Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

Frary, “Russia and the Making of Modern Greek Identity, 1821-1844”

In August, the Oxford University Press released “Russia and the Making of Modern Greek Identity, 1821-1844,” by Lucien J. Frary (Rider University).   The publisher’s description follows:

The birth of the Greek nation in 1830 was a pivotal event in modern European history and in the history of nation-building in general. As the first internationally recognized state to appear on the map of Europe since the French Revolution, independent Greece provided a model for other national movements to emulate. Throughout the process of nation formation in Greece, the Russian Empire played a critical part. Drawing upon a mass of previously fallow archival material, most notably from Russian embassies and consulates, this volume explores the role of Russia and the potent interaction of religion and politics in the making of modern Greek identity. It deals particularly with the role of Eastern Orthodoxy in the transformation of the collective identity of the Greeks from the Ottoman Orthodox millet into the new Hellenic-Christian imagined community. Lucien J. Frary provides the first comprehensive examination of Russian reactions to the establishment of the autocephalous Greek Church, the earliest of its kind in the Orthodox Balkans, and elucidates Russia’s anger and disappointment during the Greek Constitutional Revolution of 1843, the leaders of which were Russophiles. Employing Russian newspapers and “thick journals” of the era, Frary probes responses within Russian reading circles to the reforms and revolutions taking place in the Greek kingdom. More broadly, the volume explores the making of Russian foreign policy during the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55) and provides a distinctively transnational perspective on the formation of modern identity.

Songulashvili, “Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia”

This month, Baylor University Press releases “Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia: The History and Transformation of a Free Church Tradition,” by Malkhaz Songulashvili (Ilia State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Malkhaz Songulashvili, former Archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (EBCG), provides a pioneering, exacting, and
sweeping history of Georgian Baptists. Utilizing archival sources in Georgian, Russian, German, and English—translating many of these crucial documents for the first time into English—he recounts the history of the EBCG from its formation in 1867 to the present.

While the particular story of Georgian Baptists merits telling in its own right, and not simply as a feature of Russian religious life, Songulashvili employs Georgian Baptists as a sustained case study on the convergence of religion and culture. The interaction of Eastern Orthodox, Western Protestant, and Russian dissenting religious traditions—mixed into the political cauldron of Russian occupation of a formerly distinct eastern European culture—led to a remarkable experiment in Christian free-church identity.  Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia allows readers to peer through the lens of intercultural studies to see the powerful relationships among politics, religion, and culture in the formation of Georgian Baptists, and their blending of Orthodox tradition into Baptist life to craft a unique ecclesiology, liturgy, and aesthetics.

“Religion, Politics and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Countries” (Simons & Westerlund, eds.)

In March, Ashgate released “Religion, Politics and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Countries,” edited by Greg Simons (Uppsala University) and David Westerlund (Södertörn University). The publisher’s description follows:

The increasing significance and visibility of relationships between religion and public arenas and institutions following the fall of communism in Europe provide the core focus of this fascinating book. Leading international scholars consider the religious and political role of Christian Orthodoxy in the Russian Federation, Romania, Georgia and Ukraine alongside the revival of old, indigenous religions, often referred to as ‘shamanistic’ and look at how, despite Islam’s long history and many adherents in the south, Islamophobic attitudes have increasingly been added to traditional anti-Semitic, anti-Western or anti-liberal elements of Russian nationalism. Contrasts between the church’s position in the post-communist nation building process of secular Estonia with its role in predominantly Catholic Poland are also explored.

Religion, Politics and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Countries gives a broad overview of the political importance of religion in the Post-Soviet space but its interest and relevance extends far beyond the geographical focus, providing examples of the challenges in the spheres of public, religious and social policy for all transitional countries.

Difficult Questions on Unused Embryos

A really fascinating article in the New York Times this morning about the perhaps one million embryos currently in storage in medical facilities across the United States. Most of these embryos have been created through IVF treatments, on which increasing numbers of Americans rely. IVF allows many couples to bring new life into the world and experience the great gift of children. Given the current state of the technology, though, parents who use IVF must typically create several extra embryos in order to increase the odds of conception. This means that many unused embryos remain. The Times  reports that perhaps a million such embryos now exist. What will become of them?

