Eighth Day Colloquium: Political Theology & Orthodoxy

Feast of the Martyr Hesychius

POLITICS. Church and state. Christendom. Political theology. Boy did we pick a big—but good—one to launch our inaugural Eighth Day Colloquium. Well, we didn’t actually pick it. You can give a big thanks to Ben Davis—he dropped this idea, and the arrangements, into our lap. And thanks to James K. A. Smith—he set the theme with the release of the third volume in his now completed Cultural Liturgies project.

I confess that this is my first dip into the waters of political theology. And I’m so glad I had Smith as my guide. I’m even more glad to have him here this weekend guiding us in person. For me personally, Smith’s first two books in the Cultural Liturgies project—Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom—were sheer delight, as they echoed my initial dissertation “plan” on liturgical catechesis. And now this volume on political theology—Awaiting the King—is the perfect follow up to my “actual” dissertation on how the Church should respond to a secular age. Kairos—it’s the right time to move deeper into the waters of political theology.

If you’ve read Awaiting the King, you know that Smith creates an engaging conversation with folks like Oliver O’Donovan, Jeffrey Stout, Willie Jennings, and even St. Augustine. As I worked my way through the book, other voices kept popping into my mind, mostly Orthodox theologians.

When Warren Farha opened Eighth Day Books, one of his goals was to put Orthodoxy onto the table of conversation with Catholics and Protestants. I’d like to do the same thing in this Colloquium notebook by inserting three Orthodox voices into the discussion, two mid-twentieth century theologians and a young contemporary theologian. I hope you’ll take some time to read them. And I hope we can weave them into our conversations at the breaks, over lunch, and during afternoon fellowship at The Ladder. But first, let me kick that conversation off by making a few comments about them.

I love history. And for good reason since, in the words of Marc Bloch, “Christianity is a religion of historians.” Indeed, as Christians we acknowledge certain historical events as momentous, as Magnalia Dei (mighty deeds of God): creation, annunciation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, judgment. Those Magnalia Dei are recorded in the Bible, in the Creeds, in the Liturgy, and even on icons. Fr. Georges Florovsky, the author of the first piece, thus argues that every believer has an “intrinsic duty to study history.” Throughout his writings, moreover, Florovsky repeatedly insists on the contingent nature of history. Humans are able to shape history by their choices; they are capable of reorienting cultural processes, of reshaping a cultural fabric. We can see this in history.

We know from history that the early Church was persecuted for the first three centuries of its existence. For some perspective, that means they faced the possibility of persecution for a century longer than the United States has been around. But then what happened?

We also know from history that in the early fourth century the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. And regardless of what you think about that conversion, whether it was authentic or not, it ultimately led to the conversion of the Roman Empire. And we know of other examples where whole nations converted to Christianity, the most famous being Russia following the tenth-century conversion of St. Vladimir the Baptizer of Kievan Rus’. (If you are dubious about the nature of those conversions, be sure to read the second piece by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in which he argues that the Byzantine Empire was authentically Christian both in intention and in content.) Historically, then, we know that cultures have been transformed. If such feats have happened in the  past, who is to say they can’t happen again?

Florovsky notes in the first piece that medieval people “really did believe that ‘this world’ could be ‘christened’ and converted, not only that it was ‘forgiven.’ There was a firm belief in the possibility of an ultimate renewal of the entire historical existence.” Do we believe that? He goes on to suggest that the “aim of the Medieval man was to build a truly Christian Society.” Is that our aim? I think it should be, but with a small caveat.

We know that Byzantium, Latin Christendom, Orthodox Russia, and other historical instances of cultural conversion didn’t work out perfectly. But that ought not surprise us. We shouldn’t expect them to work out perfectly in a fallen world. Our aim is not and ought not be to create the Kingdom of God on earth. Schmemann is emphatic on this point:

In no way, and this must be stressed, did it transform the empire into the Kingdom of God. For it is the property of the early Christian eschatology that, while experiencing the Kingdom of God as an immanent factor in the life of “this world,” it maintains intact its totally transcendent character. It is always the presence in “this world” of the “world to come,” never the transformation or the “evolution” of the former into the latter.

