Last year CT published an interview with theologian Thomas Oden in which he discussed his shift from modernity to orthodoxy (CT, Sept. 24, 1990). In this report, he describes what the collapse of modernity in the Soviet Union means for students of religion there.

Oden defines modernity in terms of four fundamental values that were dominant from the French Revolution until recently: moral relativism (right is dictated by culture, social location, and situation), autonomous individualism (moral authority comes from within a person), narcissistic hedonism (the focus on egocentric personal pleasure), and reductive naturalism (what can be reliably known is what one can see, hear, and empirically investigate).

Because these values are collapsing in the USSR, just as they are in North America, Oden recently received an unusual invitation.

My invitation to lecture came from the very professors once charged with the intellectual defense of official Soviet atheism. The unexpected request came through the former Department of Atheism of Moscow State University. Since glasnost, its new name is the Department of Scientific and Historical Study of Religion and Freethinking.

The name change is more than cosmetic. It represents a fundamental reassignment of resources in the philosophy section of the humanities division of this immense university. The university study of religion in the Soviet Union is no longer a compliant agent of atheistic ideology but is now appearing to be much more like what we would call the comparative study of religion. Once the pampered proxy of official atheistic ideology, now this department must survive on its own merits in the precarious intellectual competition of the university. I have never before found myself in a place where I felt events were more sharply mirroring a decisive moment of historical change.

Soviet and American societies, quintessentially modern societies, are both suffering from the rapidly deteriorating assumptions of modernity. In the United States, modernity has taken the form of idolatrous individualism. In the USSR, it has taken the form of idolatrous collectivism. But in both cases, it is a false understanding of autonomy that is now collapsing into whatever will follow the modern period. In both societies, the remnants of Enlightenment optimism, scientism, and hedonism now rot.

As late as November 1986, even President Mikhail Gorbachev was still dutifully calling for an “uncompromising struggle against manifestations of religion.” But within the last five years, new winds have been blowing in Soviet universities, creating a new climate for religious studies. The Soviets no longer appear to be resisting religion actively, but rather looking longingly to religion to help stabilize a highly destabilized social environment.

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My visit occurred during the height of the Persian Gulf crisis, during the time of the Lithuanian repression, Boris Yeltsin’s call for Gorbachev to resign, pro-Yeltsin demonstrations in Moscow, and Soviet diplomatic initiatives to avoid the ground war in the Gulf.

I had agreed to deliver one lecture for undergraduate students on the theme of postmodern Christian consciousness, and another for graduate students on the structure of awareness in time. So through the February snows I trudged to get a rare glimpse of an academic subsystem in transition—and in some respects, full reversal. The warmth of the personal hospitality I received in shivering Moscow was engaging, but why all this for an evangelical scholar, I wondered. I found people more than incidentally interested in the evangelical vitalities remaining within the old-line Protestantism I represented.

The meeting was set against the backdrop of a society in decay and an architecture that reeks of totalitarian values. Moscow State University looks like a secularized cathedral, with high spires, classical pillars, and baroque marble, exuding socialist piety everywhere. Built on Stalin’s order in massive proportion, the main teaching building itself houses many thousands of students and is surrounded by a network of auxiliary buildings with huge departmental jurisdictions. There was measured irony in the voice of the professor who noted that the university building itself was built by political prisoners. It still has a prisonlike feel, with military guards at its gates.

Like American faculties, the Moscow State religion department is concerned about whispered budget cuts. They are earnestly hoping that this vulnerable new experiment in religious studies will not be axed by a retrenching government at this moment of reawakening interest in religion.

The teachers all expressed a strong desire to come in closer touch with Western scholars in religious studies. To my surprise, they meant not only exponents of the scientific study of religion, but they showed a specific interest in evangelical scholars. They know enough about the sociology of religion to realize that, alongside the waning of centerless liberalism, there is exceptional vitality in American evangelical circles.

