First Seoul International Consultation:
Christianity and Shamanism

Chapter 7

A Temptation in the Concept of Dual-Belief

Vladislav V. Arzhanukhin

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A Temptation in the Concept of Dual-Belief

The problem of syncretism and anti-syncretism is in my opinion one of the key questions in the framework of the topic Shamanism and Christianity. Is interaction with paganism an inevitable loss for authentic Christianity? What methods and categories can describe this interaction? What does the adaptation of Christianity to the conditions of local religious and cultural tradition mean? How does the same category function in the theological sphere and the academic sphere? Can we always trust the categorizations that are suggested for us to use to study the phenomena occurring at the border between Christianity and shamanism, Christianity and paganism in general? I am convinced that there are cases when we can not. To such phantom concepts, which construct reality rather than analyze it, we may attribute the concept of dual-belief.

The concept of dual-belief is the key concept in the bulk of Russian writings that analyze the formation of Orthodoxy in traditional societies with pronounced pagan dominants. Dual-belief is recalled whenever there is a discussion about the mission of the Church in Old Russia or about the dissemination of Christianity in Siberia, in the Far East, or in the Altai. My goal is to determine the functions which were carried out by the dual-belief concept in the system of Russian ideology.

Judging by the historical and theological studies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Russian Church started to discuss the problem of dual-belief at the end of the eleventh century. Then what was called dual-belief was the unsteadiness and inferiority of the Christian faith of Russian neophytes who kept devotion to some elements of the pagan religion of their ancestors. The crux of this controversy may be ascertained from some of the pedagogical writings produced by Churchmen. There are only ten homilies against pagans known in Russian Church history. These Russian anti-pagan homilies were the re-working of Byzantine sources that had been directed against Hellenism, such as: The Homily of Gregory the Theologian for Annunciation Day; The Church Rule by Metropolitan Ioann II; Cyril's Queries; etc. These works address not the pagans but those Christians who still respected pagan gods. All these writings against dual-belief considered paganism to be a service to the devil. Thus, the homily On Fasting, for the Uneducated, on Monday of the Second Week (thirteenth century) informs us that on a certain day in the Church calendar (the last Thursday of the Great Lent, before Holy Week), many Christians prepared baths for their relatives who had departed long ago. The author of the homily was convinced that it was not the dead relatives but demons who visited the baths. All the precepts against dual-belief have a similar structure. They begin with a list of pagan rites and beliefs which are condemned by the Church, and end by condemning paganism and giving examples of the eternal punishments that await those Christians who are in the sin of dual-belief.

During the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, dual-belief was taken as an even more dangerous threat for Orthodoxy than Russian traditional polytheism. The teachers of the Church were concerned about cases in which natural deities were becoming close to angels in the minds of people. Alarmed, they talked about charms, omens and incantations that had become included into a range of Christian practices. The Churchmen talked about the fact that many Christians were Christian in the name only, while actually continuing to live as pagans. It was surprising for the Church authorities that Christian views did not come to an irreconcilable contradiction with traditional pagan attitudes in the minds of people.

Even in the sixteenth century, as we can see from the materials of the Stoglavy Sobor (1551), Christianity interacted with paganism in the life of some of Orthodox parishes: during Great Thursday, some priests put salt under the cross, and then gave the salt to the parishioners as a remedy; or they received soap from the laity and kept it on the communion table for six weeks so the laity could use it later for medical treatment. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the concept of dual-belief grew into an ideological concept that implicitly originated from some ideal form of Christianity. Coming into contact with real life, this ideal form inevitably vulgarizes itself. But in this case, the concept of dual-belief loses its meaning, because the whole reality of historical Christianity becomes subjected to such a concept. The intermediate positions, between the ideal form of Christianity and the real life to which Christianity actually belongs, are subsumed to this concept as inferior and hostile towards the ideal.

