Orthodox Theology Enters the Virtual Age...

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Can Orthodox theology, within the confines of a non-traditional and hence secularised society, play a decisive role - not as a dogmatic faith declaration anymore, but as an information and communication system? And if this is possible, under what conditions and in what way could it materialise in our virtual age?     


In and Out of Tradition 

This sort of reflection is quite pertinent in the case of Orthodox theology, firstly because within the ‘Christian family’ this theology belongs to the most traditional type and thus lends itself particularly to the topic I am interested in; and, secondly, because I believe that at its core Orthodox theology includes all those necessary conditions that allow for an exit from traditionality – even though this sounds contradictory to what I have just remarked – and without this entailing that Orthodox theology would commit itself to non-traditionality. 

This very tension between the traditional and the non-traditional compels me to specify, if only in the broadest possible terms, what I take to be Orthodox theology. So, in order to be more specific, I would say that I do not have in mind Orthodoxy as an ideological dimension, nor as an institutionalised form of expression and/or mentality. On the contrary, what I primarily and basically refer to is what has come to be dubbed as the eschatological self-consciousness of the Church.     


Eschatological Self-Consciousness 

In principle, the Church is in a peculiar relationship with the world: its existence does not stem from the world, nor is it confined to the world. For the Church, the world – both as nature and as history – belongs to the field of the relative, since for it the only absolute is the Kingdom of God, and its goal consists in it being completed in the form of the coming Kingdom of God. But all this involves what Aristotle would call the efficient, the formal and the final cause, which leaves us of course with the question of the material cause...

What is the material out of which or through which the Church is called to realise its own goal? The answer to such a question can only be one: this material is the world itself! Consequently, the Church and the world engage in a give-and-take relationship – that is, a relationship which as such is a communication par excellence – and by necessity involves inclusions and exclusions. But let’s elaborate a bit on this past point.  

On the one hand, the Church receives the world and transforms (the) elements of the world qualitatively – always depending on the capabilities and the needs of the latter – and on the other hand the Church rejects (the) elements of the world that according to its spiritual experience – that is, its experience from, by and in the Holy Spirit – cannot be transformed and be part of the new creation that she constitutes by her sheer presence. This, in a certain philosophical jargon, is called a dialectical relationship, a relationship that involves the tension between the present and the future, the experience of Resurrection and the expectation of Restoration, transformable history and rejectable historicism. This is what constitutes, more or less, the gist of the eschatological self-consciousness of the Church. 

Such a self-consciousness does not feel subject to any construction or realisation of historicity. Thus, it is free from any historicist demand on the part of the world, regardless of the past, the present or the future. And because it is free in such a way, it is capable to handle in its own way the elements that each and every historical period has to offer. In light of this, one could then say that the eschatological consciousness of the Church is in a position to discern the possibilities of the post-modern world that can be integrated into its experience, and simultaneously keep a distance from those claims that regard the post-modern as the present absolutisation of history. It is in this connection that eschatological theological thinking encounters informatics and communication, since these two – or, better, this one-in-two phenomenon – can be described as the dominant characteristic of our postmodern globalised society.    



Information Society  

‘Information society’ is the catch phrase by which our society defines itself. One wonders if this is just a slogan or a tangible reality. The right answer seems to involve both, to the extent that no slogan stems out of nothing, as it has a basis on some sort of reality, while every tangible reality is not just given but is always in the process of becoming. Thus, we can indeed talk about post-modern society as a society of informatics and communication. Moreover, in light of these remarks one can refer to contemporary society as distinctively different from any other in the past.  

Some, however, may object as follows: one way or another, the structural element of communication that nowadays is called ‘information’ has been an integral part of every civilisation, every society and, if you prefer, the entire evolutionary process with regards to nature and history. Besides, hasn’t everything always been based on some kind or form of message, that is, on some kind or form of information? This is indeed an objection that one cannot easily bypass or overlook. 

Notwithstanding the above, the distinctiveness of post-modernity is based on the specific qualities that information exhibits nowadays. More specifically, the latter is characterised by multiplicity, speed of dissemination, increased variety and technological codification. These parameters enhance the processes of evolution itself and render our civilisation a civilisation of amazing changeability. To be sure, the characteristic of technological codification proves ‘information society’ to be a high-tech society.   


A Communication Model for the Study of Religion 

As it is well known, the Internet makes up the spearhead of technology in our information society all over the globe. This is where the ‘free market’ finds its most extensive and purest, so to speak, technological expression: the Net is the global free market of offer and demand regarding all sorts of information. And given the fact that everything depends on the access that they have or don’t have to information, one easily can understand the soteriological (salvific) nature that the Internet acquires. 

