Father Alexander Men and Religious Freedom in Russia
One of the recurring struggles in post-Communist Russia is the heated debate over the rights of religious minorities and the appropriate relationship between church and state. Recently, several efforts have been made to revise the 1990 Freedom of Conscience law, which granted religious freedom to Russian citizens after seventy years of government-sponsored atheism and gave all religions equal legal standing. The new draft laws are designed to restrict religious freedom and to re-establish state control over religious organizations. These initiatives are the result of the combined efforts of leaders from the Communist Party, various nationalist groups and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In sharp contrast to these current efforts to restrict religious freedom and give the established Orthodox Church a privileged position in Russian society, Father Alexander Men, whose legacy and insights were described in the last two issues of "Reflections," offered another perspective. During his ministry as a parish priest and later as a public lecturer, Father Men argued emphatically for religious pluralism and a secular state that "serves the interests of its citizens regardless of their religious affiliation" (p. 136).
An Open Model of Christianity
Father Mens scholarship demonstrated an openness to new ideas, illustrating what he meant when he described the "open model of Christianity." He not only was well-versed in the history and theology of Russian Orthodoxy, but he also mastered the writings of the early Church Fathers, Asian and Middle Eastern religious thinkers, and leading theologians of Western Christianity. Although he did not personally have the privilege of sharing ideas with other scholars when writing his own books, because of the closed society in which he lived, he was still able to study their ideas and often quoted contemporary Western writers and preachers such as C. S. Lewis and Billy Graham.
To explain what he meant by "openness," Father Men gave an example of a young man at his church who started making occasional visits to a Baptist Church nearby. Father Men recalled telling him: "You are Orthodox, of course you can go there because the church is everywhere, Christ is everywhere, the gospel is everywhere. Do both: go to the Baptist Church and dont forget you own spiritual roots. And when I explained the open model to him," Men continued, "he said, Oh dear, how uncomfortable! He ended up becoming a Baptist." In Mens judgment, "this young man could only be either a Baptist who did not recognize Orthodoxy, or an Orthodox who cursed the Baptists . . . There is an illness like that -- the fear of open spaces. In the history of religion, there is also this fear of open spaces" (p. 167).
The Need for Repentance
For Father Men, repentance brought hope and hope was needed as Russia faced the difficulties of reform and rebuilding. Here is the way he linked repentance to hope and hope to action:
NOTE: The quotes from Father Alexander Men were taken from a new book, Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Life and Work of Alexander Men, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman, and published in 1996 by SCM Press Ltd. in London.
Dr. John A. Bernbaum