Orthodoxy, Liberalism and Tradition

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad is Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.

“Comprehend the circumstances of the time,” said Ignatius of Antioch, the holy martyr and God-Bearer. This commandment is especially topical now, on the threshold of the third millennium. What problems does the outgoing century leave us with? What is the challenge of our epoch?

There is a problem of priorities at the end of the century, and the future of the world community largely depends on its successful solution. I am deeply convinced that the fundamental challenge for humanity in our epoch is the need to elaborate a model of civilisation in the twenty-first century which would allow the utmost harmonisation of the dramatically different imperatives of neoliberalism and traditionalism. East and West are facing the formidable but by no means hopeless task of finding together the balance between progress in safeguarding individual and minority rights on the one hand, and in preserving the national-cultural and religious identity of nations on the other.

Although the need for an adequate and united response to the civilisational challenge of our time has so far not been formulated in the proper socio-political and cultural terms, it is everywhere felt very acutely. This is because the implicit for many, but nevertheless real state of affairs, in the military–political, cultural–religious, national and other confrontations which we see in the post-communist epoch, is precisely the resistance of the conservative principle and traditionalist world-outlook to the imposed and even forcible establishment of neoliberal values. This is an intrinsic element of the present ideological drama.

The twentieth century was a historical arena in which pairs of irreconcilable rivals confronted each other in a brutal struggle: monarchism and republicanism, fascism and communism, totalitarianism and democracy. Two world wars and one “cold” war were the bitter results of our century’s ideological strife. Against this background, the euphoria over Soviet perestroika was quite natural and understandable in a world weary of seeing two superpowers balanced on the brink of nuclear apocalypse.

The dominance of the ideologised consciousness, a fruit of pride and the sophism of the human mind, which frequently revealed its spiritual poverty and caused innumerable disasters for nations, has been seriously shaken. But the rivalry of ideologies is being replaced by a new and hardly curable rivalry, namely, that between globalism and universalism on the one hand, and on the other—expressing the principle of the individual and separate—conservatism and traditionalism. Therefore today, as in biblical times, the principle which was so exhaustively formulated by the Spanish social thinker José Ortega y Gasset remains the cornerstone of human coexistence: “Civilisation is first of all the will to coexistence.” But the will to coexistence presupposes, as a mandatory condition, recognition of the other’s right to life. Since the divine truth is reflected both in the concept of human rights and freedoms and in the principle of national and cultural identity, let us turn to history in order to trace the genesis of their confrontation, which is now so topical. But first let us agree on the concept of the civilisational standard we shall use to describe the liberal and traditionalist complexes of philosophy and value. 

The Roots of Liberalism 

It is known that liberalism came into being in Europe in the eighteenth century when the Enlightenment was drawing to a close. In the next century this doctrine became stronger and began to become firmly established. The idea of the comprehensive liberation of the individual from social, political, national, religious, legal and other limitations often nourished the revolutionary movements which opposed the state structure in the countries of Western Europe and in Russia. The adherents of liberalism postulated as a fundamental problem of the epoch the enslavement and oppression of the individual by the structures and institutions of the state, the social order and the prevailing moral ethos, prejudices and conventions. Hence, the individual had to be liberated from the burden of external forces, since man “by definition” is the absolute and ultimate value, and his good is the criterion of the just social order. On the eve of the Russian Revolution this myth of liberal consciousness was expressed in concentrated form by the classic proletarian author Maxim Gorky who, through one of his characters, declared: “Man—this sounds proudly!” In the Soviet Union, these words were inscribed on the banner of the anti-religious struggle, as in an atheistic state there could be no other cause worthy of one’s thoughts and efforts. It is not fortuitous that Holbach, Helvetius, Diderot and other philosophers of the Enlightenment persistently linked humanism with materialism and atheism.

So, God-like man as the measure of all things was put at the core of an anthropocentric universe. Not simply man, moreover, but fallen sinful man, since according to the teaching of the Church, “Man is created in the image and after the likeness of God, but sin has distorted the beauty of the image” (St Basil the Great). Modern Western thought completely lacks this concept of the distorted nature of man. Triumphing in it is a set of ideas of pagan origin which became established in western Europe during the Renaissance. It was with the authority of the Renaissance that the concept of the anthropocentric universe was sanctified in which the individual is the centre of existence and society. Thus, along with the return to classical culture during the Renaissance there occurred a spiritual involution of European social thought. It regressed from the values of Christianity to the ethics and world outlook of paganism. To employ an expression often used by Arnold Toynbee in his key work A Study of History, we have every reason to speak of the triumph of “idolatry in its most vicious form of man’s worshipping himself”. 

