For the Life of the World: savvy and radically Christian

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An outsider’s image of the Orthodox Church is often of heavily bearded men in enveloping clerical dress and striking headwear. It speaks of a church focused on personal holiness and on ritual, with little interest in social concerns. These are left to often overbearing Governments. Not a promising source of enlightenment as Australians turn to the shaping of society after COVID-19.

Main image: GHis All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (Centre for American Progress/Flickr)

For the Life of the World, a recent document prepared by Orthodox clerical and lay scholars and ratified by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, challenges that perception. Based strongly in the faith of the church and addressed primarily to members of the Orthodox churches, it is confident and independent in its voice and radical in many of its conclusions. For Catholic readers it might evoke a rather more rebarbative Pope Francis. For any attentive readers it will provoke reflection on what kind of society they want, and why.

Its introductory exposition of Orthodox faith emphasises that God’s love for each human being underpins human dignity. It calls for a response also based in love, to live in communion among human beings and with the created world. Because human beings and the institutions they shape are estranged from God, however, the path of Christians personally and communally to contribute to a transfigured world always takes them into a strong head wind. Its shape is given in Christ’s life and teaching, and is embodied in the celebration of the Eucharist. That shapes a polity from which cultures and societies can be judged.

From this perspective other allegiances to race and nation are relativised, and their benefits and limits are open to discussion.

'Christians may and often must participate in the political life of the societies in which they live, but must do so always in service to the justice and mercy of God’s Kingdom... The Kingdom of God alone is the Christian’s first and last loyalty, and all other allegiances are at most provisional, transient, partial, and incidental.' (par 9)

This relativising of political institutions leads to a carefully qualified endorsement of civil disobedience. It also limits the right of national states to act solely in their own interests to the neglect of the common and universal good:

 

'Institutional documents are often designed to offend no one and to discourage an attentive reading by outsiders. For the Life of the World is not one of these. It is written with moral passion and worldly savvy.'

 

'The modern nation-state is not a sacred institution, even if it can at times serve the causes of justice, equity, and peace. Nor are borders anything more than accidents of history and conventions of law. They too may have at times a useful purpose to serve, but in themselves they are not moral or spiritual goods whose claim upon us can justify failing in our sacred responsibilities to those whom God has commended to our special care. In our own time, we have seen some European governments and a great many ideologues affecting to defend “Christian Europe” by seeking completely to seal borders…' (par 67)

The radical edge of the document reflects an understanding of Jesus Christ’s mission that emphasises the centrality of poverty. In Christ God emptied himself and took the form of a slave sharing our poverty. This core Christian belief was expressed in Jesus’ teaching and in his solidarity with the poor. To follow Christ, then, is necessarily to share his poverty and his solidarity with the poor. If the Church is to be faithful it must insist on this:

'...it is impossible for the Church truly to follow Christ or to make him present to the world if it fails to place this absolute concern for the poor and disadvantaged at the very centre of its moral, religious, and spiritual life. The pursuit of social justice and civil equity — provision for the poor and shelter for the homeless, protection for the weak, welcome for the displaced, and assistance for the disabled — is not merely an ethos the Church recommends for the sake of a comfortable conscience, but is a necessary means of salvation, the indispensable path to union with God in Christ; and to fail in these responsibilities is to invite condemnation before the judgment seat of God.' (par 33)

This mission necessarily sets the church in tension with the societies in which it lives and with the economic assumptions and settings taken for granted there. These reflect the estrangement of humanity. The root of poverty lies in gross inequality, which both further enriches the rich and also gives them the power to entrench the social order that protects their privilege. The document is direct and scathing in its indictment of inequality:

'Great economic inequality is, inevitably, social injustice; it is, moreover, according to the teachings of Christ, a thing abominable in the eyes of God. Whole schools of economics arose in the twentieth century at the service of such inequality, arguing that it is a necessary concomitant of any functioning economy. Without fail, however, the arguments employed by these schools are tautologous at best, and proof of how impoverished the human moral imagination can make itself in servitude to ideology.' (par 41)

The document regards the greed that underlies inequality as the root of other social ills. The commodification of human beings is seen to underlie attitudes that identify love with possession. In the rearing of children, too, the key task is to lead them through the covetousness endorsed in the wider society to generosity and attention to the common good.

