19th C. Russian Orthodoxy—Holy Rus!—is often romanticized by contemporary American Orthodox Christians suffering from an inferiority complex, triumphalism, or both. Even so, it would be unfair to dismiss the genuine religious revival which took place in Russia leading up to the Soviet Revolution, a revival which was as spiritual as it was intellectual. Although it would take some decades before their presence was truly appreciated by the institutional Russian church, the 1800s housed the Optina Elders, St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Philaret of Moscow, and Bishop Ignatius Bryanchaninov. Ss. Seraphim of Sarov and John of Kronstadt serve as spiritual bookends for the century while the ecclesial careers of Metropolitans Evlogy (Georgiyevsky) and Anthony (Kraphavitsky)—two of the most important figures in the history of diaspora Russian Orthodoxy—began. Theologically, most know the 19th C. as a time when “Russian Scholasticism” (for lack of a better term) began to yield some turf to such different currents as a nascent Patristic revival and, much more controversially, German Idealism-inspired mysticism such as Sophiology. Much of this good work would be either destroyed or dispersed during the first half of the 20th C. and arguably it failed to fully refresh the present-day Russian church despite the heroic attempts of some churchmen to reconnect 21st C. Russian Orthodoxy with the possibilities present in the 19th.
This is not the place to dwell on the Russian Orthodox Church’s problems nor to spend too much time on why its 19th C. renaissance failed to hold back the revolutionary forces which gutted Russia of her spiritual, moral, and intellectual character after the turn of the century. For all of the good fruit being borne throughout the Russian church in the 1800s, the state of Orthodoxy in Russia at the time has to be judged as poor. While reforms began to be instituted during the latter half of the century, for the most part the clerical state was little more than a caste system with the so-called “lower clergy” (secular priests and deacons) possessing low-level educations and limited social standing. Large swathes of Russia’s monastic culture was made up of men more concerned with the trappings of monasticism and the benefits that came with the cassock rather than preaching the Gospel—a point hammered home in the writings of Bishop Bryanchaninov. The institutional church itself, stripped of its Patriarch in 1700, remained a handmaid of the state, a sad reality which undermined both the Russian church’s divine mission and cultural importance. Instead of being perceived as an independent voice willing to witness to the truth even in the face of rampant political and social corruption, a widespread perception took hold in Russia that the Orthodox Church was simply another instrument of that corruption, which it too often was (though perhaps unwittingly).
One enduring lesson to take away from 19th C. Russian church’s experience is that no true religious revival, if it is to bear any lasting fruit (which, despite its mixed legacy, 19th C. Russian Orthodoxy certainly was able to produce under suboptimal conditions), can wholly spiritual or intellectual. Were it not for the ground prepared in the late 1700s by authentic monastic luminaries such as Ss. Tikhon of Zadonsk and Paisius Velichkovsky, it is doubtful that either the restoration of Russian spirituality or the reinvigoration of theology it helped inspire would have been possible. Although some Orthodox are guilty of over-stressing the “mystical” or “spiritual” nature of its theological heritage, there is a great deal to be said for the importance of reminding the church as a whole of what theology is for. This is no doubt hard to conceive at a time when theology is mainly confined to the academy and advancement depends more on how “challenging” and “innovative” one is over-and-against sticking to the “dry” and “stale” theological ways of the past. One major problem with the “theological revival” which is said to have taken place in the Christian West during this past century is that it had thin spiritual roots. Is it a coincidence that the rise of the “new theology” in Catholicism correlates with the rapid decline of Latin religious orders?
Today Christians of all stripes, including Catholics and Orthodox, are looking for a new renaissance, and with few exceptions, almost everyone is coming up short. The Russian Orthodox Church, for all of the good it has done since the collapse of Communism, is still the handmaid of the secular state despite the absence of any legal compulsion to be such. In Western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church has almost completely mortgaged its credibility and cultural standing, preferring to be a fading artifact of Europe’s “dark past” rather than a beacon of hope and renewal amidst a people preoccupied with civilizational suicide. In America, neither Orthodoxy nor Catholicism have done much to inspire the last few generations. American Orthodoxy, despite its occasional protestations to the contrary, is as compromised and secularized as the Roman Catholicism it often claims to stand above and against. Catholicism, for the most part, is a running gay joke with hierarchical buffoonery elevated to the level of performance art. Some earnest Catholics still drop in words like “witness,” “encounter,” and “renewal” into their rhetoric in an effort to strike a positive note for those content to ignore the crisis which has savaged Catholicism for more than half-a-century, but what good does it do? Catholicism’s internal rot continues to spread just as quickly as the possibility for the Church to restrain the growth of pernicious ideologies fades.