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Book Review: The Price of Prophecy

by Archbishop Chrysostomos

ALEXANDER F.C. WEBSTER, The Price of Prophecy: Orthodox Churches on Peace, Freedom, and Security. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1993. Pp. 333 + Notes and Index. Paperbound.

A convert to the Orthodox Faith, Father Alexander Webster teaches at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, in South Bound Brook, NJ, and at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and is a Priest in the Romanian Episcopate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). This book shows his wide knowledge of social and political issues, as well as a keen understanding of contemporary theological trends, and is written in a style which conveys complex thoughts in very simple and direct language. It is an ambitious book, as the title suggests, and I must admit that it took me no small amount of time to read it, not only because the material is fascinating, but because it contains under the cover of a single book insightful comments on Orthodox moral theory, Church history, and Church-state relations. It concentrates on the emerging Orthodox Church in post-communist Eastern Europe, touches on the contemporary Orthodox witness in America, and offers a glimpse into Orthodox thought in terms and categories that Western Christians can easily understand.

Though I know good thought, good writing, and intelligent commentary when I see them—and they adorn this book—, I am not competent to offer a technical critique of Father Alexander’s approach to the issue of the moral obligations and witness of the Orthodox Church in modern society. I have little familiarity with the study of these matters. I can only say that the strength of his book, from the standpoint of making Orthodox moral precepts understandable to a Western audience is also, from the vantage-point of a student of the Fathers, its deficit. For example, his views on political symphonia and the Orthodox Church’s understanding of personal and public conscience are drawn, not from the Patristic consensus, but from what I call the "secondary systematics" of Orthodox theology in the West—from artificial constructs based on the Patristic corpus but separated from the complex and, if may be forgiven an unpopular characterization, "mystical" interplay between human history and the "spiritual irony" which Unamuno so insightfully attributed to the notion of reality in the Greek Fathers.

Most Orthodox today are struggling for relevance in a world in which their Faith was not formed, in which its very political, social, and moral precepts are antiquated and foreign. Those who contribute to this struggle—and Father Alexander’s book is a significant contribution, indeed—see Orthodoxy as a Faith which is universal and catholic and thus understandable in any age. There are some traditionalist Orthodox today, myself among them, who believe, on the other hand, that Orthodoxy is catholic in a noumenal sense, relating to the world only to the extent that, usurping its higher moral values, it permeates and converts a society. This spiritual permeation of the world, beginning with the Resurrection and reaching its culmination in traditional Orthodox societies, expresses the catholic nature of Christianity: a force of universal transformation. Those who attribute to us traditionalists a certain intellectual deficit would argue that we render history meaningless and Orthodoxy impotent, relegating the Orthodox world to a "backward notion of progress," as a Protestant writer recently observed. In response, I would argue that just as spiritual life in the Orthodox Church centers on personal transformation in the light of man’s restoration in Christ, so Orthodox history is elevated by its reference to the past and invigorated by its constant irrelevancy vis-à-vis the "modern condition" of man. This is not to say that Orthodoxy should not witness to contemporary society in the style of Father Alexander’s socio-political apologetic, but it is to say that the focus of our attention, in presenting Orthodoxy to the West, should never deviate from a clear Patristic substructure and from the "witness of the past," even when we have the ear of those who speak in a different language. If we risk parochialism in so doing, let us keep in mind that one of the more arrogant traits of our times is a tendency to forget that today’s universal "givens" are often the parochialisms of tomorrow.

Sadly, I found in this otherwise excellent book a few lapses in scholarly objectivity which deserve attention. In his effort to portray Orthodoxy’s response to contemporary moral issues in a systematic manner understandable to the West, Father Alexander does abuse to a tradition which is not at all as systematic and immediately comprehensible as many assume that it is. In particular, in his attempt to summarize the complex world of American Orthodoxy, he describes the OCA as the inheritor of the early eighteenth-century Russian missions in Alaska. As he admits, in fact, the OCA was, no more than a generation ago, largely Greek Catholic. Its roots lie in the administrative vagaries of the diaspora, of course, but the actual history of the Russian Church in the diaspora, especially after the Russian Revolution, centers not on the precursor of the OCA, the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Metropolia, but the Higher Church Authority and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA). In making Orthodoxy relevant, we can too easily make it what it is not. And the OCA is not what Father Alexander claims it to be. It is thus particularly disturbing that, in distinguishing those Orthodox in America who belong to the self-styled "canonical" jurisdictions under the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA), and what he calls "quasi-canonical groups," Father Alexander borrows from non-Orthodox terminology first coined by Archimandrite Seraphim (Surrency), the late "Vicar" of the Patriarchal Russian Churches in America. There is no such thing, of course, as a "canonical" Orthodox jurisdiction, despite the fact that this kind of terminology has crept into our ecclesiological vocabulary from the West. Nor are there "official" Orthodox Churches, a category produced by the contemporary ecumenical movement. Were this so, and were such terms amenable to the nuanced ecclesiological notions of the Greek Fathers, we would have to concede that the Cappadocian Fathers, the Studite monks, and the Palamite Hesychasts were, in some way, "quasi-canonical" and "un-official." This, if nothing else, warns us against apologetic presentations which unwisely pass over the intricacies of Church history.

