Encounter of East and West in Finland, Lappeenranta 28.7.2007

The encounter of East and West is built into the history and identity of Finland. How has this encounter influenced and changed us? Someone once described the difference between the Eastern and Western cultures by asking, what is 1 + 1.  The answer in the West, according to the Aristotelian tradition, is that 1+1 equals 2. In the East, one looks at the equation from a more synthetic Platonist point of view, and 1 + 1 becomes a dialogue. Thus, as a Christian of the Eastern tradition myself, I am always called to be committed to dialogue.


The East-West divide in Europe


Finland belongs to the Nordic and West European realm, with regard to the structures of its society, but culturally we are a people on the margin of East and West. We have received the influences of both the Latin and the Byzantine currents of European civilisation. Our nation has been formed through this double allegiance. But it has taken a thousand years and many tragedies and blessings in order to be able to define ourselves in this way. It has not been self-evident to overcome the religious and cultural enemy images about one's neighbours and compatriots. We have needed to take our distance from the neighbouring big brothers on both sides – Russia in the East and Sweden and also Germany in the West. Presently we boast at being a bridge between them, and we cherish both the Eastern and the Western roots of our own people and society.


The encounter of East and West has taken differing forms – from wars between us to a common patriotism, from ethnic cleansing to mixed marriages. What is the border of East and West like in Finnish culture today, where is it? One way to define it is according to the marinated cucumber: Where they are cut cross-wise, you are in the West, and where they are cut lengthwise, you are in the East.


In other places, the frontier of the European East and West is much more dramatic. It  divides the Greeks from the Italians, the Croats from the Serbs, the Hungarians from the Romanians, it runs among the peoples of the Carpathians mountains and the Ukranian and Belorussian lands, between the Baltic nations and Russia, and here in the North, in the middle of Karelia and  through Lapland.


This frontier is expressed in a difference of cultural and national identity in most places. Near to this frontier, events of the past often influence our thoughts of today and may cause things to be said and done which deepen the mistrust. The religious conflicts of the 17th century seem to have a particularly powerful grip on identities and politics along this frontier – between the Muslims and Christians and among the Christians in ex-Yougoslavia, between the Greek Catholics and Orthodox in many places, but also between the Lutherans and Orthodox in Finland. Perhaps one could also see the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ireland as an offshoot of the same era of religious conflict.


Church history on the margin


The history of the Orthodox faith among the Finns is not a glorious story of “a Christ-loving nation“ or statehood sacralised by saintly princes. Rather, it is an unlikely account of the survival of the Orthodox tradition among a tribe on the margin, between two greater powers, on the frontier between the European East and West. It is characteristically a story of a minority, with regard to ethnicity or religion of the two states on its both sides.


The earliest roots of Finnish Orthodoxy can be found in the small monasteries of the remote Karelian forests between the 12th and 16th centuries. The oldest and most famous one is the Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Valamo islands in Lake Ladoga. We know of more than sixty monasteries in different parts of Karelia in the 16th century and 42 officially canonised saints originating in these monasteries. Some very sporadic mentions from the 16th century have been preserved of their work to translate the Gospel and parts of the divine services in the Karelian language and the language of the Sami people in the Karelian north.


Here in Lappeenranta we are also in Karelia, but this South-Western region of Viipuri – the historic fortress and market town which presently lies across the border in Russia -  belonged to the Western political and cultural sphere since the coming of the Swedish and Christian influence on the 12th and 13th centuries.


The reason why a normal development of local Orthodox church life did not continue in Orthodox Karelia around Lake Ladoga can be found in the great, tumultuous changes of the 17th century. The result was that Orthodox Karelia was politically divided between Sweden and Russia, with 2/3 of the population fleeing from the Swedish side and replaced by Lutheran settlers (cf. modern ethnic cleansing). On the Russian side, in the most remote and poorest parts of Karelia, the spiritual life of the earlier centuries was not any more possible because of the compellingly centralist policies of St.Petersburg, which among others destroyed the movement of small non-possessing monasteries and consequently any aspirations for a written local language in Karelia.


