The Sin of Phyletism: A Multicultural Perspective on Ethnic Bigotry in the Orthodox Church

In: Politics, Society and Culture in Orthodox Theology in a Global Age
Chris Durante
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During the violent intra-Orthodox conflicts that occurred in the 19th century as a result of ethnonationalistic warfare, the Patriarch of Constantinople declared phyletism, or tribalistic bigotry, a sin in 1872. Unfortunately, tensions involving ethnic, cultural and national belonging continue to plague the Orthodox Christian world. To that end, I will begin this essay with a moral analysis of phyletism and an examination of the socio-ontological and ethical dimensions of ethnic and cultural identity as they relate to the Orthodox Christian tradition. Subsequently, I will place Orthodox Christianity in dialogue with contemporary multiculturalism as a means of better enabling Orthodox Christianity to come to terms with its own internal cultural diversity and position within global society. Finally, I will suggest that the cultivation of the virtue of philoxenia can serve as a counterforce to the sin of phyletism and enable the Orthodox Church to develop a more multicultural understanding of itself as a global institution.

Modernity and the Sin of Phyletism

With the “secularization” of social life that occurred during modernity came a penetrating empiricism that shifted the world’s social imaginary from one in which notions of transcendence were pervasive to one in which we could not see past, what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame”: a frame that “constitutes a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted to a ‘supernatural’ one, an ‘immanent’ world, over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one”1 that decentred people’s sense of place and purpose in history. Social life became inconceivable outside of the immanent frame, and hence people sought objects of devotion in the worldly order. As José Casanova has claimed, in our secular modern age we have come to sacralize a variety of secular phenomena, including the nation.2 But what is a nation? and how have we come to revere and sacralize it?

The Latin term natio referred to a place of birth and hence originally implied a “people-hood” rooted in an ancestral place, and the Greek term ethnos referred to a group of people accustomed to living together. Thus, both terms initially held a sense of cultural heritage. In modernity, however, our understandings of “nation” and “ethnicity” have been transformed so that “nationality” became politicized while “ethnicity” became biologically grounded or “racialized,” so to speak. Unlike our contemporary notion of “culture,” “nationalisms” (such as ethnic nationalism, civic nationalism, religious nationalism, and ideological nationalism) now carry with them politicized identity narratives. Hence, they produce a teleology in which any distinct collective’s aim must be to create a nation state for themselves so that their community can fulfill its purpose in history. This gave rise to the sacralization of ethnonational groupings as “political sovereignty” began to operate as a secularized concept of salvation. For the peoples of the Balkans, the idea of “ethnonationalism” emerged during the 19th century as an object of devotion worshiped through political means.

In response to the rise of ethnonationalism among Orthodox communities, the Patriarchate of Constantinople declared phyletism, which we might view as “tribalistic bigotry,” a sin in 1872. Initially, phyletism referred to a group’s attempt to acquire either autonomy or autocephaly as a separate ecclesial community based solely on the grounds of ethnic identity. Such pursuits were often accompanied, if not encouraged, by ethnic communities seeking political autonomy from imperial powers that fomented dissension from ecclesial seats of power, especially when such seats were held by ethnolinguistically distinct groups or individuals or even when minority groups in a region maintained a separate ethnocultural existence outside of the larger ecclesial community. Hence, ecclesial unity became perceived as a threat to ethnonational unity and, by sacralizing the ethnonational – or political – community over and above the ecclesial community, these groups developed geopolitical hatreds and eventually descended into sanguinary warfare.

Many in North America also use the term phyletism to refer, however, to the existence of ethnolinguistically defined ecclesial jurisdictions that have come to characterize the Orthodox presence in North American and Australian society. In the North American and Australian contexts, there is a large degree of intercultural Orthodox interaction and communication, and violence is virtually absent from their existence; furthermore, any animosities that do exist rarely – if ever – erupt into violence. Despite a current lack of collaborative projects, the cultural bastions of Orthodoxy in American and Australian society are hardly guilty of phyletism in the historical sense in which it was declared a sin. This is a salient point because the mere presence of linguistic difference and an acknowledgement of its entanglement in ethnocultural histories and traditions within Orthodox Christianity is not a negative phenomenon and ought not necessarily be likened to the murderous and genocidal acts and modes of behaviour that accompanied the events of the Balkan wars. Unlike the circumstances of the extreme violence resulting from deep hatreds that erupted in the Balkans during the 19th century, the – originally – primarily immigrant and ethnolinguistically grounded churches formed in North America and Australia were simply seeking a semblance of home as they simultaneously sought peace and prosperity in their new homelands, which were often hostile towards immigrants of different cultures and foreign religious traditions. While the term phyletism ought to apply to any form of tribalistic bigotry based on a person’s or group’s race, ethnicity, language or cultural background, we must be extremely careful not to apply the term to the existence of racial, ethnic, linguistic or cultural diversity itself. Arguably, part of the problem with the later Byzantine and Rum-Ottoman modes of constructing social identity within the Orthodox community was precisely the fact that they overemphasized homogeneity at the expense of diversity and finding a means of discovering unity in plurality. Be it in the Balkans or North America, in the 19th or 21st century, the Orthodox world desperately needs to reconcile its historical ability to embrace ethnic and linguistic difference with its pursuit of catholicity.

