Much of the criticism currently directed at the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine is organized around the idea that the Moscow Patriarchate is ideologically compromised and theologically unsound. With few exceptions, scholars, journalists, and opinion writers condemn leaders of the Russian Church as apologists for the Kremlin’s “Russian world” ideology, an expansionistic, chauvinistic worldview which makes prelates like Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Ilarion, and others complicit in a “new Nazism,” partners in an “unholy alliance,” peddlers of a “quasi-religious agenda,” and advocates of “blood and soil” nativism. Similarly, and often in the same breath, charges of “heresy” are leveled against church leaders, mainly on the grounds that supporting Russia’s war with calls to defend “Holy Russia” under the banner that “God is with us” is a form of ethnophyletism, that is, the heresy of aligning and conflating Orthodox Christianity with ethnic nationalism.
In making these assessments about the Moscow Patriarchate, critics regularly identify some moment in the past when things went wrong, a deviation from true Orthodoxy which has brought the Russian Church to this ignominious moment in its history. While often highlighting recent events, such as the Patriarchate’s public, if somewhat circumspect, support for Russia’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, several critics look further into the past for the moment when the Russian Church went astray. One such event is thought to be Joseph Stalin’s reinstatement of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943, an event which taints Russia’s post-Soviet Patriarchate as a relic of the Stalinist past. Another moment identified in the shift from good Orthodoxy to bad Orthodoxy is the 1920s, when some Russian Orthodox emigres began to embrace conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and reactionary politics. The implication of this analysis is that those who really care about Russian Orthodoxy should excise those institutions and ideas which embody and promote ideological and theological aberrations in today’s Church.
Our long-standing captivity to a sad caricature of Orthodoxy that could be called “orthodoxism,” and whose main characteristics will be summarized in what follows, has been largely consolidated by a widespread attitude in the Church known as “the fear of theology.” It is this fear that has propelled the substitution of theology with a shallow, stale “spirituality” based on an excess of pious yet vacuous sentimentalism.
Let us examine more closely the particular features of this “orthodoxism.” What is it made of? It is a fundamentalist travesty of Orthodoxy that shows a heightened aversion to thought, particularly of the critical kind. It has an equal aversion to the materiality and historicity of human life, and a corresponding near-exclusive emphasis on “spirituality” revolving around the salvation of one’s soul in heaven, in a way bordering Plato’s anthropology and metaphysics. More substantially, we might say that Orthodoxism is structured around the following theoretical pillars:
1). The fetishization or idolization of the Church Fathers as infallible and direct purveyors of divine truths.Continue Reading…
In a recent essay for the Bloomberg View, Leonid Bershidsky attempts to explain why traditionally-Orthodox countries “remain stuck” in the anti-capitalist, anti-Western, and authoritarian mindset characteristic of the communist era. Drawing support from a new World Bank working paper, Bershidsky locates the source of this mindset in supposed theological differences between Eastern and Western Christianity. He argues that post-Soviet Eastern Europe’s slowness to adopt capitalism and its penchant for authoritarian leaders is not explained by its communist legacy but by its Orthodox Christian heritage. His conclusion is that traditionally-Orthodox cultures “aren’t really comfortable in a Western-dominated world,” a problem that can be “mitigated” but not “removed.”
Unfortunately, Bershidsky’s analysis remains stuck in an obsolete “clash of civilizations” narrative that obscures more than it enlightens. The insinuations of irrationality and irredeemable primitivism (as if reason dictated that those outside the West should be comfortable in “a Western-dominated world”) are the hallmarks of a (neo)-colonial outlook that thrives on civilizational divide. Continue Reading…