Tall Timbers nature preserve, pictured above, includes partial old-growth hemlock woods, and lies in a patchwork of public and private lands and forest in our region of Northern Appalachia sometimes dubbed Penn Wilds and according to legend a haunt of Big Foot. Tall Timbers was home to the American nature writer and food forager Euell Gibbons. About 45 minutes from our Church, it has been a gathering place at times for our picnics, family outings, and my university seminars, lysing also near the family homesteads of deeply rooted local Orthodox friends and fellow converts to the Orthodox Church. In a corner of the countryside not far away, we are building a small Orthodox temple for our mission parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia here in Appalachia, in its Northern region, which has deep roots too in this ancient mountain range and river valley (the Susquehanna) but is less well known as a region than Southern Appalachia, despite some aspects of shared culture resistant to modern globalization.
The posts below offer chronicles and reflections on Orthodox Christianity in Northern Appalachia, articulating some approaches to Orthodox apologetics in America unworthily from a literary professor and former urban journalist, now Orthodox priest living in the region. In our state, Northern Appalachia is called “Pennsyltucky” disparagingly by outsiders and sometimes affectionately by those living here. It resonates with J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy and Flannery O’Connor’s idea of the “Christ-haunted South” but is still in the North, incorporating forests and farms and coal towns, Pennsylvania Dutch treats and pierogis, nationalist deplorables and cultural neo-Stuartism, along with a full-range mix of Northeastern politics. In upstate New York, the region reaches up into Yankee Leatherstocking Country juxtaposed with the Erie Canal. It unites the early American nature philosophy brainstormed in writings by James Fenimore and Susan Fenimore Cooper up there, and by Charles Peirce down in Milford, PA, in another Appalachian county. Their nineteenth-century works parallel some aspects of Russian Orthodox Christian ideas of nature, and the elder Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels were long a favorite reading cycle of Russians. But they are at odds with the Unitarian-progressive views of Joseph Priestley, earlier in our region, which became dominant in American life and helped inform its technocratic and exceptionalist bent. Although musings on this blog often run far afield, to Byzantium and back, they always return in the unworthy thought and life of the writer to northern Appalachia, in which he oddly finds echoes of aspects of his youth in working-class neighborhoods of “Chicagoland,” both outsiders to globalization.
But these reflections at the same time unworthily seek to shed light from Orthodox cosmology on the field of ecosemiotics, which developed mainly in Estonia in recent decades, and considers how the earth can be experienced as signs and relationships of meaning. That field draws on the work of Pierce, himself a convert from Unitarianism to Trinitarian Anglicanism, and relates to the foundational American nature-writing of the Coopers. The experience of nature as a kind of story-landscape is made explicable cosmologically and theologically by Orthodox Christian understanding that Creation occurred in Christ — for “in the beginning God made heaven and earth” (Genesis 1) and “in the beginning was the Word [Logos]” (John 1). The uncreated divine energies suffuse Creation, articulated by the logoi of the Logos, Christ our true God Who rose from the dead.
St. Cyprian of Carthage once wrote that those who would have God as a Father need to have the Church as their Mother. The Mother of God who bore Christ the Creator in His incarnation as fully God and fully man in her womb is identified with the Church as the Body of Christ, and we are told in St. John’s Revelation that “the earth helped the woman” understood in tradition as the Church (Chapter 12). It is as if there is some profound resistance in God’s Creation to the disembodied and totalitarian technocratic spirit of Antichrist in our age, against which we find our ultimate ark of safety, freedom, and justice in His One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church.
Join us in this Bible Study co-hosted by the Bucknell University Orthodox Christian community and St. John’s Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA. Video summaries follow below of our “live” Bible Studies usually held on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at the Bucknell University Barnes & Noble Bookstore Cafe (to confirm the schedule, please see stjohnthewonderworker.com). All are welcome regardless of background and no homework or previous knowledge is needed! (For video summaries of our earlier Bible Study, “Genesis and Job in the Orthodox Tradition,” please look here.)
Learn how the Church Fathers and Orthodox Tradition provide truths that go far deeply beyond the famous 1956 American film The Ten Commandments (which in many ways represented the high-water mark of what is called American “civil religion”), by drawing on Scripture and Tradition that date back across cultures and geography and generations to the days of Moses in the 16th century BC, accounts from more than 3,600 years ago, to find their fulfillment in our Lord’s Orthodox Church today. For biblical study we as Orthodox Christians turn to the holy elders, saints, and prophets of the Church, seeing in the Old Testament the prefiguring of the full realization of its accounts in our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ (still the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, “He Who Is”), and His Church as the new Israel, leading us out from the bondage of sin and death and freeing us from Pharaohs ancient and modern. We read the Bible both literally and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, symbolically, while we pray and struggle together to put into practice unworthily but with God’s grace what we learn.
