"Christianity and Culture"
by Fr. George Florovsky
Faith and Culture.
Antinomies of Christian History: Empire and Desert.
Christianity and Civilization.
The Social Problem in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Faith and Culture.
We are living in a changed and changing world. This cannot be denied even by those in our midst who may be unwilling or unprepared to change themselves, who want to linger in the age that is rapidly passing away. But nobody can evade the discomfort of belonging to a world in transition. If we accept the traditional classification of historical epochs into "organic" and "critical," there is no doubt that our present age is a critical age, an age of crisis, an age of unresolved tensions. One hears so often in our days about the "End of Our Time," about the "Decline of the West," about "Civilization on Trial," and the like. It is even suggested sometimes that probably we are now passing through the "Great Divide," through the greatest change in the history of our civilization, which is much greater and more radical than the change from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, or from the Middle Ages to the Modern Times. If it is true at all, as it was contended by Hegel, that "history is judgment" (Die Weltgeschichte ist Weltgericht), there are some fateful epochs, when history not only judges, but, as it were, sentences itself to doom. We are persistently reminded by experts and prophets that civilizations rise and decay, and there is no special reason to expect that our own civilization should escape this common fate. If there is any historical future at all, it may well happen that this future is reserved for another civilization, and probably for one which will be quite different from ours.
It is quite usual in our days, and indeed quite fashionable, to say that we are already dwelling in a "Post-Christian world" — whatever the exact meaning of this pretentious phrase may actually be — in a world which, subconsciously or deliberately, "retreated" or seceded from Christianity. "We live in the ruins of civilizations, hopes, systems, and souls." Not only do we find ourselves at the cross-roads, at which the right way seems to be uncertain, but many of us would also question whether there is any safe road at all, and any prospect of getting on. Does not indeed our civilization find itself in an impasse out of which there is no exit, except at the cost of explosion? Now, what is the root of the trouble? What is the primary or ultimate cause of this imminent and appalling collapse? Is it just "the failure of nerve," as it is sometimes suggested, or rather a "sickness to death," a disease of the spirit, the loss of faith? There is no common agreement on this point. Yet, there seems to be considerable agreement that our cultural world has been somehow disoriented and decentralized, spiritually and intellectually disoriented and disorganized, so that no over-arching principle has been left which can keep the shifting elements together. As Christians, we can be more emphatic and precise. We would contend that it is precisely the modern Retreat from Christianity, at whatever exact historical date we may discern its starting point, that lies at the bottom of our present crisis. Our age is, first of all, an age of unbelief, and for that reason an age of uncertainty, confusion, and despair. There are so many in our time who have no hope precisely because they lost all faith.
We should not make such statements too easily, however, and have to caution ourselves at least on two points. First, the causes and motives of this obvious "retreat" were complex and manifold, and the guilt cannot be shifted exclusively onto those who have retreated. In Christian humility, the faithful should not exonerate themselves unconditionally, and should not dispense too summarily with the responsibility for the failures of others. If our culture, which we used, rather complacently, to regard as Christian, disintegrates and falls to pieces, it only shows that the seed of corruption was already there. Secondly, we should not regard all beliefs as constructive by themselves, and should not welcome every faith as an antidote against doubt and disruption. It may be perfectly true, as sociologists contend, that cultures disintegrate when there is no inspiring incentive, no commanding conviction. But it is the content of faith that is decisive, at least from the Christian point of view. The chief danger in our days is that there are too many conflicting "beliefs." The major tension is not so much between "belief" and "un-belief" as precisely between rival beliefs. Too many "strange Gospels" are preached, and each of them claims total obedience and faithful submission; even science poses sometimes as religion. It may be true that the modern crisis can be formally traced back to the loss of convictions. It would be disastrous, however, if people rallied around a false banner and pledged allegiance to a wrong faith. The real root of the modern tragedy does not lie only in the fact that people lost convictions, but that they deserted Christ.
Now, when we speak of a "crisis of culture," what do we actually mean? The word "culture" is used in various senses, and there is no commonly accepted definition. On the one hand, "culture" is a specific attitude or orientation of individuals and of human groups, by which we distinguish the "civilized" society from the "primitive." It is at once a system of aims and concerns, and a system of habits. On the other hand, "culture" is a system of values, produced and accumulated in the creative process of history, and tending to obtain a semi-independent existence, i.e. independent of that creative endeavor which originated or discovered these values." The values are manifold and divers, and probably they are never fully integrated into one coherent whole — polite manners and mores, political and social institutions, industry and sanitation, ethics, art and science, and so on. Thus, when we speak of the crisis of culture, we usually imply a dis-integration in one of these two different, if related, systems, or rather in both of them. It may happen that some of the accepted or alleged values are discredited and compromised, i.e. cease to function and no longer appeal to men. Or, again, it happens sometimes that "civilized man" themselves degenerate or even disappear altogether, that cultural habits become unstable, and men lose interest in or concern for these habits, or are simply tired of them. Then an urge for "primitivism" may emerge, if still within the framework of a lingering civilization. A civilization declines when that creative impulse which originally brought it into existence loses its power and spontaneity. Then the question arises, whether "culture" is relevant to the fulfillment of man’s personality, or is no more than an external garb which may be needed on occasions, but which does not organically belong to the essence of human existence. It obviously does not belong to human nature, and we normally clearly distinguish between "nature" and "culture," implying that "culture" is man’s "artificial" creation which he superimposes on "nature," although it seems that in fact we do not know human nature apart from culture, from some kind of culture at least. It may be contended that "culture" is not actually "artificial," that it is rather an extension of human nature, an extension by which human nature achieves its maturity and completion, so that an "under-cultural" existence is in fact a "sub-human" mode of existence. Is it not true that a "civilized" man is more human than a "primitive" or "natural" man? It is precisely at this point that our major difficulty sets in.
It may be perfectly true, as I personally believe is the case, that our contemporary culture or civilization is "on trial." But should Christians, as Christians, be concerned with this cultural crisis at all? If it is true, as we have just admitted, that the collapse or decline of culture is rooted in the loss of faith, in an "apostasy" or "retreat," should not Christians be concerned, primarily if not exclusively, with the reconstruction of belief or a reconversion of the world, and not with the salvaging of a sinking civilization? If we are really passing in our days an "apocalyptic" test, should we not concentrate all our efforts on Evangelism, on the proclamation of the Gospel to an oblivious generation, on the preaching of penitence and conversion ? The main question seems to be, whether the crisis can be resolved if we simply oppose to an outworn and disrupted civilization a new one, or whether, in order to overcome the crisis, we must go beyond civilization, to the very roots of human existence. Now, if we have ultimately to go beyond, would not this move make culture unnecessary and superfluous? Does one need "culture," and should one be interested in it, when he encounters the Living God, Him Who alone is to be worshipped and glorified? Is not then all "civilization" ultimately but a subtle and refined sort of idolatry, a care and trouble for "many things," for too many things, while there is but one "good part," which shall never be taken away, but will continue in the "beyond," unto ages of ages? Should not, in fact, those who have found the "precious pearl" go straight away and sell their other goods? And would it not be precisely an unfaithfulness and disloyalty to hide and keep these other possessions ? Should we not simply surrender all "human values," into the hands of God.
This questioning was for centuries the major temptation of many sincere and devout souls. All these questions are intensively asked and discussed again in our own days. We say: temptation. But is it fair to use this disqualifying word? Is it not rather an inescapable postulate of that integral self-renunciation, which is the first pre-requisite and foundation of Christian obedience? In fact, doubts about culture and its values arise and emerge not only in the days of great historical trials and crises. They arise so often also in the periods of peace and prosperity, when one may find himself in danger of being enslaved and seduced by human achievements, by the glories and triumphs of civilization. They arise so often in the process of intimate and personal search for God. Radical self-renunciation may lead devout people into wilderness, into the caves of the earth and the deserts, out of the "civilized world," and culture would appear to them as vanity, and vanity of vanities, even if it is alleged that this culture has been christened, in shape if not in essence. Would it be right to arrest these devout brethren in their resolute search of perfection, and to retain them in the world, to compel them to share in the building or reparation of what for them is nothing else than a Tower of Babel? Are we prepared to disavow St. Anthony of Egypt or St. Francis of Assisi and to urge them to stay in the world? Is not God radically above and beyond all culture? Does "culture" after all possess any intrinsic value of its own? Is it service or play, obedience or distraction, vanity, luxury and pride, i.e. ultimately a trap for souls? It seems obvious that "culture" is not, and by its very nature cannot be, an ultimate end or an ultimate value, and should not be regarded as an ultimate goal or destiny of man, nor probably even as an indispensable component of true humanity. A "primitive" can be saved no less than a "civilized." As St. Ambrose put it, God did not choose to save His people by clever arguments. Moreover, "culture" is not an unconditional good; rather it is a sphere of unavoidable ambiguity and involvement. It tends to degenerate into "civilization," if we may accept Oswald Spengler’s distinction between these two terms — and man may be desperately enslaved in it, as the modern man is supposed to be. "Culture" is human achievement, is man’s own deliberate creation, but an accomplished "civilization" is so often inimical to human creativity. Many in our days, and indeed at all times, are painfully aware of this tyranny of "cultural routine," of the bondage of civilization. It can be argued, as it has been more than once, that in "civilization" man is, as it were, "estranged" from himself, estranged and detached from the very roots of his existence, from his very "self," or from "nature," or from God. This alienation of man can be described and defined in a number of ways and manners, both in a religious and anti-religious mood. But in all cases "culture" would appear not only to be in predicament, but to be predicament itself.
Different answers were given to these searching questions in the course of Christian history, and the problem still remains unsolved. It has been recently suggested that the whole question about "Christ and Culture" is "an enduring problem," which probably does not admit of any final decision. It is to say that different answers will appeal to different types or groups of people, believers alike and "unbelievers," and again different answers will seem convincing at different times. The variety of answers seems to have a double meaning. On the one hand, it points to the variety of historical and human situations, in which different solutions would naturally impose. Questions are differently put and assessed at a time of peace or at a time of crisis. But on the other hand, disagreement is precisely what we should expect in the "Divided Christendom." It would be idle to ignore the depth of this division in Christendom. The meaning of the Gospel itself is discordantly assessed in various denominations. And in the debate about "Christ and Culture" we encounter the same tension between the "Catholic" and the "Evangelical" trends which is at the bottom of the "Christian Schism" at large. If we are really and sincerely concerned with "Christian Unity," we should look for an ultimate solution of this basic tension. In fact, our attitude to "culture" is not a practical option, but a theological decision, first of all and last of all. The recent growth of historical and cultural pessimism, of what Germans call Kulturpessimismus and Geschichtspessimismus, not only reflects the factual involvements and confusion of our epoch, but also reveals a peculiar shift in theological and philosophical opinions. Doubts about culture have an obvious theological significance and spring from the very depth of man’s faith. One should not dismiss any sincere challenge too easily and self-complacently, without sympathy and understanding. Yet, without imposing a uniform solution, for which our age seems not to be ripe, one cannot avoid discarding certain suggested solutions as inadequate, as erroneous and misleading.
The modern opposition, or indifference, of Christians to "culture" takes various shapes and moulds. It would be impossible to attempt now a comprehensive survey of all actual shades of opinion. We must confine ourselves to a tentative list of those which seem to be most vocal and relevant in our own situation. There are a variety of motives, and a variety of conclusions. Two special motives seem to concur in a very usual contempt of the world by many Christians, in all traditions. On the one hand, the world is passing, and history itself seems so insignificant "in the perspective of eternity," or when related to the ultimate destiny of man. All historical values are perishable, as they are also relative and uncertain. Culture, also, is perishable and of no significance in the perspective of an imminent end. On the other hand, the whole world seems to be so insignificant in comparison with the unfathomable Glory of God, as it has been revealed in the mystery of our Redemption. At certain times, and in certain historical situations, the mystery of Redemption seems to obscure the mystery of Creation, and Redemption is construed rather as a dismissal of the fallen world than as its healing and recovery. The radical opposition between Christianity and Culture, as it is presented by certain Christian thinkers, is more inspired by certain theological and philosophical presuppositions than by an actual analysis of culture itself. There is an increasing eschatological feeling in our days, at least in certain quarters. There is also an increasing devaluation of man in the contemporary thought, philosophical and theological, partly in reaction to the excess of self-confidence of the previous age. There is a re-discovery of human "nothingness," of the essential precariousness and insecurity of his existence, both physical and spiritual. The world seems to be inimical and empty, and man feels himself lost in the flux of accidents and failures. If there is still any hope of "salvation," it is constructed rather in the terms of "escape" and "endurance" than in those of "recovery" or "reparation." What can one hope for in history?
We can distinguish several types of this "pessimistic" attitude. The labels I am going to use are but tentative and provisional.
First of all, we must emphasize the persistence of the Pietist or Revivalist motive in the modern devaluation of culture. Men believe that they have met their Lord and Redeemer in their personal and private experience, and that they were saved by His mercy and their own response to it in faith and obedience. Nothing else is therefore needed.
The life of the world, and in the world, seems then to be but a sinful entanglement, out of which men are glad, and probably proud, to have been released. The only thing they have to say about this world is to expose its vanity and perversion and to prophesy doom and condemnation, the coming wrath and judgment of God. People of this type may be of different temper, sometimes wild and aggressive, sometimes mild and sentimental. In all cases, however, they cannot see any positive meaning in the continuing process of culture, and are indifferent to all values of civilization, especially to those which cannot be vindicated from the utilitarian point of view. People of this type would preach the virtue of simplicity, in opposition to the complexity of cultural involvement. They may choose to retire into the privacy of solitary existence or of stoic "indifference" or they may prefer a kind of common life, in closed companies of those who have understood the futility and purposelessness of the whole historical toil and endeavor. One may describe this attitude as "sectarian," and indeed there is a deliberate attempt to evade any share in common history. But this "sectarian" approach can be found among the people of various cultural and religious traditions. There are many who want to "retire from the world," at least psychologically, more for security than for "the unseen warfare." There is, in this attitude, a paradoxical mixture of penitence and self-satisfaction, of humility and pride. There is also a deliberate disregard of, or indifference to, doctrine, and inability to think out consistently the doctrinal implications of this "isolationist" attitude. In fact, this is a radical reduction of Christianity, at least a subjective reduction, in which it becomes no more than a private religion of individuals. The only problem with which this type of people is concerned is the problem of individual "salvation."
Secondly, there is a "Puritan" type of opposition. There is a similar "reduction" of belief, usually openly admitted. In practice, it is an active type, without any desire to evade history. Only history is accepted rather as "service" and "obedience," and not as a creative opportunity. There is the same concentration on the problem of one’s "salvation."
The basic contention is that man, this miserable sinner, can be forgiven, if and when he accepts the forgiveness which is offered to him by Christ and in Christ, but even in this case he remains precisely what he is, a frail and unprofitable creature, and is not essentially changed or re-newed. Even as a forgiven person, he continues as a lost creature, and his life cannot have any constructive value. This may not lead necessarily to an actual withdrawal from culture or denial of history, but it makes of history a kind of servitude, which must be carried on and endured, and should not be evaded, but endured rather as a training of character and testing in patience, than as a realm of creativeness. Nothing is to be achieved in history. But man should use every opportunity to prove his loyalty and obedience and to strengthen character by this service of fidelity, this bondage in duty. There is a strong "utilitarian" emphasis in this attitude, if it is a "transcendental utility," an utter concern with "salvation." Everything that does not directly serve this purpose should be discarded, and no room is permitted for any "disinterested creativity," e.g. for art or "belles-lettres."
