Address of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad to the 16th Annual Christmas Readings

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(Metropolitan Kirill)

On 29 January 2008, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, spoke at a session of the 16th annual Christmas Readings at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

Your Highly-Respected Eminences!

My respected colleagues at these Christmas Readings!

For the sixteenth time, we are gathered together at these Christmas Readings to have a frank conversation about the conditions in Russia. Many themes remain from earlier talks, however, they retain their freshness because we have gained new experience and discovered new insights through our reflections. Furthermore, we should aim to make the conversation between the Orthodox Church and the secular world open and frank. For today’s talk, I asked myself the following question. “Why does the Orthodox Church in Russia persistently raise the same questions regarding the moral formation of society?” Some see the fact that the Church raises these questions as an attempt to set itself as an authority over all of secular life and as a ploy to limit the freedom of choice of individuals. Indeed, there are those who fear the clericalisation of Russian society.

However, these views of the intent of the Church in raising fundamental moral questions are wrong. Sadly, the only result of such queries is a disorientation of both state and society. Today, we see that Russia, and yes, the world as a whole, is facing a severe civilisational crisis. All one sees about oneself is instability and conflict in public life, and there is no apparent clarity concerning the long-term development of our civilisation. In my opinion, the reason lying behind this crisis is the absence of a clear definition of what human nature is. Let us be clear on a certain point, though. I am not talking of incidental differences in individuals formed under the influence of national, cultural, and traditional factors. In such things, there has always been a great variety of differences, both in the present and in the future. We shall focus instead on the relationship in the public sphere of such basic things as biological and spiritual development, freedom of choice, freedom from sin, materialistic consumption, and spiritual self-perfection. Until now, unfortunately, there has been no consensus concerning these basic objects in our society. For this reason, our future remains uncertain and fluid. In such a situation, the Orthodox Church, with a vision of man validated by centuries of lived experience, can make an important contribution to the creation of an ordered public life thorough a dialogue with the different elements in our society.

Nevertheless, at this very time when the Church must focus its effort in a dialogue with the secular world and spread its vision and evangelium amongst the masses, isolationist factions have appeared within the church. These forces accuse many in the church (including the Holy Synod, by the way) of distorting Orthodoxy because they meet with those from other faiths and those who hold secular worldviews, and because the Church has dialogue with state authorities and other sectors of secular society.

Specifically, they accuse those who participate in dialogue with those outside of the Church as traitors to Orthodoxy. When problems occur in the life of the Church, it solves them by conciliar discussion and decision-making. We cannot take these conciliar decisions out of the context of the history in which they occurred. Therefore, let us not be turned astray by our own innovations, but, rather, turn to the experience and history of the lived Church tradition in regards to the question of whether we should have dialogue with those outside the Church. Let us see how the Holy Fathers acted in similar situations. Let us take as an example the relationship between the Church and Greco-Roman pagan culture. From this, we can isolate two types of reaction in the Church to the political and cultural realities present at that time

The first sort of reaction was illustrated by many of the Holy Fathers, such as Ss Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine the Blessed of Hippo, who mastered the secular wisdom and culture of their time in order to place the achievements of human reason in the service of Christianity and the Church. Specifically, St Basil the Great wrote the following to young Christians. “We, of course, hold that worldly wisdom is an achievement. Indeed, it is one of the greatest of achievements, for it is necessary for us to be able to converse with poets, historians, orators, and with all other sorts of people so that we can be of benefit to them and care for their souls”. Such an attitude led to the triumph of Christianity and to the foundation of long-lasting Christian states.

Yet, there was a second form of reaction to the pagan culture. This was shown in the monastic withdrawal from the bustle of the secular world. The monk removed himself from the world in order to facilitate his repentance, enhance his spiritual experience, and deepen his contact with God. Church history tells us that monasticism became a means to build up and enlighten the entire Church. In fact, bishops began to be selected exclusively from the monastic ranks, although it is true that married bishops did exist in the primitive Church. In other words, monasticism worked not as an escape of the Church from the world, but, instead, it provided a means for the spiritual transformation of the world. In the history of Orthodoxy in Russia, these two ways of relating to the world were embodied in two figures from the 15/16th century, St Nil of Sora and St Iosif of Volokolamsk. The debate was tempestuous, however, both ways were accepted as equally valid in the Russian Orthodox lived tradition. This was shown by the fact that both Ss Nil and Iosif were glorified by the Church.

