Here’s a fascinating FT story about Abbot Tikhon Shevkunov, a prominent Russian Orthodox monk who is Vladimir Putin’s confessor. The more I learn about Russian Orthodoxy (I mean, the Orthodox Church in Russia), the less I know about it, or about how religion works in Russia. I don’t say that to be critical, only to say that it becomes ever more difficult to know what to make of any of it.
Anyway, this passage resonated with my own experience:
It was actually a particularly harrowing experience with a Ouija board in 1982 that started Father Tikhon – still in film school at the time and named Georgy Shevkunov – on his long road to the heights of secular and spiritual power in Russia. The decision to be baptised was not taken lightly back in the days of the pre-perestroika Soviet Union. But Shevkunov had a pretty compelling reason.
An amateur spiritualist, he and a group of friends had taken an interest in the occult, finding that, with the help of a few candles, a planchette and the right attitude, they could “establish contact with certain completely incomprehensible but nonetheless absolutely real entities” from the spirit world, according to his autobiography. The new acquaintances introduced themselves variously as Napoleon, Socrates and even Stalin. It was fun for a while. And then, it almost went horribly wrong.
One evening, the group managed to contact who they believed was 19th-century author Nikolai Gogol. But he was in a terrible mood, and the group recoiled in terror when, in a fit of extreme crankiness, Gogol told them all to commit suicide by ingesting poison. They raced from the room, and the next day, headed straight to the nearest church, where a priest chastised them. The foolish youngsters had not really been in contact with Gogol, said the priest. Instead, they had simply been the victims of a clever prank. By a minor demon, most likely. His recommendation: baptism.
Tikhon’s generation were spiritual explorers, which drew many like him to Christianity. The Soviet prohibition on religion only made it more attractive – the forbidden fruit. Yevgeny Nikiforov, who is in his fifties, laughs today when he remembers the antics of his 1980s generation.
“First we all learnt yoga, then we studied Sanskrit, then we read the New Testament. It was all the same to us at the time. Only later did we become spiritually mature,” he says. “No one had the first clue. The KGB even thought karate was a religion,” he laughs. “We watched Bruce Lee movies thinking they were some sort of mystical experience. Can you imagine?”
Father Tikhon says what drew him to Christianity (aside from an attempt to avoid demonic possession) was that it became obvious to his generation that “all the great figures of the world and Russian history” – he mentions Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kant, Goethe and Newton, among others – “all those whom we trusted and loved and respected, all of them had thought about God in a completely different way from us.” On the other hand, “those who evoked no sympathy whatsoever” – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky – “all these destructive revolutionaries who led our state to what it had become, all were atheists.” The choice, he says, was clear.
When I was an undergraduate, and wrestling with whether or not I believed in Christianity, and had Chartres, The Seven Storey Mountain, and Kierkegaard on my mind, it occurred to me one day — I remember exactly where I was when the thought struck me, standing in front of the LSU Student Union, under a crepe myrtle tree, on a warm day — that all the artists, writers, and philosophers I was coming to admire and to think had something important to say about life and how to live it were Christians. Isn’t that interesting? I thought. Till that point, I thought Christianity was simply the dull middle class at prayer, or something militantly anti-intellectual, like the Swaggartarian Bible-thumpers who preached in front of the Student Union. But no, it’s not like that at all, I realized.
That these great men and women believed in Christianity did not make it true, but I had to confront my own prejudice here. If Christianity was nothing more than something needy people used to shield themselves from the truth, then how is it that people like Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Solzhenitsyn, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and others, were cowards and fools? I didn’t think they were fools. I thought they were on to something. Maybe, I thought, I am the coward and the fool for not joining them in the search. That was not a thought I tendered, but I couldn’t banish it, either. I knew, deep down, that I hesitated not because I doubted in good faith, but because if Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, et al. were correct, then it was going to cost me more than I was willing to pay to follow their path. The truth was, I was using my skepticism to hide from the possibility that these men and women might have been right about Jesus, because if they were, then I would have to change my life.
I couldn’t hide from that forever, and in time, I joined them. The point is, it wasn’t arguments that ultimately made a Christian of me. It was witness — the witness of those Christians of different ages and traditions, who seemed credible to me. Again, to use the Percian line, they were on to something.
I wish Robert Inchausti’s book Subversive Orthodoxy had been around back then. I stumbled onto something that Inchausti identifies and explores in the book: that faithful Christians — Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant — have been among the wisest and most radical critics of modernity. You wouldn’t see this from looking at many churches today, or popular Christianity. But it’s there. It really is.