Abstract: As scholars become more aware of the importance of religion in world affairs, several have begun to ask whether specific religious traditions are compatible with the institutions and values of liberal democracy. With approximately 350 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and given the great political and economic importance of the many countries they call home, an understanding of Orthodox Christianity is of importance for a general understanding of the contemporary world. Modernity undermines the homogeneity that characterizes traditional societies, and it brings about racial, ethnic, and religious pluralism. To survive effectively in this situation, a religious institution must develop the capacity to function as a voluntary association. Nothing in its history has prepared Orthodoxy for such an eventuality, and in all likelihood Russia is the only country where a traditional relationship of sinfonia has a chance of continuing.
Key words: Christianity, pluralism, orthodoxy, religion
September 11, 2001, and subsequent events have brought unprecedented attention to religion in the media, academia, and popular imagination of Western countries. Understandably, much of the attention has been on Islam, and the perspective has been largely pejorative. But there also has been the recognition that there are religious traditions whose adherents do not practice terrorism, and that there are situations in which religion plays a positive role. There has been particular interest in the question of whether specific religious traditions are compatible with the institutions and values of liberal democracy.
It is estimated that there are approximately three hundred and fifty million Orthodox Christians in the world. (The term "Orthodox" is somewhat flexible, sometimes only referring to churches affiliated with the Patriarch of Constantinople, sometimes also to the so-called non-Chalcedonian churches, such as the Armenian and the Coptic.) Most of the countries with majority Orthodox populations are of great political and economic importance. A better understanding of Orthodoxy, therefore, is not something that should just interest theologians and scholars of religion, but is of importance for an understanding of the contemporary world.
My article is from the social science viewpoint. Not being Orthodox myself, I cannot make normative judgments or give prescriptions from an Orthodox standpoint. (I am theologically liberal Lutheran and, although I have very strong sympathies for Orthodoxy, I have no inclination to "go swimming in the Bosporus"--to use the graphic phrase that has been used to describe converts to Orthodoxy.) However, at the end of this article, I make some observations on why the future of Orthodoxy should be of religious concern to others who are not part of this tradition.
Before directly addressing the topic of Orthodoxy, I think it will be useful to make some general observations about the place of religion in today's world. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, there persists among many people (not least the Christian theologians) the view that we live in an age of secularity. Scholars of religion have called this view "secularization theory." (I myself shared this view in my early career as a sociologist of religion, then changed my mind, not because of some philosophical or theological reconsideration, but because of the weight of empirical data.) Simply put, modernity inevitably brings about a decline of religion or, another way, modernization causes secularization. This is not an occasion to review the controversy over this matter, which has gone on for several decades. Today, most scholars of religion agree that the secularization theory has been effectively disproven. Far from being characterized by secularity, our age has witnessed vast eruptions of religious passion. The modern age is as religious as any previous period of history; in some places it is more religious than ever. …