'Christ called his followers to imitate the guilelessness of children, but much of late modern capitalist culture seeks to rob children of precisely this precious virtue, and to convert them instead into engines of sheer covetous longing.' (par 17)

In contrast to a common approach among Western Christians, which ties the ills of society to the Enlightenment, and so looks with suspicion on the adoption of human rights and the claims of science, the document is positive in its evaluation. It applauds the listing of human rights as giving flesh to the human dignity at the centre of Christian faith, criticising the emphasis only for being partial and for not going far enough.

'Again, the conventions of human rights theory… cannot provide a comprehensive and compelling vision of the common good that answers all the material, moral, and spiritual needs of human nature. The language of human rights is, in many ways, a minimal language. It is also, however, a usefully concise language that can help to shape and secure rules of charity, mercy, and justice that the Church regards as the very least that should be required of every society; and so it is a language that must be unfailingly affirmed and supported by all Christians in the modern world.' (par 63)

Institutional documents are often designed to offend no one and to discourage an attentive reading by outsiders. For the Life of the World is not one of these. It is written with moral passion and worldly savvy. It is radically Christian in its inspiration and argumentation and socially radical in its claims, at once comfortable in modernity and sharply critical of many of its social manifestations. It rewards reading as our minds turn to the rebuilding of society in the kingdom of coronavirus.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (Centre for American Progress/Flickr)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, For the Life of the World, Orthodox

 

 

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His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew - his very title proclaims radical Christian discipleship. This may be a source of brief fascination for the secular worldview or even for some Christian denominations. Paragraph 33 speaks of the necessary intimacy between Christ and his followers, the ardent love involved for the least (as Christ was here on earth) and the judgement from God inherent in such a relationship. This is the way the Church must speak, bravely and strongly.
Pam | 23 July 2020


Thank you for drawing attention to this document. Anyone who claims to be Christian should ponder its contents and aspire to the way of life it outlines
Sheelah Egan | 23 July 2020


I had to look up ‘rebarbative’. When I did , I was puzzled - why would the document be seen as irritating or repellent? Then I read on. It’s very irritating. It disturbs my complacency. It reminds of what I’d preferred to forget, that Christ came to set fire on the earth, not to please the powerful and pacify the protestors. Thank you, Andrew, for drawing our attention to this very unpleasant medicine. I’ll find it and swallow it!
Joan Seymour | 23 July 2020


I find it sad that, at the time this document came out, the Patriarchate of Constantinople and all the other formerly great Patriarchates of the East, which is where Christianity originated, are a shadow of their former selves and have little or no influence on public life. That is perhaps a sign to Western Christians not to be complacent and not to think their former privileged position will last, as it is under virulent attack by the New Secularism, which is based on a Neo-Marxist deconstructionist view which wants to demolish society as it exists and build a Brave New World. We have seen precursors to this. In this envisaged Brave New World Christianity would be shackled, its morality reviled and its social influence, in terms of hospitals, education and social outreach severely curtailed. Real Christian social action - as with that of Wilberforce and others to abolish the slave trade - would simply not happen. We in the West are in a much better position than Bartholomew in Turkey where Christianity is under tight control. We need to appreciate that and to stand up for our beliefs and freedoms and also to spare a thought and do something for Eastern Christians, whose lot is increasingly precarious.
Edward Fido | 24 July 2020


"For the Life of the World" 's treatment of human dignity strikes the integrated balance expressed in Irenaeus' dictum: "For the glory of God is humanity alive, and the glory of humanity is the vision of God."
John RD | 24 July 2020


