Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #176. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar. 4, 2022; in print Mar. 6

Religion – Christianity in particular – matters to me. I’ve studied it, taught it, written about it, puzzled over it, believed it, doubted it, and, with varying degrees of intensity and success, lived it.

Because Christianity matters to me, a recent story got my attention, and not in a happy fashion.

Vladimir Putin justifies his war in many ways. One rationale has received scant attention in the press but has been noticed by historians of religion: Putin’s desire for the Orthodox Church everywhere to be, both in spirit and in fact, the Russian Orthodox Church.

Dynamics of interchurch relations in the Orthodox world are hard to keep straight, even by those who know the names and pedigrees of the players. The interplay of ethnic, linguistic and political differences is extraordinarily complicated.

The relation of the church in Ukraine to the church in Russia is particularly fraught. It was to Kyiv in the 9th century that Saints Cyril and Methodius brought the Christian faith (and invented Cyrillic script). Over centuries, however, power shifted to Moscow, and during the 20th century Ukraine’s church was subsumed by the Russian.

On Jan. 5, 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, known as “of Constantinople” though his mailing address is Istanbul, and who, unlike the Catholic pope, is first among equals, officially granted to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine the status of “autocephaly,” which means “its own head.” He welcomed it into the family of 14 Orthodox churches around the world, and said this: “The pious Ukrainian people have awaited this blessed day for seven entire centuries. And, behold, the fullness of time has come for them, too, just as so many Orthodox peoples beforehand, to enjoy the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention, which have not always been nurturing and respectful of their own identity.”

Metropolitan Epiphanius, the new church’s new leader, said soon afterwards, “We must move away from those Russian imperial traditions that have been imposed on us for a long time.”

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow did not take kindly to Bartholomew’s initiative in undoing seven hundred years of Russian “intervention.” Kirill has refrained from saying anything critical of Putin’s invasion. He is complicit in the Russian president’s mission to re-establish what is put forth as a model of “Christian empire.”

I suspect Putin’s motive is cynical, but his vision resonates with the kind of nostalgia that fuels Christian nationalism not only abroad but also in America.

The marriage of state and church has been, through the centuries, a disaster for both citizens and believers. "Heretics" burned at the stake. “Witches” hanged. Ghettoes. The list goes on, and the story is grim.

For nearly all my eight decades I’d not have thought to worry about a resumption of Christian nationalism in the United States. I considered the separation of church and state a settled matter. But in recent years the claim that the Founders were Christians who intended a state where the Bible is the rule of law, with the Constitution subservient to it, has become mainstream, voiced openly by people with political authority and/or sizeable religious followings. When it comes to dreaming of Christian empire, Putin and Kirill have American analogs.

Into the midst of these ponderings came a Feb. 24 New York Times column by David Brooks.

“The democratic nations of the world are in a global struggle against authoritarianism,” Brooks writes. Demagogues pretend “to represent all that is traditional and holy.” He notes that “authoritarians tell a simple story about how to restore order – it comes from cultural homogeneity and the iron fist of the strongman.” The challenge: “to show how order can be woven amid diversity, openness and the full flowering of individuals.”

If some Christians champion the authoritarians’ “simple story,” there are some other Christians in our neighborhood who truly understand what is “traditional and holy,” and have practiced for a millennium and a half “how order can be woven amid diversity, openness and the full flowering of individuals.”

The Benedictines in St. Joseph and Collegeville weave order amid their diversity according to the Rule of Benedict, which manages the almost miraculous feat of legislating for an experimental community. Not a utopian experiment, which would depend on some narrow definition of what a human being is supposed to be – something an authoritarian strongman “knows.” The servant-leader – the prioress or the abbot – is strictly instructed to pay attention to each member’s idiosyncrasies. Listen carefully to the youngest. All are to honor all in the community. You find a way to do something better than the Rule prescribes? Do it.

When Putin and Kirill and their like besmirch Christianity, St. Benedict’s Monastery and St. John’s Abbey remind me that my tradition can be for the sake of the world, not its subjugation.