What historical reasons can explain the methodological and ideological need for a concept such as dual-belief, which renders the people's religiosity inferior? It is known that Christianity succeeded first in the powerful upper classes of Old Russia, while in the lower classes of the society the preaching of Christianity was not as successful and even led to a consolidation with paganism. From the eleventh century onwards, Russian history keeps reconstructing the mechanism of this split, which has determined the social parameters of the evolution of religion in Russia ever since. Because of this wide gap that has existed between the people and the Orthodox authorities, the authorities have always assumed the role of creating the structure of society in Russia, and this has affected major historical phenomena. Russian religious life grows from this deep conflict between the soteriologically oriented authorities and the believing people. The authorities and the people, the principal groups taking part in Russian history, have always lacked a common interest. Georgiy Florovski [George Florovsky] wrote:

Actually there were two cultures: a day culture and a night culture. The bearers of the day culture were surely the minority. The adoption of Byzantine Christian culture did not become common all at once, but for a long time it belonged to the cultural minority.

The Christianization of Russia moved from the upper classes into the lower classes and, as Grigoriy Fedotov points out, it was not the peasants but the representatives of the authorities who carried the ideals of Holy Russia. In this sense, the lives of the saints were often just a denial of the world, i.e. a denial of the life of people to which they belonged. This sort of spirituality in Christianity was created by a specific subculture; so that coming to Christianity was actually an entering into this subculture.

An historically long period of hostility of the Russian Church towards the Orthodox life of the people was a manifestation of this gap. The concept of dual-belief reflected this hostility. Dual-belief became a filter that did not let Christianity into the main body of the people's culture, nor the people's culture into the Church. This filter was in tune not with religion but with ideology, as an expression of the disappointment of the upper classes towards the people, and the disappointment of the people towards the upper classes.

In theological terms, the struggle for the purity of Orthodoxy can be seen as a monophysite temptation. The Church separates itself from the life of the world and is opposed to it as if against a dead body. Criticizing the pagan culture of the people then becomes like a Church dogma. My insight is not meant to imply that the church should forget the unchanging fullness of the truth as if for the sake of economy. This is not meant to imply that the Church should forsake the unchanging fullness of the truth that abides in her, and to look for it outside in man's creative work, instead of fertilizing the world with it. As was pointed out truly by Vladimir Lossky, the Chalcedonian formula in christology ~ about the pervasive unity of the two natures in Jesus Christ: the divine nature united indivisibly yet unconfused with human nature in Christ ~ can be applied to ecclesiology. The Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century emphasized the christological formula against the monophysite heresy, which would divide the divine nature from the human nature. So, we know that it is wrong to separate the two, just as it is wrong to confuse the two. The two realities remain indivisible in a pervasive unity while unconfused with each other. Adherence to the Chalcedonian formula makes one profess the historical, concrete nature of the Church, and at the same time the freedom of the Church from the world and from the laws of necessity by which the world lives.

Various national, cultural and political interests are inevitable among Christians. To go against this diversity is to go against life. The church does not impose any such views onto anyone. So, we should not permit the interests of some people to be asserted as the interests of the whole body of the Church. The canons [rules] of the Church, which are evoked to justify their assertion, are not really elitist sayings: to the contrary, these canons are borders, the crossing of which means the breaking of unity in the Church.

I shall not be mistaken if I say that the methodology of Church history should be based on a gift of discernment between the essential and the inessential. The Church is not only an eschatological reality but an historical reality as well. The Church consists of the people who are exposed to the influence of this world. That is why she is not immune from individual, cultural and historical conditions. These conditions may favor the richness of ideas and the manifestations of faith. On the other hand, however, the same conditions can cause relative tendencies to become radicalized and separate views to become absolute.

A rich diversity of Christian life and witness comes from the diversity of cultural and historical contexts. The Good News should be embodied everywhere in an authentic way. Faith should be proclaimed in language, symbols and images of the corresponding time and context. On the other hand, there is a threat to Christianity every time one culture aspires to encompass the Gospel and claims to be the only true way for its glorification, or when one culture aspires to dictate its own understanding of the Gospel to others as the only right understanding.

