Father Alexander Men and Religious Freedom in Russia

One of the recurring struggles in post-Communist Russia is the heated debate over the rights of religious minorities and the appropriate relationship between church and state. Recently, several efforts have been made to revise the 1990 Freedom of Conscience law, which granted religious freedom to Russian citizens after seventy years of government-sponsored atheism and gave all religions equal legal standing. The new draft laws are designed to restrict religious freedom and to re-establish state control over religious organizations. These initiatives are the result of the combined efforts of leaders from the Communist Party, various nationalist groups and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In sharp contrast to these current efforts to restrict religious freedom and give the established Orthodox Church a privileged position in Russian society, Father Alexander Men, whose legacy and insights were described in the last two issues of “Reflections,” offered another perspective. During his ministry as a parish priest and later as a public lecturer, Father Men argued emphatically for religious pluralism and a secular state that “serves the interests of its citizens regardless of their religious affiliation” (p. 136).

An Open Model of Christianity
In the last interview Father Men gave, four days before his murder in September 1990, he was asked about the changes that had taken place in Russia regarding religious freedom and the current status of the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Men expressed concern about the “conservative tendency” among Orthodox leaders and how they were anti-Western and hostile to reform. He noted how fascist forces were linking up with Russian clericalists and nostalgic church people. In his judgment, “that’s why the most conservative and right-wing elements have been preserved, have survived and multiplied. They found favour with the [government]functionaries and with the KGB” (p. 165).

Father Men’s scholarship demonstrated an openness to new ideas, illustrating what he meant when he described the “open model of Christianity.” He not only was well-versed in the history and theology of Russian Orthodoxy, but he also mastered the writings of the early Church Fathers, Asian and Middle Eastern religious thinkers, and leading theologians of Western Christianity. Although he did not personally have the privilege of sharing ideas with other scholars when writing his own books, because of the closed society in which he lived, he was still able to study their ideas and often quoted contemporary Western writers and preachers such as C. S. Lewis and Billy Graham.

To explain what he meant by “openness,” Father Men gave an example of a young man at his church who started making occasional visits to a Baptist Church nearby. Father Men recalled telling him: “‘You are Orthodox, of course you can go there because the church is everywhere, Christ is everywhere, the gospel is everywhere. Do both: go to the Baptist Church and don’t forget you own spiritual roots.’ And when I explained the open model to him,” Men continued, “he said, ‘Oh dear, how uncomfortable!’ He ended up becoming a Baptist.” In Men’s judgment, “this young man could only be either a Baptist who did not recognize Orthodoxy, or an Orthodox who cursed the Baptists . . . There is an illness like that — the fear of open spaces. In the history of religion, there is also this fear of open spaces” (p. 167).

The Need for Repentance

After the fall of Communism, Father Men often preached about the need for repentance in order for true healing to take place in Russia. He expressed concern over the newly-emerging Russian nationalism, which he described as a form of cultural narcissism. He viewed this narcissism as “harmful and dangerous,” stating that it made Russian society idealize itself while it searched for a cultural identity to replace the one provided by Communist ideology. As an example of this phenomena, Father Men referred to the celebration of the millennium of Christianity in Russia, which occurred in 1988. “There was not a single word of repentance, not a single word about the tragedy of the Russian Church, only triumphialism and self-congratulation” (pp. 166-7).

For Father Men, repentance brought hope and hope was needed as Russia faced the difficulties of reform and rebuilding. Here is the way he linked repentance to hope and hope to action:

“. . . the good news of Christ was preceded by a call to repentance; this is what John the Baptist called people to. And the very first word of Jesus’ teaching was, ‘Repent.’ And remember that in Hebrew this word means ‘turn around,’ ‘turn away from the wrong road.’ While in the Greek text of the Gospels, it is rendered by the even more resonant word, metanoite, in other words rethink your life. This is the beginning of healing. Repentance is not a sterile ‘grubbing around in one’s soul,’ not some masochistic self- humiliation, but a re-evaluation leading to action . . .” (p. 142).

NOTE: The quotes from Father Alexander Men were taken from a new book,Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Life and Work of Alexander Men, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman, and published in 1996 by SCM Press Ltd. in London.