The appearance of God in a time of post-truth fantasy: Kyivan reflections for Theophany 2019

The appearance of God in a time of post-truth fantasy: Kyivan reflections for Theophany 2019 January 20, 2019
photos by me

The Tomos of autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine came out from the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the Feast of Theophany this year; on the Old Calendar celebration of that same feast yesterday, my brother Julian and I met one of its architects. It was, I suppose, a long time in coming. Julian tells me that he and Bishop Daniel of Chicago keep missing each other when their travels coincide throughout the world, say, in Kyiv, in Lviv, and in Istanbul. Yesterday, they finally got to talk briefly — and I suppose I was in the right place and the right time — over lunch after the Liturgy, as we were able to catch a few words after he shared with those gathered his incredible journey as one of the exarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to set up the OCU. I must say, he is as charismatic in person as he is on social media.

The day before, on the Eve of Theophany, Julian and I had in fact been at another event together. After we both had a very busy day at work, we had driven to Valparaiso University. The new Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair in Theology there, the theologian Nicholas Denysenko, had organized for icons painted in the war zones of Eastern Ukraine to be displayed in the gallery there. The event was titled The Icons on Ammo Boxes and featured the iconographic work of Sofia Atlantova and Oleksandr Klymenko, an artist couple from the Donbas whom the ecclesiologist Cyril Hovorun had met on his research journeys. Julian and I had read both theologians’ recent work on the church in Ukraine, especially Denysenko’s prophetically titled Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation and Hovorun’s Scaffolds of the Church: Towards Poststructural Ecclesiology and Political Orthodoxies: The Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced. We became very excited about the event, and Nick Denysenko and I also learned while corresponding about our enthusiasm about meeting each other in the flesh for the first time that we share a common colleague, the brilliant scholar Stephanie Wong who was recently hired at Valparaiso.

Julian and I were right to be excited. From Hovorun’s opening introduction to Atlantova and Klymenko’s brief expositions of their work, the common thread that ran through their remarks was that if one pays attention to what is happening on the ground in this war between Russia and Ukraine, then it is clear that ordinary people who live in those places don’t want it. Folks living their everyday lives rarely want their families, romances, education, employment, and sense of home disrupted by violence, and Ukrainians, being people, are no different. What is happening there is a situation of death and displacement, and if one examines all the reasons that it is happening, it becomes readily apparent that the ideology of the Russian World, which really serves the feed the megalomania of one person in Moscow, is the narrative for which persons nevertheless give their lives.

And yet, out of death, the Lord brings life. Speaking to the larger theological and geopolitical context, Hovorun spoke of the need for the Orthodox to learn from Catholic initiatives in Eastern Ukraine to bring medical care and humanitarian aid, often under the banner of the word social justice, which is gaining traction as a word being used in Ukrainian civil society. The icons on the ammunition boxes are a smaller-scale case of such death out of life. Klymenko spoke of using the boxes of ammunition, themselves instruments of death, as a pacifist protest against the war. Icons, by contrast, bring life by showing the holy women and men before the face of the Lord as fully alive. The icons at Valparaiso are actually on sale, and proceeds will go to more aid in the region as well as work in peacemaking.

Is this not, I began to reflect that night, the theology of the Theophany? Throughout the gallery were icons of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John, including that of his beheading, a holy man whose life and martyrdom bear witness to the baptism of the Lord in Jordan, the moment of the appearance of God to the world. But I also discovered that one icon I really liked was our Venerable Mother among the Saints Mary of Egypt, for whom the Jordan turned back, as the formulation in the Great Blessing of the Waters goes, as she crossed into the wilderness to lead a life of monastic penitence and returned over like the Prophet Elisha to receive communion before she reposed. Indeed, in church today, our priest at the Chicago mission on the south side spoke precisely to this dimension of Theophany, that the Jordan turned back is a theological formulation of repentance, of what is in Greek metanoia, the changing of one’s mind that can only happen through bodily action. In the waters of the Jordan, we like Mary of Egypt turn back from the practices of sin because it is there that the Lord has gazed upon us.