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As I listened to the layers of concerns in the formation of the Soviets’ questions, I was suddenly stunned by the awareness that none of these academics or students has had any real experience of the Protestant tradition—though they remain intrigued by it intellectually. I tried to show them that after 450 years of Protestant consciousness, our questions were thoroughly saturated with its assumptions, even if by way of rejection or neglect. This vast Protestant historical experience is as entirely missing from their intellectual horizon as Stalinism is from mine.

They had read Weber and Tawney and understood that the Protestant work ethic affects individual initiative and the formation of capital, but as to how that happens, it seemed experientially to be a mystery to them.

Having moved from one centralized hierarchical order (the czarist one) to another centralized hierarchical order (the Soviet one), their intellectual tradition has skipped over the entire period from Luther to Schleiermacher, except to borrow some Enlightenment skepticism. Their historical consciousness only awakens with the Enlightenment critique of Christianity, not with the Christian underpinnings of the Enlightenment.

Starved from a seven-decade diet of Marxist revolutionary gruel, they are now ravenous to discover what has been happening in religion during their forced famine. I found them especially interested in how religious faith affects the moral underpinnings of a society and its basic confidence. They were wondering openly how they might appropriate the religious experience of the West in ways that pertain to their current moral, economic, and social dilemmas. Their questions about religion are far from speculative, having arisen out of the tragic experience of being cut off from free and lively discourse for most of this century.

I felt at no time put down. There was no hint of hostility or suspicion. When I sketched the history of my former romanticization of Marxism and its subsequent disillusionment, and my belief in the relative justice of the free market where mutual interests are fairly negotiated, I expected resistance. I met none. They were deeply intrigued by my advocacy of postmodern Christian consciousness. They seemed intently interested in learning what could be learned from my experience, which had been ostensibly so different from theirs, yet seemed so familiar. When I described modernity, the collapse of modernity, the emergence of postmodern consciousness, and the vitality of orthodox Christianity within postmodern consciousness, they found the description an accurate reflection of many similar aspects of their own experience. Though my life has been spent on the other side of the dismal curtain that divided the world from 1949 to 1989, they quickly recognized that I had suffered in the failure of modern consciousness what they had suffered 70 times over with fiery vengeance.

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They are not yet as involved as I in the deliberate textual study of patristic and classical Christian learning, but they felt especially drawn to my evangelical-patristic vocation because it gave them a point of contact between vital postmodern Western consciousness and the writings of the Eastern church fathers who have for a thousand years formed the deep center of the Russian religious experience.

In the tenth-floor corner room in which the faculty seminar was held, there was beside the tea and pastries a large, glass-fronted bookcase with all the faculty writings in it. They are justifiably proud of their scholarly productivity as a faculty—50 or more books and numerous articles, the results of the scholarly efforts of that small departmental faculty. A dozen members of the faculty met with me in our initial faculty seminar, with a half-dozen others ducking in and out, seeking now and then to answer students’ questions, responding to urgent notes and telephone calls.

Though older faculty members may have once been leading apologists of atheism, most are now hearty advocates of openness in the dialogue with varieties of religious consciousness and their social consequences. Various specialists in the department were drawn to issues of the history of religions, church-state relations, political ethics, psychology of religion, and (to my surprise) contemporary theology—not only Orthodox, but also Catholic and Protestant theological method and dogmatics.

I met specialists in the history of atheism, in Russian Orthodoxy, and in contemporary Catholic theology. One professor had written his dissertation on Lonergan’s theological method, had translated Whitehead into Russian, and was currently working on an anthology of Western methodological approaches to the study of religion. The social ethicist showed me a monograph he had written on the social essence of Methodism, citing official documents of social policy and social concern.

One purpose of my visit was to try to assess the status and dynamics of what is currently happening in apologetics for official Soviet atheism. I learned that their leading expert on atheism, and the only one in the department still actively engaged in atheistic apologetics, was experiencing a midlife glasnost crisis. Having published several books on atheism that had enjoyed a wide readership, she was now having difficulty finding a publisher for her writings. No longer an officially supported state project, atheism feels like a ghost of an issue. With a distinguished record of publication, she is now searching anew for her identity amid the newly re-forming Soviet academy.

