Sunday, May 3, 2009

St Nikolaj on Harnack and Tolstoy

Today the Russian Orthodox Church also celebrates the memory of the Holy Hierarch Nikolaj (Velimirović) of Ohrid and Ziča (+1956), who was Glorified by the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2003. (Today's feast is in commemoration of the translation of his sacred relics from the United States to Serbia in 1991; the Serbian Church celebrates his memory both today and on the anniversary of his repose, March 5/18.) In his memory I offer an "encore presentation" of a post that originally appeared here on February 7, 2008, under the title Harnack, the Petrified Church, and Drama:

From St Nikolaj Velimirovic's little known lecture, "The Religious Spirit of the Slavs," delivered in England during Lent, 1916, in the middle of the First World War:
The "Petrified" Church. So Professor Harnack from Berlin called the Orthodox Church of the East. I know his reasons for that very well. Comparing the unchangeable image of Christ, fixed in the East once for all, with the confusing thousand opinions of Christ in Protestant Germany, he was quite justified in calling our Church by a striking name, so differentiating her from his own. I am glad that he invented the name "petrified." With the proud spirit of a Protestant scientist, I wonder why He did not invent a worse name for Eastern Orthodoxy. I wonder much more that Professor Harnack, one of the chief representatives of German Christianity, omitted to see how every hollow that he and his colleagues made in traditional Christianity in Germany was at once filled with the all-conquering Nietzscheanism. And I wonder, lastly, whether he is now aware that in the nineteen hundred and fourteenth year of our Lord, when he and other destroyers of the Bible, who proclaimed Christ a dreamy maniac, clothed Christianity in rags, Nietzscheanism grew up the real religion of the German race.

What is the fact about the "petrified" Church? If "petrified" means intact, or whole, or undestroyed or living always in the same dress, but still living, then the famous Professor may be right. Yet this petrified Church has always come victorious out of any test to which she has been put. The Christian Church is always on trial, and I think she is never so much Christian as when she is being tested. She does not shine or develop or make progress otherwise than through hard tests. Christianity is founded upon a drama and not upon a science; therefore its growth and development are dramatic and not scientific. Let us take an example. Eastern Orthodoxy was put to the test for centuries to fight for its existence and its ideals against the ruling Islam. Roman Catholicism was put to a similar test in Spain. German Protestantism was put to the test of German science. What happened? Islam was defeated in Russia and in the Balkans, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. The epoch of the catacombs and the bloody days of Nero and Diocletian have been repeated once more in the Balkans, in Russia, and are still being experienced in Armenia and Asia Minor. The killed and martyred kings, princes, bishops, priests and laymen from these countries will not be ashamed before the martyrs from the Coliseum. Orthodox Christianity stood the test very well. It saved itself; it gave the inspiration for resistance; it showed itself superior even afterwards when the enslaved countries were liberated. Holy Russia counts her greatness from the time when she got rid of Islam. During the five years of their freedom Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria built more than the Turks built during 500 years of Turkish rule.

Roman Catholicism in Spain came through its test very badly. Before the Islamic invasion, and after it for a long time, the Christian population showed itself inferior to the Moors, in work, in justice, in progress. But to the honour of Roman Catholicism I must say that it stood the test very well in Croatia and in Hungary in its struggle against Islam. German cathedral Protestantism failed in its test. It is destroyed as a religion, it exists only as an archival science. It ceased to be what Christianity really sought to be--a drama; it is transformed into an indifferent scientific medium for reading, exploring, classifying, comparing, criticising. It is no more a living, dramatic being--no more the serving, ruling and suffering Christ. There is very little heroic or divine in it!
Christianity is founded upon a drama and not upon a science. What does St Nikolaj mean by this? Here is his definition of Christian world-drama:
Life is a drama, a tragic drama even, and not at all a metaphysical immobility or a quasi-mobility, or even an eternal circulus viciosus. There are three stages of human life: the first stage before the sin, in God-like naïveté, the second in sin, and the third after the atonement, life in perfection, when there will be "a new earth and a new heaven." We are in the middle stage, where life means sin and atonement, therefore in the most tragic stage. Life in the first and third stages may consist entirely in contemplation, but the life which we are actually living consists of deeds, of sins and virtues, i.e., of the struggle between good and evil, of suffering and purification, of a tragic heroism, of atonement.
St Nikolaj contrasts this Christian drama with that of Tolstoy, who "perceived life as a circle, with the beginning everywhere and with the end everywhere." This allowed Tolstoy a moral and historical radicalism: all that isn't needed can simply be tossed off along the way, and soon we'll be back in touch with nature.

Bishop Nicolaj continues, imagining the worlds of the Russian Church Synod's reply to Tolsoy:
The Holy Synod, from their point of view, thought that the past is the very foundation of the present and future, and that in separating us from the past we were as an uprooted plant, condemned to inevitable death, while in continuing the world-drama we are going the only possible way. The beginning of sin in this drama is in Adam, the beginning of salvation is in Christ. We cannot live without taking notice even of the life of Adam and without connecting our life with Christ's. And all the other millions of human beings between those two milestones, between Adam and Christ, and Christ and us, are greater or smaller foundations, or conditions, or even disturbances of our own life.
We Christians, then, live as participants in a drama of which the opening act was Adam's fall into sin, continues with Christ's Passion and the ongoing battle between Christ and Satan (in which time we all live), and will conclude with God's final victory and the fullness of man's salvation and deification. In its historical trials the Orthodox Church has emerged victorious through its fidelity to the unchanging Truth of Christ preserved in our "petrified" Church. The attempt to separate oneself from one's past and tradition removes one from God, from one's fellow men, and from that historic drama of which Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. Something else will take that place: and the name we have for one who takes the place of Christ is the Anti-Christ. Philosophical and religious radicals attempt to derail this drama, with the hopes that they can return to the very beginning, where everything will be right and true. The lazy, ignorant, passionate, and pragmatic know neither past nor future, preferring the here and now. Academic theologians perform a vivisection on Christian belief, gaining much knowledge, while killing it all the while. We each have our place in this drama, a place not only in a metaphysical or spiritual sense, but in a location, within a community, with one's family, friends, workplace, and parish or monastery. The desire to escape these communities and conventions is often at root a desire to break free from the Divine drama, in the naive hope that there is no evil, that there is no God or judgment. We are, as Fr Justin Popovic put it, condemned to eternity. Fortunately, we have our dear Petrified Church to provide us with stability and strength in the face of the storms the world, the devil, and the flesh throw at us.

One can easily find something of a parallel in modern political thought, with one camp recognizing the fallenness of humanity and therefore perferring to act prudently within tradition, and the other insisting that humanity can and must be changed by radically altering the state and economic policies.

Let's conclude with St Nikolaj's poetic synopsis of the argument between Tolstoy and the Synod of the Russian Church:
"My understanding is against your traditions," said Tolstoi.

"Our traditions are against your understandings," replied the Holy Synod.


Edward Wolff said...

What does St. Nikolaj mean by "metaphysical immobility"?

Felix Culpa said...

In this passage he seems to use the term simply as one of three contrasts to his model of a three-act Christian "tragic drama." History is not static ("metaphysical immobility"), nor is it semi-static ("quasi-mobility"), nor is it circular ("circulus viciosus") -- but rather dynamic, moving from incorruption, to corruption, to atonement and redemption.