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Jürgen Henkel {*}

Asceticism versus Ideology of Consumerism

What we could learn from the Orthodox Spirituality


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2010, P. 522-526
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    That the Orthodox Churches belong to the European Christianity has not yet really penetrated the general awareness. Partly, this has to do also with the attitude of the Orthodox Churches. It might nevertheless make sense for the West to concern itself more with the traditional and the contemporary understanding of Orthodox spirituality.


Theology and spirituality of the Orthodox Church are not particularly known for their openness to the world [Weltzugewandtheit]. In the political, social or societal discourse Orthodox voices are rather seldom heard. And if so, at first glance their statements seem sometimes rather strange to Western observers. When, for example, the Russian Patriarch Cyril stigmatizes the forest fires in his country of the summer of this year, quite in the spirit of Old Testament prophetic penitential sermons, as God's punishment for the modern Russian consumer society's distance from God and thus produces a typical act-consequence relation.

The Orthodox Church is fundamentally characterized by a piety of inwardness, the mystical communion with God in prayer. This spirituality does not want to "cope" with world and life in the Western sense but to overcome, renew, transform, and sanctify them - with the Eschaton firmly in its mind. Orthodox care of souls trusts God to do sacramentally a lot through the Holy Ghost and sees mystagogy as the best life assistance. According to the Orthodox Church's view, an understanding of pastoral care as therapy and accompaniment through life oriented above all towards earthly well-being, whereto in recent decades some of the Western conceptions were prone, does not go far enough and reduces the pastor to a secular psychotherapists.

Pastoral care is never understood as mere individual interaction in the dialogue between pastor and parishioner [Pastorand], but always as the Church's spiritual working on human beings, where the Holy Ghost works through the priest into the world. Ideally, pastoral care is therefore always preaching and sacramental action. It places the believer in his existence and nature before God and makes God's gracious attention possible, instead of reflecting only on the existence of man in his social-therapeutic world relations. The world relationship of Orthodox pastoral care is that a worthwhile or well-lived life which is based on faith is particularly socially acceptable.


The Interest in the Orthodox Church is Declining

Worldly gestures, everyday language, and sermons and topics that are sometimes too this-worldly but are familiar in Catholicism and Protestantism, are foreign to the Orthodox divine service, which is full of symbolism. Instead of increasingly secularizing the divine service and sacral actions in order to secure that they are 'well received' by people due to their topicality, the Orthodox liturgy and spirituality aim at the opposite, namely the sanctification of everyday life and of the world. This conception differs from the Western one. In order to give a catchy outline of this approach, Orthodox theologians as e.g. the Romanian Ion Bria (1929-2002) introduced the concept "Liturgy after the Liturgy" in ecumenism. It is obvious that this meets with the reality of the fallen creation. There are no empirical success criteria for this goal.

Nevertheless, it is essential to take this ultimately eschatology-oriented vision of a meaningful perfection and sanctification of world and man seriously, "so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15:28).



The different nuances become evident right up to the self-characterization of monasticism. There is on the one hand Western monasticism, which is in the spirit of "Ora et labora" very active in the field of social and missionary work, on the other hand Eastern monasticism, which is strongly shaped by meditation.

It was always difficult for Western theology to understand correctly this internalization of the Orthodox piety and the mystical attitude of the Eastern theology, although just this retreat into inwardness enabled Orthodox believers and Churches to survive rather unscathed the communist dictatorship for several decades. The Orthodox form of opposition reminded of the behavior of Mr. Egge in Bertolt Brecht's story "Measures Against Violence" (1932). It is an amazing political insight for the Western observers that, after 50 to 70 years State atheism and sometimes brutal persecution, the Eastern Churches - by the way, also the Catholic Church - experience a revival in most countries of East and Southeast Europe. They are today more stable than the churches in the West after 50 years of liberal democracy.

Despite all that, there are concrete misunderstandings. The West mistook inwardness for passivity, Eastern mysticism for superficial enthusiasm, and the missing institutional-charitable impetus for social indifference, and confronted the strict and formal liturgy and prayer practice of the Orthodoxy with the reproach of meaningless ritualism. The Kulturprotestant Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) paradigmatically demonstrated this trait of criticism of Orthodoxy in his famous fundamental criticism of the Eastern Church, which shaped entire generations of Protestants up to this day. He never made an effort to understand Orthodoxy, and saw in the Eastern Church only a ritually ossified ceremony institution with superstitious practices, ultimately a continuation of pagan mystery cults with a Christian complexion.

