The only thing in crisis is the liberal world religions version of Orthodoxy: on Moscow, Constantinople, and Chinatown

The only thing in crisis is the liberal world religions version of Orthodoxy: on Moscow, Constantinople, and Chinatown October 23, 2018

Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974). Photo courtesy of Film Forum. (CC BY 2.0 [], via Flickr)
In light of the bluster of the Moscow Patriarchate in its claim that its full communion with Constantinople has been impaired by its actions in Ukraine, speculation has abounded about the future of Orthodoxy. To me, the clearest sorting of fact from fiction in this endeavour has been from one of the premier scholars in the study of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, Nicholas Denysenko, in a short post on Pray Tell demonstrating that the real issue between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Moscow is neo-imperialism. Metropolitan Hilarion, the spokesperson for Moscow’s Department of External Church Relations, argues that the fault for the impairment of communion lies with the Ecumenical Patriarch restoring ‘schismatics’ in Ukraine to canonical status in a very speedy way. Denysenko, however, demonstrates that Constantinople’s actions pose an existential threat to Moscow’s fantasy of a ‘Russian World’ that unites Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, centered in Moscow but with Kyiv as a symbolic center (or in Lacanian terms, objet petit a) into a single Orthodox empire that can stand against the moral decay of the ‘West.’ Constantinople rests its claims on several lines of reasoning: that Ukraine has remained its canonical territory since the seventeenth century, that Constantinople never gave up that territory when it was forced under ‘duress’ by Moscow to allow the latter to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv, that the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church have no dogmatic differences with the rest of canonical Orthodoxy, and that there is no need for violence to be used in the adjudication of these claims.

I like the word that Denysenko uses to describe what is happening: a crisis in Orthodoxy. A crisis brings all the heretofore buried issues, the repressed phenomena in psychoanalytic terms, to the fore. It is an exposure to the world of the buried problems in what it sees as the uniform face of ‘the Orthodox Church,’ and in so doing, the world outside of Orthodoxy is also exposed for its views on what they really think ‘the Orthodox Church’ is. What is exposed, I claim, is that Orthodoxy has been in large part seen as an oriental phenomenon, a church that is exotic and impenetrable, transcendently sublime and utterly mysterious. To speak of Orthodox politics to most people is to elicit the classic response from the Roman Polanski filmForget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown. As the literary scholar Edward Said describes how writers in the Occident imagined the Orient, the psychology of those who are more familiar with the spiritualities of the Latin Church, Protestantism, and their secular descendants depends in some way on the impossible coherence of the East. It is their mirror. If the Orthodox are fragmented, it is the West that is gazing at it that will have the real meltdown.

Perhaps the best place to locate this Western disintegration is in what might be called a liberal ‘world religions’ approach to Orthodoxy. In the religious studies of yesteryear – the version of the discipline that has not yet been subjected to the critiques of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Talal Asad, and Tomoko Masuzawa – religions like Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism are belief systems, architectures that generate ideas that should be believed. The goal of this outdated mode of studying religions is to learn the beliefs of each of the systems and then translate them through the practices of the believers. Each religion therefore has its set of characteristics and geographical provenance, and it is their ideologies that make them distinct from one another.

The ‘Big Five’ religions, as they are called in the secular canons of three decades ago, can also be broken down into schools of thought. In this way, Christianity might be divided up into Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, usually resulting in offence given to Anabaptists and free churches who are hesitant about making common cause with magisterial Protestants, the Orthodox-in-communion-with-Rome, and the non-Chalcedonian and Assyrian churches with claims to Orthodoxy. The idea, of course, is that Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox are assumed to have distinctive imaginations of God and the world. The only problem, as Asad points out, is that this emphasis on belief is really a Protestant imposition on everyone else’s relation to things spiritual and divine. Only Protestants, after all, seem to have the capacity to think that what you believe in your head matters much more than what is going on in your heart and what you are doing with your hands and feet (and genitals). Granted, not all Protestant Christians are like this because they are usually also people with everyday lives and therefore have to do ordinary things, share their hearts, fall in love, and be in relationships. But the idea that religiosity is fundamentally about beliefs to which you assent and imaginaries that you project – this is usually crypto-Protestantism, often masked in the terms of secular neutrality that govern the world religions approach. It is also liberal in every sense of the word, reducing practice to ideals and sentiments and crafting imagined communities that can then be made to find consensus with one another, if only they were as coherent as they were framed to be.

