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Some little while ago, I found myself sitting in the grounds of the Danilov Monastery in Moscow, delighting in the spring flowers and being treated to a prodigious display of bell-ringing. I reflected at the time that the Russians have few peers among other nations in their great love for church bells. The Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky captures this love well when he orients his account of Russian history around the casting of a single great bell in his masterpiece, Andrei Rublev.

The Danilov monastery serves as headquarters of the Moscow Patriarchate, and I was there to see one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s senior figures, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokalamsk, to discuss, among other things, the contemporary Russian Orthodox theological scene. This was during one of two recent trips to Moscow. My first visit came at the instigation of the Templeton Foundation working in cooperation with the SS Cyril and Methodius Postgraduate School of the Russian Orthodox Church. The foundation sponsored a series of visits over the course of three years to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Minsk by American and British philosophers, scientists, and theologians. The aim was to foster academic links. The visitors, including Charles Taylor, gave lectures and seminar papers to various audiences. My own topic was the theological dichotomy between Greek East and Latin West, notably the long and fascinating history of Orthodox engagement with Thomas Aquinas. The second visit came at the invitation of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University in Moscow. The occasion was a conference on the theme of East-West opposition in the fields of theology, philosophy, and culture.

I had last been in Moscow in 1999, a time of great economic uncertainty and political upheaval. The ruble had recently crashed, inflation was high, and many were struggling simply to survive. The general atmosphere was one of dysfunction and struggle. Vladimir Putin had just been appointed prime minister, and Boris Yeltsin was on his way out. The city struck me on my return as considerably more liveable and less desperate. There were signs of wealth and confidence all around. Poverty was far less in evidence than it had been—doubtless in part because it has been pushed out of the historic center of the city.

While in Moscow, I took the time to meet not only with Metropolitan Hilarion but also with a number of other Russian churchmen and academics, including Sergei Chapnin, a journalist and writer who has emerged in recent years as a powerful critic of the Moscow Patriarchate. (He is a contributor to First Things.) These various experiences and conversations provided me some insights into a world that, to many in the West, remains both distant and elusive.

My first impression: Many Russian academics long for deeper and more extensive contact with the Western scholarly world. While hardly closed off, Russian academia remains to some degree an alter orbis, a world unto itself. Part of this problem is linguistic. A vast amount of work published in Russian never gets read in Western Europe, let alone in the increasingly and depressingly monoglot Anglosphere. The Russian academic Alexei Dunaev summed up the situation to me with this lapidary phrase: Russica est, non legitur (“it is in Russian, and therefore cannot be read”). He was lamenting the fact that being written in Russian immediately restricts the circulation of scholarly articles and books. This desire for greater contact points to a deeper truth: Russians want to engage. Several academics emphasized to me that the future health of Russian academia requires openness to the outside. Whatever the geopolitical goals of the Putin regime, Russia maintains a longstanding and fundamental tradition of constructive and creative interaction with the West.

Recognizing this requires distinguishing between the theological traditions of Russia proper and the Russian Orthodox diaspora. One consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was to push the center of gravity of Russian Orthodox theology into Western Europe and North America. This dislocation and experience of exile and vulnerability encouraged a construction of Orthodox identity in contradistinction to the West.

The chief inspiration for this inward turn came from the Russian Slavophiles of the early nineteenth century. The Slavophiles countered the Westernization encouraged by Tsar Peter and his successors by turning back to the native traditions of the Orthodox Church in the Slav lands, which were construed as directly opposed to the Catholic and Protestant West. The Slavophile movement supplied many of the familiar tropes of modern theological and ecumenical discussions: a rational, scholastic, authoritarian West over and against a mystical, liturgical, and innately free East. This rather flattering construct of the East has been one that many Orthodox have been happy to accept, notwithstanding the fact that it amounts to an orientalist fantasy that frankly marginalizes them in modern academic and ecumenical theology.

Led by charismatic figures such as Ivan Kireyevsky and Alexei Khomiakov, the Slavophiles were on the margins of mainstream Russian Orthodox theology for much of the nineteenth century. They were countered by figures such as the charismatic and visionary ecumenist Vladimir Solovyov. But the Slavophiles’ simplistic anti-Western version of Orthodoxy has proved remarkably enduring and appealing. Kallistos Ware, while eschewing any sort of simplistic dichotomy himself, nonetheless opens his celebrated work The Orthodox Church with Khomiakov’s deliberately provocative declaration:

“All Protestants are crypto-papists [...] The West knows but one datum a; whether it be preceded by the positive sign +, as with the Romanists, or with the negative –, as with the Protestants, the a remains the same.”

