There are not a lot of people like me who did not grow up with any religious tradition or training nor an anti-religious one. My family was simply areligious. When I plunged myself into a Pentecostal church as a teenager for reasons that I cannot fully comprehend even to this day, I had to learn nearly everything about faith and faithful practice as I went. I can’t labor on what that all entailed only to say this: I was asked to trust people and what they taught, but even more so, I was asked to trust institutions and social structures that buttressed them. I found this difficult without testing the integrity of both the people and the institutions. This posture, which was nearly impossible not to have if I wanted to stay true to myself, often induced a suspicion by others about me. I was never quite “in.” I often relate to the apostle Paul feeling like a miscarriage of the Jesus movement (1 Cor 15:8) or the picture of Jesus knocking on the door of the church asking to come in (Rev 3:20).
Learning faith on the fly has its advantages and disadvantages. I left Pentecostalism 15 years after my conversion and 7 years of ministry, mainly because the genuine elements of Christian belief and practice were smothered in sugary layers of sheer silliness. Even so, that experience instilled something that I cannot shake. If I “believe” in Jesus, then I must take his calling on my life as top priority, and every aspect of my life must be shaped by that. Jesus’ uncompromising call to deny myself and take up my own cross if I want to follow him (Mt 16:24) still applies regardless of how bungled the packaging.
It was in my seminary training that I and many others began asking how a Christian should engage in the political arena. This, by the way, was going on just as the neo-liberalism of Reagan and Thatcher were ramping up. Believe it or not, there were a good lot, not a majority mind you, of Evangelicals who cast doubt on the conservative direction in light of the Gospels.
Another vein of inquiry also surged at that time, and it fueled much of the interaction about politics. We questioned the meaning, relevance, and nature of church, sensing an inadequacy of the typical neighborhood church in comparison to what Jesus appeared to be calling his disciples to in the Gospels.
It was in those formative years where my engagement as a Christian in church and “the world” was put to the test when a seminary professor put John Howard Yoder’s book the Politics of Jesus in front of us with the challenge: read it and prove him wrong.
One of the disadvantages of learning faith on the fly is that I didn’t have the tools to discern my immersion into a theological, ecclesial, and ideological framework. Gradually and to some extent unwittingly, I shared a sense of quotidian life that sharply divided realities into holy and profane, spiritual and carnal, sinners and saints, and believers and unbelievers, all cast under the broad shadow of “the world” and the Christians. Even more specific, it is “the world” verses the Christian or over against the Christian. It was only within a few months of conversion that I began my training in “pick a side brother.” This was fraught with irony since I was already immersed in one side, and it would take a near personal crisis to rend me from that.
My conversion came in the aftermath of the 60s, so the idea of a counter-culture posture fit nicely into my images of the radical, buck-the-system, hippy Jesus. “I have decided to follow Jesus,” I would sing with other committed believers, which meant that the cross was before me and “the world behind me. No turning back, no turning back.”
My image of “the world” was decidedly shaped by biblical passages that do in fact hyperbolically contrast a rule of God to any kingdom that humans had thus far constructed. But that picture was infused and confused with layers of interpretation whittled down to the confines of a peculiar historical vein of American Christianity to mean that nearly every human institution and activity was under the direct supervision of the Devil, except church institutions of course or state and commerce ones partnered with it. The pop term for “the world” in my young adult years was humanism. It later morphed into relativism, but now comes under the broad umbrella of “culture war.” It is the clash of civilizations. This was really a resistance or protest against the gradual decline of Christianity’s privileged position in American society. Even to today, Christian institutions are unwilling to accept that the rules of the game have changed.
In his book The Mystical as the Political, Aristotle Papanikolaou, whom I am primarily engaging with in this article, aptly categorizes the Christian cultural warriors (referred to as CCWs herein) as sectarian or as a form of Gnostic dualism despite the protest of those in that camp, an uneasy divergent perspective that from the earliest days, Christians have been sorely tempted to embrace.
There was and is a variety of subcamps under the culture war umbrella as well as a variety of names for it: counterculture, the Benedict option, gnostic dualism, sectarian, fundamentalism, or anabaptist. Some of these camps can go in opposite directions as to how to proceed; nonetheless, they share a fundamental tenant and not without warrant that Christian/church and the “world” are mutually exclusive. One will have to be defeated if the other is to survive.
