What, then, are we going to preach? What would I preach to my contemporaries “in such a time as this”? There is no room for hesitation: I am going to preach Jesus, and him crucified and risen. I am going to preach and to commend to all whom I may be called to address the message of salvation, as it has been handed down to me by an uninterrupted tradition of the Church Universal. I would not isolate myself in my own age. In other words, I am going to preach the “doctrines of the creed.”

Father Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, 11*

The opening chapter of Father Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition is entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind” and originally appeared as an essay in The Christian Century in 1951. It begins by addressing the question of what gospel Christian ministers are called to preach – and of how they can be sure that what they preach is the same gospel originally delivered rather than an accommodation to the whims of a particular age. This is a serious problem precisely because “Most of us have lost the integrity of the scriptural mind, even if some bits of phraseology are retained.” (10) Scripture is seen as written in an “archaic idiom” that has to be “demythologized” in a continual process of “reinterpretation.” However,

… how can we interpret at all if we have forgotten the original language? Would it not be safer to bend our thought to the mental habits of the biblical language and to relearn the idiom of the Bible? No man can receive the gospel unless he repents – “changes his mind.” For in the language of the gospel “repentance” (metanoeite) does not mean merely acknowledgement of and contrition for sins, but precisely a “change of mind” – a profound change of man’s mental and emotional attitude, an integral renewal of man’s self, which begins in self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit. (10)

Writing in 1951, Father Florovsky referred to the “intellectual chaos and disintegration” of the age and argued that the only “luminous signpost” we have in this context is the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” He is not unaware that this faith is considered obsolete and archaic and that the “doctrines of the creed” are a stumbling block for many. However, he points out that the early creeds were deliberately scriptural, and he argues that “it is precisely their scriptural phraseology that makes them difficult for modern man.” (11)

Moreover, in contrast to those who view the traditional language of the creeds as “antiquarian” or “fundamentalist,” Florovsky points to “their perennial adequacy and relevance to all ages and to all situations, including ‘a time such as this.’” (12)

“The church is neither a museum of dead deposits nor a society of research.” The deposits are alive – depositum juvenescens, to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus. The creed is not a relic of the past, but rather the “sword of the Spirit.” The reconversion of the world to Christianity is what we have to preach in our day. This is the only way out of that impasse into which the world has been driven by the failure of Christians to be truly Christian. Obviously, Christian doctrine does not answer directly any practical question in the field of politics or economics. Neither does the gospel of Christ. Yet its impact on the whole course of human history has been enormous. The recognition of human dignity, mercy and justice roots in the gospel. The new world can be built only by the new man. (12)

To be continued…

* This is the first post in a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

Note: Given my recent blogging history, I am a little hesitant about announcing this project too loudly, lest I do not manage to keep it up. I am doing it primarily because I need to get back to some serious theological reading, and blogging has helped me with that in the past. But I hope that it may also be helpful to others. Much of my blogging simply consists of summarising books, although I may also comment now and then (and will probably comment on some things raised in this post when I complete the chapter in the following post). But I think that, particularly with Father Florovsky’s works, making summaries available and encouraging people to read the actual works, and any discussion that may ensue from that, could be rather worthwhile…

In the last few weeks, I have been thinking a fair bit about religion in the public sphere in South Africa and have – not for the first time – been rather dismayed by the level of discussion. This is a topic that could fill several books, but I wanted to record a few points here, even if they only serve as a springboard for further reflection.

I couldn’t help being struck by the juxtaposition of two clusters of discourse around this topic in the course of the same week. The first was the reaction (here, among other places) to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s speech suggesting – in rather measured tones – that religious traditions could make a positive contribution to the social good by influencing our legal framework. The second was a conference at which a group of Christians got together because they were concerned that freedom of religion is under threat in South Africa.

The problem, as I see it, is that the shrillness of the reaction to the Chief Justice’s speech only serves to underline the concerns of those who feel that freedom of religion is under threat, while the issues around which certain Christians seem intent on lobbying – such as the right to spank children – only confirms the prejudices of the secularists who see religious groups as inherently oppressive and basing their arguments on an arbitrary appeal to (often conflicting) religious texts.

In the midst of the heat-without-light reaction to Mogoeng’s speech, Ryan Peter published a helpfully sane article entitled “Are today’s secularists really secular?” In it, he argued that, instead of wanting to keep a neutral secular space, today’s secularists are rather seeking to impose their own views on others. While Christians should not be able to impose their ethical standards on others – and, predictably, much of heat generated had to do with sexuality – neither should secular society be able to impose its norms onto Christians, and, presumably, the followers of other religions.