When ethnicity and language become nationalized, they cease to be merely cultural phenomena with robust histories but become politicized and used as agents in the pursuit of state sovereignty and hence instruments of division rather than unity and handmaidens of power rather than of compassion. Even though the notion of ethnolinguistic heritage has become deeply ingrained in the nationalistic narratives of a great many modern nation states, language and ethnicity are not akin to modern nationality. Nationality, while often containing a shared language, is grounded in the geopolitical sphere in ways in which language is not. Language can transcend political interests and geographical borders and can therefore bond and unite a community regardless of whether they have any politicized nationalistic interests or aims in becoming a nation state. To a large extent, the same may be said of ethnicity when construed in historical-cultural terms rather than biological and racial ones. As the sociologist Anthony Smith writes, “When people identify with ethnies, they feel a sense of wider kinship with a fictive ‘super-family,’ one that extends outwards in space and down the generations.”3 Smith’s observation highlights the interpersonal and affective dimensions of communal bonding that takes place within ethnic communities and does not in and of itself necessarily imply any overtly politicized identity narrative. The idea of an ethnos implies a people with a common ancestry united by place of origin and historical rootedness in a particular territorial locality in which they developed and came to share common linguistic and cultural practices. Hence, the notion of ethnos originally had as its focus a community of persons bound together by shared regional customs and language. Hence, it was deeply tied to conceptions of locality and territoriality, but more importantly: community. In contrast, the modern concept of “nation” tends to be construed in terms of political statehood (even when the “nation” is currently stateless, the term is often invoked to imply aspirations for national political sovereignty). The concept of “nation” does indeed imply the notion of territorial boundedness, albeit as a politicized form of collective belonging and territorial identity (whether based on ethnic or civic criteria). Both ethnies and nations presuppose a community united by a shared set of similarities (be it ideology, race, ethnicity, language or some combination of these), in what has become an inherently political concept. But in the concept of nation, each individual is conceived of as relating to a centralized authoritative entity (such as the state) or a political concept (such as democracy, liberalism, laicism) rather than towards one another in the connectedness of historically and socially embedded webs of interpersonal relation – like cultural and linguistic understandings of community – that do not necessarily rely on state-related political structures for their existence and continuation.

Insofar as the sin of phyletism inherently involves ethnicity, many commentators – both from within the ranks of Orthodox Christianity and observers from without – have criticized the ethnolinguistic ecclesial affiliations that have come to characterize contemporary Orthodox Christian communities. Simply because phyletism is immoral, however, it does not necessarily follow that an affectionate fondness for one’s ethnocultural traditions and linguistic community is in and of itself a moral wrong. Just as self-conceit, or egoism, involves a form of self-concern but is not identical to it, phyletism is not identical to a love of culture. We must be careful not to confuse ethnolinguistic communal fraternity with either ethnocentric theological claims or prejudice based upon ethnonationalistic bigotry. Simply because an Orthodox Christian community values its cultural and linguistic traditions does not necessarily imply it is guilty of phyletism.

As a sin, phyletism is not simply a love of one’s ethnocultural group. Rather, the immorality embodied in phyletism is a sense of an ethnoracial (phylogenetic) supremacy that distorts an affectionate sense of kinship with others into a malicious sense of superiority of one’s own ethnoracial group while eschewing others. This sin becomes worse when an ethnic group links such a malicious sense of superiority to their membership in an Orthodox Christian ecclesial community, for it undermines the very Christian ethic of agapê that such a community is supposed to embody. Phyletism is immoral precisely because it involves an egotistical form of collective self-recognition coupled with either non-recognition or misrecognition of other groups and their members. Phyletism emerges when a collective becomes so self-absorbed that they fail to recognize any value in the customs and culture of other communities and is thus a distortion of what a morally sound affinity for and fondness of one’s own ethnolinguistic cultural community can be.