In the world religions view, Orthodoxy somehow has to be distinct from Catholicism, the religion for which most Protestants and their secular derivatives usually mistake it. This is precisely what I am arguing is dying in the current crisis around Ukrainian autocephaly, a move anticipated in the a defence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s primacy in the Orthodox world from the theologian John Panteleimon Manoussakis’s book For the Unity of All. Manoussakis firmly denies the overdetermination of theological phenomena as either Catholic or Orthodox on the first page of his book where he calls ‘Eastern and Western…nothing more that terms of convenience denoting the provenance of an idea or a practice, which could be applied to either of the two churches that progressively fell apart after the so-called Great Schism’ (p. 1). In this sense, the whole point of Manoussakis’s book, and indeed his work, is that this world religions imagination of Orthodoxy and Catholicism as distinctive belief systems is overdetermined at best. It is not true, as Manoussakis demonstrates by walking through Latin and Byzantine formulations of Mary’s sinlessness, the filioque, and Petrine primacy, that Catholics and the Orthodox are talking about two different realities. They are, as David Tracy also contended in his classic Analogical Imagination, analogical to one another. In other words, there is corresponding language across Catholic and Orthodox imaginations that in some cases undermine the distinction, usually made for convenience’s sake, altogether. Analogy for Tracy, and arguably with some caveats for Manoussakis, is the path to ecumenism across the churches that call themselves Christian and must for the sheer reason of living together on this earth share a common inhabitation.

The Orthodox drama around Ukrainian autocephaly, in other words, is not Polanski’s Chinatown because it is perfectly understandable in Catholic terms. The Tomos that will come from Constantinople is premised on the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s primacy in the Orthodox world. That exercising it may make Patriarch Bartholomew somehow ‘papal’ (despite the Phanar’s historic weakness) does not make the practice non-Orthodox. If there are some Orthodox imaginations that cannot stomach it because such praxis is Catholic, then those fantasizers are shown to be deep in the grip of the liberal world religions paradigm. In other words, if all that is being defended is an Orthodox fantasy over against the canonical reality of Orthodoxy and the fact of primacy among the Orthodox, then what is being guarded is not Orthodoxy at all. That statement, offered as a negation, is probably the most generous way to put it. A more pointed formulation would be that it is actually the liberalism of the world religions approach championed by the secular discipline of the religious studies of a generation ago (there has arguably been a postsecular turn there too), but far be it from me to make a positive statement that the quixotic defenders of Holy Mother Russia against the decay of liberal secularists are quite more liberal and secular than their projected enemies.

The case that Manoussakis makes for primacy in the Orthodox Church is roughly in line with the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s current dismantling of the world religions version of Orthodoxy. Indeed, Manoussakis is under the omophor of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and his line of reasoning is consistent with others who have argued for the importance of Orthodox primacy, from Nicholas Afanasieff (whose formulation of primacy as the church which presides in love is what Pope Francis used on his first appearance on the loggia) to Metropolitan John (Zizoulas) of Pergamon. The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s practice of primacy in the case of Ukraine is thus only a provocation to those who might fantasize about an Orthodox world that must be distinct from a Catholic imagination, in which only Catholics have an understanding of primacy and the Orthodox necessarily don’t. In psychoanalytic terms, Constantinople is breaking the Orthodox mirror: it has primacy, and it is exercising it over its historic canonical territory. To those who see this Orthodox world as an other that is once again fragmenting, I am sure that it is saddening. I cannot, for example, count the number of those in the Latin Church and the Protestant churches (and in a bewilderingly postmodern piece on Public Orthodoxy denying history’s use in this dispute, for that matter) who have instructed me to feel sad about this whole thing, as if it could not be understood and as if Constantinople should have stood down from its rightful place as primus inter pares because it would provoke Moscow. But I am not sad in the way that is prescribed for me because it is not my mirror breaking and my orientalist fantasies shattering. I face this situation instead with resolve to discern the spirits, separating (in Denysenko’s words) fact from fiction. My sorrow stems from being told to have to keep the peace between what is construed as ‘two sides’ in Orthodoxy, even though one of them is gaslighting the other. Forget it, Justin, some seem to be saying, it’s Chinatown.