The Anabaptist tradition appealed to many of us seminarians energized by a sense that Jesus was much more than getting a position in a local church. Having been persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics, the Anabaptists had the longest running tradition of forging the place of the church without power in the world.
Yoder’s book mentioned above made a late Modern case for the Anabaptist’s foundational theological claim for pacificism—or better the Christian resistance and suspicion of political authority and power. The only social ethic the church can espouse is one grounded in the political choices of Jesus recounted in the Gospels, which culminated in his renunciation of all claims to power won by violence and his execution as a political agitator by the state. Jesus, Yoder insists, engaged “the kingdoms of this world” but refused to do so under any premise other than that God loves most of all the stranger and the enemy. In this sense, Jesus forfeited effectiveness for faithfulness. Patient endurance must guide the Christian rather than the impulse to manage society.
Jacque Ellul, an influential sociologist and author in evangelical circles, also heavily shaped my thinking as a young adult. Ellul wrote on a wide array of subjects all dealing with the kind of political and technological forces shaping modern life and pushing us into irreversible historical and perhaps disastrous consequence. I’m not sure he ever identified himself as a Christian anarchist, but Vernard Eller’s treatise of the subject considers Ellul as a chief proponent.
Vernard Ellers’ book Christian Anarchy forged a lasting mark on me primarily because he synthesized the variety of voices influencing me and because I acted on it as best I could until I became Orthodox. For 25 years, I did not vote nor concern myself with politics. When asked every election cycle who I voted for, I answered “Jesus.” Admittedly, this gave me a smug sense of being above the fray; nonetheless, I was following one of the tenants laid out by Eller. Giving too much importance to the political arena gave it too much power and detracted from the primary focus of “Thy kingdom come.” Sure, there are some governments that are better than others, but they all pale in comparison to the rule of God.
What was increasingly lacking for me in these influential thinkers was any clear sense of how the collective of Christians—the Church—was to engage the world they inhabited. One of the key reasons I finally left Protestantism is that the notion and reality of Church seemed woefully inadequate.
My Christian anarchism played out well into the 2000s even though I had decided to reengage political involvement on a minimal scale beginning then. Mainly, however, I continued to believe that my involvement in “making the Church happen” (a phrase we used often when I lived in a Christian community) was the best politic. I continued to ignore nearly all political wrangling of that time. I could have been accused of sticking my head in the sand had I not committed to church involvement. At least I was acting on an alternative.
This may have been to my determent because I was blithely unaware of not only the intensity of the culture wars, but even more so that it even existed.
I remember my shocking first encounter when in the locker room at the Y. There, someone had left the TV on FOX news. Not being a big TV watcher, I simply couldn’t believe the vitriol being spewed out. I was shocked and offended, and with me this tends to turn to anger. Even still, I chalked it up to TV/news/entertainment and mistakenly believed most people were not taking this seriously. That posture was aided by Barak Obama’s presidency and abetted by the satire of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central.
With the election of Donald Trump, the sober and sickening reality set it. Although I think “the culture war” is mythical, it has seized America and much of the world. It is real to the extent that people act on that perceived reality.
It has been over twenty years since I left sectarian Protestant Christianity, re-immersed in society, converted to Orthodoxy, and began engaging in politics. Unlike many whose political identity is fixed for eternity, I have explored an array of political stances. Much of Christian anarchy still resonates with me, yet I have also found it wanting for two reasons: 1) For me the sweep of Scripture compels me to engage the world. God’s commitment to the poor goes far beyond handing out leftovers. 2) There is a profound failure of Christians and the Church to live up to their own calling and identity. In other words, involvement in Church alone is insufficient to counter the problems we face.
This last statement is one of many where Aristotle Papanikolaou’s book (herein referred to as Papanik because I don’t want to look up the spelling every time I mention him) resonated with my ongoing growth in understanding my identity and engagement in both the political economy and the Church. It also comes at a time when I am setting aside my scholarly pursuits within my field of Old Testament theology to expand my awareness of current Orthodox thinking that I am now immersed in. This being long overdue with me since becoming Orthodox over 20 years ago.
