East / West

This blog series has been sadly disrupted. This post concludes my summary of Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective” that forms the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. My previous posts can be found here, here, and here. In the following post I hope to reflect on concerns raised in this essay against the background of recent events.

The previous post noted the weaknesses of descriptive and stand-alone approaches to Christian spirituality, particularly regarding their lack of theological and anthropological grounding. Father Golubov continues by arguing that “outside a proper theological understanding and grounding of its goals and purposes, Christian spirituality loses authenticity.” (Kindle Location 250) In response to this, he outlines some theological foundations for an authentically Orthodox Christian spirituality. These are:

a) There is a relationship between God and humanity that is rooted in “the one God, ‘the Ground of all Being,’ glorified and worshipped in the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the Divine Author of, and Provider for, all human life” and the “Supreme Lawgiver.” (Kindle Location 269)

b) Every human person is created in the Image of God and therefore has the possibility of a direct and personal relationship with God.

c) Every human person is created autonomous and free and is intended to acquire the Divine Likeness, which is our primary spiritual vocation but is dependent on our free choice.

d) God’s Divine philanthropia desires the welfare and salvation of all human beings, but always respects our human freedom.

e) The human race has been unable to live out human life according to the Divine purpose but has “through defiance and disobedience wilfully altered human nature as originally created, entering instead, into a fallen state of disintegration, corruption, and bondage to sin, being ‘wedded unto death.’” (Kindle Location 287)

f) Despite the present fallen state of human nature, human life remains a “a lived-out response to the creative Divine fiat (‘let it be’) which originally called man out of non-being into being; but it is only in rising to conscious awareness that the transcendent purpose and goal of life is to be found in God that human experience, sua generis, becomes the type of authentic ‘spiritual experience’ through which man arrives at profound understanding not only of the depths of human imperfection and brokenness, but also an abiding need for effectual deliverance and redemption.” (Kindle Location 295)

g) Since the fall, human nature has become corrupted and human beings are incapable of extricating themselves from their fallen state. They are therefore in need of divine forgiveness and reconciliation “through a healing reintegration of their relationship with God and with each other.” (Kindle Location 295)

h) God “so loved the world” that “in the fullness of time” He sent the Incarnate God-Man who, through His obedience and death, becomes the only Redeemer and Saviour of humankind, calling all to repentance and opening the way to the “re-perfecting” of human nature.

i) The human yearning for salvation responds to the Divine kenosis that flows from the Divine philanthropia and focuses on the Person of Jesus Christ. “It is from here, in one’s personal recognition of Christ as the unique Saviour and Redeemer of the world, that faith, indeed, becomes possible, and that an intentional and inspired Christian spirituality becomes a purposeful and integrative inner journey to the ultimate healing of the ‘old’ and ‘fallen’ human nature, through perfect union with the ‘resurrected,’ hence ‘re-imaged’ and ‘glorified,’ divinely-human (theanthropic, bogochelovecheskaia) nature of Christ.” (Kindle Location 311)

Father Golubov argues that it is precisely this theological challenge and promise that constitutes both the point of departure and the objective goal of authentic “Orthodox spirituality.” This is neither a theological abstraction of Christian doctrine, nor a “reification of Christian living and practice,” but is rather a “theologically informed discipline of living.” (Kindle Location 319) While it can be taught, such teaching and learning is not yet the fullness of celebration. In conclusion,

Understood symbolically, Orthodox spirituality is experienced sub specie aeternitatis (“from the perspective of eternity”) and lived out holistically, with inherent purpose and meaning, as a symbolic journey, or spiritual quest, in accordance with the commandments of the Gospel, through personal appropriation of the living and authentic experience of the ecclesial community (“Holy Tradition”), leading to the ultimate reality of deification (theosis) and Life Everlasting in the Eternal Kingdom of which Christ Himself is both Lord and King. (Kindle Location 331)

I haven’t abandoned this series, and will hopefully conclude the summary of this article in the following post. I do intend to engage with it more as I am noticing all sorts of resonances. Once I’ve finished this article, I will return to the Florovsky blogging, and possibly return to the rest of this book at a later stage…