The reason why phyletism has been such a problem in the Orthodox world is that, for many of the world’s Orthodox Christians, their religious traditions are intimately bounded by the ethnolinguistic cultures through which they first experienced and through which they seek to preserve their religiosity. The diverse cultural expressions of a common faith embody these communities’ unique ways of living out their Orthodoxy and for which they often seek recognition. When this is denied, anger and hatred become instilled within the group that is not recognized or negatively characterized and hence morph into a desire to separate from, or even harm, any group perceived as a potential threat to their in-group (at times rightfully so due to historical instances of violence). The issue of non-recognition may at times apply to both groups that have held more ecclesiastical power historically as well as those that have not. Ethnolinguistic groups that have held less ecclesiastical power will naturally feel harmed if their ethnolinguistic traditions and cultural communities are not recognized or mischaracterized in a derogatory fashionand seek to ensure their group’s autonomy as a means of ensuring its survival as a unique cultural community. On the other hand, dominant groups may feel betrayed when others seek to break away – when they were united in a common way of life, common faith, common struggles and a common ethos in the past. And thus they feel as though the groups seeking autonomy are refusing to recognize their shared history and identity and may become vengeful due to a sense of betrayal and a refusal to recognize the two groups’ shared narrative, especially when such a group is being portrayed as being or having been “an oppressor” by the other when they do not view themselves as such. The point is that recognition of ethnolinguistic and cultural uniqueness plays a crucial role in coming to a nuanced understanding of what phyletism is as well as the ways in which it takes root and begins to develop. Charles Taylor claims that “Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.”4 He explains:

The thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.5

Arguably, part of what spawned the emergence of phyletism in the first place was precisely the fact that various ethnic groups felt that they were not being given due recognition of their unique cultural identities by the ethnic groups that held positions of power and authority within the Church. For instance, the case of the Bulgarian demand for autocephaly, which led directly to the condemnation of phyletism, was certainly the result of ethnonationalism and the politicization of the Bulgarian Orthodox identity. But it was also partly motivated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople’s prior attempts to enforce the use of the Greek liturgy as part of a larger process of Hellenization that sought the unification of the Ottoman Rum millet through cultural assimilationism. But to assert any narrative identity that eradicates portions of its history of intercultural encounter and influence in the interests of national sovereignty may also be seen as a form of cultural erasure and, hence, a negative form of homogenization that seeks the same end as assimilationist acts. Both are merely two methods of striving for the same goals: homogeneity and autonomy in the sense of separation from otherness. To this end, an ecclesial telos of homogeneity does nothing but create fertile ground for phyletism in that it fails to comprehend the plural nature of human sociality and fails to recognize that another’s language and cultural heritage are as valuable to that person as one’s own language and cultural customs are to oneself. Consequently, to deny recognition to the various ethnocultural and linguacultural traditions of the Orthodox world by excluding their experiences and concerns from ecclesiastical considerations may itself be a form of harm against the members of these communities as it stifles their sense of identity, historicity and social relationality. Rather than exclude or assimilate, the Orthodox Ecumene must learn how to narrate their uniqueness as a faith tradition embedded within various cultural and linguistic traditions without forsaking attention to the values and principles that ought to be binding and uniting them, namely, those of love, mercy, forgiveness and fellowship.

Towards an Orthodox Christian Multiculturalism

“Multiculturalism” is a term that has been widely used in recent years as societies continue to become more culturally diverse and as nations attempt to cope with novel forms of religious and cultural pluralism within their borders. As a term, “multiculturalism” has both a descriptive and normative sense. In the first sense, it is often used to describe the cultural pluralism and diversity of contemporary societies; here, “multiculturalism” refers to the contemporary phenomenon that a variety of cultural traditions have come to occupy the same social spaces. In its normative sense, “multiculturalism” has been put forth as a socio-political ideal, tied to public policy and, as an ethical theory, tied to our perceptions of identity and the ways in which we relate to those who differ from us culturally. Both ties entail some positive evaluation of the phenomenon of cultural pluralism. Normatively, endorsements of “multiculturalism” often promote cultural pluralism and defend ethnic and linguistic diversity.

