08 November 2007

Denomination and monopoly

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Mikhalkov's film 12. Now I've just seen another recent Russian film, The Island. From the marketing ("Here the unexplainable happens"), at first I thought this mysterious island was in the realm of fantasy, perhaps a special "zone" like the one in Tarkovsky's Stalker. No such thing: it is simply the stark and receptive arena where its frequent visitor, Father Anatoly (Pyotr Mamonov), talks with God about what has been and what will be.

As the trailer says, "Father Anatoly can see into the future, but what can he do about the past?" Anatoly's combination of holy fool-ishness (sometimes to the point of scandal), complete lack of awe for the authorities, and flashes of spiritual power, are tied to a wartime incident in which a German naval officer forces him to shoot his own skipper. Because of this coerced act, and his own cowardice, his spirit perhaps became very deep--or perhaps he simply went off the deep end. Piety, pathos, and comedy trade off in this redemption play, set in a land so cold and barren that any form of asceticism seems almost beside the point. But there's always something else you can give up, as Anatoly's sole disciple discovers.

Russian Orthodoxy quietly permeates this film--and that "quiet permeating" is what I really want to talk about. Much of Russia is permeated by Russian Orthodoxy, and I'm wrestling with ways of understanding and coming to terms with that reality. There are sectors of the Orthodox Church that would like to enforce an Orthodox monopoly on expressions of Christianity in Russia. (Ironically from my point of view, that sector is not opposed to sharing monopoly status with Judaism and Islam as historic faiths of Russia, but draws the line at other Christians.) But in a cultural sense, a near-monopoly already exists.

What could I possibly mean by the word "monopoly"? The closest analogy I can think of in the USA is the claim by some evangelicals and fundamentalists that the USA is a Christian nation, or that it was founded by Christians. Neither is true, but in any case it is a very deficient parallel, because most people who take that line are not linking it to one single official expression of Christianity and denouncing the rest. The pamphlet The Church on the State (Церковь о государстве), which I bought at the Vysotsky Monastery in Serpukhov, proclaims the identity of church and state in Russia and pronounces all Western Christians as apostate.

Many Orthodox people would not actually go that far. But this identification of nation and communion is an important reality, and I'm thinking about how unproductive it would be to either ignore it or try to "fix" it.

For one thing, I'm not sure that the categories we might use to compare the Russian experience with the American experience are actually comparable. It's not as if Russia has one Western-style denomination with little or no competition while the USA has a riot of choices. Russian's aren't giving their loyalty to a denomination; it is not the specific hierarchy and church bureaucracy that commands the loyalty of Russians, and, to risk a generalization, they've not given up their historic ambivalence about the virtues of the clergy. Nor do the majority of Russians look to the church for instruction in discipleship, or for any kind of regulation in personal behavior. (And that's not even dealing with the issue of rates of regular church attendance, which are 10% or less, last time I checked.) One Orthodox convert I know was a Russian Baptist but left that church for her present Orthodox affiliation because the Baptists minded each other's business, while the Orthodox downplay rules in favor of simply growing closer to God.

The American modular lifestyle and consumerist approach to spirituality also makes the categories hard to compare. For better or for worse, we Americans have made religion a private affair--except, of course, for presidential candidates. We privately choose the denomination and church that best suits our apparent needs now--we don't look to the larger community to tell us where to belong. That is sometimes true in Russia as well, but there's clearly just one default option for Christian Russians, or Russians interested in being Christian. Anything other than Orthodoxy is somehow strained, strange, and increasingly defensive.

The "default option" is everywhere--in the culture, in the monuments (the highway sign marking the beginning of the Noginsk district has an icon on it), and in the partial enmeshment of church and state. It is embedded in the concept of the collective, of group solidarity. With this symbolic monopoly, any minority Christian fellowship risks looking like a cult in comparison: gathering a few faithful off in one corner, while most of the rest of Russia partakes of the public feast of Orthodoxy--some choosing a four-course meal, others enjoying just the dessert, or perhaps even just the ever-present aroma.