After the re-unification of 1989, in the Churches of the West there was initially a growing interest and even enthusiasm for Orthodoxy and its piety. But that did not last long. Despite common criticisms of the Petrine ministry, the Protestants had to accept that Orthodoxy cannot be ecumenically monopolized against Rome, and that it is much closer to the Catholic Church - from the assessment of homosexuality and abortion, the rejection of the ordination of women up to the understanding of church, office and sacraments, and that the Orthodox Church therefore even more sharply denies that Protestants have the status of a Church than Rome does.

The Catholic Church in turn made the experience that on the Orthodox side the historical wounds, from the Crusades up to the founding of churches united with Rome especially in Ukraine and Romania, are still more painful than the dogmatic differences and make a deepening of ecumenical communion to date impossible. Otherwise, quite in keeping with the praxis pietatis of the early Christian community and the Old Church, Orthodoxy demands a lot of the individual believer: from the individual confession before receiving the Eucharist over the extensive practice of fasting up to the hours of church services, which are celebrated in a standing position and at which the believer must attend sober. The Western churches regard this as no longer communicable. Orthodox services nevertheless regularly ensure overcrowded churches.

Some Orthodox theologians and hierarchs did and do of course their bit to promote Western criticism. They display the attitude of a certain denominational Orthodox triumphalism associated with an apodictic dogmatism. They gladly impose their theology and spirituality by decree on their own church-goers and other churches rather than explaining and communicating them. In ecumenical meetings they sometimes distinguish themselves by their considerable pride. In addition, by referring to their actually impressively full churches at divine services and the blossoming of their churches after 1990, Orthodox Christians far too often refuse to take part in the debate about Europe or secularism and elude thus a much-needed socio-political dialogue where they would be able to make a relevant contribution.


Self-isolation Prevents them from Exploiting their own Potentials

By currently more and more sealing itself off, Orthodoxy does not only impede the encounters with the West but also not exploit its own potentials, which Orthodoxy would have available for influencing more strongly the society of even predominantly Orthodox countries. One intonates the splendid isolation on the denominational keyboard, and thus restricts primarily oneself. This leads to a paradox that can be seen both in Romania and Bulgaria. The ecclesial hierarchy increasingly refuses to participate in the public dialogue, and creates more and more closed societies up to the founding of own radio stations and television channels, as e.g. in the Romanian Patriarchate. At the same time, however, it complains about the growing secularization in society, politics, and media.

They prefer to stay among themselves rather than face critical questions or at least participate in the public discourse on important topics and try thus to exercise influence - as a definitely powerful social player and opinion leader - on political decisions. But then they loudly denounce undesirable developments in society in sermons and their own media, which of course outside religious forums and church circles hardly anyone really perceives.

But Orthodoxy would be able to make - from the core of its theology and ethics - important and valuable contributions to some highly topical issues, problems and crises.



From the identity crisis of the Western individual, which has made depression a widespread disease over the protection of creation up to the economic and financial crisis, which recently made the ideology of consumerism and market burst like a soap bubble, the Orthodox theology and spirituality can make decisive contributions, which can be catchily formulated as the attitude to life of "asceticism versus ideology of consumerism".

Orthodox theology sees the creation as a kind of "primal sacrament" through which God comes into contact with man. Through his Creation he provides the livelihood of man, and Creation inherently reflects the beauty of the Creator. Modern conceptions of an aesthetic theology can easily take the Orthodox theology of creation up, as the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993) unfolds it. After the Fall of Man Creation is admittedly regarded as damaged by human behavior, but at the same time the meanings that the Creator willed to put into it continue to dwell in it.

According to Orthodox understanding, Christians' handling of the earth has to prove its worth by their conduct, namely by honouring God as Creator. Environmental protection is therefore never a matter of superficial morals, or, in the sense of a secular survival instinct, based on worldly motives, no, it is always fundamentally theologically based upon cosmology and theology of creation. Environmental protection is the protection of creation for the sake of God's glory.


