Introduction to the Modern Orthodox Tradition
In her study of the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, Joan Hussey begins with a caveat: “In the present state of our knowledge a book on the Byzantine Church must necessarily be in the nature of an interim report since much pioneer work remains to be done.”1 The same must be said about the attempt to present the “teachings” of modern Orthodoxy concerning law, society, and politics. While the historical sources for the study of modern Orthodox social ethics stand closer to us in time than those on which Byzantinists must rely, our level of knowledge about the subject is not markedly higher.
There are at least two reasons for this. The first is the catastrophe of the Russian Revolution (1917), which ruined the largest, richest, and besteducated Orthodox church in the world. The destruction wrought by Communism in Russia and elsewhere made civilized discourse on church and society in the Orthodox East extremely difficult for most of the twentieth century. The second is misleading stereotypes of Orthodoxy. The perception of Orthodoxy in the West has been deeply affected by a Christian “orientalism” that alternates between a condescending, essentially imperialist view of Orthodoxy as a backward form of Christianity and a romantic view of it as preserving mystical values from which a putatively rationalistic Western Christianity has fallen away.2 Both stereotypes, though opposed, promote the notion that Orthodox theology is not fundamentally concerned with law, society, and politics. In fact, Orthodoxy has been wrestling with issues of modern legal, political, and social order for almost three hundred years, and a large body of primary source material for the study of the subject is at hand, albeit underexplored.
Orthodoxy's meeting with modernity began in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725), and by the late eighteenth century this encounter was having a significant impact throughout the Orthodox world.