The Orthodox church in the face of world integration: the relation between traditional and liberal values

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.

The confrontation between liberal civil standards and the values of religious and national-cultural identity should be recognized as expressing one of the fundamental contradictions of our time, and a basic challenge to the human community in the 21st century. The tension between these civilizations is endangering not only the security but even the very survival of humanity.

The rapid development of communications has changed strikingly the structure of interpersonal, intercommunity and interstate relations. In the present-day world, the borders that used to separate national cultures have actually collapsed. People move around the world with unprecedented ease, choosing freely a place to live and work. It is no secret that, in doing so, many prefer wealthy and prosperous countries; however, in receiving much, one also loses a great deal.

The above should not be understood as nostalgia for the past, and even less as an invitation to the return to the past. It is only to note that what is happening before our very eyes leads to tremendous cultural and ethical shifts, and we are hardly ready to realize their consequences in full measure. The epoch of mono-ethnic and mono-confessional states is fading into the past. The rapidly growing Muslim presence in the European continent has become a social and cultural factor not to be ignored. The world has become open, diffusive and interpenetrating. How should Christians, and the communities which identify themselves as Christian, respond to this challenge of our time?

It is my conviction that the future of the Orthodox church in the 21st century in Russia, just as of other Christian churches in various countries, does not depend in the first instance on how many new churches we will open and how many baptisms we will administer in them. What is crucially important is how successfully those who consider themselves Christians will adopt the truly Christian way of life: by that, I mean a way of life built on religious motivation in everyday life, including professional work and participation in Social affairs. Indeed, the ideology dominating today seeks to inculcate in a person the idea that religious faith is exclusively an internal, innermost and even intimate affair of the individual. The liberal secular consciousness regards a religious motivation for the choices people make as justified and admissible only in as far as it determines their personal - or at most family - life.

Indeed, personal ethics lies at the heart of Christian morality. The vector of the Christian message is the personal spiritual condition, for that message is addressed to every person with the purpose of transforming their heart. These salvific transformations in our internal world, however, do not take place in isolation from the external milieu, but in real and living contact with people around us: first of all family, work collective, society and state. It is impossible to remain Christian behind the doors of one's home, in one's family circle or in the solitude of one's cell, and to stop being Christian when rising to a professor's chair, posing before a television camera, voting in parliament, starting a scientific experiment, and so on. Christian motivation should be present in all that comprises the sphere of a believer's vital interests. It is a universal and all-embracing motivation, for a believer cannot exclude professional or scientific interests, professional, political or social activity or work in the mass media, and so on, from the spiritual and moral context of his life. Thus, the religious way of life is a mode of existence in the world for a person whose choice is motivated and determined by his confessional principles.

Tradition as the norm of life

From the point of view of an Orthodox Christian, the religious way of life is distinct in that it is rooted in the Tradition of the church. The Tradition, for us, is a totality of doctrinal and didactic truths which have been adopted by the church through the apostolic witness and which are preserved and developed by the church with reference to the historical circumstances of its existence and the challenges it has to face in various eras. In short, the Tradition is a living flow of continued faith within the church, and is nothing else but the norm of faith. We understand every deviation from the Tradition as primarily a breach of the norm or, in short, a heresy. It is not just a matter of an intellectual choice, of course. Commitment to the Tradition is manifested above all in one's life values.

In order for the norm of faith to become a norm of one's life, one needs not only knowledge but also a real experience of life in the church, an experience of participation in its mystery. Only in this case the norm of faith becomes natural for a person, breathing praise to the Lord. Without restricting, limiting or violating personal freedom, this norm protects a person from destruction, like a mother's womb protects a developing life from destruction.

The norm of faith and life handed down by the Tradition can be either distorted (and even destroyed), or preserved and strengthened when it comes in touch with other cultural and civil standards, with other norms of life. We come in touch with "other life" when, for instance, we live side by side with people of other views and convictions. There is something noteworthy here. If these "other" ways of life are based on their own traditions, then more often than not they are not perceived as dangerous for the values of the Orthodox way of life. Historically, the Orthodox in Russia have lived and worked together with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and some Christian confessions. Throughout the history of our country, these religious and cultural crossings have almost never been destructive. Russian Orthodox people have lived together with non-Russians and non-Orthodox peacefully and their attitude to them was that of interest, curiosity and sometimes sincere respect, doing justice to their particular professional skills and often assimilating foreign cultural realities, household habits and working practices. Perhaps it is thanks to what Dostoyevsky described as "the universal sensitivity" of the Russian that the blood of religious wars has not drenched our land. On the contrary, we can rather speak about a model of peaceful coexistence among various religious and existential standards, a model which was formed in remote antiquity in Russia and which is rooted in particular traditions with their own established, and therefore familiar, value systems. This is a manifestation of mutual respect for the religious and cultural experience of one another, presupposing that one's own way of life is not imposed on one's neighbour. Here we do not speak about the period of totalitarianism of course, when all the traditions were destroyed in order to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.