Metropolitan Kallistos goes on to report that Khomiakov labels the pope “the first Protestant” and advises a High Church Anglican that the best way to shake off the pernicious effects of Protestantism is to distance oneself from Roman Catholicism.

The Slavophile polarization of East and West has shaped a great deal of twentieth-century Orthodox theology. Theologians and philosophers as diverse as Sergius Bulgakov, Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, and Christos Yannaras inherited something from the Slavophiles. None of them is unsubtle or unsophisticated, and all of them (except perhaps Yannaras) have many positive things to say about the Western theological tradition. But they all labor under the presumption of one form or another of East-West theological dichotomy. The situation is much worse in the wider Orthodox Church. Too often the absolute dichotomy of East and West is taken as practically an article of faith.

I have in my own work tried to encourage modern Orthodox theology to move away from hackneyed dichotomies of East versus West. Thus, I am heartened to discover that polarizations of this sort are far from prevalent in contemporary Russia, at least in the sphere of academic theology. My presentations in Moscow centered on the long history of remarkably constructive and creative, if duly critical, appropriation of Aquinas within Orthodox theology going back to the first translations of his work into Greek in 1354. That history doesn’t fit the anti-Western paradigm of the Slavophiles and some of their successors, for whom Aquinas was an especially rotten example of everything that is wrong with Western thought. I was relieved to find that my presentation of the surprisingly positive history of Orthodox responses to Aquinas was received without alarm or indignation. This confirmed my impression that anti-Westernism is more the preserve of the theology of the twentieth-century diaspora than of the contemporary heartland. The dominance of the East-West paradigm in late-twentieth-century Orthodox theology was bound up with the geopolitical realities of a bipolar world. That bipolar world is gone. The East-West theological dichotomy may be subsiding in its wake.

I spoke also at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, one of several Orthodox institutions of higher learning founded in Moscow in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The university has recently taken possession of the old Moscow Eparchy House on Likhov Lane where the Moscow Council of 1917–18 took place. It was the first all-Russia council since Tsar Peter’s relegation of the church to the status of a department of state and the abolition of the office of Patriarch of Moscow. The council discussed many pressing matters, including the restoration of the ordained female diaconate, but its closure by the Bolsheviks meant that few decisions were ever implemented. Its only major lasting achievement was the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate in the person of St. Tikhon, formerly Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America. Not long after this momentous decision, Soviet persecution of the church intensified. At the opening ceremony of the restored building, President Putin remarked that its return to ecclesiastical use “reflects the fact that we remember not only our victories, but also our mistakes.” In this centenary year, it is striking that the Bolshevik revolution is being remembered chiefly as a tragedy, not as cause for celebration or national posturing. The victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War, remains the principal focus of national pride. On one visit, I arrived in Moscow by chance precisely on May 9, the day on which Russians celebrate Victory in Europe Day. The military parade was, as ever, huge and well attended.

Many of the people I saw streaming back from the parade wore orange and black ribbons. As it happens, I’d been given just such a ribbon by an Orthodox friend during a year spent in Princeton. I’d assumed the ribbon represented the university’s colors, and I tied one to my suitcase as a way of distinguishing it from others at baggage claim. It could hardly be the case, I thought, that so many Muscovites were devoted fans of Princeton. In fact, the orange and black represents the recently revived Russian imperial order of St. George, which is now associated with ardent Russian nationalism. I felt rather relieved that I had not traveled to the Ukraine or another of Russia’s neighbors with this baggage tag.

The conference at St. Tikhon’s on East-West opposition ranged widely. Oleg Rodionov of the Russian Academy of Sciences spoke on Kallistos Angellikoudes and his use of St. Augustine of Hippo. Kallistos was the most bitter and inveterate Byzantine critic of Aquinas. He wrote a long refutation of the Summa contra gentiles that announced its purpose as a wholesale demolition: “Against that which Thomas the Latin writes in heretical fashion and outside the chorus of the holy Church, a clear refutation of his arrogant disregard for holy scripture.” Kallistos finds Aquinas hopelessly enslaved to reason and a perpetuator of the errors of Arius and Muhammad. He goes so far as to say that Aquinas is demonically inspired.

Yet he admires Thomas’s chief Latin forerunner, Augustine. This runs contrary to the notion of East-West opposition in which one might expect loathing of Aquinas to spill over to Augustine. The fact that Kallistos endorsed this Latin doctor despite his rejection of Aquinas shows that theological disagreement with certain Western writers need not lead to a rejection of the entire Latin tradition.

