The Church Greater than God

Sandro Tarkhan-Mouravi

"Do not blaspheme!" This is the common reaction that follows any somewhat unusual statement made about religious issues, it is an exclamation parroted by many without any reasoning and it spoils my mood. If you are a believer and find something blasphemous in the title of this article, I will not reprove you for that. This will mean that both you and I might get close to the correct understanding of religion. Indeed, the idea of god, at least in the Christian belief, is undoubtedly a central notion. God is the creator of the all-encompassing and almighty universe, whilst churches are earthly and material, comprising of mortals, objects and buildings. At best, the church is a servant of god on earth. And this is only the case if devils have not penetrated that institution and it remains entirely innocent – something which is unimaginable in real life. Anywhere where there are mortals, anywhere in this earthly life, even in human's spiritual nature, there are imperfections. That is what distances us from the divine. To cut a long story short, if an internal voice prompted you that the church cannot be greater than god, you are correct.

The title of this article, however, was no accident; nor was it chosen to test the religious feelings of readers or to offer a deep insight into theological issues. The aggressive reactions that such a banal truth like "the Patriarch is not god" may provoke from a segment of people will perhaps nudge us to start thinking about how the hierarchy between god and his creations has been violated. Of course, one may try to explain the aggressive verbal attacks leveled against a person uttering this phrase as being a result of his personality or the context in which it was said; one might believe that the person making the statement earned this ire because of other actions, other words and that's why he received a spate of abuse from "religious" people. However, statistics are not like angry men; statistics do not have motives or excuses.

The single-party communist rule caused these countries to distance themselves from god but grow accustomed to unconditionally following earthly authority figures. It can be said that the increased share of the ratings of religious servants, which is not prompted by a love for god, is the Lenin-Stalin-Marx legacy.

The statistics outline a very clear picture: in Georgia, the number of those who have special trust in religious institutions is 1.5 times higher than the number of those who claim that god occupies an important place in their lives. There are at least 22% of citizens who, by their own acknowledgment, do not care much about god but unconditionally trust the church. Detailed data on this is provided by a survey of religiosity in the countries of the South Caucasus that was published in 2009. Out of 42 other countries that were cited for the purposes of comparison, nowhere else was the church found to have such a significant "superiority" over god than in Georgia. In 32 of these 42 countries, the "rating" of god is, on the contrary, higher than the trust in religious institutions. At the same time, Georgia has the highest indicator of confidence in the church, amounting to the same rating of those religious servants of Islam in Jordan and Mali.

Does this mean that Georgia is the last stronghold of Christianity; that the rest of the world has denied god and on doomsday shall be judged "in the Georgian language", as some religious servants of the Georgian Orthodox Church maintain? This is unlikely. In almost half of those 42 countries, the importance of god in the lives of people is way higher than in Georgia. Among such countries are Brazil, Mexico, Romania, Chile, Argentina, the USA, Poland and other Christian countries. In more than half of the countries, the percentage of people who regularly attend religious services is also higher than in Georgia.

Perhaps it is a result of its special merits, generosity and kindness that our current Orthodox Church has gained the trust of being "greater than god." Perhaps this is how a segment of its congregation perceives the activity of the church. However, without gaining insight into the souls of separate individuals, we can only speak about general, accompanying events.

As was said above, in 32 out of the 42 countries surveyed, god outweighs religious institutions. It is noteworthy that of those 10 countries where the church is more preferred than god, five have a communist past. Apart from Georgia, these include: Bulgaria, Russia, Armenia and Vietnam. The logical link is difficult to ignore: the single-party communist rule caused these countries to distance themselves from god but grow accustomed to unconditionally following earthly authority figures. It can be said that the increased share of the ratings of religious servants, which is not prompted by a love for god, is the Lenin-Stalin-Marx legacy.

Yet another phenomenon that clearly accompanies the immense, stronger-than-love-to-god influence of the church is the dominance of negative ideas. Of course any general conclusions or observations made about the church should not be attributed to each and every religious servant. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that in the mindset of the current Georgian Orthodox Church, at least in those opinions that reach society, the central idea is the search of enemies – evil forces who are everywhere, outside our temples day and night plotting how to deprive Georgians of Orthodox Christianity. Here too it is natural to see the link to our recent past. Even though the ideology of Imperial Russia fanned certain phobias (for example, the fear of other religions) as early as in the 19th century, it was the Soviet system that finally firmly shut our space for reasoning. Historical documents clearly show that decades ago the Georgian church that was so demised by Stalin's regime promoted absolutely different ideas among its congregation. Influential Georgian religious servants did not oppose, but were in fact often extremely open towards the outer world and of Georgians practicing different religions. Instead of imitating the Russian clergy, they opposed its seclusion that echoed, and still echoes, imperialistic political aims.

Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the seizure of Catholic churches in Georgia became a priority for the Georgian Orthodox church; whereas one century ago, Georgian Orthodox and Catholic Christians used to assemble together in the yard of Gelati Cathedral. While today a Georgian belonging to the Islamic faith is questioned, a century ago a place of prayer for Muslims was arranged in the St. Nino educational institution. Even more, that same praying place was defended from those demands of the exarch seconded from the North that it be abolished. If today Catholicism is declared a torment, a century ago Georgians were willing to study at the faculties of theology in Germany. This very path was undertaken by Grigol Peradze who was later canonized a saint. Unfortunately, it seems that fear of the doctrine of love and its replacement with the doctrine of hatred proved to be the most fruitful strategy on the soil of spirituality perverted by communism.

Setting aside clear manifestations of hatred, the maintenance of Georgia's identity is certainly a generous mission. Even when speaking about the beauty of diversity, we mean the coexistence of different identities and not mankind being transformed into an identical grey mass. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the church also assumed the role of the defender of Georgian traditions. Furthermore, if we look more attentively, we may find out that the issue of nationality in our "ecclesiastical" awareness occupies a bigger place than the Bible. This is one of the main characteristics of the Georgian Orthodox Church and, perhaps, is one of the reasons it is held in such esteem.

When merged, the church and national traditions indeed make each other stronger, though serious challenges arise too. But the question is how much the equalization of these two elements of our culture proves conducive to the strength of either of them. Historically, in terms of national traditions, as well as in religious belief, Georgia faced a long interruption. A large part of our traditions – for example, ancient folk festivals – have been completely forgotten. They are largely replaced by the colonial and Soviet rule of life. To some extent, the characteristics of the past 200 years can also be regarded as fully-fledged traditions. However, it is desirable to know the place various traditions have in our history; so that, when it comes to "filtering" them, we can choose from the entire spectrum those that should be retained for our future and those that should be sent to museums and be confined only to memory. Cementing religion and traditionalism at such a stage when neither a religious nor a secular culture has been restored, deprives us of flexibility. If today we elevate 50- or 100-year-old traditions to the rank of religion and equalize the Soviet "interpretation" of Georgian nationality with Orthodox Christianity, we thus limit the space for a restoration of beautiful and much older, almost forgotten, traditions in future. Perhaps cultural impoverishment is the reason why it becomes necessary to establish especially narrow frames for "genuine Georgian identity."

To some extent, the history of the past century of the Georgian Orthodox Church resembles the story of Lagidze Waters, a once very popular Georgian soft drink based on soda and a variety of natural syrups. First it had a promising, bright start with the restoration of its autocephaly and the election of Ambrosi Khelaia as its Catholicos-Patriarch. Then, the Bolsheviks destroyed and misappropriated it. Finally, it was restored in pale form. If we are not supposed to meddle in the affairs of the church, let's at least wish that the former quality and popularity of Lagidze Waters will be restored.


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