Magazine article The Christian Century

'Open Christianity' in Russia

Magazine article The Christian Century

'Open Christianity' in Russia

Article excerpt

LAST YEAR I participated in a conference at Dartmouth College on "The Renewal of Russian Spiritual Life." The Russian participants were roughly divided between those who stand in the tradition of Russian liberalism influenced by the West, and those who lean toward an ecclesiastical heritage of Eastern Orthodoxy and its Slavophile expression. Discussions were, to say the least, spirited.

Among the Russians was Konstantin K. Ivanov, a soft-spoken philosopher who is president of an organization called "Open Christianity," founded in St. Petersburg about 20 years ago. It started when Ivanov and others became clandestine Christians and entered the Russian Orthodox Church. They had many questions to work out regarding Christianity and its ecclesiastical practices and structures. Most believers in the Russian Orthodox Church were not receptive to questions and doubts from newcomers and simply wanted them to affirm the church's authority. Veteran believers insisted upon obedience and humility; they were suspicious of those who wanted to ask probing questions. Ivanov and his cohorts soon came to the conclusion that a different attitude was needed in order to retain thinking inquirers. They organized themselves as Open Christianity.

The primary goals of Open Christianity are to work with nonbelievers and to encourage the Russian Orthodox Church to be more open to culture and public life. The latter engagement with culture was prohibited under the communist regime, in which clergy and hierarchy were often compromised by the KGB. Open Christianity also seeks relations with non-christian religions; it wishes to go beyond the Russian Orthodox Church's current ecumenical relationships through the World Council of Churches. These are ambitious goals for Open Christianity's gifted members, especially considering that there are only 200 of them.

Open Christianity is committed to reaching nonbelievers in a charitable way. Open Christianity's leaders believe that you can't ask people to take a "leap of faith" in a vacuum. They advocate allowing nonbelievers space to examine the Christian faith as an option. The organization believes that reflective dialogue is the most effective way of bringing individuals to a spirit of love in Christ. A few Orthodox priests have encouraged the organization, namely Father Sergei Zheledkov and Father Alexander Men; both were early interpreters of the organization to church authorities.

The hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, however, does not appreciate the organization's name nor its stance. What does "open" mean? it asks. Christianity is a matter of commitment; there is a finality to faith in Christ. There is nothing "open" about it. Behind the church's response is also fear and displeasure over the organization's independence from the hierarchy. For instance, Open Christianity would like to have a priest for its new chapel and school, but it wants to select its own priest and then ask for the patriarch's blessing.

Instead of welcoming Open Christianity as an evangelizing ally, church authorities see it as an "unorthodox" organization out of their control. Such a tentative conclusion is unfortunate, since the dramatic changes taking place in Russia call for many allies in helping the church connect with an educated public brought up on atheistic maxims. The majority of Russia's intelligentsia is living in a spiritual vacuum. In its crusade to resist atheism, the Russian Orthodox Church failed to see that it needs to communicate on many levels in addressing unbelief. For some inquirers unbelief is a form of negative spirituality, one that is desperately searching for new and more positive forms. These inquirers need a process of questioning before they are ready to accept Christianity or any other belief system. Entering an Orthodox worship service or being receptive to God's Spirit demands first a cultural transformation for each questioner through prayerful and thoughtful dialogue. …

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