St. Gregory Palamas is often held up in contemporary Orthodox theology as a kind of anti-Thomas, someone who represents the acme of Orthodox theology construed in contradistinction to the West. Aquinas affirmed the identity of God’s being (essentia) with his existence (esse). Such a declaration would seem to preclude the Palamite distinction between God’s essence (ousia) and his activities, operations, or energies (energeiai). The divine essence, in this account, can never be experienced or known by humans, while the divine energies or operations are open to human participation and (partial) cognition. But the formal incompatibility between Aquinas and Palamas on this point did not stop many followers of Palamas from drawing on Aquinas. And even among those who, like Kallistos, took exception to Aquinas, there is no blanket rejection of the Western theological tradition like what we find in some modern Orthodox writings.

In another paper, Alexey Fokin explored the nuances of the Latin term essentia and the Greek ousia. The Latin term essentia is a translation of the Greek ousia and has a limited semantic range. It renders only one aspect of the Greek word (the act of being). This presentation led me to the conclusion that identification of God’s esse and essentia makes sense in Latin in a way it never could in Greek.

My visits to Moscow also introduced me to some of the debates in the Russian academic world with which I was not previously familiar. To give just one example, the prominent philosopher and Heideggerian Vladimir Bibikhin has questioned Palamite theology, arguing that the essence-energies distinction so central to Orthodox doctrine represents a theological failure that frankly divides God in two and precludes any satisfactory account of divine energy or operation. Bibikhin regards Palamas’s teaching on the inaccessibility of the divine essence to human experience as something “dark and even sinister,” a flight from reason scarcely less dangerous than certain instantiations of Islam. Such points of view are hardly mainstream and have been strenuously resisted, but they should serve to illustrate the sheer vitality of the intellectual scene in Russia.

I would not for a moment underestimate the difficulties of the church under the Putin regime. What might seem a cozy relationship from the outside is, I suspect, less comfortable on the inside. The state seems happy to co-opt the church as a pillar of Russian national identity as part of what Sergei Chapnin has memorably called “post-Soviet civil religion.” But the church remains constrained as to what it can do or say. Should it be more forthright in its critique of the state or in its denunciations of territorial expansionism, corruption, and abuse of power? I am not sure it is for us in the relative comfort of the West to say. Let us not forget that state persecution of the church is a matter of living memory. I visited an exhibition on hidden monasticism in the Soviet era at the Vysokopetrovsky Monastery that recalled the chastening stories of a number of Russian monastic martyrs. It displayed a gospel inscribed in minute characters on a flimsy piece of material that could be wound around the body and escape detection from prison guards. With such a history so close at hand, perhaps we should not be surprised that the church appears unwilling to risk its currently favored position within the new Russian polity.

That said, there is room for reform and renewal within the Russian Church. The church appears to be run in an authoritarian fashion (not unlike the state). Priests can be dismissed or moved with relative ease by higher authority. Lay participation in church governance at any level is minimal. Congregations appear rather subdued and subservient to the church hierarchy. There are other problems, too: a shortage of churches in the ever-expanding Moscow suburbs and an urgent need to reform seminary education. Getting state recognition for theological studies appears to be an onerous process. As a moral leader, the church has made only a little headway in the matter of abortion, which remains virtually a form of contraception for some in today’s Russia. Glasnost and perestroika kindled great enthusiasm for the church among young and educated people. Today, however, that enthusiasm seems on the wane as the collapse of the Soviet Union becomes a distant memory.

Ecumenism is often regarded with grave and intense suspicion. In a furious backlash against Patriarch Kyrill’s recent meeting with Pope Francis in Cuba, some clergy have even ceased commemorating Patriarch Kyrill at the Divine Liturgy. The recently published draft of a new Catechism of the Russian Orthodox Church contains a careful and cautious defense of Orthodox participation in ecumenical dialogues. Even this modest assertion has generated vocal opposition among those who see any sort of constructive dialogue with other Christians as a betrayal of Orthodox identity. All this feeds anti-Westernism.

Russian Orthodoxy participates in the currents and counter-currents of post-Soviet society. Many Russians were frankly disappointed with the results of Russia’s flirtation with Western economic and political models in the period immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For such people, Putin represents a welcome return to a more stable and less vulnerable form of government, even if that entails divergence from standard Western models of politics and economics. Putin has also cannily opened up a divide between Russia and the liberal West on certain sociocultural issues, notably concerning homosexuality. It remains to be seen whether anti-Westernism in its various forms grows or fades. The Orthodox engagement of Latin Christianity will play a role. The preliminary signs are positive. An old antipathy is yielding to the re-emergence of a still older and decidedly more open and generous assessment of the theological legacy of the Christian West.

Marcus Plested is associate professor of theology at Marquette University.

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