Christianity and the Life Element. A short ecclesiological essay
A subdued life and an open ecclesiology
Today's Christians cannot help but have difficulties in their faith, not only because they live in an anti-Christian culture but also because faith is presented to them as something fragmented (e.g. a response to an existential challenge) or as a conceptual abstraction. Christianity lacks life. It is not completely lifeless, it is maladaptive, the life of Christianity is pale, which is why churches are half-empty, and even if they are full (on feast days), somehow they are not. Christian life is muted, muffled, muffled; it does not burn, but it ignites. It is a fact. There are exceptions, but they are extremely rare, and each case must be analysed carefully - whether we are talking about Christianity or whether the source of inspiration is somewhere else, or perhaps even somewhere else.
Vladimir Lossky noted at the time that dogmatic theology in Christianity had been closed off by the Athos Tomos, which recognised the teaching of St Gregory Palamas (Hesychast theology), and only ecclesiology, i.e. free reflection on the historical ways of the earthly Church in its relationship to the heavenly Church, remained open. I believe this is a generally valid observation [Ed. note: the author is clearly referring here to Orthodox Christianity, not Latin Catholicism]. Consequently, the way (normative - because exceptions are always possible) to Christ today cannot be divorced from the ecclesiological reconstruction of the stages (key moments) of Church history. The method of phenomenological destruction (M. Heidegger) or deconstruction (J. Derrida), i.e. the placing of the semantic whole in its historical and cultural context, corresponds to this operation in philosophy. Christianity is something unitary and continuous, eternal, it is the heavenly Church. It is immutable and does not depend on historical projections in time. But the earthly Church is located somewhere in history and therefore depends on historical circumstances - the same ray of light falls on the ever-changing surface of the ocean, forming a different pattern, a different figure each time. The set of these figures constitutes the field of ecclesiology. They (periods, epochs, phases) line up along an axis from the Nativity and especially from the day of Pentecost (including the Old Testament prelude) to the present time, to our state of the world and the Church that is today and of which we are a part.
Structures of the ecclesiological epochs
We can divide the ecclesiological epochs as follows:
The Old Testament Church (from Adam to the Nativity of Christ), including sub-epochs;
The 33 years of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ;
The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in Zion at Pentecost;
The Apostolic Age (approximately until the end of the 1st century)
The catacombs, the age of martyrdom (late 1st - early 4th century - 313)
The age of ecumenical councils, the formation of dogmatics, theological disputes, Greco-Roman patristics, the Empire, the unity of the Orthodox-Catholic world (4th to 800, the coronation of Charlemagne).
From then on - the year 800 - the paths of East and West within Christendom diverged more and more, until 1045 and the Great Schism. Formally the Church remained united from 800 to 1054, but in terms of theological and ecclesiological content it was already different. In the West, the 9th-11th centuries was the period of Scholasticism, which already differed fundamentally from Greco-Roman patristics and passed smoothly into the Western European Middle Ages until the 15th century. In the East, Greco-Roman patristic culture does not cease in the 9th or 11th century, but lasts until the end of Byzantium in 1456. Eastern Christianity remains in the context of the imperial period, which forms a millennial cycle: 325 - 1456; Western Christianity in the 9th century departs from the Greco-Roman imperial phase and follows a different path until the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The Renaissance marks the end of the Middle Ages and the loss of the leading position of Latin scholasticism. The Reformation transformed Western Christianity (the North European) into a completely new field of ecclesiological and theological culture. At the same time, Catholicism remained generally faithful to the medieval style, while Protestantism laid the foundations for a radically new Christianity. The situation repeats itself with Orthodoxy: Catholicism separates from Greco-Roman Patristics, taking an irreversible step towards Scholasticism, where it stagnates, while Orthodoxy first stagnates in the very imperial Greco-Roman Patristic period, after which it exists in parallel; similarly, Protestantism separates from Catholicism in the 16th century, while Catholicism remains essentially the same as before the Reformation. Modernity in Western Europe deprives Christianity as a whole of its dominant cultural role. Secularisation begins. At first it makes Christianity purely conceptual (although the groundwork for this has already been partly laid by scholasticism itself). Then it painlessly rejects God as a concept, relativises deism and turns to humanism and atheism, which become the epistemological dominant of Modernity. In the West, the Church in Europe is transformed from the central matrix of culture into one of the social institutions, along with others, and is deprived of a political dimension, moved into the realm of the private sector. The Church then enters into an intense dialogue with secularism, which leaves more and more room for the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, where the compromise with modernity reaches its peak and Catholicism definitively loses form and content, making an irreversible break with the Middle Ages and Scholasticism.