Thirdly, there is an Existentialist type of opposition. Its basic motive is in the protest against man’s enslavement in civilization, which only screens from him the ultimate predicament of his existence, and obscures the hopelessness of his entanglement. It would be unfair to deny the relative truth of the contemporary Existentialist movement, the truth of reaction; and probably the modern man of culture needed this sharp and pityless warning. In all its forms, religious and areligious, Existentialism exposes the nothingness of man, of the real man as he is and knows himself. For those among the Existentialists who failed to encounter God or who indulge in the atheistic denial, this "nothingness" is just the last truth about man and his destiny. Only man should find this truth out for himself. But many Existentialists have found God, or, as they would put it themselves, have been found by Him, challenged by Him, in His undivided wrath and mercy. But, paradoxically enough, they would persist in believing that man is still but "nothing," in spite of the redeeming love and concern of Creator for His lost and stray creatures. In their conception, "creatureliness" of man inextricably condemns him to be but "nothing," at least in his own eyes, in spite of the mysterious fact that for God His creatures are obviously much more than "nothing," since the redeeming love of God moved Him, for the sake of man, to the tremendous Sacrifice of the Cross. Existentialism seems to be right in its criticism of human complacency, and even helpful in its unwelcome detection of man’s pettiness. But it is always blind to the complexity of the Divine Wisdom. An Existentialist is always a lonely and solitary being, inextricably involved and engaged in the scrutiny of his predicament. His terms of reference are always: the ALL of God and the Nothing of man. And, even in the case when his analysis begins with a concrete situation, namely his personal one, it continues somehow in abstracto: in the last resort he will not speak of a living person, but rather about man as man, for ultimately all men stand under the same and universal detection of their ultimate irrelevance. Whatever the psychological and historical explanation of the recent rise of Existentialism may be, on the whole it is no more than a symptom of cultural disintegration and despair.
And finally, we should not ignore the resistance or indifference of the "Plain Man." He may live rather quietly in the world of culture, and even enjoy it, but he would wonder what culture can "add" to religion, except by the way of decoration, or as a tribute of reverence and gratitude, i.e. especially in the form of art. But as a rule, the "plain man" is cautiously suspicious about the use of reason in the matters of faith and accordingly will dispense with the understanding of beliefs. What religious value can be in a distinterested study of any subject, which has no immediate practical application and cannot be used in the discharge of charity? The "plain man" will have not doubts about the value or utility of culture in the economy of temporal life, but he will hesitate to acknowledge its positive relevance in the spiritual dimension, except insofar as it may affect or exhibit the moral integrity of man. He will find no religious justification for the human urge to know and create. Is not all culture ultimately but vanity, a frail and perishable thing indeed? And is not the deepest root of human pride and arrogance precisely in the claims and ambition of reason? The "plain man" usually prefers "simplicity" in religion, and takes no interest in what he labels as "theological speculation," including therein very often almost all doctrines and dogmas of the Church. What is involved in this attitude is again a one-sided (and defective) concept of man and of the relevance of man’s actual life in history to his "eternal destiny," i.e. to the ultimate purpose of God. There is a tendency to stress the "otherworldliness" of the "Life Eternal" to such an extent that human personality is in danger of being rent in twain. Is History in its entirety just a training ground for souls and characters, or is something more intended in God’s design? Is the "last judgment" just a test in loyalty, or also a "recapitulation" of the Creation?
It is here that we are touching upon the deepest cause of the enduring confusion in the discussion about "Faith and Culture." The deepest theological issues are involved in this discussion, and no solution can ever be reached unless the theological character of the discussion is clearly acknowledged and understood. We need a theology of culture, even for our "practical" decisions. No real decision can be made in the dark. The dogma of Creation, with everything that it implies, was dangerously obscured in the consciousness of modern Christians, and the concept of Providence, i.e. of the perennial concern of the Creator with the destiny of His Creation, was actually reduced to something utterly sentimental and subjective. Accordingly, "History" was conceived as an enigmatic interim between the Mighty Deeds of God, for which it was difficult to assign any proper substance. This was connected again with an inadequate conception of Man. The emphasis has been shifted from the fulfillment of God’s design for man to the release of Man out of the consequences of his "original" failure. And, accordingly, the whole doctrine of the Last Things has been dangerously reduced and has come to be treated in the categories of forensical justice or of sentimental love. The "Modern Man" fails to appreciate and to assess the conviction of early Christians, derived from the Scripture, that Man was created by God for a creative purpose and was to act in the world as its king, priest, and prophet. The fall or failure of man did not abolish this purpose or design, and man was redeemed in order to be re-instated in his original rank and to resume his role and function in the Creation. And only by doing this can he become what he was designed to be, not only in the sense that he should display obedience, but also in order to accomplish the task which was appointed by God in his creative design precisely as the task of man. As much as "History" is but a poor anticipation of the "Age to come," it is nevertheless its actual anticipation, and the cultural process in history is related to the ultimate consummation, if in a manner and in a sense which we cannot adequately decipher now. One must be careful not to exaggerate "the human achievement," but one should also be careful not to minimize the creative vocation of man, The destiny of human culture is not irrelevant to the ultimate destiny of man.
All this may seem to be but a daring speculation, much beyond our warrant and competence. But the fact remains: Christians as Christians were building culture for centuries, and many of them not only with a sense of vocation, and not only as in duty bound, but with the firm conviction that this was the will of God. A brief retrospect of the Christian endeavour in culture may help us to see the problem in a more concrete manner, in its full complexity, but also in all its inevitability. As a matter of fact, Christianity entered the world precisely at one of the most critical periods of history, at the time of a momentous crisis of culture. And the crisis was finally solved by the creation of Christian Culture, as unstable and ambiguous as this culture proved to be, in its turn, and in the course of its realization.
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As a matter of fact, the question of the relationship between Christianity and Culture is never discussed in abstracto, just in this generalized form, or, in any case, it should not be so discussed. The culture about which one speaks is always a particular culture. The concept of "Culture" with which one operates is always situation-conditioned, i.e. derived from the actual experience one has, in his own particular culture, which one may cherish or abhor, or else it is an imaginary concept, "another culture," an ideal, about which one dreams and speculates. Even when the question is put in general terms, concrete impressions or wants can be always detected. When "Culture" is resisted or denied by Christians, it is always a definite historical formation which is taken to be representative of the idea. In our own days it would be the mechanized or "Capitalistic" civilization, inwardly secularized and therefore estranged from any religion. In the ancient times it was the pagan Graeco-Roman civilization. The starting point in both cases is the immediate impression of clash and conflict, and of practical incompatibility of divergent structures, which diverge basically in spirit or inspiration.
The early Christians were facing a particular civilization, that of the Roman and Hellenistic world. It was about this civilization that they spoke, it was about this concrete "system of values" that they were critical and uneasy. This civilization, moreover, was itself changing and unstable at that time, and was, in fact, involved in a desperate struggle and crisis. The situation was complex and confused. The modern historian cannot escape antinomy in his interpretation of this early Christian epoch, and one cannot expect more coherence in the interpretation given by the contemporaries. It is obvious that this Hellenistic civilization was in a certain sense ripe or prepared for "conversion," and can even be regarded itself, again in a certain sense, as a kind of the Praeparatio Evangelica, and the contemporaries were aware of this situation. Already St. Paul had suggested this, and the Apologists of the second century and early Alexandrinians did not hesitate to refer to Socrates and Heraclitus, and indeed Plato, as forerunners of Christianity. On the other hand, they were aware, no less than we are now, of a radical tension between this culture and their message, and the opponents were conscious of this tension, also. The Ancient World resisted conversion, because it meant a radical change and break with its tradition in many respects. We can see now both the tension and continuity between "the Classical" and "the Christian." Contemporaries, of course, could not see it in the same perspective as we do, because they could not anticipate the future. If they were critical of "culture," they meant precisely the culture of their own time, and this culture was both alien and inimical to the Gospel. What Tertullian had to say about culture should be interpreted in a concrete historical setting first of all, and should not be immediately construed into absolute pronouncements. Was he not right in his insistence on the radical tension and divergence between "Jerusalem" and Athens: quid Athenae Hierosolymis? "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? . . . Our instruction comes from the Porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart’ . . . We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel. With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides" (de prescription, 7). "What is there in common between the philosopher and the Christian, the pupil of Hellas and the pupil of Heaven, the worker for reputation and for salvation, the manufacturer of words and of deeds" (Apologeticus, 46). Yet, Tertullian himself could not avoid "inquisition" and "disputation," and did not hesitate to use the wisdom of the Greeks in the defense of the Christian faith. He indicts the culture of his time, and a specific philosophy of life, which, in its very structure, was opposed to faith. He was afraid of an easy syncretism and contamination, which was an actual threat and danger in his time, and could not anticipate that inner transformation of the Hellenic mind which was to be effected in the centuries to come, just as he could not imagine that Caesars could become Christian.
One should not forget that the attitude of Origen was actually much the same, although he is regarded as one of the "Hellenizers" of Christianity. He also was aware of the tension and was suspicious of the vain speculation, in which he took little interest, and for him the riches of the pagans were exactly "the riches of sinners" (in Ps. 36, III. 6). St. Augustine also was of that opinion. Was not Science for him just a vain curiosity which only distracts mind from its true purpose, which is not to number the stars and to seek out the hidden things of nature, but to know and to love God ? Again, St. Augustine was repudiating Astrology, which nobody would regard as "science" in our days, but which in his days was inseparable from true Astronomy. The cautious or even negative attitude of early Christians toward philosophy, toward art, including both painting and music, and especially toward the art of rhetorics, can be fully understood only in the concrete historical context. The whole structure of the existing culture was determined and permeated by a wrong and false faith. One has to admit that certain historical forms of culture are incompatible with the Christian attitude toward life, and therefore must be rejected or avoided. But this does not yet pre-judge the further question, whether a Christian culture is possible and desirable. In our own days, one may, or rather should, be sharply critical of our contemporary civilization, and even be inclined to welcome its collapse, but this does not prove that civilization as such should be damned and cursed, and that Christians should return to barbarism or primitivism.
As a matter of fact, Christianity accepted the challenge of the Hellenistic and Roman culture, and ultimately a Christian Civilization emerged. It is true that this rise of Christian Culture has been strongly censured in modern times as an "acute Hellenization" of Christianity, in which the purity and simplicity of the Evangelical or Biblical faith is alleged to have been lost. Many in our own days are quite "iconoclastic" with regard to culture en bloc, or at least to certain fields of culture, such as "Philosophy" (equated with "sophistics") or Art, repudiated as a subtle idolatry, in the name of Christian faith. But, on the other hand, we have to face the age-long accumulation of genuine human values in the cultural process, undertaken and carried in the spirit of Christian obedience and dedication to the truth of God.
What is important in this case is that the Ancient Culture proved to be plastic enough to admit of an inner "transfiguration." Or, in other words, Christians proved that it was possible to re-orient the cultural process, without lapsing into a pre-cultural state, to re-shape the cultural fabric in a new spirit. The same process which has been variously described as a "Hellenization of Christianity" can be construed rather as a "Christianization of Hellenism." Hellenism was, as it were, dissected by the Sword of the Spirit, was polarized and divided, and a "Christian Hellenism" was created. Of course, "Hellenism" was ambiguous and, as it were, double-faced. And certain of the Hellenistic revivals in the history of the European thought and life have been rather pagan revivals, calling for caution and strictures. It is enough to mention the ambiguities of the Renaissance, and in later times just Goethe or Nietzsche. But it would be unfair to ignore the existence of another Hellenism, already initiated in the Age of the Fathers, both Greek and Latin, and creatively continued through the Middle Ages and the Modern times. What is really decisive in this connection is that "Hellenism" has been really changed. One can be too quick in discovering "Hellenic accretions" in the fabric of Christian life, and at the same time quite negligent and oblivious of the facts of this "transfiguration."
One striking example may suffice for our present purpose. It has been recently brought to mind that Christianity in fact achieved a radical change in the philosophical interpretation of Time. For the ancient Greek Philosophers, Time was just "a movable image of eternity," i.e. a cyclical and recurrent motion, which had to return upon itself, without ever moving "forward," as no "forward-motion" is possible on the circle. It was an astronomical time, determined by "the revolution of the celestial spheres" (let us remember the title of the famous work of Copernicus, who was still under the sway of ancient astronomy: De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium), and human history accordingly was subordinate to this basic principle of rotation and iteration. Our modern concept of the linear time, with a sense of direction or vectoriality, with the possibility of progression and achievement of new things, has been derived from the Bible and from the Biblical conception of history, moving from Creation to Consummation, in a unique, irreversible and unrepeatable motion, guided or supervised by the constant Providence of the living God. The circular time of the Greeks has been exploded, as St. Augustine rejoicingly exclaims. History for the first time could be conceived as a meaningful and purposeful process, leading to a goal, and not as a perennial rotation, leading nowhere. The very concept of Progress has been elaborated by Christians. This is to say, Christianity was not passive in its intercourse with that inherited culture which it endeavoured to redeem, but very active. It is not too much to say that the human mind was reborn and remade in the school of Christian faith, without any repudiation of its just claims and fashions. It is true that this process of Christianization of mind has never been completed, and inner tension continues even within the Christian "Universe of discourse." No culture can ever be final and definitive. It is more than a system, it is a process, and it can be preserved and continued only by a constant spiritual effort, not just by inertia or inheritance. The true solution of the perennial problem of relationship between Christianity and Culture lies in the effort to convert "the natural mind" to the right faith, and not in the denial of cultural tasks. Cultural concerns are an integral part of actual human existence and, for that reason, cannot be excluded from the Christian historical endeavour.
Christianity entered the historical scene as a Society or Community, as a new social order or even a new social dimension, i.e. as the Church. Early Christians had a strong corporate feeling. They felt themselves to be a "chosen race," a "holy nation," a "peculiar people," i.e. precisely a New Society, a "New Polis," a City of God. Now, there was another City in existence, a Universal and strictly totalitarian City indeed, the Roman Empire, which felt itself to be simply the Empire. It claimed to be the City, comprehensive and unique. It claimed the whole man for its service, just as the Church claimed the whole man for the service of God. No division of competence and authority could be admitted, since the Roman State could not admit autonomy of the "religious sphere," and religious allegiance was regarded as an aspect of the political creed and an integral part of the civic obedience. For that reason a conflict was unavoidable, a conflict of the two Cities. Early Christians felt themselves, as it were, extraterritorial, just outside of the existing social order, simply because the Church was for them an order itself. They dwelt in their cities as "sojourners" or "strangers," and for them "every foreign land was fatherland, and every fatherland foreign," as the author of the "Epistle to Diognetus," a remarkable document of the second century, stated it (c. 5). On the other hand, Christians did not retire from the existing society; they could be found "everywhere," as Tertullian insisted, in all walks of life, in all social groups, in all nations. But they were spiritually detached, spiritually segregated. As Origen put it, in every city Christians had another system of allegiance of their own, or, in literal translation, "another system of fatherland" (c. Cels. VIII. 75). Christians did stay in the world and were prepared to perform their daily duties faithfully, but they could not pledge their full allegiance to the polity of this world, to the earthly City, for their citizenship was elsewhere, i.e. "in heaven."
Yet, this detachment from "the world" could be but provisional, as Christianity, by its very nature, was a missionary religion and aimed at a universal conversion. The subtle distinction "in the world, but not of the world," could not settle the basic problem, for "the world" itself had to be redeemed and could not be endured in its un-reformed state. The final problem was exactly this: could the two "societies" co-exist, and on what terms? Could Christian allegiance be somehow divided or duplicated, or a "double citizenship" accepted as a normative principle? Various answers were given in the course of history, and the issue is still a burning and embarrassing one. One may still wonder whether "spiritual segregation" is not actually the only consistent Christian answer, and any other solution inevitably an entangling compromise. The Church is here, in "this world," for its salvation. The Church has, as it were, to exhibit in history a new pattern of existence, a new mode of life, that of the "world to come." And for that reason the Church has to oppose and to renounce "this" world. She cannot, so to speak, find a settled place for herself within the limits of this "old world." She is compelled to be "in this world" in permanent opposition, even if she claims but a reformation or renewal of the world.
The situation in which the Church finds herself in this world is inextricably antinomical. Either the Church is to be constituted as an exclusive society, endeavouring to satisfy all requirements of the believers, both "temporal" and "spiritual," paying no attention to the existing order and leaving nothing to the external world — this would mean an entire separation from the world, an ultimate flight out of it, and a radical denial of any external authority. Or the Church could attempt an inclusive "Christianization" of the world, subduing the whole of life to Christian rule and authority, endeavor to reform and to reorganize secular life on Christian principles, to build the Christian City. In the history of the Church we can trace both solutions: a flight into desert and a construction of the Christian Empire. The first was practiced not only in monasticism of various trends, but also in many other Christian groups or "sects." The second was the main line taken by Christians, both in the West and in the East, up to the rise of militant secularism in Europe and elsewhere, and even at present this solution has not lost its hold on many people.
