Christian Orthodox Obligations Versus Secular Human Rights

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Review: Leonard G. Friesen, Transcendent Love: Dostoevsky and the Search for a Global Ethic, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016, 240pp., $50.00

       In our climate of a possible ‘new cold war’, Immanuel Kant’s vision of an ethical commonwealth based on universally shared human reason appears more utopian than ever. However, Leonard G. Friesen in his new work Transcendent Love surveys the engagement of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, the 19th century’s Russian literary giant, with European human-rights based secularism, arguing that the alternative ethic that P03233Dostoevsky put forward with the “Orthodox Christ” has as much to contribute to our age as it did in his for forging a global ethic. Friesen enters into the field of global ethics that has, as Heather Widdows in Global Ethics: An Introduction points out, only emerged in the past few decades. Global ethics not only concerns itself with global issues such as the ‘war on terror’, global trade, or climate change, but also recognizes that given the interconnectedness of our society due to globalization and the aspirations of global governance, necessity compels us to create a global ethic to address issues that affect us globally. Introductions to moral philosophy such as Torbjörn Tännsjö’s Understanding Ethics and Kimberly Hutchings’ Global Ethics are quite euro-centric in perspective, which Friesen rightly challenges. In this way Friesen’s stands beside works like The Globalization of Ethics edited by William M. Sullivan that likewise sought to include non-European perspectives.

       For Friesen however contemporary global ethics are detrimentally marred by a radical individualism and a secular moral relativism. Friesen proposes that Dostoevsky’s context of 19th century Russia, being caught between the world powers Europe and Asia, offers a unique contribution for us by helping us break out of our common euro-centrism, as well as being a much needed antidote to our individualism and secular relativism by its communal nature and Orthodoxy respectively. While global ethical issues such as climate change are not addressed in depth, Friesen hopes that new framework for a global ethic found in the “Orthodox Christ” of Dostoevsky can give direction for such engagement—much like Patrick Riordan’s Global Ethics and Global Common Goods in seeking to bring the field of global ethics right back to foundational ethical issues of the ‘Good’ for direction. Despite being notoriously difficult to interpret in literary circles Friesen stands confidant with renowned Dostoevsky scholars such as Vladimir Soloviev in interpreting Dostoevsky as primarily an exponent of Russian Orthodoxy. Dostoevsky is read as such a writer who “…was determined to bridge the gap between the People (Russia’s famed narod, the peasantry)…” who carried the spirit of Orthodoxy and “…the empire’s Europeanized elite…” who were possessed by European secular individualism, as exemplified in his novel Demons, with the “Orthodox Christ.”

       Friesen begins by discussing the motifs of orphanhood and suicide prevalent across Dostoevsky’s work, framed in his novella “The Meek One”, to explore what Dostoevsky feared most for Russia. Viewing the ‘progressive’ thought of Russia’s 1840s liberal generation with suspicion, Dostoevsky saw in it a destructive secularism. “Dostoevsky deemed all moderns to be orphans…” left to complete destitution without God. Our ethical gaze was diminished from immortality and the future, unto this world and the present, leaving those who have the most material wealth to wield the most power, seeking to control us orphaned souls. As such, a variety of new ethical preferences such as ends over means, the individual over the community, and indifference over ethical distinctions are brought about. Dostoevsky depicts the Europeanized elite as thoroughly bored and depressed because of this, which results in searching for a life of new diversions ranging from idle chatter to sexual depravity such as pedophilia. Gambling, self-loathing, voyeuristic entertainment, and direct violence, all likewise stem from this indifference to a secular universe. Left to this destitution themselves, the felt need of the powerful to assert their “…rights even precede any particular content to those rights…” The People (narod) being weak are left so alone to scramble for their security that they might even sacrifice their freedom to inequitable conditions. “It seemed that Dostoevsky associated modernity with ethically sanctioned inequality.” If all ended in death “…in a profoundly meaningless world…” then “…it may be that the only truly meaningful act we can undertake is to kill ourselves”, thus suicide for Dostoevsky is the natural resultant of modernity’s orphanhood. Believing that secular Europeans were still searching for a transcendent ethical vision, Dostoevsky held out hope for their conversion. He does not spell out this conversion in propositional form though, but rather expresses it “…relationally, through an absolute embodied truth…” in the characters of his novels.