Andrew, This document is challenge to those of us who dare to call ourselves Christian.We in the West seem to have settled comfortably into a religious faith that accepts social inequality as part of the fabric of society. Pope Francis is calling us to a more caring faith that recognizes the poor in our midst , but are we hearing his call? When I taught Religious Studies a question I posed to my students was; If Jesus were to come into this room, what would He say to you? Do they have an answer?well no.I also said that at life's end God will ask you one question. "How well did you take care of my creation?"Personally I feel quite uncomfortable-do you?
Gavin O'Brien | 24 July 2020


"The Kingdom of God alone is the Christian’s first and last loyalty, and all other allegiances are at most provisional, transient, partial, and incidental.' (par 9)" Is this not what some have claimed to avoid the secular law of the land say in management of sexual abuse?
Michael D. Breen | 24 July 2020


Thanks Andy for drawing attention to this important document. I have found the relationship between Patriach Bartholemew and Pope Francis an important one which lead I understand to Francis establishing the Season of Creation within the Catholic Church. This document will further enrich the relationship - I shall proceed to read with interest, rebarbative or not
Denis Quinn | 24 July 2020


Pity the Great Schism took so much of quality with it!
john frawley | 24 July 2020


I would never have known of For the Life of the World had I not read your article, Andy. Being intrigued I looked up the document following your link which was to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is directly under the Ecumenical Patriarch. The document I found was not just about what is narrowly termed 'social justice' but about the Christian foundations on which society rests. It did not advocate theocracy or caesaropapism but gave a brief for Christian engagement in the world. It covered such subjects as ecumenism and stem cell research. It was couched in the terminology of the Eastern Church and made reference to many of her saints who are basically unknown in the West, but it was strangely familiar. It was far briefer than most papal encyclicals and far wider ranging, but that was by intention. I am unsure whether the average Catholic reads papal encyclicals, but the average Christian could find the time to read this. It work me up with a start. It was simply the Christian manifesto in response to the sort of disordered thinking and behaviour which characterise our times. It needs to be widely publicised and read. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
Edward Fido | 27 July 2020


Like Edward, I too was greatly impressed by this document and the way in which it is composed. It trumped all the 'mission statements', both secular and religious, that I've ever read. It seemed to me that the values, behaviours, attitudes and actions were ones with which any person of goodwill and responsibility could agree and engage irrespective of their faith or lack of faith. And yet there are people who profess to have the faith and theology from which this document comes whose attitudes and lives, especially but not only, in politics and business, fall far short of that espoused in this document. Which leads me to question the nexus between the underlying faith and beliefs and the vision of how we should live. I'm not having a shot here at anyone or any institution, it's a serious question.
Ginger Meggs | 28 July 2020


Michael, I would read that last sentence of paragraph 9 in the context of the whole paragraph, and especially the penultimate sentence : 'At times, this may entail participation not by way of perfect obedience, but by way of the higher citizenship of civil disobedience, even rebellion'. There's a difference between openly expressed civil disobedience to something one believes, rightly or wrongly, is wrong albeit 'lawful', and secretive coverups of activity that one well knows to be wrong as well as unlawful.
Ginger Meggs | 28 July 2020


As you say well, Ginger, a most admirable statement. It deserves a wide and receptive audience.
John RD | 29 July 2020


You are pretty spot on in your appreciation of this document, Ginger. It is very much in the spirit of some of the Eastern Church Fathers, like St John Chrysostom, who, in his preaching denounced the misuse of authority.
Edward Fido | 03 August 2020


“Institutional documents are often designed to offend no one….” In sanctioning non-abortive contraception and, in effect, sacramental divorce, this document’s surrender of theological rationality to emotions of faux pastoralism, which disguise and enable an underlying concupiscence, guarantee that no modernist need be offended by it. The problem, of course, is that a flawed philosophy doesn’t only falsify the document in which it is expressed, it also falsifies the great physical representations of it such as the Hagia Sophia. If the Hagia Sophia represents untruths, why shouldn’t this whited sepulchre be disembowelled of its fancy mosaics and made over into a mosque?
roy chen yee | 04 August 2020


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