Much of the recent controversy about Sarah Riccardi-Swartz’s book Between Heaven and Russia (as well as the National Public Radio piece that highlighted her work along with that of other scholars investigating the influence of far-right currents within U.S. Orthodoxy) has exhibited some confusion about the epistemology of social science disciplines. Sarah’s book is an anthropological study based on over a year of fieldwork at a West Virginia monastery. In the book, she outlines a series of discoveries that she made in conversation with the largely convert population of monks and parishioners in the nearby parish, many of which relate to currents of pro-Putin sentiment, nationalism, and illiberal understandings of gender and racial hierarchies. Much of the ensuing controversy around her book (carried out largely among non-academic Orthodox audiences, many of whom boldly claim they have not read the book but are rather listening to likeminded online actors) relates to whether she has been sufficiently transparent in her methods, or—put more bluntly—whether her project was some sort of deception perpetrated upon the community. In effect, this commentary has been a broadside against the enterprise of anthropology itself.
While I have collaborated with Dr. Riccardi-Swartz and have, like many others, benefited from her insights, my goal in this short essay is less about the substance of her book per se and more about the necessity to understand the epistemological strictures that govern different enterprises in the social sciences, and why it is important to get them right—especially when critiquing conclusions based on methodologies. I will consider three examples: sociology, anthropology, and journalism.
American Orthodox leaders, inevitably on one or other side of the widening Greek–Slavic divide in world Orthodoxy, typically echo the voice of the peculiar foreign “Mother–Church” to which each hierarch is canonically bound. So Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) in the USA, although expressing his sympathy for the hapless Russians being “deceived and victimized by their leaders . . . both civil and religious,” clearly echoed Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s decisive condemnation of “Moscow’s obsessive ethnophyletism and promotion of its Russkiy Mir agenda.”[i] No less pointedly, Archbishop Elpidophoros placed the “responsibility for condoning such unrighteousness . . . squarely on the leadership of the Russian Church and clearly on Patriarch Kirill.” By comparison, the overall transparency of the two statements posted on the website of the “only autocephalous American Orthodox Church”—to repeat the usual mantra of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)—falls somewhere between the obscurity of the first statement (from OCA Metropolitan Tikhon [Mollard]) and the half–clarity of the second statement (from the bishops of the OCA Holy Synod).
In his statement of 24 February 2022, Metropolitan Tikhon refers ethereally to “the distressing developments in Ukraine” and repeats the exact verbal subterfuge which the Russian Federation used to announce their invasion: he asks, using the first person, that “President Putin put an end to “the [not his] military operations.”[ii] Within twenty–four hours after this anodyne request was publicly criticized,[iii] the OCA Holy Synod posted a more politically robust statement which correctly identifies the “military operations” as “the war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” An informed reader can discern and a prudent not to say sympathetic one can appreciate the ecclesiastical menace which, one can reasonably conjecture, obstructed the OCA’s public progression from obfuscation to half–clarity: the possible annulment or, more likely, effective neutralization of the fifty–year–old ROC tomos granting the (always contested in “Greek” world Orthodoxy) “Russian autocephaly” of the OCA.
His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon Members of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America
We write as painfully concerned, truth–seeking, and truth–committed Orthodox Christians: we are chagrined clergy and lay members of the Orthodox Church in America, who as American citizens value religious and political freedom. Conscience compels us to speak. The unprovoked Russian military invasion and indiscriminate bombardment and levelling of Ukrainian cities have resulted in the violent deaths and maiming of thousands and the dreadful displacement of millions of innocent Ukrainian citizens, among them vulnerable non-combatants: women, children, hospital patients, and the aged. We are perturbed that the episcopal leadership of the Orthodox Church in America has not only refused to identify in a public and straightforward manner but, instead, has chosen to cloak and shield through its silence and platitudes about the evils of war, the two primary and immediate agents responsible for commanding and defending the unjust Russian attack on Ukraine: Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, who directly ordered the invasion and continuing attacks, and Kirill (Gundyaev), the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’, who willingly serves as the chief religious ideologist and propagandist for President Putin.
There are beleaguered and oppressed Russian dissenters who, at great personal cost, repudiate President Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s war against Ukraine. Their heroism speaks for itself but it also should speak to our Holy Synod. There should be no need to demonstrate to our OCA bishops what persons throughout the world—of many different political persuasions but with rightly informed consciences—know: that Russian President Putin bears primary responsibility for the morally unjustifiable Russian invasion and continuing barbaric attacks on Ukraine, and that Moscow Patriarch Kirill willingly defends the viciously aggressive and repressive Putin regime. Now if there really is a need to demonstrate such evident facts, may God help the OCA! For, apparently, no merely human political or theological analysis of these facts will ever suffice to motivate the Holy Synod to speak out in defense of truth and justice! Nonetheless, there is such a theologically precise and convincing demonstration available, which was issued by an international group of Orthodox theologians, churchmen, and intellectuals: “A Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ (Russkii Mir).” The Declaration is a cogent theological refutation and strong condemnation of (what it labels) President Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s “heretical” religious–political ideology.
In a famous scene from A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More defended his silence on the Act of Supremacy by citing a maxim of the law, “Qui tacet consentire videtur” (Silence betokens consent). His argument was that by saying nothing, the court must assume he agreed with the Act regardless of whatever his private opinions may be. Today, as the representatives of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) stand silently by and concelebrate with Patriarch Kirill while he blesses Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the question must again be asked—Does the church’s silence betoken its consent?
There is no doubt that the OCA has been in a delicate position since the war began. The ties that bind the OCA to Moscow are strong, as it was the Moscow Patriarchate that granted the OCA its autocephality in 1970 despite the Ecumenical Patriarch’s refusal to acknowledge it. When the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) was granted autocephality by Patriarch Bartholomew in 2019, the OCA continued to recognize Metropolitan Onufriy of the Moscow Patriarchate, although (unlike Moscow) it did not cut off communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch as a result.