From the middle of the sixteenth century, the issue of dual-belief became urgent in connection with the geo-political development of the Moscow Kingdom. Beginning in the sixteenth century, and then for a century and a half, the territory of Russia expanded tenfold. Territories in which the people practiced paganism and shamanism were added to Moscow Rus' (Russia). These regions were initially Povolzh'e and Siberia, then later Kamchatka, the Far East, and Alaska. The concept of dual-belief started to play an important methodological role in the Orthodox missionary endeavors that emerged. Starting from the middle of the nineteenth century, the concept of dual-belief went beyond the limits of theology for the first time and began to spread into the academic sphere. It entered into historical studies that dealt with the religious life of medieval Russia, and it also entered into ethnographical studies of various regions. Thus, dual-belief steadily became a characteristic description about the Orthodoxy of small ethnic groups.

As the struggle with paganism acquired statewide significance, the Orthodoxy that had adapted to national [ethnic] traditions and cultures came under suspicion as violations of the standard. The aspiration to have Orthodoxy purified out of the cultural and national contexts spread in the Russian Church so much that even such an outstanding missionary as St. Innokentiy (Veniaminov) was influenced by it. In the history of his apostolic service in Alaska, there is an episode about the closing of the Theological Seminary in Nove-Arkhangelsk [known today as the town of Sitka, Alaska]. The school had been established by Innokentiy in 1841, especially to prepare Alaskan natives as priests. By the middle of the 1850s, more than seventy students were enrolled. However, the activities of the seminary made Innokentiy worried rather than glad. In his letters to authorities in St. Petersburg, he wrote: It is too early to develop the school to such a level for these aborigines and creoles. Evidently, it was his opinion that a theological education of a higher level for these people would enter into Alaska's ethnic and cultural life only at the expense of a deformation of Orthodox spirituality. Today, when we know the whole course of the development of the Church in Alaska, we can say that the opinion was incorrect. The basis for his mistake was a contradiction between Innokentiy's understanding of Russian Orthodoxy as Orthodoxy in general and the real development of the Church, which had just started among Alaska's natives and, naturally, had its own cultural context.

In Soviet historical literature, the concept of dual-belief, which had originated from the Russian Church, became a tool to discredit the Church. It ended up loaded only with ideological content and lost its methodological functions. This concept originated from a presupposition that there are two disunited religious dominants co-existing in people's minds for long periods of time. To accept the concept of dual-belief was to agree with the supposition that, for long periods of time, the individual life of a large number of Russians has been determined by mutually exclusive, existential aims and values. It is not difficult to notice that the supposition is more of a medical diagnosis of individual religiosity, than a statement about confessional affiliations, in the framework of dual-belief.

If we do speak about religious faith and about the conversion from paganism to Christianity, then we should consider not only the religious content of the faith but its cultural context as well. Christianization, more than anything else, remains a collective enlightenment that is a long process, in which two conventional stages may be observed along the way. During the initial stage of a mission among pagans, those Christian ideas and views that can exist within the pagan context without breaking its integrity will become successful. First of all, they are not religious ideas and views but cultural ones. Such elements of Christianity are taken as a continuation of paganism by those being enlightened. For example, the Prophet St. Elijah is thought be Perun called by another name [Perun was a god of the pagan Slavs]. The description of a dual-belief, half-paganism and half-Christianity, is out of the question here; because, here, we are dealing with genuine paganism.

At the second stage along the way, Christianity has already become a dominant. This does not mean that there cannot be elements of pagan culture in religious practice. Such elements have become a continuation of Christianity in this stage, however. In my opinion, such syncretism is justified by the fact that both paganism and Christianity belong to the same class: as cultural phenomena.

