Over a Beer with Barth and Bulgakov: Cosmodicy

by Regula M. Zwahlen

Image: iStock.com/Chinnachart Martmoh

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3]

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Orthodoxy, Russia’s Manifest Destiny, and the Russia-Ukraine War

by Paul Ladouceur | Русский

Also available in Ukrainian (pdf)

Image: Pablo Picasso. Russkii mir, Mariupol, 2022

Several times Russian church and state leaders have been enraptured by the idea that the Russian people and its political expression have a special mission or “manifest destiny” to accomplish. Successive iterations of this “Russian idea” reflect a growing convergence of religion, ethnicity, and nationalism with state power into an explosive secular ideology bent on imposing its worldview within Russia, surrounding countries, the Orthodox Church, and worldwide.

The first iteration became prominent after the union Council of Ferrera between the Roman and the Orthodox Churches in 1439 and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. These two events precipitated the emergence of a sense of the role and responsibility of Muscovy as the spiritual and geo-political center of Orthodoxy, captured in the epithet the “Third Rome”: the first Rome had fallen into heresy and schism with the filioque and the papacy; Constantinople, the Second Rome, deviated from Orthodoxy by union with Latins and came under Turkish rule as a divine punishment, thereby losing its claim to pre-eminence in Orthodoxy. Muscovy, having rejected the union with Rome and freed itself from the Mongols, thus became the Third Rome of Christendom. The self-proclamation of the autocephaly of the Russian Church in 1448 and the election of the first patriarch of Moscow in 1589 reinforced the Third Rome theory.

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Method and Consequence in the Study of U.S. Orthodoxy

by Robert Saler

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.

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Better the Godless East than the Immoral West
Great Power Logic and the Approach of the Russian Orthodox Church towards China

by Alicja Curanović | български | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Image: iStock.com/Oleksii Liskonih

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts have been scrupulously analyzing the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) reaction to the conflict. Its support for the Kremlin triggered comments about the Church being a state-controlled ideology entrepreneur which has confused Christian values with imperial geopolitics. Indeed, the inclination towards geopolitics and great power logic can be noticed in the position of many representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, this is not only the case with Ukraine or post-Soviet territory. The ROC’s entanglement in geopolitics goes beyond this and often contradicts Christian teaching. This is well seen in the Moscow Patriarchate’s approach towards China, which is discussed here. It is intriguing to observe how a Communist Party hostile towards religion has become a desirable ally against the liberal West with whom Russia shares its Christian tradition.

The fact that the US is unable to convince China to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine confirms the significance of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership. Russia’s reorientation towards China accelerated after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The cornerstone of the new opening between Moscow and Beijing was laid, though, in 2001, when the bilateral Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation was signed. The Plan of Actions foreseen by the treaty (2004) included a point which provided information about “initiating a dialogue and a cooperation between the ‘leading religions’” of both countries. This rather modest formulation has provided the Russian state and Church with the formal ground to address the situation of Orthodox believers living in China.

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