(Properly speaking, I am Russian Greek Catholic, which means that I am a part of a Russian Orthodox practicing community who is also in communion with Rome. This makes me not Catholic enough for Roman Catholics and not Orthodox for any enclave of Orthodoxy. For the most part, I am used to it. See my opening paragraph. I will continue to identify as Orthodox and let those who must, grate their teeth.)
It was along that path, that I discovered Papanik in an article in publicorthodoxy.com entitled The Death of Secularism: Russia, Turkey, and Western Cluelessness. There, Papanik described some of his key ideas from his book The Mystical as Political. The article lays out the thesis to which his book explores in depth. There is nor has there ever been a secular society devoid of religion. It is false to premise the notion of “secular” with godlessness. If it does, it leads to truly godless national leaders simply manipulating religion to promote nationalistic identities, whether this be with Russia and Orthodoxy, Turkey and Islam, or America and Evangelical Protestantism. The key issue is the role that religion has or should play in any political economy. It has for much of Christian history formed a “symphonia” with mainly an imperial setup and colonizing agenda. Particularly in the West, it has wed itself to capitalism, which in my view is one of the most godless human systems ever invented. Capitalism favors the highest bidder, period.
In his book, Papanik carefully negates one necessity and replaces it with another. A secular society is not out of necessity nor can it be devoid of religion or faith. More importantly and especially from an Orthodox point of view, a secular society is essential for a Christian and the Church to optimally live out its mandates.
Papanik proposes a counter assault to contemporary theologians and CCWs who insist on the radical and reactionary incompatibility of Christian constructs of the Church, the human person, and creation with that of liberal democracies. Hence, Papanik calls his approach “non-radical,” arguing that human rights language is not inherently atheistic.
Since I have forged much of my Christian identity as radical and in opposition to a big Someone and Something, (I have described myself as a “radical incarnationalist”), I found Papanik’s case challenging and refreshing. Although his “non-radicalness” is a bit ironic because “radical” means at the core or root, and this is precisely what Papanik moves toward.
Properly speaking, Papanik critiques a false or misguided radicalness of Christianity. His proposition is at the core of Orthodoxy which Papanik defines as divine-human communion (theosis), and the radical position is an insistence that theosis compels Christians and the Church to engage fully in what he calls the “political arena” or “political community.” We can’t grow in divine-human communion nor fulfill our mission in the world without engagement in this arena.
In this sense, it is a long way from Christian anarchy to the mystical as political.
Papanik brought fresh insight into my own experience mentioned above, but from an Orthodox experience still somewhat foreign to me, especially deeply ingrained, historically grounded Orthodox cultures.
What CCWs are really about is two-fold. One, they come from a privileged position for the Church, certainly one which they have enjoyed for most of its history. Two, If they can’t have that, then they complain that strict separation of church and state simply leads to anti-religion, and this “anti-religion” gets translated to mean nearly any critique of the Church or call for it to change.
Again, there is no concession to the possibility of an arena of human interaction outside the Church that could operate congruently or cooperatively with religious institutions without granting those institutions privileged status. I’ll make this clear. Privileged status means shared power and the use of force, and it reveals a profound lack of faith on the part of the Church. We can’t get people to follow Christ without coercion.
Papanik’s argument is spot on. This posture leads to nothing but an antagonistic posture toward the state. It either results in sectarianism or some near comical and certainly contradictory notion of being a “prophetic” voice to it.
It is as if Christians are saying: “If we can’t have a privileged place—meaning shared power--in society, then we will assume a specious presumption of superiority.” This posture fails on several levels.
For one, political power backed by hard violence (military and police and the threat of physical annihilation) or soft violence (economic, legal, and information technology and the threat of annihilation by depravation) has the monopoly on power and will simply ignore or scoff at a Christian presumption to critique it. Jesus said we are “in the world, not of the world,” but he never said we were above the world. Yoder is right in this respect. The only effective power Jesus and his followers exercise is refusing to use it or partner with it to accomplish “Thy kingdom come.”
Second, it shuts down the possibility of common values and goals with the state. Even Christian anarchist Verhard Eller acknowledged that some forms of government are better than others and that we can and should encourage that. Christians must advocate for good government—eliminating poverty and not claiming absolute sovereignty—not no government. Those who advocate for a bare minimum power to the state, are merely cloaking centralized control to other powers competing with state elites. Oligarchs have always desired and competed for sovereignty over state, capital and labor.
