpolitik emerged in 1963 as a term to define actions towards normalization of relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Later the term was applied to John XXIII and Paul VI’s efforts to engage Eastern European countries at several levels with the aim of helping Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. As the panel invitation noted, “Some consider it (Ostpolitik) an ecclesial analog of Realpolitik, a betrayal of values and principles with the hope of achieving doubtful goals; others consider it ‘the art of the possible since it allowed to find a modus non moriendi for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain and the 1960s and 1970s, subsequently contributed to the decline of communism and the democratic transformation of East-Central Europe, and enables continuation of the ecumenical dialogue today.” Organizers and participants of the panel also took seriously another dimension of the conversation: the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. The university was built from scratch in the 1990s, soon after the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine could leave behind its underground life.
Relevance of the term Ostpolitik, coined with regard to the communist past, to issues under discussion was challenged in the very beginning, although some of its characteristics are found in the Vatican’s policies towards the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Namely, parallel lines can be traced in going soft on particular principles by the Vatican for the sake of reaching an agreement with the ROC. Another affinity with the original content of Ostpolitik is the present political alliance of the ROC with the Russian state while the latter shows much resemblance to its Soviet heritage. These two understandings are basis for using the term Ostpolitik in this reflection about an interaction between the Holy See and Moscow under the present pontificate, which has reached its peak in recent months. In other words, how does the Vatican sustain Ostpolitik in light of the war in Ukraine?Continue reading
In September 1930, two of the greatest Protestant and Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century—Karl Barth and Sergii Bulgakov—met in the Kornhauskeller in the Swiss capital, Berne. Although an elegant restaurant today, the Kornhauskeller was a famous “drinking hole” in a vaulted cellar hall then, especially popular among students. The genius loci is worth mentioning because today’s Russian Orthodox parish is located not far away in another of Berne’s old town cellars, namely the crypt of the Lutheran church. Hence, this is the story of how a rather insignificant encounter and seemingly parting of ways still reveal common ground for further ecumenical dialogue. Or, as Bulgakov put it in a letter to Nikolai Berdiaev of June 7, 1933, “Parallel spiritual lines, which do not meet in Euclidean space, will meet beyond Euclidean space, where ‘in the Father’s house are many dwellings.’”
After attending the Second East-Western Theological Conference in Berne, Karl Barth probably had at least one beer with Fritz Lieb, a Swiss theologian and Slavist known for his endeavors to engage East-West ecumenical dialogue, and Sergii Bulgakov, who had just given a lecture on the “Nature of the Russian Church”—including a passage about Orthodoxy’s cosmic character. We know from Barth’s correspondence that the only lecture he found “fairly interesting and in its way plausible” was Bulgakov’s. Barth described him as a storybook Russian “pope [who spoke] with remarkable passion and not without speculative momentum,” and Barth “received further peculiar insights about the divine Sophia and other Russian theologumena.”Continue reading
The late Fr. John Meyendorff, whose name graces the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, emphasized the importance of dialogue with Protestant Evangelicals. He wrote, “…contacts with ‘Evangelicals’ are minimal, the primary reason being mutual ignorance and suspicion…. Such obstacles can and should be overcome within American society… If mutual ignorance still persists, it is due to a continuous lack of dialogue.” The Weslyan scholar, William Abraham, likewise observed: “Sorting out the relationship between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism can be a spiritual and intellectual nightmare. Often it looks like both sides have crashed at the red light and neither wants to leave the scene of the accident.”
Hence the title of my recent book, The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church with a foreword by Fr Andrew Louth. “The goal of this book is to nurture in [Orthodox] readers a faithful commitment to making the gospel clear and central in local Orthodox communities, and to articulate that vision in a way that people both inside and outside the Orthodox Church can easily understand. The essays are the result of over fifty years of international experience in both Orthodox and Evangelical communities across America, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East” (13). The desired outcomes are (a) to stimulate Orthodox readers (scholars included) to a much greater recognition of the need to emphasize the gospel as the core message of Christianity, and (b) to explore how a maximalist vision of the Church’s gospel compares and contrasts with Protestant Evangelicalism, and the difference that vision makes to the mission of God in the world today.Continue reading