Paul Goble recently documented (here) another attempt in the Russian press to explain religiosity in Orthodox Russia using an expression generally attributed to the Belorussian Head of State, who has classed himself an "Orthodox atheist". The article insists that even before the Bolshevik revolution popular religiosity was not all that profound in Russia and perhaps the aspect of careerism among the higher clergy has generally played a more important role in delineating the public aura or persona in that Church than one is commonly led to believe. The article judges that present attempts by the regime to use Orthodox piety for political ends can only further damage the already fragile flower of popular devotion.
I have a certain difficulty with the article. Whether in Russia or in the West, I find it hard to move so glibly from noting a very real and worrisome superficiality in matters religious to classing that poverty of spirit as atheism, albeit Orthodox atheism. The dialectic is often described as one between custom and conviction, between popular usage and profound conversion.
Personally, I think the matter can be easily distorted at the expense of Russian Orthodoxy and, at least on the level of general conclusions based on the behavior of a social elite, be blown way out of perspective. Russia is not alone in facing a contemporary crisis of faith in the upper echelons of its society. I am thinking of a catch phrase similar to Lukashenko's which is still to be heard in certain circles of Mexican society riddled as they are with Free Masonry: "I may not believe in God, but I am thoroughly Guadalupan!" thus indicating a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which does not carry over to Church or genuine faith. We would never apply such a description to Mexicans in general, so why should we call the faith of the whole Russian population into question based on the behavior of a high profile sampling?
Really, I prefer not to speak of Belarus, Russia or Mexico, but rather of the most recent threat to culture and fundamental values coming out of a SCOTUS (US Supreme Court) communique that the high court intends to rule on the definition of marriage and presumable strike down the remaining state laws defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Apart from discussion about the courts again and again overstepping their proper constitutional role, there is a discourse on culture in the United States and its decay which needs to be confronted for the sake of truth. The February issue of First Things is rich in reflections on the topic and Rod Dreher's piece entitled Christian and Countercultural is dear to my heart.
I would encourage you to read Dreher. People who read me regularly would know that I probably am more insistent than he about the restoration of Catholic culture as a sine qua non, not for establishing some sort of utopia but for effectively taking the battle to our world's misguided distopians and standing a chance of offering the present and future generations an option to whatever skull-numbing may be out there. Dreher describes present-day American religiosity, especially among the youth, as “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) and he is no doubt right.
George Weigel is present with an article in the same issue, entitle To See Things as They Are. Weigel is convinced that what he has described elsewhere at book length as Evangelical Catholicism is that which is necessary to take the battle to Dreher's MTD's and win that space in the public square which is rightfully ours. Weigel adds the notion of not only bringing personal witness to our individual conversion stories to our social exchanges but insists on a strategic institutional stance favoring the defense of human life and religious liberty as our two declared and non-negotiable points for countering relativism on its destructive way.
Neither man promises us a rose garden and I cannot help but think of one of the questions posed by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in his novel "Callista, A Tale of the Third Century". Persecution, even unto martyrdom, seems to clarify the Church's witness, renew the faith of those who have all but lapsed, and take the battle to those obstinate and primitive enough to choose darkness over light. While we are taught to avoid bringing trials upon ourselves, we certainly trust that the Lord knows better what may be required of us for the sake of the life of the world.
I beseech young parents to pray with their children, to read good books to their children, to look hard and long at the option of home-schooling. I think it is urgent for bishops and priests to restore the liturgy, urging the option of orienting worship, restoring decorum to the celebration, and seriously promoting the cause of enriching our worship by promoting the Extraordinary Form. We owe this much and more to society. The "lamp" must be dressed and returned to the lamp stand!
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI