The Kingdoms of God and Constantine

So now I am going to sum up Part II of Orthodoxy without Empire. Last time I talked about the church-culture limen and two inadequate ways of relating to it. In Part II, I argue that a more coherent account of this limen can actually be found in the rubble of the Byzantine Empire. I know that sounds counterintuitive when you consider that one of the options I criticize is a kind of neo-imperialism, but hear me out, because I think what I am working toward is actually an anti-imperialistic. It’s this socio-political ideal called symphonia.

Emperor Justinian, via Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Justinian, via Wikimedia Commons

Typically, symphonia is described as trying to achieve a balance between the interests of the church and the state. That is, the two institutions work together in harmony (what symphonia means) for the cause of Christ and his kingdom. There are a lot of problems with this description, not the least of which is that it ignores how often working for the cause of Christ required opposing the state. Of course the rulers of Byzantium, like their pagan neighbors and predecessors, used religion to bolster their authority, but the priests and laity were quick to remind them that the sword of the Heavenly King could cut both ways. The kingdom that allegedly authorized the monarchs could become the standard against which they were judged. In this way, symphonia is an anti-theocratic social theory.

Florensky & Bulgakov (via Wikimedia Commons)
Florensky & Bulgakov (via Wikimedia Commons)

That helps explain why, centuries later, Russian philosopher-theologians drew inspiration from it in their fight to reform their autocratic society. Thus Sergei Bulgakov’s putatively esoteric attempt to parse the connection between heavenly and earthly wisdom was actually a Christian theory of culture – an updated version of symphonia (he pretty much identified one with the other). Culture, like the visible church, is an imperfect domain of divine activity. Our ultimate commitment to the kingdom demands that we learn to inhabit this imperfection – this tension between this world’s fallen and transformed states. This hardly means we need to endorse Bulgakov’s sophiology (personally, I find Sophia superfluous). We can still put his insight into a more traditional orthodox idiom. If the world was made through the Word, and the world includes humanity, then human history also bears vestiges of Christ. Culture contains, and pines for, theosis, which it will realize in the kingdom to come.

Part III fleshes out the implications this way of thinking about culture has on the behavior and self-understanding of the body of Christ in the world.

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