"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, December 10, 2018

Politically Coerced Orthodoxies

I met Cyril Hovorun in Chicago in 2012 at the AAR, but have only been reading him seriously for about 3 years now--and in that time he's produced a trilogy of very important books (starting with Meta-Ecclesiology) in ecclesiology. Happily, we have a habit of getting to the same conferences, so I saw him in Vienna in 2016, in San Felice del Benaco in 2017, and will see him (D.v.) in January 2019 in Romania.

With his two latest books especially, he has rocketed up to the top of my list of "must-read" Orthodox authors, for he always talks such good sense about controverted issues, calmly and unflappably laying out a compelling case for things that too many Catholic and Orthodox Christians are otherwise emotionally over-invested in and thus incapable of seeing clearly.

Thus, e.g., his Scaffolds of the Church  (about which I interviewed him here) looked at the question of hierarchy in a way that freed it of the self-aggrandizing nonsense sometimes talked about it by popes, patriarchs, and bishops of both East and perhaps especially West.

And now, in his newest book, Political Orthodoxies: the Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced (Fortress, 2018, 210pp.) he has emerged at precisely the right time to shed needed light on some of the underlying issues in the on-going Constantinople-Kyiv-Moscow conflict over Ukrainian Orthodoxy (whose history is so well told in Nick Denysenko's book; interview here).

Part of my interest in Political Orthodoxies comes from its focus (albeit too briefly) on the role of coercion in Christian history. It's a theme I'm addressing in the paper I'm giving in Romania while focusing on the problem of papal primatial powers. (It's also a theme Ashley Purpura has very helpfully addressed in her book for which I interviewed her here.)

Hovorun gets right to his point in the introduction to Political Orthodoxies, picking up where Scaffolds left off by noting how much of Christian understanding and practice of ecclesial offices and authorities, and both with their coercive powers, were "imported to Christianity in late antiquity from the Roman political world" (3). While he thinks in some cases this was an understandable move, he also notes how quickly it developed into problems, not least "hierarchism and stratification" (4). Moreover, the Church continued, under and after Constantine, to suffer more and more from "coercion," which Hovorun calls  "one of the chronic infections the Church contracted from the state" (8).

As Christianity develops, especially in the East, these once-imperial structures and coercive practices get adopted by local churches who seem to think that such practices are some kind of package-deal, little realizing--as Hovorun shows in his second chapter--that civil religion and political religion are quite different from Christian faith. This failure to make necessary distinctions means that too often in Orthodoxy certain political ideologies are adopted "under the guise of Christianity" (75). This chapter surveys such unhealthy and unhelpful transformations in Greece, Romania, and Russia, which are presented as case-studies. There are some staggering details here, and lengthy and damning quotations from various Greek, Romanian, and especially Russian churchmen sucking up to politicians or justifying various immoral activities. Clearly the metropolitan of Odessa does not specialize in subtle sycophancy.

The case-study method is used again towards the end of the book as Hovorun looks at the problems of anti-Semitism in Orthodoxy as well as nationalism. In all these cases--civil religion, political religion, anti-Semitism, and nationalism--Hovorun argues that some or all of them often get bound up with Orthodox theology and church life, to the latter's detriment. Indeed, he goes farther and says that too many Christians are "unable to discern between the norms of the gospel and the simulacra offered by political Orthodoxies" (185), leading, e.g., to their inability or unwillingness to speak out against "wars between Orthodox peoples," not least in Ukraine.

In his conclusion, Hovorun returns briefly and more explicitly to the issue of coercion again, noting once more that a return to "apostolic non-coercive ethos" (199) of the foundations of Christianity remains very much a desideratum today in the Orthodox world. The same, I would add, could be said of the Catholic Church, too, but that is a thought for another day.

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