    From Dostoevsky’s fears we move to understanding his Russian Orthodox ethics, illustrated chiefly by repentance in his novel Crime and Punishment. Repentance, the beginning of this ethical vision, starts with not only a firm acknowledgement of our wrongs but remembrance of the Orthodox Biblical tradition, seen in Dostoevsky’s various references to the scripture, icons, San Damiano Crossand the sign of the cross all as an reinforcement of it. Dostoevsky asks his “…readers…to think of their future as a memory, for they could approach it by looking backward to the cross and the resurrection of Holy Week” thus recapturing their formally transcendent ethical horizon. Immortality and freedom, such as in his famed exploration of it in his novella Notes from Underground, are likewise essential for his ethical vision, for the vision must be freely embraced in full hope, rather than forced upon the People by coercion and without hope. The transcendence of the Orthodox Christ enables the People to have freedom beyond the brutal determinism of a secular universe and hope beyond the present. The Europeanized Russian elite did provide some lesser version of freedom—the freedom of a variety of equally bad choices as to which debauchery and distraction you wanted to pursue, but they offered nothing to replace the now lost transcendental horizon of Russian Orthodoxy.

     The Russian Orthodox ethic consists in an open invitation to all, especially those deemed ‘unrighteous’. However, both the illusions of moral progress, and a sense of superiority to the peasantry—need to be shown for the sham they are for repentance to begin. Dostoevsky’s common motif of kissing the earth illustrates that “…for Dostoevsky shame was an essential device by which Europeanized, individualized Russians would return to a new identity grounded in the interdependence of the People”, The notion of “joint responsibility” (krugovaia poruka) is prevalent throughout Russian history as shown in Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia and the Russians. Only after this could they move to embrace a life of unconditional, limitless, and personally active love, which flow out of their own sense of their responsibility to others “…even at the expense of their personal joy.” Dostoevsky’s saintly characters manifest this love in pity, the embrace of other people’s suffering, and in bearing collective responsibility. It follows from the last that if we commit a wrong against one person we commit a wrong against all people, resulting in the need for mutual forgiveness, as Christ has forgiven us. For all Russian Orthodox thought this vision, while utterly self-sacrificial, is sublimely beautiful as it develops us into the likeness of Christ like a living icon. Friesen argues then that Dostoevsky would challenge our secular moral relativism with a transcendent vision of the “Orthodox Christ”, as well as our radical individualism by this call to collective responsibility out of repentance.

      In his final section, Friesen looks at Dostoevsky’s speech given at the celebration of the monument to Alexander Pushkin, responding to critics who argued that the Orthodox Christ could not be universalized. Dostoevsky admires that whether Catholic France or Protestant Germany each had its own contribution to global ethical discourse in seeking to be a universal ethic. Europe however made a fatal flaw by forgetting the ideal of the Orthodox Christ. Any ethical vision “…built on a cocktail of atheism, science and liberalism [was] doomed to fail…” and was itself too provincial. For Dostoevsky the ideal of the Orthodox Christ was kept among the peasantry and not in the Europeanized elite, for Russia harbored within itself from its beginning as a nation the Orthodox faith which was always meant to be universal—therefore “…one could be fully Russian and fully universal at the same time.” Dostoevsky further warned that Europeanized Russians who had rejected the Orthodox Christ would seek to impose their ethic by a strong state apparatus that would do anything to reform or be rid of the ‘ignorant masses’—eerily prescient of the Soviet Union less than half a century later.

     Gradovsky is emblematic of the liberal detraction to Dostoevsky’s ethnic conservatism, arguing that a conversion on the part of the elites toward the People was insufficient. What was needed to dismantle an oppressive structure was a progressive movement to work within state structures on behalf of the People. Furthermore, how can it be said that the Russian people held a universal ethic, when they like any other people group were just as provincial as anyone else? Dostoevsky argued that while European liberals may talk of equality, in practice their structures depended on the same servile labor to maintain their lavish lifestyles as they decried in their political rulers—the 19th century Russian equivalent of the ‘limousine liberal’. As for the provincialism of the People, Dostoevsky argued that their exaltation as the bearers of the Orthodox Christ is hardly prideful as it is the exaltation of the ethic of humility itself! What could not have been appreciated however would be later postmodern detraction to Dostoevsky, and by extension Friesen as well, that universalism in and of itself is oppressive because its homogenous impulsive is coercive against any particular difference that it cannot subsume in itself. In the end however, Dostoevsky does not try to propositionally argue with Gradovsky, or much less postmodernism, but instead portrays these two opposing ethical visions in his last novel The Brothers Karamazov—Orthodox Christian communal obligations in Aloysha, the saintly protagonist and secular individual human rights in The Grand Inquisitor—and leaves his audience with the decision between them.

