I first met the author at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Chicago, where I was on a panel about the question of married priests in the Catholic Church. That evening I met up with the incomparable Peter Galadza who introduced me to Fr. Cyril and several of us had a fascinating conversation over drinks and then dinner that night about what Putin was up to in Russia and Ukraine, about relations between Orthodox in Ukraine, and Orthodox-Catholic relations--among other things. Fr. Cyril is a first-rate scholar with a fascinating history, and I asked him about that in the context of an interview about his latest book, which I warmly recommend. Here are his thoughts.
AD: Tell us about your background.
CH: I am an Orthodox priest from Ukraine. I am happy to having had many opportunities to study and work in different contexts, and to encounter many other religious traditions. I began my studies in nuclear physics and then shifted to theology. I did my undergraduate theological studies in Kyiv and Athens, then wrote my PhD thesis at Durham University under the supervision of Andrew Louth.
While studying at Durham, I began working at the Department of external church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate. From 2007 to 2009 I chaired a similar department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. After that, I moved back to Moscow, where my responsibility was to reform the system of theological education of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time, I never abandoned teaching and research. My initial field was patristics, and recently I moved to ecclesiology and public theology. I spent several years at Yale working on my ecclesiological project, which led to publishing this book. Now I teach at Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy in Sweden. I am often invited to lecture and present at other Universities in the US, Canada, and Europe. I do regular teaching tours to China. I have been heavily involved in various dialogues, including the one between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
To sort out and critically assess my experiences in the church administration, I undertook an ecclesiological inquiry. An opportunity to do this was provided by Yale University, which invited me to its fellowship program. Through the systematic study of the ecclesiological doctrines, I realized that ecclesiology, as the self-awareness of the church, was never a constant. It changed all the time, under the influence of various circumstances, including political and social ones. In other words, the circumstances and structures of the church, including administrative ones, always defined what the church is. And the church, as the body of Christ and the vessel of the Holy Spirit, always resisted the reductionisms implied or incurred by its structures. It is a permanent dialectical struggle, and my personal experience of the church administration reflected this struggle at a tiny spot on the ecclesial timeline.
AD:You review(p. 10) a number of metaphors used to describe the Church and then note that the list is not closed.Which metaphors today seem especially popular or apt?
AD: Your discussion of Photius (p.17) notes that since his time the East has been unable to agree on a definition of primacy--except that it doesn't want primacy as Rome exercises it. Are we not closer today to a consensus on this question? Has the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, from the Ravenna statement onwards, not helped the East come closer to consensus on primacy?
CH: To be honest, I do not see that now we are closer to the Orthodox consensus on primacy than in the times of Photios. The Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and the process of preparation to the Pan-Orthodox council made more obvious our disagreements and helped us to realize better their nature, but they did not bring us much closer to the solution of the issue of primacy. Nevertheless, even the fact that we are now more aware and better understand our disagreements, is positive. This awareness makes us less mislead and better equipped in solving the quest of primacy from the Orthodox perspective.
Both analytic philosophy and phenomenology are the most advanced modern lines of thought that analyze how we perceive the world and ourselves. I believe that they are relevant to ecclesiology, which is also an epistemological discipline that deals with the ways of perception and self-perception of the Church. If we take classical theology, it has been articulated in the language borrowed from philosophy. In the same vein, when we speak today about new theological reflections on the Church, then modern epistemologies are very appropriate places where to go and borrow their ideas for new ecclesiological syntheses. Such syntheses are not just desirable, they are needed for the renewal of our perception of the Church, to make the church better understood by the people familiar with the modern intellectual culture, and finally to demonstrate that the Church is not an archeological artifact, but an alive reality capable of engaging with, and changing the modern world.
AD: Several times throughout the book you draw on Syriac sources and note that they differ from Latin and Byzantine sources. What, in your view, does the Syriac tradition give us that the Latin and Byzantine might not?
I argue that diversity of the Church practices, including liturgical ones, was a norm in the early Christianity. Photios witnessed a shift in the attitude to the diversity, when unity of the Church became understood as uniformity. Photios himself was a man of his time, and emphasized ritual differentiations as a Church dividing issue. I tried to demonstrate in the book that this was a weak point shared not just by Photios, but by many in his time, including his western counterparts. It does not fit the perennial idea of the Church and today, Photios's judgements regarding the role of rite in the Church should be taken with a grain of criticism.
The western Church waged several ecclesiological wars in the past. I call these wars ecclesiological, because they were about redefining what the Church is. In what we now call "culture war", which is a polemic between conservatives and liberals, Vatican I clearly identified the Church with only one side and thus reduced what the Church really is. Instead of engaging with modernity, Vatican I led to building an alternative to it. This alternative, "a perfect Christian society", failed and was to a great extent deconstructed by Vatican II. With much regret I observe similar processes in some Orthodox Churches. They choose to be partisan in the culture wars of our time and instead of engaging in the meaningful dialogue with modernity try to reconstruct primordial models of relations with the society and the state. These models are destined to fail. The Church, however, will suffer and already suffers from their failure.
Certainly, Joseph de Maistre was an important figure in the ultramontanist movement, which I explore a bit when I talk about the evolution of ecclesiology during the nineteenth century. He had close connections with the Russian court in the beginning of that century. However, his influence on theology per se was not as noticeable as the one of Johann Adam Möller, for instance. For this reason I pay more attention to Möller and his influence on the father of the Russian ecclesiology, Alexey Khomiakov, even though Khomiakov did not recognize such influence. I give more credit to de Maistre in my second book, where I demonstrate how his political ideas about sovereignty echoed in the renewed concept of Orthodox autocephaly in the same period.
AD: Your appendix on the St. Irenaeus Working Group was fascinating. I suspect few people know much about them. Tell us a bit more about the group and your involvement with it. What are their hopes, and projects?
We call it an unofficial Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. The group began its work in 2000, when the official dialogue was suspended after the unfortunate meeting in Baltimore. It consists of the theologians from both sides of the dialogue. However, unlike in the official dialogue, they are not appointed by Churches, but invited by their colleagues on the basis of their academic merits. The group therefore is meritocratic. I think this is a productive format, which allows to openly tackle difficult issues. In the official dialogue, such issues are discussed with the official positions of the Churches in mind, which often leads the discussions to deadlock. The group enjoys its academic freedom, which facilitates our search for the solution to the burning issues from the agenda of the official dialogue.
AD: Having finished Meta-Ecclesiology: Chronicles on Church Awareness, what are you at work on now? What other projects are in the works?
I am about to finish a second book, which continues the "Meta-ecclesiology." While the first book from my ecclesiological series deals with the epistemological aspect of the Church, in the second book, whose working title is "The Scaffolds of the Church", I take a structuralist approach. I analyze the evolution of the structures of the Church and argue that they don't belong to its nature. They are rather scaffolding that facilitate building and maintaining the edifice of the church. Like in my first book, I continue applying to the Church the traditional language of the Aristotelian/Porphyrian dialectics, and experiment with new philosophical languages, in this case the language of structuralism/post-structuralism.
* "Sovereignty, Politics, and the Church: Joseph de Maistre's Legacy for Catholic and Orthodox Ecclesiology," Pro Ecclesia 24 (Summer 2015): 366-389.