Review Essay: Political Orthodoxies

Political Orthodoxies: The Unorthodoxiesof the Church Coerced
by Cyril Hovorun

Cyril Hovorun teaches in the theology department of Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles and is also acting director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute there. He is on the faculty of the Saint Ignatios Academy and Stockholm School of Theology and has had several fellowships, including one at Yale.  Hovorun is an archimandrite, the highest rank of monastic priests in the Orthodox Church and has been deeply involved in the move toward autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. He has published in a number of areas but is fast becoming the leading ecclesiologist in the Eastern churches today. He has already published two probing studies of the structures of the church, with attention both to their historical development and dysfunction—Meta-Ecclesiology (NY: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015) and Scaffolds of the Church (Eugene OR: Cascade, 2017).

In Political Orthodoxies, he first distinguishes between orthodoxy as a predicate of Christianity, much as catholic and apostolic, and orthodoxy as a noun, that is as a religious but also political identity, often an ideology. The bulk of this provocative, most discerning study is a tracking of not only contemporary orthodox ideologies such as antimodernism, monarchism and conservatism, but older ones such as anti-Semitism and nationalism.

What Hovorun analyzes is not just theoretical or conceptual. The enacting of the unorthodoxies he presents can be found readily. Here and there in American Orthodox Christianity today, we find not only stylized dress mandated for clergy and monastic but for laypeople as well. Long dresses and headscarves for women and even young girls, long, uncut hair and beards for men. Often, those outside the Eastern Church will take such antimodern, distinctively different and conservative folk to be Old Order Amish or ultra-observant Orthodox Jews. Such dress codes are accompanied by rigorous observance of fasting and other church rules, insistence on maintaining distance from other Christians in as many ways as possible, not only in liturgical calendars but the names of seasons and feasts. Likewise, the increasing alignment of American Orthodox Christians with the political and cultural positions of the religious right and evangelicals is held to be the only Orthodox stance. Similarly, rejection of all ecumenical outreach and activity, considering all other Christians outside canonical Orthodoxy as heretics and schismatics, whether Western or Eastern Christians. Such clashes erupted powerfully in the recent Pan-Orthodox council of Crete in 2016. These viewpoints, blended with an aggressive nationalism, emerged in recent years in the vision of a “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) of religion, culture and politics, where church and state were virtually indistinguishable.

Most of the “unorthodoxies” Hovorun examines in this book are prominent dysfunctions or misuses of religion in the modern period, notorious ones at that. These are “civil religions” that are deeply entrenched among laypeople, preached by priests and bishops, legitimized by theologians. The positions taken in these pseudo-theologies become the basis for “culture wars,” pitting Christians against others whom they should according to their faith, welcome, love, and with whom they should live in peace. Put another way, instead of the kingdom of heaven, the goals of these political/cultural orthodoxies are very worldly ends. These range from an artificial, anti-modern vision and lifestyles to rejection of whole groups because of either their identity or their outlooks and beliefs. All others except Orthodox Christians are labeled outside the church, just schismatics and heretics. LGBTQ people are written off as depraved and the same holds for feminists, and for other progressive folk. Those of other faith traditions, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and so on, are seen as outside faith, grace and salvation. Rather than a community that seeks to include all the world, the church becomes an elite company, a sect of right believing and living people.

While this modest length book could not encompass centuries of the development of political orthodoxies, Hovorun does dwell on the cases of Greece, Romania and Russia as particular examples of this kind of growth of “unorthodoxies.” And he matches these three national instances with three specific ideologies that likewise emerged as pseudo-theologies, political and cultural viewpoints that emerged with no rooting in the Gospel—antimodernism, monarchism and conservatism. These are complemented by yet two more aberrations of faith that became canonized in some Orthodox churches—nationalism and anti-Semitism.

A particular target of his analysis here, a most timely one at that, is the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. As noted, this church not only created but then promoted the ideology of a sacred Russian faith and culture that stood in judgement of the secular and immoral West. So not only are the western Catholic and Reformation churches rejected for heresy, they, and the writers, artists, intellectuals of western Europe and North America, in particular, are castigated for tolerating LGBTQ folk, for allowing the rise of feminism, for making abortion and contraception legal, among other moral atrocities. That the regular church attendance of Russian is small, in the single digits, that the use of contraception is widespread as are abortions—these realities are somehow overlooked. The west, as a whole, is a much larger and inviting target. And it is not only the open, tolerant culture of the west, that is condemned. The progressive, equally open and welcoming churches of the west are likewise targets as the Russian Church has abandoned ecumenical activities and vision. More recently, the efforts of the Ukrainian government and many bishops of the Kyvian Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and even the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to seek a tomos of autocephaly from the EP have been rejected as the “heresy of papism” on the part of the EP and a move backed by western governments to weaken the status of the ROC-MP.

While Hovorun’s focus in identifying the political and cultural uses of religion is on the Eastern churches, such identities and ideologies are ecumenical, universal throughout the churches east and west. As discouraging as Hovorun’s expose may be, he ends with the bracing, life-giving affirmation of the authentic holy tradition of Christianity, the perspective of Christ’s good news and the kingdom Christ preached and put into action. This is an essential book for all Christians, especially in the highly divided and contentious time in which we live at present. Cyril Hovorun is to be congratulated for this and his other stellar writings.

Hovorun, Cyril. Political Orthodoxies: The Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced. Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2018. 224 pages.

REVIEWER: REV. MICHAEL PLEKON, PH.D.

Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Religion & Culture at Baruch College of the City University of New York. He is also a priest of the Orthodox Church in America and serves as an Associate Priest at St. Gregory Orthodox Church in Wappingers Falls, NY. His scholarly interests include the social history of American religious traditions and communities, social theory and its connections with theology, the social and theological thought of Søren Kierkegaard, contemporary Eastern Orthodox theology and theologians of the Russian emigration and saints, canonized or not, in our time.

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