Friday, April 22, 2016

The Orthodox Church and Culture

To continue with a theme from the last post, that of the Orthodox Faith bringing a culture to the highest plane of development, here are a few observations from Ivan Ilyin on the impact the Orthodox leaven has had on Russia’s culture down through the years:

 . . .

National spiritual culture is created from generation to generation not by conscious thought and not through arbitrary chance, but through a long, integral, and inspired tension of the entire human being; and most of all by an unconscious instinct, the nocturnal forces of the soul. These mysterious forces of the soul are capable of spiritual creativity only when they are illuminated, ennobled, formed, and cultivated by religious faith. History doesn’t know a culturally creative and spiritually great people that dwelled in godlessness. Even the lattermost savages have their faith. Falling into unbelief, nations decayed and died. That the elevation of national culture depends on the perfection of religion is understandable.

From time immemorial Russia was a nation of Orthodox Christianity. Her principal creative national-linguistic nucleus always confessed the Orthodox faith. (See, for example, D. Mendeleev’s statistical data. On Knowledge of Russia. Pp. 36-41, 48-49. By the beginning of the 20th century Russia counted around 66% Orthodox population, around 17% non-Orthodox Christians, and around 17% non-Christian religions – some 5 million Jews and Turco-Tatar peoples.) Here is why the spirit of Orthodoxy always defined and still defines so much and so deeply the fabric of Russia’s national creativity.

By the gifts of Orthodoxy all Russian people have lived, have been educated, and have found salvation over the course of centuries. They were all citizens of the Russian Empire – both those who forgot these gifts and those who didn’t notice them, renouncing and even blaspheming them; citizens belonging to other Christian confessions; and other European peoples beyond Russia’s borders.

We would need an entire historical study for an exhaustive description of these gifts. I can point to them only by a brief enumeration.

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  1. Orthodoxy brought to the Russian people all the gifts of the Christian sense of justice – a will to peace, brotherhood, justice, loyalty, and solidarity; a sense of dignity and rank; a capability for self-control and mutual respect; in a word, all that which can draw the state nearer to Christ’s commandments.
  2. Orthodoxy nourished in Russia the sense of a citizen’s responsibility, that of an official before the Tsar and God, and most of all it consolidated the idea of a monarch, called and anointed, who would serve God. Thanks to that tyrannical rulers in Russian history were a complete exception. All humane reforms in Russian history were inspired or suggested by Orthodoxy.
  3. Russian Orthodoxy faithfully and wisely resolved a most difficult task with which Western Europe almost never coped – to find a correct correlation between the Church and secular power, a mutual support under mutual loyalty and non-encroachment.
  4. Orthodox monastery culture gave Russia not only a host of righteous men. It gave her her chronicles, i.e. it set a foundation for Russian historiography and Russian national consciousness. Pushkin expressed it thus: “We are obliged to the monks for our history, and consequently our enlightenment” (Pushkin’s “Historical Notes,” 1822). We mustn’t forget that the Orthodox faith was long considered the true criterion of “Russianness” in Russia.
  5. The Orthodox doctrine on the immortality of a person’s soul (lost in contemporary Protestantism, interpreting “eternal life” not in the sense of immortality of the soul, which is seen as mortal); on obedience to higher authorities for the sake of one’s conscience; on Christian forbearance and laying down one’s life “for one’s friends” gave the Russian Army all the sources of its knightly, individually fearless, selflessly obedient and all-conquering spirit, which developed in its historical wars and especially in the teaching and practice of Aleksandr Suvorov – and was often recognized by great captains of the enemy (Frederick the Great, Napoleon, etc.).
  6. All Russian art has derived from the Orthodox faith, from the beginning nourishing within itself its spirit of heartfelt contemplation, prayerful soaring, free forthrightness, and spiritual responsibility (See Gogol’s “What, Ultimately, is the Essence of Russian Poetry?” and “On the Lyricism of Our Poets.” See my book Foundations of Artistry. On the Perfect in Art.) Russian painting came from the icon; Russian music was fanned by Church singing; Russian architecture came from the mason-work of cathedrals and monasteries; the Russian theatre was borne from the dramatic “acts” on religious themes; Russian literature came from the Church and monastics.

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Source:  ‘Ivan Ilyin on Orthodoxy’, trans. Mark Hackard,, accessed 17 Aug. 2015

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