In the same vein, I am surprised that a scholar of Father Alexander’s stature would refer, as he does, to an ukaz issued in 1939 by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad under Metropolitan Anastassy, successor to Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev as First Hierarch of that body, to Adolf Hitler, thanking the dictator for his help to the Russian community in diaspora and praising his patriotism. The Orthodox Church in America, in supporting its spurious claims to primacy in the Russian diaspora, has often taken slaps at the ROCA on account of this incident, pointing out that if the Russian Bishops in exile were justified in their opposition to the Moscow Patriarchate for kowtowing to the communists, they could be equally condemned for praising a mass murderer. First, little was known in 1939 of the inner workings of the Third Reich, and especially to the Russian immigration, which was fiercely struggling for survival itself. Nor was Metropolitan Anastassy’s praise of Hitler’s nationalism and patriotism in any way comparable to collaboration, by the Soviet Bishops, with a secular authority that was not only guilty of genocide similar to that visited upon the Jews and other Europeans by Hitler, but which, unlike the Nazi régime, openly advocated the eradication of religion. This shameful bit of jurisdictional polemics might have been better left out of Father Alexander’s book.

Equally unedifying is Father Alexander’s unwarranted speculation that an alleged "internal schism" in the ROCA, in 1986, might well have substantially reduced its previously-reported membership in the U.S. (55,000), since thereafter such data were no longer reported. First, the departure of a single monastery—which had, in fact, retreated into the ROCA from the Greek Archdiocese—with a handful of Faithful, numbering far less than a thousand individuals, hardly constitutes an "internal schism." Second, while membership statistics and references to the ROCA do not, indeed, appear in recent almanacs in this country, relevant information is provided to these reference sources by the National Council of Churches (NCC), a well-known ecumenical body. The NCC has of late shown little desire to publish statistics about anti-ecumenical Orthodox jurisdictions not affiliated with its Orthodox members. That this is the result of pressure from the Orthodox ecumenists in its ranks is unquestionable, as evidenced by the fact that only after intense pressure, and over the objections of certain Orthodox spokesmen, did the NCC agree to list the small American Exarchate of our Church, only one of a number of Old Calendarist bodies represented in the Americas, in its annual registry of religious bodies. Given the exaggerated membership numbers reported for those jurisdictions belonging to the SCOBA (the OCA a glaring and extreme example thereof), statistics on Orthodox populations are, at any rate, a subject which we should probably avoid, and especially when they support accusations of a gratuitous and inaccurate kind.

The Orthodox world, again, is tremendously complex. Outside the fantasy of an Orthodoxy that fits into "official" and "canonical" categories, there are millions of Orthodox who are struggling with questions of personal, social, and ecclesiological identity that Orthodox in America not only cannot understand, but would frequently like to ignore. The ecumenical movement, steeped in a hypocrisy known primarily to us Orthodox minorities, taints any discussion of the moral witness of the Orthodox Church, since its darker side is hidden and its agents secretive. In the face of these things, and bringing to mind what I said earlier about the nature of history and spiritual vision in the Patristic witness, I would advise anyone reading Father Alexander’s book to exercise caution. It is a useful and excellent apologetic work. It touches, as I have noted, on a wide range of subjects and presents the Orthodox Church to the West in terms that are positive, constructive, and absolutely necessary. But it lacks a certain balance, as evidenced by its unfortunate and, I trust, unintentional forays into jurisdictional polemics, resulting in images which, though didactic and compelling, are thus not wholly realistic. Read with circumspection, this book is a pivotal contribution, for us Orthodox, to the task of making our Faith known to the West. For the Westerner, it is a primer of Orthodoxy, offering invaluable insight into our moral life and ethos, albeit with the shortcomings that I must, in good conscience, carefully point out. Needless to say, disenfranchised as we traditionalist Orthodox—Kafkaesque stokers before the contrivances of the New World—are by the artificial "officialdom" of Orthodoxy in the West, my observations will no doubt strike our modernist friends as those of a "crackpot." Be that as it may, for any who truly desire to present Orthodoxy to the West, as I suspect Father Alexander does, my objections should serve as a warning against tightly-wrapped packages that sometimes fail to contain the whole product. Handsomely printed and distributed by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., I heartily recommend this book to our readers.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIV, No. 2&3, pp. 69-72.