The Call for an Ecological Asceticism

Of course, the Orthodox theology is aware of the fact that Creation is definitely jeopardized today - from the environmentally destructive sins of the industry in the communist era up to environmentally harmful mammoth projects in Eastern European countries. Already years before the broad-based manifestation of the environmental movement in Western Europe in the eighties by the founding and the parliamentary successes of ecological parties and the mobilization of great citizens' initiatives we read in Staniloae about a call for an ecological asceticism as "a new form of asceticism" which is directly based on the theology of creation. He writes e.g. in his "Orthodox Dogmatics of 1978, "Our responsibility towards the God-given nature appears today also as a duty to be careful with the natural resources and to avoid the pollution und destruction of nature" (Vol. I, German edition, p. 297).

These are wise and foresighted words of an Orthodox theologian who lived until 1989 behind the Iron Curtain. Orthodoxy does not uncritically see the environmental work of the Churches in the West, which is predominantly oriented towards actions and projects, and sees in it rather political actionism. The protection of creation is not expected from human actions and real environmental behavior alone but localized in prayer and in an actual Christian life. That may appear apolitical but is ultimately so compelling and consistent as the insight that, provided that all people obey strictly the Ten Commandments as God's 'plan' for human behaviour, there would be not only peace on earth, but also police and judiciary had no longer anything to do.


Orthodox Spirituality as Self-help

Depressions have meanwhile become a real widespread disease. The high number of single households and loneliness in the anonymity of the city, the dehumanization of communication in cyberspace, fear of bonds, decline of social contact, loneliness in old age - they all contribute to this. Four million Germans today suffer from depression. There is undoubtedly a considerable identity crisis. Long before psychotherapists like Viktor E. Frankl realized that the search for the meaning of life is a fundamental need of man and developed the logotherapy - where a real bridge to the Christian faith exists, which can so not be found readily in other psychotherapeutic concepts -, the Orthodox spirituality takes most consistently the decisive step and describes exactly this meaning of life as living in a successful community with God and neighbour.

Already in the Old Church church the Desert Fathers and Byzantine ascetics long since anticipated many psychotherapeutic insights of the modern age regarding analysis and treatment of mental suffering and the description of mental processes and conditions. In search of their own identity and the meaning of life, however, many desperate people are looking for help in Far Eastern meditation practices, although also the Christian meditation practice of the Eastern Church can offer something to them.



The quest for inwardness, the meditative immersion into one's Self and its relation to God, and the respective prayer and meditation practice of the Orthodox spirituality are a true treasure of life assistance, though not in a secular sense, but always in relation to God.

Here the Orthodox anthropology admittedly argues basically similar to the philosophical concepts that see man as a social being, but as reason is not given man's socio-dialogical nature in the sense of a conditio humana - communio is always seen as the reflection of the perfect communion of love of the Trinity. In his later work "Saint Trinity or In the Beginning was Love" (1993) Dumitru Staniloae describes the relationship of the three Divine Persons as foundation and model for the communion between people and with God. That is exactly why love is the highest among the virtues of faith, love and hope (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). Love becomes the form of, and the perfect communion of love the model of human life.

Out of her inmost nature, the Church has always to communicate and to live her mission, the communion in love as the basis and form of human life. In one of his major works (Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church), the Greek Metropolitan Ioannis (Zizioulas) of Pergamon has devoted himself to the importance of communion. There he develops on the one hand his much-noticed eucharistic ecclesiology, and at the same time he qualifies communion as basic form of a worthwhile life.

If, however, the love between human beings cools, as it can be observed in modern society, then a renewal of humanity is needed that is not oriented only towards man, one's neighbour and the world but above all towards God. This elevates every Christian life assistance above every secular concept, no matter how sophisticated they are methodologically. That is the particular surplus value of the Christian life assistance, which in turn is in all clarity expressed by the Orthodox spirituality.

Today the West can therefore definitely learn from the Orthodox theology the courage to strictly theologically and spiritually interprete with ultimate consistency the identity crisis of the present time, with its symptoms as depression, as a disruption of the relationship with God, which is due to man's excessive and ultimately disappointing relatedness to the world rather than a loss of self and an identity dilemma. The identity crisis and depression of the present time are a crisis of faith and not, socio-psychologically interpreted, a disturbance in man's self-image. From a Western point of view this may seem to be too mono-causal, but human existence in all its positive and negative aspects and also possible disruptions is on principle interpreted spiritually by the Orthodox spirituality.