Thus, church history and the lived tradition tell us that we can assert Orthodoxy through the radical ascetic renunciation of the world and all of its works, and also through the use of secular philosophy, science, culture, arts, and all other intellectual endeavours. Both are equally permissible and important. The Holy Fathers engaged the secular world, accepting everything that was useful, and rejecting only those things that were sinful intrinsically. They entered into an intimate dialogue with the state and society at time when both were pagan and not Christian at all. In like fashion, today, as in the times of the Holy Fathers, dialogue with the secular world is not a distortion of Orthodoxy. Rather, it is the very means of injecting Christian values into the life of our society. However, it is important never to be tempted to place human reason above the Law of God, and we must be guided by the words of the Apostle. Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye (Acts of the Apostles, 4:19). Nowadays, in order to be guided by this important principle, the same amount of courage is required as was in the past. You see, opposition to God is attractive for many because of financial, organisational, and political reasons, and there are false stereotypes that been spread in the consciousness of the public.

If the Church withdraws from the public square it shall indicate a failure of our evangelical mission. There is a crisis of belief that cannot be dismissed simply by anathemas from the ambo or rambling monologues from the Penza caves or other such remote backwaters. In any case, there is no other approach than that shown us by the Holy Fathers. They had no illusions in respect to pagan culture, yet, they used its achievements in order to draw their contemporaries into an understanding of the truth of the Divine Revelation. Due to their efforts, classical art became Christianised and transformed. This “Christian Hellenism” was the fruit of the dialogue of the pagan society and the Christian Church. According to the great theologian Fr Georgi Florovsky, there is no other way open to Orthodox theology; it must actualise the creative synthesis and methodology of the Holy Fathers. He called the encounter of the Church with the ancient pagan world a synthesis of the holy and the applied, and this same approach is still valid today.

Fortunately, the Orthodox roots of our modern Russian culture, although wounded, are not lost. It is not as in the case of the classical pagan world where there was no connection with the Orthodox Christian system of values. The most pressing task of the Church is to see that this connection is not broken. We must follow the Holy Fathers, we must actualise the relation between the Church and the culture as they did, and by doing so, we shall foster the Christian development of our society and contemporary culture. Fr Georgi Florovsky’s dream of a new patristic synthesis also concerns the re-Christianisation of the anaesthetised European culture. It is also our hope for the spiritual and moral revival of Russia. The state of education, which is the centre of attention of these annual Christmas Readings, depends on the healthiness of the culture and the larger society. What vision of education can the Church offer today based upon its synthesis of the holy and the applied wisdom?

First of all, we must understand the circumstances under which the Church contends for the mind of man in the contemporary world. Perhaps, the advances in science and technology are the most perceptible factors in our modern world. Today, we must devote more time, energy, and resources in order to prepare our young people for independent adult life. As a result, the growth in the role of education occurs in direct proportion to the increasing complexity of technology and modern means of organisation. Our modern “information society” is untenable without highly-trained specialists to maintain and run it. Nevertheless, we see a striking development occurring. Until very recently, many people believed that the continuing maturation of science would finally prove that man was merely a biological construct, nothing more. Instead, modern science now makes it possible to reach reliable conclusions concerning the complex inner organisation of man and his relation to the surrounding world. It appears as though the division between the material and the spiritual has been erased! Therefore, in contemporary thought, people realise that their existence is not limited to solely biological parameters. We understand that if we deprive ourselves of religious experience, we cannot perceive the spiritual manifestations of our nature.

Another difficulty for modern man is adaptation to the multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic character of contemporary society. In response to this, many have retreated into a disordered state, with eroded religious and moral views, or more precisely, with a lack of same. This leads to degeneration and instability in not only individuals, but, also in society. The fear of change and a fear of the loss of one’s socio-cultural identity propel others into the arms of extremists and radicals. Terrorists, criminals, and hooligans find fertile ground for recruits here. Our ever-growing diversity of cultures, religions, and peoples, coupled with moral relativism, homogenised behaviour, and troubled personalities, makes us realise that the intensified study of own spiritual-cultural tradition is the necessary prerequisite not only for dialogue with others, but, also allows us to learn more insights about others by understanding ourselves more deeply.

