27 October 2006

Orthodoxy, postmodernity and the emerging church

Last weekend we had Bishop Jovan of Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro visiting. He spoke on the miracles associated with the relics of St Basil (Vassilje), the founder of the Ostrog monastery.

It was difficult to follow what he was saying, because the interpreter was not very good, and I found that even I knew when he was mistranslating (using "religion" when the bishop meant "faith", for example). It comes of the communist education many Serbs had, I suppose.

Later I got an opportunity to talk to Bishop Jovan, and to clarify some of the things he had said. Among other things he had spoken about the contrast between the emphasis in Western theology on intellectual knowledge and rationalism, and the Orthodox emphasis on life. He spoke of the danger of trying to intellectualise and rationalise things like the healings that had taken place at Ostrog, and the temptation to use these to try to "prove" the existence of God. Miracles of healing can easily become idolatrous if we fail to realise that the biggest miracle is the incarnation. What is important is not education, but holiness. Book religion is not enough: the Western church may have holy books, but the Orthodox Church has holy people, like St Basil. As an Anglican friend, John Davies, once wrote to me, what we need is not more good men, but more holy men.

On thinking about this, it seems to me that the core of this is the difference in anthropology. Western anthropology sees the individual and the collective. In the West there may be debates about which is more important, the individual or the collective. But Orthodox anthropology sees persons in community.

On the way to see Bishop Jovan I was listening to a talk show on the radio, and the host, Xolani Gwala, was interviewing the author of a book called I am an African (unfortunately I have forgotten the name of the author). One of the points made by the author of the book was that European (Western) thought saw people primarily as individuals, whereas in African thought community is more important. The contrast he made was almost exactly the same as that made by Bishop Jovan and other Orthodox Christians when comparing Orthodox anthropology with Western anthropology.

Both African and Orthodox anthropology tend to see man in terms of persons in community rather than in terms of individual or collective. The individual is like a monolith, a single stone. The collective is like an aggregate, a pile of stones. But the person in community is like a building; in biblical imagery, like living stones built into a temple. As a Zulu proverb puts it: umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu -- a person is a person because of people.

What Orthodox and African anthropology have in common is that both are premodern, and therefore contrast with the modernity of Western anthropology. Western anthropology is "European" in the sense that modernity arose out of certain cultural movements that took place in Western Europe, especially the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But there is nothing intrisically "European" about it, any more than the "person/community" model is intrinsically "African". I believe the author of "I am an African" errs in associating it too much with geography, though he does make the point that it is primarily a matter of values.

Before the Renaissance Europe was premodern too. Christian mission in Anglo-Saxon England, in Solomonic Ethiopia, and in Kievian Rus used essentially the same methods and were based on the same values, and the same anthropological assumptions. It was modernity that made the difference, and modernity is not confined to Western Europe, but is spreading throughout the world; the process is usually called globalisation.

It is one aspect of modernity, reason, that was the subject of Roman Pope Benedict XVI's controversial Regensburg address. The media focused their attention on its alleged anti-Islamic content, but the deeper implication has gone largely unremarked: that Christianity is fundamentally "Western" or "European", and that there is no place in it for "African" or other non-Western insights.

Orthodox Christianity, as Bishop Jovan remarked, does not altogether reject modernity. We make use of modern technology, like air travel and the internet. We can accept the scientific method, based on empirical research and reason, to better understand the natural world. But what we can learn by using these methods is not all that we need to learn, and exalting them into ideologies, such as rationalism, empiricism or positivism, becomes idolatry.

Postmodernity in the West is a reaction against modernism. Among other things it is a recognition that what we can know through reason and empirical investigation is not all we need to know, and that what we can learn through the scientific method can tell us nothing about values. In addition, the notion that the scientific method makes researchers objective and their findings "value-free" is a delusion.

To that extent, Orthodoxy can empathise with Western postmodernity. And Orthodoxy can also empathise with the "emerging church" movement that is trying to come to grips with postmodern society in the West.

In the last few months I've been trying to find out what this "emerging church" movement is about, and something of its missiological significance. I've tried to read and listen and ask questions, but have said little. But now I think I can say something about the emerging church movement from the point of view of Orthodox missiology.

Several people who have identified themselves as part of the "emerging church" movement have said things like "Orthodoxy has much to teach us about spirituality". And it is here that I wish to make a distinction.

