Today, my class on ‘Russia and the West’ will be examining Russian Orthodoxy. One of the subjects we will be discussing is the theological concept of kenoticism.
Kenoticism derives from the Greek word kenosis, which means ‘self-emptying’, and it demands that people empty themselves of their own will and subordinate themselves entirely to the will of God. The idea of kenoticism comes from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.7-8, which says that Jesus ‘emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’
Kenoticism therefore implies obedience and subordination to a higher power, as well as a willingness to suffer. As the Orthodox theologian Alexander F.C. Webster puts it, the concept requires, ‘meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, non-resistance, acceptance of suffering, and death, in imitation of Christ.’
In Russian Orthodoxy, notable examples of kenoticism are the 11th century princes of Kiev Boris and Gleb, who chose not to resist their brother Svyatopolk the Accursed, but instead meekly awaited the assassins whom Svyatopolk had sent to kill them, and consequently suffered decidedly unpleasant deaths. The story of Boris and Gleb encapsulates both the principle of non-resistance to evil and the idea that suffering is holy. Boris and Gleb are saints not because of any holy acts, but because they suffered. The same is true of Tsar Nicholas II, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church not for any allegedly saintly deeds while ruling Russia but for the simple fact that he was killed. Through suffering, humans humble themselves and so come to resemble Christ, who suffered on the cross. Suffering is good for the soul.
I understand the idea that non-resistance to evil can be a better option than violent resistance. Are Syrians as a whole better off for the fact that some of them rose up to resist Assad? Clearly not. For the most part, they were better off when they submitted. But there can be virtue in non-violent resistance, as seen by examples such as Rosa Parks. The idea of complete non-resistance makes me rather uneasy.
More than that, though, what I don’t like about kenoticism is the implication that suffering is good for the soul. Is it actually true that those who suffer are holier than those who do not? On the one hand, I get the point that being too comfortable possibly distracts one’s mind from spiritual matters. One runs the risk of decadence. On the other hand, being very uncomfortable probably makes material matters even more important. Who has time to worry about God when they are hungry? Furthermore, there seems to be plenty of evidence that those who suffer aren’t automatically better people because of it. A large number of physically abusive men were themselves physically abused as children. Their childhood suffering didn’t bring them closer to Christ – quite the opposite.
And then, there is the whole issue of suffering, subordination, and the ‘Russian soul’. Kenoticism fits in with the centuries-old cliché (found as far back as in Herberstein’s writings in the sixteenth century) that Russians like to be bossed about and have a particular penchant and capacity for suffering. I don’t buy it. There is quite a history of Russian resistance to autocratic authority (e.g. Stenka Razin, Emelyan Pugachev, and the revolutions of 1905 and 1917). And while it is true that Russians have suffered a lot over the course of their history, that doesn’t mean that they have liked it, let alone that they have a peculiar ability to endure it. I am sure that if you asked Russians, ‘would you rather be free and comfortable or enslaved and suffering?’, pretty much all of them would prefer to be free and comfortable.
Dostoevsky wrote that, ‘the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.’ I think not.