As the Apostle Paul puts it: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:16). And the Holy Prophet Solomon: “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield unto them that put their trust in Him. Add thou not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6). To which St. John Chrysostom adds: “This is the cause of all evils: the ignorance of the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how ought we to come off safe?”
There is a lot of American Orthodox Christian activity online these days, especially via podcasts, of mixed quality, sometimes very helpful and sometimes problematic, often with a lot of energy. This year I’ve been interviewed unworthily by two podcasts interested in how an Orthodox clergyman functions as also a secular university professor, with thanks to both for the invitations. I was impressed fwiw with the thoughtfulness and strong faith of the young men interviewing their crazed guest on both podcasts. In both, the “front page” image for the interview also had interesting visual pairings of this sinful deacon–one with Orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher, one with psychologist Jordan Peterson. Though I respect both and it is honored to be pictured in their company, it is a likely indication that there could be trouble ahead. Lord have mercy! A special shoutout to my most recent interviewers, the new Light of the World Podcast, a production of Holy Trinity Publications at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, my spiritual home-away-from-home, hosted and produced by seminarians there. Godspeed, and Glory to God!
Here also are a couple other online video/interviews from the past few years by the great ROCOR Studies project, in which I unworthily tried to convey perspectives of an American convert to Orthodox Christianity. Thanks to Father Deacon Andrei Psarev, Ph.D., for these opportunities, glory to God!
Irish Orthodox Christian writer Paul Kingsnorth spoke to a class I co-taught in spring semester 2023 on “Technology and Freedom.” Here is a recording of his remote visit. Thanks to the Open Discourse Coalition for sponsoring his virtual appearance.
Stephen A. Schwarzman, the CEO of the Blackrock Group, a global investment group, wrote a memoir that includes his remembrances of growing up Jewish in an affluent Philadelphia suburb in the 1960s. He recalls it as a comfortable childhood in a predominantly Episcopalian community with few other Jewish families, and although at that time Pennsylvania state law required saying the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the public-school day, he didn’t mind. Then a family of Unitarians (my own childhood religious background) in his high school sued in protest of that requirement, in a case that was decided by an 8-1 Supreme Court decision in 1963 striking down that state law and prohibiting the requirement of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes from the Christian Gospels. This was one of the milestones in the deconstruction of the “soft establishment” of Christianity in the United States and the emergence of systemic secularism as a hallmark of the American system in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
This all struck me while leafing through a copy of Schwarzman’s 2019 book today at our local Ollie’s discount store (incidentally, I had the choice time-wise of dropping by either Ollie’s or a college-town independent bookstore this morning, and chose Ollie’s because of its religious book section, low prices, and eccentric collection and customers, of whom I am sometimes one since they used to carry the Orthodox Study Bible at discount prices in large quantities).
Nearby to Schwarzman’s book was a discounted copy of George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility, which former Nixon acolyte Hugh Hewitt praised as a “wonderful” “magnum opus.” The book includes a chapter on why the conservative sensibility ultimately should be secular rather than theistic.
Will’s career, which overlaps mine only in that we both incubated for a while amid the University of Illinois community in Champaign-Urbana, integrates well with establishment conservatism in the U.S. in the past couple generations. And praise from Hewitt (who was an aide to Nixon in his post-presidential exile and also directed for a time the Nixon Library) reflects, like his presidential mentor’s career, the limitations and paradoxes of that American conservatism as much as Will’s book. Hewitt as an observant Catholic who is mainly “in” the conservative establishment like Nixon (whose West-Coast Quakerism found common group with key Christian Scientist aides in his White House administration), in his endorsement of Will’s book, ultimately comes down on the side of the secularism that marks an undoing to the American republic. It stands at odds with the “soft establishment” that characterized Schwarzman’s Jewish youth in the United States decades ago, but is of a piece unintentionally with the sexual revolution and other developments that have led to deep cultural divisions within the U.S., and to “culture wars” in which those adhering to theistic traditions native to American culture are often decried as aggressors while the framework for “both sides” is set by a systemic secularism.
An Orthodox Christian Bishop in America recently stated that the minority of Orthodox Christians in the U.S. naturally have conservative tendencies, but that this is not enough, they must be traditional, which is something different. With that in mind, we can take into account briefly here a summary of Wills’ views as representing the conservative side of things, and then reflect also briefly on the differences between that a traditional Orthodox mindset that is of necessity theistic and more than that Trinitarian, and why that basic is essential to the American republic, even as conceived originally in a non-Orthodox heterodox Protestant context.