As a normative social or political philosophy, multiculturalism can be regarded as a reaction and alternative to the hegemonic enforcement of cultural homogeneity that is said to have resulted from earlier assimilationist attitudes and policies in Western democratic societies.6 To this extent, multicultural political theories seek ways in which the phenomenon of cultural pluralism can be incorporated into the political philosophy of the state and can be accounted for in the types of policies and legislation that are subsequently enacted. It may thus be argued that a “multicultural society” is one in which the state attempts to respect, accommodate and promote cultural pluralism and is a society in which a high degree of linguacultural, ethnocultural and religiocultural diversity is seen as compatible with political unity. A multicultural society then is one in which pluralism is not conceptualized as a problem to be overcome but one in which pluralism is thought to be conducive with the ends and aims of that sociopolitical entity, namely, the stability of the state, social peaceability, and political order. In sum, a multicultural society is heterogeneous and pluralistic and is a political community in which the state takes measures to ensure rather than stifle the pluralism of its social landscape.

In the descriptive sense, Orthodox Christianity is unquestionably multicultural; even the casual observer of Orthodox Christianity’s presence in society will immediately notice that there are numerous cultural monikers associated with Orthodox Churches: “Greek Orthodox,” “Russian Orthodox,” “Antiochian Orthodox,” – to name just a few in the Eastern Orthodox sphere. Despite the fact that the history of the Eastern Orthodox Churches has been fraught with strife and conflict, as mentioned previously, many of the tensions and conflicts that have arisen have been the result of nonrecognition or misrecognition of cultural otherness by members of culturally distinct churches. Such instances of nonrecognition or misrecognition have often been tied to the politicization of ecclesiastical identity, which has often been the result of nationalistic aspirations by various groups in the Balkans and eastern Europe to wed their religious identity to their newly emergent forms of ethnonationalism. Insofar as it addresses ways in which a common social and institutional body can reasonably accommodate and grant recognition to a variety of cultural identities, normative multiculturalism may be able to assist the Eastern Orthodox Churches, as a global ecumene, in coming to terms with its own internal cultural pluralism as it attempts to foster ecclesial unity despite its cultural diversity.

Although there are a variety of ways in which a multicultural political philosophy can be construed, Will Kymlicka, a prominent advocate of multicultural political theory, has claimed that there are at least three features common to most forms of multicultural political thinking. These three features of multiculturalism are:

  • 1) The rejection of the idea that the state belongs to a single ethnocultural group; the state belongs to all citizens equally;

  • 2) The rejection of assimilationist policies and exclusionary policies and practices that place undue pressure upon individuals coming from minority cultural groups to hide or overcome their cultural heritage in order to be afforded equal recognition by the state;

  • 3) The acknowledgment of the historical injustice that has been perpetrated against ethnocultural minorities as a result of assimilationist policies and hence an attempt to prevent such injustices from occurring in the future.7

If applied to the ecclesiastical affairs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, these three features of multiculturalism could be reformulated within the framework of Orthodox Christianity in the following way.

The Rejection of the Notion that the Global Orthodox Church as a Whole Belongs to a Single Ethnocultural Group

The Church’s catholicity implies that all members are equally Orthodox regardless of their cultural heritage. While this idea might seem obvious at first, it is foundational to Orthodox Christian theology and ecclesiology that we must not succumb to naive ways of conceptualizing universality and, by extension, the idea of the Church’s catholicity. We must not mistakenly believe that Orthodox Christianity’s universal moral and spiritual message can only be realized through a decoupling of the ethnocultural and religious dimensions of Orthodox churches, which would result in some form of cultural uniformity. As Aristotle argued, the universal must always actualize itself through the particular. Historically, any universal faith tradition will always manifest itself through the particular, which is especially true of the ways in which Orthodox Christianity took root within the world, in which ethnolinguistic diversity was incorporated into the very fabric of the tradition’s global and local presence itself. We must acknowledge the ways in which Orthodox Christianity was embraced by distinct ethnolinguistic cultures as it spread and hence recognize cultural plurality as a salient aspect of the catholicity of faith itself.

Unlike the term “universal,” the term “catholic” derives from the Greek katholikos, which means something more akin to that which pertains to the whole,” and thus implies a shared commonality. The concept of catholicity does not necessarily entail the notion of uniformity that the term “universal” – both terms are derived from the Latin unus (“one”) – tends to carry with it and hence the idea of catholicity is more amenable to being conceptualized as “commonality in diversity” and “unity in plurality” than the idea of “universality.” As a result of overly exclusivist understandings of universalism that seek to ensure uniformity of belief and practice, we tend to conceptualize the Church’s unity as being predicated on the annihilation of our differences and hence we have been neglectful of diversity to the point where we seek the homogenization of cultures in our attempts to proclaim a single shared faith tradition as the sole possessor of truth. Yet the Orthodox Church must find a middle way between the extremes of divisive diversity and unifying homogeneity if it is going to successfully navigate the social terrain of the 21st century.

