By Fr. Vasilioss Thermoss
On May 11, 330, the solemn opening of Constantinople took place, and on May 21, the church calendar honors Constantine the Great and his mother Helena every year. I want to recall the vision during which the emperor saw the sign of the cross and received the assurance “By this you will conquer.” I will try to make a comparison between the way they perceive this experience in Byzantium and in modern Russia and the ongoing war.
The entire later political ideology of the Eastern Empire was based on this slogan. To such an extent did the invocation of the Cross permeate the political culture of the time that certain hymns (such as “Save, O God, Thy people…”) are established as emblematic of the feasts of the Cross, despite the thousands of troparions written about the spiritual significance of this symbol: a sign of sacrificial love, a symbol of humility, a weapon against temptation and evil, a source of comfort and hope in trials, a condition for the Resurrection, etc., etc. Ultimately, as an official sign of the state, the perception of the Cross as an expression of the collective identity of those who believe in divine truth, as opposed to the identity of the deluded.
However, singing these hymns in the 21st century is dissonant, as there is no longer a Christian empire to defend against barbarians, nor are our current leaders believers. Their continued use reflects how deeply embedded the thinking of the time was in the collective unconscious. Truth had to defeat error, and the way of victory was influenced by the psychological and social conditions of the era.
Historical thinking should not be anachronistic and should take into account the actuality of events. In fact, today it is difficult to understand how people thought in the past and what their priorities were. Different circumstances, different experience, different obviousness. When you have endured three centuries of persecution, and are now citizens of a gospel-inspired state, in opposition to the heathen nations that surround it, you find it perfectly reasonable to ask for God’s help, not to defeat enemies, but to preserve the opportunity for the free exercise of the Christian life and (why not?) the Christianization of the rest of mankind.
In the absence of modern political thought and corresponding democratic ideals, however, Byzantium was inevitably a theocracy – as was Western Christendom. Not like today’s radicals (Iran, Saudi Arabia), but softer. It is indeed flourishing as a civilization, but we must call a spade a spade.
Only in the context of historical hermeneutics can we understand the call and exhortation, “By this you shall overcome.” God is always understood in terms of the cultural relevance and vital needs of each age. Let us note, however, that the conception of God that supports and promotes the dynamic differentiation of the Christian people from non-believers is not the only one: many texts of Byzantine Christian theology contain more “advanced” versions of the representation of God, compatible with modern needs: for example, the love for Him, the image of a friend and companion, as well as of a firstborn brother, etc. Moreover, Christ’s teaching against violence and authority in general was already present. In other words, Byzantium tried, but was not a model of Christianity.
What conclusion do I want to reach? A theology that takes into account the cultural context is always needed, because otherwise we end up uncritically transferring the facts of the past into the present. The results are comical when they don’t turn tragic. And this is exactly what happened to post-Soviet Russia!
The political ideology of Byzantium was the most feasible (and probably quite successful) for that cultural order. Tolerance, for example, should be judged by the standards of the time, not by today’s standards. That’s not to say that even then it wasn’t subject to improvement. There is always some degree of uncertainty and failure in human action, even with the best of intentions. In any case, however, the transfer of the ideological regime of that time into the 21st century becomes a caricature. Sometimes this is fatal.
Russia as a country has no democratic traditions and experience. As a pre-modern agrarian society, it has been forcibly modernized, exclusively in the form of communism. The Church therefore suffered a double shock, as its encounter with the ideas of Modernity was also traumatically experienced through the atheism and materialism of the 19th century (poignantly described by Dostoevsky). Thus, in 1991, a pious and patient people who apparently obeyed the authorities suddenly found themselves with a supposedly free economy and pretending to be democratic institutions. Citizens feel humiliated, deprived of the glory of a superpower, and poverty undermines their dignity. At the same time, girls from this country began to prostitute themselves in the rest of Europe. Its clerics find daily that the strangest ideas and practices are imported from the postmodern West. It was a serious cultural and moral crisis.
