Spiritual Transformation and Political Engagement: Reflections on the Teachings of Fr. John Romanides[1]

How should a devout Christian approach politics?  To what or to whom does ou turn for guidance?[2] Understandably, Christians often rely on such traditional cues as scriptural verses and conciliar decisions to inform (or, in some cases, simply justify) their political positions.  However, in drawing from the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially as explicated by one of its most influential contemporary theologians, Fr. John Romanides,[3] I explain why we should not be content with merely following these heuristics, apart from having undergone a genuine spiritual transformation.

If one can speak of an Orthodox “political theology”, this essay concerns the process of acquiring it, not its actual content (so, no - I will not be discussing same-sex marriage or any other hot-button issue!).  Given the nature of this process, it seems necessary to reflect, first, on the purpose of the Orthodox spiritual life. 

Orthodox Spirituality and its Social Implications

From the Eastern Orthodox perspective, God is known by means of one’s nous (which is translated imperfectly as “intellect”), the principal organ of spiritual perception that dwells in the “depths of the soul”.[4]  For Fr. Romanides, the chief consequence of Adam’s Fall was the “darkening of the human nous”:

“The nous is darkened when the thoughts of our reasoning mind [dianoia]…become thoughts of the nous…Thoughts are present in our nous that should not be there, because they belong to our reasoning faculty, the dianoia.  The nous must be utterly empty of thoughts in order for it to remain pure and thus receptive, so that the Holy Spirit can come and dwell and remain in it (p. 40).”

Accordingly, the spiritual life is initially centered on noetic healing - a phased process that begins with catharsis (or the purification of the soul from all self-centered passions), and is followed by fotisis (or illumination by the Holy Spirit) and, if God so wills, the experience of theosis (or union with God).[5] Fr. Romanides defined Holy Tradition as “nothing other than [the] curative course of treatment through which” this process is brought to completion (pp. 110-111).

How might these spiritual insights relate to behavior in the political realm? “The completion of this course of treatment,” Fr. Romanides explained, “automatically results in the creation of a social human being, a person whose soul is healthy and who is prepared for all aspects of social activity” [emphasis added].  If this is correct, and if the political was included in his understanding of the social,[6] then perhaps it is meaningful to speak of a political theology.  But is it even necessary to travel the narrow road to political knowledge[7] when we can simply rely on the heuristics available to us (such as the proof texts and conciliar decisions that are regularly cited in heated Facebook exchanges)?    

On the Insufficiency of Following Traditional Cues

Whereas many Christians have identified the aforementioned curative treatment with its “therapeutic effects” – by which I mean the writings and authoritative decisions that the Church recognizes as divinely inspired – Fr. Romanides stressed the distinction between the two in particularly bold ways. 

This is especially true of his teaching on the Bible, from which I deduce that, if one seeks some level of assurance that ou’s political views accord with God’s revelation, it does not suffice to simply mine the Scriptures for proof texts.  After all, the Bible is not, in itself, revelation, and asserting the contrary is “in terms of dogmatic theology, pure heresy.”  Rather, revelation is identified with the experience of theosis, “which transcends all expressions and concepts”.  Without this experience, or at least that of illumination, one cannot properly interpret the Scriptures (129).[8] 

Fr. Romanides expressed similar views on conciliar decisions, the inspiration of which does not rest merely on the gathering of bishops, but on whether these bishops have undergone noetic healing.  He cautioned against taking this latter condition for granted on the grounds that contemporary bishops are less likely to have mastered the Church’s therapeutic method (p. 210; see also p. 214). 

I wish to be perfectly clear: I am not suggesting that we ignore conciliar statements on matters related to politics.  But it strikes me as problematic that many of us seem so satisfied with citing such statements in our attempt to win political arguments, as if the gathering of bishops, alone, confers infallibility on their decisions.  Since this is not the case – according, at least, to Fr. Romanides - I believe that we need to strive for our own illumination if we genuinely seek to approach politics with a Christian mindset. 