The Rejection of Assimilationist and Exclusionary Attitudes and Practices that Seek to Coercively Ensure that Any and All Members of the Church Community are Culturally Homogenous

Various forms of cultural assimilationism have been – or presently are – operative within the Orthodox world. Whether we are talking about the Greek Orthodox attempt to Hellenize Slavic communities in the 19th century or contemporary attempts by agents in the Russian Orthodox Church seeking the Russification of other Slavic Orthodox Christian communities or even those within America’s pan-Orthodox movement seeking to Anglicize liturgies and Americanize Orthodoxy in the United States, what we are witnessing is an understanding of catholicity predicated upon linguistic homogeneity and cultural uniformity. A multicultural understanding of the Church’s catholicity, however, will be one in which religious universality does not imply cultural uniformity but rather acts as an avenue through which members of culturally distinct churches can bear witness to a shared faith and sense of mission in the world while recognizing the value of their different cultural heritages.

On a very basic sociological level, the active participation or integration of a local church in the life of a community will necessarily influence and be influenced by the sociocultural customs and practices of the community. When religion and culture intertwine in a people’s history, they become braided into a community’s narrative identity and together form a common way of life nourished by faith, custom and heritage. Through this symbiosis of religion and culture, faith becomes embodied in the practices and the material expressions of cultural custom; ultimately, it is through culture that faith can become incarnate in history. When religious faith becomes embodied in the material practices and historical memory of a peoples’ ethnocultural customs and heritage, an ethnos is infused with an onto-metaphysical and meta-ethical paradigm as the religion gains a conduit through which it can narratively ground itself in history.

This means that we must be able to differentiate the ethically positive ethnolinguistic dimensions of cultural belonging from the bigoted phyletic distortions of ethnonationalism. To a large extent, this will entail the rejection of the politicization of the Orthodox Church as well as our ecclesial identities by those whose sole or primary purpose is to advance nationalistic agendas. Orthodox Christians must work to prevent the Church from becoming a handmaiden to any political state and hence must vehemently combat the sacralization of the idea of the nation by nationalistic groups seeking to coopt the Church for their political aspirations.

The Acknowledgment that Local Orthodox Christian Communities have Historically Perpetuated Culturally Assimilationist Injustices Against One Another and Must Now Attempt to Prevent Such Injustices from Occurring in the Present and Future by Giving Due Recognition to the Cultural Pluralism Characteristic of the Historical Church

As a means of combating phyletism, Orthodox Christianity must look to harmonize the particularities of ethnocultural communities with the catholicity of the Orthodox faith and find ways in which they complement one another rather than becoming caught in a binary mode of thought that forces the Church to the extremes of endorsing one at the expense of the other. Phyletism may be overcome by recognizing the value in another’s culture and by acknowledging the other’s need for cultural recognition. An authentically Orthodox response to the social climate of the contemporary era will be one in which the nation is desacralized, whereby Orthodox communities will be able to effectively decouple their identity narratives from politicized ethnonationalistic aims while still retaining the ethnocultural traditions and languages that imbue them with a deep sense of kinship and identity. This will entail alternative ways of envisioning social solidarity as we come to terms with cultural pluralism as an unavoidable social reality and persistent feature of human existence as well as sustained efforts to enact a continual forum for intercultural dialogue among the hierarchs, clergy and laity of the various Orthodox Christian churches.

Instead of reifying exclusivist ethnic identities through cultural enclosure to other Orthodox communities, ethnoreligiosity has the potential to be an avenue through which members of such communities can come to recognize one another as fellow carriers of historical ethnolinguistic cultures as well as adherents of a common faith tradition. Members of the Orthodox communities are capable of identifying with the ways in which another relates to his or her faith through an ethnolinguacultural tradition – even when the ethnolinguistic culture is not shared. Such circumstances are a fertile ground for the cultivation of a type of intercultural sentiment in which an affection and affinity for one’s own particular ethnic and/or linguistic culture is not antithetical to an authentic sense of fellowship with others.

These intercultural Orthodox dialogues must not collapse into shallow formalities or empty platitudes but must seriously engage in open and truthful discussions of historical injustices as well as attempts to work toward reconciliation through genuine forgiveness and mutual acceptance. This last point will not be easy, but it is crucial if Orthodox Christianity is to resolve its long-standing internal tensions about the role that cultural identity ought to play within the Church and attempt to forge anything even remotely resembling authentic unity among the global Orthodox Christian ecumene.