The history of Orthodoxy develops according to a different logic. The imperial epoch lasted in the East until the fall of Constantinople and was historically integrated into the post-Byzantine world, particularly into the Orthodox Kingdom of Moscow (the Third Rome); this imperial growth ended with the Russian Schism (1654) and was definitively interrupted by the westernising and modernising reforms of Peter the Great. Greek Orthodoxy lost its imperial essence, finding itself a marginal religious institution in the context of the Islamic society of the Ottoman Caliphate, but in both cases both Greek Orthodoxy and Russian Synodal Orthodoxy and the other Orthodox Churches dogmatically preserved the frozen structures of patristic theology under the new post-imperial conditions, ending the period of theological creativity with the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the Tomos of Athos, which put an end to the Palamite disputes.
The Synodal period in Russia ended with Bolshevism, in which the Church was further marginalised and atheism and the scientist worldview became dogma. After the end of the USSR, the persecution of the Church ends, but its place in society remains relatively marginal, copying, this time, the secular standards of Western Europe.
Life as criterion
We thus have a sequence of figure-projections of the heavenly Church on the fabric of history. These phases (figures) have, as we have seen, a complex temporal pattern: somewhere the temporal processes develop whole, somewhere parallel, somewhere divided, somewhere ecclesiological time stands still, somewhere ruptures occur, somewhere the past continues to co-exist with new trends, somewhere the content changes while the form remains, etc. The heavenly Church is immutable, its reflections in history change in the most bizarre ways. Since man comes to Christ through the Church, as Catholics and Orthodox believe (although many Protestants deny this, believing that he comes to Christ directly), this path passes through the earthly Church, and through it to the heavenly Church. Consequently, in each age one becomes a Christian in a different way, entering different figures, with a common (unitary) origin. In the heavenly dimension, the Church is one, and only one; in the earthly dimension it is clearly not so, it is different, and this difference depends on the historical phase. This is the essence of ecclesiology: to precisely define the parameters of each figure of the earthly Church, to clarify its characteristics, its connection with other figures (periods, moments, phases). According to Lossky, we cannot discuss theological moments, we only have to accept them and make sense of them; but we can and probably must discuss and understand, and thus formulate opinions on ecclesiology, making this the field of the prior and most significant theologeme, 'private theological opinions'.
We began this text with the observation that there is a certain lack of vitality in today's Church, and we refer especially to the state of contemporary Russian Orthodoxy (although this applies to other churches to an even greater extent). Hence the muffled faith we have observed. We can take this observation as a starting point to characterise the last figure we have in mind as the state of contemporary post-Soviet Orthodoxy. Since in Orthodoxy the Church is understood as the totality of all baptised Christians, including the clergy (the Catholic Church is understood as the totality of the clergy, excluding the laity), we apply the mute faith to ourselves and not to some detached and separate groups, persons or institutions. Consequently, this definition of our faith applies to us and is not an accusation of someone else; it is an observation of ourselves as Orthodox Christians, that is, it is a self-criticism, not a criticism.
Christ: directly and indirectly
If we look at the other end of the New Testament story, at the origins of our ecclesiology, we see 33 years of the life of the living God, Jesus Christ. In this initial period, God lives with us. Clearly this is the liveliest, most vital period of our history, when the Word himself became incarnate and was with us and was us. Isaiah's prophetic formula: "God is with us!" (μεθ᾽ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός) literally came true. We have thus achieved a very important double symmetry: the first ecclesiological figure represents the living God Himself, who is the greatest possible vitality - and within earthly history, in the Incarnation, in the earthly dimension, not only in the heavenly one. The final figure, on the contrary, marks the pole of exhaustion of this vitality, its vague and distant perception. Almost only a memory, a sign, an indication of something contingent and distant. At the moment of the Eucharistic sacrament, the distance collapses and we are in communion with Christ himself (if we do not recognise him, we have no faith), but the degree of vital presence does not change this; it remains a momentary flash.
According to this logic, the sequence of successive ecclesiological figures can be systematised according to the degree of vitality, then we arrive at the semantics of Christian time; Christian history acquires meaning and measure.
