Church, society, and Russian Orthodoxy

For the last two days, I have been publishing commentary on a very important document from the Russian Orthodox Church. That document sets out the theology of the Russian Orthodox Church with regards to society. I, again, say that it is a document worth reading, given that Orthodoxy in the USA is not yet at the point at which it is ready to issue such a well written theology. Let me quote a paragraph from the first section that sets a very important touchstone for the Church:

I. 4. Fulfilling the mission of the salvation of the human race, the Church performs it not only through direct preaching, but also through good works aimed to improve the spiritual-moral and material condition of the world around her. To this end, she enters into co-operation with the state, even if it is not Christian, as well as with various public associations and individuals, even if they do not identify themselves with the Christian faith. Without setting herself the direct task to have all converted to Orthodoxy as a condition for co-operation, the Church hopes that joint charity will lead its workers and people around them to the knowledge of the Truth, help them to preserve or restore faithfulness to the God-given moral norms and inspire them to seek peace, harmony and well-being — the conditions in which the Church can best fulfill her salvific work.

Read the paragraph carefully. There are two ways to fulfill the mission of the Church, which is the salvation of the human race. One is by direct preaching, and the other is by “good works aimed to improve the spiritual-moral and material condition of the world around her.” No, the Russian Orthodox Church is not arguing that good works will save others. Rather, the final sentence explains that the very witness of the Church in its cooperative relationship with others opens others up to the “knowledge of the Truth, help them to preserve or restore faithfulness to the God-given moral norms and inspire them to seek peace, harmony and well-being.” Now, let’s unpack that a little. Look at the paragraph above carefully.

In order to fulfill our calling to improve the spiritual-moral and material condition of the world, we are to cooperate with the State, even if it is not Christian, and with any associations and individuals, even if they do not identify themselves with the Christian faith. Orthodoxy does not see an American separation of Church and State. Neither does it see the union of Church and State, despite the charge of Caesaropapism that is often leveled against Orthodoxy. But, it does reject the idea that we cannot cooperate with non-Christian in social outreach. Rather, the reverse is true. That very cooperation with non-Christians will give the Holy Spirit the opening to communicate the Truth to the hearts of those who do not know him. We may not be of the world, but we are most certainly in the world. That is part of the message of Orthodoxy.

So, let’s go out there and cooperate with any of “good will” who are willing to do what is necessary in order to improve the condition of our world. That includes cooperating with the State, rather than speaking of the State as though it is somehow forbidden from working in any areas that we claim as ours. That includes supporting those State laws that will help deal with the widow and the orphan. That may even include supporting certain laws that the State wishes to see approved, if those laws are in concord with the mission of the Church. And that includes ceasing to promote the idea that the State is wrong to be involved in certain areas of human society. That may be a current American idea among some, but it is not an Orthodox idea. Now, let’s get to work!

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