Equality is a core idea and value of modernity. Yet contemporary societies are marked by multiple forms of inequality, for instance, socioeconomic and gender ones. What is the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards inequality? Do unequal relations exist within the Church too, and if yes, how does it address them?
No doubt, Orthodox churches develop rich and multifaceted philanthropic activities to palliate the consequences of inequalities and also condemn forms of exploitation as violation of the sacredness of the human person. However, I wish to argue that a number of factors do not permit the Church to develop a more activist attitude that would go beyond verbal condemnation and traditional philanthropy.
First, the structural position of the Church in the existing system, particularly in countries where the Church functions as a close ally of the state, makes it objectively difficult for church officials to challenge state policies that produce new or deepen established forms of inequality. The role of the Church in Greece during the period of the serious Greek debt crisis is a case in point: although it criticized neoliberalism, it nevertheless offered crucial support and legitimacy to the political authorities, which imposed austerity measures that increased poverty and inequality (see my article here).
“Rejoice, tree of leafy branches, under which believers are sheltered … Rejoice, O wood most blessed!” Akathist to the Cross, Oikos 7
Rocking around the Christmas tree in my little Norwegian hometown, I got to thinking how the Christian world is filled with trees. Not only the spruce. Not primarily anyway. But the spruce, perhaps, evoked in me just then what I might call an arboreal clarity: trunks appear on all sides of us. As soon as the human being was created, God placed this earthborn creature among leaves and branches. The Tree of Life resided in the center of primeval reality, as the source of life force. On the other side of the Fall emerged the Tree of the Cross, bearing the fruit of Salvation. Their circuit of vivacious power is broken only by another tree, the one of knowledge, whose fruits are fatal. Every Christian knows the story. Still, we tend to forget that Christianity is really a tree religion.
Early Christians knew this story well; imagining Christ as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve, they also envisioned the Cross to be the new Tree of Life. The Lord himself, when wandering the dirt roads of this earth, might speak in Dendric: “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” (Mark 11.14) The fig tree listened, replying by withering—or so the evangelist says. Clearly Jesus identified with greenery. He called himself a vine whose branches were disciples (John 15). And he’d search for similes adequate to describe the divine reality. How can we imagine the Kingdom, he asked rhetorically? As a seed that grows and “becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mark 4.30–32; Matthew 13.31–32). Wings hover freely above the buds that constantly grow and burst with ecclesiastical sap.
Is there nothing new under the sun? Is it the case that all of life is an ordered and predictable cycle? That what has been is what will be and what is done is what will be done (Eccl. 1:9)? This sense of the unending monotonous repetition of human experience is not confined to the early agricultural society in which Ecclesiastes was composed; it is known to us here in the twenty-first century. I drive the children to school today, and I will do the same tomorrow. My husband goes to the grocery store tonight only to return later in the week. The media reports the depressing stories of climate change and pandemic and will report the same next month.
The quotidian often feels monotonous and even oppressive, and this makes us seek difference and change. A new sweater brings a jolt of delight. Walking a different route to work means noticing different houses, people, dogs. But these novelties are fleeting—the sweater is only briefly new for so long and the delight wears off. The new route becomes the old route before too long. The sense that what has been is what will be sinks in. We wonder, is anything really new? Is anything truly novel? Is there any release from this cycle?
Christmas answers these questions with a resounding “yes.”
Written in 1912, Sergei Bulgakov’s Philosophy of Economy: The World as Householdsurprises in its embrace of a certain kind of materialism. Giving credit largely to the heavyweights of the German idealist tradition with an occasional nod to Marx, it quickly becomes evident that this materialism is rooted in a sense of embodied action and historical metamorphosis that might have characterized some of the revolutionary politics of the earlier half of the nineteenth century. Eschewing the armchair philosophizing of post-Kantian idealism and relying especially upon Schelling in order to articulate a yet highly original vision of the relation forged between the subject and the object through purposive activity, Bulgakov’s philosophy of economy can offer us some surprising insights toward developing an understanding of tradition as a living process.
Organicist thinking with regard to tradition and ecclesiology is of course nothing new. The romanticist reaction against the assertoric dogmatism of medieval ecclesiology is well documented in the work of Möhler, Khomiakov, and, to some extent, John Henry Newman. But how many of these organicist theories were so bold as to consider a theory of metamorphosis under the aspect of the human being as a creature of basically economic activity, who realizes itself through a complex interplay of pragmatist models and idealist projections in the vivification (or resurrection) of dead mechanism through a living process? Herein lies Bulgakov’s special relevance for us today.