East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter 2001, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Reflections on Contemporary Russian Orthodoxy and Latvian Lutheranism

Paul Valliere

The challenge in Russian Orthodoxy today is the age-old religious tension of keeping the spiritual and material sides of life in the proper hierarchical relation, so that the material does not overwhelm the spiritual, nor for that matter, the other way around. For spiritual concerns can overwhelm the material side of life with pathological consequences. This, for example, is the subject of an article by a Russian Orthodox medical doctor about the biology of fasting practices, his point being that "a neophyte's zeal can threaten his health." (Mikhail Anokhin, "Kak postit'sia i kak razgovliat'sia. Vzgliad vracha," Nezavisimaia gazeta, 4 June 1999, 11.) Citing instances of people having to be taken to the hospital for resuscitation after excessive fasting, the physician calls for moderation in the practice of religion, admonishing his readers with the Russian proverb that runs, "Make a fool bow down to God in prayer, and he'll crack his head on the church floor" (Zastav' duraka Bogu molit'sia, on i lob rasshibët). The author explains why, according to him at least, Orthodox priests tend to be fat. The reason, ironic as it may seem, is the extensive fasting required of Orthodox clergy. The Orthodox compensate for meat and other protein-rich foods during fasts by consuming large amounts of highly soluble carbohydrates, such as starchy dishes and sweets, and so gain weight. The problem got worse, according to the author, after the introduction of the potato and sugar into the Russian diet in the 18th century; and he recommends banning the potato during fasts, as the Russian church did originally, viewing it as a bludoliubivoe rastenie, a "lecherous plant."

I realize this subject matter is classifiable as religious trivia, and yet there is more to be said about it than that. The fact that such an article--and I've chosen only one among many--appeared in a mainline national newspaper, and not for the Soviet-era purpose of oblichenie mrakobesov, "unmasking of obscurantists," but rather to nudge Orthodox people to be sensible about the practice of their faith--this is evidence for the return of a kind of religious normalcy to Russia. Moreover, the promotion of moderation and balance in religious life is actually a very important thing in a country full of neophytes, among whom more than a few can be described as extremists and outright fanatics. There is even a new word in the Russian vocabulary today to describe this kind of Orthodox zealotry: it is called ortodoksii--not pravoslavie (normative Orthodoxy), but "orthodoxy" in a negative sense, "Orthodox fundamentalism" as we might call it.

The danger of fundamentalism is omnipresent in contemporary Russian Orthodoxy. Shifting to another sector, one can see it, for example, in the ferocious hostility toward ecumenism in the Orthodox Church today. In the last decade a great retreat from ecumenism has occurred throughout the Orthodox world. Two national churches--the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church--have formally terminated their membership in the World Council of Churches and the Russian Orthodox Church has suspended active participation in that body, while not actually formalizing its withdrawal. The Moscow Patriarchate's refusal to embrace Pope John Paul II's much-reiterated request to visit Russia is another case in point. And even a notorious Orthodox book-burning in Ekaterinburg in 1998 is part of this story because one of the main charges in the neo-traditionalist brief against Fathers Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Men, whose writings were burned, was that these men promoted the worldwide ecumenical movement (which of course they did). Father John, indeed, was for a number of years the chairman of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, arguably the most substantive office in that organization.

Let it not be thought, however, that the wave of anti-ecumenism betokens unity within the Orthodox world. On the contrary, the Orthodox churches are more afflicted by schisms and jurisdictional disputes today than they have been in many years. The worst of these situations on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church is in Ukraine, where no fewer than three church organizations, each with its own hierarchy, dioceses, and parish network, claim to be the legitimate Orthodox church in that country. And this tally does not include the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, also a church of the Eastern Rite, which has a huge following in Ukraine. The wrangling among these groups is bitter and occasionally violent. Thus, Pan-Orthodox unity must be put on the list of challenges of the spirit not likely to be surmounted any time soon. (Editor's Note: See also Janice Broun, "Divisions in Eastern Orthodoxy Today" and "Jurisdictional Conflicts Among Orthodox and Eastern-Rite Catholics in Russia and Ukraine," East-West Church & Ministry Report 5 [Spring 1997], 1-3, and [Summer 1997], 7-9.)

One of the unintended but inevitable consequences of religious rivalries is the opportunity which these afford for state intervention in religious affairs. Obviously, if the supposed bearers of the ministry of the Prince of Peace are exchanging blows in the street, or for that matter in their churches, civil authorities cannot wait until a Pan-Orthodox Council reconciles these differences some time in the 21st century. And, of course, authorities are usually eager enough to get involved in any case because of the considerable political advantages to be reaped from collaboration with religious forces in the post-Soviet era.

The last challenge of the spirit is the formidable task of religious education and spiritual formation in the post-Soviet era, the challenge that Patriarch Aleksy II already in 1989 described as "the second great catechization of Russia," second to the original Christianization of the Russian people in the Middle Ages. This challenge, namely the inculcation of basic religious values and a theological worldview, seems to many people both in and outside of the region to be even more daunting than it was ten years ago. This is because the vacuum created by Soviet-era atheism is being filled more often by the nihilism of the post-Soviet kleptocracies than by Christian or other religious values; and also, let it be admitted, by modern secular consumerist civilization. All responsible religious leaders in the region understand their communities have a very long way to go on this front, even on such a basic level as the preparation of clergy, never mind the much more daunting challenge of mass religious education.

Nevertheless, unrelieved pessimism about this task is not really justified, for many creative experiments are underway. Take, for example, contemporary Latvian Christianity. In recent years the eminent young Lutheran pastor of the Martin Luther Church in central Riga, the Rev. Juris Rubenis, and his Roman Catholic artist friend, Maris Subacs, have collaborated on a series of five short books of religious instruction that have captured the imagination of a sizable audience, even making it onto the bestseller lists published by the leading book review in Latvia. (Editor's Note: See also Juris Rubenis, "Rebirth and Renewal in the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church," East-West Church & Ministry Report 5 [Fall 1997], 9-10.) One of the five, entitled God is Here: A First Look at Christianity (Riga: Azaigzne ABC, 1997) is a volume of short essays on theological topics in non-technical language and with whimsical illustrations. The other four books are collections of original parables, proverbs, and brief morality tales. The main concern of Rubenis and Subacs is to make the Christian Gospel intriguing to a highly secularized, humanistically inclined audience. They do not do this by attacking secularism or humanism with the club of tradition or divine dogmas, but by bringing Christianity down to earth, by providing a basis for the humanity of the gospel, and by appealing to people's philosophical curiosity. And they do this with a great deal of charm and humor. The fact that author and artist bridge the divide between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches in Latvia is also testimony to the humaneness of their approach. 

Paul Valliere is McGregor Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Butler University, Indianapolis, IN.

Paul Valliere, "Reflections on Contemporary Russian Orthodoxy and Latvian Lutheranism," East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Winter 2001), 13-14.

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