Faith & Reason: Something familiar amid the strangeness that is Russia

The icons, ritual and music of Orthodoxy can seem exotic but we Westerners need to peer more deeply
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There is an advert at Heathrow Airport in which some multi- national bank tries to convince us that it is really a string of local enterprises which happen to be grouped under a global umbrella. Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge, the ad says. So it shows how at Christmas different countries celebrate with different treats. Or how a good-luck gesture in one place signifies the opposite in another.

It came to mind towards the end of a trip to Russia to see how religion was thriving in the post-Communist freedom of New Russia. There are some countries - like Ireland and the United States - whose foreignness takes you by surprise. Because English is the first language there, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they pretty much share the same cultural assumptions that we do. Only when you come a cropper are you forced into a rethink.

You wouldn't have thought that Russia fell into that category. Strange language, strange alphabet even. Strange half- European, half-Oriental feel to the culture. Strange expression of Christianity with the ceremonial solemnity of its liturgy, and the fitful informality with which most believers there seem to attend to it. For me this level of encounter with Orthodoxy was new, exotic and exciting.

Yet after five days of long liturgies, interspersed with theological discussions that were often even lengthier, something very familiar emerged. Out of the inverted perspective of the icons, through the chanted readings that even natives find hard to follow, from behind the impenetrable sanctuary of the iconostasis, and despite the ancient disputes and quarrels over filioque and the rest, something beckoned which was unmistakable. Something transcendent, something sacramental and yet something which was unquestionably scriptural.

There are dangers in this, of course. Some are ecclesiological. One of the greatest ironies of the trip was to see how good relations are in many places between Christians and Muslims and Jews - and yet to see how soured they are between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, the body with which Russians are theologically closest. In part this was down to different notions of what constituted "proselytising", an activity which the Moscow Patriarchate thinks ought self-evidently to be eschewed by other Christians.

It became evident that it went deeper than church practice. I heard forceful complaints about Baptists hiring halls to hold mission evenings which they advertised as "Christian" events. The Orthodox were outraged. In Russia, one cleric told me, "Christian" and "Orthodox" are synonymous, so the Baptists were perpetrating a deliberate con, he maintained, tricking people into thinking they were coming to an Orthodox event. If they advertised it as Protestant or Baptist, he implied, no one would have gone.

It would be easy to smile at this. But think more deeply about it and what it uncovers is an unarticulated intellectual paradigm which reveals where the gap is between the Western and Orthodox world-views. In the West we are so schooled in the thought process of laissez-faire in politics and economics that we have pretty much automatically transferred it to our post- Reformation theology. To us it seems obvious that different denominations have the right to put their version of the gospel before the religious consumer who will make his choice as he sees fit. Our post-Enlightenment values favour the libertarian over the authoritarian, and the individual over the collective.

So it is a shock to discover a culture which makes the opposite assumptions from intellectual roots which go back further than Communism to the days of imperial Russia and something deep in the national psyche. All of which finds distinctive expression in its vision of Christianity. Or as the Patriarch of Russia, Alexei II, told me (the full interview is in The Tablet this week): "We disagree with the statement we hear in the West sometimes that we live in the post-Christian era. In the former Soviet Union there is a return to Christian values, and in this we are backed by 1,000 years of Christian holy Russia."

And yet the real surprise for me, for all these variations in philosophical paradigm, was how at ease it was possible to feel in what was superficially an alien culture. Yes, there are all kinds of doctrinal oddities and reactionary viewpoints; but then we have those to cope with in our own churches. Yes, there is much in the Russian Orthodoxy of the common people that smacks of superstition; but we have that too in all our Western faiths, including that of modern secularism with its horoscopes and new age spiritualities.

But there is something in the prayerfulness of the people, the haunting power of the church music, and the playfulness of the clergy behind the seriousness of the divine liturgy which feels, in an odd way, like going home.