Wills’ chapter “Welcoming Whirl: Conservatism without Theism” offers a denunciation of Russell Kirk’s view of theism as necessary for American conservatism. “Regarding the question of our government’s logic, the idea of natural rights does not require a religious foundation, and the Founders did not uniformly think that it did,” Will writes. “It is, however, perhaps the case that natural rights are especially firmly grounded when they are rounded in religious doctrine. So religion is helpful and important, but is not essential” (p. 473). Will in the conclusion of the chapter writes of his supportive view of Shakespeare as a secularist (a view with which I personal as a professor of early literature do not agree), who believed “that the meaning of life does not derive from any source beyond itself,” approvingly writing of facing “the multifaceted human condition without reference to transcendence but also without immobilizing despair” (p. 511).
This could be taken as a creed of the conservativism that the afore-quoted Orthodox Bishop cited as not enough for the Orthodox Christian.
But it is also, I would add, insufficient for what Will claims.
For the American Declaration of Independence includes in its critical references to God the term “Providence,” that of a sustaining and governing power, which ultimately can be understood as theistic, not just a “watchmaker” Deistic view easily discarded for today’s American systemic secularism. When Abraham Lincoln linked the Declaration so firmly with the U.S. Constitution, and sealed by his Second Inaugural Address from shortly before his death on the Western Good Friday, he further highlighted America’s founding principles to theism. “All men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” is a theistic underpinning. Most Americans of the day, including most of the signers of the Declaration and Constitution, were theistic Christians, and the Constitution itself was signed under the date “in the year of our Lord.” Despite the Masons and Unitarians among them, most were Trinitarian Christians of a heterodox sort. Subsequently, America remained a predominantly Christian culture, whose “civil religion” evolved by the time of the Eisenhower administration in the Cold War into a sense of “Judaeo-Christian” heritage with school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance “under God,” and “In God we trust” on the currency. However much the “soft establishment” of foundational Protestantism has been struck down, mainly by court decisions by more recently by the Congressional so-called “Respect for Marriage Act,” it remains historically a foundational framework of the Republic, reflected in the balance of powers and checks-and-balances and limited federalism and Bill of Rights in the Constitution still being fought over legally and bureaucratically.
An Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) leader said at a meeting I attended at the Confederacy’s longhouse in the early 2000s that America had borrowed much of its Constitution from the Iroquois via Benjamin Franklin and others. But, he said, a major problem of the U.S. was the “separation of Church and State,” by which he meant the lack of a spiritual core to its system, which he characterized as borrowing mechanics but not spirituality from indigenous cultures. Yet the biblical spiritual basis of American remains shadowed in the founding documents and suggested in the republic’s history, however fragmented. The Orthodox Christian standpoint, going back to the long-lived Byzantine Republic (as historian Anthony Kaldellis has called it) of symphonia, the inter-relation of Church and State, provides the Christian realization of what is suggested in the foundations of the American system. That is symbolized in the double-headed eagle of distinct Church and State nevertheless related and serving as a kind of check-and-balance on one another. The West has tended to make the Church into the State and now State secularism has become a type of religion to the detriment of the virtue that even the Unitarian John Adams saw as essential to the survival of the republic, given that Unitarianism in his day was still somewhat closer to historical Christianity in the Protestant genealogy than it is today. His son John Quincy Adams specifically would call the virtue inherent in a Christian sense of marriage as inherently essential to the republic as well. Conservatives like George Will, swimming in their own modern American cultural goldfish bowl, cannot fully reach toward the traditional in a cross-cultural and cross-historical sense, and in this also provide only a limited mirror for a deeper sense of America as a country with Christian roots, however heterodox.
Archive of our community Bible Study during the 2022-2023 academic year on “Genesis and Job in Orthodox Christian Church Tradition,” held on 2:30 each Sunday at the Bucknell Barnes & Noble Cafe, 4th and Market Streets in downtown Lewisburg, PA. All are welcome! A video archive of summaries of our discussions follows below. Our motto is from St. John Chrysostom in the 4th century: “This is the cause of all evils: the ignorance of the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how ought we to come off safe?” Our prayer is to live in our lives what we learn from Holy Scripture under the guidance of the Church Fathers. May the Lord give us unworthily good strength and wisdom in this effort! Glory to God! For video summaries of our 2023-2024 Bible study on “Exodus and Isaiah in the Orthodox Christian Tradition, please see here.
