Late Modernity, Time, and Orthodoxy

by Efstathios Kessareas | български  | ქართული |  Ελληνικά | Русский | Српски

The rhythm of the contemporary world is frenetic. The escalator, once a symbol of progress, cannot anymore serve the needs of modern humans, who are always in a hurry. Not only work but also personal life is structured according to the new tenet: “speed is everything.” “In a world where everything is moving so rapidly, simply being fast isn’t enough; you have to be faster than anyone and everyone. Accelerate until you’re at the front and move fast to stay there”—in the words of an entrepreneur in digital marketing. But high speed is not merely a means for accomplishing the goals of productivity and personal happiness, both evaluated in terms of success and innovation; it has become the ultimate “objective” reality: you “really” exist as long as you fully experience the worldly culture of acceleration (see Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity).

This intense rhythm continues despite the COVID-19 pandemic, greatly affecting even existential conditions such as love and death. Crisis itself ceases to constitute a sudden rupture of a fixed way of life; rather, it emerges as the “new normal,” as people become adjusted to a variety of continuous crises that happen very quickly.

Sociologically speaking, time is a social and cultural phenomenon. Despite the common ways to measure time, individuals and social groups experience time differently. For instance, a shepherd in the White Mountains of Crete feels time passing more slowly than a virologist due to the different characteristics of their occupations and living places: on the one hand, the outside, high and open area of mountains, and on the other hand, the interior environment of the research laboratory of the city. However, such antitheses are not absolute; the general ideological and structural transformations of contemporary market capitalism (e.g., individualism, globalization, advanced communication technologies) promote further the worldly spirit of acceleration not only within Western societies, but also globally. To return to the previous example: Even the shepherd (especially when belonging to a younger generation) can have today a smartphone in the mountains while taking care of his/her flock.  

How does this culture of acceleration affect Orthodox Christianity? Can or should Orthodoxy follow this rhythm of life, even if this is the modern path to transmit its own message? Can this happen without having an impact on the “eternal” (in a Durkheimian sense) nature of the sacred? What is at stake here are the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the present social order and its response to the ever-increasing calls for change? Without ignoring the differences between the various theological currents of Orthodoxy (e.g., an activist, socially transformative vs. inward-oriented, mystical one—see my work here), it is undeniable that Orthodoxy has a distinctive spiritual character, evident in its mystical theology, ascetical practice, and in the liturgical atmosphere of the Eucharist. This context cultivates a particular spiritual time-sense as an eternal presence of the whole community (God and the faithful, both deceased and living), which experiences mystically, “here and now,” both the past and future dimensions of time; for instance, as a remembrance of the holy events of the past and as a foretaste of the eschaton. But, for the accomplishment of this spiritual experience, a state of quiescence and inner calm is a sine qua non. In sharp contrast to the contemporary culture of high speed, from the standpoint of Orthodoxy, it is a sense of inner stillness that can fully open the psyche to God and thus the road to salvation. Seen in this light, the frenetic rhythm of everyday life is deemed an obstacle or even a diabolic temptation that distracts attention and alienates the believer from God. Besides, according to a modern Greek saying, “και αύριο μέρα είναι” (tomorrow is also a day), so why to speed up? From the opposite standpoint of the spirit of acceleration, this is an unforgivable attitude of procrastination caused by laziness or inability to fulfill career goals. The entrepreneur of our initial paradigm would not espouse the following religious behavior:

As much as the heart remains unperturbed by the distraction of the worldly affairs, so the mind understands and admires the concepts of the Divine things  (St Epiphanius of Salamis).

With the faith, the avoidance of human beings and the aversion to worldly knowledge, do we reach the state of heart purity, and as a result we taste the Grace and Joy of the Holy Spirit  (St Isaac the Syrian).

Translation mine; Greek excerpts available here

Of course, the neccesities of the worldly life impose a number of necessary compromises. But while it is easier for the Church to adopt elements that are associated with the external reality (e.g., technological ones), the difficulty remains for ideas and practices that may provoke (even unintentionally) a change to its core theological beliefs, and by this way alter its structure and identity. Here three roads can be opened, understood in ideal-typical terms.

The first is the defensive response of fundamentalism: an outright negation of change, because it is perceived as a diabolic threat to the “genuine” Orthodoxy. As the latter is seen as a refuge from the secular world, the desired attitude is a “full steam backwards” movement, namely an imperative return to the core beliefs, values and practices of Orthodoxy (see this article). Thus, the speed here is accepted only if it has an opposite direction towards an idealized (quiet and peaceful) past.

The second road is the one offered by the secularists, who hold to a rational morality: rapid implementation of a broad program of reforms aimed at modernizing the Orthodox Church, so as the latter should not hinder the desired progress that will bring the brilliant future faster. Contrary to common belief and despite their obvious antithesis, these two “roads” converge in their absoluteness and in the idealization of their preferred temporal orientation. The clear responses to the problem of the relationship of Orthodoxy to the world, namely wholesale negation of the values of the present order (fundamentalism) vs. absolute identification with the world (worldliness) are extremely difficult to be fulfilled.

Between these two choices stands the intermediate road of a critical acceptance both of tradition and modernity, which is in fact suggested within the current broad post-modern and post-secular movement. This middle-ground solution is presented as reconciliation between faith and history. However, it satisfies neither the fundamentalists nor the secularists. The first reject it with the accusation of being heretical, for instance a Protestant distortion of the ascetic and hesychastic tradition of Orthodoxy; the second on the ground of being too timid in the promotion of the required reform agenda and too concessive to the demands of the past. The proponents of the third road also face an internal obstacle: as they are much divided, they have a difficulty in agreeing on where to draw the line, so as to create a balance between the demands of the other two currents. Overall, this is the attitude of a new, well-educated Orthodox intellectual generation with an open international agenda. These Orthodox intellectuals adopt a reflexive and critical attitude towards the past (e.g., accept the “theology of the person,” but reject various forms of Orthodox nationalism), support the values of democracy, civil society, and multiculturalism as well as ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Perhaps the chances of implementing their own vision concerning the church organization and its relation to the world depends on their ability to develop a working alliance either with the ultra-conservatives or the secularists, depending on the issue at stake in public dialogue. But if that is the case, one thing is for sure: this alliance can only have a temporal character, for the contradictions between all these currents are inherent.

Efstathios Kessareas is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Faculty of Philosophy (Department of Religious Studies – Chair of Orthodox Christianity) of the University of Erfurt, Germany. This paper is part of the research project “The Challenge of Worldliness to Contemporary Christianity: Orthodox Christian Perspectives in Dialogue with Western Christianity.”