Russian Orthodox Fragility

An article by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church [link] points out that the Revolution of 1917 did not spring out of thin air and impose atheism on Russia, rather, the society and even the Church itself was becoming atheist and hollow already:

It has been said that Russia was baptised but not enlightened. Indeed, as far as the 19th century is concerned, it is clear that enlightenment was very often in conflict with religion: the masses of illiterate peasants kept their traditional beliefs, but more and more educated people, even from a purely religious background, rejected faith and became atheists. Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov are classic examples: both came from clerical families, both became atheists after studying in theological seminaries. For people like Dostoyevsky religion was something that had to be rediscovered, after having been lost as a result of his education. Tolstoy, on the other hand, came to a certain type of faith in God but remained alien to the Orthodox Church. It is clear, when one looks at the pre-revolutionary period, that there was a huge gap between the Church and the world of educated people, the so-called intelligentsia, and this gap was constantly growing.

The Archbishop goes on to cite some specific examples from that time of creeping atheism:

I remember reading a book by Father Georgy Shavelsky, the Protopresbyter of the Russian Army and Navy under Nicholas II. Himself one of the senior members of the Holy Synod, he testified that the Synod was in fact very far from the life of people, that it did very little (if anything) to prevent atheist propaganda from spreading among ordinary people. To show how little remained of the people’s traditional devotion to God, Shavelsky cites the following example: when attendance at the Liturgy became, by a special imperial decree, no longer obligatory for Russian soldiers, only ten per cent of them continued to go to church.

Another testimony of the same kind is that of Metropolitan Veniamin (Fedchenkov), who became the Bishop of the White Army after the revolution. He writes that none of the students of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, where he had studied, ever went to see Father John of Kronstadt, and that some of the students were atheists. He describes the atmosphere of spiritual coolness inside the Orthodox Church, the lack of prophetic spirit. He claims that it was not by mere chance that there arose people like Rasputin:
against the common background of indifference towards religion he appeared as a charismatic figure and was at first accepted as such by the ecclesiastical authorities, who then directed his steps to the imperial palace.

The third testimony which I would like to draw on here is of a more personal kind: it is that of Father Sergei Bulgakov. Himself the son of an Orthodox priest, after studying at a theological seminary, he became an atheist, following the steps of Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov. In his autobiographical notes he asks himself how this happened, and answers: “It happened, somehow, almost at once and in an imperceptible manner, as something taken for granted, when the poetry of my childhood was replaced by the prose of the theological seminary… When I began to doubt, my critical thoughts were not satisfied with traditional apologetics, but rather found them scandalous… My revolt was strengthened by the compulsory devotion: these long services with akathists (and ritual devotion in general) did not give me satisfaction.” Fr Bulgakov gave up his religion easily, without a fight, and neither his clerical origins nor his theological education helped him to resist the temptation, of atheism and nihilism.

He then points out that many people joining the Church today in Russia still don’t believe in God, but are following a fad:

It seems to me that, though the numbers of believers has immensely increased during the last years, Russia is still far from being a Christian country. To be baptised, to be Orthodox has become a fashion. I would not be surprised if the majority of people, when asked whether they are Orthodox, would now give a positive answer. This does not mean, though, that they all go to church. It only means that most of them have assumed a new outward identity to keep up with the ongoing ‘religious revival’. I remember asking one teenager who came, together with her mother, to be baptised: ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘No,’ was her answer. ‘Why then do you want to be baptised?’ I asked. ‘Well, everybody gets baptised nowadays,’ she said. This case, one of many, illustrates that many people take religion in a very superficial manner, sometimes without even believing in God. Remaining inwardly atheists, they become outwardly Orthodox.

He warns against a type of reactionary Orthodoxy that I see all too much of in the news:

The second danger is that. of militant Orthodoxy, which would be a post-atheist counterpart of militant atheism. I mean an Orthodoxy that fights against Jews, against masons, against democracy, against Western culture, against enlightenment. This type of Orthodoxy is being preached even by some key members of the hierarchy, and it has many supporters within the Church.

This leads me to think that Russia suffered greatly in missing out on the Reformation. The Bible was never put squarely into the life of the people and the Church missed out on a great opportunity to be soaked in the Scripture. In the same way I believe that the modern Russian Orthodox Church misses exposition of the Scripture and reevaluation in the light of the Word. Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps there are movements within Russia that are moving ad fontes back to the Scriptures, but what I see is a reactionary movement that glories in the past and believe in a crystalized version of unchanging doctrine. I believe all this is greatly to the disadvantage of the Russian Church and nation. May God grant them more light and the ability to change where they need to.

3 thoughts on “Russian Orthodox Fragility”

  1. This is an excellent article and describes much more completely some of the points I brought up in a post or two of mine that got me into big trouble with Voices from Russia blogger Varvara Drezhlo.

    My original post: http://cost-of-discipleship.blogspot.com/2009/09/glory-of-holy-russia.html

    A later post of mine: http://cost-of-discipleship.blogspot.com/2009/12/is-this-face-of-true-orthodoxy.html

    Varvara vents against me in this post of hers: http://02varvara.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/here-is-why-the-konvertsy-are-not-orthodox-and-must-be-opposed-at-all-costs/

    Clearing me of the charge of leaving a rather nasty comment on her blog, I love her for saying “I have no doubt that Romanos is innocent in this… it’s simply not his gassy and pseudo-Christian-elder style.”

    Calling me a gasbag in this, her fans add their two bits as well in the comments: http://02varvara.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/watch-out-sometimes-delete-does-not-mean-that-its-deleted/

    I gave up trying to dialog with her in desperation. I had never met anyone in the Orthodox Church quite like her. But no matter what Russia does in or out of Church, she praises it. Some of what is said in your post reminds me of her mindset.

    Anyway, good post! I mean, great post!

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