Philoxenia: Empathy and Love of the Cultural Other

If phyletism is to be truly and sincerely overcome in the Orthodox world, we cannot simply focus our attention on matters that pertain to the Church as a social institution; the aforementioned suggestions can only go so far in resolving the issues associated with phyletism. We must reflect more deeply on the moral and psychological dimensions of interpersonal relationality and identity formation. What is required is an authentically heartfelt response on behalf of Orthodox Christians whereby they seek to develop the virtues and patterns of thought that will enable them to genuinely embrace the cultural other in love and fellowship.

Charles Taylor argues that by recognizing the centrality of relationality in our conceptions of human nature (as Orthodox Christian theology does), we ought not overlook the cultural realities that such relationality produces in the social sphere. As Taylor claims, we must acknowledge the value of culture and begin our analysis from the perspective that each traditional culture has potentially something important to say about human fulfillment and flourishing. He writes,

cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings […] over a long period of time – that have, in other words, articulated their sense of the good, the holy, the admirable – are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect, even if it is accompanied by much that we have to abhor and reject.8

If it is true that persons always relate to humanity through the particular sociocultural communities that give rise to a sense of social identity and belonging, I would like to propose that the Orthodox ethical concept of philanthropia, of “love of humanity,” ought to entail the recognition of cultural particularity as an integral aspect of the human condition and a person’s ability to exist in a meaningful relation with others. Conceptions of philanthropia and universal love that seek to effectively replace all regional, cultural, ethnic and linguistic forms of fellowship with a mutual benevolence to a global community founded solely on our shared humanity, to the neglect of our particularities, is arguably both untenable and undesirable. It is untenable insofar as it neglects the ways in which persons actually relate to one another and genuinely establish authentic friendships. It is undesirable in that it fails to grant due recognition to difference and hence, while well-intentioned, can lead to a form of caring for the other only insofar as I see myself in the other. To develop a care for the other based on aspects of her identity that resemble my own or that we share implies that the love and care I express for her may actually be a form of self-love, thereby neglecting our differences and negating my love for another as a love for what is other. In such a scenario, I come to love the other as a mirror of my own image rather than as a unique person whom I love precisely for her distinctiveness. Once we come to recognize the saliency of culture to human identity, philanthropia will come to entail not simply loving-kindness among individual persons irrespective of their personal human uniqueness but because of it, and part of the dialogical uniqueness of each person is his/her identity as a member of a particular cultural community. To this end, a philanthropic response to Orthodoxy’s internal cultural pluralism seems to require the cultivation of the disposition of philoxenia or a willingness to encounter the foreign, embrace the foreigner, recognize the value to be found in the customs and cultures of others, as one remains open to the possibility of forging an authentic friendship with the other.

Understood as a disposition, philoxenia must not be reduced to some idealized and unrealizable goal; rather it must be understood as a habituated mode of thinking and acting that becomes part and parcel of our self-identity and way of relating to others. In this way, philoxenia speaks less to some deontological dimension of moral obligation and more to the cultivation of virtuous character. To this end, philoxenia entails an ability to imaginatively and empathetically transpose oneself into foreign and novel circumstances. By cultivating this imaginative capacity for the relocation of one’s points of view, the embodiment of philoxenia implies a proclivity towards empathy with another’s perspective, life experiences, and ways of relating with others. The moral psychologist, John Deigh has observed that “it is distinctive of empathy that it entails imaginative participation in the other’s life without forgetting oneself.”9

While Christian understandings of acts of compassion, loving-kindness, and benevolence must always strive to be kenotic, or self-emptying, in the sense of displacing one’s self-interest and disavowing self-conceit in one’s relation to another, philoxenia implies a relation between strangers that presupposes a mutual recognition of difference, which in turn presupposes a sense of self. A genuine and habitual compassionate concern for culturally distinct others will require a certain degree of empathy for their perspectives and their circumstances but can never truly involve a forgetting of one’s self-identity as a person. This is because it is through our pre-existing self-identity and understanding of the world that we are even capable of making sense of novel situations, concepts and practices. As Hans-Georg Gadamer argued, “Only the support of the familiar and common understanding makes possible the venture into the alien, the lifting up out of the alien, and thus the broadening and enrichment of our own experience.”10 Moving outwards from the self without forgetting it in an empathetic mode of relating to the other requires attentiveness to the particularities of their situation, which entails understanding what they are partial to and why they value what they do as well as an awareness of self that is mindful of the prejudices and predispositions associated with one’ s own set of circumstances.