As an Orthodox Christian, I am suspicious of words like "spirituality". It is a Western word, and denotes and connotes a Western concept -- "spirituality" tends to be divorced from "materiality". Yes, Orthodoxy has terms like "dushevnost", which can be translated as "spirituality", but a better translation would be "Life in the Spirit", because it denotes a specific relationship with the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.

In Orthodoxy, "spirituality" cannot be divorced from "materiality". And so here is another point of difference between Orthodoxy and the West, even the postmodern West: Orthodox theology is holistic, whereas Western theology, even (or especially) emerging or postmodern theology, is eclectic.

It could be said that eclecticism is a characteristic of postmodernity, and that may well be true, but it is a characteristic that arises from modernity. Western (ie modern) thought is analytic. In studying something, it breaks it down into its separate components and examines each one separately. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to find out what is wrong with a car engine, you might need to dismantle it to replace the worn-out main bearings, for example. But that tells you nothing about what a car is for, or the effect that it has on society or the environment.

For Orthodoxy, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Isolating aspects of Orthodoxy, like "spirituality" loses something essential. So, if there is to be dialogue between Orthodoxy and the emerging church movement, the holistic/eclectic difference is one of the things that needs to be looked at. Not in isolation, of course.


PS: I am posting this in various places. For the sake of communicating with the emerging church movement, the main one is my blog here. That is because emerging church people seem to communicate mainly through the blogosphere, rather than through mailing lists or newsgroups, but I'm posting it in mailing lists and newsgroups as well, where there are others whose views and opinions I value. Some of those forums, on Orthodox mission and Christianity and society, can be seen in the sidebar.

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Sally said...

Thank you for this Steve- I have often struggeled with the use of the word spirituality that so often introduces a duality to our thinking... may I liknk to your post please

The Doctor said...

Steve, I think you're squarely on the mark with your comments about the modern West and the post-modern West. In my gradual process of "converting" my point of view, after resolving to convert from U.S. Anglicanism (Episcopal Church) to Orthodoxy, I have discovered several things I had not expected. One is the persistence of the pre-modern point of view, in Orthodoxy.

This is a point of view I encountered in my undergraduate years, when I was exposed to "ancient"/"classical" literature, such as the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Modern academics examine these writings at a distance, at arm's length; they no longer walk with these authors, arm in arm, conversing with them as members of the same intellectual community.

For this reason, I think, much of the writing of the early Christians appears alien to the modern reader. This includes portions of the letters of St Paul, as well as some of the writings of not-much-later authors such as St Justin the Philosopher (aka Justin Martyr), whose typology (for example) looks so strange to modern Western readers.

Modern Western Christians are likely either to dismiss such passages as "irrelevant" or else to re-interpret them in "relevant" terms. This was the root of Bultmann's famous efforts to "de-mythologize" Scripture. He simply thought it was a matter of "mythology." He didn't see this clash between his own modern viewpoint and the viewpoint of the early Church as a critique of his modern viewpoint; he accepted it, and tried to change the Christian viewpoint to his.

I think we ex-Westerners all know how well that worked, in the pews.

In short, I agree with your proposition that this same pre-modern viewpoint is the routine, ordinary, default viewpoint in Orthodoxy, today.

And I think that a large measure of whatever measure of common spirit that Western conservatives (of whatever faction) find with Orthodoxy comes from whatever degree to which they themselves have retained that pre-modern spirit.

Can't speak to post-modern or "emerging church" stuff, haven't been aware of encountering it personally. But being aware of this retention of pre-modernity helps me be aware of yet another aspect of the remarkable continuity of Orthodoxy with the early Church ... a continuity that the Protestants (at least) have been struggling to re-establish for centuries.

Steve Hayes said...


Of course you may link... I'm just finding it a bit difficult to link to you, as when I click on your name the text of your posting appears and disappears, but I don't seem to get anywhere.

"The doctor",

Much Western "conservative" thought is thoroughly modern, and is embedded in moderninty, even when criticising other aspects of modern thought. Fundamentalist prooftexting, for example, is deeply rooted in modernist assumptions, including the idea that to every question there is an answer.

DebD said...

Quite thought provoking. Definitely needs a re-read for this newbie.

I usually read your LJ but noticed you hadn't posted anything in a while. I'm glad I decided to dig through your site and find this one. I need to add this to my Bloglines file.

Steve Hayes said...

Someone asked for this entry, but the URL was too long, so I created a shorter link:



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