Now this is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that it does not go that far, and I fear that the idea of a neutral public sphere is something of a modern illusion. Acknowledging this does not mean retreating into theocracy, but it does mean that the sort of conversation the Chief Justice was initiating is a conversation that needs to be had. And it forces us to reflect on where our social values and norms come from, the different weight that we give different “rights,” as well as their sometimes mutually incompatible nature.

The fact is, there are areas in which the law will inevitably curtail freedom of religion in one form or another. Should the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses be allowed to die because their parents’ religion does not allow blood transfusions? Should Quakers be exempted from paying taxes that fund the military because their religion requires them to be pacifists? Should Christians who appeal to certain biblical verses be exempted from laws prohibiting corporal punishment? And, if they are going to base their argument on such verses, what is to stop another group arguing that stoning adulterers is a religious duty? The list could continue and it is small wonder that secularists accuse religious believers of cherry picking from often conflicting religious texts.

Yet there are also weighty matters at stake at stake here. Not so long ago, a Methodist minister who had been disciplined by her church for supposedly marrying her female partner, took her church to court on the grounds that they had discriminated against her unconstitutionally. While she didn’t win, it was not inconceivable that she could have done so (and she is continuing to appeal the judgement) and some of her most vocal supporters are precisely those people attacking Mogoeng’s speech. Moreover, while the forthcoming Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill has been amended to exclude religious bodies, there are nevertheless voices that would like to see religious groups forced to comply with what is seen as gender equality.

These are real issues and they will not ultimately be solved simply by appealing to a supposedly neutral public sphere, for it is precisely the values of that public sphere that are being contested. This is not to suggest a retreat into theocracy, but rather that we should critically examine where the values of the public sphere are coming from and what they are informed and nourished by. Neither secular nor biblical fundamentalism is particularly helpful here – and the former can be just as fundamentalist as the latter. But what is notably absent – at least as far as I can hear – is a robust articulation of the Christian vision of the human person in the South African public discourse.

Of course it’s understandable, given our history, that South Africans should be wary of the role of religion in the public sphere. Too often, Christianity has come to be identified with a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity in which human potential is stunted out of deference to an arbitrary and vengeful God. And yet, ousting and controlling God does not so much mean freeing human beings as redefining and reducing them. For what is at stake is not so much God as humanity – what it means to be human. For ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, to quote the words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive. And the life of a human being is the vision of God.”


Some brief and probably disjointed appendices:

1. I’m not the only one who has noted the lack of any local forum for discussing issues of religious or theological concern in a serious way, and now Ryan Peter has come with a new initiative which looks promising. Do go and look at The Christian Blogger, which he is in the process of setting up.

2. Very close to the surface of any discussion on religion and public life are questions of sexuality. I’d better not start on this now as it probably requires a separate post – if not several books – and I sort of wish someone else would write it. But there are important questions that need to be probed, especially on the contrast between how such discussions play out in our context with how they played out in the early Church. (Of course, there are other issues too – individual autonomy, economics, etc. – but they too will have to wait).

3. I’ve recently started listening to the podcast series Paradise and Utopia by Father John Strickland on the rise and fall of Christendom – and on how the faith of the early Church influenced the society around it. It raises issues that are not unrelated to this post and which I may say more on again.

I don’t have definite answers to those questions, although I hope the answer is no (except, possibly, to the last one). I have been aware in recent months that various bloggers, or former bloggers, or sleeping, or semi-sleeping bloggers, have been making noises on Facebook about regretting the demise of blogging, and the fact that we are poorer for this, and hoping to return to it. People posted links to some pretty good analysis on the superiority of blogging over Facebook, but because of the transitory and inferior nature of Facebook I have lost the reference to it. It was a theme that resonated with me, having only recently tentatively ventured into Facebook, and it made me aware that I have at times found blogging a valuable spiritual discipline, as well as valuing the contacts that it brought, and that I missed it.

However, while I have rejoiced in the (former) bloggers who have been making noises about getting back to blogging, and wished that I could join them, the reality is probably not so simple. My posts on St Irenaeus have ground to a halt it and it is probably unrealistic to expect that I will pick up any sustained blogging for a while. And that does have to do with the situation in my life at present which I hope will not last forever.