Historically speaking, both solutions proved to be inadequate and unsuccessful. On the other hand, one has to acknowledge the urgency of their common problem and the truth of their common purpose. Christianity is not an individualistic religion and is not concerned only with the salvation of individuals. Christianity is the Church, i.e. a Community, leading its corporate life according to its peculiar principles. Spiritual leadership of the Church can hardly be reduced to an occasional guidance given to individuals or to groups living under conditions utterly uncongenial to the Church. The legitimacy of those conditions should be questioned first of all. Nor can human life be split into departments, some of which might have been ruled by some independent principles, i.e. independent of the Church. One cannot serve two Masters, and a double allegiance is a poor solution. The problem is no easier in a Christian society. With Constantino the Empire, as it were, capitulated; Caesar himself was converted — the Empire was now offering to the Church not only peace, but cooperation. This could be interpreted as a victory of the Christian cause. But for many Christians at that time this new turn of affairs was an unexpected surprise and rather a blow. Many leaders of the Church were rather reluctant to accept the Imperial offer. But it was difficult to decline it. The whole Church could not escape into Desert, nor could she desert the world. The new Christian Society came into existence, which was at once both "Church" and "Empire," and its ideology was "theocratical." This theocratical idea could be developed in two versions, different, but correlated. Theocratical authority could be exercised by the Church directly, i.e. through the hierarchical Ministry of the Church. Or the State could be invested with a theocratical authority, and its officers commissioned to establish and propagate the Christian order. In both cases the unity of Christian society was strongly emphasized, and two orders were distinguished inside of this unique structure: an ecclesiastical in the strict sense and a temporal, i.e. the Church and the State, with the basic assumption that imperium was also a Divine gift, in a sense co-ordinated with sacerdotium, and subordinate to the ultimate authority of the Faith. The theory seemed to be reasonable and well balanced, but in practice it led to an age-long tension and strife within the theocratical structure and ultimately to its disruption. The modern conception of the two "separated" spheres, that of the Church and that of the State, lacks both theoretical and practical consistency.
In fact, we are still facing the same dilemma or the same antinomy. Either Christians ought to go out of the world, in which there is another master besides Christ (whatever name this master may bear: Caesar or Mammon or any other), and start a separate society. Or again they have to transform the outer world and rebuild it according to the law of the Gospel. What is important, however, is that even those who go out cannot dispense with the main problem: they still have to build up a "society" and cannot therefore dispense with this basic element of social culture. "Anarchism" is in any case excluded by the Gospel. Nor does Monasticism mean or imply a denunciation of culture. Monasteries were, for a long time, precisely the most powerful centers of cultural activity, both in the West and in the East. The practical problem is therefore reduced to the question of a sound and faithful orientation in a concrete historical situation.
Christians are not committed to the denial of culture as such. But they are to be critical of any existing cultural situation and measure it by the measure of Christ. For Christians are also the Sons of Eternity, i.e. prospective citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Yet problems and needs of "this age" in no case and in no sense can be dismissed or disregarded, since Christians are called to work and service precisely "in this world" and "in this age." Only all these needs and problems and aims must be viewed in that new and wider perspective which is disclosed by the Christian Revelation and illumined by its light.
Antinomies of Christian History:
Empire and Desert.
"Empire and Desert" appeared in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. Ill, No. 2 (1957), pp. 133-159. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Christianity entered history as a new social order, or rather a new social dimension. From the very beginning Christianity was not primarily a "doctrine," but exactly a "community." There was not only a "Message" to be proclaimed and delivered, and "Good News" to be declared. There was precisely a New Community, distinct and peculiar, in the process of growth and formation, to which members were called and recruited. Indeed, "fellowship" (komoma) was the basic category of Christian existence. Primitive Christians felt themselves to be closely knit and bound together in a unity which radically transcended all human boundaries — of race, of culture, of social rank, and indeed the whole dimension of "this world." They were brethren to each other, members of "One Body," even of the "Body of Christ." This glorious phrase of St. Paul admirably summarizes the common experience of the faithful. In spite of the radical novelty of Christian experience, basic categories of interpretation were taken over from the Old Testament, of which the New Covenant was conceived to be the fulfilment and consummation. Christians were indeed "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart" (I Peter 2:9). They were the New Israel, the "Little Flock," that is, that faithful "Remnant" to which it was God’s good pleasure to give the Kingdom (Luke 12:32). Scattered sheep had to be brought together into "one fold," and assembled. The Church was exactly this "Assembly," ekklesta tou Theou, — a permanent Assembly of the new "Chosen People" of God, never to be adjourned.
In "this world" Christians could be but pilgrims and strangers. Their true "citizenship," politeuma, was "in heaven" (Phil. 3:20). The Church herself was peregrinating through this world (paroikousa). "The Christian fellowship was a bit of extra-territorial jurisdiction on earth of the world above" (Frank Gavin). The Church was an "outpost of heaven" on the earth, or a "colony of heaven." It may be true that this attitude of radical detachment had originally an "apocalyptic" connotation, and was inspired by the expectation of an imminent parousia. Yet, even as an enduring historical society, the Church was bound to be detached from the world. An ethos of "spiritual segregation" was inherent in the very fabric of the Christian faith, as it was inherent in the faith of Ancient Israel. The Church herself was "a city," a polis, a new and peculiar "polity." In their baptismal profession Christians had "to renounce" this world, with all its vanity, and pride, and pomp, — but also with all its natural ties, even family ties, and to take a solemn oath of allegiance to Christ the King, the only true King on earth and in heaven, to Whom all "authority" has been given. By this baptismal commitment Christians were radically separated from "this world." In this world they had no "permanent city." They were "citizens" of the "City to come," of which God Himself was builder and maker (Hebr. 13:14; cf. 11:10).
The Early Christians were often suspected and accused of civic indifference, and even of morbid "misanthropy," odium generis humani, — which should be probably contrasted with the alleged "philanthropy" of the Roman Empire. The charge was not without substance. In his famous reply to Celsus, Origen was ready to admit the charge. Yet, what else could Christians have done, he asked. In every city, he explained, "we have another system of allegiance," allo systema tes patridos (Contra Celsum, VIII. 75). Along with the civil community there was in every city another community, the local Church. And she was for Christians their true home, or their "fatherland," and not their actual "native city." The anonymous writer of the admirable "Letter to Diognetus," written probably in the early years of the second century, elaborated this point with an elegant precision. Christians do not dwell in the cities of their own, nor do they differ from the rest of men in speech and customs. "Yet, while they dwell in the cities of Greeks and Barbarians, as the lot of each is cast, the structure of their own polity is peculiar and paradoxical.. . . Every foreign land is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is a foreign land.... Their conversation is on the earth, but their citizenship is in heaven." There was no passion in this attitude, no hostility, and no actual retirement from daily life. But there was a strong note of spiritual estrangement: "and every fatherland is a foreign land." It was coupled, however, with an acute sense of responsibility. Christians were confined in the world, "kept" there as in a prison; but they also "kept the world together," just as the soul holds the body together. Moreover, this was precisely the task allotted to Christians by God, "which it is unlawful to decline" (Ad Diognetum, 5, 6). Christians might stay in their native cities, and faithfully perform their daily duties. But they were unable to give their full allegiance to any polity of this world, because their true commitment was elsewhere. They were socially committed and engaged in the Church, and not in the world. "For us nothing is more alien than public affairs," declared Tertullian: nee ulla magis res aliena quam publica (Apologeticum, 38.3). "I have withdrawn myself from the society," he said on another occasion: secessi de populo (De Pallia, 5). Christians were in this sense "outside society," voluntary outcasts and outlaws, — outside of the social order of this world.
It would be utterly misleading to interpret the tension between Christians and the Roman Empire as a conflict or clash between the Church and the State. Indeed, the Christian Church was more than "a church," just as ancient Israel was at once a "church" and a "nation." Christians also were a nation, a "peculiar people," the People of God, tertium genus, neither Jew nor Greek. The Church was not just a "gathered community," or a voluntary association, for "religious" purposes alone. She was, and claimed to be, a distinct and autonomous "society," a distinct polity." On the other hand, the Roman Empire was, and claimed to be, much more than just "a state." Since the Augustan reconstruction, in any case, Rome claimed to be just the City, a permanent and "eternal" City, Urbs aeterna, and an ultimate City also. In a sense, it claimed for itself an "eschatological dimension." It posed as an ultimate solution of the human problem. It was a Universal Commonwealth, "a single Cosmopolis of the inhabited earth," the Oikoumene. Rome was offering "Peace," the Pax Romana, and "Justice" to all men and all nations under its rule and sway. It claimed to be the final embodiment of "Humanity," of all human values and achievements. "The Empire was, in effect, a politico-ecclesiastical institution. It was a ‘church* as well as a ‘state’; if it had not been both, it would have been alien from the ideas of the Ancient World" (Sir Ernest Barker). In the ancient society — in the ancient polis, in Hellenistic monarchies, in the Roman republic — "religious" convictions were regarded as an integral part of the political creed. "Religion" was an integral part of the "political" structure. No division of competence and "authority" could ever be admitted, and accordingly no division of loyalty or allegiance. The State was omnicompetent, and accordingly the allegiance had to be complete and unconditional. Loyalty to the State was itself a kind of religious devotion, in whatever particular form it might have been prescribed or imposed. In the Roman Empire it was the Cult of Caesars. The whole structure of the Empire was indivisibly "political" and "religious." The main purpose of the Imperial rule was usually defined as "Philanthropy," and often even as "Salvation." Accordingly, the Emperors were described as "Saviours."
In retrospect all these claims may seem to be but Utopian delusions and wishful dreams, vain and futile, which they were indeed. Yet, these dreams were dreamt by the best people of that time — it is enough to mention Vergil. And the Utopian dream of the "Eternal Rome" survived the collapse of the actual Empire and dominated the political thinking of Europe for centuries. Paradoxically, this dream was often cherished even by those, who, by the logic of their faith, should have been better protected against its deceiving charm and thrill. In fact, the vision of an abiding or "Eternal Rome" dominated also the Christian thought in the Middle Ages, both in the East, and in the West.
There was nothing anarchical in the attitude of Early Christians toward the Roman Empire. The "divine" origin of the State and of its authority was formally acknowledged already by St. Paul, and he himself had no difficulty in appealing to the protection of Roman magistrates and of Roman law. The positive value and function of the State were commonly admitted in the Christian circles. Even the violent invective in the book of Revelation was no exception. What was denounced there was iniquity and injustice of the actual Rome, but not the principle of political order. Christians could, in full sincerity and in good faith, protest their political innocence in the Roman courts and plead their loyalty to the Empire. In fact, Early Christians were devoutedly praying for the State, for peace and order, and even for Caesars themselves. One finds a high appraisal of the Roman Empire even in those Christian writers of that time, who were notorious for their resistance, as Origen and Tertullian. The theological "justification" of the Empire originated already in the period of persecutions. Yet, Christian loyalty was, of necessity, a restricted loyalty. Of course, Christianity was in no sense a seditious plot, and Christians never intended to overthrow the existing order, although they did believe that it had ultimately to wither away. From the Roman point of view, however, Christians could not fail to appear seditious, not because they were in any sense mixed in politics, but precisely because they were not. Their political "indifference" was irritating to the Romans. They kept themselves away from the concerns of the Commonwealth, at a critical time of its struggle for existence. Not only did they claim "religious freedom" for themselves. They also claimed supreme authority for the Church. Although the Kingdom of God was emphatically "not of this world," it seemed to be a threat to the omnicompetent Kingdom of Man. The Church was, in a sense, a kind of "Resistance Movement" in the Empire. And Christians were "conscientious objectors." They were bound to resist any attempt at their "integration" into the fabric of the Empire. As Christopher Dawson has aptly said, "Christianity was the only remaining power in the world which could not be absorbed in the gigantic mechanism of the new servile state." Christians were not a political faction. Yet, their religious allegiance had an immediate "political" connotation. It has been well observed that monotheism itself was a "political problem" in the ancient world (Eric Peterson). Christians were bound to claim "autonomy" for themselves and for the Church. And this was precisely what the Empire could neither concede, nor even understand. Thus, the clash was inevitable, although it could be delayed.
The Church was a challenge to the Empire, and the Empire was a stumbling block for the Christians.
The Age of Constantine is commonly regarded as a turning point of Christian history. After a protracted struggle with the Church, the Roman Empire at last capitulated. The Caesar himself was converted, and humbly applied for admission into the Church. Religious freedom was formally promulgated, and was emphatically extended to Christians. The confiscated property was restored to Christian communities. Those Christians who suffered disability and deportation in the years of persecution were now ordered back, and were received with honors. In fact, Constantine was offering to the Church not only peace and freedom, but also protection and close cooperation. Indeed, he was urging the Church and her leaders to join with him in the "Renovation" of the Empire. This new turn of Imperial policy and tactics was received by Christians with appreciation, but not without some embarrassment and surprise. Christian response to the new situation was by no means unanimous. There were many among Christian leaders who were quite prepared to welcome unreservedly the conversion of Emperor and the prospective conversion of the Empire. But there were not a few who were apprehensive of the Imperial move. To be sure, one could but rejoice in the cessation of hostilities and in that freedom of public worship which now has been legally secured. But the major problem has not yet been solved, and it was a problem of extreme complexity. Indeed, it was a highly paradoxical problem.
Already Tertullian was asking certain awkward questions, although in his own time they were no more than rhetorical questions. Could Caesars accept Christ, and believe in Him? Now, Caesars obviously belonged to "the world." They were an integral part of the "secular" fabric, necessarii saeculo. Could then a Christian be Caesar, that is, belong at once to two conflicting orders, the Church and the World? (Apolo-geticum, 21.24). In the time of Constantine this concept of the "Christian Caesar" was still a riddle and a puzzle, despite the eloquent effort of Eusebius of Caesarea to elaborate the idea of the "Christian Empire." For many Christians there was an inner contradiction in the concept itself. Caesars were necessarily committed to the cause of "this world." But the Church was not of this world. The office of Caesars was intrinsically "secular." Was there really any room for Emperors, as Emperors, in the structure of Christian Community? It has been recently suggested that probably Constantine himself was rather uneasy and uncertain precisely at this very point. It seems that one of the reasons for which he was delaying his own baptism, till his very last days, was precisely his dim feeling that it was inconvenient to be "Christian" and "Caesar" at the same time. Constantine’s personal conversion constituted no problem. But as Emperor he was committed. He had to carry the burden of his exalted position in the Empire. He was still a "Divine Caesar." As Emperor, he was heavily involved in the traditions of the Empire, as much as he actually endeavored to disentangle himself. The transfer of the Imperial residence to a new City, away from the memories of the old pagan Rome, was a spectacular symbol of this noble effort. Yet, the Empire itself was still much the same as before, with its autocratic ethos and habits, with all its pagan practices, including the adoration and apotheosis of Caesars. We have good reasons to trust Constantine’s personal sincerity. No doubt, he was deeply convinced that Christianity was the only power which could quicken the sick body of the Empire and supply a new principle of cohesion in the time of social disintegration. But obviously he was unable to abdicate his sovereign authority, or to renounce the world. Indeed, Constantine was firmly convinced that, by Divine Providence, he was entrusted with a high and holy mission, that he was chosen to reestablish the Empire, and to reestablish it on a Christian foundation. This conviction, more than any particular political theory, was the decisive factor in his policy, and in his actual mode of ruling.
