Orthodox Spirituality


Having noted the importance of context and the meaning of words in his preface to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality, Father Alexander Golubov turns his attention to the confusion around the word “spirituality” in the contemporary West. Quoting Paul Evdokimov, he notes that:

the word “spirituality” has nowadays acquired an almost faddish quality. It is glibly used in many different, almost contradictory, contexts to point to, or describe, certain aspects or modes of human “being,” as represented by beliefs and practices that are deemed to be of a “spiritual” nature, but which most often do not easily fall into the comfortable frameworks either of so-called “institutional religion” (as elements, properly, of religious belief or religious doctrine), or, alternatively, of an essentially secular-humanist, rational and empirical mindset that tends to negate religiosity on principle, as something vaguely old-fashioned and retrograde, thus inappropriate for modern public consumption, and tends to see the primary locus of spirituality as being somehow situated apart from, or in opposition to, religion. (Kindle Location 99)

Nevertheless, spirituality can include a curiosity about Christian and non-Christian ascetical and mystical traditions. This includes:

expressions of Orthodox culture as seen through the prisms of Orthodox liturgy, architecture, iconography or literature (i.e., the “writings of the fathers”) all of these, indeed, can easily fall into loosely construed denotative and connotative categories of this fuzzy and slippery word. (Kindle Location 109)

Given this, it is hardly surprising that some Orthodox theologians should be wary of the word “spirituality.” Golubov highlights the concerns of Father Stanley Harakas and Giorgios Mantzarides who reject the use of the word in an Orthodox context. Harakas argues that, in contrast to terms such as “spiritual life,” it has a “reified, objectified and ‘substance-like’ connotation” that he sees as related to western ideas about grace. He writes:

The parallel between ‘spirituality’ and grace understood as ‘created,’ an objective substance which is ‘conveyed’ by the sacraments, is too obvious to need documenting. It is no accident that a theological milieu accustomed to the understanding of divine grace as a created substance which was capable of being dispensed or withheld by the official Church, could in a quite analogous way, create the term ‘spirituality’ and live comfortably with it. (Kindle Location 120)

Mantzarides likewise argues that the term “spirituality” is unknown in the biblical and patristic tradition and derives from Western theology, contrasting the religious life of the faithful to that of the world, and being in danger of reducing Christianity to an ideology. He writes:

Spirituality is an abstract concept which has no place in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Spirituality is the mother of materialism, together with whatever distorts and dissolves the universality of the truth of Christianity. Therefore, the concept of ‘Orthodox spirituality’ must be abandoned. (Kindle Location 130)

While both Harakas and Mantzarides make claims that could be challenged, it nevertheless seems clear to me that much of the language of “spirituality” emerged out of a western Christian context that had lost the earlier unity between theology and a lived life of faith. And it is this unity that persists in an Orthodox understanding and that should make us cautious about adopting words that have a particular history. However, as Golubov notes, this concern is not unique to Orthodox Christians but has also been discussed among western scholars.

To be continued…

Advertisements

I have recently started reading Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality and it seems that it could be a book worth blogging on. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I do intend to resume blogging on Father Georges Florovsky. However, my copy of Bible, Church, Tradition has been in a box in Cape Town for the last few months (although it is now on its way here), while I have Orthodox Spirituality on my Kindle. Whether I do blog through the rest of this book remains to be seen (and for those who are interested Emma Cazabonne has reviewed it here).

However, it occurs to me that the foreword by Father Alexander Golubov addresses a topic that I have long been interested in, and that I have sometimes alluded to on this blog, namely, “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective.” “Spirituality” is a word that has become popular in many Christian and academic circles – in stark contrast to the suspicion with which it was viewed in my undergraduate days thirty-odd years ago. Yet in the meantime, I, who once devoured books on the “mystics” and persuaded my lecturers to allow me to shape courses around them, have become decidedly wary of it (and of its cousin “mysticism”).  But it is not that easy to articulate this wariness, or at least I have not yet got down to doing so. And, frankly, I sometimes wonder if I am just being impossibly pedantic objecting to it at all.

It was therefore rather a relief to realise that the publishers of a book with such a title considered that there was at least a question to be addressed, and Father Golubov’s essay resonated with me at several points. It therefore seems worth noting some of them.

The first point that Golubov makes is the relationship between the context in which theological language operates and the broader frame of reference in which it is heard. Christian truth is not meant to be preserved in some cultural ghetto, but preached to the whole world. The context in which Orthodox Spirituality was written was that of the confessing Orthodox Church in twentieth century Romania in which

the authentic ‘Orthodox spirituality’ of the Church, in a very real sense, stood in understated opposition to an all-encompassing pressure of a patently ‘false spirituality’ propagated by the social and religious doctrine of Marxist scientific atheism, a battle standard, as it were, that permitted not only resistance and survival in a hostile environment, but also inspired the inners struggle for victory. (Kindle Location 53)

Golubov argues that contemporary Western culture has much in common with this hostile environment. He quotes Father Georges Florovsky who writes:

It is precisely because we are already engaged in the apocalyptic struggle that we are called upon to do work as theologians. Our task is to oppose the atheistic and anti-God attitude, which surrounds us like a viscosity, with a responsible and conscious profession of Christian truth… Unbelieving knowledge of Christianity is not objective knowledge, but rather some kind of anti-theology. There is in it so much passion, at times blind, often obscure and malignant… Here again, theology is called not only to judge, but also to heal. It is necessary to enter into this world of doubt, illusion and lies, in order to answer doubt as well as reproach. But we must enter into this world with the sign of the Cross in our heart and the name of Jesus in our spirit, because this is a world of mystical wanderings, where everything is fragmentalized, decomposed and refracted as it were through a set of mirrors. (Kindle Location 72)

While Orthodoxy and the West share a common history, as Orthodox theology once more engages in a Western context, it faces the challenge of finding a comprehensible language in which to be faithful to the patristic tradition.

Here, too, spirituality as a concept acquires layers of meaning and significance not simply as descriptive terminology applied to the topography of Christian life, or as designating a particular field of academic inquiry and a formative goal of the seminary curriculum, but also as a significant commonality bridging the cultural fissure between Christian East and Christian West. (Kindle Location 79)

To be continued…