So what is the utility of having a separate denominational fellowship at all? Actually, very little, if the purpose is to compete with the Russian Orthodoxy that actually exists. I don't see the purpose of Friends in Russia as setting up a competing structure or a competing culture. The fact is, when it comes to educational and discipleship resources, much of what the great Orthodox teachers offer is superior to the thin stuff we've sometimes come up with. (And at other times it is astoundingly close to what Friends teach!) Since we have the exact same Savior, we are simply brothers and sisters helping direct the attention of spiritually hungry people to that Savior. And no cultural monopoly, no matter how pervasive, can ever guarantee actual spiritual efficacy to every human being under its umbrella. And the more coercive its claims, the weaker its spiritual integrity.

If the ongoing work of discipling and encouraging a spiritually hungry person is best done within Orthodox fellowships, there is no loss in saying so. None whatever. If that ongoing work is best done within a Quaker context, then we should make that context warm and accessible, and without unnecessary and invidious comparisons with other choices open to the new believer.

I'm suggesting that it is perfectly possible to be a Quaker within an Orthodox culture, and I'd love to have the reflections of others. As I see it, my own Friendly ties are not a competing form of Christianity, they're a set of relationships that give me accountability for good stewardship of resources. Among those resources are inspiring testimonies of Quaker discipleship--how we specifically link faith and practice--but these are our legacy for the whole Church, not just for us.

Righteous links:

While we're on the subject of Russia, Sean's Russia Blog has had several important recent posts: First, Sean Guillory on the false parallels between 1917 and 2007; and seventeen intellectuals comment on the disappearance of the November 7 holiday commemorating the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. I used the latter document today in my American studies class, as we considered the fact that both our countries experienced world-changing revolutions.

Lauren Winner reviews two books: Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body and Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection.

Somewhat related: Church Marketing Sucks continues to encourage churches to learn from Dove's recent ad campaign. (Thanks to Monday Morning Insight.)

Friday PS: For Russian readers, here's a link to a much-discussed article by the late Georgi Chistyakov,"Откуда эта злоба?" ("Where does this anger come from?"), about the more militant anti-ecumenical attitudes within the Russian Orthodox Church leadership. Teaser:
Today, Orthodox religiousness includes--as an almost integral component--a struggle against Catholics and Protestants, exposing them as enemies of our faith and of Russia. It also includes a complete aversion to ecumenism and, more generally, to any openness in relation to other confessions. The word "ecumenism" begins to take on an abusive character, treated as the principal twentieth century heresy, and participation in this phenomenon is taken as evidence of complete non-Orthodoxy.
This spirit is evident in the pronouncements of some hierarchs and seems to be behind some of the vandalism and church closings experienced among Protestants here, but is emphatically not part of the spirituality of most Orthodox Christians I know. Making patriotism and Orthodoxy identical is clearly a program being deliberately pursued by some and resisted by others, while millions simply bide their time.

PS#2: I found a translation.

Dessert!! The essence of Chicago distilled into 9-1/2 minutes of music for a German television audience. According to one of the commenters, this clip is from 1970 and the lineup is Walter Horton (harp), Willie Dixon (bass), Lafayette Leake (piano), Lee Jackson (guitar), Clifton James (drums, vocal). Third song (Willie Dixon) is cut off.


Anonymous said...

"No cultural monopoly, no matter how pervasive, can ever guarantee actual spiritual efficacy to every human being under its umbrella. And the more coercive its claims, the weaker its spiritual integrity."

I began this morning with prayers for help in the work that begins this evening at the first gathering of the New York Yearly Meeting FUM Task Group. What I've quoted above from your post, Johan, feels like an answer to those prayers.

It gathers together so much of what I've been groping my way toward. Thank you.