The situation was intensely ambiguous. Had the Church to accept the Imperial offer and to assume the new task? Was it a welcome opportunity, or rather a dangerous compromise? In fact, the experience of close cooperation with the Empire has not been altogether happy and encouraging for Christians, even in the days of Constantine himself. The Empire did not appear to be an easy or comfortable ally and partner for the Church. Under Constantine’s successors all inconveniences of "cooperation" became quite evident, even if we ignore the abortive attempt of Julian to reinstate Paganism. The leaders of the Church were compelled, time and again, to challenge the persistent attempts of Caesars to exercise their supreme authority also in religious matters. The rise of monasticism in the fourth century was no accident. It was rather an attempt to escape the Imperial problem, and to build an "autonomous" Christian Society outside of the boundaries of the Empire, "outside the camp." On the other hand, the Church could not evade her responsibility for the world, or surrender her missionary task. Indeed, the Church was concerned not only with individuals, but also with society, even with the whole of mankind. Even kingdoms of this world had to be brought ultimately into obedience to Christ. Nor was the Empire prepared to leave the Church alone, or to dispense with her help and service. The Church was already a strong institution, strong by her faith and discipline, and spread everywhere, even to the remote corners of the inhabited earth. Thus, the Church was forced finally into alliance with the Empire, by the double pressure of her own missionary vocation and of the traditional logic of Empire.
By the end of the fourth century Christianity was ultimately established as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Under Theodosius the Great, the Roman Empire formally committed itself to the Christian cause. Paganism was legally disavowed and proscribed. "Heresy" was also outlawed. The State formally engaged in the maintenance of the Orthodox Faith. The basic presupposition of the new arrangement was the Unity of the Christian Commonwealth. There was but One and comprehensive Christian Society, which was at once a Church and a State. In this one society there were different orders or "powers," clearly distinguished but closely correlated, — "spiritual" and "temporal," "ecclesiastical" and "political." But the "Society" itself was intrinsically One. This idea was by no means a new one. Ancient Israel was at once a Kingdom and a Church. The Roman Empire has always been a "politico-ecclesiastical institution," and it also retained this double character after it had been "christened." In the Christian Commonwealth "Churchman-ship" and "Citizenship" were not only "co-extensive," but simply identical. Only Christians could be citizens. And all citizens were obliged to be Orthodox in belief and behavior. The Christian Commonwealth was conceived as a single "theocratic" structure. Moreover, the Roman Empire always regarded itself as a "Universal Kingdom," as the only legitimate Kingdom, the only "Empire." As there was but One Church, the Church Universal, so there could be but One Kingdom, the Ecumenical Empire. The Church and the Kingdom were in effect but One Society, indivisible and undivided, One Civitas — Respublica Christiana. "The One Commonwealth of all mankind, conceived partly as an Empire — the surviving image of ancient Rome, but mainly and generally as a Church, is the essential society of that long period of human history which we call by the name of the Middle Ages. It was a fact, and not merely an idea; and yet it was also an idea, and not altogether a fact" (Sir Ernest Barker). It was a momentous and magnificent achievement, a glorious vision, an ambitious claim. But it was also an ominous and ambiguous achievement. In fact, the two orders, "spiritual" and "temporal," could never be truly integrated into one system. Old tensions continued inside of the "One Society," and the balance of "powers" in the Christian Commonwealth has been always unstable and insecure. It would be an anachronism to describe this internal tension between "powers" in the Medieval Commonwealth as a conflict or competition between the Church and the State, conceived as two distinct societies, with appropriate spheres of competence and jurisdiction. In the Middle Ages, Church and State, as two distinct societies, simply did not exist. The conflict was between the two "powers" in the same society, and precisely for that very reason it was so vigorous and acute. In this respect there was no basic difference between the Christian East and the Christian West, as different as the actual course of events has been in these two areas of the Christian Commonwealth. The major problem was the same, in the East and in the West — the problem of a "Christian Society," of a "Holy Empire." It was but natural that this problem should assume special urgency and dimension precisely in the East. In the East "the Holy Empire" was a formidable reality, "a tangible fact in an actual world," in the phrase of James Bryce, while in the West it was rather an idea, or just a claim. Since Constantine the heart of the Empire was at Constantinople, and no longer in the old City of Rome. The story of Byzantium was an immediate continuation of Roman history. In the West, Roman order disintegrated at an early date. In the East, it survived for centuries. Even in Oriental garb, Byzantium continued to be "the Kingdom of the Romans," up to its very end. The main problem of Byzantium was precisely the problem of "the Eternal Rome." The whole weight of the Empire was felt there much more than ever in the West. It is highly significant, however, that all "Byzantine problems" reappear in the West, with the same urgency and the same ambiguity, as soon as "Empire" had been reconstituted there, under Charlemagne and his successors. Indeed, Charlemagne regarded himself as a lawful successor to Constantine and Justinian. His claims and policy in religious matters were almost identical with those of the Byzantine Caesars.
It has been often contended that in Byzantium the Church had surrendered her "freedom" into the hands of Caesars. The Byzantine system has been derogatorily labelled as a "Caesaropapism," with the assumption that Emperor was the actual ruler of the Church, even if he was never formally acknowledged to be her head. It has been said not once that in Byzantium the Church simply ceased to exist, that is, to exist as an "independent institution," and was practically reduced to the status of a "liturgical department of the Empire." The evidence quoted in support of these charges, at first glance, may seem to be abundant and overwhelming. But it does not stand a closer examination. The charge of "Caesaropapism" is still maintained in certain quarters. It has been emphatically rejected by many competent students of Byzantium as a sheer misunderstanding, as a biased anachronism. Emperors were indeed rulers in the Christian Society, also in religious matters, but never rulers over the Church.
The story of Byzantium was an adventure in Christian politics. It was an unsuccessful and probably an unfortunate experiment. Yet it should be judged on its own terms.
Justinian has clearly stated that basic principle of the Byzantine political system in the preface to his Sixth Novel, dated March 16, 535:
There are two major gifts which God has given unto men of His supernal clemency, the priesthood and the imperial authority — hierosyne and basileia; sacerdotium and imperium. Of these, the former is concerned with things divine; the latter presides over the human affairs and takes care of them. Proceeding from the same source, both adorn human life. Nothing is of greater concern for the emperors as the dignity of the priesthood, so that priests may in their turn pray to God for them. Now, if one is in every respect blameless and filled with confidence toward God, and the other does rightly and properly maintain in order the commonwealth entrusted to it, there will be a certain fair harmony established, which will furnish whatsoever may be needful for mankind. We therefore are highly concerned for the true doctrines inspired by God and for the dignity of priests. We are convinced that, if they maintain their dignity, great benefits will be bestowed by God on us, and we shall firmly hold whatever we now possess, and in addition shall acquire those things which we have not yet secured. A happy ending always crowns those things which were undertaken in a proper manner, acceptable to God. This is the case, when sacred canons are carefully observed, which the glorious Apostles, the venerable eye-witnesses and ministers of the Divine World, have handed down to us, and the holy Fathers have kept and explained.
This was at once a summary, and a program.
Justinian did not speak of State, or of Church. He spoke of two ministries, or of two agencies, which were established in the Christian Commonwealth. They were appointed by the same Divine authority and for the same ultimate purpose. As a "Divine gift," the Imperial power, imperium, was "independent" from the Priesthood, sacerdotium. Yet it was "dependent" upon, and "subordinate" to, that purpose for which it had been Divinely established. This purpose was the faithful maintenance and promotion of the Christian truth. Thus, if "the Empire" as such was not subordinate to the Hierarchy, it was nevertheless subordinate to the Church, which was a Divinely appointed custodian of the Christian truth. In other words, the Imperial power was "legitimate" only within the Church. In any case, it was essentially subordinate to the Christian Faith, was bound by the precepts of the Apostles and Fathers, and in this respect "limited" by them. The legal status of the Emperor in the Commonwealth depended upon his good standing in the Church, under her doctrinal and canonical discipline. Imperium was at once an authority, and a service. And the terms of this service were set in rules and regulations of the Church. In his coronation oath, the Emperor had to profess the Orthodox faith and to take a vow of obedience to the decrees of the ecclesiastical Councils. This was no mere formality. "Orthodoxy was, as it were, the super-nationality of Byzantium, the basic element of the life of the State and people" (I. I. Sokolov).
The place of Emperor in the Byzantine system was high and exalted. He was surrounded with a halo of theocratical splendor. The court ceremonial was rich and elaborate, and it was distinctively a religious ceremonial, a ritual, almost a kind of "Imperial liturgy." Yet, Emperor was no more than a layman. He had a certain position in the Church, and a very prominent and high position. But it was a lay position. There was, as it were, a special office in the Church reserved for a layman. Emperors did not belong to the regular hierarchy of the Church. They were in no sense "ministers of Word and sacraments." Some special "priestly" character might be conceded to them, and indeed has been often claimed and asserted. In any case, it was a very specific "Royal priesthood," clearly distinguishable from the "Ministerial priesthood" of the clergy. Certainly, the Emperor was a high dignitary in the Church, but in a very special sense, which it is not easy to define exactly. Whatever the original meaning of the rite of Imperial Coronation might have been — and it seems that originally it was definitely a strictly "secular" ceremony, in which even the Patriarch acted as a civil servant — gradually it developed into a sacred rite, a sacramentale, if not a regular "sacrament," especially since it was combined with the rite of "anointment," a distinctively ecclesiastical rite, conferred by the Church. The rites of Imperial Coronation convey a thoroughly "consecrational" conception of the "temporal power." Probably, this "theocratical" emphasis was even stronger in the West than in Byzantium. It is specifically significant that the rite included a solemn oath to obey faithfully all rules of the Church, and above all to keep inviolate the Orthodox faith, in conformity with the Holy Scripture and the ordinances of the Councils.
The crux of the problem is in the claim of the "temporal" rulers, and in their endeavor, "to be Christian" and to perform accordingly certain Christian duties in their own right, as their own assignment. This claim implied a conviction that basically "the secular" itself was, in a certain sense, "sacred." In a Christian society nothing can be simply "secular." It may be argued that this claim was often insincere, no more than a disguise for worldly motives and concerns. Yet it is obvious that in many instances — and one should emphasize, in all major and crucial instances — this claim was utterly sincere. Both Justinian and Charlemagne — to quote but the most spectacular cases — were deeply sincere in their endeavor to be "Christian rulers" and to promote the cause of Christ, as much as their actual policies were open to criticism. It was commonly conceded that the Emperor’s duty was "to defend" the Faith and the Church, by all available means at his disposal, including even "the sword," but probably first of all by appropriate legislation. A tension would arise every time when Emperors displayed their concern for matters religious, as many Byzantine Emperors, and most of all Justinian, actually did on many occasions. In principle, this was not beyond their lawful competence. Neither "the purity of the Faith," nor "the strictness of the Canons," is a purely "clerical concern." Emperors should care for the "right belief" of the people. Nor could they be prohibited to hold theological convictions. If the right of formal decision in the matters of faith and discipline belonged to the Priesthood — and this right was never contested or abrogated — the right of being concerned about doctrinal issues could never be denied even to laymen, nor the right to voice their religious convictions, especially in the periods of doctrinal strife or confusion. Obviously, Emperors could raise their voice more powerfully and impressively than anybody else, and use their "power" (potestas) in order to enforce those convictions which they might, in full honesty, believe to be Orthodox. Yet even in this case Emperors would have to act through appropriate channels. They would have to impose their will, or their mind, upon the hierarchy of the Church, which they actually attempted to do not once, using sometimes violence, threat, and other objectionable methods. The legal or canonical form had to be observed in any case. To act in religious matters without the consent and concurrence of the Priesthood was obviously ultra vires of the Imperial power, beyond its lawful competence. Flagrant abuses by Byzantine Caesars should not be ignored. On the other hand, it is obvious that in no case were Emperors successful when they attempted to go against the Faith of the Church. The Church in Byzantium was strong enough to resist the Imperial pressure. Emperors failed to impose upon the Church a compromise with Arians, a premature reconciliation with the Monophysites, Iconoclasm, and, at a later date, an ambiguous "reunion" with Rome:
Nothing could be more false than the charge of Caesaropapism which is generally brought against the Byzantine Church — the accusation that the Church rendered servile obedience to the orders of the Emperor even in the religious sphere. It is true that the Emperor always concerned himself with ecclesiastical affairs; he endeavored to maintain or to impose unity in dogma, but his claims were by no means always submissively recognized. Indeed, the Byzantines became accustomed to the idea that organized opposition to the Imperial will in religious matters was normal and legitimate. . . . Without any suspicion of paradox the religious history of Byzantium could be represented as a conflict between the Church and the State, a conflict from which the Church emerged unquestionably the victor. (Henry Gregoire).
It can be argued that, in the course of time, the actual influence and the prestige of the Church in Byzantium were steadily growing. In this connection, the Epanagoge, a constitutional document of the late ninth century, is especially significant and instructive. It was apparently no more than a draft, which has never been officially promulgated. The draft was prepared probably by Photius, the famous Patriarch. Certain portions of the document were incorporated in the later legal compilations and received wide circulation. In any case, the document reflected the current conception of the normal relationship between the Emperor and the hierarchy, prevailing at that time. The main principle was still the same as in Justinian. But now it was elaborated with greater emphasis and precision.
The Commonwealth, politeia, is composed of several parts and members. Of these the most important, and the most necessary, are the Emperor and the Patriarch. There is an obvious parallelism between the two powers. The peace and prosperity of the people depend upon the accord and unanimity between the Imperial power and the Priesthood. The Emperor is the supreme ruler. Yet, the purpose of the Imperial rule is Beneficence, euergesia. It is an old idea, inherited from Hellenistic political philosophy. In his rule the Emperor must enforce justice. The Emperor must be well instructed in the doctrines of faith and piety. He must defend and promote the teachings of the Scripture and of the Councils. His main task is to secure peace and happiness for the soul and the body of his subjects. The place of the Patriarch is no less exalted. "The Patriarch is a living and animate image of Christ." In all his words and deeds he must exhibit truth. He must be crucified to the world, and live in Christ. To the infidel he must appeal by the holiness of his life. In the believers he must strengthen piety and honesty of life. He must endeavor to bring back the heretics into the fold of the true Church. He must be just and impartial to all men. Before the Emperor he must speak without shame in the defense of the right faith. To the Patriarch alone is given the authority to interpret the rules of the Fathers, and to rule about their lawful application.
Of course, this was an idealized picture. The actual reality was much darker and more ambiguous. The Emperors were always able to influence the election of the Patriarchs and to arrange, by various devices, for the deposition of the unsuitable occupants of the throne. On the other hand, the Patriarchs also had ample resources in their eventual resistance to the Imperial power, of which suspension and excommunication were not the least significant. Nevertheless, the ideal pattern, as depicted in the Epanagoge and elsewhere, has never been forgotten. "The really significant theory was that of the Epanagoge: Patriarch and Emperor, as allies not rivals, both essential for the prosperity of the East Roman polity — both parts of a single organism" (Norman H. Baynes).
The theory of a "dual government" in the single Commonwealth was commonly accepted in the Middle Ages, both in the East and in the West. The theory had various and divergent versions. It was the common background of both competing parties in the West, the Curialist and the Imperialist, the Papacy and the Holy Empire. The Church has been victorious in her struggle with the Empire in the West. But it was a precarious victory. The meaning of Canossa was ambiguous. The theocratic claims of the Empire were defeated. But, in the long run, this only led to the acute "secularization" of the temporal power in Western Society. A purely "secular" Society emerged, for the first time in Christian history. Accordingly, the "spiritual" Society, the Church, has been thorougly "clericalized." Tensions did not diminish, nor were they calmed or tamed. But the "theocratic" mission of the Church was sorely reduced and compromised. The Unity of the Christian Commonwealth was broken. In the East, the Church won no spectacular victories over the Empire. The impact of the Imperial power on Ecclesiastical affairs has been ponderous, and often detrimental. Yet, in spite of all Imperial abuses and failures, the Byzantine Commonwealth retained to the very end its Christian and "consecrational" character. Religion and polity were never divorced or separated from each other. Byzantium collapsed as a Christian Kingdom, under the burden of its tremendous claim.
