After the fall of communism, the debate that seems to be prevalent in the research among theologians, sociologists and political scientists is the one concerning the relationship between the Church and liberal democracy. Although Eastern Orthodoxy does not seem to be completely absent from the discussion,1 the dissemination and consolidation of the (post-)modern principles, globalization and all the major political, social and economic developments that have taken place or are in progress have led to an unprecedented amount of interest in the field of political theology2, where the topic under discussion is situated.
Too often the Orthodox present themselves, in a rather arrogant way, as the democratic church par excellence, as the church where the synodal spirit pervades its whole life, as the Church of the Synods that positions itself between the authoritarian structure of the Roman Catholic Church and the extreme relativism or fragmentation of the Protestant world. Although such an understanding does not take seriously into account the varied patterns of organization or long historical developments, it still occupies a central place in the Orthodox imagination, determining in advance any discussion of the relationship between Orthodoxy and democracy. At the same time, however, the very concept and reality of democratic governance, ethics and values have been much debated. This occurs to the extent that there are frequent shifts or mutations either towards more liberal and social or more authoritarian and populist forms of democratic organization, especially in Western societies (Trumpency is a recent example), which leads to a necessary reconsideration of the present and future of liberal democracy.
After describing the context within which the debate should take place (namely post-modernity, secularization and globalization), I will discuss some fundamental methodological terms of this dialogue from a theological point of view. The goal of this introductory text is to show that the Orthodox Church is not incompatible with the basic principles of liberal democracy (e.g., church-state separation, representation, participation by the people, human rights) at the level of theology. To the contrary, the Orthodox Church is the eschatological fulfillment of the latter, even if, in the realm of history, Church life often displays dysfunctions (undermining of the laity, imperialistic attitudes, nationalism) that cause embarrassment. Unless the Church is viewed primarily in terms of communion, an event, and not just as a fixed community or institution, it cannot be fully defined as democratic.
The Context of the Discussion
To cope better with the issue under discussion, one needs to make use of “contextual hermeneutics” to avoid projecting general socio-political theories onto completely different contexts. This applies especially to the relationship between Orthodoxy and post-modernity, secularization and globalization, phenomena to which the development of Orthodoxy has contributed little. This is particularly important to the extent that liberal democracy itself, as we know it today, is a product of post-modernity, as especially exemplified in certain parts of the Western world. Therefore, “it is wrong if we discuss this issue to attribute either a democratic or non-democratic ethos to Christianity before the birth of modern democracy itself.”3 Orthodoxy, as a historical product of late antiquity, already existed before modernity.
It has been rightly argued4 that Eastern Orthodoxy came more or less to a halt before modernity, succumbing in some cases to an innate desire to move backwards to pre-modern forms of organization of life and society (for example, the adoption of forms and symbolisms of rural society). The Orthodox Church, especially in the so-called Orthodox countries (in the Balkans and Eastern Europe), often seems to have completely rejected the major achievements of modernity, such as human rights language or political liberalism, expressing instead a preference for pre-modern organizational structures, an inclination towards the glorious theocratic or even anti-democratic past, a patriarchal lifestyle and generally a worldview that represents Orthodoxy as fully anti-modern. This is the dominant attitude of Orthodoxy towards modernity, despite some exceptions, such as the Russia of Tsar Peter I and Catherine II or the plethora of important thinkers of the Russian Religious Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who often fruitfully addressed, regardless of the result, certain aspects of modernity. So, the question is not so much whether or not Orthodoxy stopped developing before modernity,5 but rather why Orthodoxy did not succeed in embracing fundamental democratic values, with the result that its encounter with modernity still remains at a preliminary stage today.
