The Public Role of Church and Theology

This morning I came across six theses by Pantelis Kalaitzidis on the role the church should play in public life. They are in his book, Orthodoxy and Political Theology, which was recommended by my friend Brandon Gallaher. When the book arrived, I flipped it over and read the following question on the back cover, “Why has Eastern Orthodoxy not developed a full-throated political theological voice?” This is the same question that drove my dissertation and drives my book. (Once again, Brandon hits the nail on the head!)

Speaking of the book, let me update its status: Yes, I am still working on it. I was speaking with someone I might pitch it to just the other day. I drafted the proposal and revised two sample chapters by the end of the spring. Since then, revisions have been slow as I have been preoccupied with other projects. But I have a plan, and if all goes according to plan, the proposal will be on a publisher’s desk by May 31. (Now, who is the patron saint of “not-eating-your-own-words?”)

I literally just read Kalaitzidis’ six theses, and I am trying to think my way through them.
They are:

1. Religion is a public matter, but we need to recognize that public is not the same as state.  I raised a similar point in my demonstration. Part of the problem with the way we think about Christian politics is that we draw dichotomies that do not exist. The boundaries between public and private, church and state, economy and society are rather porous. These are all really just different versions of us. Thus my dissertation focused on the “limen” between church and culture. Limen can mean “wall,” but it also means “threshold.” In psychology it refers to a point in which one stimulus cannot be clearly distinguished from another. In other words, for the Christian, public life is lived in the narthex. Discipleship does not happen in the church or the world but both places at once, and public theology tries to inhabit that space faithfully (though not always successfully). Kalaitzidis has inserted a rather healthy amount of ambiguity into the way we think about church and society.

Justinian the Great
Justinian the Great

2. “The church can be involved in the public sphere, provided that it is aware of the boundaries and conditions of that sphere.” The school of thought known as Radical Orthodoxy (no direct relation to Eastern Orthodoxy) would sneer at such a “liberal” statement. Though I do not often agree with some prominent “Radox” theologians, I might be inclined to agree with them in this case. With one hand the author giveth. With the other he taketh away. The body of Christ extends itself into every sector of society. Thus the relationship between the church and society is ambiguous. The first thesis rightly says that the church inhabits every place and, in a way, no place (at least not where it can be clearly identified). The second thesis says, “Know you place,” which strikes me as inconsistent if not downright contradictory.

3. Be active, not authoritative.  Kalaitzidis rightly says that having a public witness in society is not the same thing as trying to have authority over society. His analysis of the errors of the Orthodox past (about which he has a unique perspective as a native Greek) is correct. The church with power is not the same as the church in power. A church with power over people often ends up crushing them.

4. The church needs to recognize and deal with the modern reality of autonomous, systematic complexity. I might have overly-complicated what the author put rather simply. To quote his (better) words, “The church will also have to understand and accept another reality of modern society, one that is largely due to secularization: the division of society into sub-systems or autonomous sectors of social affairs.” Kalaitzidis is right. Modernity is complex. Economic, social, and political systems interact and bang into each other, and there are always people in those systems getting tossed around the process. We need to be willing to recognize this as a basic fact of modern life. Turning back the clock would be pointless. This is not Byzantium anymore, Dorothy.

Vladimiar Solovyov (1853-1900)
Vladimiar Solovyov (1853-1900)

5. The church must be a voluntary organization. I am not all that familiar with the work of Kalaitzidis; I have read only a couple of his articles before. So I am not sure how much he has read the work of Vladimir Solovyov. A Russian philosopher or mystic (who makes me want to study hallucinogens and their use in the 19th century), Solovyov advocated what he called a “free theocracy.” Though that might be one of the most unfortunate terms every proposed by any political philosophy – ever! – his vision is basically one in which the church permeates society yet protects civil liberties, not on the basis of the Enlightenment idea that we are all autonomous individuals with NO TRESPASSING signs hanging from our necks, but because we recognize that each individual is a unique instantiation of the plenteous, overflowing divine image in the created world, and thus worthy of dignity and respect. This means we have to respect freedom of conscience without necessarily abiding by the “separation of church and state.” The church is voluntary because we value people. Nobody should ever be coerced into religion. “Separation of church and state” is a nice idea, but it is sloppy, again, because it tends to make us think that church and state are something other than us (i.e. the author’s first thesis).

This photo says it all.

6. “The public ecclesiastical role should embody the Cross-centered ethos of Christ.” In other words, the church should be cruciform. I sometimes tell the story of how I worked at UPS in the summer of 1999, when the temperature unusually high (over the 100s). Those little brown trucks are like ovens. I remember a woman who worked at the front counter. She would go around every so often, giving us little Styrofoam cups of cold water. I knew she was a Christian long before we ever talked about her faith. She gave me cups of cold water in Jesus name without ever speaking a word. I dream of the day when the church will be known more for its kindness than its opposition to gay marriage and abortion, when we shall be known more for the people we love than the sins we hate.

The above is all a bit provisional. These short theses transition the reader into a chapter that argues that the way of the church in the modern world is dictated by the reality of the kingdom of God. We value our past, and act in our present, because of our future. So far, Amen!

Reading on…

3 thoughts on “The Public Role of Church and Theology”

  1. I just started reading this book last week. Kalaitzidis is also interesting for his eschatological view of the working out of Orthodox theology that he discusses elsewhere. It opens us to a great many things… things that, as Jesus told the disciples, we could not yet bear… Looking forward to finishing it :)


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