Tag Archives: Schmemann

On “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”

The following is the text of the 2014 Fr. Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture, given by The Very Rev. Dr. John A. McGuckin at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on January 31, 2014.

ImageVladimir Nicolaevich Lossky

Vladika, Fathers, sisters and brothers present here tonight on the occasion of this convocation, let me begin by expressing my thanks to the Trustees and Faculty of this renowned, and much loved  Orthodox school, who have tonight honored me with the degree of Doctor Divinitatis. It is another nailed plank in my ‘house of theology’ which I shall have to present before the Lord of Glory one day. I cherish the hope that reviewing my labors the Lord too may have a similarly happy opinion to yours, and might even say to me, as he once said to the renowned philosopher of Aquino: Bene scripsisti de me. ‘You have written well about me.’  Which of course is the entire point or telos of a theologian’s existence, since to write about God in Christ is their medium for approaching the prophetic task of proclaiming the Good News to the contemporary world. And if one cannot write well about God, that is draw up an icon that bears some resemblance to the archetype, it would be far better to write other kinds of fiction, which would be less harmful. For the dread any theologian must carry with him or herself constantly, is to hear, in horrid contrast, that judgment against Job and his theological counselors, to whom God once said: ‘Who is this obscuring my designs with his empty headed words?’ (Job 38:2) Indeed, as the desert fathers once told us, the writing of books can be a liability. One of the early monastic tales describing a travelogue through Hell informs us of a theologian of ancient times who was found by the ecstatic visitor standing in the mire up to his neck as his everlasting punishment. The visitor was surprised to see him there and said: ‘But how did you merit this horrible fate when you wrote so many fine things?’ To which the reply was: ‘I am here precisely because of my books.’  The scribe in that ancient story slyly added on: ‘But thankfully my head is out of it, because God has allowed me to stand on the shoulders of a bishop.’  From which we learn that the early monks had a very healthy suspicion of both bishops and theologians. I shall leave that blatant prejudice aside now, only voicing this last footnote of the professional historian: that the desert father who originally wrote this down was, of course, himself a theological author. What goes round, comes round.

So is there any hope for the Orthodox theologian? Well perhaps a renowned writer of the modern age may give us some guidance. I have chosen the title of tonight’s talk, not merely because I wished to be the first to have so many quotation marks in the printed notice (an example of precision bombing in philology),  but also because I wanted to reflect on  a figure and a moment  in Orthodox culture that was both immensely significant for our time, and one in which St. Vladimir’s had a close personal connection. My talk is about a theologian whose memory remains fresh and graceful, about whom Fr. Schmemann wrote in his obituary in  the February edition of St. Vladimir’s Quarterly in 1958: ‘[Knowing that] it was more blessed to give than to receive…he gave much to the Church and to all those who wanted to receive from him. He must have joyfully entered into the joy of his Lord.’  And it will largely turn around that writer’s most famous book: a title that has done so much since it first appeared in Europe in 1944 to describe and define Orthodoxy for the non-Orthodox; and increasingly for the Orthodox. I mean, of course the: Essai sur la théologie mystique de l’Église d’orient by Vladimir Lossky. If ever there was an example of what Telly Papanikolaou has called the ‘mystical as political’ it was surely this work, emanating out of war-time Paris in the year of its liberation from the Nazis; singing such a joyous song out of the  very heart of the fractures of modern Russian Orthodox experience. The English version took a little longer to emerge. It was published in 1957 only a few months before the author’s death in Paris on February 7th 1958, and has become known throughout the world as: The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.

