Over the past four years, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has become a catch-phrase for a certain kind of conservative Christian community in North America. Many Orthodox churches are striving to carve out a niche within this religious marketplace, promoting the stability of Orthodoxy in contrast to current Western Christian brands. Indeed, such stability is vital to the “BenOp” lifestyle, which envisions Christian village-style communities rooted in family life and communal worship as an antidote to a decadent modern society, unmoored from its traditional roots.
While Dreher does not promote Christian gated communities, encouraging Christians to seek allies in their cause across ideological, denominational, and religious lines, some Orthodox interpreters of his “Benedict Option” are seduced by the latent sectarianism of a BenOp-style “counter-culture” where most of the parishioners live around the corner from the Church, and where all the children attend the same parochial Orthodox school…
I would suggest that this inclination towards communities that distinguish themselves sharply from the rest of society are underwritten by a particular interpretation of the “Neopatristic Synthesis,” a school of theology that has predominated since the middle of the last century. Most often associated with the works of Fr. Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky, the movement sought to free Orthodoxy from the influence of (some would say “captivity to”) Western thought, restoring its identity in the patristic, spiritual, and liturgical heritage of the East.
By now, it would almost be commonplace to observe that the COVID pandemic has created (or perhaps, rather, it has apocalyptically exposed) a cultural rift within the contemporary Orthodox Christian community. As a pastor, I have experienced this division firsthand, and I know of other clergy who have lost parishioners as a result of it.
On the one side stand those who have wholeheartedly embraced government-sanctioned restrictions and measures to reduce the spread of COVID. They accept the closure of churches as a matter of course, and once gatherings are permitted, they welcome mitigation strategies such as multiple spoons for receiving communion. On the extreme end, these folks tend to get anxious when they observe any failure to comply with the letter of the health regulations.
On the other side of the rift are those who resist attempts to restrict or shut down access to in-person Church services. They view attendance at the services as an unavoidable risk, inherent to Christian faith. The most extreme of these folks accuse other Christians of moral capitulation or worse, while yearning for the days of the early Church when Christians supposedly took all manner of risks to gather for the Eucharistic liturgy.
No longer do I call you servants, but I have called you friends. -John 15:15 (RSV)
Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) is one of modern Orthodoxy’s intellectual giants. The scope of his erudition was breathtaking, covering not only philosophy and theology, but also mathematics, physics, linguistics, art, cultural history…—he is sometimes called “the Russian Leonardo.” A leading figure of the Russian religious renaissance of the early twentieth century, unlike most prominent theologians and Christian philosophers caught up in the Bolshevik revolution and civil war, he did not go into exile, preferring to stay in Russia as a witness to Christ in the harshest persecution in Christian history.
After the communists closed the Moscow Theological Academy, Florensky spent most of the 1920s and early 1930s working for the State Electrification Commission. During these dismal times, he continued both his theological research and scientific investigations and publications. Florensky had powerful protectors in the Soviet establishment, initially Leon Trotsky, impressed with Florensky’s abilities. Florensky made no attempts to conceal his faith or his priesthood; he worked and gave scientific papers in his cassock, much to the dismay of hard-line communists. He was arrested a first time in 1928, but quickly released, thanks to the intervention of Ekaterina Peshkova, wife of writer Maxim Gorky.
Coronavirus has descended on our world as an apocalypse, a whirlwind destroying the shelter of our fixed verities, ripping the roofs off our traditions and throwing into the blaze of the sun the hidden sins and fragilities of our institutions.
This whirlwind has caught the Orthodox world in the midst of an identity crisis, an epochal moment of transformation from a premodern Eastern Church to a late modern Church in the West. At the core of this crisis is the question of how Orthodoxy is to engage a modern world shaped by nationalism and globalism, separation of faith and state, empowerment of the individual, and human rights. Relatively untouched until recently by modernity, and operating with a liturgical (and thus theological) consciousness shaped by the sensibility of medieval Byzantium, the Orthodox community has found itself ill-equipped and internally divided in responding to modern challenges. The result is a clash of visions along liberal/conservative lines, which certainly cuts across jurisdictions, but can be seen particularly strongly in certain leading churches…