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PAX Christi Netherlands; PAX Christi International and the Russian Orthodox Church

In ontwikkeling*


1. Research questions, content

The project aims to explore the archives of both PAX Christi International and the Dutch section of PAX Christi, currently stored at the “Katholiek Documentatie-Centrum” affiliated with Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

The sources under scrutiny here mainly cover the period of the Cold War, in particular the time between the early 1960s (the II Vatican Council, and the Russian Orthodox Church entering international forums such as the WCC, the Christian Peace Conference etc.) and the early 1990s (the final phase of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of new structures in the states of the CIS). Next to the archival resources of the PAX organization itself, the KDC also preserves a number of personal correspondences of people related to the work of PAX Christi and its various initiatives on fields like disarmament, peace building, ecumenical contacts etc.

Though PAX Christi maintained contacts with a variety of religious groups all over the countries of the Warsaw Pact, within this project contacts with religious groups in the Soviet Union itself, and with the Russian Orthodox Church (on different levels, beyond mere official relations) are of particular interest.

Next to the simple fact, that the holdings stored at KDC in their majority have not been systematically evaluated to date, and therefore might be worth a general exploration, there are some particular questions that would probably best guide the exploration projected here:

  • One of these guiding aspects concerns the network of both formal/official and informal/dissident contacts established by either the organization or its members throughout the period in question. Research on religious dissent and dissenters’ circles in the Soviet Union currently tends to draw a fault line between networks established by official organizations (such as PAX Christi and the World Council of Churches, with the former often acting as mediator) with the state-tolerated leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church on the one hand, and an alternative network of more informal, dissident contacts operating under conditions of illegality and persecution on the other hand (with institutions such as “Glaube in der 2. Welt” in Zurich, or the London based Keston Institute as Western counterparts). Such division during Soviet times found its internal reflection in the mutual mistrust between dissident clerics and faithful and the Orthodox hierarchy, the latter being suspected (aptly or not) of constant betrayal and overdue collaboration with the KGB and persecuting institutions. There is yet reason to presume, that in reality this division was much less sharp, or at least did not prevent interaction – even if only polemical – between the fractions. An exploration of the holdings stored at the KDC definitely promises to come to a more nuanced, and more accurate view of networks and interactions of religious groups, with the Orthodox in particular, during the times of the Cold War. In order to achieve this goal, the professional application of existing methods of sociological network analysis shall be applied.[1] Of equal importance, in this context, are ecumenical contacts and relations either inside the Soviet Union (in a way continuing the “ecumenism of the GuLag” of previous periods) of between confessional branches crossing the iron curtain.
  • A second, equally important aspect is related to the actual content (political strategies, value discussions, theological assessments) of talks, conferences and written correspondences. What did theology (including aspects of what might be called “political theology”) in the Soviet Russian church actually look like? Science so far, presupposing a general isolation of theological teaching under conditions of state atheism, presumes a rather backward, traditional and even traditionalist character of (Orthodox) theology in Soviet times. Stereotypical narratives provide a picture of prevailing deficits in the Russian Church: Modernizing tendencies, as they might have developed in Western countries including the innovative centers of the diaspora, hardly made it into the writings and curricula of Soviet based theological institutions – with consequences allegedly reaching beyond the Soviet period itself, contributing to anti-modern and anti-Western stances still strong within current day Russian Orthodoxy. Plausible as that may seem in many respects, there is to date rather scarce documentation of the – presumably quite many - theological debates on subjects such as war and peace, justice, human rights, religion and society as they were addressed during the numerous encounters between Eastern and Western theologians during the period in question. Furthermore, there is more than superficial evidence that quite a few of the works of Western theology, on whatever secret paths, in fact did make it into the Soviet Union, and could be received, commented, criticized, perhaps rejected. But if the latter happened, was this a matter of pure ignorance, or rather due to quite different living conditions, and even to whatever cautious attempts to find common ground between Christian teaching and Communist ideology (already known to science, examples for such attempts exist among both laymen and hierarchs)? Historical science has also hints that there actually was, to some extent, also an autonomous development of theological thinking even under Soviet conditions, which yet did not follow Western patters, but even might be held responsible for current divisions.[2] Next to the actual documentation of such talks which is hitherto mostly lacking[3], there has not taken place any more methodologically inspired investigation of these talks, the positions laying behind, the conditions, communicative spaces shaping the encounters and the like. It is more than likely that such investigation might help overcome simplistic stereotypes of alleged advancement and backwardness, offering better insight into theological developments in East and West, including elements of convergence, compromise, but also misunderstandings.

