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Unity in Community

A Life Together by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist is a wonderful little book that delves into Eastern Orthodoxy's understanding of community, particularly the notion of 'sobornost.' Sigrist writes early on that although the term sobornost may be like a riddle in that it escapes exact definition, it focuses on unity derived in the context of community (31-32). Sigrist's view of this unity finds concrete example in the life and witness of the group of Russian thinkers called the Slavophils. These people did not seek wisdom from the governmental authorites nor the Russian state but the old farming practices of the the farming communes (33). In one sense, the idea of unity in community finds its ideal in communities where the rhythm of work, play, feasting, and caretaking all combine in glorious harmony. This kind of unity rears its head against forms of individualism (particularly the West) and collectivism (at times the Russian state) that seek to elevate the I and yet also obscure the individual. Sigrist goes onto relate the Church to sobornost in such a way as to bring to the surface the organic nature of her existence. The hierarchy of the Church is secondary to the organic communion (37-38). As I reread this section in the book, I am amazed at the organic connection I have with other believers. In many ways, this organic communion is entirely unconnected to the hierarchy and structure of church authority, it is rather like the grassroots efforts of people coming together because they abhor injustice.

Sigrist hits the nail on the head when speaking of mutual love by saying, "Here is the heart of sobornost: sharing life together without any loss of your true self, we are no longer isolated from each other and no longer isolated from the whole of God's creation" (49-50). Mutual love means sharing the heart of prayer with another in the true affirmation of who a person is (sin and all), while recognzing that it is the love of God which upholds all things. How difficult this is however, to be every so mindful of God's amazing love for us and being able to live before others confronted with the reality of our hard beaten hearts. Yet, the concept of sobornost lived out by the Slavophiles can have some dangerous turns. For instance, the Slavophiles began their practice of sobornost outside the church. Although unity in community often finds its heartbeat outside the church, it would be amiss to dismiss the importance of the practice of the means of grace in the church (prayer, sacraments, fellowship). There is a great tension here between the desire for unfettered unity amongst others and communion with the body of Christ (the church).

Sigrist finally gets at the idea of complementarity at the last section of the book. He writes, "But we could also imagine a use of theological systems, and ways of worship and prayer, not for the purpose of argumentation, nor comparisons nor "show and tell," ...but as complementary thought and prayer received each by all, and together moving toward that which is beyond the reach of any one alone" (106). This concept of complementarity in this quote reaches far and wide for a unity that spans beyond theological differences in search for a commond bond. I think Sigrist's notion here is very helpful all the while being overly optimistic. This notion is helpful for example in discussion concerning the Holy Spirit. Many other groups such as Catholics and Baptists can learn a great deal from the way John Calvin taught so clearly about the Holy Spirit's work in the lives of everyday believers. In proportion, the Desert Fathers have much to teach Presbyterians and Anglicans about the life of repentance lived before God. This is complementarity at its best, when various different groups fill in the missing gaps in another's beliefs, practices, and worship. In the end, I do think we need to be careful in understanding Sigrist's notion, as to be careful to see the poisonous seeds of pride and sin welling up in men's hearts as we seek unity.

This work was a true joy to read! I though Bishop Sigrist did a great job at using various Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition to further his points about sobornost and complementarity. In the end of the book there is helpful further reading list that would be beneficial to those interested in Eastern orthodoxy. Lastly, I was greatly moved by Sigrist's passion for the faith he proclaims, a faith that is rooted in Christ and focused on unity.

Much thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy.


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