Of course, for many Americans, this question raises important religious issues. The Catholic Church teaches that IVF is immoral in principle, even for married couples, because it violates human dignity and degrades the marital act–though of course children created through IVF are to honored and cherished, just like any others. Evangelical Christians, however, in principle accept the practice for married couples, as do Orthodox Christians. The fate of any unused embryos raises very difficult questions, however. To destroy them seems tantamount to abortion, which both Evangelical and Orthodox Christianity condemn. And all Christians, I think, would have moral concerns about the commodification of embryos that seems the logical outcome of our market society. The Times reports that one California company is already in the business of creating embryos from third parties for would-be parents to purchase, for $12,500, plus a money-back guarantee.

But back to married couples. What should a couple with religious scruples do about extra embryos created by IVF? Some Evangelicals have come up with a good solution. They donate the embryos to other infertile couples. It’s analogous to adoption:

For example, the National Embryo Donation Center in Tennessee, which is endorsed by the Christian Medical Association, places embryos only with heterosexual couples married at least three years — and only after a home study exploring their readiness to be parents, as is required for families adopting a living child.

“We think the embryos deserve the same level of protections as children who are being adopted,” said Stephanie Wood-Moyers, marketing director of the center, where the Watts embryos were stored.

Where does the civil law stand in all this? Unlike many countries, the US does not regulate assisted reproduction technologies, including IVF. And so, as with respect to so many aspects of American life, it becomes a matter of contract law. In my first-year contracts class, in fact, our casebook has two relatively recent cases, one from Massachusetts and one from New York, on the enforceability of parties’ agreements with respect to the disposal of unwanted embryos after IVF. In the Massachusetts case, the court declined to enforce the agreement, in large part because the agreement was ambiguous.

The New York court, by contrast, ruled in favor of enforcement. “Explicit agreements avoid costly litigation in business transactions,” Chief Judge Kaye wrote. She continued:

They are all the more necessary and desirable in personal matters of reproductive choice, where the intangible costs of any litigation are simply incalculable. Advance directives … both minimize misunderstandings and maximize procreative liberty by reserving to the progenitors the authority to make what is in the first instances a quintessentially personal, private decision. Written agreements also provide the certainty needed for effective operation of IVF programs.

Now, you might wonder whether questions as complicated and wrenching for people as these should be handled by contract law, as if they were equivalent to particularly difficult business transactions. (“How do we divide up the inventory if the partnership dissolves?”). Surely there is a more humane way to address these issues. But that seems to be the way our culture is heading. If there’s one thing we still believe in, apparently, it’s liberty of contract–at least when it comes to bearing children.

Putin and the Pope


How have you been?

From Crux’s John Allen, here is an interesting and provocative article on today’s scheduled meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis. Surprisingly, Allen writes, on some issues, the two men have “forged an improbably strong partnership.”

One of those issues is the persecution of Mideast Christians. While Western nations have temporized, refusing even to acknowledge the sectarian dimension of the crisis–ISIS’s actions have nothing to do with religion, apparently–Putin has made himself the champion of the region’s Christians:

“As regards the Middle East and its Christians, their situation is dire,” Putin said in April. “The international community is not doing enough … this is the motherland of Christians. Christians have lived there from time immemorial, for thousands of years.”

In some corners of the Middle East, such as the Syrian region of Qualamun, Russia actually has floated the idea of granting citizenship to pockets of Orthodox Christians, effectively offering them a security blanket.

Now, talk is cheap. And Putin’s motivations are not wholly humanitarian. By offering itself as the protector of Mideast Christians, most of whom are Orthodox, Russia can exert influence in the region. (France has traditionally put itself forward in the same role, although France tends to focus on Catholics). Speaking out for Christian minorities also increases Putin’s credibility as the representative of traditional Christianity, which no doubt wins him admirers in the developing world, where Christianity is expanding, often in conflict with a rising Islam. And, of course, championing the cause of Orthodox Christians increases his political appeal in Russia itself.

Still, whatever his motives, Putin has focused on the suffering of Christians as Christians, and that is something many leaders in the West are apparently reluctant to do. It is also a stance, Allen writes, that appeals to Pope Francis:

Since Francis’ election in March 2013, meanwhile, no social or political issue has engaged the pontiff like the plight of persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East.