Third, taking on a we-against-them antagonism toward government grossly underestimates the inability of Christians to live up to their calling. Papanik is relentless on this point.
What they [CCWs] do not fully nuance is how Christians do not live up to being Christians… The Christian community itself must organize itself so as to guard against Christians not being all that they can be; and what is paradoxical (and a little sad) is that Christians have to think about political communities that guard against Christians not being Christians. These Christian perspectives [CCWs] do not give sufficient attention to that reality. What is the form of political community that would guard against Christian support of slavery? That would guard against Christian denigration of women as unequal to men? That would guard against Christian persecution of those who express sexuality different from heterosexuality? History confirms that such a political community is not likely to be one which church-state separation does not exist. The biggest problem for this kind of Christian church/state position is that one cannot rely on Christians being Christian. They must take into account that the Church itself has not been fully realized. It must recognize the need for a political community with a good internal to itself that is in continuity, with the good being realized in church communities, but neither being collapsed into the other. Such a community is one that looks like a liberal democracy, minus the anthropological baggage of modern liberalism. (85)
The us-verses-the world framework also fails because of the Church’s (both universal and local) inability to practice a different politic other than imitating imperial rule even though Jesus decidedly and forcefully implores his followers otherwise. One example will suffice. The local diocese here repeatedly implements heartless hiring and firing practices always with the justification that they are within legal limits to do so. Additionally, climbing the Church ladder is one of the most ruthless found anywhere.
Thinking oneself as some “prophetic” entity presumes way too much about one’s internal integrity and way too little about the lack of integrity of the supposed godless.
For Papanik, an “arena” or “community” outside the eucharistic community (Church) is essential. Papanik interchanges terms like community, arena, townhall, square, platform or space to refer to forms or practices of relating, engaging, or encountering. It is a space that enables realization of values held by the participants. The arena does not guarantee the realization of values hoped for but only provides the right conditions for the nurturing of them. For the Christian and the Church, it’s a place to position oneself to love. It is the place where I get out of my head, my own world and encounter the world. It is not the realization of love, but an environment most conducive to “make real.”
The political arena is especially the space to engage in one of the critical callings of Jesus to his followers to love the stranger, the other, the enemy. It is a desert where the Christian must struggle with the most fundamental temptation to demonize other humans.
Papanik also uses the same terms in relationship to Church, most importantly when it gathers around the Eucharist. In the political arena, the Christian’s call is to love the neighbor is potentially realized. Whereas in the Church, the hope for realization of love moves further to include theosis—divine-human communion.
A pluralistic society is absolutely necessary in order for the Church to fulfill its mission, insists Papanik. This takes awhile to grasp because I/we are so used to this us-against-them mentality where we mainly see the political or the secular as an obstacle to the kingdom of God. American-style Christianity has done more to promote a “populyptic” image of an angry God violently overthrowing the violent powers. Honestly, this picture of God crushing His enemies has more to do with my vision of God crushing my enemies.
The Church compromises its goal to move toward the culmination of creation (called the eschaton or “last things”) precisely when it coopts with force. Ironically, the more the Church collaborates with power—and power is what is meant by the “world” that is passing away—the more we delay the kingdom of God
[This has led me in the past to an anabaptist leaning toward withdrawn communitarianism. I’ll just speak for myself here. It doesn’t work precisely as Papanik says. There is no outside voice that can speak to the internal problems of the group. There is a nasty undergirding presumption, namely that the community knows better in all situations because we have God on our side.]
Theologically, CCWs possess a distorted view of God (in olden times Christians called this heresy). God is fundamentally pissed off that we are not following the rules and not granting him absolute loyalty. The church fears and operates out of fear that people will reject God if they are not coerced.
I am reminded of a story my wife tells. Unlike me, she grew up in a family immersed in a religious tradition with a relentless bombardment of psychological pressure to believe. When my wife expressed normal childhood wonderings, a close family member suggested getting an ice cream treat if she would just express belief. The temptation to employ some use of force to “get” people to love God, oddly presents God as either weak or incompetent or both, too helpless without our intervention. This view can never present God as love and life-giver.