In December I wrote about moving to Robertson and developing Life Giving Spring as a place of prayer and retreat. That has been a great blessing, but it has also happened rather slowly and demanded quite a lot of energy. Plus I have been involved in producing a weekly bulletin for our Archbishopric that is actually rather time-consuming (it can be seen here if anyone is interested). I have also discovered that I really do not cope very well with living in two places at once, and have been frustrated that I am simply not at Robertson enough and that I really need a more regular life!

I have been employed on a two-year contract that ends in October, and my employers had been talking about creating a new post for me to set up a small-scale conservation studio which could have included the possibility of working part-time. At one point I thought that this could have been ideal, but I began to increasingly feel that I needed to be in Robertson full-time. I had also begun to get a lot of inquiries for private bookbinding work (to the extent that I have recently put up a note on my bookbinding site saying that I have a long waiting list) and it seemed likely that I would be able to support myself in that way. However, the thought of turning down a permanent post for the insecurity of being self-employed (and I’m not really sure that I’m the entrepreneurial type!) was rather frightening.

And then the decision was taken out of my hands when I heard a month or two ago that my employers are not going to be in a position to offer me a post when my contract expires. My reaction was one of real gratitude as it just made me aware that that was really not what I wanted. And my whole experience since coming back to South Africa is one of God opening (and perhaps shutting) doors in a most remarkable and providential way. So, while I’m aware that there are quite a lot of hurdles to be jumped through and challenges to be met, I am really very gratified and excited by the developments.  I long for “a dwelling in one place,” as St Nil Sorsky puts it, and for the context to do what it seems I am called to do.

So, to get back to blogging, it is unlikely that I will do much regular blogging until things get more settled sometime after November. I have been taking on more private binding work as I do need to built that up, and between that, Church related things and my job, I don’t have time or energy for much serious reading, writing and reflection. But at least I know that it won’t last forever. And one of the things that I need to think through is what form of online presence I might develop in the future. Blogging can go in various directions, and be directed at various audiences. This blog started simply as a way of processing my own reading. It has also occasionally allowed me to think through things and process ideas. Both of those are valuable and in many ways I’d like to continue them. But I also find myself in a rather different situation to when I began this blog, and part of that is being an Orthodox presence in an overwhelmingly non-Orthodox context, and being part of a wonderful but rather fragile Church community. And I find myself wondering how we can use the internet to both reach out to others and to form and nurture the local community of believers. This are questions that are still floating around in my head, and I won’t be able to do much about them for a while, but they are perhaps worth mentioning.

In any case, this is probably just to say that this blog is probably sleeping, although it may occasionally stir, for the next few months.

I have recently thought of writing a post about the whole phenomenon of blogging, and of social media more generally. This isn’t that post, which may or may not get written. It is no secret that I have been neglecting this blog – largely because I simply am too busy, but also because I’m a little unclear what direction it should take and am aware that it could fulfill different functions if I had the time. I generally have all sorts of ideas about things to write on, but turning that into reality isn’t so simple. However, one fairly important purpose of the blog has been that it has at times helped me to process or simply to record what I read, and I have found this a valuable aid in promoting a certain discipline and seriousness in reading, even if I do have a tendency to go into too much detail and then become overwhelmed at the thought of trying to summarise something.

There is no way that I am going to be able to produce long summaries of serious works in the near future. However, I have been concerned recently that my reading has become scattered and have realised that I need to focus on something short and manageable and that regular blogging can be a valuable aid to this – and I hope that those do not become my famous last words!

Saint Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching recently arrived in the post (Father John Behr’s translation published in the Popular Patristics Series). Some years ago I had read through this with a group I was teaching in the monastery and was surprised at how well we all resonated with it. I have since thought that it would be good to return to it, and also that it could form a helpful basis for introducing people both to the faith of the Church and to an Orthodox understanding of Scripture. Whether anything comes of that remains to be seen, but I have decided to read through it slowly during what remains of Lent (although it will probably take longer than that) and to try and write regular short posts on it.

This does not purport to be a scholarly reading (and I am writing this in Cape Town while all my patristics books, such as they are, are in Robertson, so I can’t even look things up). But for anyone interested who doesn’t know anything about Saint Irenaeus, he was bishop of Lyon in the last quarter of second century. He was originally from Smyrna and had known Saint Polycarp, who had known Saint John the Apostle. This link to the apostles was very important to him and, in his major contribution in countering the heresy of Gnosticism, he was to appeal to the Rule of Faith that is passed on in the visible Church, and made a major contribution in clarifying the basis of the Church’s faith. (I have touched on this here, here and here).

In this book, which was lost until the beginning of the twentieth century, Irenaeus sets out the content of the Rule of Faith that he had received from the apostles.