Religion Resurges in USSR
But Harvard professor finds the state cautious about giving churches free rein. INTERVIEW: THEOLOGIAN HARVEY COX
PROGRESS promised and progress delivered in the Soviet Union in behalf of religious practice is a key measure of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika process of change in Soviet society. Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox has just returned from several weeks of observation and conversation in Moscow. He offered his measure of worship in the USSR in the following discussion with Rob Nelson, senior correspondent for World Monitor television.Skip to next paragraph
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Professor Cox, is anything really changing in religious life in the Soviet Union?
I think the answer to that has to be yes and no. There's an enormously increased level of interest in religion, participation in religious services, attendance at churches, and so on. But the real underlying question is whether the churches are going to be given a kind of legal status. The right to own property, the right to publish their own newspapers, and the right to be an actor in public life has still not achieved legal status.
What's holding it back?
I think what may be holding it back is a kind of apprehensiveness on the part of the government that this would be indeed a very large step after many, many years of official atheism and kind of a quasi-atheistic religion. I think there's a certain amount of reluctance to take it even under the conditions of glasnost.
So if the church got some independence, it might not know exactly how far to go or what to do with it?
I think that would be the next big question. The church - or the churches I should say, because there is more than one church in the Soviet Union today - would take a while to learn how to do this. They've never had any practice, they haven't lived in a society in which the kind of freedom of religious expression outside of the church building itself was possible. It will take awhile for them to learn how to communicate, let's say on television or using newspapers. Or schools or colleges like we're used to in this country.
How does a society that has lived for so long under official atheism deal with any sense of spirituality or the possibilities for it?
One can see and sense a kind of upswelling both of curiosity and a kind of questing spirit among those who've been denied this. It's almost like the forbidden fruit. There must be something to it, a lot of people think, because it's been sat on and excluded for so long. It's astonishing when you think of it that for all these years Bibles in the Russian language have not been available, and there are many people who really, literally have never seen a Bible. Now they are beginning to publish them, although they're still in very short supply. So there's a lack of even basic information or knowledge, and sometimes I'm astonished by the innocence or lack of information of the questions that even well-informed people, that is well-informed in other areas, put to me.
How about archival things from the orthodox church? Have they been confiscated? Can they get back at them now?
Right after the Russian Revolution, the communists confiscated all the records of the orthodox church, all the archives, and simply stored them in a basement in bundles. It's only in the last year or two now that they opened that to scholars, Russian scholars or scholars from the West. Nobody had access to them, and apparently the archives are in very, very disordered condition. Now scholars are beginning to look into them, but you can imagine how hard it has been for Russian Orthodox scholars to understand the history of their church, when they haven't had access even to the basic archives that one needs to do that kind of work.
If you'd been an atheist for a lot of years, either in fact or simply to get along and to match the general setting that you're living in, what happens now when the door gets opened and when somebody says ``OK, your conscience is free?''