In January this year, on the Sunday of the Week of prayer for Christian Unity, a rare historical act of reconciliation took place in the small town of Lieksa in Finnish Karelia. It is the only place where a small Orthodox chapel has survived on the same spot where the Orthodox Churches used to be before the arrival of the Lutherans in the 17th century. As the Lutheran Church was built on the same piece of land, also the Orthodox chapel became their property. Now the Lutheran parish wanted to donate the chapel and the land around it to the Orthodox Church, as a sign of recognition of the historical injustices and present-day friendship and respect.


The Orthodox Karelian minority who remained in their villages on the Swedish after the 17th century became the foundation of what became the Orthodox Church of Finland. All of Finland was annexed by Russia by the year 1809, but Swedish laws were kept in force and no changes in the population or its religion took place. Together with the “national awakening” of the Lutheran Finns, the Orthodox Karelians chose to identify themselves linguistically, culturally and politically with the nascent nation. They took a step over the East-West divide. This implied a renewal within the church – a view that the Orthodox faith had a place and a mission in this country. This renewal can be said to have been inspired by a threefold motivation – firstly, a clear understanding of Orthodox theology, secondly, an identification with the nascent Finnish nation, and thirdly an attitude of “self-defence“ against Lutheran missionary attempts among the Orthodox Karelians.  Thus, a non-conformist answer was given to the classical question whether being Orthodox implied political loyalty to the Russian Czar, and whether the new Finnish national identity required Lutheran faith.


As Finland gained its political independence in 1917, the young republic granted the Orthodox minority a position comparable to that of the Lutheran Church. The government´s purpose was clearly to bind the Orthodox Karelians, who were the majority in the frontier province north of Ladoga, to the newly independent Fatherland. This succeeded well, and soon one was to see not even a trace of any loyalty to Russia, which at the same time of course had become violently Atheist. This patriotism, and even anti-Russian feelings among the Finnish Orthodox, were further amplified by the Second World War.


Ecclesiastically the particular identity of the Finnish Orthodox Church was strengthened  as it was granted a broad autonomy within the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1923, and it became an established member of the family of Orthodox Churches.


In the 1920s and 1930s the young Church became established in the Finnish society: theological education was assured, democratic administration of parishes and the entire church was carried out, the Finnish language became the sole official language with services conducted in some parishes also in Slavonic and Swedish, an application of  the  Gregorian calendar was introduced. This did not happen painlessly - critics say it implied conscious and subconscious Lutheran influence. But there was a very optimistic and clear attitude that the Orthodox faith could be and needed to be expressed in new ways, comprehensible to the dominating Western dimension of the Finnish culture.


The Finnish Ecumenical Council was founded already in 1917, ninety years ago, basically as a result of inspiration originating in the YMCA-YWCA movement. The Orthodox Church appointed its first representatives for the council in 1923. However, theological and practical dialogue progressed rather slowly on the academic and church leadership levels. But  with the grass roots, in villages where both traditions were present, everyday interaction  became gradually more and more straightforward and natural.


Catastrophe and survival


The Second World War could have meant the end of the feeble beginnings of Finnish Orthodoxy. The USSR annexed almost all Finnish Karelia, and all of its inhabitants fled to other parts of Finland, including the Orthodox. The Church lost all three monasteries and 90 % of its churches and chapels. A sociological survey from the end of 1940s predicted the Orthodox faith would disappear from central Finland by the early 1970s - through intermarriage and assimilation with the Lutheran majority.


It took several decades for the Finnish Orthodox Church to recover from a certain survival mentality. That implied a low profile in terms of Orthodox presence in the society, but also within the Church itself. Most children in mixed marriages were baptised Lutheran in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.


