This is once more late, but having summarised Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective” (the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality  – the previous posts can be found here, here, here, and here), I want to return to this and say something more specific about the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality” and the challenges that it poses to anyone who desires to be faithful to the historic Christian tradition.

As already noted, the word “spirituality” is used to mean almost anything today, and has a spectrum of meanings even when used in a consciously Christian context. It also seems clear to me that the most fundamental problem with much of the language of spirituality is related to its lack of theological grounding or, in some cases, with its deployment in theological projects that are decidedly at odds with Christian tradition.

This was illustrated for me a couple of months ago with the release of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. Now, I had been vaguely aware of Rohr for some time and the popular quotes of his that I had seen seemed to exemplify some of my concerns about the “spirituality” scene – one-liners that sound so appealing, but which I suspected were nevertheless part of a broader agenda. My suspicious were confirmed by this article, but I didn’t think much more about him until Amazon tried to sell me his Divine Dance. I wasn’t going to spend money on it, but I did wonder whether I was writing him off unfairly so listened to some of his YouTube talks, which further confirmed my suspicions. He may be a pleasant person and even have helpful insights, but his talks were full of caricature, half-truths, and the downright peddling of ignorance, which made me wonder how anyone could take him seriously.

I was therefore pleased to come across Fred Sanders’ critical review, Why I Don’t Flow with Richard Rohr. Apart from the obvious factual inaccuracies in the book (not only in terms of the misuse of the word “perichoresis” but also in terms of absurd made-up stories about mirrors), Sanders draws attention to Rohr’s fundamental misuse of the Cappadocian Fathers in his own attempts to undermine the distinction between God and creation. Sanders concludes:

And my long—forgive me—review has one main point: it’s that The Divine Dance isn’t about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a book about an alternative spirituality of Flow, committed to a metaphysic that refuses to recognize a distinction between God and the world. It’s one long looting of the language of Trinitarian theology, with an avowed goal of using that language to teach an entirely novel doctrine. I would oppose the doctrine of Divine Flow in any context where it came to my attention. But for this doctrine to be marketed as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is insupportable. This sustained misrepresentation is what makes this book a piece of false teaching in the church.

It is precisely this creeping monism that most concerns me about the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality,” but I will hopefully return to that again. What I want to note now is the response of Rohr’s co-author, Mike Morrell, to Sander’s review. Instead of engaging with any of Sanders’ substantive points, Morrell basically rants. But, in doing so, his basic argument is that his and Rohr’s is a different approach that is just as legitimate, and claims that theirs is “an apophatic, social, process-oriented Franciscan approach,” while Sanders’ is “a kataphatic, hierarchical, substance-oriented Calvinist approach.” Quite apart from his misunderstanding of these terms, or the suggestion that this is a Calvinist issue (!), his basic argument is that what he and Rohr are doing is what “mystics” do, and so he appeals to another kind of experiential and mystical knowledge that would somehow excuse him from answering Sanders’ substantive points.

It seems to me that this is the core of the problem, namely, that the language of “spirituality” and “mysticism” is currently being used on a large scale to undermine historical Christian faith. And when people object to it, they are simply countered by an appeal to a different type of knowledge or, if they don’t know better, by the misquoting of Church Fathers or “mystics” to justify such positions. Now, there is a grain of truth in all this as there is such a thing as “mystical knowledge” in Christian tradition, which is perhaps something to explore in a future blog post. But it is certainly not what is being presented by Morrell and his self-identified “mystics.”

Of course, all of this also leaves us with the question: Does it matter? And is monism really such a bad thing? I hesitate to promise future blog posts given my terrible recent record, but that is what I would like to explore next.

In the last two blog posts I presented Father Georges Florovsky’s essay “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which forms the first chapter to Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View.* Before proceeding to the rest of the book, I want to briefly note some points for ongoing reflection and possible discussion in this post. (I am aware that I am rather theologically out of touch, and seem to have difficulty remembering the details of historical topics I once did know something about, and am sort of thinking aloud here, so if others want to pitch in, please feel free…)

Florovsky’s Context and Ours
Reading this essay, and noting that it was published in The Christian Century in 1951, I could not help but be struck by the context in which Father Florovsky was writing. As Daniel Greeson noted in a comment here,

What is interesting to think about is the intellectual milieu in which Florovsky was moving in at the time. He would have recently moved to NYC and been moving around in the same hallways as Niebuhr and Tillich. Demythologizing would have been at its height if I am not mistaken? Publishing this in the Christian Century at that time, mighty interesting.