Having noted some Orthodox objections to the term “spirituality,” Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective”* proceeds to consider western discussions of the term that emerged in the 1960s. He notes the work of Walter Principe and Ewert Cousins, before focusing on the contribution of Sandra Schneiders, which, he argues,

comes closest to Orthodox understanding – at least on the basis of ‘practical’ or ‘applied’ theology – and is useful to us precisely as a sounding board, as it were, for testing aspects of Christian spirituality understood specifically from the Orthodox perspective. (Kindle Location 190)

Schneiders summarizes Christian spirituality as:

personal participation in the mystery of Christ begun in faith, sealed by baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nourished by the sharing of the Lord’s Supper [i.e., Eucharist], which the community celebrated regularly in memory of Him who was truly present wherever his followers gathered, and was expressed by a simple life of universal love that bore witness to life in the Spirit and attracted others to the faith. (201)

While it would appear that all the essentials are in place in this understanding, Father Golubov raises “a third major issue in a focused study of spirituality,” namely, that of “the theological context of the discussion, as well as the dangers of facile formulaic definitions taken out of such context.” (201) Spirituality is both formed and informed by theology, which raises the question of the theological meaning of Schneiders’ description. While she gives adequate explanations elsewhere, “in contexts wherein definitions of spirituality, such as the one given above, stand on their own merit, absent a larger framework of discussion, inevitable confusion arises about implicit theological assumptions standing behind such definitions.” (211)

This leads Golubov to argue that “The stark realization, ultimately, is that an externally descriptive approach to Christian spirituality is, at best, meaningless, absent the dimensions of theological definition and evaluation, appropriation and understanding of inner goals and purposes.” (211) Such a definition provides no clear answers to the question of Jesus Christ’s identity, nor does it clarify what “participation in the mystery of Christ” involves. Moreover, such a descriptive approach also lacks an understanding of human nature and the need for a transformational inner struggle.

Is spiritual metamorphosis, or transfiguration, a noteworthy component of Christian spirituality? Or is it that “a simple life of universal love” is somehow (how – magically?) to be attained without need for any internal striving or struggle (askesis) implicit in Christian living, without the necessity of self-denial and crucifixion of the self, as implicit in the injunction “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:23-25; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-26)? And is there, in fact, in “coming after,” or “following” Christ, a “way” to be travelled, a “spiritual journey” to be undertaken? Is there any movement, development, growth, direction on the way, or a goal that is to be achieved at the end of the journey? (230)

Finally, there is the question of the role of theology. Father Golubov argues that:

It is, in fact, theology, as intentionally engaged in the process of ongoing theological reflection, that directly imparts both meaning and direction to authentic spirituality, not only in the active categories of speaking or informing, but also in passive terms, as hearing and appropriating, or even in seeking deeper theological understanding.

From this perspective, then, beyond exhibiting the inherent weakness of a purely “descriptive” approach to spirituality, there is implicit in stand-alone definitions of Christian spirituality a certain theological naïveté that speaks, perhaps, to a larger failure of theological understanding; it is here, in fact, that we meet up, once again, with the difficult issues of Christian living that have been identified and raised by Evdokimov and Florovsky. (241)

To be continued…

* This forms the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. My previous posts on it can be found here and here.

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…

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…

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.

I have been listening to the Conferences of Saint John Cassian, which I found in audio form here (incomplete and the NPNF edition, but worthwhile to listen to while bookbinding). I was recently given the Ramsey translation of both the Conferences and the Institutes (a wonderful gift!) and have also been reading Simon Cashmore’s Master’s thesis on Saint John Cassian (yes, the spirituality language jars a bit, but I am grateful that a South African is taking him seriously!) and so have been thinking that I should really get back to paying some attention to him. But, time and energy being what they are, listening while I work is easier to manage than reading, and the Conferences tend to lend themselves to that.

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of  Julia Hayes

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of Julia Hayes

Anyway, as I listened to the first two conferences, my thoughts turned to Abba Moses, or Saint Moses the Ethiopian, who is quoted extensively. Although I know that this is Cassian’s later reworking and re-presenting of the teaching that he found among the Desert Fathers, it struck me that it is difficult to deny that Saint Moses plays a crucial role in them. His teaching in the first two conferences on the goal and end of the monk and on the importance of discretion would go on to shape centuries of monastic understanding and Christian practice in both East and West.