Papanik gives considerable space to the contemporary discussion of Church, which is labeled “eucharistic ecclesiology” (church as participation in the communion). This is critical because the CCWs ground much of their framework on the meaning and practice of the Church. Papanik essentially agrees with their assessment as the diverging point. Yes, the church as the Eucharistic community is the “arena” best suited to encounter divine-human communion in a truly incarnational way. Yes, the scope of its calling and mission is much broader and deeper than any political economy. Divine-human communion encompasses all of human history—past, present, and future—and the regeneration of all of Creation. It includes a fuller vision of humanity beyond homo economicus and the construct of human rights.
For Papanik, this is core, mystical Orthodox theology. It is what I call radical incarnationalism. “Orthodox thinkers would not limit this communion simply to the individual soul but extend it to all of the materallity of creation, including constructions of society and culture. The whole of societal space was destined to be infused with God’s presence in all its constitutive parts so as to realize a mode of being that reflects communion with God and, hence, the active presence of the Word” (19).
On the basis of divine-human communion Papanik pushes the logic in an opposite direction than the CCWs. No, this does not mean that the overlap between political and church can only be one of “symphonia” or antagonism. No, to engage in the political arena does not mean granting sovereignty to the State and reducing the Church to a functionalized irrelevancy, privatization, and marginalization.
[They have no problem, however, granting sovereignty to corporate elites and subordinating their theology to the ideology of neo-liberalism]
Papanik approaches the core of the mystical as political when he attacks the CCWs premise that the church is being backed into a corner by conceding any arena separate from the Church. On the contrary, only when the church does this can it truly live into its calling to pervade all spaces including the political economy. That the Church and the Christian are never in a static relationship with a loving creating and saving God compels engagement in the political space.
Papanik repeatedly addresses the fear of irrelevancy undergirding the CCWs resistance to a pluralistic society. This fear is comical and suffers from a malnourishment of reality perpetuated by an impetuous parochialism.
The Church has already become irrelevant for the vast majority of Americans. Especially among the younger generations, the Church is just a dusty, vestigial remain of some bygone era, an era especially wed to imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and a highly selective monopoly on fundamental resources for survival.
In fact, the situation is reversed. Quite honestly, the local churches have now become arenas where we encounter the stranger and the other. The challenge to love your enemy is compounded tenfold when that enemy partakes of the Eucharist with you and is supposed to understand love more fully. Political and social communities have become the places where we tribalize and find like-mindedness especially with the aid of social media.
This fear of irrelevancy is like running into the clutches of the bear in order to escape the mouth of the lion. It accelerates the very thing one is afraid of.
As beautiful as Eucharistic church is supposed to be, Papanik echoes my own sentiment: “it does not resonate with human experience” (81). It is not realized at the local level. Papanik reminds the Orthodox for the need for ascetical struggle and the essential spirituality of Orthodoxy—theosis—is a never-ending movement realized in and through particular practices.
Papanik meticulously presses this theme throughout his book—the church must learn to pursue its calling as the eucharistic community without state support or a privileged cultural position. Liberal democracy is the better form to enable that to happen. In this sense, identity politics is wrong-headed. We are to primarily identify as belonging not to a club, but to a movement that not only engulfs politics and economics, but all of creation.
Against the CCWs, Papanik advocates for an arena distinct from the Church and essential to the Church’s mission and goal. He clarifies how this can and should play out by: one, delving into a modern era Russian Orthodox theology described as “free theocracy” developed by Vladimr Solov’ev’ and Sergius Bulgakov and two, defining the notion of common good as the potential for a transcendent reality that connects the Church’s mission and goal with that of a community that not only doesn’t see it, but may aggressively resist it.
As mentioned earlier, exposure to Orthodox theology both modern and archaic is a relatively new venture for me, and so it was to my delight to be introduced to the “free theocracy” developed by Vladimir Solov’ev and Sergius Bulgakov.
Both were deeply disturbed by the failure of the Church to live up to its calling precisely because of its inability to separate and distinguish itself from the use and reliance on force. Both decried the Church’s abandonment of it calling and its compromise with imperial power.