The Western Response 

As far as Western Christianity is concerned, it did not denounce this process, but having accepted the postulate of the freedom of man as the highest value of his earthly being, as a social and cultural given, it sanctified the union of neo-pagan doctrine with Christian ethics. Christian and pagan principles were combined (through Catholicism and Protestantism) in the process of forming the liberal standard of existence. A certain influence was exerted by Judaic theological thought (Maimonides, Crescas, Ibn Ezra), which was highly influential in the universities of western Europe. From Spanish culture and through Jewish emigration it came to Holland and the neighbouring countries. It is not surprising that the ideas most in demand in the formation of the liberal worldview were those of the freethinkers, atheists and pantheists who broke away from traditional Judaism, such as Baruch Spinoza and (partly) Uriel da Costa. The whole complex of notions in the liberal standard of existence was formed in the nineteenth century. It was first enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution and finally confirmed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

It is unfortunate that Russia only recently had the chance to enter the debate about the relationship between liberalism and traditionalism. Previously, the Soviet Union was active in elaborating the modern version of the liberal standard of human rights and of relations among states. But in doing so it was guided by pragmatic considerations, such as to disavow accusations by the West of totalitarian methods of control and, at the first opportunity, to turn this double-edged propandanga weapon against its ideological adversaries. It seemed at the time that Soviet human rights violations would be hidden from the world behind the iron curtain for ever, and that it was possible for the Soviet Union to allow an advantageous compromise with the West in order to enhance the popularity of socialism without any real changes in life at home. But the Soviet Union disintegrated, and only one superpower remains on the world scene. Paradoxically, this has inherited not only the former Soviet empire, but also the politics of double standards concerning human rights. How else can it be explained that the pretext for aggression against Yugoslavia was the problem of Kosovo, whereas the similar problem of Kurdistan is considered no reason for threatening action against Turkey? 

A Voice Unheard 

Unfortunately, Soviet diplomacy, for ideological and political reasons, wholly excluded the Orthodox spiritual and cultural tradition when modern standards of relations among states and of human rights were being elaborated. Neither was this tradition emphasised, as far as I can judge, by diplomats from other countries who represented the East. In other words, we can state that modern international standards are exclusively Western and liberal in nature.

This would not cause particular concern were the problem one of foreign policy only, i.e., of relations among states. In this sphere, the liberal standard has proved itself sufficiently effective. Indeed, what would happen in the sphere of international relations if the liberal standard, universal by nature, was rejected? It is quite evident that this universal standard would be replaced by national standards, which have repeatedly provoked and legitimised wars in the past. Were such a replacement actually to be made, an uncontrolled collapse of the whole world system could occur, because any of these standards, be they Wahabist, Chinese, African, Catholic, Japanese, Hindu, etc., if made the basis of structuring relations among states, would inevitably be rejected by the adherents of other national-cultural and religious views. An attempt to build relations among states while ignoring certain principles common for all would be close to a universal catastrophe. There would be no room left for happiness if one national standard triumphed, even that adhered to by you.

So, the crux of the problem seems to be the following: it is not that the liberal standard formulated at the level of international organisations is the basis of global politics today; rather, it is that this standard is deemed mandatory for organising the internal lives of countries and peoples, including those whose cultural, spiritual and religious traditions are not represented in the practical application of this standard.

What should be particularly mentioned in this regard are the moral values of the expanding European Union. It is quite clear that these values are based on Western liberalism. When the frontiers of a “united Europe” were the same as those of Western Europe, this problem could be regarded as an internal affair of the West and its own civilisational choice, responsibility for which in religious and pastoral terms was borne by the Western churches. Today, the frontiers of the united Europe are being extended to the East, and it quite possible that in the foreseeable future they will include countries with an Orthodox population of many millions. How will these countries preserve their spiritual, cultural and religious identity in the face of ethnic standards and values alien to them? If Europe, and perhaps the whole world, are regulated on the basis of a single cultural-civilisational norm, then they will be easier to govern, but they will lack the beauty of plurality and popular happiness. Besides, it is clear today that the expansion of liberalism cannot take place without conflict, especially in those spheres of human life which tenaciously retain values nurtured by national spiritual and cultural traditions. This phenomenon is less evident in the West than in the East, but in reality it is present in both. 

Dictating to Russia 

The most vivid example of such conflict is provided by the history of the adoption of the new Russian law, “On the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organisations”. This set conditions on religious groups seeking to be officially registered in Russia. The aim was to prevent the legalisation of sects that violate human rights and commit criminal deeds. Groups seeking registration must prove they have been extant on Russian soil for fifteen years, and their activities must be consistent with public health and safety, order and morals, and the protection of the rights of other persons.

The West, claiming the new law was intended to bar foreign churches from Russian soil, exerted unprecedented political pressure on Russia. President Clinton and Chancellor Kohl sent President Yeltsin messages of protest. The Pope demanded that the Kremlin block the new law. American congressmen threatened Russia with economic sanctions if it were approved. Why did no other internal Russian problem provoke such a sharp, negative and concerted reaction from the West? The reason is simple: our law on the freedom of conscience was regarded as incongruous with liberal standards in the sphere of religious human rights. The only Western countries not to join this campaign against the national legislation of a sovereign state were those in which the church (unlike in Russia) enjoys established status or in which the formal registration of exotic sects alien to the local cultural tradition is subject to many more conditions than in our country. In effect, Russia was given an ultimatum to bring its national legislation on the freedom of conscience into line with “international” (but actually liberal) standards.