Monasticism was, to a great extent, an attempt to evade the Imperial problem. The period of the bitter struggle between the Church and the Empire, under the Arianizing Caesars of the fourth century, was also the period of Monastic expansion. It was a kind of a new and impressive "Exodus." And the Empire always regarded this "Exodus," the flight into Desert, as a threat to its claims and to its very existence, from the times of St. Athanasius to the cruel persecution of monks by the Iconoclastic Emperors. It is often suggested that people were leaving "the world" simply to escape the burden of social life, with its duties and labors. It is difficult to see in what sense life in the wilderness could be "easy" and "leisurely." It was, indeed, a strenuous life, with its own burdens and dangers. It is true that in the West at that time the Roman order was falling to pieces, was sorely endangered, and partly destroyed by barbarian invasions, and apocalyptic fears and apprehensions might have crept into many hearts, an expectation of an imminent end of history.
Yet, we do not find many traces of this apocalyptic dread in the writings of the Desert Fathers. Their motives for desertion were quite different. In the East, where the Monastic Movement originated, the Christian Empire was in the process of growth. In spite of all its ambiguities and shortcomings, it was still an impressive sight. After so many decades of suffering and persecution, "this World" seemed to have been opened for the Christian conquest. The prospect of success was rather bright. Those who fled into the wilderness did not share these expectations. They had no trust in the "christened Empire." They rather distrusted the whole scheme altogether. They were leaving the earthly Kingdom, as much as it might have been actually "christened," in order to build the true Kingdom of Christ in the new land of promise, "outside the gates," in the Desert. They fled not so much from the world’s disasters, as from the "worldly cares," from the involvement with the world, even under the banner of Christ, from the prosperity and wrong security of the world.
Nor was the Monastic endeavor a search for "extraordinary" or "superrogatory" deeds and exploits. The main ascetical emphasis, at least at the early stage of development, was not on taking "special" or "exceptional" vows, but rather on accomplishing those common and essential vows, which every Christian had to take at his baptism. Monasticism meant first of all a "renunciation," a total renunciation of "this world," with all its lust and pomp. And all Christians were bound to renounce "the world" and to pledge an undivided loyalty to the only Lord, Christ Jesus. Indeed, every Christian was actually taking this oath of undivided allegiance at his Christian initiation. It is highly significant that the rite of Monastic profession, when it was finally established, was made precisely on the pattern of the baptismal rite, and the Monastic profession came to be regarded as a kind of "second baptism." If there was a search for "perfection" in the Monastic endeavor, "perfection" itself was not regarded as something "peculiar" and optional, but rather as a normal and obligatory way of life. If it was a "rigorism," this rigorism could claim for itself the authority of the Gospel.
It is also significant that, from the very beginning, the main emphasis in the Monastic oath was placed precisely on "social" renunciation. The novice had to disown the world, to become a stranger and pilgrim, a foreigner in the world, in all earthly cities, just as the Church herself was but a "stranger" in the earthly City, paroikousa on earth. Obviously, this was but a confirmation of the common baptismal vows. Indeed, ail Christians were supposed to disown the world, and to dwell in this world as strangers. This did not necessarily imply a contempt for the world. The precept could also be construed as a call to its reform and salvation. St. Basil the Great, the first legislator of Eastern Monasticism, was desperately concerned with the problem of social reconstruction. He watched with grave apprehension the process of social disintegration, which was so conspicuously advanced in his time. His call to the formation of monastic communities was, in effect, an attempt to rekindle the spirit of mutuality in a world which seemed to have lost any force of cohesion and any sense of social responsibility. Now, Christians had to set a model of the new society, in order to counterbalance the disruptive tendencies of the age. St. Basil was strong in his conviction that man was essentially a social or "political" being, not a solitary one — zoon koinonikon. He could have learned this both from the Scripture and from Aristotle. But the present society was built on a wrong foundation. Consequently, one had first of all to retire or withdraw from it. According to St. Basil, a monk had to be "home-less" in the world, aoikos, his only home being the Church. He had to go out, or to be taken out, of all existing social structures — family, city, Empire. He had to disown all orders of the world, to sever all social ties and commitments. He had to start afresh. The later custom or rule to change the name in taking the habit was a spectacular symbol of this radical break with the previous life. But monks leave the society of this world in order to join another society, or rather to actualize in full their membership in another community, which is the Church. The prevailing form of Monasticism was "coenobitical," the life in common. The solitary life might be praised as an exception for a few peculiar persons, but it was firmly discouraged as a common rule. The main emphasis was on obedience, on the submission of will. "Community" was always regarded as a normal and more adequate manner of ascetical life. A monastery was a corporation, "a body," a small Church. Even hermits did dwell usually together, in special colonies, under the direction of a common spiritual leader or guide. This communal character of Monasticism was strongly re-emphasized by St. Theodore of Studium, the great reformer of Byzantine Monasticism (759-826). St. Theodore insisted that there was no commandment of solitary life in the Gospel. Our Lord Himself lived in a "community" with His disciples. Christians are not independent individuals, but brethren, members of the Body of Christ. Moreover, only in community could Christian virtues of charity and obedience be properly developed and exercised. Thus, monks were leaving the world in order to build, on the virginal soil of the Desert, a New Society, to organize there, on the Evangelical pattern, the true Christian Community. Early Monasticism was not an ecclesiastical institution. It was precisely a spontaneous movement, a drive. And it was distinctively a lay movement. The taking of Holy Orders was definitely discouraged, except by order of the superiors, and even abbots were often laymen. In early times, secular priests from the vicinity were invited to conduct services for the community, or else the neighboring Church was attended on Sundays. The monastic state was clearly distinguished from the clerical. "Priesthood" was a dignity and an authority, and as such was regarded as hardly compatible with the life of obedience and penitence, which was the core and the heart of monastic existence. Certain concessions were made, however, time and again, but rather reluctantly. On the whole, in the East Monasticism has preserved its lay character till the present day. In the communities of Mount Athos, this last remnant of the old monastic regime, only a few are in the Holy Orders, and most do not seek them, as a rule. This is highly significant. Monasticism cut across the basic distinction between clergy and laity in the Church. It was a peculiar order in its own right-Monasteries were at once worshipping communities and working teams. Monasticism created a special "theology of labor," even of manual labor in particular. Labor was by no means a secondary or subsidiary element of monastic life. It belonged to its very essence. "Idleness" was regarded as a primary and grievous vice, spiritually destructive. Man was created for work. But work should not be selfish. One had to work for common purpose and benefit, and especially to be able to help the needy. As St. Basil stated it, "in labor the purpose set before everyone, is the support of the needy, not one’s own necessity" (Regulae Justus tractatae, 42). Labor was to be, as it were, an expression of social solidarity, as well as a basis of social service and charity. From St. Basil this principle was taken over by St. Benedict. But already St. Pachomius, the first promoter of coenobitical Monasticism in Egypt, was preaching "the Gospel of continued work" (to use the able phrase of the late Bishop Kenneth Kirk). His coenobium at Tabennisi was at once a settlement, a college, and a working camp. On the other hand, this working community was, in principle, a "non-acquisitive society." One of the main monastic vows was the complete denial of all possessions, not only a promise of poverty. There was no room whatsoever for any kind of "private property" in the life of a coenobitical monk. And this rule was sometimes enforced with rigidity. Monks should not have even private desires. The spirit of "ownership" was strongly repudiated as an ultimate seed of corruption in human life. St. John Chrysostom regarded "private property" as the root of all social ills. The cold distinction between "mine" and "thine" was, in his opinion, quite incompatible with the pattern of loving brotherhood, set forth in the Gospel. He could have added at this point also the authority of Cicero: nulla autem privata natura. Indeed, for St. John, "property" was man’s wicked invention, not of God’s’ design. He was prepared to force upon the whole world the rigid monastic discipline of "non-possession" and obedience, for the sake of the world’s relief. In his opinion, separate monasteries should exist now, in order that one day the whole world might become like a monastery.
As it has been well said recently, "Monasticism was an instinctive reaction of the Christian spirit against that fallacious reconciliation with the present age which the conversion of the Empire might seem to have justified" (Pere Louis Bouyer). It was a vigorous reminder of the radical "otherworldliness" of the Christian Church. It was also a mighty challenge to the Christian Empire, then in the process of construction. This challenge could not go without a rejoinder. The Emperors, and especially Justinian, made a desperate effort to integrate the Monastic Movement into the general structure of their Christian Empire. Considerable concessions had to be made. Monasteries, as a rule, were exempt from taxation and granted various immunities. In practice, these privileges only led ultimately to an acute secularization of Monasticism. But originally they meant a recognition, quite unwillingly granted, of a certain Monastic "extra-territoriality." On the other hand, many monasteries were canonically exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishops. During the Iconoclastic controversy, the independence of Monasticism was conspicuously manifested in Byzantium. Up to the end of Byzantium, Monasticism continued as a peculiar social order, in perpetual tension and competition with the Empire.
Obviously, actual Monasticism was never up to its own principles and claims. But its historical significance lies precisely in its principles. As in the pagan Empire the Church herself was a kind of "Resistance Movement," Aionasticism was a permanent "Resistance Movement" in the Christian Society.
In the New Testament the world "Church," ekklesia, has been used in two different senses. On the one hand, it denoted the One Church, the Church Catholic and Universal, the one great Community of all believers, united "in Christ." It was a theological and dogmatic use of the term. On the other hand, the term, used in the plural, denoted local Christian communities, or Christian congregations in particular places. It was a descriptive use of the word. Each local community, or Church, was in a sense self-sufficient and independent. It was the basic unit or element of the whole ecclesiastical structure. It was precisely the Church in a particular locality, the Church "peregrinating," paroikousa, in this or that particular city. It had, within itself, the fullness of the sacramental life. It had its own ministry. It can be asserted with great assurance that in the early second century, at least, each local community was headed by its own Bishop, episcopos. He was the main, and probably exclusive, minister of all sacraments in his Church, for his flock. His rights in his own community were commonly recognized, and the equality of all local Bishops was acknowledged. This is still the basic principle of Catholic canon law. The unity of all local communities was also commonly acknowledged, as an article of faith. All local Churches, as scattered and dispersed as they actually were in the world, like islands in a stormy sea, were essentially One Church Catholic, mia ekklesia catholike. It was, first of all, the "unity of faith" and the "unity of sacraments," testified by mutual acknowledgement and recognition, in the bond of love. Local communities were in a standing intercourse, according to the circumstances. The Oneness of the Church was strongly felt in this primitive period, and was formally professed in manifold ways: "One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Ephes. 4:5-6). But external organization was loose. In the early years of the Church, contacts were maintained by travels and supervision of the Apostles. In the subapostolic age they were maintained by occasional visits of the Bishops, by correspondence, and in other similar ways. By the end of the second century, under the pressure of common concerns, the custom of having "Synods," that is, the gatherings of Bishops, developed. But "Synods," that is, councils, were still but occasional meetings, except probably for North Africa, for special purpose, and in a restricted area. They did not yet develop into a permanent institution. Only in the third century did the process of consolidation advance, and led to the formation of "ecclesiastical provinces," in which several local Churches in a particular area were coordinated, under the presidency of the Bishop in the capital of the province. The emerging organizations seem to have followed the administrative divisions of the Empire, which was practically the only natural procedure. The local "autonomy" was still firmly preserved and safeguarded. The chief Bishop of the province, the Metropolitan, was no more than a president of the episcopal body of the province and chairman of the synods, and had some executive authority and a right of supervision only on behalf of all Bishops. He was not authorized to interfere with the regular administration of particular local episcopal districts, which came to be known as "dioceses." Although in principle the equality of all Bishops has been strongly maintained, certain particular sees came to prominence: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, to mention but the most important.
The new situation obtained in the fourth century. On the one hand, it was a century of Synods. Most of these Synods, or Councils, were extraordinary meetings, convened for particular purposes, to discuss some urgent matters of common concern. Most of these Councils dealt with the matters of faith and doctrine. The aim was to achieve unanimity and agreement on principal points, and to enforce a certain measure of uniformity in order and administration. On the other hand, the Church had now to face a new problem. The tacit assumption of the basic identity between the Church and the Empire demanded a further development of administrative pattern. The provincial system, already in existence, was formally accepted and enforced. And a further centralization was envisaged. As the Commonwealth was one and indivisible, a certain parallelism had to be established between the organization of the Empire and the administrative structure of the Church. Gradually, a theory of five Patriarchates, a pentarchy, was promoted. Five principal episcopal sees were suggested, as centers of administrative centralization: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. An independent status was conceded to the Church of Cyprus, in consideration of its Apostolic origin and ancient glory. What was more important, the Synod system was formally enforced. The Council of Nicea ruled that Provincial Synods should be regularly held twice in the course of the year (Canon 5). According to the established custom, their competence included, first, all matters of faith and of common concern, and, secondly, those controversial matters which might emerge in the province, and also appeals from the local congregations. It does not seem that the system did work well or smoothly. The Council of Chalcedon observed that Synods were not regularly held, which led to the neglect of important business and disorder, and reconfirmed the earlier rule (Canon 19). And still the system did not work. Justinian had to concede that Synods might meet but once each year (Novel 137.4). The Council in Trullo (691-692), which codified all earlier canonical legislation, also ruled that meetings should be held yearly, and the absentees should be brotherly admonished (Canon 8). And finally, the Second Council of Nicea confirmed that all Bishops of the province should meet yearly, to discuss "canonical and evangelical matters" and to deal with "questions" of canonical character. The aim of the system was obvious. It was an attempt to create a "higher" instance in administration, above the episcopal office, in order to achieve more uniformity and cohesion. Yet, the principle of episcopal authority in local communities was still firmly upheld. Only, by that time, a Bishop was no longer the head of a single local community, but "a diocesan," that is, a head of a certain district, composed of several communities which were committed to the immediate charge of priests, or presbyters. Only acting Bishops, that is, those who were actually in office, had jurisdiction, and the authority to function as Bishops, although the retired Bishops were keeping their rank and honor. Nobody could be consecrated as a Bishop, or ordained as a priest, except to a definite "title," that is, for a particular flock. There was no ministry "at large."
The logic of the single Christian Commonwealth seemed to imply one further step. The Imperial power was centered in one Emperor. Was it not logical that the Priesthood, the Hierarchy, should also have one Head? This has been actually claimed, if for completely different reasons, by the Popes of Rome. The actual basis of the "Roman claims" was in the Primacy of St. Peter and in the Apostolic privileges of his See. But, in the context of the Commonwealth-idea, these claims were inevitably understood as claims for the Primacy in the Empire. The "primacy of honor" was readily conceded to the Bishop of Rome, with the emphasis on the fact that Rome was the ancient capital of the Empire. But now, with the transfer of the capital to the New City of Constantine, which has become a "New Rome," the privileges of the Bishop of Constantinople also had to be safeguarded. Accordingly, the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople 381) accorded to the Bishop of Constantinople "the privilege of honor," ta presbeia tes times, after the Bishop of Rome, with an open reference to the fact that "Constantinople was the New Rome" (Canon 3). This put the Bishop of Constantinople above that of Alexandria in the list of ecclesiastical precedence, to the great anger and offence of the latter. In this connection it was strongly urged that this exaltation of the Constantinopolitan See violated the prerogatives of the "Apostolic Sees," that is, those founded by the Apostles, of which Alexandria was one of the most renowned, as the See of St. Mark. Nevertheless, the Council of Chalcedon reconfirmed the decision of 381. Privileges of Rome were grounded in that it was the Capital City. For the same reason it seemed to be fair that the See of the New Rome, the residence of the Emperor and of the Senate, should have similar privileges (Canon 28). This decision provoked violent indignation in Rome, and the 28th Canon of Chalcedon was repudiated by the Roman Church. It was inevitable, however, that the prestige and influence of the Constantinopolitan Bishop should grow. In the Christian Commonwealth it was but natural for the Bishop of the Imperial City to be in the center of the ecclesiastical administration. By the time of the Council of Chalcedon, there was in Constantinople, along with the Bishop, a consultative body of resident Bishops, synodos endemousa, acting as a kind of permanent "Council." It was also logical that, in the course of time, the Bishop of Constantinople should assume the title of an "Ecumenical Patriarch," whatever exact meaning might have been originally connected with the name. The first Bishop who actually assumed the title was John the Faster (582-593), and this again could not fail to provoke the protest from Rome. St. Gregory the Great, the Pope, accused the Patriarch of pride and arrogance. There was no personal arrogance, — the Patriarch was a severe and humble ascetic, "the Faster" — there was but the logic of the Christian Empire. Political catastrophes in the East, that is, the Persian invasion and Arab conquest, together with the secession of Monophysites and Nestorians in Syria and Egypt, reduced the role of the ancient great Sees in those areas, and this accelerated the rise of the Constantinopolitan See. At least de facto, the Patriarch has become the chief Bishop of the Church in the Eastern Empire. It is significant that the Epanagoge spoke plainly of the Patriarch, meaning of course the Patriarch of Constantinople. He was the opposite number to the Emperor. By that time the political unity of the Christian Commonwealth had been already broken. Byzantium had actually become precisely an Eastern Empire. And another, and rival, Empire has been founded in the West, under Charlemagne. After a period of indecision, the See of Rome finally took the side of Charlemagne. On the other hand, the missionary expansion among the Slavs in the ninth and tenth centuries greatly enlarged the area of the Constantinopolitan jurisdiction.
