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russian-orthodox-christianityThe conservative, by definition, is an opponent of utopia and utopianism. His bedrock is tradition. His thought, though certainly abstract by the practical standards of capitalist democracy, is rooted in history and recognizes that even if it were desirable to lift one foot forward, in order to do it, our second foot must first be firmly planted on solid ground. Yet what is a conservative to do if there is no solid ground? Under such circumstances, he cannot move forward without great risk. Moving backwards presents the same risk. Standing still might seem desirable, but his own weight may sink him. Under such circumstances, he might consider becoming a liberal. A liberal would pave a road over the murky ground in order to go forward. Nevertheless, given that his destination is unknown, hastening to get there may not necessarily end happily for him. On his way, even if he makes haste slowly, he may well tire of the solid ground he has built for himself. He may well look to the side in search of the old, murky ground of his forefathers, that ground which a man could not walk forward on nor stand still on without something rather bizarre happening to him either way—something incalculable, inestimable, unforeseen and thus human.

True, it may well be that nothing about this old, murky ground can be said beyond the fact that those who return to it find themselves eventually buried in it. But do the conservative making haste slowly or the liberals ahead of them fare any better on their paved roads, their solid grounds? The former may well catch up to the latter which, in the meantime have become roadkill. In the end though, the conservative making haste slowly will also end up dead on the road paved by the liberal. Do either of them fare better than those who returned from the paved road to be buried on the old, murky ground? The old ground is neither here nor there. The old ground is no where. It is a utopia. Those who return to it are, therefore, conservative utopians. This designation might be ironic, but Andrzej Walicki is correct to use it (and to take it seriously) when discussing Slavophilism in his masterpiece “In the Circles of Conservative Utopia.” Orthodox Christianity is central to Slavophilism; it is the “old ground” from our opening metaphor. It is also a conservative utopia. To understand Orthodoxy as imagined by the Slavophiles it is necessary to understand what Orthodoxy is not: Catholicism and Protestantism.

Catholic theology is necessarily philosophical because philosophy provides the only means towards religious universalism absent a universally accessible Divine Revelation. Early Christianity was rooted in the phenomenon of the witness. Early Christians discovered Christ as revealed in the words and deeds of the Apostles . Their first test of faith was whether or not to believe the Apostles. Like Lidia, early Christians confronted Christ through the Apostles as the Apostles had confronted the Living God through the Son of Man. We can still confront the Apostles’ words, but the passage of time makes their words remote. The lack of a universally accessible Divine Revelation compels us to employ reason when considering faith. Philosophy, being the loving comportment of reason towards wisdom, matures into theology when faced with God. It is true that individuals spring up who claim access to a subjective Divine Revelation, whose rational faculties are presumably graced with a clairvoyance greater than that of their fellows. Such men become shepherds to flocks which separate themselves from their fellows into little, often competing communities of fervent believers. Those who do not separate remain captives of a tension between faith and reason often described as healthy. This tension, however, inevitably results in faith diluted into trembling scepticism or rationalism elevated into hollow absolutism. A society dominated by these spiritual currents, namely Western society, is bound to decay. There is no remedy for this decay, which is why the Slavophiles want to keep it out of Russia.

Russian Orthodox Christianity is not a remedy to decay, it is the result of a culture spared the encounter with Western rationalism in the form of Platonism and Aristotelianism and subsequently spared the cancer that metastizes out of Catholicism; namely Protestantism. For the Slavophile, Orthodoxy is so clean that it even censors its greatest apologists, like Chomikov, who had to publish in French because the Russian Church considered his ideas dangerous. Chomikov was eventually acknowledged by the Orthodox Church, though his theology appeared in Russian with a forward warning that the authors’ lack of formal theological training was at fault for numerous inaccuracies. This in no way signifies a fault in the Orthodox faith. To argue that it does would signify logic, and that can never lead to anything good. In point of fact, it should always be remembered that the Russian Orthodoxy upheld by its Slavophile apologists is not Orthodoxy as it really existed in their time, nor some idealized vision of the past, but rather it is simply Russian Orthodoxy seen through the eyes of the Slavophiles.

Slavophile eyes, unlike those of Russian conventionalists, have seen the future in the West and wish to save their people from its unbearable burdens. Slavophile eyes, contrary to Russian liberals, are not blindly in love with the West , nor are they infected by the liberal shame that bemoans the barbarism of their own people. The Slavophiles are , in fact, liberals who know the West well enough to reject it for the right reasons in favor of a renewed admiration for the vices of Russia which constitute her greatest virtues and defences. The Slavophiles are of course hated by liberals for intelligently defending the old customs and institutions which the liberal labors to abolish, but they are also misunderstood by the very Russia they love because the cosmopolitanism of the Slavophile, which is the basis of his entire nationalism, is alien and frightening to the Russian soul. The spiritual journey of the Slavophile is one of progress and return. The young Ivan Kireyevski, fascinated with German philosophy and brought up in an aristocratic family who admired British order and hated French philosophizing to the extent of buying up all of the editions of Voltaire in Moscow only to burn them, is a principle example.


