Sobornost in the Orthodox Church and Rights in Today’s Virtual Global West

(Above) John Locke, top, and Ivan Ilyin

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partly of the need to protect free-speech rights on behalf of people such as the Ethiopian Orthodox student who had withdrawn from the university because of the campus culture’s aggressive secularism.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.

  1. 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.


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