Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the West

Talvikki Ahonen

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For centuries if not millennia, Orthodox Christianity has maintained a complex cultural/political relationship with the “West.” The Great Schism of 1054 divided Christendom and formed the religious and cultural self-understanding of the Orthodox faithful as inherently opposed to the West. The vagueness of the term West has enabled a wide range of (often simplified) interpretations and has served a variety of political purposes. At the same time, Western interpretations of Orthodoxy have exhibited similar shortcomings. To what extent Orthodox Christian communities have internalised conceptions of Orthodoxy as anti-West, remains an open question, especially considering that a large proportion of the Orthodox faithful live in diaspora in Western societies.

Religious and cultural identities often overlap, and a religious identity does not always imply certain religious beliefs or the occurrence of religious practices. This is particularly true when it comes to Orthodox Christian devotees. Ninety-one per cent of the European Orthodox Christian population claims to believe in God. However, according to the statistics provided by the Pew Research Center, those who identify as Orthodox Christians are less likely to actively practice their religion than people of other faiths. Compared to, for example, the Catholic faithful, Orthodox Europeans are less likely to practice their faith by attending services, praying or following the lent. These statistics show what “being Orthodox” means to the Orthodox faithful of Europe: this identity is not only religious but also cultural and even political. While religious identifications are, in Western democracies, usually considered matters of personal choice and private life, this may be different for the faithful themselves.

The artificial dichotomy between the East and the West, as well as religious-cultural identity formation, involves political values and meanings, and Orthodoxy might bring additional elements into the equation. Over the last decades, the cultural position of Orthodox Christianity has been increasingly narrated in terms of “traditional values,” and the Orthodox Church has sometimes been considered, at least by some Orthodox faithful, to be the last fortress against the profanity and secularity of the so-called West. This narrative has been fuelled by Vladimir Putin’s government and its politics and has resonated among traditionalist Orthodox faithful in other parts of Europe.

Orthodox Christianity’s encounters with unfamiliar ideas and systems of thought have pushed Orthodox theologians and believers to define Orthodox theology’s conceptions of other churches and their legitimacy. The Orthodox theological tradition has both reflected and enhanced the antinomical representation of Orthodoxy and the West. One of the most influential modern Orthodox theologians, Georges Florovsky, who represents the so-called neopatristic school, argued in his book The Ways of Russian Theology (1937) that Orthodox theology has absorbed Western pietistic and scholastic ideologies, which he saw as alien to the Orthodox tradition. Florovsky’s view has been criticised and challenged by other scholars of Orthodox theology; however, it has nevertheless significantly influenced Orthodox self-understanding.

The 20th century marks an era of diaspora and oppression for Orthodox Christianity. The beginning of the 21st century seems to indicate at least two trends. First, the number of Orthodox Christians continues to decline, while other major branches of Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism, are attracting more followers. Second, Orthodox churches have acknowledged that they need to engage in discussions on contemporary matters. This has been manifested in the Moscow Patriarchate’s document The Basis of the Social Concept (2000) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s document For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church (2020). How the Orthodox churches reply to the most important and acute contemporary issues, such as climate change or global wealth disparity, will further influence their position on the imagined East-West scale.

Dr. Talvikki Ahonen is a social scientist with academic interest in religious groups as political actors.

Perspectives on the Study of Eastern and Western Personhood

Matti Kotiranta & Antti Raunio

Philosophers (117) by Mikhail Nesterov. 
Depicting Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov
Philosophers (1917) by Mikhail Nesterov

A commonly held view is that the Western world perceives human beings as being individualistic. ‘Individualism’ may be understood in many ways, but the main question is whether the Western view of human beings is as strongly individualistic as it is often thought (or claimed) to be. This is an interesting question because the assumed individualism influences the Western cultures’ relations with, for example, Eastern Orthodox cultures.

The Christian tradition has contributed to the conception of the human being by introducing the term ‘person’, which was first used to describe the Christian understanding of the triune God. The Christian idea of a person combines Platonic, Stoic, Neoplatonic and Aristotelian influences. Even though the relations between Western theological and philosophical notions of the person have been discussed in many contexts, the topic has not been investigated comprehensively.