Papanik attributes Vladmir Solov’ev, a mid-nineteenth century Orthodox thinker, with the first systematic attempt at a political theology (33). This comes at a time in Russian and European history where the symbiotic relationship between the orthodox emperor and orthodox church was being sorely challenged by the industrial revolution and its accompanying social agitation.
Grounded solidly on the belief that all of creation is moving toward divine communion, Solov’ev’s “Christian liberalism” advocated for the necessity of humans to freely choose love. This required an arena separate from the Church. This would free the Church from its dependency on the use of power. “For Solov’ev, the political order must be such so as to maximize the conditions for the possibility of a free response to and, hence, realization of the divine in creation. There can be no forced imposition of religion if, in fact, creation is destined for communion with God (35).
Americans love to think that they have the copyright to the notion of “freedom,” but they are sadly mistaken. For one, ours has been reduced to fanatical loyalty to a club or gang, whether that be a sports team, political party, rock band, or video game. Our “freedom” is a slavish dependency on our identity being forged by consumerism. I buy; therefor I am.
Theocracy rightfully frightens most non-religious thinkers, conjuring inquisition images of all social institutions subjugated to the Church oversight to which Solov’ev would also echo those fears. Nonetheless, he advocated, like the CCWs, that without the transcendent love of God, freedom is a dangerous mirage leading humanity to annihilation or slavery. He, like Anabaptists, insisted on the practice of religion free from forced imposition.
Solov’ev’s political liberalism is theologically based on God’s love for mankind. It is God’s love most profoundly expressed in the divine-human communion embodied in Jesus and ever moving toward the union of all things that compelled Solov’ev to advocate the separation of Church and state where the state’s primary function is to protect human rights so that people are free to accept or reject the love of God.
Sergius Bulgakov, who Papanik names “the most profound Orthodox theologian since Maximus the Confessor” (36), elaborated on Solov’ev’s “free theocracy” in mid-twentieth century Russia in the midst of the revolution. He knew beyond an intellectual curiosity the consequences of political ideologies devoid of transcendence. Unlike American CCWs today, however, he did not howl against its anti-religious proclivities because he, as I and Papanik, laid that concern against the backdrop of the Churches failure, and I would add the competing and equally godless backdrop of financialized capitalism. With the continued mass exodus of Christians from any religious affiliation, we would do well to heed Bulgakov’s premise.
As I read through Papanik’s condensed review of Bulgakov’s profound theological thinking, I cannot easily identify it with any particular vein of contemporary American politics. Bulgakov calls his thinking “Christian Socialism” to which there is much in common with liberation theology. Yet, there are also near libertarian and even conservative ideas as well. Lo and beyond, Papanik even calls it “religious anarchism,” meaning the hope that humanity can be “united by love free of all compulsion.”
Guided by the radical Orthodox notion of divine-human communion, Bulgakov found some form of socialism to be most congruent with the Christian witness and is unabashed in a similar vein as John Howard Yoder to speak of a Christian politic that cannot be reduced to a political party per se and that requires Christian engagement in the political arena.Bulgakov suggests even forging distinct political and economic sciences.
Fundamental to all of this and contrary to the assumption of CCWs, a Christian politic does not require a dual-to-the-death antagonism toward an atheistic premise about humanity. Indeed, it resists it and insists on a common good grounded in the fundamental value of all human life (and hence human rights).
Bulgakov fills out Solov’ev’s notion of Sophia, a belief that all of material reality already participates in and moves toward a primal unity with the divine. This may sound heady, but it is one of the most critical junctures for not only a Christian political theology, but a profound choice of every human. Is there a unity to all things that I want to participate in, or is the world forever divided into camps, clubs, nations, sexuality, race, or my choice of cars? In other words, do I accept “identity politics” as the primary driving principle of human negotiation of material space and interaction (politics), or do I embrace a God-fused world that unrelentingly insists on the dominance of love?
Papanik discusses “free theocracy” and Sophia to push forward one of the key points of his book—liberal democracy does not require an atheistic premise, but it is does require a stark separation of religion and state. It believes or hopes that the value of a human being infused into the Christian religion will “leaven” the social structures of human cultures. This hope is not without precedent. In fact, it is only when Christians retreat behind iron-clad gates that humanity’s more visceral tendencies take a darker turn.