The first stage is the 33 years of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The supra-ontological maxim of life. It is the focus and content of the most important text for the Christian, the Holy Gospel.
The second period is the apostolic period. Here the person of the holy apostle Paul is important: he neither saw nor knew the Christ who lived on earth, but he knew the Christ who was raised from the dead; he did not see but believed. The culmination of this apostolic period is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. Thus the earthly Church is united with the heavenly Church. The sacraments of the Church, baptism and ordination, confer life-giving grace. It is a perfectly living Church, but in some ways inferior to those blessed 33 years when Christ God himself was among men.
Then comes the period of martyrdom, of the catacombs: Christians die and suffer for Christ, who is revealed to them neither as witnesses nor as the first apostles. He is revealed to them in living faith, and in such a penetrating way that loyalty to Christ and death for him are the decisive motives of life. The martyrs prove that it is a faith so alive that it is far more important than life itself. Martyrdom is essentially the basis of faith, a direct testimony (μάρτυς in Greek, meaning both martyrdom and testimony) to the vital presence of Christ.
Empire and theology
The next fact is the affirmation of Christianity as the spiritual basis of the Orthodox Empire. This is a major change: the era of martyrdom as a whole comes to an end, the vitality of Christianity is transferred to sacred politics, to the catechist king; the life of the Church is now inextricably linked to the life of the Empire, and sacrifices in the name of the Empire, of the King are replaced by the more direct and forthright witness of the early martyrs. Life is now given for the King as God's anointed, an age of imperial martyrdom, of imperial witness.
In parallel, a theology is developing, rooted in the apostolic age, maturing in the catacomb period and flourishing in the empire (the age of ecumenical councils). Theology and empire go hand in hand; there is something theological in empire and something imperial in theology. Here the vitality of the Church is mediated by being elevated in two directions: in the sphere of contemplation, of the divine Logos, and in the sphere of the Political, as the field of the concrete incarnation of Christianity. Politics and theology, empire and contemplation become expressions of Christian vitality. This is a different refraction of the Church's vitality, clearly different in intensity and concentration from previous phases. There is a decrease in the degree of immediacy and an increase in indirectness, but this whole period - the Greco-Roman patristics - is permeated by a theological-imperial Christianity full of life.
Until the year 800, this imperial-theological life of Christianity touches both halves of the eikumene, West and East. After 800 and especially after 1054, however, Western Christianity begins to put theology in the foreground, while the Empire (or rather its Carolingian simulacrum) takes on secondary importance, while in Byzantium both components of the Greco-Roman period - Empire and theology - continue to go hand in hand, maintaining vitality. The West is moving towards Papism and Scholasticism, where mediation through theology is independent of mediation through empire.
The next phase is the end of theological-imperial vitality. In Byzantium this is expressed in a cadence of events - the Hesychastic controversies of the 14th century ending the theological period and a century after the fall of Constantinople (the end of the Empire). The empire continued to exist for two centuries, but with a strongly muffled theology in Muscovite Russia, until at the end of the 17th century the Orthodox world lost this particular form of Christian vitality rooted in a long period of more than a thousand years, which can collectively be called Byzantine. The dominance of scholastic theology in the West ended with the Renaissance and the Reformation, i.e. almost simultaneously with the fall of Byzantium; theology became lifeless and lost its fascinating character. Thus the dominance of this era of Christian vitality, mediated by theology and the empire, comes to an end.
Modernity: conceptual Christianity
There follows a very important turning point: what was previously alive becomes a sign, an indication, something hypothetical, optional; in place of living theology comes the realm of concepts; scholastic thought is still aware of that higher horizon in which thought enters the realm of angelic heavenly light, and the mystical theology of the Eastern Church and especially Hesychasm in general are built on this transformative experience, but the deism of Descartes and other New Age philosophers purges theology of all forms of experience, even if contemplative. In its place comes rationalism, the dominance of concepts. This time theology itself is rationalised, so that it loses its ultimate vitality. What is the cause and what is the effect? Does Scholasticism degenerate and cool down to deism? Or does deism undermine Scholasticism, artificially depriving it of the contemplative life? This question should be left open. In any case, Western ecclesiology is changing qualitatively in modern times. Although a certain core of Catholicism remains Thomistic, on the whole, Western Christian culture compromises with modernism without actively resisting the deism and secularism and subjectivism inherent in it. By becoming conceptual (deism) theology loses vitality, God becomes a concept, miracles are questioned, it is no longer a living God and no longer a living Church.