In this regard, the technologically codified context of global information obtains – imaginary but no less ontological – qualities that remind one of the typology of hierophanies and, by extension, religiosity. More specifically, the technological space and means of informational communication constitutes a sui generis environment within which human life is organised and existence is expected to be perpetuated.

At this point I can turn more easily to several modern readings, let’s say, of religion; readings that I would like to term communication readings. After all, it was expected that the technological/objective side of informational communication would spill over into the subjective field of ideas and then into the field of language. In turn, the academic study of religion was affected accordingly at an epistemological and methodological level, looking into new ways of approaching the religious phenomenon. ‘Environment’, ‘system’, ‘signifiers’, ‘signifieds’, ‘signs’, ‘interaction’, ‘feedback’, ‘programming’, ‘software’, ‘hardware’, etc., all these have become the new terms of the new hermeneutics of the religious. 

More specifically, and to put it perhaps in a simplified fashion, within the classic triptych of Religious Studies, namely, ‘the Sacred’ – ‘hierophany’ – ‘religion’, the latter occupied the place of communication, ‘hierophany’ the place of the symbolic, that is, information, while the first, namely, ‘the Sacred’, remaining always the invisible, ineffable, the ‘totally Other’, has been seen as the unknown X factor that is necessary for the dynamics of the whole system. 

Thus, it was only natural for our contemporary informational reality – both objective and subjective – to confront the traditional information and communication systems, amongst which religions featured prominently. The latter, due to the hermeneutics of Religious Studies and the dominance of information, were doomed to face – at the level of their conceptualisation – one of the most crucial challenges in their history. The (relative) closedness of religions was about to confront the (relative) openness of the communication environment.  

Whereas traditional religiosity had a few and very specific means, that is power structures, for the management of its data, informational communication could exhibit multiple and heterogeneous means of management. Religious absolutism seemed now too relative compared to the relativeness of informational changeability! Lastly, the total lack of technology within traditional religions made the latter look especially vulnerable in the face of the high-tech that is constantly incorporated into different communication systems.    


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Orthodox Theology as an Alternative Communication System    

So, what should the relationship between Orthodoxy and modern realisations of communication be like? To answer a question like this, one has to look into two aspects. Firstly, Orthodox theological thinking should be in a position to take a distance from itself in a critical manner and deal with it not as a closed and self-sufficient dogmatic faith system, but as an open and receptive informational system that, on the one hand, functions naturally at the level of the conscience of the faithful and, on the other hand, can be understood by other, heterogenous informational systems. In this way, the teaching of the Church will always be what it has always been, that is, a religious/hierophanic teaching, while at the same time it shall constitute for society at large a set of interconnected information units that might – this is up to society – perform their function within the framework of a feasible communication.   

Secondly, if for historicist post-modernity all reality is but virtual and, for that matter, comes in as many versions as the means of information management that exist, then the duty of the Church is to demonstrate that true reality is something that has not yet been revealed but will be revealed in the future. In this way, the Church will remain faithful to its critical-prophetic calling, which stems from its eschatological self-consciousness.  

However, this shall be achieved only if the Church accepts to understand herself and to be understood by others as one amongst many virtual realities – one, nevertheless, that has the calling to challenge the absolutisation – temporary or not – of all other virtual realities.

Undoubtedly, the Church will manage to do so by challenging her own virtuality for the sake of true reality – which cannot be contained in any virtual components save for purposes of symbolisation – and which will always be oriented towards the unknown communicative X factor we call the Kingdom of God!     


"Insights into Global Orthodoxy" is a weekly column that features opinion articles that on the one hand capture the pulse of global Orthodoxy from the perspective of local sensitivities, needs and/or limitations, and on the other hand delve into the local pragmatics and significance of Orthodoxy in light of global trends and prerogatives.

Dr Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Studies in Religion (USyd) and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion (Panteion). He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015 he has been teaching ancient Greek Religion and Myth at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University. He has published ten books. He has extensive experience in the print media as editor-in-chief, and columnist, and for a while he worked as a radio producer. He lives in Sydney, Australia, his birthplace.

Dr Vassilis Adrahtas

Dr Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Studies in Religion (USyd) and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion (Panteion. He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015 he has been teaching ancient Greek Religion and Myth at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University. He has published ten books. He has extensive experience in the print media as editor-in-chief, and columnist, and for a while he worked as a radio producer. He lives in Sydney, Australia, his birthplace.

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