Relying on the groundwork of Solov’ev and Bulgakov, Papanik forges the space where the unification of all things in Christ and the goals of a secular political community find common ground in something transcendent—the common good.
He rejects the assertion of CCWs that without an ultimate referent to God, liberal democracies will inevitably collapse into ghettos of ever diminishing, isolated, and clashing self-interest and implode on itself. For certain, every small and individual attempt of looking out for the well-being of others is a movement of transcending the self, and this, Papanik insists, is a movement toward the divine-human communion even if the ultimate expression is the Eucharist.
Sadly, my own experience bares out that often times non-Christians and non-religious understand the brevity and profound nature of the Christian life more than “believers.” Jesus himself declared that one does not need to bear his name in order to be a follower. The opposite is equally true; many will claim the name of Jesus but ignore what his words. This is due to two significant factors: one, the pervasiveness of the Christian revelation and influence is still present in society (although admittedly getting smaller) and second, the Christian and Jewish affirmation of human worth inherent in human rights language.
Papanik concedes that the push to turn notions of common good into policy is an ongoing and often times ambiguous and contested task, but he sees the primary role of the Church and individual Christians is to engage in the political arena and facilitate authentic civil dialogue.
Primarily they are to advocate for a common good in notions of human rights, freedom, and equity grounded in theological notions of personhood rather than autonomous individuality.
The political arena is a community of dispute by nature. Political engagement for the Christian is one of trial and struggle. My ongoing struggle with anger prohibits me from getting too close to the political process. In some sense, this is what Papanik means by meeting our ascetical struggle and confronting our personal demons. We can’t enter “the community of dispute” simply from a removed, stoic piety with the presumption of fixing others or the system. We must accept our own need of transformation in the process, and we must embrace adaptation over entrenchment.
Helping define the common good—communal values-- is a necessary part of democracy. The ongoing process of clarifying and defining the content of the common good is close to Papanik’s main focus on the Christian’s need to engage the political community. We do not accept that the common good or the political community as morally neutral space. For Papanik, engagement in the call and the process toward a common good is a form of transcendence and an expression of Christian piety
In a recent article in the New York Times, Pope Francis demonstrates much of Papanik’s sense of the transcendent quality inherent in seeking the common good. Speaking of the crisis of the global pandemic, Francis states:
Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.
I live in a predatory capitalist culture that is frightfully immersed in self-interest. The heavy emphasis on repentance in the Orthodox tradition reminds me, however, that turning away from self-as-sovereign includes and begins with me. Monastics are supposed to struggle with this deep within their cell, this may or not be the case, but the monastery is never meant to be a retreat from the world, but a place to confront one’s own demons. Papanik insists that the political arena is a similar kind of desert where the struggle against the powers within us and in “culture” must be engaged, challenged, purified.
I have always admired people with an amazing drive and commitment to advocate for social change that they believe will make better the living conditions of humanity. Everyone loves to bash politicians as chameleons, yet ironically, this is exactly what we the people want them to be, to wear our colors, represent our values. (This has morphed into wanting politicians to make or resuscitate our values.)
I on the other hand, have waivered in both commitment to action and even knowing what the content of my commitment should be. This article demonstrates my ongoing struggle in this regard. As mentioned earlier, most of my life has been committed to “making the Church happen.” Admittedly, during the cultural crisis of these last few years, going to Church every Sunday and preparing the music for liturgy seems both ineffective and a form of retreat or indifference.
Yet at all times, I am called to make the best choices I can, given what I understand. My past anarchic practice did push me toward non-engagement and a nonchalant posture toward “this world.” I paid way too little attention to gross injustice and suffering.
Papanik’s book came at a critical juncture for me, one that has been brewing for some time. He pushes in two directions premised on the failure of both political and church arenas. He advocates that keeping these “communities” or arenas separated but engaged affords the optimal conditions for both to reach a fuller potential. He acknowledges more readily than most of the theologians he engages in the book the Churches failure in this regard. He has pieced together for me many dangling aspects of what it means to live as a Christian (and for me an Orthodox Christian) in this world. His “non-radical Orthodoxy” has clarified my “radical incarnationalism.”
Several factors, one from the political arena and one from the church arena has pushed me into a deeper struggle as to the need to be engaged in both the political and church communities.
