When it comes to religion and politics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims find themselves in the same predicament. Both of these religions adhere to a particularly strong concept of sacred tradition. This tradition is distinct from revelation itself, but revelation can only be properly interpreted through this tradition. Theological thought, detailed practices of corporate worship, and ascetic disciplines of individual spiritual striving are the key components of both faiths- and crucially, all of these key components must be understood using the words written by their religious ancestors. Moreover, because both communities are globally decentralized—neither of these faiths has a single person to whom all believers look for authoritative guidance—this concept of tradition is absolutely crucial for keeping the integrity of the faith itself, especially in the tumultuous modern context.
This means that both faiths have an historically rich and consistent tradition of belief and practice, and have both conveyed immense spiritual riches across the sometimes-harrowing journey of modernity. But this concept of tradition has one major drawback: the premodern political and social context, during which all of the texts through which we understand the core of our faith were written, was radically different from our own. This is a dilemma common to all religious believers, but I believe it is especially serious in the case of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, given just how strong and all-encompassing our notion of tradition is. When it comes to politics, the contours of the dilemma are particularly clear: nearly all of the central texts of our authoritative and interpretive traditions were written in the context of empire.
Around midday local time on July 24th, the first Muslim Friday prayer service in over eighty years was conducted in Hagia Sophia, its status recently changed from a museum to a mosque. A key part of weekly Muslim congregational worship is the preaching of a sermon. In this case, the sermon was delivered by Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş, the head of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (the government ministry that licenses and oversees religious institutions and personnel in Turkey). Some 12 hours later, in the evening of the same day at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York, Archbishop Elpidophoros led an Akathist service as part of a day of mourning for the change in Hagia Sophia’s status. At the end of the Akathist, Archbishop Elpidophoros also delivered a sermon.
The contrast between the texts of these sermons is remarkable. Comparing these two documents brings into focus the actual basis of the conflict over Hagia Sophia. One the one hand, Erbaş’s sermon argues for a religious politics of patronage and dominion. On the other, Elpidophoros’ sermon argues for a religious politics of pluralism and diversity. The conflict over Hagia Sophia is squarely between these visions of religion itself, not between Christianity and Islam per se. It reveals a fundamental dilemma faced by Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike: what kinds of religious politics do we choose to cultivate? Is human dominion or human diversity where we identify the traces of God’s image and will in this world?
When I first read paragraph 56 ofFor the Life of the World: Toward A Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, I immediately had the sense that it represented a major step forward in Muslim-Orthodox relations. I think it is important to call special attention to this part of the text, because this paragraph is perhaps the most effective discussion of Islam I have encountered in a modern Orthodox ecclesiastical document. This paragraph is an excellent guide for Orthodox Christians when thinking about Islam because it describes Islam in ways that reflect how Muslims themselves understand their faith. At the same time, it also remains true to Orthodox self-understanding by accurately identifying where these two faiths differ from each other.