This was the Church’s hour, her opportunity. Her historical vocation is to inspire a Christian life based on the present, able to feed the spiritual hunger after the drought of Soviet atheism, to open and witness to the world about Christ. The challenge was to emerge an Orthodoxy that creatively accepted the healthy elements of Western culture. Instead, the Moscow Patriarchate preferred to look for sources of self-confidence in the past: in nationalism, in the logic of empire, in sectarianism. It was a fatal choice, one of the fruits of which is the war we live in today.
In other words, the justified existential insecurity of a great historical people has led to a search for comfort not in faith but in fantasy, not in the Gospel but in secularism. Instead of looking to the future, she tries to retell the past. Instead of making believers citizens of the world, it offers them the virtual reality of a new Byzantium. In essence, the Russian Church takes on the task of being in opposition to modern and postmodern ideas, so as to “fence” its congregation on the one hand, and to attract naïve non-Orthodox Christians to conversion on the other. (Not long ago, a community of conservative Protestants in West Virginia, USA, joined the Russian Orthodox Church!) In other words, it “sells” its image of the only Christian space that opposes Western atheism and corruption…
Thus we can understand why Russians so easily combine wealth and luxury with piety, why they use the Cross in their megalomaniac dreams, why in the agony of their identity they lose their compass. Unable to interpret Byzantium historically, they are content to transfer it unchanged to the present day. For thirty years they have been engaged in this gigantic operation of restoring pre-modern values, presenting them as supposedly traditional. Clerics on television say that democracy is not suitable for Russia or justify men’s violence against their wives. The worldview of the current Russian leadership is of a pure holy homeland surrounded by barbarians. Their mission, which they do not hide, is to restore the undermined masculinity…
Therefore, we must understand that they are defending another, perverted Christianity. The priority they bring up among people is not in the relationship with Christ, but in establishing an identity and even in opposition to other identities. This path inevitably leads to irrationality. When mental chaos and anguish insist on forming an identity, one becomes capable of stepping on corpses…
If their political leaders are justified in their ignorance, their church pastors have no extenuating circumstances. In their own language was formulated the famous renewal theology of the 20th century (Florovsky, Schmemann, Lossky, Afanasyev), which they preferred to ignore as if it did not exist. And while it irrigated and continues to irrigate richly Greeks, French, Americans, etc., they were content to feed on empty words, with narcissistic “air”. As a result, they were led into deep delusion, justifying the killing of thousands of soldiers and civilians, … to oppose gay pride!
What does all this mean for Greeks today?
First, great attention and vigilance must be paid to the phenomenon of domestic admirers of the Russian myth, because in reality these are people who feel uncomfortable in their own time and feel nostalgic for Byzantium.
Secondly, fortunately this current is a minority, since our country has a good theological potential, a tradition of criticism of the episcopate from the side of church performance and strong foundations of Europeanism.
Thirdly, it is time to take off the glasses and work together: churchmen should better understand the worldly people by removing all prejudices, and it is time for our intellectuals to shake off their delusions about the Church.
Just as the religiously indifferent are not grouped together (among them there are militant atheists, mild agnostics, well-intentioned sympathizers, rational technocrats, etc.), so believers are different (there are sober Europeans, thinking moderates, recent fanatics, simpletons, etc. n.). Both sides must abandon the self-serving and stultifying tactic of portraying their opponent as they want, so that they can then attack them. Enough ideological caricatures and unnecessary arguments!
Humanity has entered a new historical cycle with unclear development. The outcome of the struggles that will be fought from now on will depend on the cooperation of those who think in cooperation, those who are attracted more by reality than by fantasy. And Christians will become the hope of the world when humble and unquestioning faith forms identity (as it did in the beginning), not when (inversely) the soul’s need for identity deforms faith into its own mold, as we painfully watch happen. now.
Posted in: Huffpost
Note on the author: Prot. Basil Thermos (b. 1957) is a famous Greek theologian, cleric of the Metropolis of Thebes and Levadia. He graduated in medicine and theology. Doctor of Theology of the University of Athens. For twelve years he taught at the Theological Academy of the Albanian Orthodox Church and is currently a professor of pastoral theology at the Higher Ecclesiastical Academy of Athens. Practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist. He was a guest lecturer at a number of world universities – in Harvard, Boston, etc. His books and articles have been translated into English, French, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Spanish and Russian.
Photo: An Orthodox icon of St. Archangel Michael.