As Russia's past and present experience has shown, contact and mutual influence among religious and cultural traditions (under certain conditions, such as rejection of proselytism, aggression and the like) can be not only safe for the preservation of a cultural and religious identity, but also mutually enriching. The problem lies elsewhere: today there are no barriers which can secure the religious and historical identity of nations against the expansion of alien and destructive socio-cultural factors, against the new way of life that has emerged outside any tradition and is taking shape in the context of post-industrial reality. This way of life is based on the liberal ideas which took shape in the late Enlightenment as a set of principles rejecting the normative significance of the Tradition, and giving unconditional priority to the freedom of the individual from any conventions or limitations (except for prohibitions imposed by a system of law that does not include all the moral requirements of the religious law given to humanity in the ten commandments).

I should remark that Orthodox theologians do not at all challenge the need to assert the value of the personality, and value its freedom. For the Lord himself, who created man in his image and likeness, endowed us with the divine gift of free will. Thus, the freedom of man is preordained by the divine design and to violate it is a sin.

However, the understanding of the essence of freedom reveals an irreconcilable difference between secular liberalism and the traditional Christian world-view. For from the Christian point of view, man finds true freedom as he frees himself from sin, from the dark power of instinct and evil principle hanging over him. However, the liberal concept, quite alien as it is to the notion of sins includes the idea of the emancipation of human beings as they are, which actually means the release of the potential of sin in the human person. Free people, this asserts, have the right to discard everything that bind them and prevent them from asserting their sinful ego. The moral condition is declared an internal affair of the sovereign, autonomous and fully independent personality. In this respect, the liberal idea stands diametrically opposed to Christianity. According to Toynbee's apt remark, it is the triumph of "idolatry in the most vicious form of man's worship of himself".

The problem under discussion is made considerably more complicated due to the fact that the modern concept of liberalism has long overgrown the infantile clothes of a philosophical idea concerned with the emancipation of the personality. Nowadays this idea has been followed up to apply to all the spheres of human life, be it economy, politics, law, religion, social relations or the social order. The liberal idea has given rise to the commonly accepted understanding of civil liberties, democratic institutions, market economy, free enterprise, freedom of speech -- all that is included in the notion of "modern civilization".

This makes some fall into almost mystical horror at any attempt to review the liberal doctrine critically, seeing in this an attack on the sacred principles of rights and freedoms. Nevertheless, it is important that society today should understand that liberal ideas can be criticized from other standpoints -- an attitude which, incidentally, fits perfectly in the value system of the liberal doctrine itself. This is natural, as natural as, for instance, the `currency of the liberal ideas in politics, economics and public life along with other concepts and viewpoints which are at variance with it.

Options for an Orthodox response

Coming back to the previous question of what should be the response of the individual and society, and eventually Christian theology, to the principal challenge of our time stemming from the liberalization of the modern world: it should be mentioned that there are at least two popular points of view on this problem in the Orthodox milieu. Polar opposites in their assessment of the phenomenon under discussion, both offer their own behavioural model.

The first model is isolationist. Its proponents would like to shut themselves off from the external enemy into a national-religious ghetto and nurse their identity within, protecting it by all possible means from alien pernicious influences of the surrounding world. In our country this attitude is represented by some political circles as well as a certain part of the church public.

Yet can isolationism be effective and sustainable in the context of an open and mutually penetrable world that has entered an era of scientific, economic, informational, communicational and even political integration? Only a small group of persons somewhere in a desert or steppe can artificially shun the wider environment. But is it feasible to isolate, to Seclude Christian churches? And does not this option mean a rejection of the mission to bear witness to the truth before the world, a mission enjoined upon the church by Christ the Saviour himself?

Another option offered to us is that we take the liberal civil model as it is today and put it on the soil of the church. This implies at the same time that the church tradition has become largely obsolete, as its theological and especially moral assertions, conditioned by the historical and cultural context as they are, can no longer determine the way of life for the individual and (all the more so) for society. Only common human values are believed to have the right to exist, while the unification of the world on this basis is a necessary condition for its integration. That is why the church tradition is to be reviewed in the light of the priority to be given to liberal values and human rights which allow and legitimize things which we are convinced are incompatible with the tradition of the church, such as female priesthood, homosexuality, abortion, and others.

No doubt, this latter model will also put the Orthodox in isolation. But in case of the former, solutionist model, such an outcome is understood as a voluntary choice, while in the latter, isolation will become a punishment for the refusal to accept all the liberal standards -- which have been developed without taking into account the experience and world-view of millions-strong nations in which the religious and cultural traditions of Orthodoxy have prevailed. It is not difficult to predict that if this model is accepted, adherents of a number of other religious and cultural models will inevitably share the fate of the Orthodox as well.

Clearly, the two above-mentioned models are mutually exclusive. It is also clear that both enjoy a strong enough support in the public awareness and in politics. Collision between these two viewpoints, and their numerous modifications, has caused in many ways the present tension and confrontation in society. This tension is also reflected in the life of the church.

