Photo courtesy of Jim Forest. More photos here


As I hinted at in the previous post, if earlier readers of this blog are still around they will appreciate that the coming of Father Andrew Louth to Amsterdam is a worthy occasion to resume blogging. (And if there are readers who don’t know why I should be interested in that they can click here). The reason for this was the launching of the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Theology at which Father Louth is going to be a guest professor and at which he was the guest speaker yesterday. This is a new institute located in the theology faculty of the Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam which will be more formally launched in October when Metropolitan Kallistos Ware will be guest speaker. Father Louth gave a lecture on “The Nature of Eastern Orthodox Theology.” I tried to take reasonably extensive notes, but couldn’t keep up with everything. However, I hope that the following is not too inaccurate an overview of his paper.

Father Louth began by noting that many people had first discovered Orthodox theology through Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Why Lossky used the term “mystical theology” in the title is not clear, for, having done a doctorate on Eckhart, he was acquainted with what the West considers mysticism, and yet the contents of Lossky’s book simply look like traditional Christian theology. However, in the introduction to the book, Lossky explains the complementarity between mysticism and theology, a complementarity that has been lost in the West:

The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology, between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church… To put it another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically…

Lossky does not begin with the experience of God, but rather with participation in the divine mysteries, which refers both to the sacraments and to the truths of faith. These are truths that we experience and celebrate in the divine mysteries and within the Church. Experience cannot be detached from dogma, nor detached from the Church; it is not something individualistic but is rooted in the experience of the Eucharistic community.

Father Louth then proceeded to explore some of the features of this Orthodox theology by offering some reflections on the Fathers of the Church, specifically Saint Athanasius, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Maximus the Confessor and Saint Gregory Palamas.

In the early treatises of Saint Athanasius, especially Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, we find a defence of Christianity that is directed against both Jews and pagans and this is essentially a defence of the cross. He contrasts that which they hold cheap with that which the cross makes known, namely the divinity of Christ and His triumph over death. It is death that sums up the human condition for Athanasius. God is the only source of being and if we turn away from God then we turn away from being. He presents the universe as flowing from the creative will of God and humankind as flowing from that being, for by being made in the image of God we can be in touch with that being. However, by turning away from God and turning in on ourselves we have lost contact with the source of being which is God and we find ourselves moving towards nothingness. We are born into a world marked by death and this characterises human life as we know it.

It is death that needs to be dealt with and the cross, which looks like yet another example of death frustrating life, is in fact a way of offering life because the One who died is God. Two things occurred simultaneously: the death of all was destroyed in the Lord’s body, and death was overcome.

We can thus see that Athanasius’ theology is about an engagement between God and humankind. It is not about abstract theological truths, but about something that we can enter into. This is life in defiance of death as we see in the significance that he gives to martyrdom and to virginity. The creeds are not abstract theories but an account of God’s engagement with the cosmos. Here we come to a central sentence for Athanasius, namely, that God became human so that we might become God. This involves a double movement and the boldness of this claim was to become central in Byzantine theology.

We find the same conviction about the engagement of God with the cosmos at the heart of Saint Dionysius’ theology and he explores things that remain implicit for Athanasius.

He sees the cosmos as a manifestation of the glory of God. He does not say anything explicitly about the fall, yet implicitly he expresses the way things are in the universe’s inability to manifest God because of multiplicity. For Dionysius, the theophany of the cosmos is a manifestation in which we are drawn to the burning centre of God’s love.

Hierarchy is a key notion for Dionysius and we should return to his understanding of it in order to get past the misunderstandings of and reactions to it of the last century. He does not see hierarchy as being about rank, but rather about reaching out into multiplicity in order to draw everything back into the order and simplicity of God. This is beauty that calls out and calls back – but it is not a beauty that we are meant to gaze at but rather a vision that we are called to follow. Thus hierarchy is important as providing order and structure, but it is first and foremost a way in which multiplicity can be understood positively. Thus, in the arrangements of his Celestial Hierarchy, we see not simply a ladder but rather stages through which we work upwards to God in a process of purification, assimilation and union.

This is a hierarchy both of understanding and of activity. We see this in the way in which Christianity transformed pagan themes and stars and planets were replaced by angels. The Celestial Hierarchy thus sought to establish the principle of hierarchy as a way of drawing everything up to God. Father Louth quoted Father Alexander Golitzin who argued that Dionysius’ model in this was not the intermediary beings of the neo-Platonists, but rather the monastic elder. We find here a way of coming close to God not through information that is taught but rather through a spirit that is caught.

Dionysius deals with this in more detail in his Ecclesial Hierarchy, which deals with the ordering of the Church and her sacraments and is really more like a treatise on liturgical theology. Here we see how the Church celebrates and experiences the engagement between God and humankind that is celebrated in the Incarnation, and of which the sacraments form an extension. We go to God as part of a structured society, borne up by the prayers and the presence of others.

