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The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy
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.

Papanikolaou builds his argument on the concept of theosis, or deification, a central Orthodox belief in the human union with God through an ever-increasing likeness to him. This is indeed an appropriate point of departure for reflection on an Orthodox ethos. Nevertheless, his use of theosis is profoundly misleading, as he retranslates theosis as a “divine-human communion.” Translated in this way, theosis no longer need belong to its ecclesial and sacramental matrix. In Papanikolaou’s hands, itbecomes a universally apprehensible transcendental, serviceable for a political theology that mediates the common good within a liberal democracy.

Yet the doctrine of theosis is incomprehensible apart from baptism, which, strikingly, Papanikolaou mentions not once. This could be because the Church cannot willy-nilly baptize every person in a democratic polity. From the perspective of liberal inclusivism, baptism is exclusionary, and so also is theosis traditionally understood. Baptism initiates persons into a politeuma not reducible to any one form of temporal polity. St. Paul explains: “But our commonwealth [our politeuma] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3: 20–21).

Communion in the body of Christ is not the achievement of a democratic community, a world community, or any such thing. Theosis is an ecclesial calling. Yet ­according to Papanikolaou, our political order may be judged by its capacity to encourage a “free response and, hence, realization of the divine in creation.” In this formulation, church and sacraments drop out of sight. Or, worse, they’re implicitly democratized and relativized for the sake of a vague ­“realization of the divine in creation.”

This misshapen ecclesiology leads to a misrepresentation of the late ­nineteenth- and early twentieth-­cen­tury Russian theologies of Vladimir ­Soloviev and Sergei Bulgakov. ­Papanikolaou claims that Soloviev embraced “a Christian liberalism,” when in truth his form of Russian “liberalism” is far removed from late-modern liberal democracy and the American doctrine of the separation of church and state. He describes Bulgakov as “endorsing liberal democracy” when Bulgakov simply acknowledged that, offered a choice between Russian autocracy and the American democratic system, he found the latter to be immensely more favorable to the freedom and mission of the Church. Nonetheless, Bulgakov added that “we cannot close our eyes to the less desirable results of the separation of church and state,” not the least of which is its tendency to diminish the public reality of the Church. When it comes to democracy, or for that matter any aspect of modern liberalism, it is false to assert, as Papanikolaou does, that “Soloviev and Bulgakov saw it as the necessary precondition for realizing ‘divine-­human communion.’”

In the end, The Mystical as Political is not about theology. The book makes much of theological concepts like theosis but deploys them as tropes or gestures to smooth the way for the Orthodox faith to be put in service of a distinctly American ­religious project, one launched principally from within the academy.

In a telling admission, Papanikolaou writes that, when it comes to political theology “I do not think the transcendent referent need be to the divine, but can take the form of a common good.” In other words, whatever conduces to democracy and justice is of God. The sacramental realism and eschatological maximalism of Orthodoxy evaporates and is replaced by a consecration of the democratic “communion” of the secular liberal state.

In his discussion of liberal democracy, Papanikolaou takes up my own work and that of William ­Cavanaugh. By an act of academic ventriloquism, Cavanaugh and I speak with one head. Thus, we both believe that there is a “mutual exclusivity between the church as eucharistic community” and liberal democratic polity. This misrepresents what I have said. In my book Incarnate Love: ­Essays in ­Orthodox Ethics, I stated that “so far as a liberal democracy claims to found its legitimacy in the consent of the governed, arrived at through the free and open discussion of the people’s concerns, the presence of the Orthodox Church should make a difference in how honestly that claim is made and conscientiously it is pursued.” The Church’s witness is to the eschatological kingdom of God, however, not one or another form of political regime. It’s the Church, not a hyposticized liberal democracy, that gathers around the Lamb at the close of this aeon.

Papanikolaou asserts that “in relation to the democratic form of the common good, the church must accept its own limits and ­recognize that the goal is not the formation of a eucharistic community through persuasion.” This is an astounding pronouncement. The Church must renounce not only the use of the state’s coercive power, something Orthodoxy often ­depended on in past centuries, but also her ambition to draw the world into the eucharistic celebration.