Historical sources (e.g. Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Luther) indicate that the Western views of a human being need not be interpreted solely from an individualistic sense. A more accurate view is to see the human being as a relational substance. Both the Eastern and Western conceptions are relational, but in the Eastern thought, humanity as a substance or essence is built on relations, whereas in the Western tradition, relationality is based on the unity of a substance. If this holds true, then there is a difference between the viewpoints; however, the issue is not primarily a question about alternatives between individuality and communality, but the ways in which these two aspects have been combined with each other.

As part of contemporary Orthodox contributions to the discussions on East and West, theologians such as Christoph Yannaras and John Zizioulas have given personhood a primary status from which notions of social issues, the nature of Orthodox theology and practice, and the Orthodox view of the West are drawn. However, the challenge is to formulate modern Orthodox anthropology in its own terms. Since both theologians have studied in the West, their work can be seen as constructing the Eastern Orthodox identity and personhood within what is pre-eminently a Westernised culture. Both Yannaras and Zizioulas have not shied away from Western discourses and challenges, while still adhering to shared convictions of neo-patristic and neo-Palamist theology.

In an investigation on the conceptions of human personhood, one should also consider the viewpoint of the natural sciences. The encounters between theology and sciences often reveal two fundamentally different approaches: an idealistic, theological personalism on the one side and a reductive physicalism or naturalism on the other. Theological personalism characterises the human person only by its ability to transcend its natural condition and ignores the biological aspect of human nature and the continuity between humans, non-human animals and non-living nature. Conversely, reductive physicalism shuns human uniqueness and disregards the moral and spiritual dimensions of human personhood. According to the reductive viewpoint, humans are merely biological machines determined by evolutionary history, and all mental phenomena can be explained in biological terms. However, in the discussion about the human person in the philosophy of mind, the recent trend has been towards non-reductive physicalism, where the mind is treated as an emergent property of the brain, connected with neural activity but still separate from it.

In sum, this kind of research analyses the basic presuppositions and deep structures of Europe’s Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic and Protestant cultures. The conception of person may emphasise either communality or individuality. In the discussion, the alternatives have often been presented as exclusive. However, historical sources suggest that this view cannot be considered adequate. Therefore, a more thorough analysis of the existing conceptions of individuality and communality is needed.

The described analysis contains, for example, an investigation of the different versions of Western Catholic and Protestant conceptions of good personal life or life according to ethical standards from the point of view of communality and individuality. Comparable to it is the analysis of the Eastern Orthodox conception of the person and of the relation between individuality and communality in good life as a human person.

The main question leads to additional questions: What are the theological aspects underlying Western conceptions of a person’s individuality and communality? How can we define the theological principles of the Eastern model of good personal life as aspects of communality? How do the discovered theological aspects possibly change the Western notion of a human being?

By investigating Eastern and Western European conceptions of human person, theological research can contribute to the discussion on deep cultural, ethical and religious presuppositions and their implications for the social life and cooperation between the representatives of both traditions.

Matti Kotiranta, Professor of Eastern Church History, University of Eastern Finland. His areas of interest are the history of Russian ideas and church-state relations in Europe.

Antti Raunio, Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Eastern Finland. He specializes in Reformation theology, theological social ethics, and ecumenism.

East and West from Russia and Ukraine

Teuvo Laitila & Heta Hurskainen

If the position of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) towards the West and East could be characterised by one word, it would be ‘mission’. Since the start of its missionary work, the East – Siberia, Alaska, Korea and Japan in the early 20th century – has been the ROC’s direction, with more recent efforts being directed towards Southeast Asia. The West has been a contested missionary direction. Since the Russian religious-philosophical thinkers of the 19th century, the ROC has struggled for deciding whether to cooperate with the western tradition of Christianity or challenge it by claiming the authentic interpretation of Christianity and contesting the secular beliefs and values of the West, which are the present emphases in the ROC’s western discourse.

This categorisation also encompasses the space ‘in between’, covering Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova. The Russian World concept of the last decade endeavoured to gather these areas together with an emphasis on common Slavic roots stemming from the ‘Kievan baptismal font’.

Curanovic (2018) proved how the ROC has not turned Ukraine into an object of its mission. Brotherhood between the two nations does not serve as a solid foundation for a common mission nor is the clash of two civilisations reason for the ROC to fulfil its mission in Ukraine. Rather, Ukraine is seen as a place where foreign influences are gaining space for themselves. According to the ROC, Europe’s secularised and fallen moral influence on Ukraine should be resisted; Catholic proselytism, which also takes place through the Greek Catholic Church, is foreign, misleading and not valued positively, as well as the latest but not the least confrontation. According to the ROC, the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its actions should not have reached Ukraine in the form of granting autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. All the mentioned influences are not wanted in this ‘in between’ space from the perspective of the ROC, but the Ukrainian space itself does not need a mission, as it belongs neither to the West nor the East.

