Theology


The third section of The Compassion of the Fatherby Father Boris Bobrinskoy is entitled “Toward the knowledge of God” and begins with an essay on “Theology and Spirituality.” I first came across it in French and found it important enough to want to translate, but was pleased to discover that somebody better qualified than myself had already done so!

After noting the danger involved in separating and opposing theology and spirituality, Father Boris proceeds to consider the relationship between silence and the word. Theos and logos refer to the first to persons of the Trinitarian mystery, of the mystery of God who speaks, for, in the words of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “The Word of God wells up from the silence of the Father.”

Two basic and inseparable concepts, silence and the word, must be compared in speaking of theology. The word, as solely word, becomes chatter; it remains an externalization without depth. Silence, when not expressed, remains inaccessible, as St Paul says, “[He] lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen” (1 Tim 6:16). This inaccessible light is the same as silence. The Word of God is the foundation not only of trinitarian theology but also of the universe. God creates through His Word: “God said, ‘Let there be light!’” (Gen 1:3). (122)

Father Boris proposes a threefold approach in which we can speak of God in the first person, the second person and the third person.

To speak of God in the first person is to speak of God’s own speech.

To say that God speaks is extremely important, even if we cannot hear the words. God creates by speech and the Word of God is the essential, ontological act through which the human being and the world came into existence. God carries the world through His Word … In the presence of God who speaks, first there is listening, second obedience – the “yes,” the amen, of the human being to God. (122)

To speak of God in the second person is to address God as “You” as grow in a filial relationship, a relationship of friendship, unity and communion, that leads to deification.

A dialogue of prayer, of worship – not only ecclesial but also inner – structures and defines the true existence of the human person. (123)

Only as a consequence of this dialogue can we speak of God in the third person.

If one isolates God in the third person, one makes an object of Him, one reifies (chosifie) Him: this is the great danger of theology. Theology is then severed from its roots, from its foundation, its framework, from this living dialogue where God speaks and humanity responds. Only within a living relationship may one speak of God. (123)

Speech about God is furthermore rooted in confession, whether that be the preaching of the apostles, or the confession of faith of those about to be baptised.

Preaching was the first manifestation of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, whom He had led “to remember” and who made the words of Christ come out of their hearts where they had been engraved. (123)

To be continued…

Last night I had a less-than-pleasant encounter with the Dutch railways, in which there seemed to be delayed trains all over the country, resulting in chaos in stations and on trains. Standing in a coach, and slightly frazzled after chaos at the station, I was not really inclined to read the book I had brought with me. So I pulled out my little MP3 player which, given the disrupted state of my life in the last year, has not been connected to a computer for more than a year. I have some patristic texts on it – thanks to Maria Lectrix – and a few old lectures. One of these, David Fagerberg’s paper at last year’s Liturgical Symposium at St Vladimir’s Seminary on “The cost of understanding Schmemann in the West” had particularly resonated with me then, so I listened to it again. There is much that is quotable, but I should really find the printed article before doing more, but here is a taste…

The West tends to think of theology as a mental activity. Probably this is because the people to whom the West gives the name theologian live in the academy. Theology is a science practised in the hall of sciences, and even if an individual theologian is also urged to have faith commitments in his or her heart, and to be active in service to the poor, the only reason for calling these people theologians is because of what they think about. Worship is taken to be either an expression of believe, or an instrument for the creation of belief. And only if that believing requires a tune-up clarification does theology enter the picture. Liturgy is a place to stage the theological content we have deduced and believe. But theology’s origin is not in liturgy, it is in texts and its output is more texts for the next generation of theologians to critique and surpass. As Schmemann says in an early essay:

It is indeed the original sin of the entire western theological development that it made texts the only loci theologica, the extrinsic authorities of theology, disconnecting theology from its living source, liturgy and spirituality.

Schmemann is capable of understanding the term theology in this cognitive way. Of course, you can speak more than one language game. He does so in a definition in his first work Introduction to Liturgical Theology, where he writes: “Theology is above all explanation, the search for words appropriate to the nature of God. That is, for a system of concepts corresponding as much as possible to the faith and experience of the Church.”

But in a journal entry a dozen years’ later, Schmemann uses a different language game:

Pascha, Holy Week, essentially bright days, such as are needed. And truly, that is all that is needed. I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is here. All that is needed for one’s spirit, heart, mind and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It’s all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows in one’s heart and mind.

I think it would be wrong to use this as a brush to paint Schmemann or Orthodoxy as anti-intellectual. Instead, there are two things going on here. First, Schmemann is identifying theology’s home, its native habitat. Theology is more a vision than a cognition. And all that theology would speak to explain in words is here in act, in the liturgical act of the Church celebrating Christ’s Paschal Mystery. Schmemann is not opposed to theological discussion; he is opposed to letting theological discussion ever break free from a vision of the Trinity in action. …

The second thing going on in this quotation is the connection of theology with theosis. The beginning of theology is not the card catalogue, but doing battle with the passions. And the end of theology is not becoming a professor, but becoming a saint. The image of God grows more into the likeness of God. And although Schmemann writes little about asceticism explicitly, he stands in a tradition for which theologia is at the end of an ascetical journey.

The question of Nicene orthodoxy is especially important today. Through the controversies of the fourth century, the Council of Nicaea became a standard reference point and remained so thereafter. The world of Nicene Christianity embraces not only matters pertaining to dogmatic theology (the use of the term “consubstantial”), but also spirituality (liturgy, prayer, piety) and also includes both a history (marked by particular events) and a geography (with its own sacred centers) – all the things which make up a “world.” But over the last couple of centuries, the foundations of this world have been steadily eroded, and a new world has been constructed, with a new geography and, especially important, a new sense of history. Christianity today, in all its various forms, clearly finds itself torn between these two worlds: the world in which it developed into its classical form and the world in which even Christians now live.

John Behr. The Nicene Faith. Part One, True God of True God. Crestwood, N.Y.:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. 8-9.

I am afraid that if the first couple of chapters are anything to go by, this book is going to require a really close reading but one that will be immensely rewarding. More detailed posting will have to wait until after our move, but the above passage is enough to explain my interest.

The question of the proper starting point, the “first principles” of theology is one to which those engaged in its discipline must continually return; however, their continual temptation is to do otherwise. Without being firmly grounded on its proper foundation, the vast body of reflection developed in theology risks collapsing into dust. It is not simply that the first principles are elementary stages, to be transcended by higher realms of more elevated reflection, but that they provide the necessary perspective within which the more abstract discussion takes place and is to be understood. The proper order, the taxis, of theology must be maintained if it is to retain its proper coherence. … Christian theology developed first and foremost as faith in the lordship and divinity of the crucified and exalted Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles according to the Scriptures. The Passion of Christ stands as the definitive moment in the revelation of God, the eschatological apocalypse which unlocks the Scriptures, and so enables Christians, retrospectively, to view the work of God from the beginning and, prospectively, by the continued contemplation of the exalted Christ who is still the coming one, to participate in this work, embodying or incarnating the presence of God in this world through their own witness or martyria. …

The way to Nicaea is not plotted retrospectively from Nicaea, as if it were itself the starting point, but with reference to the revelation of God in Christ, the subject of the Christian confession from the beginning; if Nicaea is a definitive moment in Christian identity, it is because it preserves the truth of the definitive moment. If we overlook this basic fact, then we risk both misunderstanding the landmarks that we think we already know and, more seriously, substituting other principles, taking something other than Christ and his Cross as constitutive of the identity of Christianity.

John Behr. The Nicene Faith. Part One, True God of True God. Crestwood, N.Y.:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. 1-2.

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