In the place of this ecclesial vision of transformation, we are served the claptrap of diversity and political correctness. The goal of Orthodoxy, according to Papanikolaou, is “the construction of a community in which diversity and cultural difference must be affirmed and protected and in which the recognition of such diversity must be enforced if they are not voluntarily accepted.” Enforced? Does this not imply that the liberal state has a responsibility and right to coerce the Church when the Church does not affirm “diversity and ­cultural difference”? Surely, ­Papanikolaou knows that these terms are the ­property of the progressive left that insists on same-sex marriage, among other things Orthodoxy refuses to “recognize.”

This subordination of the Church to the authority of liberal culture once again appears in Papanikolaou’s discussion of asceticism and politics. “An ascetics of divine communion is meant to be a performance of practices that move the human toward fulfilling the command she is obliged to fulfill.” We do not deny ourselves simply for the sake of self-denial but to orient ourselves “toward the acquisition of the virtue of love.” So, “insofar as politics can be construed as an engagement with the neighbor/stranger” in the exercise of love, “politics must be considered as one of the many practices within an ascetics of divine-human communion.”

This is appealing, so far as it goes. But the explanation of just how this should play out in human community is much less satisfying. Papanikolaou denounces the “politics of bullying” that stems from believing that we “possess the truth.” This is a standard postmodern trope. Humility does not come from a deep interior conformity to Christ, something undertaken within the Church through prayer and sacrament. Rather, humility comes from a tacit cultural and moral relativism (so-called “tolerance”) supported by state fiat.

The idea of a public theology framed in terms comprehensible and challenging to our liberal ­democratic culture has been sought after for some time. John Courtney Murray (to whom Papanikolaou likens his own efforts) and Reinhold Niebuhr were great mid-century theorists of the distinctively Christian contribution to political debate. They, however, composed their major works on American democracy at the moment when most Americans still believed in the American Christendom based on Enlightenment principles of natural law and the moral foundation of Evangelical Protestantism.

Though the religious revival of the 1950s seemed to indicate a resurgence of the churches’ influence over the culture, the longer-term trend was the precipitous decline of religion’s prominence in American life. And so, in a noble but miscalculated effort, Murray and Niebuhr sought to reinvigorate the American synthesis that was already well on its way ­toward dissolution.

American society today lacks a strong Christian core. A deracinated liberalism and secular progressivism have displaced most of the traditional religious ways of envisioning the meaning of America. Attempts to harmonize the basic anthropological and soteriological truths of Christianity with contemporary social and political discourse in order to attain relevance are more likely to result in a confusion of speech and a forgetfulness of the Church’s primary language of salvation and conversion than in a coherent Christian vision.

We’ve sadly seen this within contemporary mainline Protestantism and liberal Roman Catholicism. In those contexts, talk about justice (or social justice) has displaced the language of holiness. This has been accomplished at immense cost to the eschatological dimension in both Protestant and Roman Catholic social ethics. In the effort to insinuate the Church’s mind into public policy, we’ve seen the Church’s singularly biblical and Christian speech stripped away. Papanikolaou would do the same for Orthodoxy.

If there is a lesson to be learned from The Mystical as Political, it is that we should approach the theological question of liberal democratic culture historically and empirically, as Niebuhr and Murray did. It is unhelpful to define liberal democracy as a “political space shaped by a common good that embodies the principles of equality and freedom.” Our democracy is not a “political space” occupied by a set of abstract principles. It is, rather, a complex ­arrangement of institutions and laws, wrestled over through centuries of political contest and judicial interpretation. It is for this reason that I always have insisted that a genuine Orthodox political ­theology must be historical and prudential, not ­theoretical.

Yes, we should affirm and support the laws and institutions that sustain America as a free society. But let us not be naive about our times. The old civil religion of which my teacher Will Herberg was wary is being replaced by a new ideology of “diversity and cultural difference” that so easily flows from Papanikolaou’s pen. “Diversity and cultural difference” are today’s secular battering rams, god terms that set loose destructive idolatries that the Church must expose for the sake of the common good. Faced with this assault, Orthodox in America need to return to theosis, not as a conceptual magician’s trick but as a genuinely mystical and personal calling pursued through deeply ­layered Christian practices that give the Church staying power wherever it is situated. 

Vigen Guroian is professor of religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia.