‘What’s The Matter With Orthodox Countries?’
Speaking of Orthodoxy, I’ve been thinking about this column for a couple of weeks:
Eastern Orthodox Christianity has done more to shape certain ex-Communist countries than communism. It also, some say, made their people relatively unhappy and anti-capitalist. This theory got a lot of play in 1990s Russia but has now resurfaced in a fresh World Bank working paper.
Its authors, former Bulgarian finance minister Simeon Djankov and Elena Nikolova of University College London, analyzed data from the World Values Survey and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Life in Transition Survey to study the correlation between religious background and attitudes. They concluded that Orthodoxy made certain countries fertile ground for communism and generally shaped their path as distinct from those taken by countries steeped in Western Christian traditions.
One could read about this in academic publications at the time, too — the 1989 work of sociologist Andreas Buss was a classic. But the tradition, at least for Russians, is much older: It’s rooted in the work of 19th century westernizing philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev, who believed that, unlike European nations, Russia adopted the wrong type of Christianity. “Though we are Christians, it was not for us that the fruit of Christianity ripened,” he wrote. “There is something in our blood that rejects true progress.” In the 1990s, as Russia tried to join “the civilized world,” Chaadaev was suddenly popular again.
Then, Russia and its Orthodox neighbors appeared to find their place in the world and largely settle into a pattern of growth and convergence, and there was a pause in the related public discussion. Now, Russia’s refusal to join the Western world and the economic malaise in Greece, Ukraine and other Orthodox nations appear to have sparked a revival of this old line of thinking.
The author of the column, Leonid Bershidsky, says he used to reject that line, but has come around to agreeing with it
at least when it comes to Russia. Approaching the problem from a totally different angle, Ivan Zabaev, a Russian sociologist who works at Russia’s top Orthodox university and who received a government grant for his recent research, comes to a similar conclusion:
The specific character of Orthodoxy is that it regards not vocation or professional activities as a means to salvation, but obedience and humility in relation to a (spiritually) more experienced person or a person at a higher place in the hierarchy.
The ancient roots and religious underpinnings of a culture may indeed have a greater impact on the path a country takes than any rational, geopolitical or economic considerations. If so, nations with an Orthodox background aren’t really comfortable in a Western-dominated world — a source of tension that can only be mitigated, not removed.
I think there’s something to this, but only something. One thing that Westerners often forget, if they ever knew it in the first place, is that most of the Orthodox Christian world lived under the Islamic yoke for centuries. Byzantium fell in 1453. Greece was not free until the 19th century. Same with the Orthodox Balkans. With the exception of the colonial period, Arab Christians have lived under Islam since the 8th century.
Russia was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century, and wasn’t really free of them until the 16th century. Russia didn’t go through a Reformation, which had an incomparable effect on pushing Europe into the modern era, nor did Russia partake in the opening to the New World by the age of exploration, and the immense wealth that brought into Europe.
Orthodox countries did not experience the Enlightenment — Peter the Great’s efforts to drag Russia into the Enlightenment were brutal and only partly successful — and they did not experience the Industrial Revolution. Modernity only came to Russia in 1917, with the trauma of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Russia spent the better part of a century under a totalitarian yoke that came very close to destroying the Orthodox Church and the faith, but also eviscerated civil society and the social trust necessary for the rule of law and capitalism to work. Eastern European countries that fell under the Soviet yoke after World War II also saw their religious traditions and the institutions of civil society torn to shreds. A Hungarian friend told me that her country is having trouble adjusting to democracy because it has not yet recovered from the moral devastation wrought by communism: people find it almost impossible to trust each other, because under communism, you could not afford to trust anybody.
So, when people look at the Orthodox countries and see their struggle for economic stability as a sign of theologically deficiency, I can see what they’re talking about. But it also makes me think about those who would look at the African-American community, coming out of 400 years of slavery in North America, and wondering why they aren’t catching up. You might even look at the black church, and wonder if there’s something about African-American religiosity that hurts, or fails to help, black Americans to become successful under capitalism. And you would probably be onto something!
