Fr. Peter Alban Heers · July 24, 2009
Fr. Peter explains the heresy of Phyletism, which means placing one's ethnic identity above the Orthodox faith.
In The Symbol of Faith, which the Orthodox Christian confesses at every Divine Liturgy, and in which he confesses his faith in the Holy Trinity, he also confesses his faith in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And it is this dogma, this faith, of the Orthodox Christian, which in our day and age is perhaps, more than any other aspect of our faith, under attack, or just plainly misunderstood, misapplied, and in great need of clarification.
We as pastors, as teachers, and as bishops, must struggle to address this issue in our day and age—properly, from every perspective, in a balanced way. Because it is under attack by a variety of ideologies and movements in our day, in deceptive and difficult and difficult to understand ways for the average believer.
So in this program and in programs to follow, we’re going to address an aspect of this dogma. And we’re going to do it, however, from a negative perspective. We’re going to talk about a heresy which undermines this teaching and this faith. Now it is proper to call the heresy, although many don’t understand it as a heresy, and what I’m talking about and what we’re going to talk about again in the next few programs, is the heresy of phyletism, often called by most people ethnicism, placing one’s ethnic identity above the faith and one’s identity as an Orthodox Christian.
And in today’s program, we’re going to discuss what phyletism is not, first of all. Because often times in discussions between Orthodox Christians, the terms are not defined, and so not much progress is made in understanding the issue properly. And we’re also going to try and define the term and what exactly it is. And in following programs, we’ll get more into detail—especially how this heresy affects the Church here in Greece. And hopefully that will help people abroad understand its effects on the life of the Church there, seeing how it affects the Church here and the roots of the problem.
Now phyletism, as we said we’re going to discuss what it is not, is not love of one’s country or homeland. It is not patriotism. Phyletism is not the same thing as patriotism. Patriotism, loving one’s country, one’s homeland, one’s people, is perfectly good and fine and accepted by the Church. In fact, there are many saints who are quite patriotic and quite lovers of their homeland—even defending their homeland against invaders, against nonbelievers. And so certainly, phyletism is not loving one’s people, one’s country, one’s homeland. There’s nothing wrong with that. So when people express great love for their homeland or their country, one should not misunderstand them and confuse their love for something which it is not, that is phyletism.
Now phyletism is also not a strong, healthy self-identity—that is as a Greek or Russian or Serbian or American. It’s perfectly good and healthy to have a proper self-identity. I am a part of this people, which call themselves Hellenists or Russians or Serbians or what it might be, and I’m very happy to be a part of this group, a part of this nation. And certainly we have an example of the Jewish people, the people of God in the Old Testament. They certainly were not shy about their identity and about expressing their identity as the people of God.
Phyletism is not having reservations about multinational unions, globalization, European Unions, North American Unions, international groups which seemingly subvert local governments. Phyletism is not even the desire to get out of these groups; it is not to be seen as something negative. In fact, the Church has always held a somewhat reserved and even a negative stance toward such developments seeing in them, precursors to the “man of iniquity,” the Antichrist.
So phyletism is not a zeal for one’s autonomy, the country’s autonomy from these multinational, international, organizations. There’s nothing all that virtuous in uniting the nations under one government. That’s not something the Church should see automatically as something good. But actually, one can and should be reserved toward these developments, which we’re seeing in our day, ever increasing amounts of effort to bring about unions of nations and states and economies. One need not be all that excited, could even be reserved in their approach to these issues. It’s certainly not a question of phyletism or of bad ethnic identity.
Now phyletism is also not wanting to maintain one’s own traditions, one’s customs, one’s ethnic traditions. The Church has always supported that and encouraged that—even if that means for those who’ve gone abroad and no longer live in their homeland. There certainly is nothing bad or negative or reason to fear, keeping and maintaining one’s own traditions and customs.
Now what is phyletism then? If it is not all that, what is it? Well, it is placing all of that, which we’ve said—the love of one’s country, the strong healthy identity, wanting to maintain ethnic traditions—above and beyond and first before the Church, above the Church, as a criteria for how the Church is viewed, as the overarching identity of one to the detriment of his identity as an Orthodox Christian—such that his decisions and his desires and policies, let’s say if one’s government policies first by their ethnic identity and their ethnic needs and desires to the detriment or complete indifference to the Church and the Church’s teaching. This is phyletism.
Phyletism is, again, placing one’s worldly identity, identity as a pilgrim in this world, above his identity as a member of the Kingdom of Heaven, as a baptized Christian who is no longer a member of this world, first and foremost, but is a member of the Kingdom of Heaven. And we have the words of the Apostle Paul, which we all I’m sure know, but which is good to recall. “There is neither Jew nor Greek for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And just before that he says: “You are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.”
Clearly the Apostle is teaching us that having been baptized, having become children of God by faith in Christ Jesus, our identity as a Greek, a Russian, an American, or whatever, a Jew, no longer has the priority but is secondary and should not be an obstacle and should not obscure our vision and understanding of life as an Orthodox Christian. We are all of Christ and this is our identity, first and foremost. And so if we assert our identity as a Greek or an American to the detriment of our identity as an Orthodox Christian, we are in the delusion of phyletism. We are in delusion. We are not in the Spirit of God.
