Christian History Home > Issue 18 > Of Mass Baptisms, National Churches, and the Great Commission
Of Mass Baptisms, National Churches, and the Great Commission
Can a king-ordered mass baptism of his nation's citizens really bring about their genuine conversion to Christ? What are we to make of Christ's command to "make disciples of all nations"?
The “conversion” of Kievan Rus’ was a king-commanded, soldier-implemented “Christianization” of a people. So was it valid? Kemmerer says it was, and offers a rationale that focuses on problems with the stereotypical Western concept of salvation and how to carry out the Great Commission.
To come appropriately to this millennium of the Christianization of Rus’ is to come respectfully, to come in awareness that one is contemplating the wellspring of a thousand years of rich spirituality and Christian culture among one of the great families of mankind. All protestations of various nationalists notwithstanding, the Christianization of the Kievan Rus’ c. 988 is, in point of fact, a milestone belonging to all the Eastern Slavs: the Ukrainians, the Byelorussians, and the Great Russians. It is not just a single event, but the fountainhead of a vast historic flow of faith.
It is a living legacy, first for the Orthodox believers who are its original children, but also for the enrichment of all Christians and other men and women of humanity and culture. Those who have a mind to appreciate such things must acknowledge that here are a subject and an occasion worthy of the effort to appreciate them. Yet for all of that, many a Western Christian will find certain difficulties in relating to this millennium of the Christianization of a nation.
Reasons for Misunderstanding
The first and most obvious reason for our difficulties is simply our relative ignorance of the lands, cultures, and histories of the Eastern European peoples. In this regard, Russian history has been rendered more or less alien to us by its cultural isolation from the West. In its early years it drew richly from the magnificent civilization and religion of Byzantium, which played its most vital role in our cultural and religious evolution during late antiquity and the period we tend to denigrate and dismiss as the Dark Ages. It is perhaps the single largest blind spot in our historical education.
More particularly, Western Christians are largely ignorant of how much of their own theology and rite comes from this source. Since the Byzantine connection is so much more significant in the East and in Russia, our ignorance of the one immediately sets us at greater distance from the other.
Then, too, the Mongol invasions which destroyed Kiev in 1240, drew a cultural curtain across the Russians lands, isolating them from the West for more than 200 years. Thereafter, Russia only slowly turned away from its eastern orientation, which left a mark on all of Russian society including religion. Writing in The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann can say, “The Russian character was completely coarsened and poisoned by ‘Tatarism’,” which he goes on to describe as “lack of principle and a repulsive combination of prostration before the strong with oppression of everything weak.” Unfortunately, as Moscow began to rise to dominance, this quality became imprinted more deeply in its culture and the strong religious nationalism of “Holy Russia.”
When westernization came it came forcibly, in the early years of the 18th century under Peter the Great. By that time, of course, so much of the Western religious tradition had already been formed without any reference to the East or Russia. And in Russia the westernization went only so far. In one sense, it did not deeply touch the Russian soul. The characteristics of autocracy and a type of monolithic, state-sponsored orthodoxy were deeply ingrained, and they continue on even into the present totalitarian regime.
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