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Book Preview – The New Vibrant Political Theologies Of Christian Orthodoxy

Political Theologies in Orthodox Christianity. Common Challenges – Divergent Positions. Editors: Kristina Stoeckl, Ingeborg Gabriel, Aristotle Papanikolaou. Edinburgh: Bloomsbury – T&T Clark, 2017. ISBN 9780567674135.  320 pages.  Hardcover, e-book.

Orthodox Christianity is often considered to be out-of-sync with contemporary society, locked up in a world of its own where Orthodox churches become intertwined with states in order to claim power over people and ignore individual voices in modern societies. This book gathers a wide range of theological perspectives from Orthodox European countries, Russia and the United States that demonstrate that this stereotype is far from the truth.

The volume Political Theologies in Orthodox Christianity, edited by Kristina Stoeckl (University of Innsbruck, Austria), Ingeborg Gabriel (University of Vienna, Austria) and Aristotle Papanikolaou (Fordham University), shows just how vibrant and divergent approaches to the political are within Orthodoxy.

The volume combines sociopolitical, theological and historical background chapters (by Kristina Stoeckl, Vasilios Makrides, Ingeborg Gabriel and Effie Fokas) with a wide range of theological approaches that cover the contemporary panorama of Orthodox Christian approaches to politics. The authors in the book present their views by drawing lessons from the past and by elaborating visions for how Orthodox Christianity can find its place in the contemporary liberal democratic order in the future, while reflecting also on the experience of the Western churches.

The contributions in the book give an answer to the question why and how Orthodox Christianity struggles with liberal democracy and help to understand political positions taken by Orthodox Churches and the tensions between them. At the same time, several authors in the volume design ways of rendering Orthodoxy more compatible with political modernity.

Throughout the volume, the term political theology is used in the sense of a theological approach to the political.  Specifically, it refers to the ways theologians conceive of the relationship of the Church and the Church’s mission to bring about salvation in relation to the political sphere as a system of power and institutions. In light of the inescapable interrelationship of the religious and political spheres worldwide, the theological challenge is to take a new look at the situation brought about by political modernity and to attempt to formulate adequate theological responses.

The starting point of each of the contributions in this volume is thus the theological question, “How ought Orthodox churches relate to the political?” — a question made all the more pressing by the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, where the majority of Orthodox believers reside.

The volume is structured around four distinct approaches to political theology identified by the editors: prophetic, ecclesial, civic and symphonic. The first two represent church-centered perspectives that revolve around the question which politics, if any, the Church supports. The other two represent world-centered perspectives, seeing the Church as related to the political, as part of civil society or as an institutional partner to the state.

The chapters gathered under the prophetic topic comprise contributions by Athanasios N. Papathanasiou, who develops an alternative understanding of the political role of Orthodox Christianity as anti-politics, in which the Church as a community should become a counter-model for corrupted societies.

Davor Dzalto’s chapter explicates a self-consciously “anarchist” perspective. Dzalto asserts that, in the Orthodox world, the concept of has profoundly shaped the dominant theological and popular view of the “ideal” socio-political, ecclesial whole. This model aims at a “harmony” between the “sacred” and the “secular,” with close, even organic ties between the Church (and her theology) and the state (and its official ideology). In response to this model, Dzalto, inspired by the theology of Leo Tolstoy, develops what he calls an “anarchist” alternative that opts for a radical apolitical position of love that nevertheless indirectly influences politics.

Brandon Gallaher takes a more analytical approach in his chapter on eschatological anarchism. He contrasts Christos Yannaras, a well-known Greek Orthodox critic of modernity, with Pantelis Kalaitzidis, an alternative pro-modern voice from the same tradition. Kalaitzidis has consciously forged an Orthodox “contextual theology” or “liberation theology” that attempts to respond to the rise (and fall) of secularism, the global economic crisis and, above all, to provide a theological justification of liberal democracy and of political secularity as a positive phenomenon. Pantelis Kalaitzidis himself also has a chapter in this book, in which he asks why Orthodoxy has hitherto not developed a “political theology” in the liberating and radical sense of the term.