These are, to be sure, only some of the more obvious research questions that would immediately come to mind. In a first step, browsing the various holdings preserved at KDC will help to further specify the research questions formulated here in advance, and on the base of already existing studies. To these latter, the current project is likely to add further insights and precision. It also might generate new research lines and questions hitherto unnoticed, not in the last place helping to understand later developments of religion, in particular Orthodox Christianity, in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

2. Formalities, Structures

The Institute for Eastern Christian Studies (IvOC), affiliated also with Radboud University Nijmegen, can take over a leading role in the project, in terms of academic affiliation of a provisional researcher, logistic support, and integration in relevant international academic networks.

On the formal side, the project is especially suitable for a PhD or PostDoc research. Related work is supposed to cover a period of appr. 2-3 years, to be supervised by the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (represented by prof. dr. Alfons Brüning) and by experts from the faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies (FFTR, represented, for instance, by prof. dr. Evert van der Zweerde). For a successful execution a time of 2-3 years seems realistic.

Currently, we follow a two steps agenda. A first and preparatory step would be needed. Preliminary explorations in correspondence and workshops with contemporary witnesses and participants in relevant events revealed, that there is need to extend the research focus beyond the written documents, not in order to replace these, but to develop a sharper hermeneutical focus and amend their value. “Many important things were not mentioned in the documents.” – This became a sentence often repeated during conversations in advance. Therefore, a preparatory step will have to consist in taking interviews with contemporary participants, and to systematically evaluate memoirs, personal notes, correspondences within, but also beyond the stores of the KDC. This preparatory step would best be done by a student assistant, or in the form of an explicitly preparatory pre-PhD project.

Concerning publications (of both the results of the preparatory project and the larger research project), the Institute for Eastern Christian Studies also offers possibilities for either articles or a monograph resulting from project research. These possibilities are connected with the “Journal of Eastern Christian Studies”, mainly maintained by the Institute (since 2001, in cooperation with the University of Leuven, BE), and published by Brill since 2022 (after a period in cooperation with Peeters, Leuven, up to 2021). Also related to the journal is a book series under the title “Eastern Christian Studies”, that has published studies devoted to the history, culture, liturgy and theology of Eastern Christianity for two decades now, and enjoys a good reputation and ranking within the academic community.

Furthermore, the Institute for Eastern Christian Studies can offer its administrative facilities in helping to organize workshops or conferences related to the project. The same applies for networking in a more general sense, providing the provisional researcher with the necessary contacts for consultation, and in order to successfully implement his research into the international academic community.

*Questions, comments and further advice will be appreciated, and can be sent to Prof. Dr. Alfons Brüning, director IvOC, alfons.bruening@ru.nl.

[1] Robert A. Hanneman and Mark Riddle: Introduction to social network methods (2005), via: http://faculty.ucr.edu/~hanneman/nettext/.

[2] Cf. e.g. Alfons Brüning, ‘Morality and Patriotism - Continuity and Change in Russian Orthodox Occidentalism since the Soviet Era’ in Andrii Krawchuk, Thomas Bremer (eds.), Eastern Orthodox Encounters of Identity and Otherness. Values, Self-Reflection, Dialogue. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 29-46.

[3] Probably the only exceptions are Heiko Overmeyer’s German PhD dissertation from 2005, defended at Muenster university in Germany, and more recently, 2015, several passages included in Martin Illert’s book on Protestant-Orthodox dialogue since 1959.