Against this ambivalence regarding to modernity, there is a consensus among contemporary sociologists of religion that secularization is a more nuanced and complex phenomenon that varies widely depending on the specific context. It has been justly argued that the religious and the secular are “inextricably bound and mutually conditioned.”6 By saying this, one is obliged to talk about multiple secularizations or patterns of secularization, following the most recent analysis in this vein that accounts for “multiple modernities.”7 Regardless of this general agreement, certain features have already been determined by which an attempt has been made by sociologists and political theorists to describe or evaluate this phenomenon: a) structural differentiation of the secular sphere; b) decline of religious belief and c) privatization of religion.8
Even if one or more of these features apply in most Western societies, the reality in predominantly Orthodox countries, such as Greece, Serbia, Russia, etc., appears quite different. Despite a certain change or progress in various aspects of institutions or daily life and the experience of the Orthodox people (e.g., adoption of digital technology), one could hardly trace a robust decline of religiosity and practice among the Orthodox, despite the frequency of church-going or church attendance, which remains high, according to relevant studies, especially in Eastern European countries. For instance, the Greeks are deeply religious – whether indifferently Orthodox or pagan.9 Therefore, despite the efforts by especially socialist or left-wing governments to reconfigure the state-church relationship towards a more secular perspective, intending to limit the public role or often the hegemony of the Orthodox Church in state affairs – since it was always the state that took any kind of initiative in this direction – it would not be easy for one to argue for a clearly secularized Greek, Serbian or similar society.
On the one hand, it would be true to argue that religion in Greece, for instance, has increasingly essentially been a lesser direct influence on the various institutional spheres (professional, etc.), thus providing space to what has been described as “inter-institutional secularization,”10 i.e., the theory of the institutional differentiation of the secular spheres. On the other hand, however, due to its strong and diachronic tie with the Greek national ideology,11 as well as with charity and solidarity works, the Church still strongly intervenes in the political or public sphere, in this way inhibiting any real process of secularization understood as a high wall of separation between church and state or as a decline in religiosity. It seems then that any attempt to approach the distinctiveness of the Greek experience (or any other traditional Orthodox country) through the lens of so-called “Christian nominalism,”12 “vicarious religion,”13 “top-down secularization theories,”14 or a more inclusive European secularization than a more limited American one15, although having some merit, does not finally grasp the core nature of the religiosity of the Orthodox people.
The ambivalence Orthodoxy is experiencing towards the achievements of (post)modernity has become apparent thus far, as in liberal democracy. This fact points to the need to define the theological preconditions of the discussion on the compatibility of Orthodoxy and democracy, with special reference to the democratic or non-democratic character of the synodal institution. This sort of discussion is not a luxury but an inevitable necessity that seeks to prevent unnecessary polemics and ideological entanglements.
Basic Theological Prerequisites of the Dialogue
The Relationship between Nature and Grace
The relationship between nature and grace has occupied a central place in the history of theology since the early period of the Church. It was with St. Augustine and Pelagius that the role of grace and its relationship to human nature was discussed in detail in the context of Christian anthropology from the point of view of soteriology. The whole discussion gradually evolved during medieval times (St. Thomas Aquinas) arriving at its climax with the Reformation, where a radical separation between the two levels finally prevailed. In this context, the impossibility of the created level (humans, world) to participate in the uncreated because of the Fall into sin was boldly emphasized. Through ressourcement theology,16 namely, the appeal to the study of the Greek patristic tradition, the strict critique of Neo-Thomism and the rapid developments on all levels of life with the emergence of modernity (e.g., emphasis on the autonomy of created existence and humanity), a new approach emerged in which the full gracious character of nature and the innate tendency of human and creation towards the level of the uncreated and grace was re-emphasized. An ontology of participation then became the banner of this new theological perspective, according to which “nature is not only made for Grace, but is made, from the beginning, by Grace.”17 To some extent, this view understands the whole creation as the Church, and no aspect of human existence and life can be understood as outside of the realm of grace. Obviously, such an understanding of the relationship between nature and grace is firmly rooted in the patristic tradition (e.g., Justin the Philosopher’s “spermatikos logos,”18 Maximos the Confessor’s theory of Logos-logoi,19 and Gregory Palamas’ essence-energies distinction20 ) and in