Working through Totalitarian Experience

in Essays in Ecumenical Theology I
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This chapter is based on a version of a paper “Theology after Totalitarian Experience” that I gave at a conference on Political Orthodoxy and Totalitarianism in a Post-Communist Era, organized by a number of Orthodox institutions1 in Sofia Cultural Centre in Helsinki from 28–31 May 2015. Having to speak on theology after the totalitarian experience in the Czech Republic brought me back to my earlier attempts to address this complicated heritage, to see how memories of the past impact on the present.2 I needed to find a new and different angle to treat the theme. Concentrating on the ways theology could serve as a critical conscience was helpful, provided I remained critical of the reductionist models of dealing with the past in the light of the present and included both the exemplary and the difficult stages of working through the experience and its impact, not denying that both theologians and the churches were also partly shaped by the totalitarian experience. This text has not been published yet, though an earlier and different version of the paper is included in the conference proceedings that are being prepared for publication.

Dealing with the totalitarian past may raise legitimate questions. Is the experience of totalitarianism fully behind? Can we judge it retrospectively? My approach to the theme, as presented in this chapter, assumes that we can analyse what happened to theology after the end of Communism, which is now one generation ago. At the same time, however, I am aware that ideologies offering total explanations of reality and a total control of our lives are not far away today. Currently the economically controlled orientation of European and American societies, rising nationalism and what is called “post-truth” politics3 are examples of that. This chapter may help in appreciating the interactions between the past totalitarianism and the ones currently creeping in, and the challenges theology needs to face both in relation to the totalitarian past and contemporary challenges.

Ideally theology is the conscience of the Church, her purifying self-criticism, her permanent reference to the ultimate goals of her existence. Deprived of theology, of its testimony and judgement, the Church is always in danger of forgetting and misinterpreting her own Tradition, confusing the essential with the secondary, absolutizing the contingent, losing the perspective of her life. She becomes a prisoner of her “empirical” needs and the pragmatic spirit of “this world” which poisons and obscures the absolute demands of the Truth.4

In his essay “Theology and Eucharist” Alexander Schmemann reminds us that the voice of theology comes from within the church, and yet it is distinct from other voices. He sees the task of theology as being the church’s critical conscience, judging the empirical reality of the church and orienting the church towards her sources of faith and life.5 In this chapter I will locate this task within contextually understood theology, something Schmemann himself did not do. My questions will be how theologies in Central and Eastern Europe were shaped by the totalitarian experience and how theologians have responded, which issues they have needed to address and which attitudes they have adopted in order to break the continuation of the totalitarian mentality.