Videos of the series below are posted in sequence, starting with an introduction to the study of Genesis in Orthodox tradition and chronography, and then our first conversation on Genesis 1 and beyond. Your video guide, drawing on conversations with the ensemble of our in-person Bible Study participants, Deacon Paul Siewers, Ph.D., unworthily strives to use for his own guide Orthodox Church Tradition including commentaries of the Fathers of the Church. He teaches the Bible as Literature course at Bucknell University, where he is on the Literary Studies faculty with a specialty in early literature and patristic connections. An ordained Deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, he holds a Diploma in Pastoral Theology from St. John of Kronstadt Orthodox Pastoral School, as well as an M.A. in Early British Studies (history, language, and literature) from the University of Wales, a Ph.D. in medieval English literature from the University of Illinois, an MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, and a BA in History from Brown; he also was Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton’s James Madison Program, 2018-2019. But Church Tradition and biblical commentary by those holy people experienced in the noetic life of the Church, not educational certification, are the gold standard for Bible study, which should be approached with prayer and struggle to practice the unfolding of God-given truth there. Prayers for beginning the study of Scripture can be found here.
A note on Translations: Genesis 26:32 in the Septuagint Greek text of the Orthodox Church notes that Isaac’s servants did “not” find water in digging the Well of the Oath (Beersheba). The Hebrew Masoretic text states that they “did” find water. However, the Orthodox Study Bible follows the Hebrew without noting the difference. St. Ambrose of Milan, an early Church writer, cited the Septuagint version in commentary indicating the spiritual meaning of the account of the wells in Genesis 26, referencing their names of Injustice, Enmity, Room Enough, and Oath. It perhaps could be taken as prophetic that the well marking the reconciliation of Abimelech of the Phllistines with Isaac would be dry, in light of future relations in the Old Testament between Isaac’s descendants and the Phillistines. The reference to oath for a dry well also could symbolize the ultimate inadequacy of human oaths and alliances, and the need for faith in God. The Fathers indicated also the relation of the role of wells in this section of Genesis symbolically to baptism, including the well at which God arranged the meeting between Abraham’s eldest servant with Rebekah to arrange the marriage of her with Isaac with her consent. The wells helped mark historically and symbolically the pilgrimage and sojourning of Abraham’s family and of his seed as leading to the establishment of the land in which our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ would be born, in the Incarnation of God as man.
I recently saw that Dumbarton Oaks at long last had re-issued its full English translation of The Periphyseon: The Division of Nature by John Scottus Eriugena, translated by I.P. Sheldon-Williams and John J. O’Meara (this occurred in 2020 but I just caught up with it). I have spent a fair amount of time with the older out-of-print version of that book, and Latin editions of the original, in my scholarship. Spellings and pronunciations of his name differ a bit in English but John Scottus Eriugena is not Duns Scotus as commonly confused. Rather, he is the ninth-century Hiberno-Latin philosopher who, according to later medieval tradition, exchanged puns at dinner with the Frankish King Charles the Bald, founded Oxford University, and was stabbed to death by the pens of his students.
In my 2017 thesis for a diploma in pastoral theology (linked below) from the St. John of Kronstadt Pastoral School of the Chicago Archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, drawing on my Eriugena research, I examined the question of whether Eriugena’s work had been treated fairly by modern scholars labeling it heretical (with the scholars being both favorable and unfavorable to that conclusion!), and how his work may or may not be considered by Orthodox Christians today as an Irish philosophical addendum to that of the Church Fathers of the first millennium
My conclusion: Eriugena’s work has been misunderstood in significant ways in the West, because of a lack of fuller understanding there historically of his heavy reliance on Greek Fathers, especially St. Maximus the Confessor, in his synthesis with Augustine’s writings, the latter also clouding the view of his work by some modern Orthodox scholars. While, given unknowns about his life, and ambiguities in his Latin, it is best not to call him a Church Father per se, nevertheless he can be seen as an early medieval Orthodox Christian philosopher, and his work as a kind of apologetic bridge today between Western heterodoxy and Orthodox Christianity as the latter spreads again in the West. In this sense, his writing as Orthodox philosophy is somewhat parallel (in a much earlier Western context) to philosophical writers such as S.L. Frank and Ivan Ilyin in 20th-century Russian Orthodox tradition.
In a newer publication, an essay forthcoming entitled “From Eriugena to Dostoevsky: Christian ‘Universalism’ in Hiberno-Latin Contexts and its Continued Significance,” I also take issue with what I see as the misuse of Eriugena by philosophers such as David Bentley Hart to support modern universalism. That newer essay is in proofs now for a collection entitled Sources of Knowledge: Studies in Old English and Anglo-Latin Literature in Honour of Charles D. Wright (Brepols, forthcoming, 2023).