Arguably, this need is especially urgent today.  Romanides was highly critical of contemporary Orthodoxy, which, in his view, “replaced experiential Patristic theology with a textbook theology of dogmas…that does not guide the soul to purification” (210).  As a consequence of this theological perversion, he argues that “only five [out of three-hundred Orthodox Christians] are in a state of illumination…The rest of them have not even the slightest idea of what purification is.”[9]

Seek First the Kingdom of God: Democracy and the Moral Obligation It Entails

I conclude by noting that democracy places upon us a huge responsibility over society. We affect one another through the decisions we collectively make in the political arena, which to varying degrees shapes how our government addresses economic inequality, social values, environmental degradation, foreign threats (real or imagined), and a host of other issues.  If we are our brother’s keeper, then it follows that democracy entails a public duty to undergo noetic healing.  In our effort to approach politics with a Christian mindset, deferring to traditional cues may be preferable to relying solely on one’s own opinions.  But it appears to me that the ultimate ideal is to fervently seek the heavenly kingdom before participating in the earthly one.[10] I pray that I live up to this ideal!

Amir Azarvan

Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He currently serves on the Executive Committee of the American Solidarity Party, and blogs (occasionally) at Amirica

[1] A special thanks to Frs. Panayiotis Papageorgiou (of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Marietta, Georgia) and Jonathan Tobias (of St. John the Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) for reviewing this essay.
[2] To my pleasant surprise, I recently discovered that there once were gender-neutral pronouns native to English dialects.  These include the pronoun "ou" (as in ou smells funny, in place of he smells funny).  It is more inclusive than the traditional “he”, and less of an eye sore than the more politically-correct “he/she” or “s/he”.  So, at the risk of being accused of clandestinely promoting an “LGBT agenda”, I have made it my dream (okay, slight exaggeration) to revive the use of ou. 
[4] See p. 362 of the glossary appended to The Philokalia (Volume 1), edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.
[5] Se p. 213 of The Mountain of Silence, by Kyriacos Markides.
[6] This seems reasonable to assume, given that the former is often denotatively subsumed within the latter.
[7] A question I have long pondered is whether objective political knowledge - if it does, in fact, result from noetic healing – is expressed in a systematically ideological way.  It is arguable that Fr. Romanides would answer no to this question: “Can we Orthodox Christians claim…that someone who possesses noetic prayer [i.e., a spiritual gift that is normally received prior to the experience of theosis] is obligated to be on the Left or on the Right?  Of course we cannot.  So the science, which we call ‘Orthodoxy,’ should never be associated with politics...When it comes to questions of ideology, Orthodox Christians are primarily concerned about whether the Church has the freedom to carry out Her work, which is to heal the sick in Her care.  The Church must have this freedom.” (p. 184).  On the other hand, one might argue that Fr. Romanides is not objecting to ideologies, per se, but rather the fact that adherence to them has been treated by many as a litmus test of faith or of one’s worthiness to be loved.  Fr. Romanides’s rationale for disassociating Orthodoxy from politics seems to lend support to such an interpretation: “someone who loves his neighbor cares for every human being, no matter who he is and no matter what convictions he might hold” (p. 184). 
[8] As Fr. Romanides puts it: “You cannot hope to theologize correctly simply because you have read the Bible and base your theology on the Bible.  If you do this, you cannot avoid becoming a heretic, because Holy Scripture can be correctly interpreted only when the experience of illumination or theosis accompanies the study or reading of the Bible” (129).
[9] Of course, I do not believe that Fr. Romanides was aiming for mathematical precision in these remarks.
[10] This is an allusion to verse 6:33 from St. Matthew’s gospel, which, interestingly enough, Romanides regards (along with the gospels of Sts. Mark and Luke) as a gospel of purification.  In contrast, the gospel of St. John is held to be the gospel of illumination and theosis (see p. 174).