But how fair would that be to black Americans, or to the black church? The communal Christian faith of the slaves and their successors was forged out of the historical experience of slavery, and under conditions of massive oppression. Can we really expect that black Christianity would have developed in the same way as Christianity among whites in the same country? To have been a faithful, law-abiding, thrifty white Protestant prior to 1965 would have, in most cases, helped one and one’s family along the road to bourgeois success. To have lived by the same principles as a black Protestant in the same period would have done you little to no economic or social good.
Black Christianity came out of a very different set of social and economic conditions, and existed (exists) in relationship to them. It may well be that those formed by the particular traditions of the black church are not well suited for thriving under late liberalism and present-day capitalism. Perhaps the black church should change in some aspects. On the other hand, perhaps capitalism and liberal democracy should change. Maybe black Christianity has something important to teach all Christians (and non-Christians) about the good life.
It’s that way with Orthodoxy too. Look, I too am partial to religious and philosophical explanations for cultural change — The Benedict Option is based largely on that premise — but it is impossible to separate that out cleanly from economic and technological change, and from historical social conditions. I don’t say this to make an excuse for the failures of Orthodox cultures, but I believe strongly that one cannot judge the truth of a religion based on whether or not it makes people into better capitalists or liberal democrats.
But it is wrong to take an example like Slavophile political theology as evidence of an unbridgeable divide between a capitalist West and the Orthodox East. After all, Orthodox anti-Westernism is often surprisingly Western: Slavophile communitarianism and preference for “organic” versus legal-rational social order, for example, is indebted to Western romanticism and hardly unique to Orthodoxy. Moreover, the “Western religious tradition” that Bershidsky identifies as facilitating the rise of capitalism is really (as in Max Weber’s thesis) a particular form of modern Calvinism, not Western Christianity as a whole. Western Christians have their own long history of critiquing capitalism, and if there are some genuine tensions between Orthodoxy and the dominant capitalist order, the same is true of Roman Catholic theology as well, as Pope Francis (like all of his predecessors) have been at pains to explain to the world. Rather than taking pro-capitalist theology as normative, we must consider whether at least some of the tensions between capitalism and Orthodoxy are really tensions between capitalism and Christianity, even if many in the West (including Christians) no longer realize it, and even if the tensions do not ultimately preclude the possibility of fruitful dialogue between the two.
Not only does Bershidsky’s essay risk conflating “Western Christianity” with pro-capitalist theology, it also ignores the diversity within the Orthodoxy. The Orthodox world is not homogeneous, and even the Russian theological tradition by itself is far more diverse than the essay makes apparent. Whatever resonances might exist between Soviet communism and certain streams of Russian Orthodox anti-capitalism, it is vital to recall the outpouring of anti-Marxist Orthodox political theology in the years surrounding the Russian Revolution. Orthodox intellectuals like Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyaev are known for their trenchant critiques of Russian Marxism and for their commitment to Orthodoxy’s communitarian social principles. Far from being mere reactionaries, such figures brought Orthodox theology into dialogue with modern Western economic and political thought. They showed that, on the one hand, Orthodoxy need not remain stuck in the past and that, on the other hand, Orthodox theology might have legitimate criticisms to make against a capitalist order that does not always do justice to the sacred dignity and freedom of persons entailed by the Orthodox notion of divine-human communion. Rather than deference to Western capitalism, which is what Bershidsky seems to want, thinkers like Bulgakov and Berdyaev point towards the possibility and necessity of Orthodox theological engagement with Western thought. Such engagement serves as a reminder that Orthodoxy need not be opposed to every aspect of modern Western economics, but that Christianity should not simply be capitalism’s handmaid either.
I agree with this. The liberal, democratic, post-Christian West has something important to learn from Orthodoxy itself, and the historical experience of Orthodox peoples. And vice versa. I say this as someone with a foot in both camps. It is sometimes said that the Orthodox Church needs to be more catholic, and the Catholic Church needs to be more orthodox. There’s truth in that quip. I hadn’t thought until reading Bershidsky’s column that it might be fruitful to think about how the secular worlds of the Orthodox East and the Latin West might have a lot to learn from each other. Perhaps that’s why the political events in the Visegrad countries — all four of them Catholic but Eastern — is so interesting right now.