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Sobornost and Subsidiarity in Orthodox Christian Social Thought

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Alexei Khomiakov, the Russian Slavophile thinker often credited with first articulating the Orthodox principle of sobornost.

Today at Ethika Politika I offer an assessment of the phenomenon of globalization from the perspective of Orthodox Christian anthropology. In particular, I focus on the concept of sobornost in the thought of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, writing,

Solovyov’s account of the moral progress of humanity through globalization is rooted in the Russian idea of sobornost’, which Christopher Marsh and Daniel P. Payne define as “the idea that human beings retain their freedom while participating in human society, and that human society is a participatory process through which human beings actualize themselves as unique hypostases [i.e. persons].” Accordingly, Solovyov writes that true society does not abolish the individual, but “subordination to society uplifts the individual” and “the independence of the individual lends strength to the social order” — an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity.

I had raised the question of the similarity between sobornost and subsidiarity a few weeks ago during Fr. Michael Butler’s Acton University talk on “Orthodoxy, Church, and State.” I summarized his insight on the concept at the time, writing,

With the reforms of Tsar Peter the Great, however, the Church was literally made a department of the state [in Russia]. The inspiration for this, notably, was not symphonia but the European Protestant national Church model. While in this context the Russian Church still continued to carry out its functions in society, it had lost a great degree of autonomy. In the midst of this context, the Slavophile thinkers Alexei Khomiakov and Ivan Kireevsky reacted to this statist trend in Russian society by developing the theory of sobornost, inspired in part by the Russian word for “Catholic” in the Nicene Creed and inspired by the Orthodox Church’s conciliar basis of authority.

As they framed it, the idea of sobornost placed the idea of sovereignty in the whole of a people. All human beings are interconnected, and each therefore deserves their own autonomy while, at the same time, [each] has a duty to serve all others…. Ultimately, sobornost at its best would be an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity in which each level of society, all the way down to the individual, has a role to freely play for the common good and each has a duty to assist others for that end.

The question of similarities and differences between subsidiarity and sobornost has been on my mind for some time. There would seem to be clear parallels between the concepts that were coincidentally developed in their modern forms at nearly the same time, though among different traditions for somewhat different purposes. (Sobornost was first used to described the nature of authority in the Orthodox Church, most notably perhaps by Alexei Khomiakov, in distinction from what he saw as a Roman papal emphasis and a Protestant individual emphasis. Ultimately, he found both to be too rationalistic in his polemical conception.)

Jordan Ballor has written about differing traditions of subsidiarity, distinguishing between subsidiarity “from above” and subsidiarity “from below,” identifying the former as the ancient and hierarchical view and the latter as the modern and egalitarian view. However, he notes that the distinction is not so simple:

It would be easy to point to a doctrine such as Luther’s articulation of the “priesthood of all believers” as the turning point from the ancient to the modern view of the human person and society, and therefore also marking the shift from the the ancient to the modern view of subsidiarity. But … the modern view has deeper roots, beyond the Protestant Reformations, and there is, in fact, a complex interrelationship between the ancient and the modern views that persists even yet today.

My curiosity for the moment is, to the extent that sobornost is an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity, would it be closer to the “from above,” ancient, hierarchical version, or the “from below” modern, egalitarian version? On the one hand, there is definitely an emphasis on the universality of society — it consists of all its members, at every level, and each are inseparably interconnected with one another. Given its anti-statist origins, I would lean toward the “from below” distinction.

However, it may entirely depend on the person who is using it. After all, the concept developed over time, beginning with ecclesiology and extending to philosophy, political theory, epistemology even! The idea developed over time far beyond its original usage, and furthermore, it was firstly rooted in the same ancient tradition to which Jordan attributes the hierarchical, “from above” subsidiarity. It has various applications in both directions historically.

Given this diversity, I would propose two interpretive options: First, it could be that different writers view the concept in entirely different ways, perhaps incompatibly so. Or, second — which I am inclined to prefer — perhaps the true nature of sobornost (and subsidiarity?) is reciprocal. That is, perhaps the concept, at its best and by whatever name it is called, requires an integration of both the “from above” and the “from below” perspectives and to minimize one would give only a lopsided picture of the reality.

This, in fact, is what I implicitly argue at Ethika Politika, not that local communities are bad, but that globalization has potential for significant good and, therefore, cannot be condemned off hand without running the risk of serious error. As I write, through globalization, “Many who would have been far off at one time are now our neighbors” and “we ought to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

For a further exploration of sobornost and globalization, be sure to check out my essay at Ethika Politika here.

Dylan Pahman Dylan O’Brien Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for Eastern Christian Life and Culture.


  • DCampbell2

    Thanks, I’m following the subsidiarity tags and calling out the selfishness of the theological conclusions, but I find you sobornost and subsidiarity from the bottom up to both have a wholesomeness to your intents. I have not liked the general direction of thought that acton has adopted with subsidiarity as a support for tea party selfishness. Granted no one is claiming allegiances, but the intent is easily connected from the World article which labels and cartoons opposition as tribal thinking from progressives. Reformation brought democracy and democracy founded RomneyCare. It’s not a plague of foolishness upon our country, but a gesture or effort to serve the poor. Win or lose, it’s commendable.