Andrew Sorokowski's column

Shifting the east-west paradigm

15.12.2010, 07:39
There is a fundamental paradox in the world view of many Ukrainians. Ecclesiastically they are Eastern – whether they are Greek-Catholic or Orthodox. But socio-politically and culturally as well as economically, their orientation is Western. They see themselves as a part of Europe.

There is a fundamental paradox in the world view of many Ukrainians. Ecclesiastically they are Eastern – whether they are Greek-Catholic or Orthodox. But socio-politically and culturally as well as economically, their orientation is Western. They see themselves as a part of Europe.

This would not be a problem if one could neatly separate religion from society, politics, culture, and economics. But historians as well as churchmen have seen many connections between the Byzantine, "Orthodox" tradition and certain political, social, economic and cultural phenomena that are anything but Western. Some have argued that in countries like Russia, Orthodoxy has gone hand in hand with autocracy, socio-economic backwardness, and cultural conservatism. Conversely, Roman Catholicism has been identified with cultural flourishing, while Protestantism has been tied to the growth of capitalism and the development of modern, democratic states.

As a result, some Ukrainian Greek-Catholic and even Orthodox leaders have seen Western, Latin influences as positive for both church and society. The Latinizing reforms of the Synod of Zamosc (1720) were seen as progressive, just as the introduction of mandatory priestly celibacy in the 1920s was regarded as a modernizing reform of a backwards Byzantine clergy. Indeed, the Eastern-oriented Russophilism of much Greek-Catholic clergy from the 1860s was considered a symptom of cultural retardation. After all, the Russian clergy itself was being attacked by Russian liberals for its political and cultural conservatism and anti-intellectualism, while patriotic Ukrainians in Russia regarded the Orthodox Church as one of their bitterest enemies.

In reaction to russophilism, Bishop Hryhorii Khomyshyn of Stanyslaviv saw all Byzantinism as inevitably leading to schism, Russian-style autocracy and, ultimately, to Bolshevism. To Bishop Khomyshyn, one could not be culturally Western while clinging to an Eastern ecclesiastical orientation. Even today, this Westernizing tradition is alive, particularly, it seems, in Bishop Khomyshyn's eparchy, now known as Ivano-Frankivsk. Nearly half a century of Russian Orthodox domination seemed to confirm his views, or at least to give Western Ukrainians an acute allergy to Byzantinism in its Russian redaction.

But Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky succeeded in uncoupling Byzantinism from its compromising association with Russian Orthodoxy. Condemning the East-West hybrid orientation of "Uniatism," he proposed a Greek Byzantine path for his church, one that would avoid the pitfalls of Russian Orthodoxy without falling into the trap of latinization and polonization. In the vision of his followers, the Eastern tradition was thus divided into reactionary Russophile and enlightened Kyivan Byzantine variants.

Did Metropolitan Andrei succeed in persuading Ukrainians that a Greek Byzantine church orientation in the Kyivan tradition could be harmonized with a Western socio-political, cultural and economic stance? Or do they believe that in religious as well as secular affairs, the more Western we are, the better?

Before we try to answer this question, perhaps we should reconsider what we mean by "East" and "West." Quite often, these are code words for something that has little to do with geographic categories. Rather, they stand for political and cultural concepts.

To Ukrainians, as to Poles, the "East" often means Russia, in all its darkness and barbarism. Thus, the word is practically the opposite of "civilization." Certainly it does not refer to China, Japan, or India – or even the Near or Middle East – areas whose cultural heritage is much older than that of any Slavic nation. Correspondingly, "West" often means everything that is civilized and enlightened – represented by England and France, Germany and Italy – though not by phenomena like anti-semitism, religious persecution, Marxism, or fascism, all of which have a long tradition in that same West. Moreover, the political notions of "East" and "West" do not coincide with their geographic meanings. After all, Cossack democracy flourished in the East, as did Polish-Lithuanian republicanism.

Nor do the cultural meanings of these terms coincide with the points of the compass. Kyiv may regard Byzantium (Constantinople) as "the East," but that city is on a meridian of longitude to the west of Kyiv's. While Ukrainians may think of it as modern Istanbul, overwhelmingly Islamic and therefore Asian, it is geographically in Europe. From a Ukrainian perspective, then, the world center of Orthodoxy is both western and European. At the same time Vienna, the old Habsburg bastion of Germanic Catholicism, is in fact further east than Slavic Prague.

Within the religious realm itself, the geographical symbolism of "East" and "West" has misled us into thinking of them as opposites. That this is not so was recently confirmed at a conference titled "Orthodox Constructions of the West." Held on June 28-30, 2010 at Fordham University in New York, it was co-sponsored by the university's Orthodox Christian Studies Program and its Center for Medieval Studies. The conference, most of whose speakers were Orthodox Christians (including the Ukrainian Catholic University's Professor Antoine Arjakovsky), reportedly "sought to understand how 'Orthodox authors ... had created artificial categories of "East" and "West" and then used (them) as a basis for self-definition" (Gary W. Jenkins, "Identity Papers: Orthodoxy's Self-Definition and Its Constructions of the West," Touchstone, November-December 2010, p. 53). It seems that both Catholics and Orthodox have created a false opposition between Eastern and Western church traditions.

Whether one thinks of East and West as two groups of traditions within the Catholic communion or as two aspects of the Christian Church, what is needed is a concept of East and West as existing in a complementary relationship. Just as in a choral counterpoint, each voice hears the others as well as the total effect, while continuing to sing its own part, so the Greek-Catholic Church can continue to develop its Kyivan Byzantine tradition while remaining conscious both of the Latin tradition and of the harmony of traditions within the Catholic communion. Similarly, Ukrainian Orthodoxy remains Eastern while growing in a dialectical relationship with Western Christianity.

The same occurs on the level of civilization. Ukraine belongs to a European civilization that includes Eastern and Western traditions, Byzantium as well as Rome. For the real conflict is not between East and West, or between Europe and Asia, or even Europe and Russia. It is between civilization and barbarism – a barbarism that cannot be located in someone else's culture, but exists within us. And from the point of view of the Church, the conflict is not between Roman and Byzantine traditions, but between a Christian civilization and none at all.

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