The chapters addressing an Orthodox ecclesial political theology defend a theology that sees the Church as a Eucharistic community and thus as the only community where true humanity can be realized in the imitation of Jesus Christ. Andrej Shishkov focuses on Eucharistic ecclesiology and its impact on the way religious groups conceive of themselves as political actors. Alexander Kyrlezhev reflects on the experience of religion-state relations in the post-Soviet space and elaborates the difficulties the Russian Orthodox Church faces to find a theologically adequate approach to secular politics and a secularized society. Bogdan Lubardić’s chapter offers a critical overview of the relationship between theology and the political in the work of Justin Popović.

Three chapters in this volume are dedicated to an Orthodox civic political theology, which considers Orthodoxy a force of civil society. Aristotle Papanikolaou interrogates the very category of “the public” and examines whether “public ecclesiology” depends on where the church is located. Papanikolaou argues that Orthodox support of a public political space grounded in the sacredness of the person, as expressed in human rights language, especially rights to freedom and equality, is not necessarily “liberal” or “western,” but is based on a theologically grounded Orthodox ecclesiology and theological anthropology.

Konstantin Delikostantis argues that Orthodox churches, facing contemporary challenges, need to surpass their negative attitude towards modernity, to re-evaluate their position vis-à-vis humanism and autonomy and to widen their dialogue with modern positions, aiming “even at a synthesis between the two”. Cyril Hovorun analyses various aspects of civil religion in the Orthodox socio-political milieu and argues that both the constructive and destructive effects of Orthodox civil religion threaten to obscure the original nature and mission of the Orthodox Church.

Orthodox symphonic political theologies consider the extent to which Orthodox Churches are or should be institutional partners of the state, rather than forces of civil society. Elena Namli reflects on the growing political and social role of the Russian Orthodox Church. Following a relatively long period of invisibility, the Russian Orthodox Church has re-emerged in a number of areas as a significant political agent. State authorities and church leaders appear together at official ceremonies, the Patriarch comments on political issues, and the Church asserts its right and obligation to be a substantial moral voice in society.

Commenting on the “social concept” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Namli asks what these developments represent and how we should we evaluate them. Radu Preda describes the particular challenge the Romanian Orthodox Church faces as a majority church under the conditions of Western modernity, a democratic political system and membership in the EU; and Mariyan Stoyadinov argues that, for a variety of historical reasons, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has yet to find an adequate response to modern challenges or to develop positions of political theology.

Together, the political theologies spelled out by the contributors explicate the dualism of church-state relations in the biblical metaphors for the Church. Where the Church is seen as “the light of the world” and “the city on a hill” (Matthew 5:13), a sort of privatization of Christian faith may follow, leaving the world of the political and the realities of power to themselves (anarchist and ecclesial political theologies). In the biblical text, the metaphor of the Church being “the light of the world” is, therefore, complemented by another metaphor, calling it “the salt of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

Political theologies that argue for a stronger involvement in politics envision the Church’s strong presence in civil society (civic political theology) or opt for the close cooperation of the Church with the state (symphonic political theology), replicating what has for the longest period in Eastern Orthodox history been the standard for church-state relations. The price for this cooperation in the symphonic model is that it can tend to obscure the biblical call to non-violence, the ultimate catalyst of which is the Cross, and to overlook the pluralistic situation of modern societies. The authors in this volume address this challenge.

The volume gives a unique comprehensive account of contemporary Orthodox political theologies and is a necessary companion for theologians, social and political scientists and historians who look for inspiration and orientation in the contemporary multitude of the Orthodox Christian tradition.

Kristina Stoeckl is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Ingeborg Gabriel is Full Professor in the Institute of Social Ethics, Faculty of Roman-Catholic Theology, at the University of Vienna, Austria. Aristotle Papanikolaou is Professor of Theology at Fordham University, USA.

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