As Aristotle suggested, genuine friendship (philia) requires experiencing a deep fondness for the other and not merely a general sense of goodwill towards her.11 Arguably, experiencing a deep fondness for another creates an intimate relation that fosters partiality towards the other one is fond of. This in turn imbues the person with a sense of fidelity to those others she considers friends and a special responsibility both to those who are approached in friendship and a future state of affairs regarding the conditions of their shared life. Such relations carry with them a deep sense of caring and often entail a faithfulness to the other person and her well-being. This faithfulness to others entails a mutual responsibility so that all involved in the friendship (philia) are committed to the well-being of one another, ready to respond to one another’s needs, devoted to the promises and goals they have set for themselves as a unit, prepared to actively assist one another in pursuing their own personal goals and are thus willing to be open to one another’s perspectives, practices and modes of reasoning, even when they differ. This type of mutual fidelity found within authentic friendships necessarily implies that the persons involved in the relationship are partial towards one another, which disposes friends toward mutual empathy for each other’s concerns, experiences, values and point of view.

Consequently, as a result of predisposing us toward empathizing with others, partiality primes persons to be receptive to the points of view and circumstances of another. Ultimately, partiality is not simply an exclusionary attitude or seed of in-group tendencies. Rather, if partiality is a core feature of friendship or philia, then this implies that our ability to care for the stranger and embrace the cultural other emerges from the expansion of our horizons of partiality, and not from some imagined sense of impartiality or neutrality towards the other’s sense of cultural belonging. In the context of members of a shared ethnocultural and linguistic tradition – who share a common heritage, linguistic and cultural practices, and thereby share a common historically rooted narrative identity with others with whom they are currently un-acquainted – partiality towards unknown selves enables them to develop a sense of care and concern for and even kinship with those not immediately related to them. To reiterate Anthony Smith’s observation regarding ethnic belonging, “When people identify with ethnies, they feel a sense of wider kinship with a fictive ‘super-family,’ one that extends outwards in space and down the generations.”12 Smith’s observation highlights one of the ethically positive aspects of ethnocultural and linguacultural communities, namely, that they are capable of binding people together in a transgenerational and trans-regional sense of communal fellowship. In such a communal bonding, a transcendence within immanence occurs whereby the self goes beyond itself in affectionate relation to a family, families to ethnies, the ethnocultural community’s transcendence of temporality as an intergenerational phenomenon and, in the case of global diasporas of ethnocultural and linguacultural groups, as communities capable of transcending spatiality.

If we remain mindful of the ways in which the formation of a sense of social self-identity occurs within the types of ethnocultural and linguacultural communities of which the Eastern Orthodox ecumene is comprised, we can begin to comprehend more fully how it is possible for philoxenia to be conceived of as an extension of, rather than an eradication of, the sense of loving fellowship and kinship one holds for one’s own cultural community. As a person’s sense of self begins to emerge, the person begins to empathize with others whom she feels emotionally close to; initially, this will often take place within a family setting and eventually begin to expand beyond the familial circle towards the extended family and neighbors who happen to be a part of the self’s ancestral, cultural and linguistic group. Here we begin to witness an expansion of a person’s capacity to imagine herself in the place of the other – an expansion of her horizon of empathetic engagement as she moves ever increasingly through the concentric circles of her social encounters. With this empathy comes a fondness and affection for those whom a self has empathetically encountered and engaged. A person will come to experience those others as inseparable from her own self-existence and come to hold a unique bond with and affection for those persons. As a result of empathizing with others, a person’s fondness for another primes here for receptiveness to the other’s points of view and circumstances. As one develops an affinity towards others, she begins to recognize the other’s distinctiveness while simultaneously recognizing the other’s place in her own self-narrative. Through this awareness, a person’s capacity for taking the other’s concerns and concern for the other into her deliberations and sense of agency in the social world emerge; the capacity to truly become a person in communion.

