The Implications of the Present Moment for Orthodoxy:
An Interview with Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky
[This interview between Fr. Leonid and Fr. John Shimchick (JW) took place on June 25,
JW: Your editorials in The Orthodox Church over the past year and your commencement
address at St. Vladimirs Seminary have featured positive words in describing the
possibilities for Orthodoxy at this time in history. You have spoken about the
opportunities for an Orthodox "response," "contribution," "civic
responsibility," and "engagement with culture." It would seem that this
century has probably been the first in which there has, in fact, been any significant
Orthodox engagement with Western culture. Would you, first of all, comment on what you
would see as some of the patterns and lessons we can learn from the Orthodox engagement
with Western culture to this point and what might be some of the possibilities for the
Fr Leonid: When we speak of Orthodox engagement with the West in this century being
more significant we probably mean, the "diaspora." I think that there is a longer-range perspective.
For example, in some real ways obviously the Church of Russia before the Communist
Revolution of 1917 was, in a fashion, engaged in an encounter with Western culture. And I
think this encounter has even been recognized by the West. For example, no one would speak
about world literature without speaking about Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. So there has been in
that sense a profound encounter which was aborted in the framework of the Communist
Revolution, the persecution of the Church, the marginalization of Christianity in Russia.
And then the encounter of Russia with Communism was, in a certain sense, an encounter with
the West, since the ideology of Marxism is rooted in Western development
thats very complicated, but bears consideration.
What is new in the so-called "diaspora" is that Orthodox churches and
communities are living as minorities in Western contexts. Therefore we have been drawn
into the encounter with the West willy-nilly, simply as a matter-of-fact. But the
responses to this fact are different. Some of the responses are self-isolating, with
Orthodox communities withdrawing into themselves. Ethnic and sometimes religious identity
takes on the character of self-preservation, and the necessary encounter with the West is
neglected or forgotten. Other elements of the encounter have been expressed, manifested,
and illustrated by such theologians and writers as Frs. Schmemann and Meyendorff and
others. In Western Europe and America our encounter with the West is a direct encounter, a
daily and unavoidable conversation and debate. It is, I believe, an imperative of our
mission not to fear this encounter and debate. Our encounter with the West should be a
source of missionary energy and intellectual vigor for us.
Now I think the jury is still out what will we be able to accomplish along this line.
Fr. Schmemann wrote his articles on the various crises in Orthodoxy back in the 1960's.
Clearly there are crises facing us that are spiritual, liturgical, canonical, and these
crises have a specific dimension in the so called, "diaspora" context. When we
try to be fully faithful to the Orthodox inheritance, obviously there are two ways to go:
One is very inward-looking and, in a sense, entering into a ghetto voluntarily. Another is
to engage the civilization of the West and do it in a living way. We have both of those
responses occurring right now.
JW: Are there certain things that we as Orthodox have to offer at this time in
history? Are there things that we have to say that are not being heard, that are not being
expressed by anyone else?
Fr. Leonid: My presentation at the Commencement was, I think, reaching toward an
answer to that question. It seems to me that todays Western civilization is very
prone to thinking of itself as a world and universal civilization. And therefore, whatever
it thinks, whatever it does, whatever it writes, whatever values it has are seen as
universal, by definition. In reality, of course, even if we look at its Christian
dimension, the West very often in practical terms is simply ignorant of Eastern
Christianity. So there is a presumption that the West is equivalent to universality, but
in reality that universality is very much attenuated, its a very partial and
What we have to offer in the context of world Christianity is an insistence on the
wholeness of the Tradition, the integrity of the Christian Tradition in history - meaning
both East and West. In my presentation at St. Vladimirs, I also pointed out that we
Orthodox have our own demons - religious and ethnic tribalisms - which drive us into our
own particularisms, undermining our witness to Catholicity. To put it another way: America
and the West are very much prone to the arrogance of power right now. I do think that we
also are prone to a kind of triumphalism as Orthodox. We need, spiritually, to be very
aware of that temptation because arrogance and triumphalism are not the way of the Gospel.
The integrity of the Tradition is meaningless if the integrity of the Gospel is not fully
Yet, in todays Orthodox debates, any word of caution about triumphalism is heard
by many as advocacy of relativism, as advocacy of "branch" theories of
ecclesiology, as betrayal of the Orthodox Tradition. But this is certainly not what I have
in mind. Clearly, there is a way of witnessing to the fullness, the integrity, the
Catholicity of the Orthodox Church and not at all falling into relativism and other
reductionisms or into arrogance. Our witness can be given in a way that has evangelical
integrity. To be Orthodox is to be rooted in the Gospel - which means to have charity and
generosity, affirming whatever is right wherever you find it, affirming Christ - wherever
Christ is encountered.
JW: Im wondering why, despite your own efforts and those of the Serbian
bishops and others who have made efforts to speak with our government, there still has
been an unwillingness to seek out or hear Orthodox views, to be sensitive to Orthodox
contexts, specifically now as they relate to the Balkans but in other areas as well?
Fr. Leonid: I do think, as I mentioned earlier, that the Western intellectual
climate has a notion of the West as being universal, liberal, inclusive, and ecumenical.