modern (including Orthodox) theology. Suffice it here to recall nouvelle théologie21, Radical Orthodoxy22 or the sophiology of certain Russian emigrants,23 an attitude represented also in thinkers like John Milbank, William Cavanaugh, Vigen Guroian, Christos Yannaras, etc.24 Such a holistic perspective (where, for instance, “democracy is clearly the Church”)25, although correctly recognizing that nature, as a product of God’s creative will, can always be firmly oriented to its creator. At the same time, however, it degrades the distinction (otherness) between the two fields, which seems that they alone can ensure personal otherness and freedom, the existence of a field of action where the human is called to freely decide whether or not she will move towards grace. A more Chalcedonean (“without confusion and separation”) understanding of the relationship between nature and grace in this regard prevents the Church and its theology from embracing authoritarian or unfree ideologies and forms of social organization. After all, the source of the Church’s authority comes from God and not from this age. Therefore, the identification of any polis, even the most ideal democratic state with the Church, could hardly be justified theologically insofar as the relationship (and distinction) between nature and grace does not prevent but also does not force nature to turn towards grace, respecting thus the (post-modern) autonomy and dignity of nature and the loving but free action of grace. In this light, matters like the way in which decisions are made in the Church or in a democratic state (e.g., unanimity or majority) should be treated as belonging to different levels. Grace can always be expressed unanimously and freely, in contrast to nature, especially created nature, which is always subject to majority rule (either relative or absolute), defined by necessity due to the innate fragmentation of the created order. At this point, one needs to insist even more: to better understand the relationship between nature and grace, one should allude to Augustine’s theory of the two cities. For St. Augustine, the city of God (here grace) is an alternative society, which maintains its otherness while coexisting with the earthly one (nature). The two cities coexist while in dialogue in space and time. They are not identical but two distinct parts of the saeculum. It is a dynamic relationship that can protect the Church from the threat of secularization or any escapist tendency from history while fully maintaining its worldly character.26
The Relationship between History and Eschata
A second fundamental methodological condition is the eschatological perspective (outlook) that defines Christian and especially Orthodox theology. Since the beginning of the 20th century, eschatology27 seems to have regained its central place in the body of Christian theology. As primarily a sort of “eschatological revolution” within the Protestant world, this revitalization of the eschatological outlook soon spread out over the entire Christian world. Fathers Georges Florovsky (1893–1979) and Sergii Bulgakov (1871–1944), and Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon (1931) are only some of those who pointed out the central role eschatology plays in contemporary Orthodox theology.28 The eschatological outlook is determined by the fresh and always innovative Spirit of God, and is perceived not as a fixed reality but as an expectant hope (as freedom from every kind of historical, individual, or communal pathogen or failure, like nationalism, self-referentiality, egocentricity, ecclesiastical culturalism, oppression and many other temptations). To the extent that it is so, it becomes quite obvious that the eschata, or rather the Eschatos that is the coming Lord, is the one who finally judges both our individual and ecclesial being and way of theology. In other words, Christ’s Kingdom is the very criterion that manifests the truth of every single human individual (Christian) or communal (Church) enterprise, and by no means the most developed or comprehensive aspect of Tradition, not to say any merely historical construction. The real dynamism of this eschatological outlook allows the Church and its theology to search for new and necessary syntheses in the realm of the ongoing history of salvation, (late modernity and secularization considered as the current phase of this history), insofar as the Church has not yet fully articulated every aspect of the revealed truth in history – for instance, has the Church expressed itself synodally about politics, or democracy? If this is the case, the Church and its theology should be critical of any historical formation, ideology, or institution, and especially those that restrict human freedom or downgrade human dignity, hindering the direct dialogue and reciprocity with the grace of God. At the same time, in specific forms of organization of human life, and exceptionally in liberal democracy,29 the Church and its theology must recognize the seeds of a worldview that could be critically received and justified in the eschata. If, according to participation ontology, everything that exists is considered to be the bearer of a divine logos, why can democracy itself not be understood by analogy, a logos that calls for “dialogical reciprocity” between the created and the uncreated in line with the model of the perichoretic being and life of the Trinity? After all, like any form of dialogue in history, the truth of democracy will ultimately be judged in the Kingdom of God.