Add to this his involvement in the ecumenical movement and the founding of the World Council of Churches,** and we see an Orthodox theologian who was in touch with the modern western theological world. This was in keeping with his oft-quoted statement:

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world—a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church—and resolve the question with his historical findings.

Reading this essay, I was struck by how Florovsky was responding to a fundamentally Protestant context that was dominated by liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, with what he saw as their respective temptations to Nestorianism and Monophysitism. And, as Dan notes in his comment, “the resonances feel different to me now.” While I agree, I am not sure how to accurately categorize current theological contexts, not only because I am out of touch, but also because they have become more diverse – and the context in which I find myself is rather different from that of many readers of this blog. However, I would tend to see liberal Protestantism as having morphed, together with some other influences, into various theologies of liberation, as well as having re-emerged, together with other influences, in some emphases on spirituality. And I wonder if its major temptation today is not to a form of monism? (As for neo-orthodoxy, I’m not really sure what’s become of it. I’m tempted to say that the “monophysite” temptation is now represented by the resurgence of Calvinism, but I’m also aware that the two cannot be identified).

However, messy as this may be, when I look around me at Christians in South Africa, I do see something that seems to line up with Father Florovsky’s two alternatives. On the one hand, there is an emphasis on “inclusiveness,” a wariness of dogma and of drawing barriers, and the desire for a “human redeemer.” And, on the other hand, there are various forms of fundamentalism and/or Calvinism (and, to give them their due, it is the Calvinists who seem to be the most intellectually serious) with their anthropological pessimism that reduce humanity to “complete passivity.”

A Renewal in Ecclesiology?
This is something that Father Florovsky only touches on in this essay, but he seemed to put some hope in a rediscovery of the Church among western Christians. Again, this reflects the context of his involvement in the WCC, and also the renewal in ecclesiology among both Protestants and Catholics in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet I am inclined to think that the results of this renewal have been rather disappointing and am not sure what is really left of it. Certainly, the trend in the WCC to becoming a parachurch movement rather than seeking the visible unity of its various members, together with the various roadblocks that bilateral ecumenical dialogues have faced, makes his optimism about it seem a little naïve. However, that does not detract from his conviction that:

“In a time such as this” one has to preach “the whole Christ,” Christ and the church – totus Christus, caput et corpus, to use the famous phrase of St. Augustine. Possibly this preaching is still unusual, but it seems to be the only way to preach the Word of God efficiently in a period of gloom and despair like ours. (16)

Does Dogma Matter?
Shining through this chapter is Father Florovsky’s conviction that it is nothing less than the historical faith of the Church that can save his – and our – era. Yet, as noted above, one of the key features of one strand of contemporary Christianity is precisely its aversion to dogma, which it perceives as oppressive and excluding. This is a topic that I have considered writing on before, but I have hesitated for I suspect that the reasons for this are complex and wide-reaching. Nevertheless, it is a question that accompanies me as I read this work, for I am convinced that one of the key challenges in “bearing witness” is to enable our contemporaries to see the truly life-giving nature of Christian dogma. And I hope that Father Florovsky’s works will help us to see that better.


* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through the Collected Works of Father Georges Florovsky, 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.

** See here and here for more background on Father Florovsky’s role in the ecumenical movement.

This is another essay that I wrote a few years ago, shortly before I became Orthodox, and never got to publishing. I thought that it may be worth publishing it here as it relates to things that I also keep coming across here and so have expanded and updated it slightly in the hope that it may be helpful.  Of course, there is more that can be said on related matters if I ever get to it…

A few years ago, while I was still in the Netherlands, I became aware of a certain media interest in monasticism. Despite their declining numbers and the secularization of society, monasteries continued to fascinate people and had even become rather fashionable destinations for those in search of some sort of inner peace.