Orthodoxy, as the Ecumenical Patriarchate is setting forth by announcing that it will grant Kyiv autocephaly, is not an imagination, but a practice. Its modus operandi is not fantasy and old wives’ tales – the very things that the Holy Apostle Paul instructs his disciple Titus to avoid in a passage that one Metropolitan Jonah would be well advised to revisit before another exercise in incendiary language only worthy for World of Warcraft (I will not dignify it with a link) – but exegesis and rigorous scholarship. The Tomos of autocephaly to Poland in 1924 really does say that Constantinople never gave up the Kyivan metropolia and that claims that it is not Constantinopolitan territory are uncanonical. It is documented that the only right Moscow has to Ukraine was at one point to appoint the Metropolitan of Kyiv, and this was a concession under duress. The restoration of Patriarch Filaret and Metropolitan Makarii to regular canonical status is not only Constantinople’s to give, but is also necessary because it is a scandal for sisters and brothers who agree dogmatically on everything – that is, not only do they hold to the same things about the way God relates to the world, but they also express it the same way in their liturgy and practice – to be separated. Constantinople can establish in documents not only that it is the primatial see, but also the Mother Church of Kyiv. It also has other documents about Moscow doing its own uncanonical things, like granting the Orthodox Church in America autocephaly or bickering over Estonia. Perhaps one might say that leaving a paper trail is not the Orthodox way; after all, those are supposed to be parts of Catholic and Protestant imaginations. The Ecumenical Patriarchate calls the bluff on the whole ‘Orthodox don’t read but just believe myths’ charade. Much to the surprise to some who think the Phanar is disorganized – it has, after all, long been that way – the receipts have been kept.

The world now gets to choose. While choosing sides may be especially keen for those in Orthodox churches who have to figure out whether to align with Moscow or Constantinople, the more pressing parties involved are probably the international press, academics secular and theological, and the Western churches who have long been trying to sort out ecumenism with their Eastern counterparts. The construal of all these politics as byzantine and unintelligible, however, betrays a prevailing orientalism where the West finds it much more convenient to keep the East as a mirror instead of shattering it and seeing that there are real people involved here, with histories documented in writing and practices that take precedent over imagination.

The question that this crisis is making clear now is whether what will survive is the Orthodoxy found in real documents, canons, and the actions of persons in history or the invented Orthodox imagination of the liberal world religions paradigm. The latter is the one that Moscow offers – one in which Constantinople has disturbed the peace with its rightful exercise of primacy, in which the aspirations of Ukrainians to be both European and to worship in an autocephalous church is libellously framed as a neo-Nazi cause, in which Greek Catholics are slandered as uniates who allegedly compose a Ukrainian government that does not fit into the world religions box of Catholic and Orthodox imaginations presented by the fantasy of the Russian World. It would be tempting to buy into that imaginative geography for the sake of liberal consensus, of brokering a fragile peace based on an ideological consensus that considers all realities, even the fictional ones. But that would be akin to treating Orthodoxy like Chinatown, and that would inconveniently expose the Western churches and the institutions that have secularized from them as the most ethnophyletist of them all. I do not wish to think of all my sisters and brothers in the West as white people, though, so I invite them to recognize this moment for what it is: a Catholic moment in the Orthodox world, one that demonstrates that Orthodoxy really is universal Christianity. Recognizing it, however, will require a shattering of liberal fantasies and secular orientalisms, so by exercising such surprising pastoral competence in the present, Constantinople has taken the lead in breaking the mirror, with the hope that we might live on this common earth with the unity that comes from truth and love.

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