Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Old Belief, Sex and the Modern Divergence

One of the sublime (hint- massive sarcasm here) joys of working on a graduate portfolio lies with the painstaking production, in around 250 words or less, of individual entries into the master annotated bibliography.  It would definitely border on busy work were it not for the curious fact that it sometimes takes the tedium of summation in order to see the linkages between seemingly disparate works.  Such was the case as I prepared to take Roy Robson's Old Believers in Modern Russia and Eve Levin's Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700 and condense their cogent and well argued points into a paragraph.  

As some may know, I'm currently conducting research on Old Believer communities that immigrated to Oregon in the 1960's.  Even though I spent several evenings in the Fall semester of 2007 learning about Russian Orthodox history, Old Belief is sufficiently varied and highly dependent on the experiences of the local that I knew I would need to 'remind' myself as to the origin and nature of these asynchronous Orthodox beliefs.  Roy Robson's work, specifically addressing Old Believer groups at the turn of the twentieth century, provided a well-informed foundation of knowledge from which my initial inquires could take form.  

Two observations made by Robson in his first chapter are particularly enlightening.  The first:
Because symbols and rituals are experienced (emphasis in text) by the faithful, not simply understood in an intellectual way, scholars need to break down the distinction between symbolic and concrete structures, between the 'signs' of the old ritual and the 'real' issues at stake in the Old Belief. (7)
and the second:
Consequently, we can understand the Old Belief as an ongoing relationship between the symbols of pre-Nikonian Orthodoxy and the lives of the old ritualist faithful. (9)
The key observation in both statements is that one cannot analyze Old Belief solely on the basis of ritual practice, as the faiths very makeup and execution is directly tied to the circumstances and experiences of the practicing community.  A scholar must look to the community itself for deeper understanding, recognizing that the rituals encountered do not tie their practitioners to the past but rather grounds the practice of Old Believers in the lived presence of today.  This especially strong linkage between Old Belief and and the community not only helps explain the ability of the faith to endure under various forms of persecution but also why the Nikonian reforms of the mid-17th century provoked the Russian religious schism in the first place.

How so?  Interestingly enough, the answer lies with sex.  And this is where summation becomes suddenly less tedious.

Enter the work of Eve Levin (who, in all candor, is my advisor).  Sex and Society of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700 is her exhaustive and well-informed work utilizing ecclesiastical and other documentary sources from the various the slavic populations in Eastern Europe and Russia.  Her main argument is that sexual behavioral norms and attitudes espoused by the Orthodox Church largely correlated to the norms and attitudes of the people themselves.  Looking at the issues and debates surrounding topics of marriage, illicit sex, rape, incest, as well as sex and the clergy, Levin asserts that because the Church held such close contact with Orthodox believers in the period surveyed, 900-1700, regulation of their sexual behavior was largely free from acrimony and actually enforced by the community itself.  (There are other, larger points made in the work, but the community aspect is what interests me here.)

Yet towards the end of the 17th century, the traditional medieval relationship and cooperation between the people and the church, at least in the area of sexual behavior regulation, underwent a reconfiguration.  Two points will help illustrate the nature of this reconfiguration; the Nikonian reforms and the rise of the centralized, secular state.  

As the power of the tsar began to grow into a more modernist form, shedding the aging ancient regime skin, it sought to extend its influence in areas previously reserved for the ecclesiastical.  As Levin points out, regulation of sexual behavior was one such area increasingly transferred to the purview of the state at the end of the 17th century.  Suddenly, the close relationship between community and church was replaced by a bureaucratically distant relationship between community and state.  Whereas the community members once had a greater roll in the determination and enforcement of behavioral norms, under the new arrangement their voice increasingly diminished until it was hardly considered at all.  The reform of the secular promised radical change in the way society and the state interacted.  This alone would have been disconcerting to those who cherished the community centered aspect of their lives- yet the 17th century would also see reform of the sacred, and this transformation provoked an intense reaction.

I briefly discussed the Nikonian reforms here- essentially, Patriarch Nikon sought standardization of both text and ritual used in the practice of Russian Orthodoxy.  He modeled his standardizations on Greek Orthodox forms, believing that such efforts would help to strengthen the faith by eliminating the inconsistancy that crept in over the past six centuries.  During the same period, the Church also sought to improve the standing of their parish clergymen thought minimal education requirements and cultivating a more dignified, elitist position in the society they served.  It was a quest never completed- but the undertaking produced unintended consequences.  The combined effect of both movements described above was that the Church effectively took itself out of the close contact it possessed with the community faithful, instead preferring to create a far more formalized and structured relationship that placed the tsar and the church hierarchy before that of the community.  

As Robson point out in his analysis of the differences between the liturgy and rituals of Old Belief and Russian Orthodoxy, the former made little room for the role of secular power but contained a diverse set of interactions between clergy and faithful, while the latter de-emphasized the community in favor of promoting the health and well-being of the tsar and church clergy, eliminating much of the interaction elements between clergy and faithful.  This would prove to be the main grievance stemming from the progenitors of Old Belief, namely that the Russian Orthodox reforms abandoned the established and stabilizing relationship between community and church that existed for centuries during the medieval era in favor of a more modern form that used dictation instead of cooperation in establishing and enforcing norms.  Hence, the Russian Orthodox schism.

In effect, Old Believers faced a changing relationship with their authorities in the sacred and secular realms in which both significantly modified existence of traditional ties and commitments to the community faithful.  To see the Russian Orthodox schism as a religious issue alone misses the point- changes in the configuration of the state no doubt provided an additional source of unease among those who saw value in the more traditional methods of governance.  

Robson informs us that the community and the lived experience of Orthodoxy is what characterizes Old Belief, while Levin states that, at least in the arena of sex, the 17th century saw the divergence of medieval models of synchronicity with the community in favor of modern forms influenced by the West.  Probing deeper, one can distinguish the link between the two scholar's works and provide greater depth and meaning to larger cultural trends within Russian history.  At least, that's what I attempted to roughly outline above.
And I owe it all to the bibliography.  Thanks.

1 comment:

  1. I love you and the way you write! Can't wait to read your first book (and I'm hoping for a signed copy)