It was a normal Greek summer day in July 2022, before an Orthodox baptism provoked a fervent debate, or another episode in the “culture wars,” regarding the requirements (are there any?) of a child being baptized in the Church. Although Greeks are accustomed to reading about Church activities in newspapers and on social media, for instance on ecclesiastical property or the interference of the Church in political issues, this was something different in nature. It brought to the fore a series of crucial questions related to Christian identity in a secular age. Are there any specific theological, or other, preconditions that permit or prevent a person’s baptism? Does the Church accept same-sex marriage?
On July 9, 2022, Archbishop Elpidophoros, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, visited Athens to baptize the children of celebrity fashion designer Peter Dundas and Evangelos Bousis in a parish outside of Athens (Viouliagmeni). This parish belongs to the jurisdiction of the Metropolis of Glyfada, one of eighty dioceses that constitute the synodal system of the Church of Greece. Soon this seemingly ordinary baptism became a battlefield for the local bishop and other traditionalists who reacted against it for various reasons: on the surface, for jurisdiction, but essentially for homosexuality, since it involved children of a same-sex couple.
Late in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee finds himself in darkness and likely near death. Enemies have captured his dearest friend, and Sam lies alone, shivering and impossibly far from home. He tries to make sense of the situation, but “even of the days he had quite lost count. He was in a land of darkness where the days of the world seemed forgotten, and where all who entered were forgotten too. ‘I wonder if they think of us at all,’ he said” (The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins, 2021, p. 987).
Forgetfulness is a key tool of evil in The Lord of the Rings. Cowardice, despair, and exhaustion tempt characters throughout the book, but forgetfulness—of home and friends, of beauty, of causes worth fighting for—is the fog in which treachery grows most threatening. Memory, in turn, has a distinct power in The Lord of the Rings. It rouses characters to hope in the face of staggering odds, hardening them against fear and doubt. Beyond this strengthening effect, Orthodox Christian writers also recognize memory’s role in enriching and beautifying a man’s life, even uniting him with God. Memory in The Lord of the Rings bears striking similarities to this idea as well. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov sets out both conceptions of memory—as a source of strength and as a redeeming force—and illuminates the centrality of memory to The Lord of the Rings.
In his 1985 Being as Communion, Metropolitan John Zizioulas described two distinct, yet complementary notions of the Church’s Apostolic identity. The first pertains to the unbroken historical succession of bishops from the time of Christ—in other words the preservation of the Church’s identity through the faithful handing over of what was received in the past, which is what the word tradition (traditio in Latin, or paradosis in Greek) means. The second relates to the way the Apostles serve as an icon of what is yet to come—the ordering of the kingdom of God according to the pattern of the Twelve. From this perspective, the focus is not on the apostles as the historical figures per se, but on the image they convey to us of the ever-approaching eternal kingdom, that suggests itself to us in a variety of particular historical events, in a manner similar to how rough drafts foretell a final manuscript, or a sketch foretells a completed painting. This latter way of the Church identifying her apostolic identity can be called eschatological, in that it pertains to the nature of final things—where it is that all of creation is headed. To the extent Christ’s initial choosing of the apostles partakes of what is most-deeply real, it expresses something of the nature of eternity; thus, it is a reflection of what will become more and more evident as we approach the eschatological horizon, entering into the never-ending day of the kingdom. This perspective makes sense out of why the icon of Pentecost does not constrain itself to accurate historical depiction, including the Apostle Paul (who was not present at the historical event of Pentecost) as the twelfth apostle, rather than Matthias, who, according to Acts 1:16-26, would be historically warranted. The icon is governed by a theological purpose, and subordinates historical details to this end.
An analogy from television cooking shows might help us understand these two perspectives. The first part of the show, in which the chef demonstrates the preparation and mixing of the ingredients, corresponds with the approach in which identity is derived from history. The recipe depends on the initial ingredients, in proper proportion and handled in the proper way. If the ingredients or preparation are incorrect, the item being cooked will not be what it is supposed to be. Often, though, after demonstrating these first steps, the chef will pull out from the oven an example of the recipe that has already been completed. Seeing the completed product gives us a vision of our destiny, and informs and inspires our yielding to the process that brings us to this end. Someone who had never seen a completed cake may follow a recipe and procedure with commendable accuracy, yet produce something that looks quite different from a cake. On the other hand, someone who is familiar with what a cake looks like can, at some point, rely less on the directions for the recipe or procedure and aim their efforts towards what they know the final product is supposed to be.
In 1095, Pope Urban II told a large gathering of knights in Southern France that it was their responsibility to avenge the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land (he did not mention that the conquest had occurred nearly 500 years earlier). Urban’s sermon led to the First Crusade, and it forever changed the dynamics between Western Europe, Eastern Christianity, and the Islamic world.
From a Christian theological perspective, Urban introduced an entirely novel—some might say heretical—way of thinking about the relationship between Christian piety and violence. Near the end of his sermon, Urban declared, “Set out on this journey and you will obtain the remission of your sins and be sure of the incorruptible glory of the kingdom of heaven.”
For nearly a millennium, Orthodox Christians have condemned Urban’s perversion of Christian teaching, just as they have condemned the historical events that flowed from it (especially the Fourth Crusade, which destroyed Christian Byzantium). Given this backdrop, Patriarch Kirill’s most-recent effort to curry relevance in Putin’s Russia is nothing short of remarkable: Kirill declared in a recent sermon that Russian soldiers who die in Ukraine will have their sins forgiven.