Religion and the Conceptual Boundary in Central and Eastern Europe. Encounters of Faiths

TitleReligion and the Conceptual Boundary in Central and Eastern Europe. Encounters of Faiths
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsDénes, Ilona
Author(s) of reviewed material(ed.), Thomas Bremer

book. Studies in Central and Eastern Europe.

PublisherLondon: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN Number0-230-55076-2
Review year


Full Text

The interest shown by Western scholars in the religion and churches of Eastern Europe has become paramount in the 1980s and especially after 1989, apparently as a consequence of the intensified ecumenical dialogue and reinforced by the changes on the political scene. But a closer examination of this interest reveals a paradoxical situation, surmounting the political circumstances, and pertaining to social developments. It was noted that after the fall of communism, the rising significance of religious beliefs in Eastern Europe was not a return to a former situation or a natural reaction to regain what the anti-religious measures of the communist regime had suppressed, but rather a search for a new identity. Therefore, religion became the instrument for redefining national identity, rather then merely maintaining or regaining one. The larger historical perspective is also relevant: by the 19th century, most of the Orthodox Churches had become authocephalous and ‘national.’ In Central and Eastern Europe these churches were territorially overlapping with other major confessions of Christianity, Catholic as well as Protestant. Thus, visualizing the map of Europe from the perspective of religions raises some significant issues.
The present volume, comprising papers presented at the World Congress of the International Council on Central and Eastern European Studies, held in Berlin in July 2005, attempts to answer questions regarding the role of religion in defining frontiers. Following a chronological structure (from the medieval ‘geography of nations’ to the contemporary formulation of the territorial jurisdiction of churches, as through Canon law), it departs from the premise that religion has created conceptual boundaries which do not necessarily find counterparts in the geo-political sphere. In a sense, the initiative revisits Samuel Huntington's clash of civilization theory, pointing out that the major flaw of the huntingtonian formula is the assumption that borderlines succeed in completely dividing areas. Also referred to as frontiers of faith, the borderlines created according to religious criteria are subjected to doctrinal positions. In practice this means that the church tries to define the borderlines of its doctrine, and individuals are inside or outside of these borderlines inasmuch as they accept or reject the doctrine.
For instance, we speak about Orthodox countries, but the closest definition we can give of them is ‘countries in which the majority of the population is Orthodox.’ In this respect, the recently invented solution of the Russian Orthodox Church, materialized in the concept of canonical territory (used for the first time in an official document by the Moscow Patriarchate in August 2000) is illustrative. The canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church is a reflection of its jurisdiction over persons of the Orthodox confession living in thirteen states of the former Soviet Republics (Georgia and Armenia having independent churches due to historical reasons). But this territorial principle is questioned in an ambiguous way by the inclusion of Orthodox believers ‘living in other countries and voluntarily joining this jurisdiction.’ The ecclesiastical understanding of space has also been expressed in the concept of ‘Holy Russia,’ claiming that faith has always shaped the identity of the Russian people.
Even though Thomas Bremer, the editor of the volume pertinently observes that the conceptual boundaries are translated into social developments, the studies comprised in the volume only partly cover the social dimension, focusing instead on the delineation of theoretical approaches. However, considering that the methodological tools for the exploration of the relationship between church and state, church and nation in Central and Eastern Europe are still not clearly contoured, the theoretical discussion is an important starting-point. A good example is Alfons Brüning's contribution in this volume, illustrating the failure to appropriate conceptual instruments such as ‘Confessionalization’ for the cases in the regions of Eastern Europe where the Slavic Orthodox Church was dominant. The articles reflect on the differences and similarities between the religious communities that meet in the region. Assuming that a consciousness about these differences arose as early as the 9th century, the first article by Leonid Chekin analyzes the new perception of space as it was shaped by the imperial ideas of Byzantium and the West. Liliya Berezhnaya deals with ethnic-confessional reports in the framework of frontier studies with a focus on early modern Ruthenian lands. The particular case of the Ruthenian lands is filtered through Alfred J. Rieber's concept of ‘multiple borderlands’; here it refers to the overlap between religious and ethnic identities in the 17th century.
Social behavior in the 19th century Russian group of ‘Christ-faith’ believers (Khristovshchina) is the object of a study on ‘situational religiosity’ authored by Ekaterina Emeliantseva. This article is the closest to grasping the social dimension of conceptual boundaries, by looking at domestic life, business activities and religious practices of this intriguing group that formally belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, but constituted a private religious circle. The author's conclusion is that, in practice, the classical delineation between inside and outside of the church loses its significance compared to the immediate social needs of individuals.
The 20th century is viewed through the spectrum of several themes: the encounters of faiths within the ecumenical movement (Mihai Săsăujan analyzes the role of two Romanian theologians in the movement); the issue of religiosity from a comparative perspective (Gert Pickel's sociological approach to the declining religiosity in the West versus the increasing role of religion in post-communist countries); and the phenomenon of new religious movements, as opposed to traditional religious communities (Zrinka Stimac researches the case of Croatia). Finally, Johannes Oeldemann showcases a contemporary conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church over territorial jurisdiction, through applying the concept of ‘canonical territory.’
‘Conceptual borders’ offer, as this volume proves, fruitful perspectives for the understanding of the problems posed by multiple territorial interpretations arising from diverse religious appurtenance in Central and Eastern Europe. The volume proposes an optimistic view, advocating a transnational approach to religion, while at the same time shifting the focus from ‘conflicts’ to ‘encounters.’ Coupled with the fact that it is scholars from the region that have given voice to these claims, the book ought to be viewed as a valuable precedent.