I find the book enduringly fascinating for two reasons which I would like to lift up tonight. First for its intellectual theses: the consideration of the workings of some of the great patristic theologians of the eastern Church; and secondly for what we might call its ideological impact; the way the book has developed since its issuing to become a kind of charter, for some, to draft a character for a future Orthodox style of thinking: the so-called Neo-Patristic model of reflection.  The first aspect is what we might call its ‘historical thesis.’ Like Florovsky’s own works on the fathers, this volume set out as one of its major claims, that the way forward for the post-war Orthodox intelligentsia, would be a return to the sources: that concept of ressourciement that was to have such a leavening effect on the Roman Catholic world around them, and would soon enough result in the new intellectual climate associated with the Second Vatican Council. In the world of early Church studies the French Jesuits Daniélou, Bertrand, Crouzel, Fontoynont, Mondésert, De Lubac (for a while) and the many other periti of Sources Chrétiennes, were showing to an astonished larger audience the neglected riches of ancient Greek Christian thought, and (to an extent) alarming western-resident Orthodox intelligentsia who for so long had laid claim to these authors, yet were now being shown to have exegeted them so diffidently. This larger movement in continental Catholicism, the use of the patristic past to dislodge the stranglehold medieval scholasticism held over patterns of church thinking, came to be known as La Nouvelle Théologie, and with its ever present stress on ressourciement, or going back to the sources, was a movement that not only re-orientated the Catholics of Vatican II, but had a large impact on the Orthodox, especially the displaced intelligentsia of Russia. This movement impacts, of course, upon the Neo-Patristic vision of both Florovsky and Lossky (though in different ways). But it does so also on the school that read and studied Bulgakov – for we ought not to take for granted that characterization (largely emanating from the Neo-Patristic school itself) that the Sophianist movement and the Neo-Patristic synthesis schools were polar opposites of each other.[1] This rhetorical trope has been too often taken at face value, and has marred, in my opinion, the development of a clarified hindsight on our recent Orthodox intellectual past. Nouvelle théologie has marked this school at St. Vladimir’s also; with Fr. Schmemann’s concern to  bring liturgical study to the fore as rooted in historical sensibility and yet acting as a tool to cut forward a channel for a renovated pastoral Orthodox presence in the New World. It impacted equally upon Fr. Meyendorff’s very influential Neo-Palamism project. Even today we find commentators attempting to describe the recent and future states of Orthodox theology as poised between Sophianism and Neo-Patristic synthesis. The Orthodox philosopher Bruce Foltz has lately described the Mystical Theology as ‘perhaps the classic articulation of Orthodox theology in the 20th century;’[2] and equally a recent study by Brandon Gallagher[3] has called Fr. Bulgakov’s system: ‘The skeletal key’ of all modern Orthodox thought,[4] suggesting that there is not such a clear-cut distinction between the two approaches.

Now the latter argument is something that would have surprised and alarmed Florovsky. It might have not worried Lossky as much, who found in the Sophianism of Bulgakov, lots of things to trouble him (as evidenced by the critical report he submitted to the synod which subsequently censured him), but not something he wished to reject out of hand as heretical.[5] Lossky wrote a very impassioned letter[6] in response to Berdyaev’s violent denunciation of what the latter called Metropolitan Sergius’ ‘ecclesiastical fascism’, insisting that  although he had been involved in the process, he by no means agreed to the condemnation, and did not accept that by offering his critique he had positioned himself among the denouncers of Fr. Bulgakov.[7]  In my opinion two simple things are worth abstracting from all this complexity of the past. The first of these is that this division into camps (the Sophianist seen as world and future-embracing, as distinct from the Neo-Patristic, classed as past-centred and conservative) was a rhetorical strategy of the immediate post-war years. It has had some utility in recording and explaining some bitter struggles of that now distant generation: both external, in regard to  how to reconstruct after large Bolshevik destructions of the Church’s infra-structures; and internal in the sense of how to imagine a sensible Orthodox theological presence exiled among the majority (and highly educated) non-Orthodox. But, like all theological labelling of the post-war years, it now bears the ravaging marks of progressive irrelevance. As a parallel, I am thinking, just so as to make a vocal footnote in this regard, of that other label that was once so much in vogue, and claimed such absolute veracity: ‘Christology from above and from below’, something that did so much to mislead generations of historical studies, and still wrong-foots those who have not read the primary materials but rely only on the popular text books. Or we might equally think of the principles of ressourciement that made the Catholic Church advance so strongly and so radically its new Second Eucharistic Prayer as a keystone liturgical achievement in repristinating patristic-era liturgy. If it had known then, what we know now, that the so-called Apostolic Constitutions it based itself upon was more than likely a fourth century Constantinopolitan Arian product,[8] this might have served to make it be in less of a hurry into print.  As a patristic historian I like the notion of ressourciement very much of course; but put this into English as a macro-synthetic principle: “Old is always good’! and it soon loses  a lot of its credibility. These rhetorical ideologies soon become tangential and then often problematic in terms of leading us onwards.

And this brings me to the second point of note: when one closely studies the actualities of the people involved in these so-called schools of modern Orthodox thought, they rarely conform to the narrow definitions of what their macro-ideology was supposed to be in the first place. In this light one begins to wonder if the alleged ‘school’ was anything more than just an extended set of metaphors? This question is facing us with renewed interest in the present moment as, for the first time, Fr. Bulgakov’s rich and remarkable theological opus is now available in English,[9] allowing him to be properly assessed in a wider scholarly context; and ironically affording him at last the upper hand compared to the writings of Fr. Florovsky,[10] the edition of whose works remains sadly beached and mangled. But this re-sifting is a task for careful scholars and philosophers. Unfortunately, what often transpires in Orthodox circles in lieu of that analysis, is the elevation of camps and schools as forms of symbolic clan-making. The use of Lossky’s work is no exception here. He was a highly intelligent member of what later came to be called a Neo-Patristic movement;[11] but that movement did not exhaust him: and if we analyze his intentionality we might find it much easier to use him as a paradigm for our thinking today if we actually disengage him from that school model.