A change in the attitude towards the surrounding society started gradually taking place in the 1960s and 70s. It happened first in the realm of arts - literature, iconography and music. They were followed by ascetic and spiritual literature and Eucharistic revival. The political radicalism of the 1970s influenced the Orthodox Church of Finland in a belated fashion. Many people, who broke their ties with Christianity as it was represented by the Lutheran Church as part of the establishment, later found their way to the Orthodox Church. Many, who were looking for a lifestyle alternative to the Western system of consumption, felt that Orthodox spirituality with its ascetic emphasis and holistic approach offered an inviting alternative.


The most secularised country in the world – ecumenical challenge


Finland has sometimes been called “the most Lutheran country of the world“ because of their historically high percentage in the population – it is presently decreasing but is still high at 83%. But, similarly, in light of basic statistics on church attendance or personal ethics, Finland could also be called “the most secularised country in the world“. Many external consequences of secularisation are in fact positive for the minorities. It has meant a certain liberation from the domination of the historical Lutheran mono-culture. At the same time, secularisation has brought the churches closer together. The churches do not see each other as rivals, but truthfully admit that the practising Christians are a minority in the society, and that what is good for one church is usually good for the others, too.


Ecumenically, the East-West encounter has borne many fruits. The Orthodox can admit that our relationship to the Bible has become more profound and active because of Protestant challenges and influences. We have, in fact, received the Bible in our language  as a fruit of the Lutheran Reformation; this year, we celebrate the 450-years jubilee of the Finnish Reformer and first translator of the New Testament, Mikael Agricola. In the educational sphere, we follow many Lutheran  examples – from confirmation camps to academic discipline. Also the way the small Finnish Orthodox Church is able to do missionary and humanitarian work has greatly benefited from its cooperation with the institutions of the Lutheran Church.


I think many Lutheran friends have been helped by the Orthodox to see the Eucharist as the real centre of church life. Monasticism as a radical Christian lifestyle is a discovery many could make make with Orthodox monks and nuns. They have also helped to see that it is possible to really follow the Apostolic exhortation to “pray always”, and to know ourselves in the depth of our mind and soul. I think we can also say that Orthodox contribution has reminded our Lutheran friends to see that the Cross belongs together with the Resurrection, and that salvation through the Cross and the Resurrection involves all God's creation. As an illustration of this, the Orthodox Easter hymn “Christ is risen” is included in the Lutheran hymnal.


No wonder, then, that the Finnish Lutherans have in some international contexts been criticised by their fellow Lutherans as the “most Orthodox Lutherans” in the world. Also the Finnish Orthodox, for sure, have been called “the most Lutheran Orthodox” by their brethren from the East.


The most beautiful fruits of ecumenical encounter in Finland are in the spiritual realm. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January, in the coldest time of the year, you can see an impressive sight in many towns and villages: processions in the snow from church to church, Christians of different churches carrying the cross and sharing the same way, and bearing witness to the surrounding town. These processions and ecumenical prayers have for a long time been established upon the friendship between Lutherans and Orthodox, and are now strengthened by the participation of other Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Finnish Ecumenical Council is now working to give expression to this spiritual encounter also in the area of the churches' diakonia, their service in the world, so that our ecumenical spirituality would enhance human life as a whole.


Today, our churches face the same ethical and social challenges. In many questions, the dividing line between differing opinions does not go between East and West, or between the churches, but through them. The same questions are being debated within our different churches, with our particular theological approaches and emphasises. The fact that our churches have differing ways to respond to the same contemporary problems, can be helpful – despite our differences and because of them, we need each other. I believe that in the ecumenical debate, the conservative traditionalist and the radical avant-gardiste both have God's blessing. Our crucial task is to care for the encounter and make the dialogue happen. We are to create a safe ecumenical space, where East and West, North and South can meet and where there is room for God's Holy Spirit to come and change us.


Fr. Heikki Huttunen

General Secretary, Finnish Ecumenical Council


Lappeenranta, 28th July 2007

Suomen Ekumeeninen Neuvosto / Ekumeniska Rådet i Finland       Eteläranta 8 / Södra kajen 8            PL / PB 210          00131 Helsinki / Helsingfors

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