As Hovorun suggested in his talk, to care about Ukraine is not a niche concern of an ethnonationalist people. For one, the question of Ukrainianness is complicated, but however one slices it, the co-existence of so many people of so many ethnicities who speak so many languages in Ukraine suggests that talking about Ukraine is far from falling into any kind of ethnocentrism. But speaking more broadly, the situation in Ukraine is symptomatic of a much more universal problem. What you experienced here in 2016 as post-truth in the elections, he said to an audience member who asked him why he as an American should care about Ukraine, is what we experienced in 2014, and in fact even before that. The condition of the world at the moment – and perhaps reaching back even before these more recent years into the seventies that generated Jean-François Lyotard’s reflections on the fragmentation of truth claims in The Postmodern Condition – is that reality is so overlaid with ideology that it is as unreal as Slavoj Žižek has usually described it. Channeling Lacan, Žižek speaks of the real as less than nothing, that what is felt and known as reality are really the coordinates of dreams and fantasies. The war in Ukraine, with the post-truth delusions of the Russian World, are but a symptom of this ideological saturation, the dragons in the waters that have polluted the earth. The fictions are delusional, but the delusions motivate material suffering, the disruption of everyday life, and a culture of death marked by the banalization of war, often by appealing to a Soviet nostalgia that sacrifices personal agency for authoritarian rule.

After a very moving celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the Great Blessing of the Waters for Theophany — for which Julian and I were unexpectedly recruited in the choir to replace the bass singers who did not show up because of the snow — Bishop Daniel offered very similar reflections on the creation of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. In the words of Nicholas Denysenko, the Tomos of autocephaly is a protest to the Moscow Patriarchate’s implementation of neo-imperialism into the practice of its church. In this way, an entire Orthodox church has been put in the service of promoting a war based on fantasies of empire rooted in the ambitions of one man in Moscow, and heeding the voices of Ukrainians who do not want this church to be the only canonically recognized Orthodox church in which they can worship, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has created a new church that is self-heading. It is perhaps ‘a second, third, or even fourth Maidan,’ Bishop Daniel cited one of his colleagues as saying, a Revolution of Dignity calling foul on the lacing of imperial fantasy in the every lives of people whose dignity this inculcation offends. But it is, as Bishop Daniel says, a baby church, one that will need godparents of the other Orthodox churches, as well as of the Ukrainian churches of the United States and Canada which are formally in the canonical territory of Constantinople. The danger will be for this church to emulate its former oppressor, to give rise to its own kind of nationalism instead of being open to everyone as a house of worship, and that is why the godparenting will be important — to ensure a constant turning back from what Hovorun describes in one of his books as a political orthodoxy, the manipulation of the church to serve as an instrument of an empire that then defines those who do not share its identity or ideology as heterodox and therefore expendable.

The Tomos, I reflect, is a Theophany moment, which is probably why the Ecumenical Patriarch chose this Feast to give it to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. More locally in Chicago, we have been reflecting on what this means for us, especially as we worship in a very small temple on the south side that is located in a very impoverished neighbourhood that can be described as a food and transit desert. After reading my post last week on our mission’s habits of doing reader’s services, a reader complained at my use of the term ecclesial devastation and said that he had not heard of our mission in an official way. I suppose his feelings might be valid if I had actually intended the piece as an attack, but I am quite comfortable saying that I cannot understand how a post that demonstrates that I am practicing a solution to the problem I raise even registers as a complaint. Instead, I think what I am saying is that if we are in such a place, how can we be anything but a mission to the local neighbourhood? How can we but get to know our neighbours, both ecclesial in the black church and personal in those who have managed to stay where they live in a sea of abandoned houses? How can we as fellow children of the Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Volodymyr and Olha but take inspiration from watching the Jordan turn back at the presence of the Lord and in his saints like the Holy Prophets Elijah and Elisha and our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt so that we feel compelled to work like Atlantova and Klymenko in the power of such Jordan water to bring life out of death, to chase out the dragons of post-truth and social injustice that pervert and pollute it?

Amidst the exciting possibilities among life out of the death of post-truth, our beloved Patriarch Sviatoslav has written a pastoral letter on Kyivan civilization as founded on Holy Sophia, the Wisdom of God. I am still mulling over it, but it seems to me that in the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan is the Wisdom of God revealed to the world, as the Father names Jesus as the beloved Son in whom he is well-pleased and the Spirit descends on him as a dove. The contrast to the ideological devastation of post-truth ideology that is a cancer that eats the world from the inside out is this sophianic civilization of Kyivan Christianity, the wisdom of discernment that begins with reflection on the turning back of the Jordan before the One on whom the world was founded in love. In Theophany, God has appeared and revealed himself to us. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, we add as a refrain when we sing that as the chalice appears at the Royal Doors for the people to come to receive. He has come to exorcise these waters, to pull back the veil of neo-imperialist fantasies wreaking social injustice in people’s everyday lives, to show that the image of the image of God that can be revealed in all creation can make windows into heaven of ammunition boxes. Perhaps, I reflect, I was not crazy to join a colonized church to get free of the ideological colonization in my own psyche. Here, of all places, the Lord has revealed himself to me. Cleansed by his baptism, we will get free together, and in getting free, work for the liberation of reality itself from the delusions of post-truth fantasy.

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