What struck me then about this phenomenon was that it was fundamentally redefining monasticism. I read an article that managed to explain the meaning of monasticism for a broad public without once mentioning God or Christ. Instead, it told us that monastics withdraw from society in order to search for silence, for the heart of their life is concerned with what happens in this silence.

That silence is important for the monastic life is indisputable. But for a concept such as “silence” to come to define monasticism, even to the point of replacing any reference to God, is at the very least rather problematic. For Saint Benedict, the necessary condition for becoming a monk was that one truly sought God. Silence can be an important means by which we seek God, but we also need to ask ourselves what silence means. Is silence something neutral? How and with what is silence filled? What is the relationship between word and silence? Is the silence of a Christian monastery different to that of a Buddhist monastery? And what is it that actually happens in the silence?

Since coming back to South Africa, I have become aware that there is a similar dynamic at work among many people who are seeking after “spirituality” – something that I keep hoping to write more about. All too often I have seen references to retreats, courses, groups, and “inspirational” quotes (I could name names but I won’t) that originate in a Christian context but would seem to replace any specifically Christian content with a reference to silence, or solitude, or the absolute. An experience of this silence is what we are told that we need to seek, often by contrasting it to dogma which is invariably viewed in negative terms. But, once more, what is this silence? What is its relationship to Christian tradition and to dogma? (more…)

Father Gabriel (Bunge)’s points about spirituality in my second last post highlight a theme that I have been very conscious of in recent months, namely the widespread contemporary interest in “spirituality” but also the vagueness and ambiguity of this concept. I had been aware of a growing interest in “spirituality” and “mysticism” in the Netherlands and had had problems with it. And I had been aware that similar trends were at work elsewhere in the West, including in South Africa. But coming back here I have encountered this in a particularly marked way which has sometimes left me wondering how to respond. Whereas interest in “spirituality” tended to be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion twenty-five years ago as detracting people from the earthly struggle, it now seems to be all the rage. And whereas I had been eagerly looking for more resources in “spirituality” – albeit an engaged one – twenty-five years ago, I have now become decidedly hesitant, if not rather hostile, towards much that passes for this genre. And yet I do rather wonder how to respond to people engaged with it. I do not want to discourage people who are actively seeking a life of prayer, and a way of uniting faith and life. But the underlying assumptions of what is often presented as “spirituality” are often, well, decidedly problematic.

This was highlighted for me by a recent interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio. He is (or was) a leading South African theologian, a Methodist, who has worked in a liberationist mode and is now arguing for the importance of “spirituality.” He states:

For me, spirituality has to do with having an openness towards life and towards truth. It means wanting to move beyond any closed ideological, dogmatic system. It also means a willingness—and, in fact, a desire—to discover what lies beyond the material. I’ve often said to myself that the question of God and the question of the divine are more important than the answers. It’s a very, very arrogant thing to begin to describe who God is or what the divine is. Yet these questions range from the relationship between religion and the sciences to ethical inquiry, and certainly to political justice, reconciliation, and coexistence. In that sense I regard myself as a very spiritual person. But I find myself resisting institutional forms of religion that try to impose upon me and everyone else a definition of the divine. It’s openness that I think is really important.

I am highlighting this not to attack Villa-Vicencio or to engage in polemics about liberal Protestantism or liberation theology – and conservative Catholics and Orthodox finding common ground in demonizing such people is another one of the things that I find quite distasteful about some online interactions. I have never met Villa-Vicencio, but I do know several people with a similar background to his who would espouse similar sentiments. These are well meaning, good people who sincerely believe in what they are doing and who often display real Christian concerns, often at great personal cost. In fact, his comments in this interview struck me precisely because they made concrete the sort of attitudes that I often encounter and which I nevertheless find it difficult to pin down so that I sometimes wonder if I’m imagining things.

There are of course a cluster of ideas associated with such developments which I suspect have deeper roots in the development of western theology. Thus we find a reaction to “institutional religion” which points to a total loss of consciousness of the Mystery of the Church which is reduced to simply being an institution. (In fairness to Protestants, I have also found this attitude among Catholics and suspect that it is rooted in the transformation of western understandings of the Church in the second millennium). And, allied to this, we find a rejection of dogma in favour of “openness” and a refusal to draw boundaries (something that I hope to return to again). At which point I suppose that one does have to start asking whether this whole phenomenon can really be considered Christian.