My delight in that latter volume, as an outlet for recent insights from my Eriugena research a quarter century on, is that it honors a brilliant scholar of Anglo-Saxon and early Irish literatures, Charlie Wright, who also was such a kind and generous mentor to me in developing my interest in early Insular Christianity. My studies of early Irish and Welsh Christianity in particular with God’s grace contributed to my becoming unworthily an Orthodox Christian after years of wandering in the American religious wilderness. With that, my conversion involved also much needed penitential struggle, alongside finally finishing my reading of The Brothers Karamazov (represented in the above-mentioned forthcoming study, too). As a further literary note on that, when some years ago I literally ran into the translator of the edition of The Brothers Karamazov I had read, Richard Pevear, an Orthodox Christian, in a corridor on campus during a visit. I told him effusively that “oh your translation helped bring me into Orthodoxy.” “Oh,” he said, “I shall have to be more careful in future.”
Glory to God for all things!
John Scottus Eriugena in Context: Heretic or Last of the Western Church Fathers? — St. John of Kronstadt Pastoral School Thesis 2017
A paper given at a seminar on “The Egocentrism of Human Rights? A Reflection with Christos Yannaras on the Polis and Ecclesia” at Ohio State University Center for Bioethics, February 26, 7531 [March 11, 2023 on the civil calendar]
A year ago, faculty at my secular American university voted on a motion to adopt the so-called Chicago Principles of academic free-speech rights for our campus. They voted 191 to 31 to prevent any discussion at all on the free-speech measure and to require a super-majority to ever bring it back to the floor, a ritual slaying. Some of their critiques might echo parts of Christos Yannaras’ book The Inhuman Character of Human Rights. The leading opponents argued that the whole liberal idea of individual rights and any enforcement of ideas of open civil debate and discussion on campus were based on the global West’s systemically racist, and patriarchal- cisnormative model of the human subject, and thus wrong. In supporting the failed measure, I was thinking partly of the need to protect free-speech rights on behalf of people such as the Ethiopian Orthodox student who had withdrawn from the university because of the campus culture’s aggressive secularism. And my conservative Catholic student last year who did likewise. And a conservative Jewish colleague and friend who was pushed out of the Jewish Studies program she had founded because secular colleagues said her work on religious Jewish texts was too religious. And I could go on about such on-campus doings but won’t, because it is Lent. In supporting the free-speech measure I concluded that aspects of Christian tradition resonate with American founding documents in a duty to protect the dignity of others whose voices and lives otherwise could be lost. In Yannaras’ own terms, affirmation of rights tactically and strategically could protect a humanized element, in the case of higher education in the liberal arts tradition, reflective of Christian charity, anthropology, morals, and apologetics.
I would like to examine the paradox of defending a critique of rights in individualistic classical liberalism by those who vehemently oppose Christian faith, while also asserting the need of rights to Orthodox worship, practice, and teaching in secular societies. This argument will consist of three sections: 1. The issue of rights in relation to Christian belief in American tradition. 2. How Russian Orthodox philosophy in the past century provides additional insights into the issue of rights in the West. 3. How Orthodox models of family and marriage inform adaption of Orthodox ideas of personhood to secular contexts involving rights in America.
The issue of rights in relation to Christian belief in American tradition.
I’ll start by noting that the etymology of right and rights in English unpacks an older view of right as meaning a straightness, a righteousness if you will. This is similar to how biblical Greek uses terms in which right and justice are synonymous. It is also similar to how to “be free” in early English meant to be generous, with the terms for freedom and friendship sharing the same linguistic root. The volume The Rudder, a collection of Orthodox Church canons, in a lengthy Editor’s Foreword in its 1950s English translation put it this way: “…the Church is defined to be the community of men in faith founded upon the New Man and His rights” (referring to Christ as the New Man). I’ll argue here that the idea of rights reflected in the U.S. Constitution types this view to an extent when combined with Christian belief. When the Orthodox philosopher Christos Yannaras calls for religion with a socially based ontology to ground new Western humanization of the idea of individual rights, his critique partly shares ground with current critiques of Western and Eurocentric thinking in secular anti-racist and queer-gender political movements. But his critique looks to Orthodox Christian theology, anthropology, and cosmology, as the basis for the political philosophy he unfolds. Similarly, the idea of rights itself can be seen in America either in the secular sense he critiques, or in a Christian sense, which, although from heterodox culture, still can carry some weight for Orthodox Christians.