Father Louth then turned to another side of Saint Dionysius’ theology, namely that found in his Mystical Theology and Divine Names. Here he reflects on the names of God and how we use them and introduces the distinction between apophatic and kataphatic theology, which he borrows from neo-Platonism. However, the denial of apophatic theology is a very particular type of denial that involves a transcendence of categories in which we realise that we have no other way of saying what we mean. Everything that we find in creatures we must find in God, yet everything that we find in creatures must be denied in God.

This can sound like a sort of logical predication but it is not. Father Louth pointed out that the Mystical Theology begins with a prayer to be brought to the silence of God, and this context of prayer is important, for it is prayer to a God who listens, rather than speech about a logical puzzle. This context of the direction in which we are facing is important. We can use words about God to speak to others, but we can also use them to address God Himself, and in this latter case we find ourselves becoming speechless and unknowing. When turned towards others, we may have much to say, but when turned towards God, we become speechless and unknowing.

Father Louth pointed out that the language that Saint Dionysius uses in describing Moses’ ascent to God is in fact cultic language drawn from Christian liturgical texts. He is not talking about mysticism as it later came to be understood in the West, but rather about the proclamation of the Gospel and the turning to God in prayer and these need to be kept together. But this distinction between the apophatic and the kataphatic also needs to be kept together, for the attributes used of God are not simple predication but are rather the language of praise. This means that we are freed to use an abundance of imagery, but also that it is the language of poetry that best expresses dogma.

Father Louth then turned to Saint Maximus the Confessor, and in particular to his commentary on the Divine Liturgy which Maximus presents as a supplement to Dionysius’ Ecclesial Hierarchy. Here we find a series of parallels, such as the Church being an image of God, for both draw things into union. Maximus applies this to the church building with its distinction between the sanctuary and the nave. This division symbolises the division of the cosmos into the visible and the invisible, but rather than the division separating them, it holds them together. That which takes place in the sanctuary is conveyed to the worshippers in the nave, and the desires of those in the nave are conveyed to those in the sanctuary. This division reflects the distinction between heaven and earth, soul and body, the contemplative and active parts of the intellect, the Old and the New Testaments, and the cosmos and the human.

This relationship between the cosmos and the human being is central for Maximus and picks up on the ancient idea of the human being as a microcosm. If both Scripture and the cosmos are said to be anthropos, then there is a relationship between them, and between the logoi of Scripture and the logoi of the cosmos. In this Saint Maximus sets up a whole structure of meaning. The distinctions in the Church and what happens in the liturgy refers both to the cosmos and to the inner life of the human person and each is related to the other. The divine economy has a cosmic as well as a human dimension and encompasses the extremes both of the cosmos and of the human soul.

This emphasis on recapitulation was already present before Saint Maximus, but for him the liturgical, the cosmic and the ascetic are all brought together. He is conscious that, in participating in the liturgy, he is participating in something of cosmic significance (and this forms the basis of Orthodox ecological concern). But this also presupposes an ascetical programme which arises not just out of a concern for the self, but which is a means by which each Christian can participate in the recapitulation of the cosmos that has been fractured by the fall. Hence the central importance of the image of transfiguration in Orthodox tradition.

Father Louth concluded his paper by turning to Saint Gregory Palamas, the fourteenth century defender of the hesychasts, and in particular to part of a sentence from a letter to Valaam. Here Gregory states: “It is not safe for those who do not know how to speak to God to speak about God…” If we do not know how to speak to God then what we say about God will simply be a concept. This can imply some form of seclusion, but it also means a willingness to encounter God in the least of these little ones.

The dazzling darkness of God is not about something mystical as this was understood in the West, but is rather a turning away from our own strategies and concepts. It is a turning to God Himself by way of repentance, a letting go of our ways of making something of God and allowing God to make something of us. The apophatic tradition is therefore an unceasing appeal to the Holy Spirit who transforms the divine darkness into the light of communion.


In the (regrettably rather limited) question time after the lecture there was a significant question on whether what Father Louth had presented is limited to the East, or whether it is also found in the West. He responded by saying that everything that is found in Lossky’s book can also be found in the West, for the East and the West share common roots, and insofar as we are in touch with those roots we share a great deal. He quoted Thomas Merton who desired to reach back and find his Christian identity in the common roots of the undivided Church. However, it is also a reality that the West has lost elements of that common heritage. Father Louth said that he found that many Roman Catholic theologians agreed with what he presented and yet the reality on the ground often presents a different picture. He cited the example of a book that he had reviewed a few years’ ago in which the author was concerned with helping people to pray, despite the liturgy!

Another questioner asked whether the vision that Father Louth had presented was also true of Saint John of Damascus. He responded by saying that he believed that it was, although there are scholars who question this.