Personhood and the Individual
As has been specifically argued by prominent Orthodox theologians, the concept of personhood is perhaps the most important contribution of Christianity to the history of ideas.30 Starting from the Eucharistic experience of the Fathers of the Church, a person-centered understanding of the human was formed: having been created in the image of God, the human being expresses the Triune God’s personal way of existence as is experienced in the Divine Eucharist par excellence. In this light, the human is seen through the lens of personhood, as a pre-eminently relational being, whose being stems from a constant, loving, and free relationship with the other (neighbour, animals, God). The unique, irreducible character of each person is then stressed in contrast to the dominant individualism, which, on the basis of a closed perception of human rights, considers the human as a self-conceivable, and self-existent being, defined autonomously and irrespective of the surrounding world. The classic philosophical problem of the relationship between the One and the Many re-emerges here. In this respect, the goal is to affirm otherness within communion, without turning communion into a gathering of fragmented individuals. From this point of view, insofar as democracy is basically understood through the lens of the rule of popular sovereignty, i.e., that the authority of a certain state is drawn from and sustained by the consent of the people, this principle necessarily requires a network of relations between the members of society. This goes beyond a simple sum of individuals, thus forming a framework of interpersonal relationships where individuals seek, both individually and collectively, the realization of the common good, whether transcendentally grounded (in the case of Christians) or intra-worldly (from any other secular perspective). Therefore, in the context of the discussion on the relationship between Orthodoxy and democracy, one could argue that the human is called to evolve from a preliminary stage, that of the democratic being (see individuality, self-determination, human rights language, etc.) to a different mode of being, the ecclesiastical being (personhood) that, without canceling the former, constitutes its fulfillment. In this case, where we are talking about the same person who can be both a citizen of a state and a member of the Church, we need to distinguish carefully between these two different modes of being that, without being identified, are inextricably linked to and dependent on each other. Again, a Chalcedonian politics is at work here.
Synodal institution and Democracy
It is considered a commonplace among theologians that the synodal institution constitutes the “trunk of the administration and the canonical structure”31 of the Church. It is an institution that, although borrowing elements from organizational forms of late antiquity (e.g., Athenian democracy), its main source lies in the very identity and nature of the Church not only as community but primarily as communion, as the Body of Christ. It is not my intention here to take up the details of the historical evolution of the synodal institution. Suffice it to say that it appears in the New Testament (Synod of Jerusalem, Act 15); is explicitly associated with the Eucharistic assembly of the whole Church; expresses a clear hierarchy (in terms of personal otherness, not of pyramidal structure) in the relationship of its members; acquires over time a clear episcopal character. The ongoing evolution and consolidation, development and diversity of the synodal institution at the various levels of organization in the life of the Church (local, regional, ecumenical) will be expressed in the later canonical tradition of the Church, with the well-known 34th apostolic canon.32
The main axes of this canon are the following: a) in every “nation” (
In relation to the synodal institution, it is obvious that its two terms (primus and synod) are inextricably linked, a fact that excludes either the authoritarianism of the one/primus or the populism of the many. It is not merely a functional relationship, as is perhaps the case in some versions of liberal democracy, where the primacy of, for example, the President of the Republic may be only honorary and without actual power, or the Prime Minister may be the captive of political balance within his own party. Rather, it is a deeply ontological relationship between the two poles. Regardless of the actual form that the synodal institution can take in light of the 34th canon, using political terms, either the form of the presidency (see for instance the synodal institution in the Ecumenical Patriarchate) or the form of the presiding democracy (e.g., the Church of Greece), one and many, primacy and synod can by no means be understood separately. On the contrary, they are concentric circles (and less a pyramidal, hierarchical structure) that express an identity of will and unanimity, echoing the common albeit distinct ad extra activity of the three Trinitarian persons in creation. Such a perspective, however, could hardly be put into practice in the realm of history where the fragmentation of nature does not allow for consensus. Such a view would possibly echo authoritarian institutional expressions, while it would be far from its eschatological archetype. If not taken into account, this historical antinomy very often turns the Church into a secular institution, with all the problems that it entails, like authoritarianism, the excess of power, and finally, its entrapment in history and loss of the eschatological vision.
