Orthodox Old Believer Occidentalism

Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit’s new book on Occidentalism stretches the label to cover an awfully wide range of phenomena. (One could no doubt make a similar claim about the range of phenomena to which the label “Orientalism” has been applied since the appearance of Edward Said’s book by that name in 1978.)

In the words of reviewer Daniel Moran in Strategic Insights (May 2004):

The real subject of the authors’ reflections is not the West as a historical reality but modernity as a complex of ideas, attitudes, and practices. For them the “West” is any place where modernity–here broadly synonymous with limited, responsible government and a respect for individual rights and scientific rationality–has prevailed. Occidentalists are those, wherever situated, who have found the modern to be intolerably corrosive of traditional values: decadent, rootless, alienated, materialist, morally soft, and spiritually bereft. Such people arose first in the West, because it was there that the challenges of modernity were first experienced.

The following passage from Occidentalism illustrates how Buruma and Margalit seek to lump Russian Orthodox “Old Believers” into the Occidentalist camp.

The standard theological bone of contention in the Greek Orthodox Church was the nature of the Godhead. Theology was taken very seriously in Roman Catholicism as well. Its various schisms came from theological debates about the nature of man. To be sure, there is always something else involved in a split besides the declared religious issues, but it is a serious mistake to deny that there are true believers, and moreover believers who are willing to fight and die for their beliefs.

The Russian church, however, was not just relatively indifferent to theology; it actively resisted the idea of turning religion into a form of geometry. Religion, it maintained, was a spiritual enterprise, not an intellectual one. Devotion to icons should count more than a clever gloss of chapter and verse. There was, in fact, a major schism in the Russian church, but this did not come from any intellectual rift. In 1652, Nikon, the patriarch of Moscow, tried to reform the Russian church to bring it more in line with the Eastern Greek church. The reforms affected old customs: three hallelujahs instead of two, five consecrated loaves instead of seven, the procession against the sun rather than in the direction of the sun, and even a change of spelling of Jesus’ name. These examples show that the schism was not about creed, even though those who opposed the reforms are described as the Old Believers. It was about ritual customs. The Old Believers threw stones at an official church procession in the Kremlin for walking in the wrong direction, but not because the church was going astray in matters of dogma. Creed is associated with the Western church, but custom belongs to the East.

At least two elements of Russian religious culture anticipated Occidentalism. The stress on intellectual matters in the Catholic church was a sure sign, to Russian believers, that it was lacking in simple and pure-hearted faith. The other element, which was at the root of the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, was a deep suspicion of any innovation. Novelty, to these believers, was always something that came from the outside. It was deemed to be inauthentic and humiliating, suggesting that there was something essentially lacking in the old ways. This religious sensibility cuts very deep. It views the church not as a source of new knowledge, but as the depository of collective memory, the memory of Rus as a holy community. Memory and simple faith are the main virtues of the human mind, not reason and the newfangled sophistry it produces. Mysticism, expressing a higher mode of existence, was valued much more than the exertions of a methodical mind.

The Old Believers sensed that behind Nikon’s reforms lay a host of Greek priests who had arrived from Kiev with the old strategy of domination by complication–that is, complicating beyond recognition the religious life of the true believers and thus taking charge of telling them what to do. Simple religious life was, to the Old Believers, something quintessentially Russian, whereas Nikon’s new manual of worship was foreign, artificial, and inauthentic.

SOURCE: Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (Penguin Press, 2004), pp. 84-85

I wonder where Buruma and Margalit’s approach in Occidentalism intersects with that of Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, which I haven’t yet read. The title is certainly catchy.

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