In March, he demanded that the world stop trying to “hide” the reality of anti-Christian violence, and he’s also argued that the shared suffering of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants alike is the basis for a contemporary “ecumenism of blood.”

Allen notes that the conflict in Ukraine will pose obstacles for any real partnership between Russia and the Vatican. Ukrainian Catholics believe that Pope Francis has taken too soft a line in that particular crisis. Francis has described the conflict as an unfortunate disagreement between Christians, while Ukrainian Catholics tend to see it as the result of Russian provocation, which they wish Francis would denounce. In particular, Ukrainian Catholics resent what they see as bullying and duplicity on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly the Moscow Patriarchate.

As I say, an interesting and provocative piece.

Destivelle, “The Moscow Council (1917–1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church”

In May, the University of Notre Dame Press will release “The Moscow Council (1917–1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church” by Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P. (Oriental Section of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican). The publisher’s description follows:

By the early twentieth century, a genuine renaissance of religious thought and a desire for ecclesial reform were emerging in the Russian Orthodox Church. With the end of tsarist rule and widespread dissatisfaction with government control of all aspects of church life, conditions were ripe for the Moscow Council of 1917-1918 to come into being.

The council was a major event in the history of the Orthodox Church. After years of struggle for reform against political and ecclesiastical resistance, the bishops, clergy, monastics, and laity who formed the Moscow Council were able to listen to one other and make sweeping decisions intended to renew the Russian Orthodox Church. Council members sought change in every imaginable area—from seminaries and monasteries, to parishes and schools, to the place of women in church life and governance. Like Vatican II, the Moscow Council emphasized the mission of the church in and to the world.

Destivelle’s study not only discusses the council and its resolutions but also provides the historical, political, social, and cultural context that preceded the council. In the only comprehensive and probing account of the council, he discusses its procedures and achievements, augmented by substantial appendices of translated conciliar documents.

Tragically, due to the Revolution, the council’s decisions could not be implemented to the extent its members hoped. Despite current trends in the Russian church away from the Moscow Council’s vision, the council’s accomplishments remain as models for renewal in the Eastern churches.


The Newest Doctor of the Church


This week, Pope Francis did something unprecedented. (One could perhaps write that sentence every week). He named, as a Doctor of the Universal Church, a tenth-century Armenian mystic called Gregory of Narek. Now, as the Catholic Church already recognizes 35 other Doctors of the Church, a designation that indicates saints who have made particular contributions to theological learning, you might wonder what’s so unprecedented about it. I’ll tell you.

(Readers who find theology, church history, and canon law boring should stop reading this post right now. You know who you are. We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled posting presently).

Gregory was a priest in the Armenian Apostolic Church. As a formal matter, the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church have been out of communion since the fifth century. By the time Gregory was born, the two churches had already been divided for about 500 years. So Pope Francis has named, as a saint of particular theological distinction, someone from a separated church–someone who was not, in fact, a Catholic at all.

The churches separated over Christology. The Armenian Church declines to accept the Council of Chalcedon (451), which declares that Christ is one person with two separate, but conjoined, natures, human and divine, a position known as diophysitism. Like her sister Oriental Orthodox Churches, including the Coptic and Syriac churches, the Armenian Church holds instead that Christ has one combined human-divine nature, in which the human and divine nonetheless remain distinct, a position known as miaphysitism.

The disagreement does seem a rather technical one. Much turns on the proper fifth-century translation of Greek words like “physis” and “hypostasis.” For centuries, however, the two sides condemned each other as heretical. Chalcedonian Christians, including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants, dismissed Orientals as “monophysites.” That designation has been dropped in our lifetimes, though, both because it is incorrect (unlike miaphysitism, monophysitism is indeed a heresy, but not one Orientals espouse) and because it is rather insulting. Indeed, in 1996, Pope St. John Paul II signed a declaration with Catholicos Karekin I, the patriarch of the Armenian Church, that attributed the centuries of division to semantic and other misunderstandings and explained that, whatever the other differences, Christological controversies should no longer separate the two churches. In fact, current Catholic canon law allows Orientals to receive communion in a Catholic church.