Ivan Kireyevski

In his youth, Kireyevski theorized that by virtue of ommitting Helenism, Russian history developed in a manner totally divergent from European history. Kireyevski expressed hope in the European Enlightenment because by doing away with the European heritage and starting anew, Enlightenment Europe made it possible for Russia to start anew as well. Since the basic premise of revolutionary Enlightenment was the destruction of all previously existing modes and orders, then Russia’s late entry into History would cease to matter. Europe, in pursuit of Enlightenment, would annihilate its history, thereby placing Russia and Europe on an equal plain from which to progress. Kireyevski’s early idealism soon burned out as his philosophical wanderings brought him full circle and away from Europeanism. He gazed with renewed appreciation upon his nation, particularly upon that component most isolated from European currents: the Orthodox religion. This renewed appreciation and turning away from reason was quintessentially Apostolic. Like the Apostles, whose rational faculties failed to comprehend the most important events in their lives, Kireyevski was also saved by women. His mother had been one of the most well-educated of all Russians, but it was his wife whose Christian mysticism and fascination with the teachings of the Orthodox Church fathers, eventually penetrated Kireyevski’s heart and mind.

In an approximation of the Slavophile view of the Orthodox faith, Orthodoxy was an organic continuation of the living faith of the Apostles. Catholicism, as Chomikov argued, was akin to an Islamic Caliphate. The idea of the Islamic Caliphate was predicated on a political authority that was at once a spiritual authority. Chomikov presumed that the Catholic Church had acquired the characteristics of an Islamic Caliphate during the Crusades when it became a political body fighting a Holy War akin to its Islamic enemies. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, remained true to the teaching of Christ to render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s. The Orthodox Church did not seek nor exercise political power, but submitted to the Tsar just as the Apostles submitted to Caeser: without any pretense to worldly power.

Outside observers confuse the total submission and compliance of the Orthodox Church to the Russian state as being akin to the Russian state dictating matters of the spirit through a state sanctioned Church. In point of fact, the Russian state could dictate anything it wanted, because the Tsar governed in accordance to the Russian ideal of “self-government” as expressed by Karamzim. The role of the Christian was to submit, and where the Christian spied a contradiction between the requirement of his Tsar and those of his God, the Christian was free to die. This is the Christian ideal held up by the Slavophile writers as distinctively Orthodox. The Catholic attempt to reconcile the City of God with the City of Mam through Platonism and Aristotelianism resulted, first, in a Papal political authority comparable to an Islamic Caliphate and then spiritual rebellion in the form of Protestantism which, in its negation of the political authority of the Catholic Caliphate also atomized and individualized all matters of the spirit. In Orthodoxy, the people obey the Church in all matters and the Church obeys the Tsar in political matters. If the Tsar is wise, he obeys the Church in matters of the spirit, but it is not the place of men to judge the wisdom of Tsars: this is left to God.

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9 replies to this post
  1. It seems like the Orthodox Church had a similar relationship to the Tsars, ‘Tsar’ is the Russian word for Caeser, that the Roman Catholic Church had to the nobility in France. And when there was revolution, the immediate results were similar. We should note that the restoration of the Orthodox Church in Russia seems tied to the rise of a government that sometimes acts in ways reminiscent of how the Tsars acted.

    But when we look at all of the Scriptures, we see that those who preached God’s Word also challenged civil authorities. This is true from Moses through the prophets to at least John the Baptist. We could also include some of the Apostles as they had to resist the authority of the Jewish Sanhedrin. The fact that some apostles were martyred by Rome showed that submission to the Civil Authority was not absolute.

    By the Orthodox Church’s standards then, the kind of resistance that people like Martin Luther King Jr. practiced and promoted would be condemned even when the laws they resisted were immoral.

    But we have to notice a couple of other things. Prior to the Russian Revolution, the Tsars took control of the Orthodox Church. As for today, the Russian government enforces some of the morals taught by the Russian Orthodox Church–see the government’s persecution of homosexuals in society– while the government receives support from the Church (see ).

    There are Scriptural problems here. How does being a Slavophile reconcile with Galatians 3:28 where Paul eliminates the distinctions between all groups so that all belong to Christ without distinction? Doesn’t Galatians 3:28 point to a Christian International (see )? Or what about Paul as he voids himself of his Jewish identity so that he might gain Christ (see )? We should note that those of us in the West must ask ourselves the same questions.