As one continually engages others in the concentric circles of sociality moving from the imagined ‘self in solitude’ through the family, extended family, cultural collective and then out towards the world, affinity with the initially unknown selves immersed in one’s concentric circles of sociality enables a person to empathize with others. One then develops a penchant for recognizing the connection one has to even more distant others – with whom one is not yet acquainted – and a genuine sense of care and concern for those with whom we do not share immediate experiences or shared personal histories. As people engage in interpersonal encounters, hold meaningful conversations and share practices with others, they begin to develop a mutual partiality for one another, and, by empathizing with one another’s point of view, they can begin to see the value in those things the other is partial towards and they themselves might even develop a certain degree of partiality towards them. Thus, it is through extended fields of partiality that one is able to empathetically imagine the situation of another and hence develop a unique concern for the well-being of that particular person. Our capacity to comprehend other perspectives on a psychological level emerges from the empathetic expansion of our horizons of affinity and affection and an engagement with various forms of particularity in ever-expanding spheres of social engagement. Once we begin to cultivate this, we develop an ability to perceive the value of another’s cultural customs as we engage in a self-reflective contemplation of the affection we feel for our own cultural communities and attempt to imagine the ways in which the other holds similar affections and affinities towards their own communities. Hence, it is out of a person’s tendency towards partiality that empathy emerges and out of empathy that the recognition of difference and otherness can be implemented in cultivating a philoxenia for ethnically distinct and culturally diverse others.


As a means of combating phyletism, Orthodox Christianity must look to harmonize the particularities of ethnocultural communities with the catholicity of the Orthodox faith and find ways in which they complement one another rather than becoming caught in a binary mode of thought that forces the Church to the extremes of endorsing one at the expense of the other. Phyletism can be overcome by recognizing the value of another’s culture and by acknowledging the other’s need for cultural recognition. An authentically Orthodox response to the social climate of the contemporary era will be one in which the nation is desacralized whereby Orthodox communities will be able to effectively decouple their identity narratives from politicized ethnonationalistic aims while still retaining their ethnocultural traditions and languages that imbue them with a deep sense of kinship and community. This will entail envisioning multicultural models of ecclesial unity as we come to terms with cultural pluralism as an unavoidable social reality and persistent feature of human existence. Additionally, much like an Assembly of Canonical Bishops exists in the United States, the global Orthodox ecumene needs to engage in sustained efforts to enact a continual forum for intercultural dialogue among the hierarchs, clergy and laity of the various Orthodox Christian churches that actively seeks to depoliticize itself and avoid the trappings of nationalistic agendas. As mentioned previously, these intercultural Orthodox dialogues must not collapse into shallow formalities or empty platitudes but must seriously engage in open and truthful discussions of historical injustices as well as commitments to work towards reconciliation through genuine forgiveness and mutual acceptance. To reiterate, this will by no means be an easy task, but it is crucial if Orthodox Christianity is to resolve its long-standing internal tensions on the role that cultural identity ought to play within the Church and attempt to forge anything even remotely resembling authentic unity in the global Orthodox Christian ecumene.

Lastly, rather than adopting a dismissive attitude toward the phenomenon of ethnocultural belonging, the Church should be attentive to the positive as well as to the negative dimensions of ethnocultural and ethnolinguistic identity. Instead of reifying exclusivist ethnic identities through cultural enclosure to other Orthodox communities, the phenomena of bicultural, bilingual and trans-regional communal identity that exist in the culturally diverse communities of the Orthodox world have the potential to be an avenue through which members of such communities can come to recognize one another as fellow carriers of historical ethnolinguistic cultures as well as adherents to a common faith tradition. We must recognize that members of Orthodox communities are capable of identifying with the ways in which another relates to his or her faith through an ethnolinguacultural tradition – even if the ethnolinguistic culture is not shared. Such circumstances are a fertile ground for the cultivation of a type of intercultural philoxenia in which affection and affinity for one’s own particular ethnic and/or linguistic culture is not antithetical to an authentic sense of fellowship with the culturally diverse others that comprise the global Orthodox Church.


Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007), 542.


José Casanova, “The Secular and Secularisms,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (2009), 1064.


Anthony Smith, “Chosen Peoples: Why Ethnic Groups Survive,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 15, no. 3 (1992), 438.


Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 26.


Taylor, “Politics of Recognition,” 25.


See Christian Joppke, “Multiculturalism and Immigration: A Comparison of United States, Germany & Great Britain,” Theory & Society 25 (1996), 449–500.


See Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 65–6.


Taylor, “Politics of Recognition,” 72–3.


John Deigh, “Empathy and Universalizability,” in Minds and Morals: Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science, ed. Larry May, Marilyn Freedman and Andy Clark (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 199–220, 213.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy, and Critique, ed. Josef Bleicher (London: Routledge, 1980), 128–40, here 138–9.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terrence Irwin (Indianapolis IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), 1126b 20–8; 1166b 32.


Smith, “Chosen Peoples,” 438.

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