This contribution has attempted to reflect on basic methodological parameters presupposed in the dialogue between Orthodoxy and liberal democracy. Any examination of individual issues that constitute part of this problem cannot be properly evaluated without first engaging in methodological clarification. This preliminary discussion, however, is by no means intended to justify, like a new pool of Siloam, the historical failures, the institutional deviations, or the anti-democratic mentality that often marks the historical journey of the Church. Although it is obviously impossible or perhaps undesirable to return to glorious models of the past (see the apostolic or the patristic age) to the extent that historical circumstances have irreversibly changed, the Church is called upon to consolidate in practice the democratic ethos evident in its ethos and structure. In this spirit, the active participation of the people of God, of the faithful of the local community in its administration and life, the mobilization of all its members in the transformation of the unjust social structures, the rejection of every despotic spirit and pyramidal mentality in the organization of the ecclesiastical body, can only reflect aspects of its eschatological vision. At the same time, however, we should be seriously concerned with the evident discordance between theory and practice in the life of the Church, both as community and as individuals. Although historical antinomies can in no way find an intra-world solution, the more the Church is inspired by the eschatological, liberating spirit of the Divine Eucharist, where all members of the community actively participate in the life of the Triune God, the more democratic it will be. In contrast, the more the Church turns to a fixed historical reality, trapped in the saeculum, and identified with the city of this age, the more it is in danger of adopting the mentality and manifesting the problems of the various forms of democracy, from populism to corruption and from authoritarianism to the restriction of human freedoms and rights. Whenever the Church forgets that “it is not of this world,” that it is more a communion, an event, that derives its identity from the eschata, it risks being trapped in intra-world patterns, as one among many communities, or associations. Otherwise, as a communion of the eschata, the Church can be the eschatological justification of democracy, cleansed of its historical failures and imperfections, always bearing in mind that an establishment of the Kingdom of God in the historical present is as dangerous as the idealization of any form of worldly organization of human life. The above methodological principles attempt precisely to point out this antinomy that runs through the relationship between Orthodoxy and democracy, as they are primarily manifested in its synodal institution.
Cf. Kristina Stoeckl, Ingeborg Gabriel and Aristotle Papanikolaou (eds.), Political Theologies in Orthodox Christianity: Common Challenges – Divergent Positions (London: T&T Clark, 2017).
Stavros Zoumboulakis, “Jacques Maritain:
Pantelis Kalaitzidis, Orthodoxy and Political Theology (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2012).
Nikolaos Asproulis, “Ostliche Orthodoxie und (Post) Moderne: Eine unbehagliche Beziehung,” Una Sancta 74, no. 1 (2019): 13–37; idem, “Is a Dialogue between Orthodox Theology and (Post) modernity Possible? The Case of the Russian and Neo-patristic ‘Schools,’” Communio Viatorum 54, no. 2 (2012): 203–22.
See Jose Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative Perspective,” The Hedgehog Review (Spring & Summer 2006): 7–22, 10 and passim.
Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization,” 11. This term was initially coined by S. N. Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus 129, no. 1 (Winter, 2000): 1–29.
