Political Orthodoxies

The Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced

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Cyril Hovorun
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , October
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781506431604.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Orthodox Church is weakened and weaponized today by a variety of political ‘isms.’ The identification and resistance to this co-option is the crux of Cyril Hovorun’s concern in Political Orthodoxies. These ideologies include nationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-modernism, to name a few. These oppressive political programs, for Hovorun, are in many cases justified by or themselves stem from theological errors that have overtaken significant portions of the Orthodox world and its leadership. Hovorun’s book details these dynamics in the context of Eastern European Orthodoxy, focusing specifically on Greece, Romania, and Russia, and suggests theological paths forward.

Political Orthodoxies is remarkably informative as to the contemporary contours, and genesis, of political-theological tendencies in the countries emphasized and throughout the Orthodox world. Hovorun provides valuable perspective on the ideas and church politics at play in the recent Ukrainian crisis, the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Byzantine nostalgia, and the political dimensions of the Greek Church’s pursuit of autocephaly, to name a few. A chapter is devoted each to anti-Semitism and nationalism as two case studies of the variety of political orthodoxies coercing Orthodox Christianity. Hovorun’s personal knowledge of Orthodox church politics and lucid representation of the theological ideas at issue in these dynamics are a tremendous resource.

Hovorun is careful to define his terms in the first few chapters, and it is in his definitions that the book’s constructive claims become clear.  A “political orthodoxy” is a political ideology that masquerades as Christian orthodoxy, but is actually unorthodox. An example is the anti-Semitism that is bolstered, in Russian Orthodoxy particularly, through problematic eschatological and Christological claims—the anti-Christ will be a Jew and Jesus was not really Jewish, respectively. Such political orthodoxies all have roots in modern secularism, Hovorun argues. A “civil religion” is a state’s set of rituals and beliefs which inspire devotion and is not necessarily violent or coercive; a “political religion” is religion co-opted to the State’s (typically oppressive) purposes. Hovorun’s definition of secularism is greatly indebted to Charles Taylor’s, in terms of the “immanent frame”—a focus on the temporal world with little to no substantive reference to the transcendent. Hovorun stretches the definition to its limits by identifying almost any focus on this world or totalizing ideology as ultimately secular. Fundamentalist American Christians, for example, are remarkably secular in that their pursuit for a Christianized America reveals a rather modernist obsession with transforming the temporal realm, he argues. Whether this is a problem with Taylor’s definition, or Hovorun’s use of it, such application renders everyday usage of “secular” and “secularity” inert.

One term that is problematically left ambiguous is politics. Hovorun suggests that modern, secular, political orthodoxies tempt the church to concern itself with politics as opposed to “salvation” (90). In the opening pages, Hovorun depicts Jesus as resisting the theo-politics of antiquity: “Jesus Christ resisted the temptation of receiving control over the kingdoms of the world” (1). Yet, Hovorun seems to believe that Christianity should be political in at least some sense—cooperating with the state in the pursuit of justice. He generally endorses liberal democracy, albeit with the caveat that liberal political goals do not replace salvation as the Church’s purpose. It is unclear the exact form a Christian social or political ethic should take, and how this avoids becoming problematically political.

As evident in the book’s title, Hovorun is concerned with coercion. While no one could credibly accuse Hovorun of exonerating Orthodox Christians from their complicity in oppressive political regimes, there is a running theme of maintaining that there is a real Christianity that has been forcefully suppressed or soiled by outside forces. This tempts him to repeating some problematic historical claims, such as his suggestion that modern anti-Semitism (based in 19th century race pseudo-science) represents a secular set of ideas that Western and Orthodox Christians adopted. This obscures the much more complex relationship between Christian beliefs and the emergence of modern racism.

Hovorun is far from naïve about Christianity’s political history before the modern era.  While contemporary political orthodoxies are rooted in modern secularism, a look back to the 4th century is occasioned. On the one hand, Hovorun wants to associate coerced Christianity with early Christian heresies, and does so by relying on unfortunate genealogical obscuring; Arianism is inherently hierarchical and monarchic, Monothelitism (which purportedly caused iconoclasm) gave credence to emphasizing the all-powerful will of the Byzantine emperor, etc. But instead of romantically arguing that Nicene Christianity is non-coercive, the author suggests that Nicene Christianity has also been politicized and weaponized. In the conclusion, Hovorun argues that churches should enthusiastically accept the modern separation of church and state, for this protects Christianity from coercion or co-option by the State. “The church,” he argues, should “understand itself as a subject different from other subjects: authoritarian state or liberal society” (199).

Political Orthodoxies serves an important need. Hopefully it helps open up further theological space for Orthodox Christians looking to move beyond nationalist and anti-democratic political theologies, and introduces other audiences to dynamics that are both very unknown and unfortunately very familiar.

About the Reviewer(s): 

S. Kyle Johnson is a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
October 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cyril Hovorun is Associate Dean for Political Ecclesiology at Sankt Ignatius Theological Academy in Sweden and Senior Lecturer at the Stockholm School of Theology.

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