All these facets of contemporary life are a fact of life in modern post-Soviet Russia. How do we incorporate our responses to these situations into our modern system of education? In one respect, we are in a disadvantageous position compared to other countries in the world because we have rejected the postulates of the former Soviet system. On the other hand, Russia has a unique chance to create a system of training and education adapted to the realities of the 21st century. If in the 20th century a naïve hope in the omnipotence of material progress flourished, then, in the 21st century, the future belongs to those peoples that can comprehend the spiritual-material aspect of scientific development and adapt their educational systems to reflect these realities. Observation tells us that an abundance of natural resources is far from the main index of the development of a given society. Our task lies in knowing how to transform these resources into human capital, which is the authentic power source of society. Authoritative international organisations tell us that the specific level of education amongst the factors that cause an increase in the living standard of developed countries is 70 percent. In comparison with the recent past, it is not surprising that there is a great interest in the question of education and much sharp discussion today is focused upon it. I believe that all points of view on education, not only here in Russia, but also abroad, can be reduced to two basic paradigms.

We could call the first approach pragmatic or technocratic. Those who advocate this view think that the school must be oriented to the teaching of practical knowledge and habits. Their principle is that there must be a rigid correlation between the goals of education and the needs of the marketplace. They would bring the educational system into a lockstep correspondence with the needs of the economy and the labour market. Education would be reduced to the end of practical effectiveness. All other aspects of education, not in relation to the specific requirements of the marketplace, they would say, are superfluous and optional. Such people would allow questions of the spiritual and moral development of the personality to be left to the arbitrariness and whim of each individual.

The second approach is best called integral or holistic. Those who call for such a system do not reject the idea that instruction in skills is one of the main tasks of education; however, they would insist that the necessity of moulding in each student an integral and values-centred worldview is also imperative. They would return to the ethos of the Pre-Revolutionary Russian school, which was based on the ancient concept of a harmonious development of both the spiritual and intellectual faculties, a fostering of the care of both mind and body, “a sound mind in a sound body”, as the ancient Greeks put it.

Unfortunately, the second approach, which is in consonance with the Church’s view on education, is having a difficult time being accepted. It was very significant that this view concerning spiritual and moral training was introduced into the third reading by the State Duma of a draft law about federal standards in education at the last moment… right before the voting. I have the feeling that this occurred precisely because there are forces that do not desire the active participation of religious communities in the process of educating and training our young people.

I assume that many groups in society can support the introduction of the integral approach to education, and we must direct our forces towards that end. Even those with nominal faith or unbelieving people understand that the school not only trains, but, also nurtures, the students. This means that the school is called, to use a theological term, to contribute to the comprehensive disclosure of the means of God in man. In addition to training them for the marketplace, it is necessary In our schools to develop the moral, aesthetic, and ideological consciousness of all students; it is necessary to help them to become not simply working units in the labour market, but, also valuable members of society, good citizens of our country, and conscious exponents of our native culture and traditions.

A narrow professional orientation and dry pragmatism in our schools and national goals would be a catastrophe. We insist that there must be a wide autonomy and a boundless horizon in our view of education; the traditional Russian school was strong precisely because of this fact. Furthermore, the supporters of the market orientation of education only understand the requirements of contemporary social and economic reality in a very narrow sense. It is obvious to all that technical training alone is insufficient even in the restricted area of competitive ability in the labour market, on which object today we orient all too many of our educational programmes. A young specialist must not only be “spot-on” with information-communication cybernetic technologies, but, he must also have a creative approach to his field; he must possess a breadth of horizon and initiative, know how to make independent decisions, and be capable of operating within economic, civilisational, and cultural categories simultaneously. If we desire to defend our civilisational identity and sovereignty in the contemporary world of globalisation and levelling unification, then, we need to institute a system of integral educational formation. This holistic education would aid the integral development of all aspects of a student’s personality, not only those qualities dictated by the current market situation.