If we ask after the answer of the Orthodox theology and spirituality to the economic and financial crisis and also to the ideology of consumerism and materialism of the present time, then we come to the probably clearest contribution that Orthodoxy offers regarding current problems. Out of the Christian faith, the Orthodox asceticism offers a fundamental, alternative attitude to life, namely a mental, spiritual and physical independence from any material goods and a fundamental criticism of man's quest for wealth, of egoism, consumerism, and materialism. Richness consists in worthwhile relations of the community of people with each other and with God, not in material things.

Orthodox piety opposes consumerism and craving for material things, which have never become so manifest as recently in the economic and financial crisis caused by greedy speculations, with a spiritual attitude that teaches to lead a life that is based on the power of faith. "Those are poor who have many needs," says the Church Father St. Basil the Great. There is a rigorous scepticism regarding wealth, because the quest for material wealth obscures the view of the essential things.

Ascetism becomes thus the key concept of Orthodox spirituality. Reduced to the customs of fasting, it would be totally misunderstood. Asceticism is a much more comprehensive lifestyle; fasting is of course an important aspect. It is a fundamental orientation of man towards God. The Orthodox asceticism has an eminently socio-ethical character. Here it is not only about detaching oneself from the material world and about turning away from a consumerism that reduces fellow human beings and environment to consumer goods and binds man to the creation rather than the Creator; here it is quite central about a different view of the world. The path of asceticism is the path of faith. It leads to a changed attitude towards life and a changed lifestyle of the individual Christian, to the quest for the things that are above (cf. Col 3,1).


Richness Consists in Worthwhile Relationships

Asceticism tells us what Jesus' call for repentance and return to God means in concrete terms. It is more than a mere self-discipline and describes the life that corresponds to baptism. This is the real logic of asceticism, which becomes thus a phenomenon of practical rationality of faith. The Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Serafim of Germany, Central and Northern Europe sees the Orthodox asceticism as "the only life form of the Christians' resistance against the consumer society in which we live," as "dictatorship without a dictator" (Andrea Riccardi).

The Russian Orthodox Church presented the up to now most comprehensive systematic exposition of the Orthodox social doctrine. The official document, adopted by the Holy Synod in August 2000, deals in 16 chapters with all key social and socio-political topoi from the Orthodox perspective: from the Church's relationship to state and nation over the topic of work and property and questions of bioethics up to the problems of mass media, globalization and secularization.



The dialogue with Orthodoxy on all these issues is worthwhile, especially because the Orthodox theology and spirituality has kept up courage to consistently analyse and interpret theologically man, life, and the world, and precisely from this perspective clear and often uncomfortable messages are formulated. Their conceptual content is often more compelling and more courageous than many a church document of consensus in the West. Here, too, it is necessary to attentively perceive, and to take up what Orthodoxy can contribute to the European dialogue on values and to the crises of the present time.


  • Ion Bria: The Liturgy after the Liturgy. Mission and Witness from an Orthodox perspective, Genf 1996
  • Jürgen Henkel: Eros und Ethos. Mensch, gottesdienstliche Gemeinschaft und Nation als Adressaten theologischer Ethik bei Dumitru Stäniloae, Münster 2003
  • Aus dem Glauben leben. Gesammelte Texte von Metropolit Serafim von Deutschland, Zentral- und Nordeuropa zur orthodoxen Theologie und Spiritualität, Hg. Jürgen Henkel, Bonn 2008
  • Die Grundlagen der Sozialdoktrin der Russisch-Orthodoxen Kirche, Hg. Josef Thesing und Rudolf Uertz, Sankt Augustin 2001
  • Dumitru Staniloae: Orthodoxe Dogmatik I-III, Bukarest 1978; dt. 1984
  • John D. Zizioulas: Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church, Crestwood 1985


    {*} Dr. Jürgen Henkel (born in 1970) is pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria and publicist. From 2003 to 2008 he headed the Evangelical Academy Transylvania (EAS) in Sibiu and is currently pastor in Upper Franconia (Selb-Erkersreuth). Recent Publications: Neue Brücken oder neue Hürden? Eine Bilanz der Dritten Europäischen Ökumenischen Versammlung 2007 (2008).Zwischen Anpassung und Widerstand. Die deutsche Diplomatie in Rumänien 1933-1945 (2008).


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