The Project of Historical Christianity

C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), the Greek poet from Alexandria, described the Greek Orthodox approach to church and religious life as follows:

I love the church: its labara,

Its silver vessels and candleholders,

The lights, the ikons, the pulpit.

When I go there, into a church of the Greeks, With its aroma of incense, Its liturgical chanting and harmony, The majestic presence of the priests, Dazzling in their ornate vestments, The solemn rhythm of their gestures -My thoughts turn to the glories of our race, To the splendour of our Byzantine heritage.

Such middle-class understanding of the Christian experience expresses the most interesting element of the Orthodox psychology: the absence of interiority and introspection. In all Orthodox literature, devotional, exegetical, dogmatic or ascetic, the individual is treated as if lacking in depth, without major conflicts and sense of tragic predicament. The Platonic element in the Orthodox tradition means that the Christian does not perceive this life as an existential adventure after the Fall; on the contrary, it sees it through the eyes of a pre-lapsarian and primordial goodness which is supposed to be the onto-logical and structural basis of historical life.

The rejection of Augustine's anthropology has imprisoned eastern theology within the confines of a paradigm which situates humanity in a morally perfect cosmos, in a universe of occluding goodness. The concept of hamartia as expressed by Paul, Augustine and Luther remained an alien, almost hostile element in eastern theology. In his seminal essay on Paul, Krister Stendhal observed the following:

Judging at least from a superficial survey of the preaching of the Churches of the East from olden times to the present, it is striking how their homiletical tradition is either one of doxology or meditative mysticism or exhortation - but it does not deal with the plagued conscience in the way in which one came to do so in the Western Churches. (Stendhal 1963: 203)

This is precisely the element missing from the eastern tradition; that of introspective conscience. The Eastern Church did not inherit a book with the traumatic narrativiza-tion of the self such as Augustine's Confessions in the West. Naturally, for some westerners coming to Orthodoxy this can be an attractive alternative to an overemphasis on individual guilt and responsibility.

Nor did it inherit a tradition distinguishing the realm of history from that of God, such as that inaugurated by Augustine's Civitas Dei. On the contrary, because of its privileged position in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, when Christian dogma was formulated, it retained a triumphalist and imperial understanding of history, with the basileia of the Christian emperor in time as the visible symbol of the eternal kingdom of God. Eastern theology removes a sense of time from humanity, by elaborating concepts of eternity and the beyond (epekeina) in exactly the same way as the imperial polity perceived itself when Constantinople was established, as the Christian capital of an eternal Christian empire.

Liturgically, the Orthodox Church has maintained the Scholastic doctrine of the liturgy ex opere operato (ex ergou ergasmenou), which has led to the ritual becoming autonomous, without any reference to the individual, the faith of the participants or the actual meaning of words. The doctrine ex opere operato led to the conspicuous theatricality of the liturgy and the self-dramatization of its language. The ornate polysyllabic words of a sacramental Greek language were always treated as sacred objects in themselves, thus creating an auto-suggestive mechanism that de-materialized circumstances and abstracted people from their very reality. In the Orthodox liturgy with its doxological and adulational character we can detect the birthplace of the atemporal, ahistorical and immaterial universe that has been conceptually elaborated by almost the totality of Greek theology.

As Yannaras has stated, Orthodox theology is based on the concept of 'good, very good indeed' (Gen. 1: 31). Such a theological approach hindered Orthodox believers from internalizing their own history. Belief in the essential goodness of the creation deprived individual conscience of its own responsibility for actions and choices. The absence of social conscience has consolidated the identification of Eastern Churches with the national consciousness; the inability to establish a discourse about morality, psychology and anthropology determined the absence of the Church from every important social or intellectual question.

On the contrary, every time a new movement emerged the Church simply rejected it in advance and banned it from the mental horizon of the faithful. This also means that the Eastern Church underestimated the cognitive abilities of the individual. The Church mentality has remained in the numinous area of indefinable emotions and has rejected knowledge both as a means for exploring the visible revelation and as a way of studying the scriptures. Thus, notwithstanding a very few exceptions, there can be no biblical criticism in the Greek Church because any interrogation of the text as a document of human psychology simply destabilizes the authority of the collective body of bishops to define what is right or wrong. Furthermore, most pronouncements by the Greek Orthodox Church Synods consist of propositions without arguments: underestimating the cognitive faculties of the faithful, they make no attempt to convince or present a case; they simply impose presupposed 'truths' which have never been tested by the individual's life and have never been felt as psychological realities. This represents in fact a huge move away from the example set by the Byzantine fathers.

