Talking about a ‘Christian’ approach to politics is difficult because the Bible was written centuries ago, by people with a wide variety of political beliefs and living under regimes that bore little resemblance to anything we have today. Aristotle Papanikolaou, one of the leading American voices in Orthodox theology, has therefore done us a great service by carefully and responsibly building a defense of liberal democracy on the back of core theological beliefs such as theosis (divine-human communion), the common good, forgiveness, and confession. The idea that an Orthodox theologian would support liberal democracy is actually quite surprising. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), for example, rejects liberal democracy as a secular project based on an atheistic definition of human rights that cannot be reconciled with Christian morality. Although they do not all share the ROC’s knee-jerk rejection of an intrinsic human dignity that doesn’t take into account people’s moral actions, several other important theologians also claim that liberal democracy is a fundamentally un-Christian project. For different reasons, both Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank think of the Church as the only human community that can act morally, arguing that Christians should either ignore or outright reject secular nation-states and democratic forms of government. Similarly, Vigen Guroian and William Cavanaugh argue that God’s eschatological purposes will be fulfilled only in the Church, which can have nothing to do with the nation-state because the latter is premised on violence and on the exclusion of the Church.
Papanikolaou bases his argument on the Orthodox notion of theosis. ‘Theosis asserts that the human was created for … communion with God’, he argues. Creation ‘exists with the eternal capacity for transformation, which is nothing other than the presencing of the divine in its very materiality’. In other words, creation is there to be transformed, and the Church’s job is to work together with God to bring about this transformation. This has profound implications for how Christians relate to secular politics: ‘insofar as politics can be construed as an engagement with the neighbor/stranger, then politics must be considered as one of the many practices within an ascetics of divine-human communion. The political community is not the antithesis to the desert but one of the many deserts in which the Christian must combat the demons that attempt to block the learning of love. In no other field is the temptation to demonize the neighbor more compelling or more seemingly justifiable than in the field of politics; in no other space than in the political, then, is the Christian more challenged to fulfill the commandment to love’.
Not many Orthodox thinkers have thought about politics from the perspective of theosis, and those who have haven’t always come to the same conclusions. Eusebius (263-339) believed that God was using the Roman Empire to work His purposes out in this world. Similarly, John Chrysostom (349-407) argued that even though some rulers were bad, the institution of government itself ‘makes virtue easier for you by meting out punishment to the wicked, rewards and honor to the good’. The Orthodox notion of symphonia emerged in the writings of Justinian I (483-565), and stated, in the words of John Meyendorff, that ‘the Church and the State … represent the internal cohesion of one single human society, for whose welfare on earth the emperor alone is responsible’. While Chrysostom consistently thought that priests were more important than secular rulers, Justinian reversed that equation, binding the Church and the state together in an indissoluble unity. It was difficult to defend the concept of symphonia after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, but the idea survived in Russia. Memories of the ‘theocratic republic’ in Novgorod (twelfth to fifteenth centuries), and the victory of the ‘possessors’ in the sixteenth century debates over whether the Church should have worldly wealth and power consolidated the idea that Church and state belonged together. Finally, in the eighteenth century, Peter the Great’s reforms made the Church dependent on the state for its power and influence. Not everyone agreed that the status quo was a good thing, and in the nineteenth century Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) used the idea of theosis to argue for a liberal state that protected human rights. Papanikolaou explains that for Soloviev, ‘divine-human communion cannot be enforced or imposed but must be freely realized, which means protection of freedom to reject particular beliefs, even belief in God’. Having been a convinced Marxist before he converted, Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944) took Soloviev’s ideas even further and said that ‘Christian politics must be guided above all by belief in the freedom and dignity of the human person, and it must concern itself with spreading the love of one’s neighbor beyond inner moral feeling and into concrete political economic relations’.
The idea that the Church should try to convert the world by acting as an alternative to secular politics is a tempting one but, Papanikolaou points out, Christians don’t always act in very Christ-like ways. The Church is just as much in need of grace as the world it seeks to save. Moreover, Papanikolaou argues that to say as the ROC does that only people who are ‘moral’ deserve human rights flies in the face of Orthodox conceptions of human personhood. Papanikolaou maintains that theologically, ‘personhood is an event of freedom and uniqueness realized in relations of love in union with Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit’. As he points out, this understanding of personhood is perfectly compatible with secular liberal definitions of human rights, which say that you deserve rights simply because you are a human being. Papanikolaou goes further, arguing that Christians should affirm a concept of the ‘common good’ that does not force everyone else to become Christians. When He created the world, God did everything possible to establish a state of free communion between Himself and His creation, maximizing our opportunities to reject Him if we wished. As Christians, we too should seek to create a society that gives people the choice to reject God. Christians should fight to realize a society that respects basic communal values such as refusing to let corporations exploit individuals and should engage in that society as partners in the dialogue that establishes those values.
Finally, Papanikolaou turns to the liturgical practices of confession and forgiveness as the building blocks of a well-functioning society. When I confess my sins to another person I reveal something of myself to them, which creates a bond between us. Following Desmond Tutu and Miroslav Volf, Papanikolaou argues that confession (truth-telling) and forgiveness is a precondition for bringing together societies that have been torn apart by fear, hatred, and violence. Free speech and truth-telling enables communion even between two people who are bitter enemies. ‘One could imagine’, Papanikolaou writes, ‘two people on the opposite poles of the abortion issue having a conversation where they learn that they ultimately share a common concern: the value of a particular human life’. Papanikolaou defends Western liberal democracy as a preferred form of government for Christians because it allows a Church in need of grace to extend grace to the world, to dialogue with non-Christians over issues of mutual concern, and to exhibit the virtues of truth-telling, confession, and forgiveness that make human communities possible.
Images taken from Eileen McGuckin’s Icon Studio.