by aristotle papanikolaou
notre dame, 248 pages, $27
What is “the destiny of the Orthodox Church . . . in a world radically different from that which shaped our mentality, our thought-forms, indeed our whole life as Orthodox”? Alexander Schmemann posed this question thirty-five years ago, and for good reason. He observed that in the twentieth century the old, organic Orthodox fusion of church and society suffered a “tragically spectacular collapse.” Meanwhile, emigration created a far-flung Orthodox diaspora in Western Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Schmemann did not live to see a third historical development: the collapse of the Soviet Union, which unleashed another wave of Orthodox emigration.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Orthodox theologians in America already had begun to ponder what sort of post-immigrant identity the Orthodox Church might forge, while they also laid the groundwork for a social ethic and missiology in a democratic, religiously plural, and increasingly secular land. How might Orthodoxy avoid lapsing into an American denominational mentality or a mindless and uncritical conformity to habits and values that could undermine its apostolic witness? My teacher Will Herberg in Protestant, Catholic, Jew called this temptation “the American Way of Life.” The question remains very much with us.
Aristotle Papanikolaou, Archbishop Demetrios Professor in Orthodox Theology and Culture at Fordham University, offers an unsettling answer in The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy. He states that it is not his intention to argue for “a theoretical compatibility of Christianity and liberal democracy.” Rather, he seeks to give “a fuller account of the form of polity Christian civic involvement would foster.” If this were all he were attempting to do, I could agree. But he wants to do more, a great deal more. He wants to develop a political theology not only in which Orthodoxy and liberal democracy are seen as compatible but also in which the former logically leads to the latter. “The logic of the eucharistic ecclesiology demands the existence of a liberal democratic state,” he maintains. This raises the question of whether Papanikolaou would have us believe that American liberal democracy is Orthodoxy fulfilled, much as in another day Eusebius of Caesarea argued that the Roman Empire was the kingdom of God fulfilled.