Robert D Kaplan – Orthodoxy and Europe

Map of the churches in the Orthodox Communion in Europe and parts of the Middle East (Source, Wikipedia)

You may be familiar, or not, with Stratfor, an American conservative security think tank, if I am not mistaken in my description.

Robert D Kaplan, one of its analysts, and author of the well-known book Balkan Ghosts, (you may read it HERE), and other such titles, writes for Stratfor about the impact of Orthodoxy on Europe, a most sensitive topic in this part of the world. Here are a few quotes from this interesting article, which you may ask from Stratfor (or ask me for it).

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Horia-Roman Patapievici is a Romanian philosopher who, way back in the late 1990s, told me that Romania’s task was to acquire a public style based on impersonal and transparent rules like in the West, otherwise business and politics would be full of intrigue. And he questioned whether Romania’s Eastern Orthodox tradition is helpful in this regard. He went on to explain that Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece and Cyprus — the Orthodox nations of Europe — were all characterized by weak institutions, compared with those of northwestern Europe. He and many others have intimated that this is partly because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, thus tolerant of the world as it is, having created its own alternative order.

Because of Orthodoxy, according to the late British historian Hugh Seton-Watson, early 20th-century Russians who lost their religious faith did not become “rationalist skeptics” in the Western tradition; they merely transferred their spiritual fervor to social revolution. Nicolas Berdyaev, a Russian intellectual of the era, observed that Bolshevism was an Orthodox form of Marxism, because it underscored “totality.” (Indeed, Stalin, who studied for six years at an Orthodox monastery in Georgia, gave speeches that evoked the singsong litanies of the church.)

There is much to debate here. But clearly, given the millennia-old traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with its forests of beeswax candles, silver-plated icons and other exemplars of intoxicating magic, there is a clear otherness to Orthodoxy that defines it as a great world religion. To say that the Orthodox countries that dominate the Balkans and Russia are capable eventually of the same level of institutional development as those in northwestern Europe is altogether reasonable; but to say that such things as culture and religion simply do not contribute at all to different development patterns in Greater Europe is not reasonable.

Today, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Serbia and Macedonia, are engulfed by political intrigue and bad governance to a much greater degree than countries to the north and the west. Greece is in the midst of an economic catastrophe comparable to the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s, and Cyprus has undergone the worst banking crisis in Europe, in part related to deposits from many shady Russians. And that, in turn, is a demonstration of the weak institutions that bedevil Russia, another Orthodox country. The situation is, of course, complex. Cyprus, for instance, even though it is the closest of these countries to the Middle East, actually has had the most efficient institutions of any of them, owing to its strong British colonial heritage. And Romania, despite the awful legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu’s national Stalinism, has impressively avoided catastrophe for a quarter century now and is inching forward in terms of its economy and institutions. Nevertheless, as someone who lived in Greece and traveled through the Balkans continually for many years, I can say that this region is clearly not entirely Europe, but an intermediary zone between Europe and the Near East.

Europe is not strictly a financial story. It is a political story, and therefore a geopolitical one. Orthodox Russia, despite the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, still lies uncomfortably next door to Central and Eastern Europe, as we have seen especially in recent weeks. The Balkans are still what they always have been: on the fault line between Europe and Asia. And Iberia bears a history of modern dictatorship that still affects its politics and economics. Therefore, the cultural observations of those like Romanian philosopher Patapievici, historian Seton-Watson and Russian intellectual Berdyaev are still relevant. Patapievici, in particular, is a liberal humanist and a cosmopolitan who believes fervently in human agency and the sanctity of the individual, but who also knows that centuries-old traditions and belief systems do count for something. They simply cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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