Protestantism in general destroys the idea of Church and Tradition, turning religion into a private matter, depriving it of its normative status. Dogmas and truths become purely subjective and relative phenomena, essentially making the individual's relationship with God a private matter beyond measure. In Protestantism, God becomes not just a concept, but a subjective and private concept, and while he is still called 'Christ' out of inertia, there is no vital content in this concept. Not surprisingly, the Reformation leads directly to secularism, to which, for its part, it also leads deism; consequently, in the New Age, the Christian world becomes complete and completely loses its vitality. Religion becomes an institution among others, and a private one at that. Its content, its experience become a convention, a concept, a psychological choice of a subject.
At the same time, the last remnants of the Empire are finally dismantled. The Empire, as the concreteness of the Christian eikumene embodied in the Political, is replaced by the nation-state, which is another concept. The Empire is sacred, the State is not, it is contingent and the product of the hand of man. The head of state is not a sacred figure, but a secular administrator. The life of the Empire dies out completely and definitively in the nation-state.
Thus in the Modern Age we enter the next ecclesiological phase, where the vitality of the Christian faith is even more lost. This is the period of the transformation of the living Christian experience - into a concept. Christianity itself becomes conceptual, which not only relativises, but excludes life altogether; religion eliminates any experience of the sacred, be it direct (as in the era of the life of Christ, the apostles, or the period of the catacombs) or indirect (theological-imperial), and all that remains is the conceptual field, be it philosophical, social, institutional, etc. In the West, this leads to the triumph of the 'scientific' (or rather scientist) worldview, materialism, atheism and liberal democracy. It is this complete degeneration of Western Christianity to the level of a pure concept, this definitive loss of vitality, that leads Friedrich Nietzsche to pronounce his famous diagnosis: God is dead. God is dead because He has ceased to be part of the life experience of Western society. Christianity is no longer seen as a living, revitalising force, and the modern Western Church is nothing more than a museum, a memory, a cultural exhibit that only points to the past, to what Christianity once was. It is a completely dead 'church'. That is why it inspires hardly anyone and, if it is preserved at all, it is only as a tribute to 'cultural heritage'. Scholasticism and the end of the Empire in the West is followed by the conceptualisation of Christianity, which is the last stage of the loss of life. At the time of the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism makes the last concessions to secularism, after which Western Christianity becomes completely lifeless - a pure memory, devoid of any vitality.
Russian Christianity: the stages
The fate of Orthodoxy developed differently. Empire as a sacred form of Christian existence survived in the East much longer than in the West, and in combination with an active theology. In Russia, the Orthodox kingdom existed until the beginning of the 18th century and only under the influence of the already desacralised and dechristianised West did it begin to lose its Byzantine content. The schism, the book law, Nikon's reforms and the westernising innovations of Peter the Great dealt a tremendous blow to the Orthodox tradition. The vitality of Russian Christianity declined drastically. The Empire is transformed into a nation-state and the pro-Catholic and pro-Protestant tendencies of theology gradually transform religion into something conceptual (in imitation of the West). The synodal period of the Russian Church is accompanied by a dramatic loss of internal vitality; it is not the flowering of theology, but its decline, since it is not the Byzantine Greco-Roman patristic spirit that lives on in the thinking of the Church, but the copying of modernist theories and approaches from Western Europe. Orthodoxy - of course, as we have repeatedly pointed out, only on an earthly level, on the level of historically predetermined figures, of epochs - remains Orthodox only nominally; it loses its content, its vitality, its Byzantine spirit, the very possibility of living contemplation. In the 19th century, even Athonian Hesychasm is viewed with great suspicion and almost as 'heresy'. The Lives of the Saints are subjected to rationalist censorship; the most 'fantastic' miracles are generally deleted by analogy with Catholic and Protestant lists.
On the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian Christianity represents a particular historical form in which Christian life itself is burning rather than burning. It is this that made possible the subsequent abrupt leap towards atheism and materialism. This was perceived by many as a shift from one concept to another and would have been impossible and unthinkable if faith in Christ had been full and alive, but being a convention, a tribute to tradition, a habit, it became something conventional. This is why the Bolsheviks succeeded in establishing an atheistic dictatorship.