In this perspective see Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization,” 7ff.; Nicos Mouzelis, “Modernity: Religious Trends: Universal Rights in a World of Diversity. The Case of Religious Freedom,” Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Acta 17, (2012): 71–90. Cf. also David Martin, A General Theory of Secularization (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978); David Martin, On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); Rhys H. Williams, “Movement Dynamics and Social Change: Transforming Fundamentalist Ideology and Organizations,” in The Fundamentalist Project: Accounting for Fundamentalisms, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, vol. 4 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 798.
See for instance the recent study by the Pew Research Center: “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe,” 10 May 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/05/10/religious-belief-and-national-belonging-in-central-and-eastern-europe/. For an overview see Riboloff’s text (infra).
Cf. Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization,” 7ff.; Nicos Mouzelis, “Modernity: Religious Trends,” 71–90.
See Daphne Halikiopoulou, Patterns of Secularization: Church, State and Nation in Greece and the Republic of Ireland (Farnham and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2011).
For the meaning of the term, see Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995).
For the meaning of the term, see Grace Davie, Europe: The Exceptional Case. Parameters of Faith in the Modern World (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002), 46.
See Charles Taylor, The Secular Age (Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 530; cf. Mouzelis, “Modernity: Religious Trends,” passim.
Cf. Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization,” 8ff.
Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray (eds.), Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Cf., for instance, Ragjtak Holte, “Logos Spermatikos, Christianity and Ancient Philosophy according to St. Justin’s Apologies,” Studia Theologica-Nordic Journal of Theology 12 (1958): 109–68.
Cf. Torstein Tollefsen, The Christocentric Cosmology of St. Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), ch. 3.
For a full recent account of Gregory Palamas’ theology, see Norman Russell, Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
Jürgen Mettepenningen, Nouvelle Théologie-New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II (London: Continuum, 2010).
Adrian Pabst and Christoph Schneider (eds.), Eastern Orthodoxy and Radical Orthodoxy: Transfiguring the World through the Word (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).
Paul Gavrilyuk, Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
For an overview see Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political, 138.
Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political, 140.
Cf. Robert Markus, Christianity and the Secular (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006) as cited in Luke Bretherton, “Power to the People: Orthodoxy, Consociational Democracy, and the Move beyond Phyletism,” in Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine, ed. George E. Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 68–9.
For my perception of eschatology, I depend mainly on John D. Zizioulas’ “Towards an Eschatological Ontology” (lecture, London King’s College, 1999); “Eschatologie et Société,” Irénikon 73, nos. 3–4 (2000): 278–97; “Déplacement de la perspective eschatologique,” in La Chrétienté en débat, ed. G. Alberigo et al. (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1984), 89–100; “Eschatology and History,” in Cultures in Dialogue: Documents from a Symposium in Honor of Philip A. Potter, ed. T. Wieser (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1985), 62–71, 72–3.
For an overview of the reception of eschatology in contemporary Orthodox theology, cf. Marios Begzos, “L’eschatologie dans l’orthodoxie du XXe siècle,” in Temps et Eschatologie: Données bibliques et problématiques contemporaines, ed. J.-L. Leuba (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1994), 311–28; George Vlantis, “In Erwartung des Künftigen Äons. Aspekten orthodoxer Eschatologie,” Ökumenische Rundschau 56, no. 2 (2007), 170–82.
Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political.
Cf. Georges Florovsky, “Eschatology in the Patristic Age,” in The Patristic Witness of Georges Florovsky: Essential Theological Writings, ed. Brandon Gallaher and Paul Ladouceur (London: T&T Clark 2019), 322.
John D. Zizioulas, “The Synodal Institution: History, Ecclesiastical and Canonical Problems,”
http://patristica.net/apostolic-canons&g&e&r&c. cf. Canon 34: “The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.”
Zizioulas, “The Synodal Institution,” 19.
For a critical comparison of them, see Gyorgy Gereby, “Political Theology versus Theological Politics: Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt,” New German Critique 35 (2008): 7–33.