Finding a way to balance the perspectives of not considering Ukraine as missionary land and Ukraine as influenced by the West is not easy. In Ukraine, the ROC uses a similar tactic as in its argumentation on homosexuals: the ROC condemns the acts and inclinations but invites people to repent and connect with the True Orthodoxy in the ROC. This kind of sentiment leaves little space for dialogue with the multiformity of Orthodoxy in Ukraine. If the theological bases of ‘people of the good will’ for the Soviet times’ cooperation with atheistic authorities were strongly built, then could these bases be used in present day as well? Lines are drawn deep nowadays. According to the ROC, actions and ideology must be shared in order to cooperate. If so, how can there be cooperation with Ukraine, which belongs to this shared ‘in between’ but is influenced by the West?

If Russia pretends to be sure that Russia exists ‘in between space’ and can thus implement a policy towards the East or West, then Ukraine’s existence as a historical entity can be challenged—and has been challenged—both politically and ecclesiastically. For the ROC, the Ukrainian Orthodox are part of the Russian Orthodoxy, and all claims to the contrary border on creating a schism. Thus, the Ukrainian Orthodoxy must first establish itself prior to asserting its independence from the ROC and Russia.

The ROC’s metanarrative defending the inclusion of Ukrainian Orthodoxy into the Russian one portrays a linear transformation of Christianity, from the baptism of Kyiv people around 988 CE through the establishment of Muscovite Rus in the 14th century and the Moscow Patriarchate in 1589 to the hegemonic claims of present post-Soviet ROC over the ‘Russian World’. This narrative makes Russia the East for those Ukrainians who argue that they are a separate nation and culture, not a subdivision of the ‘great Russian’ people.

Ukrainians critical of Russia assert their dissociation from the East by resorting to Westernising rhetoric, such as defining Ukraine culturally and politically as an extension of the West, with the European Union or some older entity enabling a linkage to the West.

Separating Ukraine and Ukrainians from their Russian ‘East’ is far from simple and usually ignores the fact that from the late 17th to the late 20th century most of the territory of present Ukraine was held continuously by the Russians or the Soviets. 

During that time, several attempts to establish a separate Ukrainian identity were made, even though most of the people we now call Ukrainians did not consider such identity in modern national terms; rather, they were ‘locals’ trying to cope with the changing circumstances. Concepts such as ‘East’ or ‘West’ were of little use except for major 20th-century conflicts, Ukrainian–Russian civil and independence wars from 1917 to 1921, the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. During these events, a part of Ukrainians nationalised their history and ‘found’ their allies in the West and their enemies in the East. Notably, Ukrainian Orthodoxy was an exception; its enemy was the Moscow Patriarchate in the East, but its ‘West’ was global Orthodoxy, especially the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

After the Ukrainian independence in 1991, observers both in Ukraine and abroad argued that Ukrainian politicians and the people in general are divided between the Russophone ‘West’ and Russophile ‘East’. In other words, attitudes towards things Russian were the decisive factor in the Ukrainian conceptualisation of East and West.

This finding is only partially true. Ukrainian Orthodoxy and Ukrainian politicians are highly conscious of their audiences, and select their words accordingly, creating divisions into the ‘East’ or ‘West’ as they find appropriate. Only global politics and western media essentialise East and West, arguing that this or that statement of a bishop or a politician is indicative of his, rarely her, support to the East or the West.

This does not mean that Ukrainians are turncoats of sorts who do not care what the East and West concepts represent. However, what they mean when talking about, for example, ‘western’ values or ‘eastern’, usually Russian, menace begs further investigation. For instance, it is evident that while Ukrainian Orthodoxy dubs the events of 2013–2014 centring on Maidans as ‘revolution of dignity’ or ‘revolution of values’, dignity and values are considered from a rather conservative Orthodox perspective. ‘Values’ may include a western conception of democracy, but they do not exclude eastern, Orthodox, conceptions of, say, family and sex roles. Thus, to make sense of Ukraine and its relations with ‘East’ and ‘West’, we have to understand their variations and limits. 