I have written before on the infuriating cluelessness that many contemporary South African Christians seem to have about the history of African Christianity. And this now strikes me even more. While there are some – rather challenging – sayings of Saint Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I have quoted previously, they belong to a particular genre and are perhaps easy to overlook. But when I was suddenly struck by the central role that he plays in the Conferences, I couldn’t help wondering that he has not received more attention from those interested in African Christianity and “African theology.”

Of course, part of the explanation for this may be that Saint John Cassian was himself viewed as suspect in the West after his run-in with Saint Augustine, and his legacy was largely kept alive in Benedictine monasteries. (Actually, as this post shows, he was once considerably more influential than he later became). But what suddenly struck me while I was binding was that this process of ignoring of Saint John Cassian’s works has not only deprived Western Christians of one of the foremost early teachers on Christian life, but it has also deprived African Christians of access to the rather centrally important teaching that he conveys of one of the leading lights of the African Church, namely, Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

This is another one of those thinking aloud posts and one which I have put off writing because it feels like such a complex subject that could go in all sorts of directions. I have mentioned my frustrations with the language of “mysticism” before and have been wanting to probe, unpack and explain my discomfort with that discourse for some time. I did actually write something a couple of months ago, but then decided that it was too much of a rant and didn’t sufficiently explain the background against which I was reacting – and I have since lost what I wrote when my computer died last week. (Yes, I know about backups in theory, but…)

Those concerns were primarily with a general contemporary Christian discovery of or emphasis on “mysticism” or “mystical experience.” My reactions tended to be sparked by things like the much-quoted statement by Karl Rahner that the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not exist, or, in the case of my last rant, someone tweeting a quote from Pope Francis that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy.” While such interest is understandable for people coming out of heavily cerebral religious traditions and seeking a healthier integration of faith and experience, and a theology rooted in a life of prayer, and while I should, I suppose, have a certain sympathy with them, having been there myself, I have found myself getting more and more concerned with the uncritical glibness of such assertions. Much of this relates to the way in which mysticism and experience are contrasted to dogma, which is invariably viewed in negative terms. This erosion of dogma – which is a consequence of the failure to understand the true nature of dogma – undermines the richness of the Christian revelation and becomes something fundamentally anti-ecclesial. It also opens the door to monism, which is another topic that I have been intending to address for ages.

However, in addition to these general concerns about “mysticism” there is also a related assertion that one sometimes hears, namely, that it is Orthodoxy – or “the East” – that is mystical. I have had people expressing interest in Orthodoxy because they believed it to be mystical and yet at the same time insisting that they were not interested in “ritual and dogma.” And I have also come across Orthodox Christians contrasting East and West and claiming that the East is mystical, experiential and apophatic, while the West is philosophical and rational. When I came across such assertions twice in one week recently, I decided that the time probably had come to probe this further.

The reality is that such assertions do contain a grain of truth, but it is often a rather messy truth in which blanket statements are made about two traditions that – at least in their earlier years – were by no means unrelated. While the West did develop in ways that, from an Orthodox perspective, are indeed problematic – and the rise of scholasticism is a fundamental part of this – pushing this back to the fourth century and laying the blame at the feet of Saint Augustine as is often done, strikes me as simplistic and problematic.

I have hesitated to write on this as I’m aware that I’m not nearly as thoroughly immersed in the early Fathers as I would like to be. But as I have reflected on such arguments, it has struck me that there is considerable confusion about the terms that are used in making such claims about East and West. More specifically, what exactly do we mean by the words mystical, experiential, apophatic, philosophical and rational. Unpacking these could, I suspect, help to provide a much more nuanced understanding both of the differences between East and West, and of the differences between how the early Fathers viewed the life of faith and how it is viewed in some contexts today. And it is this later divide that I would argue is far more fundamental – and which the current enthusiasm for “mysticism” only serves to entrench.

I had originally intended to explore this in one blog post, but it has become clear that that is unrealistic. So instead, I am going to devote a post to each of these terms, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. If it achieves nothing else, it may at least get me writing…

Next Page »