Secularization, Multiple Modernities, and the Contemporary Challenge of “Multiple Orthodoxies”

by Fr. Dragos Herescu

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

“Have you secularized?”

That was the question that I was asked, regularly and over the course of many years, by friends and colleagues every time I was travelling back in Romania from the UK. It became such a refrain of my hometown visits that at some point it turned into a sort of running joke.

Although the question was always coated in a lighthearted banter gloss, it was never just that and always rang contrarily to the nagging teasing of old mates people love to complain about. To me it had the markings of a litmus test. People who had known me for a long time, who had been educated together with me, whose theological, moral and self-understating as Orthodox individuals I shared (or thought that I did), felt compelled to administer this kind of litmus test to me.

I have always resented the overt but mainly the covert implications of that question. The overt meaning being that I have been “Westernized,” or that I have allowed myself to be Westernized (whatever that means!): typically that I have acquired a Western, modern mindset—a Western worldview. The covert implication—at least how I have always perceived it—is much more insidious. “Have you secularized?” meant “Are you still Orthodox?” / or, better said, “Are you still Orthodox as we are?” It carried with it the suspicion that I was not, or that I was on a path that would eventually lead me there. While at first, and for a good while after, the question hurt on a personal level—because it was simply not true—it occurred to me that this question was more a litmus test that my friends were administering to themselves—to test the Orthodoxy of their own Orthodoxy on me!

The walk down memory lane aside, the “Have you secularized?” question and what is implied by it speak to the core of the difficulty that we have today in Orthodoxy when dealing with uneasy situations or topics, from fasting regulations to ecumenism, from human rights to pluralism, all the way to sexual and gender issues.

This suspicion of the secularization of consciousness is levied, implicitly or explicitly, particularly at the Orthodox whose background, whether social or educational, includes some connection with Western modernity. It is usually these Orthodox that tend to want to revisit, in what is perceived as a liberal or non-traditional way, any of the issues listed above. This conference, stemming from a “transatlantic Orthodox cooperation,” is a case in point.

The question that then arises is “why?” Why do these Orthodox tend to ask a different set of questions vis-à-vis these difficult issues? The hermeneutics of suspicion approach would follow the secularization of consciousness line, i.e., that the Orthodoxy of their beliefs and their reference points have been affected, diluted, changed by the Western ocean of secularization and pluralism in which these Orthodox live. It would be false to say that our Western context bears no influence on our faith. But the reality is that, far from diluting the faith, a context of established, mature, multi-layered secularization and a culture of pluralism usually serve to sharpen one’s Orthodoxy. This has been my experience both as a priest and before my ordination, but also as a researcher. In fact, the only constant that I have seen is that the Western secular context will dilute the faith commitment and Orthodoxy of those who already had a “fuzzy fidelity,” to use an expression coined by David Voas.[1]

Another answer to the question may be that the impetus to tackle difficult questions and faithfully seek contextually-valid answers is a critical part of the condition of the Orthodox living as a minority. We are so used to defining Orthodoxy along ethnic and land-locked identities (Russian, Greek, Romanian, Serbian etc.) that we tend to ignore the reality that late 20th – early 21st century Orthodoxy has already developed a significant minority-majority approach running through it—and it feels to me that the difference between these approaches is only growing wider.

There are already differences between the different Orthodox countries or churches in their approach to sensitive issues (e.g., the Romania abortion paper by the patriarchate vs. the 2008 Russian document on the ROC’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity Freedom and Rights), but the reality is that, as much as we experience what Shmuel Eisenstadt defined as multiple modernities, we also experience multiple Orthodoxies—of minority and majority. To re-appropriate an axiom used by David Martin,[2] we are currently experiencing the tension between portable and land-locked Orthodoxy, i.e., between those for whom Orthodoxy is a universal, mobile, voluntary religion ready and able to wrestle with any and every question and those for whom Orthodoxy is mediated by ethnicity, place, and custom. It is, to echo something that Peter Berger pointed to, the tension created by an Orthodoxy that has “moved from taken-for-granted-ness to the possibility of choices.”[3]

All of this, of course, has to do with the answer to the question: What does it mean to be Orthodox today and here? What informs the question – or indeed the very need of asking or not asking it – lies at the core of this tension. For my old colleagues worried about my secularization, it is the idea that we have a constant, which is Orthodoxy, and that, regardless of the socio-cultural changes around it, Orthodoxy remains the absolute constant—or better said, that in order to remain “Orthodoxy” it has to resist these changes—to witness against them as it were.

