Why Angels Fall, a mixture of travelogue and theological/religious commentary on the history and culture of Orthodox Europe by a secular citizen of the European Union, is an extremely readable and informative work. Victoria Clark leads her reader through Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Cyprus, the troubled lands that Serbs inhabit or covet (Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro), and finally Istanbul itself. The book is informed by history—as any thorough study of the region would have to be—but the main thrust of Clark’s work is contemporary. Why Angels Fall is about Kosovo. It is about the Yugoslav breakup. It is about the Serbs and their profound sense of victimhood. And it is about Romania’s squalor, Russia’s post–Soviet disorder and corruption, and the bad “fit” between Orthodox Greece, NATO, and the EU.
In Clark’s view, it was the end of the Cold War—the collapse of Soviet domination and the response of Western Europe to this development—that exposed a divide in the political–military “East.” “Traditionally Roman Catholic or Protestant Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia greeted their reopening to . . . Western Europe with joy, and Western Europe soon made plans to include them in NATO and the European Union. But the Eastern Orthodox countries . . . Serbia and Montenegro . . . Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia . . . were shut out, disqualified on the grounds of being insufficiently democratic and economically nonviable.” And as for religion, Clark recognizes that the part it plays in shaping East–West relations is largely shaped by history and institutional heritages. Both NATO’s and the EU’s “eastern borders are set to follow almost exactly Europe’s oldest political fault–line, which dates back to the second century a.d. and the division of the Roman Empire into two halves—the Western ruled from Rome, the Eastern from Constantinople.” The 1054 schism only solidified the religious divide.
The distinction between the two Europes is thus not artificial, not a matter of “construction” in academic jargon. It is palpable to those who spend any substantial time traversing the boundary between East and West. Although this division does not figure prominently in the minds of many Westerners, it is quite real to those attuned to religious differences and the cultural conflicts that can flow from them.
The fact is, Orthodoxy is different from the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches of the West, and not just because of old divisions between mysticism and rationalism, ritualism and moral theology, Latin and Old Church Slavonic. Beginning well before the fall of Byzantium, the Eastern branch of Christianity was exposed to an expansionist Muslim power in the form of the Ottoman Empire. Virtually all of Europe’s Orthodox Christians, save for those of the Russian imperial lands, became part of the “Rum millet,” the subject Christian community of “Turkey in Europe.” These were not circumstances that encouraged theological speculation, the cultivation of debate and polemic. Nor did the Turks encourage mass conversion. In Russia, Peter the Great abolished the Moscow Patriarchate, replacing it with a Holy Synod of his cronies: the state church was hardly encouraged in the development of intellectual, or even pastoral, activity. Add to these political considerations the fact that Orthodoxy ministered to what became, certainly after 1453, Europe’s poorer, less developed regions, and it becomes apparent that the situation in the Orthodox world is and long has been a uniquely troubled one.
Much of what has happened to Orthodoxy over the centuries since 1453, Clark argues, involves two different responses to the demise of the Byzantine Empire. The first has amounted to a merger of religion and a politicized ethno–nationalism, ex clusivist, aggressive, and violent in a way that the Empire never was. This form of religious nationalism—called “Phyletism”—would largely drive the Greeks to revolt against the Turks in 1820, and it contributes to the tumultuous nature of the Orthodox world to the present day.
The second response was a flight into religious mysticism, a turning inward to the purity of contemplative life called “Hesychasm.” Fleeing the worldly, seeking the inner transfiguring light, whether in the monastic context or outside of it, Hesychasm is probably best epitomized by the “Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me”) and the constant repetition that is the approved mode of its intonation. While Phyletism and Hesychasm each play an important role in the Orthodox soul, one is tempted to observe that, historically speaking, the supply of the former and its obvious and unpleasant consequences has ex ceeded that of the latter.
Clark provides a thick and rich series of vignettes, encounters with clergy high and low, laity with and without religious and intellectual pretensions. They are exotic; they are arresting; they are troubling. In Greece, for example, citizens have begun to fear that an EU–standardized identity card attaches the numbers “666” to each person’s name, raising concerns that “electronic cards or implanted microchips” are instruments of the Antichrist’s advance. A Russian priest—a well–known democratic dissident in the Brezhnev period—has similar fears and sees a new world order driven by the “West + America + Jews.”
Kosovo, it seems, has done more than anything to twist religious loyalty, ethnic affiliation, and historical “entitlement” into a package impossible to unbundle. If in the West NATO’s move into Kosovo was seen as a strike against Slobodan Milosevic, an “evil warmongering tyrant,” in the East any notion of humanitarian motive to protect Kosovar Albanians was rejected out of hand. Instead, it was widely believed that the war was a front for the American ambition to “rule the entire world.” A Greek bishop, for instance, sees in Kosovo “a war against Orthodoxy,” with NATO “wearing the colors of every force that had ever come out of the West to threaten the East,” from the Crusaders to the Nazis. For his part, Serbian Father Milorad, hanging on in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, fortyish and a satellite TV viewer, has his own views on Western hypocrisy and perfidy. Princess Di, he says, was “killed on the orders of your Queen,” and the chasing papparazzi were actually commandos, doling out her punishment “for f—king a Muslim.” He goes on to assert that in the fourteenth century, “when London was nothing, our kings were dining off silver plates with golden cutlery.”
Clark’s book, then, is about a lot more than religion; its subject is, in a sense, “everything”—everything about Or thodox Europe that makes it distinct from the West. If she veers off from time to time into murky areas and indulges in some questionable generalizations, the book does not suffer much because of it.
For even if communism did not, as one Serb tells her, become deeply rooted in the East because it was a “religion” with particular affinities with Orthodoxy, the fact remains that Orthodox “Europe” is quite a different place than the one often referred to in textbooks on Western Civilization. Heritage and circumstance have driven much of Orthodoxy toward “Phyletism,” just as its faith has at times tended to “identify itself utterly” with ethnos. Whether this part of Europe and its peoples cope successfully with the unique burdens of their history is a major issue for the dawning century—and one to which Clark has provided a compelling and useful introduction.
Walter D. Connor is Professor of Political Science, Sociology, and International Relations at Boston University.