Now, the Armenian Church–my own church, in case you are wondering–has long considered Gregory of Narek, who wrote a beautiful set of reflections called the Lamentations, a saint. Indeed, he’s a very prominent saint, whose prayers are included in our Lenten vigils. But he was not a Catholic. I imagine he himself would have been a bit surprised to find that Rome had declared him a Doctor of the Church, a saint whose theological writings bear special distinction. What’s the explanation?

As far as I can make out, it’s this. When Rome receives part of an Eastern church into full communion, it accepts all of the Eastern church’s saints, as long as they did not explicitly contradict Catholic doctrine. So, when part of the Armenian Church united with Rome in the 18th century to form the Armenian-rite Catholic Church, Rome accepted the Armenian saints, including Gregory of Narek. He was, as it were, grandfathered, and has been a Catholic saint ever since. That’s how, in light of his great contributions, he can be declared a Doctor of the Church today.

Pretty much everyone in the Catholic world seems happy, or at least not unhappy, about this turn of events (though not everybody), including the traditionalists at Rorate Coeli:

It is interesting to note that Gregory lived at a time when the Armenian Church, to which he belonged, was not formally in communion with Rome and Constantinople. However, as those interested in the extremely tangled history of Christianity in the first millennium are well aware, one cannot always speak straightforwardly of “schism” and “heresy” when dealing with the theological and ecclesiastical divisions of Christendom in that era.

Just so. Armenian Apostolic Christians, too, are genuinely pleased. Indeed, Pope Francis’s action is particularly welcome this year, the centennial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, including many Christian martyrs, lost their lives. The monastery of Narek on the shore of Lake Van, where Gregory once lived and taught, was itself a victim of the purge. The monks abandoned it during the genocide, a hundred years ago, never to return. Today, a mosque stands on the site.

Colloquium: “Orthodox Christianity & Humanitarianism: Ideas & Action in the World”

On May 7-8, 2015, the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) will host a colloquium entitled “Orthodox Christianity & Humanitarianism: Ideas & Action in the World.”

Orthodox Christians worldwide are integrally involved in the faith-humanitarianism nexus, both as providers of humanitarian services through development and emergency relief and as part of those populations suffering from some of the world’s most urgent humanitarian crises and longstanding humanitarian challenges.

This colloquium is being sponsored by the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and will explore how Orthodox Christianity conceives of and practices humanitarianism.  The focus of our inquiry is the contemporary context, but we will necessarily consider historical examples, adaptations, and evolution in Orthodox teachings and practice regarding humanitarianism.

The colloquium is designed to encourage analysis, debate, and prescription.  The aim is to encourage conversation and dialogue that can facilitate networks of cooperation and action that will allow for the rich resources of Orthodox Christianity—its teachings, its institutions and organizations, its communicants—to become fully engaged in the urgent humanitarian needs of our time.

Details can be found here.

Engelhardt, “Singing the Right Way”

This past December, Oxford University Press released “Singing the Right Way: Orthodox Christians and Secular Enchantment in Estonia” by Jeffers Engelhardt (Amherst College).  The publisher’s description follows:

Singing the Right WaySinging the Right Way enters the world of Orthodox Christianity in Estonia to explore musical style in worship, cultural identity, and social imagination. Through both ethnographic and historical chapters, author Jeffers Engelhardt reveals how Orthodox Estonians give voice to the religious absolute in secular society. Based on a decade of fieldwork, Singing the Right Way traces the sounds of Orthodoxy in Estonia through the Russian Empire, interwar national independence, the Soviet-era, and post-Soviet integration into the European Union. Approaching Orthodoxy through local understandings of correct practice and correct belief, Engelhardt shows how religious knowledge, national identity, and social transformation illuminate how to “sing the right way” and thereby realize the fullness of Estonians’ Orthodox Christian faith in context of everyday, secular surroundings. Singing the Right Way is an innovative model of how the musical poetics of contemporary religious forms are rooted in both consistent sacred tradition and contingent secular experience. This landmark study is sure to be an essential text for scholars studying the ethnomusicology of religion.

Movsesian at American Historical Association Meeting

For readers attending the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in New York this weekend, I’ll be on a Sunday panel, “Contemporary Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights.” The panel, sponsored by the American Society of Church History, is chaired by Penn’s Sally Gordon, who participated in our Joint Colloquium this past spring. Details are here. Please stop by and say hello!