This is predicated on the fact that historically and sociologically, Orthodoxy has mostly been exposed to religiously homogeneous contexts and / or “controlled pluralism” contexts: think of Greece, Romania, Russia, etc.

But now, 30 years after the fall of communism, if we look at the motherland Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe, we are in a situation where the controlled pluralism of the communists is no more and, while Orthodoxy remains the dominant religious affiliation, it can hardly be claimed that we are looking at a “religiously homogeneous context” even in Easter Europe. With the exception of Russia, all Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe are either members of the EU or aspiring to becomes members. Although each in its own way is uniquely European and modern, these countries are significantly changed and different from the 1990s.

Equally, there is now a whole generation for whom the communist period is something that people learn about at school and who keenly identify as European, mobile, free and so on.[4] This is the generation that is the least religiously observant, or religious in a different way than their parents or grandparents. This is also the generation that has questions and problems that are of a more “European,” “secularized” nature. It is also the generation that, owing to globalization and migration patterns in the last 30 years, has experienced Western modernity and pluralism first-hand.

So, while we are looking at a picture of multiple modernities, we would be closer to the facts to say that we are in fact looking at a picture of simultaneous modernities. What I mean by that is that people, but especially young people—and perhaps this applies even more to those in the LGBT community—experience both the specific conditions of modernity of their own (Orthodox) context and that of the Western context. This has consequences for the hermeneutical key and relevance of the Orthodox Church in relation to these groups and to the young generation in general.

The reality of the young generations being exposed to simultaneous modernities creates a huge hermeneutical challenge for the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe and Russia. This is related to what Charles Taylor referred to as the “change in the conditions of belief” on a societal grand scale and validates the sociological axiom that “changes in society trigger changes in the religion.” In secularization terms, this translates to “the declining social importance of religion, the number of people who take it seriously and how seriously anyone takes it.”[5]

In traditionally Orthodox countries and in similar Western Orthodox communities, this change usually results in a defensive attitude and a hardening of discourse and attitudes. Sometimes no stranger to violence, the defensive attitude is grounded on the fact that the pluralism and modernity generically associated with human rights and crystallized by the LGBT and gender issues are felt to be a Western construct being imported or forced on them. They are, as it were, the latest in a long line of “secular western imports,” like liberal democracy, EU regulations, consumerism, etc. In addition to that, the conversation about human rights and especially LGBT rights is perceived as being in some sense rooted in a “western culture of subjectivity,” which goes against the more uniform, traditional, and homogeneously-communitarian drive that the psyche of these societies is geared towards. The “imports” help produces a culture of subjectivity which erodes and fragments the old canopy of shared meaning and narrative.

It is important to keep these things in mind, because in the West, all of these have been the result of a long process of emancipation and development and represent responses to historical changes that the East did not experience in the same way. This progressive, organic development is missing in the Orthodox socio-cultural context.

But this does highlight the fact that, overall, the Orthodox Church is struggling to find ways to be hermeneutically relevant in relation to how society is moving. The way forward is not by changing doctrine (which is what is usually being claimed as the “unholy sacrifice” that some Western Orthodox theologians are prepared to do) but by asking new contextual questions—which implies a degree of openness, vulnerability, and repentance. The challenge for the Church is to be a relevant part of the evolving social collective religious memory. This memory is formed by the dialogue between the ecclesial community and society. Secularization is aided from within the Church when the Church fails to maintain that dialogical memory coherent and fresh and in tune with society.

There are two recent examples I can offer that may help illustrate the point here.