This West is, in fact, very selective, not hearing other voices very well. But we as
Orthodox tend to project ourselves more along the lines of our tribalisms, than along the
lines of Catholicity - which really is the core of our witness. The difficulty is both on
the side of the West and on the side of Orthodoxy. Now, the West is, of course, in
possession of power - cultural, economic, military, political, and media power - and
therefore there is a very distinct potential for the arrogance of power, the blindness and
deafness of power. The Christian East is imbedded in societies which relative to the West
are weak and, in many ways, powerless. Therefore the responses that we make as Orthodox
tend to be defensive - aggressive verbally, but, in effect, executing a kind of defensive
strategy. I do think that there is work to be done on both sides of this division of
Christian East and Christian West to understand both current and deep-rooted
civilizational patterns and to act with responsibility towards the core of the Christian
Recently at a Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical setting I gave a presentation
which borrowed from what I said at the Seminary. One Catholic lay scholar was surprised
that I was raising civilizational issues and pointed out that the Pope, for example, has
spoken strongly about the Christian East and Christian West as being part of one Europe
and has stressed the role on a European scale of Saints Cyril and Methodius. This is true,
the Pope has done that. But the point I made in response is that while the Pope has said
these things, Western Europe and the West have not heard him. Certainly the record is
clear, the Pope of Rome has tried to address this tension and divide. He has attempted to
bring into Western European consciousness the fact that Christianity in Europe is of two
parts and that there is a Christianity of the East which has made substantial impact on
European history, culture, and civilization. Has the West heard this? I dont think
so. In my response to the Catholic scholar I observed that Catholics have not heard or
absorbed the Popes message. And therefore the issues remain.
I think both Western Christians and Orthodox Christians in the various societies are
influenced by non-theological factors and by specific patterns of information, media, and
cultural perspective which influence how Orthodox Christians and Western Christians see
each other. There are stereotypes and caricatures of the West prevalent in Orthodox
societies in the East, and there are stereotypes and caricatures of Orthodoxy prevalent in
the West. Sometimes, simple lack of information affects self-perception and perception of
the "other." The Wall Street Journal recently published a long article on the
Serbian Orthodox Church, "From the Ruins of Kosovo." At the end, the article
describes a twenty-two year old monk travelling through Kosovo with Bishop Artemije.
"Throughout a five-hour journey, the fresh-faced monk sat silently as the convoy
passed charred Albanian homes, shattered shops and wall daubed with abusive Serbian
graffiti. At the final stop, a church in Urosevac, he whispered a horrified apology.
I'm so ashamed, he told a foreigner. I'm so ashamed of everything
that has been done in the name of Serbia and the Serbs."
JW: Do you think that there has been enough of a repudiation of these horrors and
atrocities by the Serb forces?
Fr. Leonid: In Yugoslavia the media did not cover the atrocities, therefore people
simple didnt know. What they knew was that the Serbs were at risk. They were not
wrong. Did they know about atrocities? I dont think they knew, they couldnt
know. Therefore this monks journey was revealing: once he has seen, he is horrified.
Had someone told him before this journey about atrocities, he probably would have said
that it was not possible. So when the charge is made that the Serbs have been silent in
Serbia, yes, there has not been enough reaction. But I have to say that in the Serbian
context the one figure who has always spoken about the suffering of Serbs and Albanians
has been Patriarch Pavle.
I was in Belgrade twice during the bombing, once at the beginning of May with the group
that was brought together by Jesse Jackson and once at the end of May when Metropolitan
Kyrill of Smolensk and two Europeans and I went. We met with Patriarch Pavle and President
Milosevic on both occasions. Milosovic denounced what he called the propaganda images of
CNN when he spoke with Jackson and the rest of us. I responded by saying that CNN has
definitely given us a constant flow of images of expelled people, refugees, stories of
Albanians fleeing from Kosovo. Granted, we do not get stories of KLA atrocities and these
certainly also occur. But then I told him that he should not be under any illusion;
religious communities in America do not rely only on media images. Most religious
communities have humanitarian agencies in the Balkans, many religious representatives from
the United States have gone to the region and have actually met the people we are talking
about. Therefore, quite aside from the media, it is clear to us that there are terrible
things happening in Kosovo. I told him also that Serbian friends have observed that
Yugoslav television never shows the Albanian tragedy in Kosovo.
The Patriarch of the Serbian Church has clearly denounced all atrocities. Patriarch
Pavle made a universal appeal for an end to all violence. My experience is that the people
in Yugoslavia have generally not known about the kinds of things done in their name and
therefore could not be expected to rise up in revulsion. It seems to me that as these
things become more and more known, surely the response will exactly be like that of the
monk in The Wall Street Journal story. Now, of course, there are atrocities taking place
in Kosovo against Serbs, and the sad cycle of violence and suffering continues.
The Serbian Orthodox voices for peace have often not been given a lot, if any,
visibility in Western media. Some people know about Fr. Sava and the Decani monastery, but
all in all not very much attention has been given in the mass media to Decani monastery
and to the fact that the monks there have given shelter to and have embraced Albanians
seeking help and refuge. Bishop Artemije has, over the last two or three years, criticized
the regime of Milosovic as being undemocratic and, therefore, an obstacle to any solution
of the Kosovo crisis.
