Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Where East Meets West

October 9, 2007

Comment by Georgy Bovt
Special to Russia Profile

Religion by Itself is not Enough to Overcome Societal Differences

A friend of mine recently converted to Catholicism. She is not a very religious person and I have never thought of her as a churchgoer. Even now, she is not a very active parishioner, but when she does go to church, it has to be a Catholic one. Naturally, I asked her why she converted, especially since Catholicism is far from being one of the “main religions” of Russia and, moreover, our country’s traditions seem to be very distant from Catholicism.

My friend’s reply was very simple, if not simplified, in form. “Do you know how the parishioners are addressed in Russian Orthodox churches?” she asked in reply to my question. “They’re called 'God’s slaves.' And in Catholic churches, they’re called 'God’s children.' Plus, in a Catholic church people sit during Mass, whereas in our Orthodox churches we have to stand.”

Of course, my friend intentionally simplified her answer; however, in essence, she admitted that her choice was made not so much on some religious principles as on much wider cultural, or even political, personal observations and conclusions. In fact, almost the same choices and observations were made at the beginning of 19th century by the Russian philosopher and dissident Pyotr Chaadaev. He proclaimed that all the troubles, backwardness and satrapy in Russia are caused by the fact that at some point, the country decided to follow the way of Orthodox, or Byzantine, Christianity, as opposed to Catholicism, or Western European Christianity. That was the beginning of an ideological conflict, which has not been resolved to this day, between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers in Russian philosophy.

You can argue all you want with Chaadaev or with my friend, expressing your sympathies for the Orthodox historical and cultural traditions, but every time you start suggesting that Russia and Europe (and according to the political results of the 20th century, the only Europe that exists today is what the Soviet Union called Western Europe) have some common values, including Christian values, I personally think of Rudyard Kipling. What comes to my mind is this formula by the “poet of the era of British colonization:” “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. In this sense Orthodoxy is, of course, “the East,” while Catholicism and Protestantism are, obviously, “the West.” And it seems like they never shall meet, even if the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia finally agrees to a meeting and reconciliation with the Pope, that is, if he gives his blessing for the Pope to visit Russia.

The conflict lays not so much in the ritual differences, accusations of proselytism and other theological alternative readings of the “legacy of Christ.” In all modern societies, especially in secular ones, the church has long become a complex, multi-layer culturological and civilizational phenomenon. It is unthinkable, impossible to consider the church outside the wider cultural, political and common everyday aspects of functioning of society. And in this context it becomes obvious why Muslim Azerbaijanis, for example, who have spent decades in the same civilizational melting pot with Orthodox Russians, have much more in common with them than these Russians have with German Lutherans or French Catholics, although you will find few similarities between an Azerbaijani mosque and a Russian Orthodox church.

Does this mean that the 2,000 years of a common Christian legacy is worth absolutely nothing and is “hopeless” in respect to finding values that are shared by Russia and the West?

think that the answer is both “yes” and “no.” It is “no” because the different Christian churches are overladen with the burden of social, political, historical and even cultural and everyday differences, aversions, value contradictions and conflicts. This burden is much too heavy for theological foundations alone to become enough for a unification of values, or at least for a compromise. At the same time, however, the answer is “yes” because all of these differences fade in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, for example, which is now rearing its head.

Islamic fundamentalism today is also, in its own way, a well-defined system of values that are radically different and hostile to what is usually called Western civilization. In its turn, Western Christianity is far from being only a certain set of religious beliefs and rituals; it is an integrated part of a certain symbiosis, which together with politics, culture and everyday ways of life creates a certain social and civilizational model. The main reason why a dialogue between East and West is obviously not working is that so far, as a result of the transition period after the destruction of the socialist system, which had its own value system, the Orthodox side has yet to create a stable symbiosis. In other words, there is a purely Orthodox, theological doctrine; it is Christian in its foundation to the same extent as Western Christianity. This foundation, however, has not yet given rise to a social model with stable principles, which would be common for both the political and the social, cultural and everyday life of society. And until this happens, until the world beholds a more or less complete civilizational, and successful, valid social model, there is simply nothing for East and West to discuss.

Georgy Bovt is a Moscow-based political analyst.


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