However, what has sometimes struck me in such discussions is the appeal that some make to apophatic theology that is reflected in Villa-Vicencio’s comment about theological arrogance. I remember being in a WCC meeting where Protestant theologians responded to Orthodox concerns about their use of gender-inclusive language for God on the basis that “we cannot know what God is.” At a superficial level apophaticism can simply lead to a speculative nihilism or to an “anything goes” approach, and Villa-Vicencio is certainly not the first whom I have heard invoking it in such a way as to lead to outright relativism. But such an appeal to “the apophatic tradition” is all-too-often unaware of the dogmatic rootedness of this “tradition.”

I was struck by this while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s introduction to the Selected Writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor. For Maximus, as I dare say for other Fathers, our supreme ignorance of God is combined with a comprehensive knowledge of Him which is made possible through the Incarnation of Christ.

“Who knows,” Maximus asked, “how God is made flesh and yet remains God?” And he answered his own question: “This only faith understands, adoring the Logos in silence.” It was, then, a genuine understanding, but one that appropriately expressed itself “in silence” rather than in words. Not even the words of the orthodox dogma, for which Maximus contended and suffered all his life, could adequately encompass the mystery of faith. “Theological mystagogy” transcended the dogmas formulated by the councils of the Church. A spirituality shaped by Orthodox apophaticism, therefore, was one that gratefully acknowledged those dogmas and was ready to defend them to the death against those who sought to distort them, but that, at the same time, willingly – in fact, worshipfully – acknowledged the limitations that had been placed on all knowledge and all affirmation, be it human or angelic. (9)

In Orthodox theology, apophaticism cannot be separated either from dogma or from worship which are so closely intertwined as to form one whole. I once commented on the irony that it is those traditions, whether liturgical, iconographic or theological, that pay most attention to correct detail, that are best  able to lead us beyond the limitations of human expression.

Indeed, it is the uniting of the polarity between knowing and unknowing that is the heart of faith, and those who insist on the limitation of human language to speak of God, are the first to lay down their lives to defend its expressions. For faith has a name, and a concrete history. It is the revelation of God in Christ and His continued presence in His Body the Church.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues the ninth chapter of The Compassion of the Fatherby pointing to the subtle dialectic between the direct action of the Holy Spirit and listening to our fathers in the faith. We see this in the experience of Saint Paul.

Following his “enlightenment” on the road to Damascus, and after spending three years in Arabia – a stay of which we know nothing – St Paul wanted to return to Jerusalem to meet James and Kephas (Peter), the pillars of the Church at that time. This intervention is very interesting because it reveals that, from the beginning of the Church, two basic moments co-existed: on the one hand, the direct illumination of the road to Damascus where St Paul met the living Christ and was taught by the Spirit; on the other hand, the concern to verify his teaching, his knowledge, his preaching, and his language with the apostles, with the Church.

In this way, the Church lives in the permanent breath and the permanent fire of the Pentecost of the Holy Spirit. If this fire does not set us aglow, then all the truths of the Tradition would forever remain as dead, alien externals to us.

In the Christian faith, we should never omit any dimension of the spiritual begetting, whatever the relays of transmission may be: the “father,” the “charismatics,” those who are “filled with the Holy Spirit.” For we have only one Lord: Jesus Christ; one Master: the Holy Spirit; and one Father: our heavenly Father. The more we mature in the faith, the more the apostolic and ecclesial Tradition becomes our own. Then the gospel is accomplished, when Jesus tells His disciples: “I no longer call you servants; … Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). (162-3)

Thus the Tradition is not simply the transmission of the living faith, but is also the content of faith. It has an objectivity that parallels our own subjective faith.

Objective faith is basically the mystery of Christ, the revelation of this mystery in Jesus, transmitted by the apostles and evangelists: the announcement of the good news. This is what St Irenaeus calls “the deposit of the transmitted faith,” which has remained unchanged over the centuries. This deposit crystallizes in ecclesial doctrine, a doctrine which we have a tendency to call “orthodoxy” and which cannot be separated from worship, prayer, and adoration. Two dimensions are included in the word “orthodoxy”: doxa not only means thought, prayer, and opinion, but also glory and praise. Consequently, only to the extent that our praise is true does doctrine emerge from inside the language of Christian worship.

