Just over a year ago I had little to no understanding of Orthodox Christianity, the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s history or how it differed from the West. It was largely due to the war in Ukraine that I wanted to get a deeper understanding of the people of Eastern Ukraine and what motivated them. After watching numerous reports from the region I came to realise that although the Soviet Union which included Ukraine had gone through a period of total atheism, since it’s fall after almost 80 years, there had been a major resurgence in Christianity and in Orthodox Christianity in particular. Western perception even after 25 years still regards Eastern Europe and Russia as atheist states when nothing could be further from the truth.
Ukraine as a country is not only divided by language, Russian spoken in the east and Ukrainian spoken in the west, it is also divided by fundamental religious values and beliefs that extend back into the past for well on 1,000 years. But for the purposes of this interview, I did not want to look at Ukraine in an historical context which you can read at:
I wanted to understand the essential beliefs of Orthodox Christianity, how it differs from western Christianity and why these differences should cause such acrimony and conflict generation after generation, from the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the destruction of Constantinople, the Inquisition, Napoleon, World War 1, the communist Bolshevik Revolution, World War 2 and now the current situation in Ukraine. The Saker who has been generously sharing information about the situation in Eastern Ukraine on his web site The Saker.is, was kind enough to take the time to answer these questions.
Q: Briefly, can you please explain the fundamental principles of Orthodox Christianity.
THE SAKER: The simplest way to explain what Orthodoxy is is to say that it is the original Christian religion. A great Orthodox saint called Athanasios (4th century) said that Orthodoxy is the faith “which the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers. On this was the Church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian.” Another famous saint, Vincent of Lérins (5th century), also wrote that on that “which has been believed everywhere, always and by all can be considered truly Orthodox.” In other words, to be considered Orthodox a teaching has to be one which Christians have believed in all parts of the world, at all times (i.e. from the times of Christ and until today) and by truly all Christians (not the personal opinion of this or that bishop, saint, Patriarch or group of people). Any doctrine, teaching or dogma which does not pass these “tests of Orthodoxy” is to be considered as an innovation and rejected as a heresy (the word “heresy” is not an insult, it just means “different choice.”)
Orthodoxy has numerous superficial similarities to western Christian denominations such as the Papacy, the Anglican church or the Episcopalians, but as soon as you dig just below the surface you immediately realize that both in terms of faith and daily life western Christianity has essentially become a new, separate, religion with very little meaningful connection to the original Christianity of the first centuries. This is very sad as Europe used to be Orthodox for roughly 1000 years before the Papacy decided that it would rule over the entire planet and demand that all people accept the hegemony of the Pope.
In the original Christian Church, and in Orthodoxy today, the notion of “unity” is very different from the one of the Papacy. The Papacy is a single organization, run by one putatively infallible “super-bishop” the submission to whom is seen as the criterion of unity. In contrast, the Orthodoxy Church has no central power, it is a fully de-centralized entity which understands unity not in a bureaucratic/administrative sense, but as the result of having the same faith. Having the same faith, in turn, leads to a visible sign of unity: receiving the Eucharist from the same cup.
Spiritually and culturally, the Orthodox Church is much closer to certain form of Islam (Sufism) and Hinduism (Dvaita Vedanta) than to western Christianity. Nowadays the western society cannot be described as Christian any more, it is post-Christian at best, but if we look at the history of western Christianity we see that it tends to be speculative and scholastic. In contrast, Orthodoxy is much more mystical and ascetic.
The 20th century has been terrible for the Orthodox world. Not only did many millions of Orthodox Christians die at the hands of the Communists, but many autonomous local churches were infiltrated by secret agents of influence (for the Bolshevik state in Russia and by Freemasons in Greece). As a result, a new pseudo-Orthodoxy has appeared which I like to describe as a “Eastern Rite Protestantism”: it is externally similar to the real Orthodoxy, but it’s ethos and practices put these modernist denominations much closer to modern version of western Christianity than to the traditionalist Orthodox world or to the original Christian Church.
Q: What does direct knowledge of God mean to you from an Orthodox Christian perspective. In other words, Popes come and go, people come and go, but direct knowledge is everlasting.
THE SAKER: In contrast to the western speculative and scholastic theology, Orthodoxy takes literally the words of Christ Who said: “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” We do believe that the way to achieve such a purity of heart it to engage in a life-long praxis of asceticism (fasting, prayer, holding vigils, standing, etc.) and of full immersion into the multi-dimensional spiritual struggle against the spiritual, mental and physiological pathologies resulting from our fallen nature. To put it simply: we do not believe that the Church is a club for saints, but rather we believe it to be a hospital for sinners in which the “doctors” “prescribe” a spiritually profitable “medicine” to the patients. Mind you – we do not seek to mortify or otherwise suppress our human nature or flesh, but we seek to sublimate them by re-directing our natural impulses towards the correct goal. The word “sin” in Greek means “missing the target.” So when we sin, we do not anger some vindicative old man sitting on a cloud, but we fail to fully realize our real spiritual potential. Thus our ascetic practices are not motivated by a rejection or hatred of our flesh, but rather they are aimed at recovering the full potential of our true human nature.