The supporters of the pragmatic theory of education accuse those who favour an integral and traditional approach to the formation of the younger generation of stifling the freedom of students, of violence to their individual personalities. They wish to convince us that students must “make up their own minds” as regards values and standards of behaviour, that they are capable of independent thought in this matter, and, thus, they are able to make a free choice in respect to morals and ideology. However, such reasoning leads inexorably to only one end: the supremacy and victory of moral relativity. That is, it leads inevitably to a state wherein everything is permitted and nothing is prohibited. The currently-fashionable notions of “situational ethics” and moral relativity have little in common with traditional Christian moral standards. Certainly, we must take into account the situation involved when we decide what the proper application of moral principles is in a given instance. However, we reject the proposition that our moral and behavioural decisions flow directly from the situations we are involved in. Behind these seemingly-new ideas lies the old and discredited stipulation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that man in a state of unaltered nature is basically good. This theory states that man in an unhindered state shall choose only the good, the main point being that no harm comes to others. Again, we agree that the freedom of everyone is God-given; this is a basic tenet of Christianity, since only a free individual is capable of fruitful and loving relations (with the proper critical distinctions) with their fellow man and with God. Nonetheless, we face a question. Is the inculcation of moral, ethical, and behavioural standards violence to an individual’s personality?

The reality of the society surrounding us today abounds with incitements to immorality; it does not recognise the reality of sin, not only in the young, but, in all people. We see that in societies where the inculcation of moral standards is disregarded in the education of the young, evil in all of its manifestations appears. What is there? We see addiction, alcoholism, degradation of the family, a denigration of human dignity, religious and national intolerance, moral indifference, glaring social inequalities, corruption, and other such things. We cannot escape the conclusion that all the “new” turns in the development of civilisation and all our technical achievements do not help us in fighting the negative forces in society, indeed, on the contrary, because of these “achievements” human and societal flaws are magnified and given a dynamic boost.

Why is this so, if man is by nature good? We turn to a truth attested to by both life and the lived experience of the Church. Man does, indeed, have good impulses. However, in order for this goodness to develop and grow, we must protect it from evil and direct it towards God. Otherwise, sin shall overshadow our natural good. We should all realise instinctively that mere political reform or technical progress cannot arrest degradation in society, if society has rejected its traditional spiritual and moral roots. To preserve what is good, we need to ensure that not only freedom of choice is protected in the public square, but, we must also demand that society respect the fact that there is a freedom from evil as well. An educational formation based upon the traditional spiritual and moral values is the basic cornerstone of a society devoted to preserving the good. St Feofan the Recluse said, “To bear children is only a natural and instinctual thing, but, to form your children in the virtues is a matter of the mind and will. To instil piety and the virtues in the heart of a child is a holy obligation that you cannot transgress or you shall be found guilty of killing your child’s soul”. It follows from this that the most efficacious method of reviving our educational system is to restore the teaching of our great spiritual and cultural tradition in our schools.

We should note that specific motions in the direction of the integral approach were taken in a recent draft law concerning education that was before the State Duma. After the third reading of the bill, it was passed. It states explicitly that one of the most important tasks of our educational system is to form a proper spiritual and moral personality in our students. We now have the task of enfleshing this proposal with concrete content in the form of programmes, operating instructions, teaching aids, and extracurricular activities. In order to minimise possible misunderstanding between the parties and avoid transgressions of traditional moral values it would be desirable that both educational officials and representatives of the traditional faiths of Russia (including Orthodoxy, of course) work together closely in this matter.

Undoubtedly, the most important part of the system of moral and spiritual training is the teaching of a basic acquaintance with our religious tradition. If this is lacking, there is no spiritual or moral training at all. How can we do this without disrupting the basic freedoms found in the Russian constitution? This topic is amongst the most hotly-debated subjects in Russia today. The abovementioned educational law before the Duma abolished the regional initiatives that allowed the course “Bases of Orthodox Culture” in our schools. Since we can now introduce this course within the framework of an all-Russian federal standard, this is no great loss. If we can introduce the field of “Spiritual-moral Culture” into our educational system, it is not “reinventing the wheel”; rather, it shall introduce a system that has existed for many years in many Western countries.

As you no doubt know, there is no uniform method of incorporating religious education into the secular schools in modern Europe. Every European country answers this question according to its national traditions and statutory laws. Nevertheless, there are general principles that are common throughout Europe. One is that parents have the right to choose the appropriate course of religious education for their child, or none at all, if they so desire. That is, religious study is voluntary. Another is that students have the right to select one of the recognised religion courses or they may opt to take a course in non-religious ethics in its place. That is, religious study is variable, depending on the student and the region involved. Even if some parents choose to opt out of overtly religious education, we affirm that moral training is an essential part of the curriculum.