    The trouble with an overemphasizing tradition is that it yields authoritarianism. And authoritarianism eventually tells us how to determine truth. For the authoritarian, truth is primarily determined by the credentials of the source, not by an examination of the facts and logic involved. Yes, preachers and prophets from the Scriptures respected civil authority, but they measured the output of human authorities, religious and civil authorities, by God’s Word. And when the Church, whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant, aligns itself with wealth and power, as history shows that it often does, not only does the Church set itself up to be a target for revenge by the oppressed who are attempting to free themselves, it dishonors the Gospel because of what it associates the Gospel with–the abuses of wealth and power.

  2. Great article, I find it interesting that Orthodox Christianity is more fideistic than rational. I’m always trying to make Catholicism appeal on a more aesthetic level rather than a rational one. I sympathize greatly with Russia’s Orthodox Christians. Faith is better approached aesthetically or through Itself rather than through than through reasoned argument.
    Again, love your articles on Russia keep them coming.

  3. An interesting article on the Orthodox Church that most Americans (me, for example), previously knew very little about. Thanks!

  4. Once again, you have done a great job extrapolating slavic thought to the Anglo-sphere. A few things though. First, I must thank you very much for your response to my question about continental thought a few posts ago. The book you recommended by Heidegger is sitting on my desk right now. As well, I am wondering how you, being Catholic, would reply to the criticisms of the slavophiles about the Western Church? In my mind, the it was the rejection of real hellenistic thought that brought about the Reformation and the Enlightenment, but that is just the Thomist in me speaking.

    Have you read “The Father’s Tale,” by Michael O’Brien? It is a monster of a book, but it contains several excellent reflections on relationship between East and West drawn mostly from Solovyov, I think.

    He is risen!

  5. Mr. T.M. Day,

    You ask a very difficult question which I shall answer by way of a response to Mr. Curt Day’s comments.

    First, I think it is never a good or useful idea to reply to serious thinkers en mass. “The Slavophiles” is a broad categoy. Some of them had reverence for Catholicism, some efforts were made to develop ideas to re-unite the Churches, others were less enthusiastic about such prospects. Slavophilism is very rich in contradiction and, as one might expect of the critics of rationalism and logic, these contradictions do not follow a logical pattern. Slavophilism is like a raging ocean. To complicate things, Slavophilism is not the Orthodox Church.

    Next, there is the not small problem that I am a novice Catholic and by no means versed in Orthodoxy. Ergo, it is well beyond my abilities to dare venture a recomendation as to how to solve the thousand year old schism between the two Churches.

    People of good will need to, I think, trust the proper authorities, and do what convention commands of the faithful. We can pray for better understanding and for good will amongst Church leaders. I read somewhere that Pope Francis proposed communion with no conditions or changes in existing structure with the one single acknowledgement by both Churches that they worship Christ as God. I have to take it on his authority that he knows what he’s talking about. True, it may be better to quit work and live in the desert reading and thinking up a solution to this problem, but it is not my calling. I am left with trustng that Church authorities who dedicated their lives to this matter understand it better than I do.

    Generally, I have enjoyed my exposure to Slavophilism and will continue to do what Polish Founder Roman Dmowski recommended when he wrote that Poles have known Russians for a very long time, but their understanding of Ŕussians has not matured and thus our duty to understand them better.

    Thank you for the book recomendation.

    • Peter,
      I appreciate your responding to my comments as well. BTW, just a disclaimer here, T.M. Day and I are unrelated and don’t know each other. But it is nice to see someone else with that last name writing here. Also, while you are a novice Catholic, I am a protestant. My only claim to fame here is that my best friend, and the person I’ve learned the most from, is Catholic.

      Your statement that we should trust the proper authorities needs more nuance. I know you were probably just referring to religious authorities there, but we should note that the autocratic rule of both the Tsars and the Bolsheviks not only believed, they enforced the idea that the people should trust the proper authorities. They added to this that they were they were the proper authorities. And here we should note that the Church supported the Tsars and they initially tried to appease the Bolsheviks.

      What we are dealing with here, and is somewhat implied in the Imaginative Conservative article defending elite rule (see ), is authoritarianism, a trait that is prevalent in conservative churches but is not shared by all outside the church. Thus in dealing with those outside the church, we in the conservative churches need to know when to turn off the authoritarian switch. We need to do that is unless we want to preside over all in society. To fail to turn off that switch simply results in a forever king of the hill battle between competing authority figures where the pendulum will always be swinging. Sometimes it will be swinging in our favor and sometimes it won’t. History shows that persecution of the Church has sometimes occurred during or followed revolutions because the Church did not stand up to the political authorities when the authorities were wrong.

  6. A fascinating study. Thank you, Mr. Rieth. However, as a historian (particularly of Islam), I must point out that Chomikov was in error seeing the papacy as a type of the Islamic Caliphate; in fact, much more historically accurate is the conventional (Western) view that the papacy grew out of the old Roman imperium, eventually taking its place in the power vacuum after the Western Empire’s dissolution.

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