There are peculiar things about rights as defined in the American constitutional tradition that make that tradition the target of secularists. They may be symbolized by the very signatures on the Constitution. The U.S. Constitution unlike French Revolutionary or Soviet models ends with the signatory declaration, “In the Year of our Lord.” Abraham Lincoln, like many American leaders having ambiguous and non-Orthodox religious feelings, tending toward Unitarian theism and universalism, nonetheless had the King James Bible as one of three volumes always on his desk (the other two being the Complete Works of Shakespeare and what was at the time the one-volume book of U.S. federal statutes). His increasing engagement with Evangelical Protestant culture in America during the Civil War era recently has been documented by Joshua Zeitz in his book Lincoln’s God, which argues that Lincoln bridged the so-called separation of Church and State in the U.S. and forged a kind of civil religion based in heterodox Christianity that lasted nigh on a century. Its monuments can still be seen in places such as the Gettysburg National Park and Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the much-debased National (Episcopalian) Cathedral, and monuments expressing biblical faith in countless town squares across America. Lincoln’s oratory fused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence’s statements about God: All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, with the source of those rights in God, and those rights a synonym for dignities that require a duty of us to God and to our neighbor as members of a Christian republic. Then there are those odd and controversial provisions of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing free exercise of religion, and separation of powers, which reflect Classical ideas adapted by a predominantly Christian culture.
The Orthodox culture of duty to God as rights includes recognition of the rights of others in a godly way. This can link to a Christian reading of America’s founding documents, influenced by Classical ideas, with what the historian Anthony Kaldellis called the Byzantine Republic. Kaldellis argued that the Christian Roman Empire remained a republic in civil spirit and forms, and this would include the ancient sense of duties as rights. This too sets a model of sorts for rights as recognizing the dignity of others in the context of the American republic, however imperfect its Protestant civil religion. The latter however heterodox may still parallel pagan ideas offering nectar to be gathered by Christians to make honey, as suggested by St. Basil the Great.
2. How Russian Orthodox philosophy in the past century provides additional insights into the issue of rights in the West
Let us consider briefly also what Russian Christian perspectives offer. The notorious Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin critiques secular Western individualism and ideas of rights in his studies of Heidegger. Dugin, following a line of Russian Christian philosophy, says Heidegger highlights how the global West has falsely identified beings with Being, confused beings with ideas and Being, Western particularisms with universals, to shape a virtual sense of secular reality revolving around an illusion of individualism. He sees this crossing the spectrum of neoliberalism, fascism, and communism. Dugin’s work itself draws partly on earlier writings of Russian Christian philosophers from exile, as exemplified by Ivan Ilyin and S.L. Frank, both forced to leave Communist Russia after the Revolution.
Ilyin’s work drew on his extensive writings on Hegel and on what he called “legal consciousness.” He drew on Russian philosophical sensibilities informed by Orthodoxy to interpret Hegel’s dialectic as more intuitive and dialogic in nature than often read in the West. Ilyin did this through emphasis on Hegel’s focus on God and an expression of the concreteness of God and humanity in Hegel’s writing, somewhat paralleling development of what was called Sophiology in early twentieth century, but without the heretical ambiguities of Sophiology. The latter were pointed out by Marcus Plested recently and by St. John Maximovich in Ilyin’s time. Rather than dialectic being an ultimately interiorized process of rationalistic thought, Illyin emphasized it as melding with intuition in terms similar to the American philosopher Charles Peirce’s idea of abduction, in effect a merging of deduction and induction in the experiential hunch, so the dialectic becomes an embodied dialogic rather than the dialectical materialism of Marxist-Leninism. Epistemologically this incarnational dialogic or abduction also relates to Orthodox soteriological ideas of synergy, ecclesiological ideas of conciliarity in union with hierarchy, and the social principle of symphonia of Church and State.
Ilyin’s legal consciousness, with its intuitive dialogic sensibility, aligns too with the idea of sobornost current in Russian Christian philosophy of his day, while suggesting the identification of sobornost with Orthodox natural law. Sobornost is a term that developed from a root word used to translate catholic in the medieval Slavonic version of the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed. It has a meaning of deep spiritual unity and solidarity, a catholicity in the sense of both Creation and time as well as embodied anthropology, which goes beyond the Western spatial sense of catholicity, but more of a cosmological deep dive. It matches with the older sense of freedom mentioned earlier, aligned with friendship and generosity and self-emptying. In all this the idea of sobornost supports an Orthodox approach to rights as duty to God empowered by His grace, and, from that, duty to the dignity of one’s neighbors. As Ilyin noted in later writings, such duty in sobornost does not preclude the use of force against evil for the sake of sobornost, in defending others who are vulnerable and the community of the Church herself from evils such as Bolshevism. Ilyin indicated that such use of force must only be used discerningly in prayer in line with the canons of the Church, and with repentance and confession, and should not over-ride the need for individual love and forgiveness. The right of defense in this case, as Ilyin saw it, was in effect a community right, an application of sobornost in oikonomia.