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They wanted to know what methods of inquiry guided our investigations of religion in American universities. They asked especially about the Drew University Ph.D. program in psychology and religion, how it studied both contemporary psychological literature and the ancient tradition of soul care. I described a seminar in which students first read ancient Greek psychology (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus), then classic early Christian psychology (John Chrysostom, Nemesius, Augustine, Gregory the Great), then some medieval and Reformation psychology (Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin), and only then enter into dialogue with modern psychology.

There is a deep sense of loss of the thousand-year-old Russian tradition and the hope that it can be in some sense substantively regained and reappropriated. There is a pathos-laden inward mourning, not for communism or totalitarianism or a centralized economy, but for an organic, stable social order. I came to the sober conclusion that Gorbachev is not likely to last long under these circumstances, and what follows may be far less promising. The Soviet intellectuals, like many American intellectuals (their rhetoric notwithstanding), have a deep nostalgia for stability. They laughed when I described the “Gorby” phenomenon in the West, and they joked that the difference between Gorbachev in Moscow and Washington is that in Washington he could be elected.

Amid these conditions, Soviet humor abounds. I was told that the present government plan offers two ways to rebuild the country and reform society—a fantasy way and a realistic way. The first way is for everyone to work hard, joining together to become fully committed to perestroika, so that each one may contribute to social reconstruction. That is the fantasy way. Then there is the realistic way: The society will be saved by Martians.

Is glasnost irreversible? Here we must appeal less to scientific observation than Christian teaching. All things in history created by human pride, folly, finitude, and imagination are finally reversible, however stable they may look. Witness the history of such seemingly irreversible structures as Byzantium and the Berlin Wall. If anything ever looked irreversible it was Stalinism. By now we should have learned that any claim of irreversibility risks pretense and idolatry. But practically speaking, it would be difficult to reverse glasnost, even with a vast police apparatus.

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My last lecture ended on a personal note. I told them about my daughter, who had walked from Leningrad to Moscow in 1987 on behalf of peace and person-to-person meeting of Russians and Americans during the Cold War. She had studied Russian language and literature in college, and she felt called to organize the first peace walk of 200 Americans in the Soviet Union. As they passed around her picture, oohing and aahing, they realized instantly how much we needed dialogue and mutual understanding, and that some of us were willing to go out of our way to show our special love and concern for the Soviet people.

The session ended not with further comment on my lecture, but with the department chairman expressing how grateful they were to Laura. Her act of self-giving seemed far more important than anything I had said.

I left the university clutching letters that professors gave me to mail in the United States. When I indicated that I would not return to the U.S. until a week later, they laughed: “What’s a week in relation to our postal system. All we want is to be assured that they will be mailed, not when.”

A Soviet “Baptism”

The Soviets’ once-unbending atheistic society is looking with quiet desperation for ways to incorporate the vitality of religious understandings and sacramental life into its common ethos. There is thus a heated debate as to what a secularized “baptism” or initiation rite into the values of the Soviet civil order might mean, how it might be similar and different from Christian baptism.
Baptism is being reinterpreted by some as a state function of initiation into identity formation, apublic commitment to sharing in the values of society. (This seems to me to be structurally similar to Zwingli’s view of baptism as a public act of confession of faith rather than a grace objectively conveyed.) They are most interested in the idea of civil religion, although among modern contributors to this discussion they seem to be reading only Robert Bellah, not tougher voices like Will Herberg or Reinhold Niebuhr or Jacques Ellul.
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At the very least, the baptism debate indicates that traditional Christian metaphors still have vitality in the supposedly secularized imagination. But it is depressing to realize that the profundity of Christian baptism is poised to be plundered by a desperately deteriorating, hypersecularized society. Should Christians rejoice, I wonder, that the symbols of baptism have remained undiminished in power after seven decades of atheism, like seeds sprouting through the snow? Or should Christians resist the political captivity of these redefinitions?

By Thomas C. Oden.

Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.

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