Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twenty-First Century

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Editor(s): 
Lucian N. Leustean
Routledge Contemporary Russia and Eastern Studies Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , May
     2017.
     857 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138079465.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The fall of the socialist regimes in Europe brought new freedoms and opportunities, but also challenges for Eastern Christian churches in the area. They had to renegotiate their relationship with the political power structure, and some of them were elevated to the status of a pillar of rediscovered national identity. At the same time, these churches were forced to deal with their past, which often included compromises and even collaboration with socialist regimes. On the other side of the former Iron Curtain, these political change also affected churches that encountered new migrant communities as well as structural changes within Eastern Christianity. Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twenty-First Century addresses these developments after the socialist bloc in Europe began to crumble in 1989. The paperback is a second edition of the edited volume published in 2014, with additional material on events in 2012 and 2013. Thus, the book does not cover the dramatic changes that have taken place since the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the beginning of the war in Ukraine, or the escalation of the war in Syria, but it nonetheless provides a fascinating portrayal of the situation on the eve of these events.

Many contributors to this volume are eminent scholars in their respective fields. In the introduction, the editor of the book, Lucian N. Leustean, reflects on the challenges in “finding common agreement between scholars working in the fields of political science, history and theology on the changing relationship between Eastern Christianity and politics” (18). Curiously, Leustean does not mention the study of religion, and at least some of the chapters could have benefited from engaging in the discussions conducted in this discipline on, for example, the constructed and situational nature of the definition of religion and religious traditions, as well as exercising caution in examining religion only through official church structures. 

This eight-hundred-page book is divided into five parts, of which the first four cover Chalcedonian, Non-Chalcedonian, the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Churches of the East, and Greek Catholic churches. Apart from a couple of chapters that analyze several countries with smaller Orthodox communities, the chapters present either countries or national churches, and contain a statistical appendix. According to the introduction, all chapters address the main themes of the legacy of the Cold War: relationship to political power; religious education; monastic life; inter-ecclesiastical contacts; relations with religious minorities; diasporas and migration; the European Union; and the impact of secularism, nationalism, and globalization. Naturally, the focus on themes and time periods varies according to the specific features and histories of the areas and churches under discussion. One of the downsides of the attempt to systematically cover such a large number of churches and countries is that the chapters easily fall into mere descriptions of some main events and personages. This kind of encyclopedic style may circumvent the discussion of competing interpretations. For example, in their chapter on the Russian Orthodox Church, Zoe Knox and Anastasia Mitrofanova argue that the church is not a handmaid of the state, but an independent institution. The authors ground their argument on a sound analysis of the rich empirical material, but I would have liked to read more about their discussion with contesting views. In the worst cases, this encyclopedic style conceals the process of analysis and the underlying assumptions under the pretense of accounting for supposed facts, such as in the somewhat politically naïve description of the relationship between the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the state. 

The last part of the book, which focuses on “challenges in the twenty-first century,” provides welcome comparative analysis as well as theoretical discussions. Kristina Stoeckl unpacks the ways in which increased migration challenges and shapes Eastern Christian churches and communities. Though the chapter could have been longer and engaged more empirical material, it insightfully outlines the main tendencies in this development and presents suggestions for future research. Kristen Ghodsee’s theoretically rich chapter addresses the alternative views on and attitudes toward secularism and liberalism in historical context. Drawing on Talal Asad’s critique of Western centrism in the understanding of secularism, Ghodsee provides a valuable contribution to discussions about this concept. Victor Roudmetof’s exhaustive knowledge of history and contemporary Eastern Christianity allows him to draw compelling outlines of the parallel processes of nationalization and transnationalization. He stresses that, historically, interregional interaction has been a crucial factor in constructing Eastern Christianity—even though today the concept of globalization is often used to refer only to its most recent manifestation, which is linked to Western modernization. However, Roudmetof seems to understand modernization in a very narrow way: entailing rationalization and the rise of nationalism, but omitting societal differentiation and the imperative on individual choice. Instead (and unlike, for example, Vasilios S. Makrides in his chapter on the Orthodox Church of Greece), Roudmetof discusses religious pluralization not in the context of modernization, but as a separate phenomenon (191). 

The small number of comparative and thematic chapters leaves much of the task of drawing parallels and general trajectories from the individual chapters to the reader. Though the first four parts certainly provide ample material for this, the structure of the book can arguably be said to follow conventional methodological nationalism. This kind of methodological nationalism is also implicitly criticized by Stoeckl, who points out that a transnational approach affords a very different view of Eastern Christianity than analysis within state borders (726, 733). The histories of many churches and geographical areas also demonstrate that contemporary state borders may have very limited explanatory power for understanding religious identities. Nevertheless, the book provides an extraordinarily thorough and wide picture of the diversity of Eastern Christianity in the contemporary world. It is also full of fascinating histories from around the globe that may be little-known even to scholars of the topic, and undoubtedly widens the reader’s perspective on Eastern Christianity

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kaarina Aitamurto is Senior Researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lucian N. Leustean is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University, Birmingham.

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