Teuvo Laitila, PhD, is Assistant Professor in Orthodox Church History and Comparative Religion at the UEF. His research interests include religion-state relations in Ukraine and the Balkans, antisemitism from the Baltic to Bulgaria, and folk or ‘lived’ Orthodoxy in Karelia.

Heta Hurskainen, ThD, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the UEF. Her research interests are in ecumenical relations of Orthodox and Lutheran churches, questions of Orthodox migrants, and in Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, as well as their relations with politics.

Where East Meets West

East Meets West

Heta Hurskainen

I welcome you to read our blog, “East Meets West”!  The blog’s hub is the School of Theology at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF). Despite the word “Eastern” in the name of the university, our School of Theology offers both Orthodox and Western theology to study and research. East meets West at this university – it’s especially true in this blog!

The particularity of the blog and its writers are that they represent both Eastern and Western theological orientations and have worked and researched topics together, not just side by side, but together in a creative and critical manner. During the blog’s first year, writers of the blog are affiliated with the School of Theology at the UEF, and the blog aims to bring the particularities of this special hub and its research to a wider conscience.

Joensuu, situated in North Karelia in Finland, is an excellent place to research questions relating to religious and cultural exchanges between the East and West. Today, Karelia is an area situated on both sides of the Finnish-Russian border. Christianity came to Finland at the beginning of the 12th century – from the East in its Orthodox form and from the West in its Catholic form. The two forms met in the part of Karelia that now belongs to Finland. Throughout our history, encounters between the two have not always been peaceful or easy. The political order and societal situations have changed; in fact, even the main form of Western Christianity has changed from Catholicism to Lutheranism, and the Orthodox jurisdiction here has changed from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ecumenical patriarchate. However, history has also brought with it ways to understand and respect each other.

Joensuu’s city planning itself cements the encounters: At the south end of the street, called “Kirkkokatu” (Church Street), stands a Lutheran church belonging to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland, which represents 68% of Finns, but at the north end of the same street is the Orthodox Church, belonging to the Orthodox Church of Finland and representing 1% of the Finnish population. Both churches are “state churches”.  Joensuu’s city planning exemplifies how things we expect to be in the East or West are also found in other geographical dimensions. East and West are not just geographically constructed dimensions; they are also, and especially in this blog, fluid dimensions of thinking and creating. Within Western Christianity, culture or religion, you can find Eastern thinking and vice versa.

The School of Theology as part of the UEF belongs to the state university, which makes the researchers independent but not isolated from the society and environment around it. East Meets West is not only about the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. It is a wider concept under which religions and their connections to the diversity of life can be studied. The focus is on the specifics of East and West connections and the various types of encounters. These encounters take place in the fields of culture, society, history, doctrine, migration, education, politics and their interactions.

The start of our blog takes place at a time when researchers are asking whether we are going into or might even be in a new Cold War era. Instead of encounters, it seems that the different barriers and borders are drawn and demarcated. One example of finding new encounters and drawing new lines is found in Ukraine. The country struggles with itself and with its Eastern (Russia) and Western (EU) neighbours about its political and cultural belonging. At the same time, and already for centuries, its Christianity, mainly Orthodox, has been in the middle of “meet” or “encounters” or “border” of East and West. Orthodoxy is vibrant in the country but not uniform.

In Ukraine, several churches call themselves Orthodox. Ukraine’s orthodoxy is also a platform for juxtaposing between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Just a week before publishing this post, the Ecumenical Patriarchate Bartholomew visited Ukraine. He met with hierarchs and people from the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU), to which the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly, full independence, at the beginning of 2019. The Moscow Patriarchate, who had previously reacted to every visit made by the Ecumenical Patriarch to Ukraine, ignored the visit completely. To study the problem more deeply, The School of Theology at the UEF organizes its first “East Meets West” conference, “Ukraine and Russia: always together – always in separation” on 4 October. Our next blog post will also take a closer look at Ukraine, and soon we will also launch a mainly Finnish speaking podcast, “Idän ja Lännen kohtaamisia”, which starts with the focus on Ukraine.

After this focus on Ukraine, the blog will explore other academic aspects of “East Meets West”, while the podcast will continue with themes and approaches for those who want to get acquainted with why and how “East Meets West” matters.

This is a journey on which I welcome you to join. Welcome to our blog!

Author: Heta Hurskainen, blog editor

Hurskainen, ThD is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the UEF. Her research interests are in ecumenical relations of Orthodox and Lutheran churches, questions of Orthodox migrants, and in Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, as well as their relations with politics.