Such collisions show that the liberal standard is not perfect and that it can be manipulated for political purposes. They are highly significant and will occur even more frequently in future if we do not immediately begin serious discussion about the relationship between liberalism and traditionalism in the formation of viable norms which must meet the challenges of European as well as world integration.

From this it follows that it is not the most liberal standard with regard to all sorts of human rights and freedoms that can lay claim to a generally recognised and genuinely universal character, but only a standard which takes into account certain widely accepted principles and organically and unambiguously combines them with the national, cultural and religious values of various countries. The moral duty of postcommmunist Russia and other countries which belong to the spiritual and cultural tradition of Orthodox Christianity is to present their own vision of the problem to the world community and urge it to resume the discussion under the changed historical circumstances we now inhabit. There is a lot of hard work to do in formulating one’s own position and defending it before world public opinion at the United Nations and other international organisations. The Orthodox churches can play an invaluable role here, primarily in dialogue with other churches, denominations and religions. 

Ecumenical Dialogue 

In this regard I would like to say some words about ecumenism. I am deeply convinced that the crisis of modern ecumenism is largely connected with its inability to comprehend the fundamental meaning of the apostolic tradition as the norm of faith. This norm, which like a golden thread runs through universal history and connects the apostolic age with our own day, comprehensively determines the ways of life and the salvation of Christians. The preservation and affirmation of this inviolate norm of faith is Orthodox Christianity’s mission in the world, since rejection of the tradition entails an involuntary recognition of the notion that man is permitted to do everything. In fact, the agreement of certain denominations to female ordination or the blessing of homosexual marriages is nothing but a practical realisation of the liberal standard of human rights and of unlimited religious freedom. This is one of many cases of the systematic and deliberate ousting of the apostolic norm of faith from the life of contemporary society and its replacement by the liberal standard.

The tragedy of modern Protestantism is its acceptance of, and participation in, this replacement with the prospect of losing its confessional identity to the point of complete dissolution in the system of values of the secular world. It is in the ecumenical movement, and above all in the World Council of Churches, that this trend has become apparent to the Orthodox. The protest of the Orthodox against female ordination and the recognition of homosexual marriages is a protest against the very idea that the liberal standard (which, as is known, has not only Christian roots) has priority over the norm of the tradition of the church. The crisis of ecumenism has clearly revealed the aspiration of the Protestant majority on the council to make liberalism the fundamental idea. In many respects, this aspiration defines ecumenical ethics and practice, sidelining the theme of tradition. Thus, despite some success in achieving consensus on matters of dogma, Orthodoxy and Protestantism face new divisions because of Protestant theology’s “absolutisation” of liberal standards.

Yet these serious disagreements and contradictions should not be perceived as a reason to break off the dialogue, let alone as grounds for religious confrontation with the West. On the contrary, the Russian Orthodox Church, which has raised the question of the crisis of modern ecumenism publicly and in the spirit of fraternal openness, regards the continuation of dialogue among Christians as an opportunity to witness to divided Christianity the fundamental meaning of the norm of faith revealed in the apostolic tradition. In this regard, dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, which recognises tradition as the norm of faith, could be quite fruitful.

The non-Christian monotheistic religions are devoted to the idea of faithfulness to their religious identity and staunchly defend the rights of their believers. That is eloquently testified to by the revelant articles in the legislations of Israel and Muslim countries. These religions could also become allies of the Orthodox in the dialogue with those who put the value of tradition in doubt. By their nature, different national and religious standards are not, in Karl Popper’s terms, “enemies of the open society”, as they are sometimes presented as being. On the contrary, they could be an effective factor in its stability and viability. 

Orthodoxy and Liberalism 

Today, we face a dilemma: either Orthodoxy “changes” or it will be rejected by the “world community”, a pseudonym for Western culture, or to be more precise, liberalism. Western liberalism is persistently affirmed as the most “progressive”, “humanistic” and “modern” of cultures. At the same time, Orthodox Christianity and sometimes the other monotheistic religions as well are set off against the liberal anthropocentric system of values, which is declared to be the norm for both the individual and society. The churches and religious communities must respond adequately to the positive and negative aspects of the current process of globalisation. We want to understand others, but we also want to be heard and understood.

We come from a theocentric spiritual tradition which perceives anthropocentric humanism as an alien worldview. We are prepared to treat it with respect, but we shall never accept it as an absolute and unconditional positive value. We also proceed from the notion that the standards which voluntarily or involuntarily facilitate the destruction of peoples’ national-cultural and religious identity will inevitably deplete the fullness of God’s world, leading to its homogenisation and finally to its destruction.

Europe, with its traditions of multiculturalism, tolerance and openness, could make a decisive contribution to the global harmonisation of religious, cultural and sociopolitical traditions. Christians can play an important role. I believe that through our combined efforts we shall be able to lay the foundations for a truly diverse community based on standards which will secure the rights and freedoms of people, preserving, rather than destroying, the values rooted in their spiritual, cultural and religious traditions. Such a world order alone can be the real alternative to suspicion, enmity and the use of force in relations among nations.

That we may live, and not die, both we, and thou, and also our little ones. (Gen. 43:8)

GLOBAL DIALOGUE Volume 2 ● Number 1 ● Winter 2000


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