The Church at a Historical Crossroads

31 july 2019

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: This is an unusual issue both in terms of format (we rarely focus entirely on one topic only) and content. Over the sixteen years of the journal’s existence, we have almost never addressed religious topics, quite consciously. This sphere is too specific, complicated, multifaceted, sensitive, and often explosive, and it seems risky to discuss it in an unspecialized political edition. And it surely abhors clich?s and simplifications, which the modern world is so inclined to make.

This article has been published in a special edition of Russia in Global Affairs, May 2019

This is an unusual issue both in terms of format (we rarely focus entirely on one topic only) and content. Over the sixteen years of the journal’s existence, we have almost never addressed religious topics, quite consciously. This sphere is too specific, complicated, multifaceted, sensitive, and often explosive, and it seems risky to discuss it in an unspecialized political edition. And it surely abhors clichés and simplifications, which the modern world is so inclined to make.

However, events of the last several months made us change our mind. Phenomena and notions, hitherto used solely by theologians and church historians, have become buzz words. The establishment of a local church in Ukraine, which has been granted autocephaly by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, has turned into a truly political event. Now disputes over canonical territories, shrines, and inter-church interaction can hardly be separated from intricate political intrigues, geopolitical rivalry, and clashes for spheres of influence. This is relevant not only for this particular case of the Ukrainian Church but also for the increasingly growing role of religion in public and political processes around the world. In fact, the main reason why we decided to address the complex issue of autocephaly is that it graphically reflects major international trends.

It would be naïve to lament that God’s things and Caesar’s things used to stand separately in the past, but now everything has got messed up. Politics and religion, power and faith have always existed in symbiosis. And yet there is a sense of danger which seems greater now than ever before. There are specific reasons for that.

The total and all-pervading power of communication has exposed hidden motives that used to lie underneath. Today the sacrament of faith becomes particularly vulnerable against human weaknesses and ambitions exhibited and inflated by media that act like a giant magnifying glass.

Demand for values and faith can easily be explained by a deep ideological crisis that has hit the international system. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, euphoria over the triumph of liberal ideology, which is “omnipotent because it is true,” has given way to dark pessimism about the future and led to the loss of ideational and moral guidelines. When the fancy and artificial façade crumbles, it is only natural to turn to something fundamental and tested by time. Hence the surge of interest in religion, but it, too, may fall into a trap.

Politics increasingly needs religious values as a support and a source of moral legitimacy. However, the interweaving of religion with modern virtual politics, which is based mainly on manipulations and void of constant principles, is deleterious for religion. In fact, religion does not refine political practices; it is the latter that impacts religious institutions. As a result, the notorious post-secular world, as Jürgen Habermas called it, is threatening to discredit not only politics, which is currently in an identity crisis, but also religion, which is regaining its significance.

What makes the Ukraine crisis, which began five years ago, hopeless is that it looks more and more like an impassable quagmire engulfing intentions, ideals, common sense, ambitions, and even cynical calculations. A clash of quixotic false progressivism and egoistic hardhattism causes a destructive, senseless and futile dispute. Megatons of half-truths interact arbitrarily and create an environment with no room for genuine truth and values. Meanwhile, the lofty agora is degrading to clamorous television talk shows where the participants confuse their assigned roles and opinions with reality.

This collision, which is actually a slightly caricatured quintessence of the international situation, could not but take a toll on the сhurch. Especially since the Orthodox factor has always played if not a crucial then certainly an important role in the history of Russia and in relations between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. The painful division cutting to the quick has also slashed across the сhurch tissue. Political vultures swarmed in right away, sensing a chance to capitalize on this conflict, too.

Our authors have different views of the situation following the granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. But none of them doubts that the main motive of the schismatics was politics because religious arguments cannot be seriously regarded as crucial in this case. However, this applies only to the Ukrainian situation as such, which would have remained a local, albeit acute, issue, had it not been for Constantinople’s unprecedented decision and attempt to redraw canonical jurisdictions as it sees fit. In fact, the precedent can quickly destabilize the situation in many parts of the world. A re-division of Orthodoxy can trigger events of greater magnitude, involving other confessions and religions. As the global landscape falls apart into fragments, institutions malfunction in various spheres, and major demographic shifts and migration flows sweep the world, any change in the religious balance can cause great upheavals. Suffice it recall the Middle East. But other regions of the world including the most developed ones and seemingly long and deeply secular are not immune against such cataclysms either.

The Ukrainian Tomos story raises many questions which would have had to be asked anyway. Mismatching borders of church jurisdictions and states is an objective problem which cannot be simply waved away. After three decades of illusions that globalization was erasing dividing lines between states and the role of the states in the world system was declining, there has emerged the opposite trend: renationalization, mercantilism, and forceful assertion of national interests. But the interrelatedness of the global space, where no country can clam up and build its own isolated world, remains and will not vanish. This is why the need for values and perceptions that would glue together different pieces of the crumbling mosaic will always remain strong. Religions will have to adapt to this new reality.

The Orthodox oecumene is facing hard times. In Islam, Buddhism and Catholicism, the transnational element is built into the religions system, albeit differently. Orthodoxy has long been linked quite closely with the establishment of nation states. So, the political factor is inseparable. But this is why all players must be extremely delicate and careful when chartering a course of action. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Ukraine where the religious and political structures that have seized the initiative are guided by the “Sturm and Drang” principle, consequences notwithstanding. It seems that the events of the last five years did not teach anyone that Ukraine is a flammable geopolitical material, and there are some wishing to throw in a religion component, as well.

The Ukrainian Tomos has immediate and more distant consequences. In the short term, Kiev is likely to start fighting for the recognition of the new Ukrainian Church by other Orthodox Churches and reduce as much as possible the presence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in the country. This may cause political and social tension, but it will pass. In the long term, however, it will concern the state and role of the Orthodox community in a world where religions are seriously challenged but at the same time offered new opportunities. The state and role of the Orthodox Church in Russia is a separate topic which is extremely important for us. No matter how the current turmoil in Ukraine ends, the situation for the Russian Orthodox Church will never be the same not only in Ukraine but probably also in other countries and even in Russia itself. The Russian Orthodox Church cannot avoid an earnest discussion on its future in the rapidly changing sociopolitical environment. This special issue is an attempt to outline the topics of this discussion and suggest ideas that would be consonant with the spirit of the coming times.

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