Excerpt from: Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition

12. The Meeting of the Contemporary West with the Church

The often violent meeting between the West and Non-Western cultures always seems to lead to two results. The first is the disintegration of the indigenous culture, often following genocidal massacres by Western invaders. The second is a reaction to the first: the fanatical and unreasoning rejection of everything even remotely connected with the West. As examples of disintegration we may take the wholesale destruction of civilisations and cultures in South, Central and North America, or the 'absorption' of Aborigines in Australia and the Pacific. As examples of fanatical resistance we may take the attitudes of Muslims towards the West in many parts of the world, or that adopted by the Chinese and Japanese in the last century and the first half of this one, or the rejection of the West by Hinduism or that of African countries since decolonization. Very often these same attitudes may exist side by side in the same country and there is a division between 'Westerners' on the one hand and 'Anti-Westerners' on the other hand. Countless examples of this can be given, such as the division of Korea and Vietnam, the latter largely being the result of the clash between Buddhism and colonial Roman Catholicism.

As regards the meeting or encounter between the West and the Orthodox Church, it first took place long before Western Europe even discovered the New World. The first encounter goes back to the ninth century. Like all subsequent encounters, Orthodox were faced with an aggressive ideology. We may think of the Orthodox Christians in Spain who preferred Muslim domination to that of the Carolingians. Or we may think back to the denunciation of the filioque by St Photius the Great in the ninth century. Or else we may look back to the Anglo-Saxons who preferred exile in the Imperial Roman Capital of Constantinople to the domination of Norman feudalism blessed by German Popes. There comes to mind St Alexander Nevsky who defended the Orthodox Church in Russia against the Teutonic hordes, preferring humble submission to the Mongols, who did not interfere in spiritual concerns. Then there is the case of St Gregory Palamas who set forth through his life the doctrinal opposition of the Church to the anti-Christian ideology of Renaissance humanism. We cannot forget the Greeks who preferred the Turk to the soul-destroying self-worship of the West. This persecution of the Church and Orthodoxy has continued, directly or indirectly, right up to the present time, be it by Roman Catholics in Croatia and Bosnia, the Middle East and south-west Russia, or by Protestants in Romania and Finland. What have the results of these encounters been?

At first sight it may seem that the results have been the same polarized ones as we find when the West comes into contact with other cultures. On the one hand there have been those who have wished to conform to Western culture, adapting Orthodoxy to it, on the other hand there have been those who have wished to violently reject Western culture and break away in nationalist politics. The former we may perhaps call 'New Believers', the latter 'Old Believers'. The former include left-leaning intellectuals, philosophers and religious thinkers who have attempted to redesign Orthodoxy to fit in with their mental world, trying to combine the Orthodox Faith with Western humanism. Faced with the sociological problems of Orthodoxy, their philosophies have been rationalistic. Influenced by Western philosophy and bourgeois political systems, they have tried to create a compromise between the revelations of the Church and the humanistic ideology of the West. They have failed, because they have attempted the impossible. The way of the Church is not to compromise, but rather to rise above oppositions and divisions, not to swim with the tide, but to take the hard way. This is the path that Christ took when he accepted the Cross that led to the Resurrection. The undiscerning intercourse with the Western world has led these thinkers and their followers into the dead end of humanism. On the other hand the 'Old Believers' are those who have violently rejected everything Western. For psychological reasons, out of insecurity and injured, national pride, they have also chosen sectarianism. They prefer an external 'purity', a fidelity to outward customs, not the fullness of Christian life. Ultimately these people find themselves in the same isolation as their adversaries, the 'New Believers'. The former wish to 'renovate' the Church, the latter to stick it into a time-warp. Both then are in a dead end. Both 'Old Believerism' and 'New Believerism', consciously or unconsciously, have been based more on politics or nationalism than on the acquiring of the Holy Spirit which is the one real purpose of the Orthodox Christian life.

However, beyond these superficial tensions and actual painful oppositions, there are the voices of those in the Orthodox world, who are actually Orthodox and also know the Western world. These voices show that the culture of the Church is fundamentally something other, standing beyond and transcending the 'New and Old Believer' worlds of purely human culture and sociological reaction. They show that the Church survives against all the odds, because She alone is the recipient of the fullness of spiritual truth, the ultimate and unique spiritual truth, Christ the Son of God become man, crucified and resurrected. And this survival against all the odds is indeed in the Gospel promise of Christ. Individuals and personalities are heard at times, but never triumph over the voice of the Church. The royal path, leading ever upwards, has been seen in this century too, in the voices of those who have strained to speak in the way of the Saints, of the Fathers, of the Gospel. This is not the superficial mumbling of scholars as they pore over dusty texts, but the continuing and uninterrupted path of the Fathers, those inspired by the Holy Ghost, Whom they have known in their lives. Voices on a global scale have been heard, global because of their attachment to Christ, the Saviour of all, above and beyond human culture, and yet incarnate in a human culture transfigured by the Church of Christ. There have been the voices of St John of Kronstadt, the Elder Silouan of Athos, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, Bishop John Maximovich, Fr Justin Popovich, Fr Joseph the Hesychast, Fr Amphilochios, Archimandrite Tavrion and countless others, some living, whose names we cannot mention, but above all the innumerable martyrs for the Faith in all Russia and the Balkans, whose sacred acts the Church never ceases to praise and glorify. They are those who teach us to accept the reality of modern life and then transcend it, avoiding its overbearingly anti-Christian spirit with discernment. Humanistic culture with its emphasis on materialism, power and debauchery is in fact the opposite of Orthodox Christian culture with its emphasis on non-possession, humility, obedience and purity. The theology of these saints is not an academic one, but a living one, living because it is lived, incarnated. Their strength is a unitive strength, of concern to all, transcending deviations and sectarian factions, rising above artificial syntheses, because the source and the goal of their strength are both divine and human. They stand atop a pyramid, towards which we all, who stand at the base of that pyramid, must aim. Our direction must not be horizontal, to left or to right, but rather vertical, towards that Paradise that is the vocation and destiny of all mankind.

The meeting of the West with the Church has a special sense because the roots of the West are in the Church. And although the lords and masters of the West long ago forsook the Church and attempted to spread their apostasy among the people, not all are opposed to Christ. Orthodoxy has a special calling - to call the West back to its senses, back to its roots, before it is too late. In this way the West may yet redeem itself and all those it has brought under its sway. For this we pray and live.

December 1985

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