Just because one’s cause is just does not mean it should be one’s cause. Russian Patriarch Kirill said in early January, 2012 that it would be a “very bad sign” if Russia’s political officials failed to heed the recent protests over whether the elections in 2011 had been subject to significant fraud. Given Kirill’s religious station, one could be forgiven for assuming that the “very bad sign” refers to something from God, such as a flood or other “natural” catastrophe. Actually, Kirill meant “a sign of the authorities’ inability to adjust.” He went on to assert that every person “in a free society must have the right to express his opinion, including disagreement with the actions of the authorities.” He urged change rather than revolution, pointing to the loss of life following the 1917 revolution. Had the demonstrations before that upheaval ended in “the expression of peaceful protests and had not led to a bloody revolution and a fratricidal war,” Russia “would have challenged or maybe even surpassed the United States from the point of view of economic development.” On the same day, Archbishop Vsevolod Chaplin said that the political officials could be “slowly eaten alive” were they to ignore the protesters.
Using words like “eaten alive” does not sound like very religious language. Indeed, the statements are in the realm of political theory (democracy) and perhaps economic development. Educationally speaking, the study of theology (even philosophy of religion) does not constitute or sufficiently involve political or democratic theory, let alone economic development. Of the latter, liberation theology has something to say, but even that theology does not claim to know how GNP can be maximized. Kirill’s statement that Russia without the revolution of 1917 would have a population and economy on par with the United States can only be taken as the opinion of a “lay person” from the standpoint of experts in political theory and political economy. Putting it another way, having studied theology or simply being a religious leader does not entitle someone to assume expertise in political or economic matter. Even if Kirill has an advanced degree in political theory or economic development, making his statements in his capacity as a religious leader represents a category mistake.
Besides the possibility of bad advice being given (and relied on!) by a non-expert who on account of his own base of knowledge in another field is wrongly assumed to be an expert, there is the opportunity cost of other uses of the cleric’s time lost on account of the foray into the other field. In other words, there were presumably other things he could have been doing—activities in the religious realm like praying, hearing confessions, or even administering his religious organization. More abstractly, Kirill’s decision, admittedly well-intended given his political opinions, illustrates the tendency of the religious domain to be extended beyond its native turf. To claim that God is omnipresent is not to say that every field is included in theology—or that the latter has a claim of expertise in any other field. We would not want a lawyer branching out to see a few patients just because the waiting rooms at medical clinics are crowded. So too, I contend, we ought not assume that clerics have political or economic expertise.
Indeed, we might even benefit from religious leaders doing more in their own back yards, such as maintaining their organizations and modeling religiosity. Pope John Paul II was admittedly involved in fighting the USSR’s dominance in Poland, but he tended to stress modeling religiosity as he developed in office (the fall of the USSR no doubt was a factor). Talking about officials getting “eaten alive” or engaging in comparative economics not only does not count as religiosity; such engagement comes at the expense of the sort of religious experience that can engender a distinctive way of being. The compassion from it is different than that which led Kirill to wander off into Russian politics. Whereas compassion based on religious experience stems from heightened sensitivity towards existing itself (there being a transcendent dimension to the experience), political compassion comes out of, or presupposes, conflict.
In short, it is paradoxical that presuming to have influence beyond one’s native ken can actually mean that one has less influence overall because one has shirked the basis of one’s expertise by engaging in “lay opinions” extrinsic to that base. To constrain oneself to one’s own area can actually maximize one’s influence because that is where one’s true credibility lies. Religion is delimited, as is any domain or field. No one field has a “get in free” card to all of the others. In each field, distinctive study and practice are requisite to being proficient. I cannot very well say that by virtue of my studies a certain field, I am therefore able to be taken as an expert in another. Particularly among people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus (e.g., agape), one would not expect that sort of arrogance. Implicitly, the foray itself undercuts the cleric’s own basis of authority.
Sophia Kishkovsky, “Head of Russian Church Urges Action on Vote Fraud Allegation,” The New York Times, January 8, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/world/europe/patriarch-kirill-urges-russian-leaders-to-listen-to-protests.html?partner=rss&emc=rss