It is commonly admitted that "Roman Unity," the Pax Romana, facilitated the missionary expansion of the Church, which only in rare cases went beyond the boundaries of the Empire, the limes Romanus. It is also obvious that the empirical unity of the Church had been so speedily realized precisely because the Empire was one, at least in principle and in theory. Those countries which were outside of the Empire were also but loosely fit in the institutional unity of the Church. The factual identity of the main ecclesiastical organization with the Empire created considerable difficulty for those Churches which were beyond the Imperial border. The most conspicuous example is the Church in Persia, which was compelled to withdraw from the unity with the West already in 410 and constitute itself into an independent unit, precisely because the Church in the West was too closely connected with the Roman Empire, an enemy of Persia. The split was caused by non-theological factors, and was limited to the level of administration. Thus, "Roman Unity" was at once a great advantage and a handicap for the Church’s mission.
Now, it can be reasonably contended that in the period before Constantine the Church did not evolve any organization which could have enabled her to act authoritatively on a really "ecumenical" scale. The first truly "ecumenical" action was the Council in Nicea, in 325, the First Ecumenical Council. Councils were already in the tradition of the Church. But Nicea was the first Council of the whole Church, and it became the pattern on which all subsequent Ecumenical Councils were held. For the first time the voice of the whole Church was heard. The membership of the Council, however, was hardly ecumenical, in the sense of actual representation. There were but four Bishops from the West, and the Roman Bishop was represented by two presbyters. Few missionary Bishops from the East were present. The majority of Bishops present came from Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor. The same is true of all subsequent Ecumenical Councils, recognized in the Eastern Orthodox Church, up to the Second Council of Nicea, 787. Strangely enough, we do not find in our primary sources any regulations concerning the organization of the Ecumenical Councils. It does not seem that there were any fixed rules or patterns. In the canonical sources there is no single mention of the Ecumenical Council, as a permanent institution, which should be periodically convened, according to some authoritative scheme. The Ecumenical Councils were not an integral part of the Church’s constitution, nor of her basic administrative structure. In this respect they differed substantially from those provincial and local Councils which were supposed to meet yearly, to transact current matters and to exercise the function of unifying supervision. The authority of the Ecumenical Councils was high, ultimate, and binding.
But Councils themselves were rather occasional and extraordinary gatherings. This explains why no Ecumenical Councils were held since 787. In the East there was a widely spread conviction that no further Councils should be held, beyond the sacred number "Seven." There was no theory of the Ecumenical Councils in Eastern theology, or in the canon law of the East. Seven Councils were, as it were, the seven gifts of God, as there were seven gifts of the Spirit, or seven Sacraments. The ecumenical authority of those Seven Councils was of a "super-canonical" character. The Eastern Church, at least, did not know any "conciliar theory" of administration, except on a local level. Such a theory was elaborated in the West, in the late Middle Ages, during the so called "Conciliar Movement" in the Western Church, in the struggle with the growing Papal centralization. It has no connection with the organization of the Ancient Church, especially in the East.
It is well known that Emperors were taking an active part in the Ecumenical Councils, and sometimes participated in the conciliar deliberations, as, for example, Constantine at Nicea. Councils were usually convened by Imperial decrees, and their decisions were confirmed by the Imperial approval, by which they were given the legally binding authority in the Empire. In certain cases, the initiative was taken by the Emperor, as it was with the Fifth Ecumenical Council, at Constantinople, 553, at which the pressure and violence of the Emperor, the great Justinian himself, was so conspicuous and distressing. These are the facts which are usually quoted as proof of the Byzantine Caesaropapism. Whatever influence the Emperors might have had on the Councils, and however real their pressure might have been, the Councils were definitely gatherings of Bishops, and only they had the authority to vote. The Imperial pressure was a fact, and not a right. The active role of the Emperors in the convocation of the Council, and their great concern in the matter, are completely understandable in the context of an indivisible Christian Commonwealth. It is obviously true that Ecumenical Councils were in a certain sense "Imperial Councils," die Reicbskonzilien, the Councils of the Empire. But we should not forget that the Empire itself was an Oikoumene. If "ecumenical" meant just "Imperial," "Imperial" meant no less than "Universal." The Empire, by conviction, always acted in behalf of the whole of mankind, as gratuitous as this assumption might have been. Attempts were made, by modern scholars, to construe the Ecumenical Councils as an Imperial institution, and, in particular, to draw a parallel between them and the Senate. This suggestion is hardly tenable. First of all, if the Senate was an institution, the Councils were just occasional events. Secondly, the Emperor’s position at the Council was radically different from his position in the Senate. The vote belonged solely to the Bishops. Decisions were "acclaimed" in their name. The Emperor was an obedient son of the Church and was bound by the voice and will of the hierarchy. The number of Bishops present was, in a sense, irrelevant. They were expected to reveal the common mind of the Church, to testify to her "tradition." Moreover, decisions had to be unanimous: no majority vote was permissible in matters of eternal truth. If no unanimity could be achieved, the Council would be disrupted, and this disruption would reveal the existence of a schism in the Church. In any case, Bishops in the Council did not act as officials of the Empire, but precisely as "Angels of the Churches," by the authority of the Church, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Above all, as Edward Schwartz, the greatest modern authority on the history of the Councils, has aptly said, "the Emperor was a mortal, the Church was not."
The Church is not of this world, as her Lord, Christ, was also not of the world. But He was in this world, having "humbled" Himself to the condition of that world which He came to save and to redeem. The Church also had to pass through a process of the historical kenosis, in the exercise of her redemptive mission in the world. Her purpose was not only to redeem men out of this world, but also to redeem the world itself. In particular, since man was essentially a "social being," the Church had to wrestle with the task of the "redemption of society." She was herself a society, a new pattern of social relationship, in the unity of faith and in the bond of peace. The task proved to be exceedingly arduous and ambiguous. It would be idle to pretend that it has been ever completed.
The "Holy Empire" of the Middle Ages was an obvious failure, both in its Western and its Eastern forms. It was at once an Utopia and a compromise. The "old world" was still continuing under the Christian guise. Yet it did not continue unchanged. The impact of the Christian faith was conspicuous and profound in all walks of life. The faith of the Middle Ages was a courageous faith, and the hope was impatient. People really did believe that "this world" could be "christened" and converted, not only that it was "forgiven." There was a firm belief in the possibility of an ultimate renewal of the entire historical existence. In this conviction all historical tasks have been undertaken. There was always a double danger involved in the endeavor: to mistake partial achievements for ultimate ones, or to be satisfied with relative achievements, since the ultimate goal was not attainable. It is here that the spirit of compromise is rooted. On the whole, the only ultimate authority which has been commonly accepted at this time was that of the Christian truth, in whatever manner this truth might have been expounded and specified. The myth of "the dark Middle Ages" has been dispelled by an impartial study of the past. There was even a shift in the opposite direction. Already Romantics started preaching a "return to the Middle Ages, precisely as an "Age of faith." They were impressed by the spiritual unity of the Medieval world, in striking contrast with the "anarchy" and "confusion" of Modern times. Obviously, the Medieval world was also a "world of tensions." Yet, tensions seemed to be overarched by certain crucial convictions, or coordinated in the common obedience to the supreme authority of God. The sore shortcomings of the Medieval settlement should not be ignored or concealed. But the nobility of the task also should not be overlooked. The aim of Medieval man was to build a truly Christian Society. The urgency of this aim has been recently rediscovered and recognized. Whatever may be said about the failures and abuses of the Medieval period, its guiding principle has been vindicated. The idea of a Christian Commonwealth is now again taken quite seriously, as much as it is still enveloped in fog and doubt, and in whatever particular manner it may be phrased in our own days. In this perspective, the Byzantine politico-ecclesiastical experiment also appears in a new light. It was an earnest attempt to solve a real problem. The experiment probably should not be reenacted, nor, indeed, can it be actually repeated in the changed situation. But lessons of the past should not be forgotten or unlearned. The Byzantine experiment was not just a "provincial," an "Eastern" experiment. It had an "ecumenical" significance. And much in the Western legacy is actually "Byzantine," both good and bad. For obvious reasons, Monasticism could never become a common way of life. It could be, of necessity, but a way for the few, for the elect, for those who might have chosen it. An emphasis on the free decision was implied. One can be born into a Christian Society, one can be but re-born into Monasticism, by an act of choice. The impact of Monasticism was much wider than its own ranks, nor did the monks always abstain from a direct historical action, at least by the way of criticism and admonition. Monasticism was an attempt to fulfil the Christian obligation, to organize human life exclusively on a Christian basis, in opposition to "the world." The failures of historical Monasticism must be admitted and duly acknowledged. They were constantly exposed and denounced by the Monastic leaders themselves, and drastic reforms have been periodically undertaken. Monastic "degeneration" has been a favorite theme of many modern historians. And again, in recent times "the call of the Desert" has assumed a new urgency and thrill, not only attracting those who are tired of the world and are dreaming of "escape" or "refuge," but also awakening those who are zealous to enforce a "renewal" upon a world, confused by fear and despair. Monasticism attracts now not only as a school of contemplation, but also as a school of obedience, as a social experiment, as an experiment in common life.
Here lies the modern thrill of the cloister. In the context of this new experience, the legacy of Eastern and Byzantine Monasticism is being readily and gratefully received and reassessed by an increasing number of fervent Christians in the West and elsewhere.
The Church, which establishes herself in the world, is always exposed to the temptation of an excessive adjustment to the environment, to what is usually described as "worldliness." The Church which separates herself from the world, in feeling her own radical "otherworldliness," is exposed to an opposite danger, to the danger of excessive detachment. But there is also a third danger, which was probably the major danger of Christian history. It is the danger of double standards. This danger has been precipitated by the rise of Monasticism. Monasticism was not meant originally to be just a way for the few. It was conceived rather as a consequent application of common and general Christian vows. It served as a powerful challenge and reminder in the midst of all historical compromises. Yet a worse compromise has been invented, when Monasticism had been reinterpreted as an exceptional way. Not only was the Christian Society sorely rent asunder and split into the groups of "religious" and "secular," but the Christian ideal itself was split in twain and, as it were, "polarized," by a subtle distinction between "essential" and "secondary," between "binding" and "optional," between "precept" and "advice." In fact, all Christian "precepts" are but calls and advices, to be embraced in free obedience, and all "advices" are binding. The spirit of compromise creeps into Christian action when the "second best" is formally permitted and even encouraged. This "compromise" may be practically unavoidable, but it should be frankly acknowledged as a compromise. A multiplicity of the manners of Christian living, of course, should be admitted. What should not be admitted is their grading in the scale of "perfection." Indeed, "perfection" is not an advice, but a precept, which can never be dispensed with. One of the greatest merits of Byzantium was that it could never admit in principle the duality of standards in Christian life.
Byzantium had failed, grievously failed, to establish an unambiguous and adequate relationship between the Church and the larger Commonwealth. It did not succeed in unlocking the gate of the Paradise Lost. Yet nobody else has succeeded, either. The gate is still locked. The Byzantine key was not a right one. So were all other keys, too. And probably there is no earthly or historical key for that ultimate lock. There is but an eschatological key, the true "Key of David." Yet Byzantium was for centuries wrestling, with fervent commitment and dedication, with a real problem. And in our own days, when we are wrestling with the same problem, we may get some more light for ourselves through an impartial study of the Eastern experiment, both in its hope and in its failure.
Christianity and Civilization.
"Christianity and Civilization" appeared in St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. I, No. 1 (1952), pp. 13-20. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Anew epoch commences in the life of the Church with the beginning of the IV-th century. The Empire accepts christening in the person of the "isapostolic" Caesar. The Church emerges from its forced seclusion and receives the seeking world under its sacred vaults. But the World brings with it its fears, its doubts and its temptations. There were both pride and despair paradoxically intermingled. The Church was called on to quench the despair and to humble the pride. The IV-th century was in many respects more of an epilogue than of a dawn. It was rather a finale of an outworn history than a true beginning. Yet, a new civilization emerges often out of the ashes.
During the Nicene age for the majority the time was out of joint, and a peculiar cultural disharmony prevailed. Two worlds had come into collision and stood opposed to one another: Hellenism and Christianity. Modern historians are tempted to underestimate the pain of tension and the depth of conflict. The Church did not deny the culture in principle. Christian culture was already in the process of formation. And in a sense Christianity had already made its contribution to the treasury of the Hellenistic civilization. The school of Alexandria had a considerable impact on the contemporary experiments in the field of philosophy. But Hellenism was not prepared to concede anything to the Church. The attitudes of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, on one side, and of Celsus and Porphyrius, on the other, were typical and instructive. The external struggle was not the most important feature of the conflict. The inner struggle was much more difficult and tragic: every follower of the Hellenic tradition was called at that time to live through and overcome an inner discord.
Civilization meant precisely Hellenism, with all its pagan memories, mental habits, and esthetical charms. The "dead gods" of Hellenism were still worshipped in numerous temples, and pagan traditions were still cherished by a significant number of intellectuals. To go to a school meant at that time precisely to go to a pagan school and to study pagan writers and poets. Julian the Apostate was not just an out-of-date dreamer, who attempted an impossible restoration of the dead ideals, but a representative of a cultural resistance which was not yet broken from inside. The ancient world was reborn and transfigured in a desperate struggle. The whole of the inner life of the Hellenistic men had to undergo a drastic revaluation. The process was slow and dramatic, and finally resolved in the birth of a new civilization, which we may describe as Byzantine. One has to realize that there was but one Christian civilization for centuries, the same for the East and the West, and this civilization was born and made in the East. A specifically Western civilization came much later.
Rome itself was quite Byzantine even in the VIII-th century. The Byzantine epoch starts if not with Constantine himself, in any case with Theodosius, and reaches its climax under Justinian. His was the time when a Christian culture was conscientiously and deliberately being built and completed as a system. The new culture was a great synthesis in which all the creative traditions and moves of the past were merged and integrated. It was a "New Hellenism," but a Hellenism drastically christened and, as it were, "churchified." It is still usual to suspect the Christian quality of this new synthesis. Was it not just an "acute Hellenization" of the "Biblical Christianity," in which the whole novelty of the Revelation had been diluted and dissolved? Was not this new synthesis simply a disguised Paganism ? This was precisely the considered opinion of Adolf Harnack. Now, in the light of an unbiased historical study, we can protest most strongly against this simplification. Was not that which the XlX-th century historians used to describe as an "Hellenization of Christianity" rather a Conversion of Hellenism? And why should Hellenism not have been converted? The Christian reception of Hellenism was not just a servile absorption of an undigested heathen heritage. It was rather a conversion of the Hellenic mind and heart.