While all Orthodox Christians are engaged in this daily spiritual struggle, only some have fully achieved the goal of actually “seeing” God. Let me immediately say there that really “seeing” God is absolutely impossible, God being infinitely transcendent and, if you wish, “different” from us in His nature, what we can see are His “uncreated energies.” This is a very complex topic which has baffled western theologians, so I will grossly over-simplify it by saying that we cannot see God Himself, but we can see what He “radiates.” This is what the Apostles witnessed on Mount Tabor and what the Prophets of the Old Testament saw. But to be able to receive such a vision, a person has to begin by acquiring the “spirit of the Fathers,” to renounce the modern world and seek to “obtain the Holy Spirit” (this experience is vividly described in the famous “conversation of St. Seraphim of Sarov with Nicholas Motovilov.“)
Finally, we do not believe that God has ever “left” us (and thus, we don’t see the need for a Vicar of Christ!) Not only did Christ explicitly tell us “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” but he also said that “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you (…) the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” We believe that the Church is not a wordly “organization” or “administration,” but we believe it to be literally the Body of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus in the Church we all are directly exposed to the sight of God, albeit in the two persons of the Trinity which He has chosen to show to us: Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Q: What role does the Book Of Revelation play in the Orthodox Church?
THE SAKER: The book of Revelation was added to the canon of the New Testament only relatively late and with a great deal of controversy. This is the only book which is not read at Orthodox Church services. While we do not believe in banning books or dividing the Church into a “teaching Church” and a “taught Church” – we do realize the absolutely unique potential this book has for mis-interpretation. Thus, while it is both read and studied by Orthodox Christians, it is usually done in close conjunction with the study authoritative patristic interpretations. This is also how we study the Old Testament, especially the book of Psalms of King David. Still, in my personal experience most Orthodox Christians are well versed in this book and often discuss what this or that symbol might mean, especially in the context of our modern times.
Q: Do you think that this Orthodox perception has had any impact on the way Putin and the current Russian government have conducted themselves in recent years? And that unlike the west which seems driven towards some kind of Armageddon like scenario, Russian perception differs entirely?
THE SAKER: Formally, Russia is a democracy. Contrary to the western propaganda, elections in Russia have been open and fair (at least since Putin, under Eltsin they were not), you have a multi-party system and the freedom of speech and the press is free. In reality, however, Russia is much more similar to Japan where under a formally democratic system a much more traditional system thrives. In Russia the real center of power is Putin himself and his real power base is in the people. You could argue that in this sense Russia is neo-monarchical. Now the system of government before the 1917 Revolution was directly inherited from the Roman Orthodox monarchy of Constantinople/Byzantium. While Orthodoxy is a-political, it is also clear that Orthodox Christians consider a monarchy as the ideal system of government even if it is no always possible to have one. In Orthodox tradition the monarchy and the Church live in a “symphony of power”, one ruling the country and the other in charge of the spiritual realm. Currently, I would argue that the moral authority of Vladimir Putin is way bigger than his legal authority and thus that Russia now has a ruler whose power is based on authority rather than a ruler whose authority is based on power. That is neo-monarchical if you want, and most definitely traditional for Russia.
The other aspect of Orthodox ethos which is present today in Russia is the strong support of a “social state” i.e.: a state of social solidarity, where the common good is the highest ideal and social justice an ideal supported by most of the people.
De facto Russia has a capitalist market economy but the social ideal is definitely not the capitalist model. The notion that the sum of all the individual greeds results in the best possible system (a typically capitalist assumption) is not compatible with the Russian culture, even if this is still largely the reality of the Russian society. Here again Russia is much closer culturally to her Asian neighbors than to the capitalist West.
When I say that the book of Revelation was adopted “late” I speak as an Orthodox. It was in the 5th century. For us this is “late.” But that is still half a millennium before the birth of the Papacy :-)
And yes, we do believe that there will be an “end times,” many believe that this will happen pretty soon too. However, we also believe that we can delay the events described symbolically in the Revelation by prayer, asceticism and by our struggle against evil. The sequence of events outlined in the book of Revelation cannot be changed or stopped, but it can be delayed!
In our lives we are supposed to imitate Christ who was crucified on the Golgotha – that means that we accept that being killed by others for our faith is a real possibility, be it in a direct persecution by the worldly powers or by a long distance nuclear weapon. And while we all want to live and we are not allowed to seek martyrdom, we are also taught to be prepared for it and accept it if this day comes. We live by the words of Christ who said “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Thus our struggle remains primarily a spiritual one.