A liberal democracy can no longer be assumed. The panic mode that is swallowing most of us at this point in history provides the appeal for “big men” and “big gods” (terns used by Peter Turchin) to exercise power to get things under control. Many are sounding the alarm, but a quote from Geoffrey Hodson will suffice:
Alarmingly, we are entering a period when we can no longer take the institutions of liberal democracy for granted. We face a renewed struggle to defend their very existence, as well as the new challenges of climate change and techno-institutional complexity. https://evonomics.com/how-to-move-beyond-utopian-socialism-and-libertarianism/
The presidency of Donald Trump in the U.S. as well as the outrageous economic disparity has challenged me as to the necessity of political engagement. Admittedly, however, I struggle with the most appropriate avenue for involvement given my limited resources of time, money, and skills. Papanik has encouraged me to keep trying.
The attack on liberal democracy by authoritarian forms is often aided by a fundamentalist religious fervor. As I said earlier, this simply leads to dictators manipulating religion
This also speaks of the crisis in religion. People have always turned to “faith” in times of desperation and uncertainty. Most of all (and this is the little secret we all like to keep), it is a time when my little piece of the pie is threatened. Religion provides an inner strength that any human needs. Unfortunately, it emphasizes fidelity to a near absolute value annihilating critical thinking for loyalty, a perfect condition for authoritarian leaders to consolidate power and smother the kind of engagement a “mystical politic” is advocating.
We live in an information overload culture that too easily leads to no information at all or disinformation. I can’t observe and know all things, but I’m convinced that I can know enough. If I use discernment in what I take in, I can make faithful choices as to how to live in union with the Triune God.
Being a Christian does change our perspective on this world. Echoing many of the sentiments presented by both a Christian anarchy and a mystical as political, a Christian can engage the many “arkys” or “arenas” or “the world” by:
1) Creating distance and distinction from them that is best counter-balanced by the Church as a Eucharist celebrating community. Politics and economics always pull toward supreme allegiance even if we’re only talking about time, energy and resources.
2) Discerning the difference between a distanced engagement and indifference. Neutrality is more about shielding oneself from painful engagement and subtly assuming an above the fray posture. In some sense, it is sociopathic. The mystical as political exposes me to conflict and struggle (and the temptation to anger and rage). I will injure and be injured, and I will have to rely on God more profoundly and repent more often.
3) Making a profound theological choice about how God views “the world” (remember “the world” biblically refers to human propensity to use violence and force to seize and secure what is needed to live). Will God wield power, violence and force to conquer and destroy the world in order to impose His rule. Or is God as lover and life-giver moving all of creation toward a unity with Him
What I said early bears repeating. Radical incarnationalism believes that all of material reality already participates in and moves toward a primal unity with the divine. Is there a unity to all things that I want to participate in, or is the world forever divided into camps, clubs, nations, sexuality, race, or my choice of cars? In other words, do I accept “identity politics” as the primary driving principle of human negotiation of material space and interaction (politics), or do I embrace a God-fused world that unrelentingly insists on the dominance of love?
Like some many things now, we cannot live in “islands of isolation” anymore. The world is now “spaceship” not an open range. This is why I can’t go back to a Yoder/Eller anabaptist approach to political involvement.
Is God’s desire for the destruction of the world or the transformation it? Is the “world” irreparably bad and must be wiped out for a new world to be created inhabited by the worthy ones. Or has God deemed the creation “good” and the union of humanity with God very good and worthy of rest? (Not doubt my critics will object to the either-or proposition here.)
One of the biggest struggles I had reading the book derives from the glossy-eyed view of the church that CCW theologians use as the foundation for opposing engagement in politics. They suffer from a severe malady of underestimation as to the poverty of the church in obeying their own calling. We have no business calling “the world” or unbelievers to a life and practice that most of us either ignore or even worse put massive amounts of money and effort into behaving in the opposite direction. The Church is failing on a massive scale right now, but perhaps a good deal of that as Papanik suggests is induced by the Church’s reticence to relinquish its addiction to power.
There is much I have to say about this, but I will have to leave it for another time. The hope that the mystical as political is that changing our view of “the world” will propel us as never before to transform the way we “do” Church that in fact reflects and moves us toward the life-giving and loving Divine.