Reimagining American Community

One of the great strengths and treasures of the Orthodox Christian theological tradition is its emphasis on apophatic or negative theology: that is, the theology of not affirming something definite about God, so as not to limit God to a particular human-made conception of His ineffable essence, and to cultivate an appropriate awe of that which can never be fully known or articulated by human effort. This style of thinking and of speaking about God was practised in particular by S. Dionysios the Areopagite and by S. John Damascene. But the beauty of apophasis is that it is not limited to theology, but is applicable to all manner of things – including, for example, ecclesiology and political theology – and the end is always the same, to avoid falling victim to saying things which are not to be said, and thereby to avoid creating idols in the place of the living God.

Of course, we in the modern day are not particularly liable to fall prey to the worship of Thor or Zeus or Baal – our idols tend to be much more abstract. We are far more liable to worship idols like security or wealth or personal comfort or progress or technology, or indeed that perennial favourite since the French Revolution, La Liberté. For this reason, both apophatic and cataphatic theology are to be approached with caution, and we should be aware of the ways in which they can be misused.

For example, Acton Institute scholar Dylan Pahman’s missive on globalisation, with reference to Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov and his construction of sobornost’, indeed contains several apophatic points on which we are in agreement. According to Pahman (and, indeed, to me also), globalisation, per se, is not to be condemned out-of-hand as something evil, because it can serve good purposes – that is to say, purposes which orient the human being toward God. But it is not to this apophatic construction of Pahman’s to which I object – it is to his selective use of apophasis, to obscure an ideological commitment which I (and very likely Solovyov also) would find highly objectionable.

We should start with the use of the term sobornostvis-à-vis globalisation. The term sobornost’ is derived from sobornyi, Ss. Cyril and Methodius’s Slavonic translation of ‘Catholic’ as one of the Four Marks of the Church, and therefore any discussion on sobornost’ is therefore inescapably tied up with a discussion of Orthodox ecclesiology. The definition Pahman gives is one which I find acceptable: ‘the idea that human beings retain their freedom while participating in human society, and that human society is a participatory process through which human beings actualize themselves as unique hypostases [i.e. persons]’ (all emphases mine). However, once Pahman cites this definition, he then goes on to ignore it with a marked studiousness and expects his audience to do the same, by shifting the frame of reference onto the degree to which globalisation (high speed transport and social media in particular) has already expanded human capacities for connexion across time and space, and therefore, apparently, the individual moral capacity for theosis.

All of which would be fine and dandy… if Pahman happened to be writing a weekly opinion column for the New York Times or writing vapid bestsellers about luxury sedans and olive trees. But for someone who is attempting to elucidate the wisdom of the Orthodox tradition on the subject, and to speak with the mind of the Church, a rather greater degree of rigour and reflection is demanded. Are we to understand, based on Pahman’s reasoning, that the hesychasts both historical and contemporary who eschewed large cities and sought the wisdom of God in solitude and in limited contact with other people, were delusionally limiting their own moral potential? Are we to understand that monks and nuns who fail to avail themselves of modern communications technologies, or whose discipline precludes them from using them, are therefore further away from theosis than your average teenager on Twitter? And are we to condemn as stumbling-blocks to theosis those hierarchs of the Church who set reasonable (and indeed localist) boundaries on the use of social media by Orthodox clergy?

Likewise, on the topic of global trade. Has America’s increased trade with China, or with Russia, increased in any substantial degree the solidarity and neighbourliness of these nations with each other? Do ordinary Americans truly better understand the plight of young mingong women working in Shenzhen, through their purchase of the plastic toys they produce? Or, indeed, are they participating in the trade deals that their government is working out with other countries? Can we honestly say, with straight faces, that Facebook and Twitter are actually acting as a force for the upbuilding of healthy, integral personalities? Or that the language of ‘participation’ is even remotely accurate on a platform which assumes silence is consent when it comes to selling personal information to advertisers? The ultimate question to be asked is this: is there indeed at work here, in the actually-existing globalisation for which Pahman is presenting himself as the apologist, a ‘participatory process through which’ they – both producer and consumer – ‘actualise themselves as unique hypostases’?

Sobornost’ began and developed as an ecclesiological concept, and cannot rightly be divorced from its understanding that in Orthodoxy, everyone is invited to participate, and everyone is held responsible for seeing his brother or his sister in his fellow communicant. It is worthy of note also, that the Orthodox ecclesiological understanding of sobornost’ is demonstrably not a numbers-game which is judged by the number or geographical range of people you are connected to. It is not simply that, from an anthropological perspective, sobornost’ cannot be divorced from Alexei Khomyakov’s highly-localist practical model and point-of-reference in the traditional Russian obshchina (peasant commune), but also that Khomyakov himself applied exactly such an apophatic understanding to the term sobornyi.

‘Whatever may be the destiny of the world’s material forces, the intellectual movements of nations, or even the success of the Apostolate,’ Khomyakov writes, ‘the character of the Church’s catholicity is independent of all this. This character does not change and never will change. That is how S. Athanasius understood it. He did not say, “We are more populous, or more widely distributed in the universe” (that would have been doubtful in relation to the Arians and even more doubtful in relation to the Nestorians, who came later). Instead, he said: “In whatever country you may be, you are everywhere only Arians, Ebionites or Sabellians. But as for us, we are everywhere catholics, and recognised as such.”’

I ask these questions, and interject this criticism of his use of sobornost’, not to ridicule or to judge Pahman. Like I said, I don’t think globalisation is an irrevocable evil, but neither do I think its problems are so easily dismissed and glossed over, and clearly both concepts – of globalisation and of sobornost’ – are being very badly warped and misused here in an attempt to make them fit together. The apophatic reading Pahman applies to globalisation, I fear, can be used selectively to masque a faith-commitment to technology and the idolatrous myth of progress – and indeed his historical analysis veers in a dangerously anti-personalist, un-Orthodox and indeed Marxist direction when he asserts an inevitable, irrevocable, and for that reason desirable, ‘transition… from one stage of social organisation to the other’! Far greater attention than he himself gave to Solovyov’s question is due: ‘we must, before rejoicing or being grieved about it, know in what it is that the nations are being united, in good or in evil’.

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.