On the contrary, most of the church statements refer to the authority of tradition, the importance of the clergy, the mysterious character of priesthood or the otherworldly meaning of the liturgy. The language employed in most cases is abstract and impersonal, with constant references to sacred texts and decisions of Ecumenical Councils. The faithful always remain in the dark about the conditions producing such statements. The Orthodox Church replaces tradition with the mentality of someone engaged in continuous warfare against the opponents of Jesus Christ, of the Church itself and of the nation. The conviction that everything 'bad' comes from outside has defined the Orthodox Church to this day. So the Church functions as the 'protector of the nation', the 'bastion of true Christianity', the 'sole defender of truth', employing an exclusivist and preferentialist language which divides the world into the two categories of us and them, into pure and impure and true and untrue. Such generalizations determine the attitude of the Greek Orthodox Church to other Christian denominations and to other religions. The rejection of historical responsibility has also led to the complete de-historicization of the institution and the absolute autonomization of the clergy into a kind of tribal priest-craft, the magus of the race; at the same time it has transformed the liturgy and its time and space into the cultus of the 'chosen people', the ultimate topos where the divine is materialized through ritual gestures, arcane words and inaudible whispers and prayers.

This hierarchical 'reality' creates an inability for the mind to perceive the chaotic multiplicity of experience outside its continuum and from an early age distorts the mental ability to establish logical relations between experiences and create semantic unities. This marked incapacity for discursive and problematizing thinking has been punctuated only twice: first when the Russian diaspora was forced to reformulate the tradition after the experience of exile that followed the Revolution in 1917; and second in the 1960s, when a number of young theologians from Greece studied in Germany and France and were able to see the obvious advances of both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologies, especially during and after the Second Vatican Council. It was only after an exodus of the Russian theologians that the tradition was renewed and re-articulated its message, by grafting it on contemporary questions.

However, within the safe continuum of the national church the renewal momentum has proved to be impossible, and it will remain unlikely for the near future. The mental structure of the subject who grows up within the Orthodox world view cannot overcome its imposed restrictions and transcend its innate limitations with critical thinking. Since such a subject is formed within a homogeneous and closed society, it cannot synthesize empirical data, concepts and projects; it sees a fragmented, alien and hostile world, full of unknown quantities and frightening presences. Every thing is a 'sign' and not itself; it means something beyond its existence that is indecipherable and therefore threatening. Hence it reverts to the warmth of the mother Church for safety, security and protection.

Theologically, this attitude means that the Orthodox believe that the basileia promised by Jesus is of this world; and that the basileia is the privilege and the predicament of a chosen nation. Even the word 'orthodox', meaning the right and correct faith, is used in order to exclude the other, Christian or non-Christian, from the basileia. To this day, for example, in mixed marriages with any other Christian denomination, people have to convert to Orthodoxy and be re-baptised in order for the marriage to be valid. The ritual element in the baptism service is the most essential part of the ceremonial mentality that dominates the Greek Orthodox Church. We must also mention that within such homogeneous societies, the young individual is socialized through family, school, Church and the army (for the male population). Through these mechanisms the ceremonial mentality is constantly consolidated, and during the early identification period the individual projects feelings on objects, gestures and roles as they appear phenomenologically uncontaminated by meaning and yet full of significance. Usually the national identity is closely linked to religious rituals; almost all major national celebrations in Greece coincide with major religious feasts. The nation is celebrated at the sacred space of the church; so it is invested with its sacredness and becomes itself a sacred reality.

As the President of the Greek republic Konstantinos Karamanlis stated: 'The nation and Orthodoxy have become in the Greek conscience virtually synonymous' (in Clogg 1983: 208). The young individual grows up under the constant exposure to such a ritualistic mentality, which is bound to its self-awareness by the physical growth of its body and the emergence of sexuality. The whole ceremonial mentality is thus reinforced by the tension of sexual desire, which leads to its projection on the actual service and therefore to the libidinization of the sacred space itself: to this day most Greeks (even of the anti-Church left parties) prefer a religious wedding for reasons not simply related to the grandiosity of rituals. The ritual itself safeguards sexual tension and fecundity; it represents the most efficient manner of instigating sexual desire.

The crucial importance of the Orthodox liturgy creates a microcosm of meaningful order and symbolic hierarchy that gives the certainty of legitimacy to participating faithful. This fundamental attitude rejects all changes to the existing pattern. If something changes, the whole microcosm will collapse and the individual will be thrown into a state of existential anomie which will de-legitimize its presence in the specific society and ethnos. So any discussion about changing the andocentric priesthood is simply forbidden by the Orthodox Church, although no real biblical reason is provided and the appeal to the decisions of ecumenical synods is repeated as the only response to the question. Women cannot be ordained in the Orthodox Church because they themselves represent 'ritual prohibitions' whose activities and sheer presence would 'threaten' the dominant classificatory system of power (they cannot approach the altar and they cannot receive communion during menstruation to this day). The moment women are considered for priesthood, the whole microcosmic harmony that the faithful experiences within the sacred space of the church will disintegrate. Any change to the ceremonial mentality will simply destabilize the hierarchy and as a consequence destroy the sacredness of the nation.

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