New churches seem to rise from the ground like spring saplings in some parts of Romania. For someone who is used to hearing the regular death knell of church life in Britain, it was a strange and rather bizarre sight for my friend recently to witness the apparent thriving of Christianity in Romania.
Of course, Britain’s situation needs to be viewed in the context of a very different course of Christian history to Romania’s, whose Christian life springs from an Eastern rather than a Western source. Britain’s Church of England Protestantism, with its incipient individualism and tendency towards rationalism, has meant a different set of problems to the East’s Orthodoxy. And yet, what both countries (and arguably all Christendom) have in common is a disjointedness, between what appears to be happening superficially, and what might be happening at a deeper level.
Romania’s Orthodox Church may, it seems, be thriving. Certainly in rural areas, people seem to harbour some sort of identification with the Church: as in other Orthodox countries, rituals seem to bind people to the Church even if they rarely set foot in an actual ecclesiastical building. Icons sit in homes all over eastern Europe; the sign of the cross may often be made when passing a church; candles are lit when entering a religious edifice, and saints’ days call to remembrance friends and family who are named after them.
Yet the external rhythms of Orthodox life can become so entwined in people’s overall sense of belonging that almost inevitably they are interwoven with other forms of belonging, including a sense of national identity. It’s important here to distinguish between nationality and nationalism. The former properly denotes a recognition of civil responsibility, which may happen to coincide with one’s native country and country of origin, or it may be entirely new and adopted. The latter, however – nationalism – denotes an excessive concern with national belonging, granting the nation the status of an abstract object. No longer is the nation made up of sentient, thinking individual persons, but rather, the nation takes on ontological significance itself; it becomes abstracted and projected outwards. What’s ‘best for Russia’, or what’s ‘best for Romania’, and so on, becomes an issue fraught with emotional and almost religious energy.
At various stages in history Christians have resisted an oncoming wave of nationalism; they have sensed the threat to the dignity of the human person within nationalism and so they stand from it afar. But nominalism represents a different challenge. Nominalism concentrates the religious effort on the amenability of Christianity and Church life to augment a rather naturalistic sense of belonging. In other words, it’s precisely because nominalist Christianity serves the purposes of psychological identity formation that it merges and often becomes inseparable from other forms of psychological identity formation – namely, a sense of national belonging.
By no means am I condemning a sense of national belonging; indeed, this might be phrased in other ways as well. I think it’s important to sense or intuit the path of a particular collective at any given moment. But what I do wish to draw attention to is the frankly ubiquitous way large swathes of nominal Orthodox (and other) Christians blithely merge their nominal faith with other, often more sinister perspectives concerning the god of the Nation.
Inability or refusal to distinguish between genuine Christianity and nominal Christianity is convenient for those who are happy for other interests to be cloaked with the seemingly benign veil of a religious faith (which is ostensibly private and personal). But such inability or unwillingness to distinguish is also rather dangerous.
As Russia increases its identification of State and Church, we have before us an illustration of the ways in which unchecked nationalism and nominalism can come together and form a totalitarian ideology. By turning our attention to the various ways in which nominal Orthodoxy can engage with national interests, however, we may be better able to sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak: to preserve both the nourishing and vital influences of religion alongside the valid and important identification with a broader collective, while avoiding a potential slide into political and spiritual difficulty.