Let me also talk about other aspects of phyletism, which need a little explanation. Now, phyletism can also be understood to be the merging of the two, our two identities—our worldly identity, our identity as a pilgrim in this world, and our identity as a member of the Kingdom of God—without distinction, confusing the two, without proper ordering, confusing the roles and the places, such that the Church becomes an instrument, a tool, for the advancement of our ethnic identity, our ethnic goals, a nation’s goals. And the Church is then seen by others as a part of one’s ethnic identity and not as the Kingdom of God on Earth and place for all peoples and all nations.
Phyletism is also making Orthodoxy a part, a subservient part, of a nation’s social agenda and mechanisms—putting it to the service of the nation, when the nation is no longer informed by Orthodox principles, and not the nation to the service of the Church, to the spiritual life of the people. In fact, in a proper ordering of things, the nation should be at the service of the Church—working toward the spiritual betterment and salvation of the people and of the world. And their policies, the laws of the people, and the beliefs of the government, should express Orthodox Christian teachings on the nature of man and the world.
Phyletism is also, and this addresses an issue that is particularly difficult for us abroad, insisting that the elements of one’s ethnic identity, such as one’s language—a more basic element of one’s identity, be maintained, used, even if this means undermining the catholicity of the Church and the apostolicity of the Church—the evangelization of the nations, her mission to the world. Let me say that again. If one insists that the language be preserved in the face of knowing that this is going to damage, undermine, eliminate, the mission of the Church to the world, well then, we’re placing our identity and language, which is a part of an our identity, above the mission of the Church. And this can rightly be called phyletism.
Now this last issue is a bit touchy and difficult and does need a great amount of discernment because one’s language is not easily changed and certainly cannot be changed from one day to another. And in fact in the history of Orthodox mission, Greek language especially, but also the Russian language in the missions to the far east and even to Alaska, but more in the ancient missions and in today’s missions to Africa, the Greek language has actually been used long after the first missionary arrived.
It was seen as a tool to properly communicate and make the transition from the mission and the missionaries to the local Church, such that it is, I think rightly, seen as imperative to the missionary to teach at least the priests, the monks, the bishops, and other missionaries, the Greek language so that they can properly understand the theological and spiritual terms of the faith. And that they would therefore, having understood that, having entered into the meaning, which is very difficult sometimes to communicate in languages which are not as developed and not as precise as the Greek language that the Fathers wrote in, at least because the Fathers wrote in this language it became such a depository of meaning and both precision, this is seen as a tool, a missionary tool, that they communicate the faith to the leaders of the Church. And therefore, the proper Orthodox understanding is embedded in the mission.
And in fact, in Russia and other mission places that the Greek missionaries went to, long after the first missionaries arrived, Greek bishops, and other missionaries and monks were, in Russia, working and speaking and teaching in Greek. So it is not something that one can expect to change from one day to the next. And there are cases, there are exceptions—for instance in monasteries, it is important that the monk undergo the obedience of learning the Greek language, so that he might better obtain the understanding of the monastic life—and be able to read the monastic sources in their original language.
But having put aside these exceptions, if on a basic parish level in a place, in a missionary setting such as America, Canada, Australia, one insists on using their language, their ethnic identity in this way, to the detriment of the growth and the mission of the Church, well it’s hard to see why this should not be called phyletism. Now phyletism is not just the putting on a personal level, the putting of one’s ethnic identity above the Church, but it is also becoming the Church institutionally being embedded in the nation’s life in such a way that the mission of the Church is obscured.
What I’m talking about is that the institutions of the Church—the Patriarchates, the Archbishoprics of the Church—have often times been so closely associated with the interest of the State that over time the people themselves can no longer think of the Church and the institution of the Church as something separate from the nation. Such that, even if it means to the detriment of the Church, we see that the people support institutions, which are no longer serving the interest of the Church, because they represent their ethnic identity and harken back to the past and past events, which are so closely associated with the nation’s identity.
Now this is an issue that we’re going to discuss in the next program. I’m just going to leave you with one or two thoughts until then. And then, we’ll go into greater detail, because this really is an aspect of the Church here in Greece that one needs to understand. And it will better help us abroad, understanding how things came to be.
I give only the example of the Patriarchate of Constantinople: The Patriarchate served the nation of Greece, the Greek people, through the very difficult time of Turkish domination—not only religiously but also politically. The Patriarch was appointed by the Sultan to not only lead the people religiously or spiritually, but also to administrate—even the courts of law and all the issues surrounding the administration of the Greek people, in fact, not only just the Greek people but the Orthodox people, because the Turkish people separated people by religion, not by ethnic identity.
And so all the Orthodox were under not only the religious, the spiritual, but also the worldly or governmental authority of the Patriarchate. Such that today when Greek people think of the Patriarchate, they have just as much the national role played by the Patriarchate, in mind, as the spiritual role and the spiritual duties of the Patriarchate.
Such that today, even a non-believing Greek or a Greek that is really not that pious might react quite violently to an attack on the Patriarchate or some kind of negative comments about the Patriarchate. Not because he cares especially about the spiritual role of the Patriarchate in our world, but because he identifies himself with the Patriarchate, and the Patriarchate in his mind is identified with the history and the identity of the great Greek nation as a whole.
So we see here in just this one instance, but also replayed again and again in Greek society, that there really is not any clear definition about where the institution of the Patriarchate’s historical role played for the people of Greece and Orthodox peoples ends and where the spiritual mission begins. And when those two come into conflict, which is going to take precedence? Oftentimes, it is not the latter but the former.
And today in the Church of Greece, in the Church as a whole, this confusion of roles and the priority that the spiritual has over the material, the worldly, the governmental, the ethnic, has caused great damage to the mission of the Church and great confusion in the minds of the faithful.