What is necessary, of course, is to acknowledge in revulsion the terrible crimes
committed systematically by some Serb forces against Albanians. But definitely not to
allow the identification of all Serbs with paramilitary criminals. But I think morally
there is another problem. The goal of defending people who are vulnerable and being
assaulted in an ethnic conflict is a worthy goal - it was stated by the US and NATO as a
universal cause. However what happened is that the actual action we took as NATO seems to
have catalyzed the atrocities, unleashed them. It doesnt mean at all that the
government or that the paramilitary thugs are or have been innocent. Of course, they are
not innocent. The evil was there and it was tangible. But the bombing clearly unleashed
great violence in Kosovo. And the humanitarian disaster became absolutely massive as an
accompaniment to the bombing. I am troubled by that. We cannot as a society claim moral
purity here. It seems to me that we as an American society bear some moral responsibility
in terms of decisions taken by our government and other governments - decisions unleashing
huge atrocities even as we were attempting to prevent atrocities. So we cannot claim moral
purity or righteousness.
JW: There has been a great deal of controversy among the Orthodox worldwide and
especially here in America about our involvement in the ecumenical movement and
discussions. Would you say given your experiences, particularly over the past few months,
that it is not only appropriate but even "essential" for the Orthodox to be
involved at least on certain levels?
Fr. Leonid: I have found it interesting that most people who have contacted me over
the past months have done so because they welcome my participation in the mission to
Belgrade led by Jesse Jackson and Joan Campbell of the National Council of Churches. It is
our presence at the "ecumenical table" which enables our credible participation
at times of crisis. So how can we not be at the table? We need to be there to make our
voice heard and our views known. And how can we bear witness to the fulness of the
Tradition, speaking in even missionary and theological terms, if our stance will be
fundamentally a stance that leads to invisibility. I dont think that can possibly
To be at the "ecumenical table" must not mean silence on issues where we are
painfully divided, where we as Orthodox may be in a painful and challenging conflict with
the views of others. Of course, we not only need to, but we do state and articulate what
our critiques are of some developments in the Christian world, within Christian bodies,
and within ecumenism. There are negative things that are occurring and we have the right
and the responsibility to criticize and to challenge. Now, having said that we also then
are in a situation where others have some need to challenge us as well, and they are not
always wrong. There are issues that are painfully important to us, where we empirically
fall short of our theological vision. So when we speak of the Orthodoxy and the
Catholicity of the Church, when we speak about unity which we see as unity simply in the
One Church - and we do so correctly - this is our commitment, our vision, our Tradition.
But empirically other Christians see us as divided within the Orthodox context, sundered
along ethnic and jurisdictional lines. When they see that we indeed confess one and the
same faith, adhere to one and the same Tradition, and yet do not have the capacity, it
seems, to bring the Orthodox Church in America together into one body - when people
challenge us on that, they are right! The insistence and demand we make ecumenically about
what is the nature of unity is the correct demand, the correct challenge. The sadness is
that within our own life we have not brought energy into structuring our own Church in a
way that fully manifests the very thing we believe in most. And maybe we need to be
challenged, otherwise perhaps we would be prone to a complacency and not see as sharply as
we need to some of the internal contradictions within our own life.
JW: Finally, as we get ready to approach our next All American Council, would there
be one wish that you would have for Orthodoxy in America as we approach the Millennium?
Fr. Leonid: Im going to make a humble wish, a very humble one, but I think
that it could be dramatic in its effect. We do have some dynamic realities within American
Orthodoxy which are very much alive, but which need more understanding and support from
hierarchs, parish clergy, and laity in order to build a more engaged and more
missionary-minded Orthodox presence into the next century. International Orthodox
Christian Charities (IOCC)) and the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) represent a
kind of miracle of ministry. Churches jurisdictionally divided have nevertheless come
together to authorize and encourage something which is working, operating, and moving
forward. More energy, more commitment, more involvement from the whole Church with regard
to IOCC and OCMS would literally move mountains. The movement towards ecclessial unity,
the overcoming of jurisdictional divisions, would be advanced because the strength of the
work of IOCC in humanitarian terms and of OCMC in missionary terms would be such that the
witness of the Orthodox Church would be persuasive and credible. And promoting credible
Orthodox witness in America is the fundamental commitment of the Orthodox Church in
[Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky is the Assistant to the Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in
America for Inter-Church Relations and Ecumenical Witness, Editor of The Orthodox Church
newspaper, and pastor of Our Lady of Kazan Church, Sea Cliff, NY.]
His "Commencement Address to St. Vladimir's Seminary Theological Graduates,"
delivered on May 22, 1999, is available at:
Several of his Editiorials written this year for The Orthodox Church specifically
relate to issues discussed in this interview:
"A Moment of Ecumenical Challenge -- and Opportunity" (January, 1999)
"Witness to the Gospel in the Face of Evil, Hatred, and Violence"
(March-April, 1999) available at:
"Relating our Public Witness to Spiritual and Moral Vision" (May, 1999)