The persecution of the Church after the Revolution caused a wave of new confessionalism, when many Christians, faced with the direct aggression of the atheists, remained faithful to their religious and cultural identity. However, the wave of new martyrs did not lead to a great rebirth of the Church. The hierarchs found a way to coexist even with the anti-Christian authorities, just as they had previously coexisted with the secular and pro-Western Russian tsars of the post-Petrine era. All this would have been simply unthinkable had the Church been truly alive, full of a penetrating experience of Christ's being - in people and in the world.
The collapse of the USSR led to the abolition of atheistic prohibitions against the Church, but there was little merit in this for believers. The bearers of Modernism in its communist version ceded power to the bearers of Modernism in its liberal version, and Christians only took advantage of the situation to strengthen their position by exploiting the opportunity. This is important: the Church is no more alive in the 1990s than it was in the 1980s. The absence of pressure and repression and the ideological vacuum created favourable conditions for a formal restoration, but they did not and could not provoke a radical change of spirit, since the role of Christianity at the end of communism and the beginning of liberal westernising reforms was passive. Overall, the situation of contemporary Russian Orthodoxy does not differ much from that of Western Christian churches: it is a marginal social institution that has no direct influence either on politics, which is based entirely on Western secular foundations, or on education or culture. In general, the structure of contemporary Russian society is more archaic than in the West; this gives the Church and Christianity a chance, but once again we are talking about inertia rather than rebirth, a situational pragmatic case rather than the result of a coherent spiritual struggle. Of course, since Russia is more archaic and less modernised, the role of religion in Russian society is higher than in the West and the traditionalism of the population is deeper. However, this is not directly related to the vitality of the Christian spirit, the penetrating experience of life with and in Christ.
Thus, summarising the above, we see that the ecclesiological sequence of epochs (figures of the earthly Church) is such that it unfolds as vitality is lost - from the highest to the lowest, which is reached right now. The first Church is fully alive, it is life itself and more than life. The last Church is closer to the format of Laodicea, it is "neither cold nor hot", it neither burns nor goes out. It cannot not be, because the heavenly Church is eternal, but it is the most distorted reflection possible, a copy that has almost completely lost contact with the original. A subjective, modernised, secularised, lukewarm, private and conceptual Christianity is almost no longer a Christianity.
Towards imperial martyrdom
The following conclusion can be drawn from all this: to reach Christ, one must take an ecclesiological path in the opposite direction. Today's figure of the Church is a minimum of life. The leap would be towards Byzantinism, i.e. towards the Holy Empire, the Orthodox monarchy and Greco-Roman patristic theology in its entirety. The Basilian Emperor and the Cappadocian Fathers, the Areopagitics and Hesychasm are the reference points. The next level of life (relative to where we are) is the active offensive of imperial Orthodoxy, theologically and politically. It is life for the tsar, martyrdom for the empire, the experience of direct and pure contemplation. It is a complete rehabilitation of the angelic world. For the modern era, believing in God (in the deist, conceptual sense) is still acceptable, but in angels is pure clinic. Modernity forbids this belief, as does the politicisation of religion, the Empire. For us, it is the opposite: believing in angels, miracles and all the claims of scripture in general is the most natural and vital thing, it is a truth we must grow into, not relegate it to our ignorance. Likewise, a living Christianity cannot quietly accept criticism of the Empire. The enemies of Christ can say what they like, the Empire led by a maintained king is a perfectly good thing provided, of course, the king is orthodox and so is our faith, and if that is the truth, then that is what must become the norm. It is not a convention or a contract, it is a God-given command.
If we move along this line, the next step is martyrdom, new catacombs, the sacrifice of our lives in the name of Christ, the living God, God who is always - not only in the past! - who is close to us and in us. It is a rebirth of witness, it is a direct and unabashed affirmation of what is, has been and will be. Living Christianity is not prepared to depart from the spirit and the letter of the Scriptures for the benefit of anyone or anybody. It is not Christ that must be adapted to modernity, but modernity must be subordinated to the truth of Christ, and if it is not willing, it must be fought to the death.
Christianity is dead in the West. In our country it is almost dead, but it can never be completely dead as long as there are at least two or three believers united in the name of Christ. And so the rebirth, revival and breakthrough of the heavenly Church is always possible, right up to the last days. So we are not only faced with a possibility, but also with a duty.
And we will fulfil it.
Translation by Lorenzo Maria Pacini