Is it possible to solve this problem in a worthy way, that is, to offer a model of behaviour and social order which could bring the liberal and traditional ideas and values into interplay, without sinning against the truth of Christ? Evidently this is not an easy task, but that does not at all mean that it is insoluble. There is a vast field here for cooperation between Christianity, traditional religions and all healthy social forces, including those acting within interstate organizations.

Towards cooperation - an Orthodox proposal

The following answer seems reasonable and convincing enough. The existence of liberal institutions in economics, politics, social life and interstate relations is acceptable, desirable and morally justified only if philosophical liberalism is not imposed on individual and interpersonal relations, nor on national and cultural communities, which have the right to pursue their own goals and tasks in harmony with the appropriate interests of minorities and dissenting groups. Among other things, liberal humanism has proved helpful as mediating standard used successfully in international relations, and in settling conflicts of various kinds. But if the liberal ideology is used to trigger pernicious desires and provoke an explosion of the carnal principle; if primary importance is assigned to human egoism; if liberal institutions serve to propagate sin; then society, deprived of the idea of the norm of life, will be inevitably doomed to spiritual degeneration, becoming an arena for rampant dark passions. Under the pressure of triumphant vice, the individual and society will eventually be ruined. Therefore, in the situation where the liberal idea is inserted into the basis of the development of states and societies, as well as interstate institutions and relations, then the duty of the church, according to my profound conviction, is to counterbalance this principle by asserting, in dialogue with other Christian confessions and people of other faiths, religious values in education and the formation of interpersonal relations. In this case we can count on ordering the life of humanity and society in such a way as to combine dependence on moral law with commitment to individual and civil freedoms.

Naturally, in any case churches should reserve for themselves the right to organize at least their own lives in accordance with the norms of the apostolic tradition.

The practical realization of this general approach, which aims for the church and every Christian to take a constructive part in the life of today's secularized society rather than to isolate themselves, depends on whether we are able to embody the world-view born by the faith in socially significant tasks, and in convincing answers to modern problems. If we are not, then everything we affirm about the proper relations between tradition and liberalism, about the vital power of our faith and Tradition, will remain a declaration, a bare construction, a lifeless skeleton without muscles.

In the area of international relations, the church also has a certain very important mission to fulfill. It is not reduced to standing for or against globalization, or opposing liberal civil standards or, on the contrary, supporting them. Broader international cooperation in politics, economics, and culture and information exchange -- all this should be supported by the church, but only if certain conditions are observed.

The most important of these conditions is for the international community to recognize the right to the self-realization of various cultural, religious and world-view traditions. People should have an opportunity for building their social life in accordance with their own traditions and convictions. This recognition of the right of nations to their own way of life, to the preservation of their religious and cultural identity, should become an integral part of the standard offered to us as a universal uniting principle. Only in this case will integration not turn into depersonalizing unification and to the liquidation of the variety which constitutes the beauty and richness of the God-created world, and will intercourse among nations contribute to the revelation and development of their special gifts.

A plea for mutual understanding

Discussed in a general form, these principles seem almost self-evident. Focusing on them may even appear strange. But there are many cases when they have been neglected. One of them is the misunderstanding and aversion with which the Russian law "On the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations" was met in the West. In Russia, however, all the major political forces, both conservative and liberal, supported this law. This unanimous support by both the "right-wing" and the "left-wing" resulted from the negative response of the majority of Russian society to the attempt to impose on Russia a mentality alien to her cultural tradition through unasked-for missionary activity, sometimes backed by considerable financial injections. At the same time, the law on religion currently in force provoked a highly sensitive reaction among some religious and political institutions in the West precisely because it was -- wrongly -- perceived as Russia's attempt at departure from the current civil standard. In actual fact, the law has proved much more liberal than similar documents adopted in some developed countries in the West, in which such legal notions as a "state church" remain.

On the political plane, such manifestations of misunderstanding bordering on direct pressure seem to result from the euphoria over the collapse of the iron curtain and from all that which Western politicians often believe to be their "victory" in the cold war. Psychologically, all this is also quite understandable. More often than not, Westerners seems to entertain the feeling that their customary norms and standards are certainly shared (or should be shared) universally by the "civilized world". In reality, though, these norms and standards are not at all universal, as nearly three-fourths of the world's population do not claim them as their own.

If there is to be real integration, and not the cultural and philosophical domination of the West, over the whole world, then we should be aware that every nation is called to find its own place in the emerging new reality. This awareness will help to avoid destructive battles between liberalism and traditionalism. It will also help to reveal an integral religious world-view in which not only personal but also social life is centred on faith and which can find allies for itself in other traditional religions, as well as followers of secular traditions which are rooted in the moral feeling given by God.


* Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad is chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate and a former member of the executive and central committees of the World Council of Churches.

"The Orthodox church in the face of world integration: the relation between traditional and liberal values". Ecumenical Review, 2001.


Recently added