One notices that are two broad approaches to teaching religion in secular schools. A more traditional method is to have “Religion” as a separate course of study, with specialised modules on religious influences in history, art, and literature as a part of such discrete classes. Another way of doing this (I would call it the “liberal” method) is to integrate the teaching of religious subjects and concepts into the general curriculum of the schools, not as a formal course on its own. In those countries where there is no distinct “Religion” course, as a rule, students are given time once a week to study religion. This system is in place in the majority of the departments of France and in Hungary. However, the “liberal” model is not common in Europe, it is rather more an exception to the rule.

The traditional method of teaching religion is still the most common in Europe, and over time it has become more inclusive. It is used in Germany, Belgium, Greece, Britain, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and Estonia, amongst others. In Germany, the necessity of religious training and education is found in the fundamental laws of the country, and the constitution of the Länd (State) of Bavaria declares that one of the highest purposes of education is to inculcate “a respect for God, a respect for all religious persuasions and human dignity, to give the student a sense of responsibility and restraint”. State schools in Germany are divided into two types. Confessional schools are overtly Catholic or Lutheran, and the curriculum in these schools follows the principles of the religious communities involved. Non-confessional schools are neutral concerning religion. The latter are not unreligious or anti-religious. Students can study formal religion courses in them. If the school refuses to offer courses in religion, parents can complain to the authorities in writing. In Germany, the concept of “religious education” includes both the teaching of catechetical courses and studies involving culture.

We can see that most European countries allow instruction in religion in secular schools. These courses teach not only catechesis, but, also include the influence of religion upon cultural matters. This general European experience can serve as a good example for Russia, as the finalised form of our religious education is still far from completion. In Russia, we do not envisage instituting classes in religious education as comprehensive as that found in some other European countries. For instance, we do not advocate teaching catechetical classes in the schools, the church can handle that. On the other hand, we oppose the introduction of a general “Religion” course that purports to convey information about all religions in Russia from the point of view of equivalence and neutrality.

Some fear that if we teach spiritual and moral subjects in a differentiated manner according to the various religious confessions of the students, it can lead to splits in the student body based on religious adherence. I cannot agree with this point of view. On the contrary, an intensive study of one’s own spiritual tradition is the precise condition for the moulding of an integrated individual capable of participating in the inter-cultural dialogue so beloved of many today. A deep understanding of one’s own religious tradition based on both research and feeling, not an indifferent or bloodless “objectivity”, shall allow our young people to more easily understand the feelings of others who confess other religions or those attracted to non-religious persuasions. Furthermore, the lived historical experience of Russia shows that religion played an active role in the life of our ancestors. It helped them to overcome tremendous difficulties, and it assisted in the building of a strong state, which united many peoples of many religions in peace. It helped us to create the Great Russian culture, which is acknowledged as one of the leading cultures of the world.

It is important for us to realise that the concept of religious education in the secular schools is supported in equal measure by not only Orthodox Christians, but, also by adherents of the other traditional religions in Russia. Indeed, even those with a non-religious worldview see that instruction in ethics and morals is a good idea. I can assume in all confidence that every one of us, whether we represent the Church, state, or secular society, shall in the end find a mutually acceptable solution amenable to all parties, one that corresponds to the actual needs of our educational system. This shall enhance our standing as a nation in the eyes of the world, and it shall enable us to face the future with assurance.

In conclusion, the influence of morals and spirituality upon contemporary society depends upon the outcome of the dialogue between the Church, the state, the other traditional religions, and secular society. This is because dialogue is the only recognised method that all parties accept and respect in our present political and socio-cultural reality. There is no danger to the unity of our multi-cultural society in this process, since it assumes respect for the different nationalities and religions engaged in it, and it has as a guiding principle the tolerance for honest dissent. At the same time, it allows us to proclaim the authentic and compelling truth of Orthodoxy to the world.

We must follow the example of the Holy Fathers and bear the light of the Orthodox evangelium before the world. We must enrich the culture and public life of Russia with the unchangeable, tangible, and transformative values of Orthodoxy. The outcome of this encounter shall determine whether we can find a new synthesis of the holy and the applied, just as the Holy Fathers did, and through it to overcome the present civilisational crisis in order to form a spiritual basis for the culture of the future.

31 January 2008

Source :

George Alexander @tvoo