There is a parallel between Ilyin’s approach and Dostoevsky’s keen sense of the limitations of the legal system explored in his greatest novels, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. We are all in part responsible for one another’s sins is a message in both. The legal actions featured in the stories are inadequate to comprehend this. Yet his novel Devils highlights in its satirical tone the question of why no one stopped the nihilist-anarchists before violence erupted, and the inadequacy of the official legal system. In The Brothers Karamazov it seems that illegal action may spirit away Dmitri who has been unfairly convicted, while Alyosha expresses penitence for not having prevented the murder of his father even as he doesn’t fully understand at the time the actual mechanism of the killing. In Crime and Punishment the horrible violence of Raskolnikov itself forms part of his story of repentance and rebirth. In Dostoevsky’s greatest works, rights are realized in duties for others that yet may in Ilyin’s terms require resisting evil by force, shadowing or bringing forth deeper providential plans.
Ilyin wrote: “One who has lived under the burden of a totalitarian regime and terror; who has thought over the essence of material inequality and understood the regular connection between the sizes of the harvests in a country and the quantity of crimes against property; who is acquainted with the essence of the previous Russian suit for divorce; who has been in a convict prison and has heard the rattling of chains on human beings; who knows what corporal punishment is, and has had contact with a person condemned to capital punishment; who saw all that and understood that it is also carried out in accordance with law—such an individual possesses sufficient psychic motives to no longer trust in a single formulation of the problem of the spiritual justification of law.” (148–49)
The late Herman Engelhardt of blessed memory called natural law in Orthodoxy, glossing the words of St. Basil the Great, the spark of divine law within the human heart. Ilyin wrote that “Law in its original, “natural” sense is nothing other than a necessary form of the spiritual being of a human. It indicates that order of equal, free self-sufficiency of each in which alone spiritual life is possible on earth. From this it follows that law in this sense could be extinguished or become unnecessary only if the basic mode of human existence were to change, that is, if humanity ceased to be a multiplicity of self-sufficient subjects, united by a shared basis of external life.” (158)
The Greek term logos has a range of meanings in English that include principle, in a sense law, as well as harmony. As St. Maximos the Confessor wrote of the logoi of the Logos, or the Words of the Word, both constituting and redeeming man, so too we can think of the laws of the Law, the Logos. It is ultimately the law of love involved in this, as Professor Engelhardt’s articulation suggests, in which the Great Commandments of the Gospel are of course to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself.
Dovetailing with the ethos of both Dostoevsky and Ilyin, the Russian exile philosopher S.L. Frank developed a social philosophy based on the idea of sobornost, which he put in a tension or balance with obschestvennost. The Frank defined as the mechanistic and individualistic sense of life. It was an organizational sense of life if sobornost was organic as in the body of Christ. Yet it seems to be for Frank an inevitable aspect of human life, the whole system of what might be called the state yet incorporating what in America would be called the private sector too, but one of the twin heads of the double-headed eagle of Orthodox symphonia, the other being the Church. The balance between sobornost and obchshestvennost in his view must be symbiotic and synergetic and embodied. It requires a sense of rights akin to Peirce’s abduction and based on the Gospel’s Great Commandments, not John Locke’s so-called Locke box of individual interiority.
For Frank, it is the traumatic uprooting of his life from Russia that highlights both the difference between sobornost and obschestvennost and the necessity for an overlay of the two for a meaningful life and survival spiritually in the modern world. It is that awareness of the separation of worldliness from home, mingled with a spiritual sense of home that is always present, that for him seems to form the basis of rights. Living in such an overlay landscape with a spiritual dimension, through Christ, involves for Frank what might be called allegiance to the Kingdom of God. Now sobornost as mentioned is deeper than the Western sense of spatial universality and partaking in the Greek sense of communion as koinonia, for the root is related to council or sobor and cathedral, the seat of the bishop where the faithful gather. The Book of Revelation says that in the Kingdom of God believers will be kings and priests unto God, but in the Gospel there is also a sense that our relationship with God’s kingdom is that of servants or slaves as well as through Christ friends of God. We are also termed in the Church members of the body of Christ. Right here is in sobornost a harmonization with God rather than again an assertion of self, while again involving a duty within that harmonization to protect others.