The first one comes from Romania in the shape of the 2018 Referendum on the Family (6-8 Oct. 2018), which was heavily endorsed by the Orthodox Church and supported by all the other churches and recognized denominations in Romania. It was a spectacular failure—or “an incomplete success,” as it was described in a press release by the Church. On the one hand, it was a cold reality check for the Church; on the other; it was a perfect litmus test about the relationship between human rights, modernity, and Orthodoxy in Romania.

The aim of the referendum was to change the definition of the family in the Article 48 of the Romanian Constitution, which defines the family as being founded on the free-willed marriage “between spouses.” The proposed amendment was to make it clear that marriage is between a man and a woman. So, this move from the gender-neutral formula was seen as a way to prevent, further down the line, same sex marriage. Turnout was only 21.1%, below the 30% threshold, so the result was invalidated. However, of the participants, over 90% approved of the proposed change.

Without wading into the very controversial territory of this referendum, I think that its failure signals a real crisis of hermeneutical relevance of the Orthodox Church in Romania and a failure of its nurturing of an Orthodox social collective memory. It was the echo-chamber result that comes as a surprise only for those within.

The other example is more generic. It highlights that most applications to the European Court of Human Rights consistently come from countries with high religiosity, with Orthodox countries ranking high in that list. The data is easily available on the Court’s website. Among a significant backlog, the high number of applications is indicative of both an endemic problem with respecting human rights and a growing awareness and culture about human rights in these countries. The Church does not seem to take notice that such a high number of people feel that they have a case and have not been heard properly in their own country—which leads to the damming observation that the most issues with respecting the dignity of the human person are present in Orthodox countries!

Many voices, of both Church leaders and researchers, see pluralism—or the condition of pluralism brought about by modernity and the process of secularization—as the main issue for Orthodoxy today, whether in Eastern Europe or Russia, or in the US and Western Europe. For an established faith context, dealing with a plurality of perspectives, options, and competing (faith) narratives can feel like an assault. It will elicit a defensive, externally critical reaction. However, in an unhealthy way, Orthodoxy seems to match this with an equivalent internally uncritical reaction. The more Orthodoxy feels that it has to defend itself from a perceived external threat, like pluralism, the more it seems (nowadays at least) to develop a blind spot towards the possibility of plurality within.

In the context of secularization, pluralism and multiple modernities, it is essential to rediscover the Church as a hospital, not a tribunal—especially in connection to sensitive and difficult issues that affect individuals and communities. Currently, it seems to me that the Orthodox Church favors being a hospital for the healthy and a tribunal for the sick. But a hospital for the healthy is at best a retirement home. A tribunal for the sick and suffering will only ever place the blame back on the victims.

Pluralism represents a problem or a threat only for “cozy Orthodoxy,” for an Orthodoxy bloated by ethno-religiosity, saturated by over-exposure to its own echo chamber, and “tunnel-vision-ed” by contextual and provincial customs elevated to Holy Tradition or a “way of life” status and left unquestioned almost with a superstitious anxiety. (Just think about hierarchical clericalism and the place of women in the church both in the worship space and the faith community).

If pluralism is the arena, then secularization—as in the diminishing social relevance of religion—is the name of the game, and our understanding of personhood is the offside line. The winning team is the one that wins at “unity in diversity” in this picture. The coach and referee in all this is our Lord Jesus Christ, who during His life on earth counted as his “team members” publicans, adulterers, fishermen, tax collectors, social and gender outcasts, minorities, married and single people. The Lord was at pains to teach them how to be united, how to love one another, how to pray for one another, despite—or better said—because they were so diverse. Their diversity was their own, but their unity was (in) Him.

[1] D. Voas, The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe, European Sociological Review, Volume 25, Issue 2, April 2009, 155–168

[2] D. Martin, What I really said about Secularisation, in Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 46, Number 2 • Summer 2007

[3] P. Berger, 2005, Orthodoxy and Global Pluralism

[4] N. Waechter, Formation of European identity: ethnic minority groups in Central and Eastern Europe in generational perspective, in Identities – Global Studies in Culture and Power, Vol. 23, 2016 – Issue 6

[5] S. Bruce, 2011: Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory, Oxford: OUP

Fr. Dragos Herescu is Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Fordham-Exeter project leaders, the conference as a whole, or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.