       “We are living out of Dostoevsky’s greatest fears…” as our age is the orphan child with nothing left but violence, and sanctioned inequality. For Friesen the task of forging a new global ethic is necessary given that, arguing in line with Immanuel Wallerstein, the European universalism embraced by Russia’s 19th century elite is of the same legacy that we in the 21st century are now struggling with and in many ways beginning to abandon due to the critiques of postmodernism and post-colonialism. Furthermore, many of the ethical views that Dostoevsky puts forward such as collective responsibility, find much resonance in other traditions such as First Nations peoples and Islam, which have likewise been left out of Euro-centric moral philosophy. Given the centrality of the continuity between modernity in the 19th century and our era for Friesen’s argument however, post-modernism should have been given a vital place of discussion instead of leaving the questions as to how Dostoevsky could address postmodernism and as to how postmodernism is related to the legacy of modernity, mute. For instance, what about animals, do they have rights? How would an ethic of collective responsibility speak to whether we have obligations to animals or not? Illustrating the difference between an ethic based on Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christ and contemporary secular human rights would more clearly have demonstrated Friesen’s argument for the value of Dostoevsky’s contribution. But perhaps such specifics would have missed Dostoevsky’s ethic entirely, which was that our active love is to be shown to all creatures concretely and not in the abstract. The true test of Dostoevsky’s ethic would seem to be whether, should it be lived out, we would find it insufficient and weak or as beautiful and joyous as he believed it to be.





Our Generation’s Neoliberal Apocalypse: The Thessaloniki Programme, The Golden Dawn, and Paul the Apostle, Pt. 1


     Kto-ne-rabotaetWork, drudgery, imposition of impossible weights and standards, working with one’s own hands, lawlessness, austerity, the apocalypse, temptations to be relieve from suffering, opposition, and sayings like “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat” which end up in the Soviet Constitution of 1936all of these themes have forced themselves upon us in discussions concerning Greece, international economics, and the global debt crisis. But these themes already presented themselves in Thessaloniki at least 1900 and some years before our crisis in the writings of St. Paul the Apostle to the city and the church there. The debate around the debt crisis in Greece over the past ten years or more has mainly been about whether its Germany’s fault or France’s fault or the fault of the European Union or the fault of private banks or the fault of Goldman Sachs…and add to that list the racist insinuation that its the Greeks fault because they are lazy. But our generation is not concerned about the fault anymore, we are beginning to question whose courtroom it is.

     It seems to many of our generation, the generation for whom 9/11 was the central event, that the current socio-economic and political order of our world is bursting at the seams, and that everyone shares in the fault, though may be the ‘1%’ more than most. Perhaps, like many generations before us, we are far to self centred in the belief that the end of the world will be in our life time, and that we should just merely consider history to know that life is ever permeable. Nations may rise, nations may fall, climates may warm, climates may cool, but the ‘end is not yet.’ The Greek debt crisis is but one of the many evidences however that urge us and throw us head-long into the belief that we really are at a pivotal stage in history. St. Paul also wrote to a generation that believed the end was coming soon, and while the rest of the world yelled ‘Peace and Security’, their generation, like our generation, knew that the cataclysm was nigh. What is so amazingly energetic about our situation now however is that for the first time secular people, people who would consider themselves ‘non-religious’ are having to ask questions about the apocalypse that up and till now were left to the faith communities of various traditions. What any faithful Christian at this moment should do is propose the Christian Gospel as the positive vision for society in the midst of the apocalypse.