Let us consider this in our own contemporary context. There is a burst of interest in neo-paganism in Russia today; and the post-Soviet ideologists who are promoting the religious revival of paganism and shamanism are themselves heirs of the Soviet approach to religion. Like their predecessors, they also are asserting that Orthodoxy suppressed shamanism and paganism but remained merely an external factor in spiritual development; and like their Soviet predecessors, the ideologists of neo-paganism today are using the notion about dual-belief as a tool in their struggle against Christianity. Their burst of interest in paganism has set the conditions for a rather novel interpretation of dual-belief, nevertheless. They have begun to use this term to describe a vagueness of the religious mind that is converting from (so called) formal Orthodoxy to (so called) living paganism.

The possibility of a breach from Christianity into paganism had been anticipated already at the end of the nineteenth century by Vladimir Solov'yov. Somewhat later, Nikolai Berdyaev posed a question about a synthesis of the cosmological revelation in paganism and the anthropological revelation in Christianity. He thought that the synthesis had not yet been found.

Rather than a breach, today's situation is characterized by a break, a severance, of the majority of the population from traditional forms of religious life; and only a little knowledge exists in general about the essence of religious faith. Neo-paganism, wherever it is occurring throughout Russia today, is mostly a reaction to the severance from folk traditions; although to a lesser extent among the peoples living in the Volga regions and the northern regions of Russia who have preserved more from their older lifestyles.

In Russia today, many people tend to agree with the opinion that paganism is closer to human nature than Christianity, and that primitive religion is the strongest and most energetic assertion of life that we shall ever find in human culture. The tendency has determined the reconstruction of paganism. According to data provided by Religion in Modern Society, a research center attached to the Russian Independent Institute of Social and National Issues, there were two paganist religious organizations registered in Russia in 1993; and in 1995, there were seven more of them. By January 1st 1999, the number had increased to ten. In fact, there are many more, as many do not register themselves as religious organizations but call themselves a cooperative or a medical or psychological center, or attach themselves to some other authorized body. Yet other communities are illegal, which makes it harder to count them. Today, there are approximately one hundred groups or communities that follow the ideology of Slavic neo-paganism. The number of active neo-pagans belonging to these groups is as high as 1500 people, with about another 2500 non-active ones associated with them.

Modern neo-pagans often talk about the syncretism of paganist beliefs with Orthodoxy. They say that the basic levels of Slavic mythology and categorizations turned out to be much more stable than the prevailing Christian religion, resulting in some complex combinations. At the same time, they criticize Christian teaching and criticize the history of its adoption in Russia. According to their ideology, dual-belief may widen into triple-belief. An example they use is a description of the people of Arkhangel'sk [an old seaport-city and the surrounding area on the White Sea coast in Russia] who are said to be holding on to paganism, the faith of the Old Believers, and the faith of Nikon's Orthodoxy simultaneously; and who are therefore referred to as Trivers (Triple-Believers). Other examples that are used are combinations that mix, or are said to mix, the ancient beliefs of the people such as Vedism [ancient Slavic paganism], the medieval beliefs of the people such as Orthodoxy, and the new beliefs of the people such as communism (not Marxism), the latter believing in the strength of the collectivity and of the people. Some of the neo-pagans point out that many people on the earth adhere to major world religions (often out of love for splendid rituals) while at the same time, in their hearts and by the call of blood (of kin), the same people also follow or respond to other beliefs (whether Vedism or sun-worship or a belief in the Omnipotence of Nature); so that in their collective consciousness, the Christian faith is naturally combined with beliefs in the transmigration of souls and magic.

The policy of the modern Orthodox Church towards paganism is directed towards over-coming the former elitist arrogance. In statements by Aleksei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, we find some fresh ideas: The confessions and groups that are traditional for our country should co-exist peacefully and should not oppose each other. Today, Orthodoxy realizes that it can strengthen its position only by respecting specific national and cultural features. The historical experience of the Church has demonstrated that the concept of dual-belief led to a negative radicalization, a situation in which Christianization became opposed to folk culture. In this sense, dual-belief as an ideology opposes everyday religious life and religious culture.

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