So Byzantium was not the Kingdom of God. Instead, the Kingdom of God was made manifest, made present, in Byzantium. The common man in the Byzantine world couldn't help but encounter God’s presence. As Charles Taylor has put it, it was almost impossible not to believe in God in the Middle Ages. But again, that didn't make Byzantium perfect.

Both Schmemann and Florovsky readily admit the failures, the grievous failures of Byzantium. But they are also both insistent on historically setting the perjorative narrative of “Christendom” straight. According to Schmemann,

to see the history of Byzantine Christianity merely as an example of Caesaropapism, to reduce it to a surrender of Church to state, is not only to distort significantly the historical evidence, but also to miss, almost completely, the spirit and the psychological ‘make-up’ of a society, of a ‘world’ which for more than a thousand years of its existence was Christian, not only in intention but also in content.

You may be wondering why I’ve inserted all this fuss over Constantine, Byzantium, and Christendom. What does all that ancient and medieval history have to do with our conversation this weekend? I think we find ourselves in a historical moment not all that different from the early Church right before the conversion of Constantine. And we know what happened after those three centuries of persecution. What if something similar were to happen today? What would happen if there were mass conversions to Christianity? What if our culture was truly and miraculously converted? What would we do? How would we deal with the relationship between the Church and the state? By looking back at other historical examples we can gain insight and wisdom into how we might navigate such a moment. As Florovsky puts it in the conclusion to his piece, “we may get some light for ourselves through an impartial study of the Eastern experiment, both in its hope and in its failure.”

How such a miraculous moment of cultural renewal might come to be is a whole other beast of a question. Nevertheless, let me touch on it briefly by way of introducing the third piece, tying it all together with Smith and his Cultural Liturgies project, and injecting a passage from T. S. Eliot.

Aristotle Papanikolaou, professor of theology and co-founding director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, published a fascinating book in 2012 titled The  Mystical as Political. In his introduction (much of it is printed in this notebook as a teaser to motivate you to purchase a copy from Eighth Day Books), Papanikolaou connects theosis—or deification, translated by him as “divine-human communion”—with politics through ascetical practices. Since politics are essentially “an engagement with the neighbor/stranger,” and since “the temptation to demonize the neighbor” is “more compelling or more seemingly justifiable” in the field of politics than any other field, it is precisely in the field of politics that “the Christian is more challenged to fulfill the commandment of love.” And according to Papanikolaou, theosis / divine-human communion “is to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, that is singularly, and to love neighbor as self.” But we have to learn how to love. And that takes work. It takes asceticism. In Papanikolaou’s words,

To be created for communion with God, then, is to be called to learn how to love. An ascetics of divine-human communion is the performance of practices aimed at moving one toward the acquisition of the virtue of love. It is not a formula but more like an artistic tradition that passes on time-tested practices.

If you’ve read much of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, or his more popular book You Are What You Love, you won’t be able to avoid hearing the crux of Smith’s argument in that short paragraph by Papanikolaou.

I’ll conclude by letting T. S. Eliot lead us directly to that crux. In his 1930 lecture “The Idea of a Christian Society,” T. S. Eliot argues that the problem of living a Christian life in a non-Christian society like ours

is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of this dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.

So what is the crux of Smith’s argument? We are what we love and our loves are formed by our habits. And our habits, unfortunately, are too often formed by the non-neutral network of institutions and practices. But I disagree with Eliot. We can dissociate ourselves from those institutions and practices. As Smith suggests, with Papanikolaou, we must dissociate ourselves from them—Smith describes them as “secular liturgies”—in order to create habits of love that lead to divine-human communion. It’s the way of an “artistic tradition,” the way of time-tested ascetic practices of the Church. May we all embrace some of those ascetic practices during this Lenten season so that we might make some progress in our path toward divine-human communion and thus contribute to the renewal of our culture. And who knows, we might just end up with a culture that is Christian both in intention and in content.

Erin Doom
Eighth Day Institute, Founder & Director
Feast of St. Timothy the Righteous
Anno Domini 2018

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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