What really had happened was this. Hellenism was mightily dissected with the sword of Christian Revelation, and was utterly polarized thereby. The closed horizon has been exploded. One should describe Origen and Augustine as "Hellenists." But obviously it was another type of Hellenism than that of Plotinus or Julian. Among the decrees of Julian, Christians most loathed the one which prohibited Christians to teach arts and science. This was in fact a belated attempt to expel Christians from the making of civilization, to protect the ancient culture from Christian influence and impact. For the Cappadocian Fathers this was the main issue. And St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his sermons against Julian dwelt at length on this topic. St. Basil felt himself compelled to write an address "To young men, on how they might derive benefit from Hellenic literature." Two centuries later, Justinian debarred non-Christians from all teaching and educational activities, and closed down the pagan schools. There was, in this measure, no hostility to "Hellenism." This was no break in tradition. Traditions are kept and even cherished, but they are drawn into the process of Christian re-interpretation. This comprises the essence of Byzantine culture. It was an acceptance of the postulates of culture and their transvaluation. The magnificent Temple of Holy Wisdom, of the Eternal Word, the great church of Sophia in Constantinople, will ever stand as a living symbol of this cultural achievement.
The history of Christian culture was by no means an idyll. It was enacted in struggle and dialectical conflict. Already the IV-th century was a time of tragic contradictions.
The Empire became Christian. The chance of transfiguring the whole of human creativity was given. And yet, it was precisely from this Christened Empire that the flight commences, the flight into the desert. It is true that individuals used to leave cities even before, in the time of the persecutions, to dwell or wander in deserts and holes of the earth. The ascetical ideal has been for a long time in the process of formation, and Origen, for one, was a great master of spiritual life. Yet, a movement begins only after Constantine. It would be utterly unfair to suspect that people were leaving "the world" simply because it became difficult and exacting to bear its burden, in search for an "easy life." It is difficult to see in what sense the life in the desert could be "easy." It is true also that in the West at that time the Empire was falling to pieces and sorely endangered by Barbarian invasion, and apocalyptic fears and anticipations might have been alive there, an expectation of a speedy end of history.
In the East at that time the Christian Empire was in the process of construction. In spite of all the perplexities and dangers of life, here one might have been tempted rather with a historical optimism, with a dream of a realized City of God on earth. And many, in fact, succumbed to this allurement. If nevertheless, there were so many in the East who did prefer to "emigrate" into the Desert, we have all reasons to believe that they fled not so much from worldly troubles, as from the "worldly cares," implied even in a Christian civilization. St. John Chrysostom was very emphatic in his warnings against the dangers of "prosperity." For him "security was the greatest of all persecutions," much worse than the bloodiest persecutions from outside. For him the real danger for true piety began precisely with the external victory of the Church, when it became possible for a Christian to "settle down" in this world, with a considerable measure of security and even comfort, and to forget that he had no abiding City in this world and had to be a stranger and pilgrim on earth. The meaning of monasticism did not consist primarily in taking severe vows. Monastic vows were but a re-emphasis of the Baptismal vows. There was no special "monastic" ideal at that early age. The early monks wanted simply to realize in full the common Christian ideal which was, in principle, set before every single believer. It was assumed that this realization was almost impossible within the existing fabric of society and life, even if it is disguised as a Christian Empire. Monastic flight in the IV-th century was first of all a withdrawal from the Empire, Ascetic renunciation implies first of all a complete disowning of the world, i.e. of the order of this world, of all social ties. A monk should be "homeless," aoikos, in the phrase of St. Basil. Asceticism, as a rule, does not require detachment from the Cosmos. And the God-created beauty of nature is much more vividly apprehended in the desert than on the market-place of a busy city.
Monasteries were in picturesque environments and the cosmic beauty can be strongly felt in hagiographical literature. The seat of evil is not in nature but in man’s heart, or the world of evil spirits. The Christian fight is not against flesh and blood, but "against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephes. 6:12). It is only in the wilderness that one can realize in full one’s allegiance to the only Heavenly King, the Christ, loyalty to Whom may be seriously compromised by claims laid on a citizen by his man-made city.
Monasticism was never anti-social. It was an attempt to build up another City. A monastery is, in a sense, an "extraterritorial colony" in this world of vanity. Even hermits did dwell usually in groups and colonies, and were united under the common direction of a spiritual father. But it was the "coenobia" that was regarded as the most adequate embodiment of the ascetical ideal. Monastic community is itself a social organization, a "body," a small Church. A monk left the world in order to build a new society, a new communal life. This was, in any case, the intention of St. Basil. St. Theodore of Studium, one of the most influential leaders of later Byzantine monasticism, was even more rigid and emphatic in this respect. The Empire, already since Justinian, was very anxious to domesticate monasticism, to reintegrate it into the general political and social order. Success v/as but partial, and led to a decay. In any case, monasteries always remain, in a sense, heterogeneous inclusions and are never fully integrated into the imperial order of life. One may suggest that Monasticism, historically speaking, was an attempt to escape the building up of the Christian Empire. Origen contended in his time that Christians could not participate in the general civic life, because they had a "polis" of their own, because in every city they had their own "order of life," to allo systema patridos (C. Cels. VIII. 75). They lived "contrary to the order" of the worldly city (antipoliteuomenoi).
In a "Christianized" city this antithesis was not removed. Also monasticism is something "other," a kind of "anti-city," anti-polis, for it is basically "another" city. Essentially it always remains outside of the worldly system, and often asserts its "extraterritoriality" even with regard to the general ecclesiastical system, claiming some kind of independence upon the local or territorial jurisdiction. Monasticism is, in principle, an exodus from the world, an exit from the natural social order, a renunciation of family, social status, and even citizenship. But it is not just an exit out, but also a transition to another social plane and dimension. In this social "otherworldliness" consists the main peculiarity of monasticism as a movement, as well as its historical significance. Ascetical virtues can be practiced by laymen also, and by those who stay in the world. What is peculiar of monasticism is its social structure. The Christian world was polarized. Christian history unfolds in an antithesis between the Empire and the Desert. This tension culminates in a violent explosion in the Iconoclastic controversy.
The fact that monasticism evades and denies the conception of the Christian Empire does not imply that it opposes culture. The case is very complex. And first of all, monasticism succeeded, much more than the Empire ever did, to preserve the true ideal of culture in its purity and freedom. In any case, spiritual creativity was richly nourished from the depths of the spiritual life. "Christian holiness synthesizes within itself all the fundamental and ultimate aspirations of the entire ancient Philosophy," aptly remarked one Russian scholar. "Starting in Ionia and Magna Graecia, the main stream of great Hellenic speculation flows through Athens to Alexandria and from thence to the Thebaide. Cliffs, deserts, and caves become new centers of the theurgic wisdom." Monastic contribution to the general learning was very large in the Middle Ages, both in the East and in the West.
Monasteries were great centers of learning. We should not overlook another aspect of the matter. Monasticism in itself was a remarkable phenomenon of culture. It is not by chance that ascetic endeavour has been persistently described as "Philosophy," the "love of wisdom," in the writings of the Patristic age. It was not by accident that the great traditions of Alexandrinian theology were revived and blossomed especially in the monastic quarters. It was not by chance likewise that in the Cappadocians of the IV-th century ascetic and cultural endeavours were so organically intertwined. Later on, too, St. Maximus the Confessor built his magnificent theological synthesis precisely on the basis of his ascetical experience. Finally, it was by no accident that in the Iconoclastic period monks occurred to be the defenders of art, safeguarding the freedom of religious art from the oppression of the State, from "enlightened" oppression and utilitarian simplification.
All this is closely linked with the very essence of asceticism. Ascesis does not bind creativity, it liberates it, because it asserts it as an aim in itself. Above all — creativity of one’s self. Creativity is ultimately saved from all sorts of utilitarianism only through an ascetical re-interpretation. Ascesis does not consist of prohibitions. It is activity, a "working out" of one’s very self. It is dynamic. It contains the urge of infinity, an eternal appeal, an unquenchable move forward. The reason for this restlessness is double. The task is infinite because the pattern of perfection is infinite, God’s perfection. No achievement can ever be adequate to the goal. The task is creative because something essentially new is to be brought in existence. Man makes up his own self in his absolute dedication to God. He becomes himself only in this creative process. There is an inherent antinomy in true ascesis. It begins with humility, renunciation, obedience. Creative freedom is impossible without this initial self-renunciation. It is the law of spiritual life: the seed is not quickened unless it dies. Renunciation implies an overcoming of one’s limitations and partiality, an absolute surrender to the Truth. It does not mean: first renunciation, and then freedom. Humility itself is freedom. Ascetic renunciation unfetters the spirit, releases the soul. Without freedom all mortifications will be in vain. On the other hand, through the ascetic trial the very vision of the world is changed and renewed.
True vision is available only to those who have no selfish concerns. True asceticism is inspired not by contempt, but by the urge of transformation. The world must be re-instated to its original beauty, from which it fell into sin. It is because of this that asceticism leads to action. The work of Redemption is done by God indeed, but man is called to co-operate in this redemptive endeavour. For Redemption consists precisely in the Redemption of Freedom. Sin is slavery, and "Jerusalem which is above is free." This interpretation of the ascetical endeavour will appear unexpected and strange. It is certainly incomplete. The world of ascesis is complicated, because it is a realm of freedom. There are many roads, some of which may end in blind alleys. Historically, of course, asceticism does not always lead to creativity. One ought, however, to distinguish clearly between an indifference to creative tasks, and their non-acceptance. New and various problems of culture are disclosed through the ascetic training, a new hierarchy of values and aims is revealed. Hence the apparent indifference of asceticism to many historic tasks. This brings us back to the conflict between the Empire and the Desert. We may well say: between History and the Apocalypse. It is the basic question of the significance and value of the whole historical endeavour. Christian goal, in any case, transcends history, as it transcends culture. But Man was created to inherit eternity.
One may describe asceticism as an "eschatology of transfiguration." Ascetic "maximalism" is primarily inspired by an awareness of the end of history. It would be more accurate to say: conviction, not an actual expectation. The calculation of times and dates is irrelevant, as it is dangerous and misleading indeed. What is important is a consistent use of "eschatological measures" in the estimation of all things and events. It is unfair to suppose that nothing on earth can stand this "eschatological" testing. Not everything should fade away. No doubt, there is no room for politics or economics in the ultimate Kingdom of Heaven. But, obviously, there are many values in this life which will not be abrogated in "the age to come." First comes Love. It is not accidental that monasticism takes persistently the form of a community. It is an organization of mutual care and help. Any work of mercy, or even a burning of the heart for somebody else’s suffering or need, cannot be regarded as insignificant in the eschatological dimension. Is it too much to suggest that all creative charity is eternal? Are not some abiding values disclosed also in the field of knowledge? Nothing can be said with an ultimate certainty. And yet it seems we have some criterion of discrimination. Human personality, in any case, transcends history.
Personality bears history within itself. I would cease to be Myself if my concrete, i.e. historical, experience is simply subtracted. History therefore will not fade away completely even in the "age to come," if the concreteness of human life is to be preserved. Of course, we never can draw the definite line between those earthly things which may have an "eschatological extension" and those which have to die out on the eschatological threshold — in actual life they are inextricably interwoven. Distinction depends on spiritual discernment, on a sort of spiritual clairvoyance. On one hand, obviously, but "one thing is needful." On the other hand, the "World to come" is undoubtedly a world of Eternal Memory, and not of eternal oblivion. There is the "good part" which "shall not be taken away." And Martha shares it also, not only Mary. All that is susceptible to transfiguration will be transfigured. Now, this "transfiguration," in a sense, begins already on this side of the eschatological cleavage. "Eschatological treasures" are to be collected even in this life. Otherwise this life is frustrated. Some real anticipation of the Ultimate is already available. Otherwise the victory of Christ has been in vain. "New Creation" is already initiated. Christian History is more than a prophetical symbol, sign or hint. We always have some dim feeling about things which have not, and cannot have, any "eternal dimension," and we style them therefore as "vain" and "futile." Our diagnosis is very fallible indeed. Yet, some diagnosis is unavoidable. Christianity is essentially historical. History is a sacred process. On the other hand, Christianity pronounces a judgement on history, and is in itself a move into what is "beyond history." For that reason, Christian attitude to history and culture is bound to be antinomical. Christians should not be absorbed in history. But they have no escape into a sort of "natural state." They have to transcend history for the sake of that "which cannot be contained by earthly shores." Yet, Eschatology itself is always a Consummation.
Vladimir Soloviev pointed out the tragic inconsistency of Byzantine culture. "Byzantium was devout in its faith and impious in its life." Of course, this is a vivid image, and not an accurate description. We may admit, however, that some valid truth is emphasized by this phrase. The idea of a "churchified" Empire was a failure. The Empire fell to pieces in bloody conflicts, degenerated in fraud, ambiguity and violence. But the Desert was more successful. It will remain for ever to witness to the creative effort of the Early Church, with its Byzantine theology, devotion and art. Perhaps it will become the most vital and sacred page in the mysterious book of human destiny, which is continuously being written. The epilogue of Byzantium is likewise emphatic, and there is the same polarity: the fall of the Empire after an ambiguous political Union with Rome (at Florence), which was, however, never accepted by the people. And, on the very eve of the fall of "corrupt Byzantium," the glorious flowering of mystical contemplation on Mount Athos and the Renaissance in art in Philosophy which was to nourish the Western Renaissance too. The fall of the Empire and the Fulfillment of the Desert.
The Social Problem
in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
"The Social Problem in the Eastern Orthodox Church" appeared in The Journal of Religious Thought, Vol. VIII, No. 1 (Autumn/Winter, 1950-51), PP- 41-51. Reprinted by permission.
Christianity is essentially a social religion. There is an old Latin saying: unus Christianus nullus Christianus. Nobody can be truly Christian as a solitary and isolated being. Christianity is not primarily a doctrine or a discipline that individuals might adopt for their personal use and guidance. Christianity is exactly a community, i.e., the church. In this respect there is an obvious continuity between the Old and the New dispensations. Christians are "the New Israel." The whole phraseology of Scripture is highly instructive: the Covenant, the Kingdom, the Church, "a holy Nation, a peculiar People." The abstract term "Christianity" is obviously of a late date. From the very beginning Christianity was socially minded. The whole fabric of Christian existence is social and corporate. All Christian sacraments are intrinsically "social sacraments," i.e., sacraments of incorporation. Christian worship is also a corporate worship, "publica et communis oratio," in the phrase of St. Cyprian. To build up the Church of Christ means, therefore, to build up a new society and, by implication, to re-build human society on a new basis. There was always a strong emphasis on unanimity and life in common. One of the earliest names for Christians was simply "Brethren." The church was and was to be a creaturely image of the divine pattern. Three Persons, yet One God. Accordingly, in the church, many are to be integrated into one Body.
All this is, of course, the common heritage of the whole church. Yet, probably, this corporate emphasis has been particularly strong in the Eastern tradition and does still constitute the distinctive ethos of the Eastern Orthodox church. It is not to suggest that all social aspirations of Christianity had been really actualized in the empirical life of the Christian East. Ideals are never fully realized; the church is still in via, and we have to admit the sore failure of the East to become and to stay truly Christian. Yet, ideals must not be overlooked. They are both the guiding principle and the driving power of human life. There was always a clear vision of the corporate nature of Christianity in the East. There is still, as it has been for centuries, a strong social instinct in the Eastern church in spite of all historical involvements and drawbacks. And possibly this is the main contribution which the Eastern church can make to the contemporary conversation on social issues.
The early church was not just a voluntary association for "religious" purposes. It was rather the New Society, even the New Humanity, a polis or politeuma, the true City of God, in the process of construction. And each local community was fully aware of its membership in an inclusive and universal whole. The church was conceived as an independent and self-supporting social order, as a new social dimension, a peculiar systema patridos, as Origen put it. Early Christians felt themselves, in the last resort, quite outside of the existing social order, simply because for them the church itself was an "order," an extra-territorial "colony of Heaven" on earth (Phil. 3:20, Moffatt’s translation). Nor was this attitude fully abandoned even later when the empire, as it were, came to terms with the church.