3. How Orthodox models of family and marriage inform adaption of Orthodox ideas of personhood to secular contexts involving rights in America
The filioque was taken as a marker by the psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva of individualism in the modern West. For her the filioque marked a confusion of the Father and the Son in a greater individualism that instrumentalized the Holy Spirit. As Orthodox we don’t see psychological analogies as correct in explaining the Trinity, but she saw the change of the filioque as reflecting human cultural psychology. In that view, the cultural sense of self not marked by the filioque was more the permeable or porous self of Charles Taylor’s philosophy, and the sense of self with the filioque was more what Taylor has called the buffered or distanced self of modernity. In hyper-individualization, as the psychoanalytic scholar and practitioner Matias Desmet notes, the process of what Hannah Arendt characterized as mass formation accelerates. A kind of atomization and isolation easily lends itself to re-formation into group identities that leads toward totalitarian culture, or what Zuboff describes as its new form as instrumentarianism, that is the use of everyone as instrumental to the technological system.
But in Orthodox terms, to conclude, the family and cosmic symbolism of marriage illustrate the application of an Orthodox Christian sense of rights to rights as understood in American political tradition. The idea of the family as a little Church and also a little kingdom, overlapping the spiritual and civic worlds, is a familiar trope in Orthodox culture. The deeper cosmic symbolism of marriage is seen in the symbolic understanding of Christ as Bride and Church as Bridegroom. To have God as Father, one must have the Church as Mother, as a familiar saying goes. The reciprocity inherent in Orthodox marriage as between one man and one woman is a mutual sacrifice that is both hierarchical and conciliar, and which exemplifies and personifies sobornost.
The early American President John Quincy Adams pointed to virtuous marriage as the basis of the constitutional republic. He wrote that “the social compact, or body politic, founded upon the laws of Nature and of God, physical, moral, and intellectual, necessarily pre-supposes a permanent family compact formed by the will of the man, and the consent of the woman, and that by the same laws of Nature, and of God, in the formation of the Social Compact, the will or vote of every family must be given by its head, the husband and father.” His father the founder and President John Adams noted, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Freedom as the basis for rights in the Christian republic must be, as SL Frank wrote, voluntary service to the truth, the truth being wholly realized in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. But today the Orthodox Church as a minority in the West faces a parallel threat to that typed by the experience of heterodox American Protestant founders, namely that of theological and ascetic dissipation from within. The assertion of rights in the modern Western secular sense of self-assertion is at the doors of Orthodoxy in America in the form of academics claiming to act within the Church asserting the rights of sexual identities. We see this in a few academic publications in recent months and in a forthcoming one. The methods and often the axioms and tone and style of these efforts reflect an attempted Americanization of Orthodoxy, often led by assimilated Orthodox Christians from historical ethnic backgrounds. Ironically they accuse their critics of being too Americanized by engaging in culture wars instead of affirming individual rights. The identification of politics with cultural difference is a frequent error or strategy of those seeing identity in secularized and materialistic terms. As St. Gregory the Great noted, it is the best intentions and efforts of Job’s friends, sometimes speaking truth while abusing him who is like the Church, that betray how they operate like heretics. Likewise, the increasing turning of Protestant and Catholic churches to pansexualism and self-objectification and individualization of sexual passions is a greater threat of heresy than materialism. For those looking to American heterodox religious cultural examples in a negative inversion of cultural apologetics would attempt to use them to disarm and pervert the Orthodox mission here.
Yet we also can as Orthodox Christians and must accept the biblical call to recognize the dignity of the other, as the Holy Apostle Paul did in the case of Saint Onesimus the slave in his epistle to Philemon. This is not only a haunting of the land by Christ in poetic terms, but, as Ivan Ilyin wrote a call for action grounded in the Holy Tradition of the Church and Scripture. When protecting the dignity of others even unto force as a duty, Ilyin described the paradoxical position of the hero as: “he [who] is not righteous, but right” (5:208). That perhaps expresses the limits of American traditional rights within an Orthodox context as well as the Venn diagram in practice. Ethically for Ilyin, human life, is tragic, requiring endurance and brave acceptance of a mission at times unrighteous in the sense of forcefully standing up for the dignity of others. Ilyin writes: “A person who has smothered the image of God in himself, does not stand in need of a weak-willed, sympathetic ‘Yes,’ but of a severe, condemnatory ‘No,’ and this ‘No’ that restrains him and brings him to his senses can and ought to have, as its genuine source, love for God in heaven and for the Divine in our fallen and spiritually extinguished soul.” This protects the Church, Christian culture, the vulnerable including especially children, and the sinner himself, but Ilyin notes this must always be done in any physical sense as a last resort with penitential trepidation, and not to try to force love or spiritual growth, but rather as a protection to others.