The Russian Orthodox Church and Modernity

By Regina Elsner

Russian Orthodoxy is often suspected to be pre or anti-modern because of its difficulties engaging with a plural and secular society – for example, when relating to democracy, human rights, or gender diversity. After the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) associated increasingly with the agenda of the political elites in Russia and other successor states of the Soviet Union. For observers and scholars of Russian politics, society, and culture in the 21st century, it became difficult to analytically explore the theological and historical foundations of the ROC’s socio-political position beyond politicization. The book The Russian Orthodox Church and Modernity unfolds this issue with the aim of understanding the tracks and traces of the current positions of the church through its own theological categories. To disclose the theological, social, and political entanglements, the book’s original theological analysis uses historical methods, such as critical junctures theory, in its first part. The second and third parts of the book rely on discourse analysis, close reading, and media monitoring.

The ROC faced various iterations of modernization throughout its history. Accordingly, the first part of the book examines the historical development of the ROC’s arguments against – and sometimes preferences for – modernization and analyzes which positions ended up influencing the official doctrine. In this section, seven historical moments represent critical junctures, during which the church as an institution decided upon directions for shaping its relationship to change. The cases go back to the 16th century (1), when different monastic traditions contested the Byzantine heritage of the church for the first time and opted for a closer relationship to the worldly ruler and the possibility of the enculturation of the Greek tradition to the culture of Rus’. The first outspoken reforms within Orthodoxy in the field of liturgy occurred in the 17th century (2), which caused an existential split inside the church and exposed ecclesial dissent to worldly sanctions. With the comprehensive reforms of Peter the Great and his successors, the church was forced to accept considerable structural modernizations (3). It incorporated these changes and found theological legitimization in the following decades, thus proving able to cope with massive modernization and prioritizing a stable relationship with the state over possible theological dissent.

This strategy, however, still prompted dissent within the church, which culminated in a vital religious philosophy and a severe critique of the alienation of church leadership from the people and social reality in the 19th and the beginning of 20th centuries (4). The Local Council of 1917/18 serves as an example for the modernizing potential within Orthodox theology and ecclesiology (5). It was, however, destroyed by the Bolshevik Revolution. In the early years of Bolshevik rule, church renewal was intentionally used by the political elite to divide the church and thus profoundly discredit it. During the Soviet period, the institutional church was forced to adapt to a hostile political regime in order to survive (6). Two major currents developed after WWII, based on previous experiences: theological catching up to harmonize with the state on the one hand and institutional marginalization of theological dissent on the other. With the end of the Soviet Union, the church welcomed the freedom of religion yet struggled with the challenges of plurality (7). The rather than society in their processes of coping with modern uncertainty is the last critical juncture depicted.

The relationship of the institutional church to modern society in Russia and other successor states of the Soviet Union builds on the decisions made historically in concrete socio-political circumstances. The concept of critical junctures implies that the institution had the opportunity to decide between options. By choosing one, the church defined not only the development of its institutions under certain paradigms, but also marginalized dissenting parties or ideas. However, these marginal currents remained, throughout history, on the periphery of the church and resurfaced in times of crisis.

The historical analysis of the first section helps clarify the argumentation of the church stemming from socio-political influence and often far from a consistent theological conceptualization. Specifically, these argumentation lines relate to the following: the perception of renewal as an existential threat for the church; interdependence with the state; rhetorical dismissal of worldly matters due to the sacred character of the church; and the menace of the West as a religious, intellectual, and social antagonist. These paradigms, as argued in the book, shape the position of the church in all recent contestations much more than concepts of theological tradition.

By analyzing these trends, it becomes clear that the core conflict lies in the tension between unity and plurality inherit to the processes of modernization. This observation leads to questions regarding theology as the source of the church’s self-understanding. For this reason, the second part of the book systematically analyzes dogmatic treatises in order to unfold the ROC’s theological ability of constructive engagement with this tension. Interested in the foundations of theological education and knowledge employed by the church and acknowledging the exclusive importance of dogmatic theology in Orthodoxy, I studied the main theological textbooks currently used in all institutions of higher theological education in Russia. Three specific subjects of Orthodoxy are prevalent in dealing with unity and plurality in these sources: God as Trinitarian; the human being as one nature and as individuality; and the church as unity in diversity. The analysis in the book is dedicated to this topic and the theological discourses depicted show how Orthodox theology, from the patristic theology of the first centuries on, provided a deep understanding of the ontological tension between unity and diversity and developed theological language and concepts to balance this tension without swaying to one side or the other. Additionally, the theological balance of unity and diversity eluded any worldly appropriation and yet, at the same time, represented a profound and constitutive basis for dialog with the tensions of the modern world.

These chapters also show how official Russian theological textbooks always depict this balance with a stronger emphasis on the aspect of unity. Alternative and new approaches stressing diversity are marginalized or remain part of an academic discourse that lacks sufficient influence on the church’s teaching. In the final part of the book, a synthesis of historical and theological insights, paired with some current challenges – diversity within the church, contested democracy and human rights in Russia, globalization, traditional values, and peace – illustrates that the official discourse deliberately picks those arguments and theological legitimizations that best fit its agenda. As the current, Post-Soviet agenda of the church is largely shaped by the church’s committed relationship to the autocratic Russian state, theological concepts of determination and of unity and homogenization of diversity overshadow ideas of a God-given plurality, of the inaccessibility of God’s plan for humanity, and a theological appreciation of progress and autonomy. Despite being anti-modern in its approach to society, the very method of constructing historical and theological patterns and its selectiveness is deeply modern and modernizing in itself, as it does not stick to a fixed tradition but uses and shapes tradition in order to immunize its own position.

The ROC, however, is a transnational institution, and, as the book shows, the application of this strategy in non-autocratic societies appears fragile. While it works well in countries like Belarus or Kazakhstan and provides its local branches with the needed instruments to serve as a pillar of autocratic rule, in more diverse countries like Ukraine, the Baltic states, or in its worldwide diaspora, this position is highly contested. While in some cases local ROC actors turn to the theological and historical legacy of embracing diversity and an ever changing world (like the schools in Paris or New York, for example), in other cases the ROC becomes auspicious for the aims of various anti-modern actors (e.g., the Christian Right in the USA or in Western Europe). In a country in transition like Ukraine, the local branch of the ROC lost its public voice because of the incompatibility of the political strategy of its Russian mother church with the reality of a democratic and plural society.

With this in mind, the book argues that the assumption that an essentially anti-modern church is an instrument of the autocratic is too short-sighted and misses the opportunity (and academic and theological responsibility) to confront the church with its own tradition. Although focused on the leadership of the church due to practical reasons, the study also underlines the variety within the ROC – among its priests, believers, and theologians – and thus warns of equating the ROC with an absolute autocratic stance in order to keep open the constructive potential for dialog within Orthodox thinking.


Regina Elsner is a theologian and researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin since September 2017. She investigates the dynamics of Orthodox social ethics in Post-Soviet countries with a special focus on peace and conflict ethics as well as gender discourses.


Citation: Regina Elsner, The Russian Orthodox Church and Modernity, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.04.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/35270


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