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Archive for August, 2010

We continue with the fourth part of Michaël de Verteuil’s report on the recent “Orthodox Constructions of the West” conference at Fordham University (June 28-30) (Part 1Part 2, and Part 3).

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Vera Shevzov, “The Burden of Tradition: Russia’s Orthodox academic theologians and the ‘West’ (late XIX-early XX cc)”
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Dr. Gilbert’s already-posted summary of Dr. Shevzov’s presentation is excellent, but I would like to emphasize different aspects. I found her talk difficult to follow, particularly as someone with no background in the subject matter. It is only after carefully reviewing my notes and reading Dr. Gilbert’s summary that I can claim to grasp some of the points Dr. Shevzov was attempting to make. I have taken the liberty of glossing and restructuring somewhat the order of some of what I take to be her observations in order to highlight what I drew from her presentation. Ultimately I think it was worth the pain.
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According to Dr. Shevzov, 19th century Russian intellectuals analyzing the future of Russia in its relationship with the West generally fell into Slavophile or Westernizing camps, both of which continue to influence Orthodox views of the West today. She noted however, that both tended to portray the West in reductionist and simplistic terms as culturally homogenous and undifferentiated, respectively either to be eschewed (for Slavophiles) or emulated (according to Westernizers).
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Both perspectives were largely secular, however, and one has to look to academic theologians of the time period for an explicitly Orthodox Russian understanding of the West that was nevertheless characterized by a debate that closely paralleled that between the Slavophiles and Westernizers.
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Much of this debate would turn on critiques, favourable or unfavourable, of the thoughts of Aleksei Khomiakov. For Khomiakov, the unilateral interpolation of the filioque into the creed had exemplified the defining characteristic of the West: a radically egotistical and individualistic world view that, in his view, explained Papal authoritarianism, Protestant dismissal of Tradition, and ultimately Western philosophical atheism. All this Khomiakov traced to a cultural imprinting contributed by and seemingly innate to a “Germanic” ethos dating from the barbarian conquest of the West.
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(Just as an aside, while widely discredited and ridiculed today, this kind of quasi-genetic ascription of inherent and immutable “national culture” to broad language groups with objectively little natural (as opposed to artificially and anachronistically-created) sense of shared identity was a staple of 19th century writers and nationalist ideology. It provided a sort of intellectual veneer to racist and imperialist views, and still has some currency, as we shall see in subsequent conference reports, amongst contemporary Orthodox thinkers as well as in extremist right-wing circles.
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Komiakov’s ascription of a “Germanic” ethos that would have pulled the West away from authentic Christian roots actually has a rather long pedigree. Traces of it can be found in the writings of usually anonymous 12th century Byzantine polemicists claiming that the West had been lost to heresy and become essentially Arian since the Gothic invasions. As this involves completely abstracting out Rome’s participation in the later ecumenical councils and its critical role in the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’, such notions require remarkably blinkered and bigoted historical amnesia. This hasn’t prevented more recent Orthodox thinkers like Romanides from subscribing to them, however. But back to Dr. Shevzov’s presentation…)
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According to Dr. Shevzov, Russian Orthodoxy’s anti-Latinism had been largely inherited. Her quote from Vassily Roznov bears repeating: “It was as if decaying and dying Byzantium whispered to Russia all of its vexations and bequeathed Russia to guard them. Russia, at the bedside of the departing one, gave its word, mortal enmity towards the Western tribes.”
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Yet this had to be set against the profound impact on Russia of post-Reformation Western intellectual and educational currents. Indeed, in the 19th century, most of Russia’s seminarians had received their education largely in Latin, and “progressive” Western influences continued to penetrate into Russian theology via Ukraine. Even Khomiakov’s work had to be translated into Russian after originally being published in French.
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A more sympathetic theological response was to accept from the West what was good and useful with the aim of enriching an Orthodox response to the modern world that was then emerging from the West. Traditional polemic literature continued to play a strong role, however. In particular, anti-Westernizers like Khomiakov stressed the role of “national culture” in facilitating (in Russia’s case) or hindering (in the West) a full or proper internalization of Christianity. According to Dr. Shevzov, this understanding has since become standard, and risks mutating in some Orthodox circles from being merely traditional to gaining the status of “Tradition” in the full sense.

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