We can go even further: doxa is not only the glory given to God, but also the glory of God. Thus “orthodoxy” is above all the glory of God who communicates Himself to us in the life of the Church, that is, the living experience of God, crystallized at the same time in the language of worship and in theological thought.

Theology acquires a genuine objectivity in the dogmas, the definitions of the councils, the teaching of the magisterium, and the authority of the Church. That is very important, for it is there that we touch upon the basic mystery of the Church where the Body resembles the Head, Christ being the Head. The entire Church is divine-human or “theanthropical.” In other words, everything in the life of the Church is divine-human: worship, the sacraments, the icon, and theological language, taking into account our approximations. From this point of view, the doctrine of the faith acquires a genuine objectivity; the human word becomes capax Dei (“capable of God”), that is, capable of transmitting, carrying, and singing (rather than reciting) the truth of God, His mystery. (163-4)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues this eighth chapter of The Compassion of the Father on theology and language by showing the shift that occurs in the language used for God between the Old and the New Testaments. Whereas the Old Testament had used human attributes as a way of apprehending the mystery of God,

the coming of Christ overturns all these evaluations. The Old Testament spoke of God “wearing the light as a robe” (Ps 104:2), but the New Testament speaks about God who is light. Whereas the Old Testament spoke of the paternal tenderness of God in the image of human tenderness – “As tenderly as a father treats His children, so Yahweh treats those who fear Him.” (Ps 103:13) – the divine fatherhood of God in the New Covenant becomes primary, and human fatherhood derives from it. (136)

While this reversal does not belittle the biblical anthropomorphic language, it shows that the heart of the theology of language is the divine humanity of Christ. This divine humanity is continued in the Church as the Body of Christ, and especially in the sacramental understanding of the Church.

The concept of “sacraments” surpasses the framework of seven sacraments established wrongly in the Middle Ages. In the third century, Origen envisioned two sacraments: baptism and the Word of God. I would add the icon as well (both as a sacrament and having therefore a sacramental function). The Word of God, read, commented on, meditated and preached in the Church has a sacramental function and an important liturgical and doxological character. (136-137)

Father Boris then proceeds to distinguish between the Word of God, the word to God and the words about God that he had discussed in the previous chapter. However, there is a link between these words, and we see that

certain formularies of conciliar decrees concerning the Trinitarian or Christological mystery are found literally in the liturgical praise … If praise and liturgical prayer are pre-eminently theological, theology is doxological, meaning it derives from praise and communion. Fr Sergius Bulgakov maintained that he had taken his entire theological vision from the bottom of the eucharistic chalice. Fr Cyprian Kern said that singing in the choir was the best school of theology. (137)

In our own day there is a widely held view that belief in religious dogmas is not obligatory: even if they still have a certain historical value, they are no longer vital for Christians. Moral and social agendas have become the main preoccupation of many Christian communities, while theological issues are often neglected. This dissociation between dogma and way of life, however, contradicts the very nature of the religious life, which presupposes that faith should always be confirmed by deeds, and vice versa. Thus, in the Epistle of James we find: ‘Faith apart from works is dead’ (Jas. 2:26). St Paul, on the other hand, claims that ‘a man is justified by faith apart from works of law’ (Rom. 3:28). The ‘works of law’ here means the Old Testament rites and sacrifices which are no longer necessary after Christ’s saving sacrifice. Good deeds are necessary and essential, yet when separated from faith they do not in themselves lead to salvation. We are justified by faith, but only by a faith which informs the way we live.

No less alien to Christianity is the dissociation of dogma from mysticism, or of theology from the spiritual life. There is an essential interdependence between dogma and mysticism: both lead to knowledge of the truth, but in different ways. ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’, says the Lord, who himself is the only Truth, Way and Life (John 8:32; 14:6). Every dogma reveals truth, opens up the way and communicates life, while each heresy puts us at a distance from truth, closes off the way to salvation and renders us spiritually dead. The struggle for dogma which the Church has conducted throughout her history is, as Vladimir Lossky demonstrates, a fight for our being to be brought into the true Life, for our union with God and deification…

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. (London, DLT, 2002) xiii-xiv.