My immediate concerns aside, I am mindful of what a significant analysis you're attempting here. It set me to wondering if a review of Eden Grace's work on ecumenism and on the connections between Russian Orthodoxy and Quakerism might be in order?

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Carol. I rechecked two of Eden's online essays and found both of them helpful: Worship in the World Council of Churches, and The conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church. Two observations: Some of the Orthodox objections to ecumenism are more political than theological, and if pushed too far might verge on heresy. And I have an impression, based on anecdotes and flimsy evidence, that some of the defensiveness and special pleading from the Orthodox world may be generational, reflecting the passing from the scene of ecumenically inclined elder statespeople of Orthodoxy, replaced by younger people whose response to the post-Soviet reality is sometimes a pugnacious reassertion of entitlement. Arrogant or ignorant Western exploitation of the new situation didn't/doesn't help, nor does the flood of Western vulgarity into the cultural territory of Orthodoxy. But the full picture is far more complex, and the Orthodox leadership itself bears much responsibility. Eastern triumphalism is no better than Western triumphalism, and neither version satisfies God-hunger.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to know that Eden Grace's writings proved useful, Johan.

On a completely other topic, as I read your description of The Isalnd it suddenly occurred to me that you might enjoy engaging with the blog of a friend of mine, Dennis Grunes. Dennis's life is devoted to cinema. He has opinions of--and knowledge about--movies like no one else I know. Here's a link to his list of the 100 Greatest Soviet and Russian Films of All Time.


Anonymous said...

You write, "...There's clearly just one default option for Christian Russians, or Russians interested in being Christian. Anything other than Orthodoxy is somehow strained, strange, and increasingly defensive."

I've spent many years living on the edge of a part of the United States where there is clearly one default option for Christian U.S. residents, or for U.S. residents interested in being Christian, namely, low-church Protestantism. Much of the rural interior U.S. West and South is like that. In that region, anything other than low-church Protestantism is somehow strained, strange, and most definitely defensive. I recall a Jew who lived in rural west Texas for a while, recounting how the kids in the school where he taught asked him, "What kind of Christians are the Jews? Are they more like the Baptists or more like the Assemblies of God?" The kids could not imagine that there was any markedly different sort of religion, because they'd never actually been exposed to one. (Just watching TV does not make these things clear.) I myself have often been asked, once people have begun realizing that I am religiously a bit different, whether I am "Christian or Catholic".

In Utah and adjoining parts of Idaho, Arizona and Nevada, the one-clear-default-option is LDS, aka "Mormon". I haven't lived there, but I've visited extensively enough to know what it feels like. To be anything but LDS there is somehow strained, strange, and very defensive indeed.

There are some very large and very tightly-knit Catholic portions of the United States, including one in Omaha, Nebraska, where I presently live, where people belonging to the Catholic community are so wholly surrounded and immersed in it that, even though they see Protestants on the streets around them, in their perception there's still clearly just one default option, namely Catholicism, and anything else is somehow strained, strange and defensive. A young woman from that world, who converted to born-again Protestantism a year or so ago, told me this past spring, "I don't dare let my family know what I have become."

There are Friends living in all three of those portions of the U.S., however, and they are very clear that there is a real reason for their belonging to a separate denominational fellowship — namely, to live out, and bear witness to, various aspects of religion that the dominant religious community neglects. It sounds to me as if the Russian who joined the Baptists because they mind one another's business has realized a similar truth.

I don't absolutely know whether we Friends are "a competing form of Christianity" or not, but I suspect we are. Traditionally we've done our best to live in love and coöperation with the professing Christians not of our own Society where we've lived, but there's no question that we've also spent a lot of our history being forthright in criticism of the wrongs that established churches have committed. And we have, traditionally, been a separate religious community, which separateness means that we have been in de facto competition for believers' time and energy, whether we have wanted to admit it or not. Candor should compel us to admit these facts, even as we admit that we have only love in our hearts for every true follower of the living God.