For decades, many social scientists had pretty much two things to
say about Eastern Orthodox Christianity: 1) that like all religions,
it was disappearing with the advance of modern civilization; 2) that
it derived most of its support from the reactionary tides of
authoritarianism and nationalism.
Those pronouncements are being proved wrong. Today, as in the
parable of the prodigal son, throughout Eastern Europe people are
returning to the Orthodox Church in droves, and the effect in the
public sphere, contrary to most expectations, is quite benign.
Though historically viewed with suspicion by Catholic and
Protestant Europe, Orthodox Christianity can actually help bridge
the Russia-West gap.
At the heart of much of the miscommunication between Russia and
Europe today lies the unacknowledged and untapped longing of
Orthodox Christians to be recognized as part of a common European
cultural family again. The latest effort to bridge this divide was
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II's remarks in France, where he
spoke poignantly of how the Christian identity Europeans
historically share should promote dialogue on issues like human
rights and peace, even with atheists and members of other faiths.
The patriarch was pointing out that, while they may differ on
specific political issues today, a profound religious bond actually
underpins Western and Eastern European cultural and political
values. Sadly, this common bond is rarely mentioned, in either
Russia or the West. Today's Slavophile Russian nationalists seem
uncomfortable recalling that, despite his uncompromising critique of
Western secularism, their avatar Fyodor Dostoyevsky always regarded
Europe as Russia's "mother" civilization.
In the West, this oversight has more to do with the fact that
Catholic and Protestant Christianity have so often denied an equal
voice to those who disagreed with them. In both instances, Orthodox
Christianity is seen as part of the problem in East-West relations,
instead of part of the solution, as it should be.
Western suspicion of Eastern Orthodoxy can be traced back to
before the Great Schism that divided the Christian Church in 1054.
One hundred and fifty years later, it fueled the Crusaders' zeal for
the sacking of Constantinople. In the 18th century, it became a main
theme of Edward Gibbon's influential interpretation of the Roman
Empire, which was later echoed in the writings of Oswald Spengler
and Arnold Toynbee. And in modern times, Samuel Huntington, among
others, has warned direly of the potential for clashes between
"Slavic-Orthodox" civilization and the Catholic-Protestant West.
With the exception of Greece, this sad legacy has made Western
Europeans notoriously slow to accept countries with large Orthodox
populations into pan-European institutions. …