The early Christian attitude was continued in the monastic movement, which grew rapidly precisely in the period of an alleged reconciliation with the world. Of course, monasticism was a complex phenomenon, but its main stream was always socially minded. It was not so much a flight from the world as it was an endeavor to build up a new world on a new basis. A monastery was a community, a "little church" — not only a worshipping community, but a working community as well. Great stress was laid on work, and idleness was regarded as the grievous vice. But it had to be a work for common purpose and benefit. It was true already of the early Pachomian communities in Egypt. St. Pachomius was preaching "the gospel of continued work." It is well said of him: "The general appearance and life of a Pachomian monastery cannot have been very different from that of a well-regulated college, city, or camp" (Bp. Kirk, The Vision of God). The great legislator of Eastern monasticism, St. Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia (c.330-379), was deeply concerned with the problem of social reconstruction. He watched with a grave apprehension the process of social disintegration, which was so spectacular in his day. Thus his call to formation of monastic communities was an attempt to rekindle the spirit of mutuality in a world which seemed to have lost any sense of social responsibility and cohesion. In his conception, man was essentially a "gregarious animal" (koinomkon zoori), "neither savage nor a lover of solitude." He cannot accomplish his purpose in life, he cannot be truly human, unless he dwells in a community. Monasticism, therefore, was not a higher level of perfection, for the few, but an earnest attempt to give a proper human dimension to man’s life. Christians had to set a model of a new society in order to counterbalance those disintegrating forces which were operative in the decaying world. True cohesion in society can be achieved only by an identity of purpose, by a subordination of all individual concerns to the common cause and interest. In a sense, it was a Socialist experiment of a peculiar kind, on a voluntary basis. Obedience itself had to be founded on love and mutual affection, on a free realization of brotherly love. The whole emphasis was on the corporate nature of man. Individualism is therefore self-destructive.
As startling as it may appear, the same "coenobitical" pattern was at that time regarded as obligatory for all Christians, "even though they be married." Could the whole Christian society be built up as a kind of a "monastery"? St. John Chrysostom, the great bishop of the imperial city of Constantinople (c.350-407), did not hesitate to answer this question in the affirmative. It did not mean that all should go into the wilderness. On the contrary, Christians had to rebuild the existing society on a "coenobitical" pattern. Chrysostom was quite certain that all social evils were rooted in the acquisitive appetite of man, in his selfish desire to possess goods for his exclusive benefit. Now, there was but one lawful owner of all goods and possessions in the world, namely, the Lord Almighty. Men are but his ministers and servants, and they have to use God’s gifts solely for God’s purposes, i.e., ultimately for common needs. Chrysostom’s conception of property was strictly functional: possession is justified only by its proper use. To be sure, Chrysostom was not a social or economic reformer, and his practical suggestions may seem rather inconclusive and even naive. But he was one of the greatest Christian prophets of social equality and justice. There was nothing sentimental in his appeal to charity. Christian charity, in fact, is not just a caritative emotion. Christians should be not just moved by the other people’s suffering, need, and misery. They have to understand that social misery is the continued agony of Christ, suffering still in the person of his members. Chrysostom’s ethical zeal and pathos were rooted in his clear vision of the Body of Christ.
One may contend that in practice very little came out of this vigorous social preaching. But one has to understand that the greatest limitation imposed upon the Christian preaching of social virtue was rooted in the conviction that the church could act only by persuasion, and never by violence and compulsion. Of course, no church could ever stand the temptation to call in the assistance of some worldly power, be it the state or public opinion, or any other form of social pressure. But in no case did the results justify the original break of freedom. The proof is that even now we have not moved very far in the realization of Christian standards. The church is ultimately concerned with the change of human hearts and minds, and not primarily with the change of an external order, as important as all social improvements may be. The early church made an attempt to realize a higher social standard within its own ranks. The success was but relative; the standards themselves had to be lowered. Yet, it was not a reconciliation with the existing injustice; it was rather an acknowledgment of an inherent antinomy. Could the church use, in the human struggle for survival, any other weapon than the word of truth and mercy? In any case, some basic principles were established, and boldly formulated, which are relevant to any historical situation.
It was, first of all, the recognition of an ultimate equality of all men. This egalitarian spirit is deeply implanted in the Eastern Orthodox soul. There is no room for any social or racial discrimination within the body of the Eastern church, in spite of its elaborate hierarchical structure. One can easily detect at the bottom of this feeling precisely the early Christian conception of the church as of an "order" by itself.
Second, it is assumed that the church has to deal primarily with the needy and underprivileged, with all those who are destitute and heavy laden, with the repentant sinners, precisely with the repentant publicans and not with self-righteous Pharisees. The Christ of the Eastern tradition is precisely the humiliated Christ, yet glorified exactly by his humiliation, by condescendence of his compassionate love. This emphasis on an existential compassion in the Eastern tradition sometimes seems exaggerated to Western observers — almost morbid. But it is just an implication of the basic feeling that the church is in the world rather as a hospital for the sick than as a hostel for the perfect. This feeling had always a very immediate impact on the whole social thinking in the East. The main emphasis was on a direct service to the poor and the needy, and not on elaborate schemes for an ideal society. Immediate human relationship is more important than any perfect scheme. The social problem was treated always as an ethical problem; but ethics was founded in dogma, in the dogma of Incarnation and Redemption through the Cross. One finds all these motives strongly stressed both in the popular preaching and, in the traditional devotional texts, read and repeated in all Orthodox churches again and again. On the whole, the church is always with the humble and meek, and not with the mighty and proud. All this might be often neglected but it was never denied, even by those who were practically betraying the tradition.
And third, there is that inherited social instinct which makes of the church rather a spiritual home, than an authoritarian institution. One has to begin with a remote historical background if one wants to grasp the intimate spirit of the Eastern church. One of the most distinctive marks of this church is its "traditionalism." The term can be easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. In fact, tradition means continuity, and not stagnation. It is not a static principle. The ethos of the Eastern church is still the same as in the early centuries. But is not the existential situation of a Christian ever the same in spite of all radical and drastic changes in his historical situation ?
There was no important movement of social Christianity in modern Russia. Yet, the impact of Christian principles on the whole life was not negligible: it was the same traditional emphasis on mercy and compassion and on human dignity which is never destroyed, even by sin or crime. But the greatest contribution to the social problem was made in the field of religious thought. "Social Christianity" was the basic and favorite theme of the whole religious thinking in Russia in the course of the last century, and the same thought colored also the whole literature of the same period. Various writers would insist that the true vocation of Russia was in the field of religion, and precisely in the field of social Christianity. Dostoevsky would go so far as to suggest that the Orthodox church was precisely "our Russian socialism." He wanted to say that it was the church that could inspire and enforce an ultimate realization of social justice in the spirit of brotherly love and mutuality. For him, Christianity could be fully realized only in the field of social action. All elements were given in the traditional piety: the feeling of common responsibility, the spirit of mutuality, humility, and compassion. "The church as a social ideal"; this was Dostoevski’s basic idea, as Vladimir Solovyev put it in his admirable addresses on Dostoevsky. The same was Solovyev’s leading vision. The key words were in both cases the same: freedom and brotherhood.
It was the Slavophile school that brought the social aspect of Christianity to the fore in the nineteenth century. The name is misleading. The "slavic idea" was by no means the starting point or the strongest point of this influential movement of ideas. The main point was, however, this: did not the West overemphasize the importance of the individual? and did not the East, and particularly the Slavic East, pay more attention to the social and corporate aspect of human life? There was much of Utopian exaggeration in this historiosophy, and yet this social emphasis was completely justified. And the best spokesmen of the school knew quite well that this Eastern feeling for social and communal values was due, not to the Slavic national character, but precisely to the tradition of the early church. It was one of the greatest leaders of the movement. A. S. Khomyakov (1804-1860), who elaborated a theological basis of social Christianity in his brief but inspiring pamphlet: The Church Is One (it has been re-published in English translation, London, S.P.C.K., 1948). His main emphasis was again on the spirit of love and freedom that make the church one fellowship knit together by faith and charity. Spiritual fellowship in the church must be inevitably extended to the whole field of social relations. Society itself should be rebuilt as a fellowship. "Our law is not a law of bondage or of hireling service, laboring for wages, but a law of the adoption of sons, and of love which is free. We know that when any one of us falls he falls alone; but no one is saved alone." It is precisely what St. Basil suggested: nobody can achieve his purpose in solitude and isolation. No true faith is available in isolation, either, since the crucial fact a Christian should believe is precisely the all-embracing love of God in Christ, who is the head of the Body.
The essence of Christianity, therefore, is the free unanimity of many, which integrates them into unity. This short essay of Khomyakov, in fact, meant a radical reorientation of the whole theological and religious thought in Russia. On the one hand, it was a return to the early tradition; on the other, it was a call to practice. Khomyakov’s ideas were the starting point of Solovyev, although later on Solovyev moved in another direction and was seduced by a Romanizing conception of "Christian politics" without, however, abandoning the crucial conception of the church as the social ideal. All his life Solovyev firmly believed in the social mission of Christianity and of the church. Later on, Nicolas Berdyaev wrote a book on Khomyakov in which he stressed the social implications of Khomyakov’s conception of the church. It is interesting to observe that all the three writers just quoted were laymen, yet all of them were loyal, in the main, to Tradition, even if on some particular points they would diverge from it. Their influence, in any case, was not confined to the laity. The whole complex of social problems was brought to the fore by the catastrophe of the Russian Revolution. Historical failures of Christians in the social field must be admitted and recognized. And still the basic conviction remains unshaken: the faith of the church provides a solid ground for social action, and only in the Christian, spirit can one expect to build afresh a new order in which both human personality and social order would be secured.
At this point an urgent question imposes: why then was there so little social action in the East and the whole richness of social ideas left without an adequate embodiment? There is no easy answer to this question. One point, however, should be made in advance. The church is never a unique worker in the social field. It may be allowed a free hand in the field of social philanthropy, almost under any regime, except of course totalitarian tyranny. And, in fact, the church was usually the pioneer, even in the organization of medical service. In Russia, in any case, the first hospitals and orphanages were organized by the church, as early as the fifteenth century, if not earlier; and, what is also instructive, precisely in connection with the "coenobitical" monasteries, just as it was in the times of St. Basil and St. Chrysostom. The work was taken over by the state only in the second half of the eighteenth century, but a memory of the past survived in the name of the "God-pleasing institutions," which was in common use even a century ago. The whole situation changes, however, when we come to the foundations of the social order. Christian and secular criteria do not necessarily coincide, and many conflicts do not admit of an easy solution. The strictures of the early and mediaeval church on usury can be, surely, completely justified from an integral ethical point of view. Yet, economically, they were a serious handicap to progress. The early church was unusually severe on trade in general, and not without reason. There were nevertheless some pertinent reasons on the other side as well. The same is true of the whole industrial (and "capitalistic") development. On many issues a conflict between the Christian and the "national" approaches seems to be unavoidable. What chance has the church to enforce its point of view, except by preaching and admonishing? The state is never very favorable to the criticism coming from the church unless the state itself is avowedly Christian. The same is true of the economic society. The Eastern church, as a rule, was reluctant to interfere in a political manner. Nor should we forget that for several centuries the major churches in the Near East were under Moslem rule and therefore no room was left for any independent social action, except by the way of charity. And when the liberation came in the course of the nineteenth century, the new states were built on a Western, bourgeois pattern and were not ready to follow a Christian lead.
In Russia the field of a prospective influence of the church was similarly narrowed since the state assumed, under a Western influence also, all characteristics of a "Polizei-Staat" and started claiming the supremacy over the church itself. The church was comparatively free only within its own ranks. There was there little room for constructive action, and yet the spirit was alive and the vision of social problems was never obscured. But there was still another major problem: should the church commit itself to any particular social or economic program? Should the church take part in a political struggle? The Eastern answer would be rather in the negative, but by no means will it mean an attitude of indifference.
There is no room for any social action of the churches "behind the Iron Curtain." Of course, this curtain is made not of iron or any other material stuff, but rather of principles. And the main principle of the new totalitarian regime is precisely the complete separation of the church from the whole field of political, social, and economic activities. The church is compelled to retire into "its own sphere," which is, in addition, very strictly circumscribed. The only activity permitted is worship. All educational and missionary activities are prohibited, although the actual policy may vary from country to country and from year to year. On the whole, an absolute sovereignty of the state is taken for granted. In these countries there is but one authority, that of the state or of the party.
Now, in principle, the church can find its way under all circumstances and in every concrete situation. The major danger is, however, elsewhere, namely, in a wrong interpretation of the "other-worldly" character of the church. It is very instructive to compare two recent documents emanating from the Orthodox churches, and both more or less of an informal character. The first is a book, recently published on behalf of the "Christian Union of Professional Men of Greece," Towards a Christian Civilization (Athens, 1950). It is an outspoken and courageous call to Christian action on all fields of civilization. It is an admirable sketch of an active and "guiding" Christianity, and of a "contemporanized" Christianity. Christians have to pass a judgment on all areas of life, and first of all on their own failure to grapple efficiently with a hopeless situation. There is a free and creative spirit breathing through the pages of this book. It is a true call to Christian action. Christians are called; not only authorities or clergy. It is assumed that Christianity has an authority in the social sphere. This manifesto has an informal and private character. It is the voice of Christians, of the body of the church.
The other document comes from the Soviet Union. It is a report on the whole Ecumenical problem, prepared by Fr. Razoumovsky, a priest in Moscow, for the conference of several Orthodox churches in Moscow, which took place in July, 1948. It is included in the minutes of the conference, now published in Russian (Vol. II, Moscow, 1949). We are concerned now with the concluding section of this report. The main point made in the report is an utter separation of the field of the church and the state: "the soul" and "the body." A phrase of the Oxford report of 1937 is quoted: "For a Christian there is no higher authority than God" and a characteristic qualification is added: "yes, but only in the realm of the soul and spirit, but not in the material sphere, there is a complete sovereignty of the state, responsible before God" (p. 177). It is a strange remark indeed when we recall that the state in question is a Godless state. But the thought is quite clear: Christian principles have no application "in the material sphere." Moreover, we are informed on the next pages that principles of justice, equality, freedom are not Christian. They belong to an independent secular sphere exempt even from a moral judgment of the church. The church simply has nothing to do with the whole area of social and kindred problems. One particular point is stressed: it is admitted that Christ had sent his apostles "to teach," but they have to teach "nations" only, not the "rulers" (p. 177). Further, Christ suggested that his followers should avoid an immediate contact with evil. "If social injustice is evil — because the world lies in the evil — it is already a sign that it does not belong to our sphere" (p. 191). This enigmatic phrase has to mean apparently that Christians should not fight evil, but only do good. It is also suggested that social improvements and economic security are of a dubious value from a moral point of view: "would there be any room for the sacrificial love, which is commanded by Christ." Hence no need to overcome greed or envy (p. 189). The main tenor of the document is obvious: the church retires from the world, in which she has nothing to do; she has no social mission at all and has to avoid any "contact" with the world, because it is "in the evil." Have we to forget its misery and suffering? No, but all this belongs solely to the competence of the state, and the church resigns its responsibility for "the material sphere."
Possibly it is just that amount of "religious freedom" which is conceded to churches by an atheistic state and possibly it is in full accordance with the Godless principles. But can the church accept a "reconciliation" or "toleration" at this cost without betraying the gospel of righteousness and its own age-long tradition? Such "otherworldliness" of the church has for it no warrant in the historical experience of the Eastern church. Of course it is not in the tradition of St. Basil and St. Chrysostom. There is no need to add that in fact there is no real separation between the spheres of competence simply because the church in the Soviet Union indulges, time and again, in pronouncements of an openly political or social nature, when, of course, it is invited to do so by the state.
The church is indeed "not of this world," but it has nevertheless an obvious and important mission "in this world" precisely because it lies "in the evil." In any case, one cannot avoid at least a diagnosis. It was commonly believed for centuries that the main Christian vocation was precisely an administration of charity and justice. The church was, both in the East and in the West, a supreme teacher of all ethical values. All ethical values of our present civilization can be traced back to Christian sources, and above all back to the gospel of Christ. Again, the church is a society which claims the whole man for God’s service and offers cure and healing to the whole man, and not only to his "soul." If the church, as an institution, cannot adopt the way of an open social action, Christians cannot dispense with their civic duties for theirs is an enormous contribution to make "in the material sphere," exactly as Christians.
Missionary Leaflet # E095k
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Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)