I’ve noticed something disturbing on certain blogs and Facebook profiles lately. Some of my sisters and brothers in the Orthodox Church seem wedded to Christendom. They describe themselves variously as monarchists, supporters of the imperium, and advocates for “symphonia.” Symphonia means “harmony.” Typically it is taken to mean that Orthodox politics promotes a harmony between church and state. This ethos is best captured in the image of the two headed eagle, wielding a cross in one talon and a sword in the other (the symbols vary). For Orthodox Christians like Stanley Harakas, symphonia should guide our involvement in a democratic society, but I get the impression that some would prefer we get our empire back.
Aristotle Papanikolaou has recently argued that democracy is the political system most conducive to the Orthodox emphasis on theosis (what he calls “divine-human communion”). I am not 100% convinced by Papanikolaou’s argument (which does not mean that I don’t agree with him, only that I do not think his argument is quite as strong as it could be), but he makes an interesting point about views like Harakas’. The Orthodox Church, he says, should not feel compelled to honor a barely-realized ideal in the 20th century. In other words, just because symphonia was our ideal once, does not mean that it must be so for all time.
One of the things I pointed out in my dissertation was that to believe one must support empire in order to be Orthodox is to act is if there was no church before 380, the date Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The martyrs did not need an empire in order to be Orthodox, and neither do we. In fact, I think the evidence is fairly convincing that we don’t do all that well under empire. The collection of power in a divinely-ordained emperor tends to corrupt church and state alike.
That does not mean I disregard symphonia entirely. I just do not think we need to let it form a boundary around our thinking. If we can avoid that, then it can be a fairly useful lighthouse for Orthodoxy in the modern world. One of the things I argued in my dissertation was that symphonia in the Byzantine Empire was actually the church’s attempt to apply the “eschatological imperative” at the heart of Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom to a new, imperial context. I further argued that sophiology was in many ways an attempt to apply symphonia to modernity.
But ultimately, I agree with Papanikolaou in his critique of Harakas. The Orthodox Christian is under no obligation to promote a medieval ideal that was barely achieved in its own day, because what makes us Orthodox is not our adherence to the past. Despite traditionalists assertions to the contrary, we are Orthodox because our history is still ahead of us. It is from the future. “Thy Kingdom come!”