     In looking at the Greek debt crisis as the exception that will not much longer be exceptional we need a confessional acknowledgement of two theses based on faith- that the situation really is as dire as we believe it to be globally, and two, that we are in need of a new vision for our socio-economic and political order. We could try to tell ourselves that things in the past have been worse, and perhaps they have been. But what cannot be denied is that, as Noam Chomsky rightly argues, “For the first time in the history of the human species, we have clearly developed the capacity to destroy ourselves.” We could also tell ourselves that the vision we are living in our current moment is permanent and eternal.  But in the tradition of the Buddhist and of the Psalms, we must accept that everything and “everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.” (Psalm 39:5) Greece will be explored as a microcosm of the macrocosm of our fleeting wind of a socio-economic and political order. Furthermore, that our ‘radicals’ whether ‘left’ or ‘right’ are scrambling for new words and visions to utter should be seen as the cry of a desperate people for a God they no longer believe in. Lastly, St. Paul the Apostle, it will be shown, already breathed out the new vision that we need to embrace now more than ever should we wish to even ‘stand firm until the end‘ let alone survive.

     How has Greece, arguably the foundation of Western Civilization in birthing science, philosophy, and democracy, now become increasingly marginalized and subjugated in the world it helped create? What is the debt crisis in Greece? How did it come about? Why is the poverty that has resulted become such an extreme obscenity? Why is the Greek debt crisis, and not the impoverishment of third world countries in much worse conditions, become in particular the obscenity for us in North America and Europe? In assessing any economic situation we should always be reminded that if we are lost in the jargon of economics, so are most of the specialists too because this highly specialized lexicon is designed so that it, as Chris Hedges points out, “…thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions.” (Empire of Illusion90) What is most interesting is that the debt crisis in Greece is actually not difficult to understand once you use terms that most of us would use in our regular economic day-to-day activities such as credit, debt, theft, and lying, rather than credit default swaps, haircut, troika, and much else. What is happening in Greece goes as follows if we were to imagine Greece as a person rather than a nation.*

     Greece is someone who believes profoundly in the social welfare of his friends. He doesn’t just ‘wish them well’ he believes that if he has the means he should take care of those who can’t work, those who are retired, and those who aren’t able to find work. He doesn’t believe that capital is something you should have to earn by yourself to survive but rather that capital should be spread in some minimal way as an act of grace, and that this is what creates a good and loving community- a social safety net.  The problem for Greece though is that he doesn’t earn enough money anymore to take care of his family but is confident that he will, so like many of us he applies for a credit card to cover some expenses that he can’t pay for right now- what Greece ignores however is that many of his expenses are made by much more wealthy and military minded family members, but that is another story. But, unlike some of his other wealthier and more prominent friends in other parts of the world, he does not earn enough money, and the credit card companies know this but lend to him anyway, perhaps to their irresponsible detriment. To cover some of his losses Greece begins, like many of his friends do, to supplement his income with some extra questionable ‘funds’ just to cover his deficit in the short term.

     Soon, some of Greece’s more prominent and wealthier friends formed a union of sorts, where they shared expenses, made things easier for each other in terms of sharing resources for parties or for their families or for their work. Eventually things in this union got a little out of hand with crazy rules about the sizes of pillow they could buy, but things were looking good generally and Greece wanted to be a part of his friends union. But, this union was a little stricter with their regulations about how expenses and funds were to be spent and how budgets were to be done- a little stricter than Greece had been use to up and until that point. Nevertheless, Greece wanted in because the dreams of this union seemed really promising, and Greece thought that if he tried hard enough, he too could be as prominent as his friends. So Greece had to lie to them about the state of his finances. Stuff like covering up some of his debts and making his business opportunities sounding a bit more promising than they really were- with the help of his friend Goldman- but Greece was convinced that in a short time, this wouldn’t matter. It was a convenient lie for a greater promise.

     But Greece was irresponsibly generous continuing to rack up his debts for his family’s social welfare (and their other more illicit expenses)- good hearted but living on an imaginary wealth, taken advantage of by the credit card companies. So Greece just got more and more credit cards to pay for his last debts from the previous credit cards, so on and so on. Well, Greece’s economic opportunities were even worse than he could imagine because some family members of one of his friends, America- with Goldman- messed up with their finances thus affecting everyone. They had tried the same stuff Greece did earlier and it hit reality hard. The credit card companies that were lending to some of Greece’s friends in his union were getting burned when those friends couldn’t make their payments to them, as a result these companies cut Greece off who they already knew was in a much worse situation, and suddenly Greece had no hope of paying off his huge amount of debt that he had racked up. The rest of his friends in his union were not pleased but they still liked the guy, plus some of them were tight with the ones who irresponsibly lent him money in the first place that they were reasonably sure of that he couldn’t pay, thus Greece’s failure would have put pressure on Greece’s friends to cover his losses- something they were not prepared to do given that they had to take a bunch of money from their own families to pay off their own credit card debts due to America’s failure-main-qimg-aea55569ee48fecdfc04299ea5f66faa were they suppose to take care of Greece too?! So they brought in another union that they knew of, but Greece’s friend Germany, who was really in charge of the union, wasn’t please. All of them lent Greece more money but on the strict conditions that he had to tighten up his spending for his family’s welfare and use those funds to pay off his creditors (who probably should have never lent it in the first place- but perhaps those creditors knew that?)…Greece didn’t because his family considered disowning him if he did, it didn’t seem fair to them that suddenly they had their lives pulled out from under them because Greece was so irresponsible and that these credit card companies took advantage of him. They had no idea, Greece had lied to them just like everyone else, and the credit card companies were perfectly fine being lied to, saying that things were better than they were.

     Greece now is caught in a cycle that seems impossible to get out of with no good outcome. See, if Greece defaults on his debit then his family will be left in ruin and Greece’s friends will have to pay off his debts to the credit card companies- something their families will not be happy to be asked to do again, since some of them are not as well off as they would like to be. Furthermore, if they have to pay Greece’s debts it would put the legitimacy of their union in question- something they can’t afford right now given everyone else’s doubts about it. If Greece does not default then he’ll be forced to cut his family off from paying for their rent, helping them with their medical expenses, providing them with food, or helping them get jobs. Greece’s family would be in dire straits, and who knows what they would do next to get their livelihood back! Greece would more than likely be paying off his debt forever as well, given that at this point his debt is almost double what he makes. It would be a terrible state of affairs for Greece’s friends as well because if Greece’s family is left to such conditions they might seek help from Russia, an old classmate that they are all still very afraid of, and Greece will have to sell off more and more of the most valuable things that he has just to pay a debt he cannot sustain. Again, there are no good options, and things for Greece continue to get worse and worse. If things continue for Greece this way, what will be the case for some of Greece’s other friends like Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Italy, who are in similar positions, but have yet to be asked to pay up?

     We can see from our brief anthropomorphized analysis that it is difficult to assign full responsibility and ‘blame’ to any one particular entity- though some may share more than others depending on the narrative. Is it the fault of Greece’s family in wanting such social welfare? Is it the fault of Greece for not being more responsible even though the credit card companies assured him everything would be fine? Was it the fault of his friend’s union for not putting more pressure on him early on? Was it Germany’s fault for insisting on the repayment of the debt, though he himself was forgiven of massive debts in his own history? Was it Goldman’s fault for assisting Greece in hiding the true extent of his debt in order to help him get in the union? Was it America’s fault for being so irresponsible with his own credit finances and thus upsetting Greece’s chances of ever becoming prosperous? Was it the fault of the credit card companies for knowingly loaning out so much credit that they must have known Greece could never repay? An entire country is collapsing before us, and was it most frightening is that all the elements that made up this crisis are prevalent in all of our economic lives- thus, this is no random occurrence but more than likely the model for our coming socio-economic and political apocalypse which we need to prepare ourselves for. Our ‘radicals’ whether ‘left’ or ‘right’ are scrambling for new words and visions to utter in the awake of this coming collapse, what are the visions being offered? What do they bespeak of? Furthermore, what do they reveal about the nature of our crisis, not merely its causes and effects- but firstly and foremost, what is it rooted in?


*For the following analysis, and metaphor usage I am in particular highly indebted to: The New School. Austerity and Neoliberalism in Greece with Richard Wolff and Barry Herman. YouTube Video. Room A404, Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WhZXhRS3F4.; Colvin, Evan. “In layman’s terms, what is the Greek debt crisis?” Answer Search. Quora, August 23, 2015. https://www.quora.com/In-laymans-terms-what-is-the-Greek-debt-crisis.


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