Vladimir Nicolaevich Lossky was a younger member of that distinguished generation of émigré Russian philosopher-theologians who ended up in Paris as a result of the great upheavals of the Russian Revolution. He was born in Gottingen, Germany, in 1903, where his father, the philosopher Nikolai, was pursuing graduate studies. Nikolai became professor of philosophy in St. Petersburg, and eventually a very significant philosopher in the Russian tradition of gnosiological Neo-Idealism. He later taught for a time at St. Vladimir’s.  The Lossky family were among those exiled by Lenin on the so-called ‘ship of philosophers’ in 1922.[12] At that time Vladimir was in his second year of studies at the St. Petersburg Faculty of Arts. He resumed his studies at Prague between 1922 and 1926, where he studied with the philosopher Karsavin,[13] and connected with Fr. Georges Florovsky, who was teaching there and who would be an enduring influence on him. He graduated in medieval philosophy under Étienne Gilson at the Sorbonne in 1927 and settled in Paris for the rest of his life. From 1942 to his death in 1958 he was a member of France’s most distinguished academic body, the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique.

Lossky became the first Dean of the Orthodox school, St. Dionysus’ Institute, in Paris, and taught dogmatic theology there from 1944-1953. This was founded with the blessing of Patriarch Sergius of Russia, and offered its classes in French (at a time when St. Serge conducted its work entirely in Russian). Fr. Schmemann taught here between 1945-1946, though he parted company from them deliberately. The school’s first graduate to be ordained priest ended up as Archbishop Peter L’Huillier of New York. At St. Dionysius, Lossky harboured hopes that the Western-Rite movement would blossom to be a real ecumenical bridge between the eastern and western churches. He invested a lot in that grand vision. It underpins much of his intellectual efforts, even when it is not explicitly mentioned. In this regard I think it is worthy of notice that his early research project at the Sorbonne was on the writings of Meister Eckhart: between whom and the theology of St. Dionysius the Areopagite he clearly found a deep commonality. This was a work that did not see publication in English until 1960. It corresponds as a project in part with Semyon Frank’s elevation in 1939 of Nicholas of Cusa and apophatic theology as the preferred medium of theology. Lossky also served as professor of dogmatic theology at the Orthodox Institute of St. Irène between 1949 and 1952. All this work would be laid open posthumously when his curricular thinking was published as the book: Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (SVS. 1978, 2001) constructed on the basis of notes collated by his then student, Olivier Clément.

In his visits to England, Lossky was an active and influential member of the ecumenical society of Sts. Alban and Sergius, in which Sergei Bulgakov was also an important force. He maintained extensive contacts among Catholic and Anglican scholars, as well as learning much from that often unspoken, but always present, context: the first hand experience of trying to see how Orthodoxy would fare when suddenly impoverished and exiled among western scholars whose modes of thought seemed so alien to customary patterns, and whose intellectual standards challenged many presuppositions of the older theological academies he had known. Fr. Schmemann, who was one of his important contacts, but who on his own account was frequently out of sympathy with Lossky’s stand on church politics, testified that: ‘Those who knew him intimately and enjoyed theological and spiritual fellowship with him, know that in his person, Orthodox theology has lost one of its most gifted and devoted servants, one of those for whom theology is a unique and a sacred charisma in the Church, requiring the sacrifice of their whole life.’[14]

Lossky’s presence as a highly articulate Orthodox spokesman, in a post-war world that was excited with the first rushes of ecumenical dialogue, impacted so much on the leading Anglican representatives, including the patrologist GL Prestige, that they were determined to get his Essai sur la théologie mystique translated into English; pressing him despite his own very slow academician’s pace, and his obviously failing health. A young Timothy Ware helped to prepare the text. Schmemann talks about this slow precision in his obituary:[15] ‘Professor Vladimir Lossky’s sudden death’, he says, ‘deprives the Orthodox Church of one of her best theologians. The loss is all the more irreparable because his published works are so limited in number – one book, a few articles . . . This was due to his unusually developed sense of intellectual and scientific integrity, which made him spend more than twenty years on his doctoral dissertation; he completed the manuscript only a few days before he passed away.’  The Mystical Theology, however, and that other posthumous book, The Vision of God,[16] were undoubted masterworks, and in the aftermath of his death his complete publications record accumulated to seven volumes in all.[17]  In his own lifetime his natural diffidence and humility, his deep sense of the authentic scholarly life as necessitating some real form of withdrawal from the rush of human affairs, kept him by choice out of the spotlight. As Fr. Schmemann put it: ‘Very humble in his personal life, indifferent to the vainglory of human titles, ranks and honors, he declined several offers of academic positions because he was concentrated on the ‘one thing necessary’ and preferred his vocation of thinker and theologian to everything in this world.’

Lossky’s thesis in his book, briefly summated, is that the performative style of one’s theology is representative, at root, of one’s core spiritual ethos. The western Church since the high middle ages[18] has, according to Lossky, introduced a damaging distinction between ecclesial dogmatic theology and personal mystical apprehension: ‘Me and God’ on the one side: ‘organized religion’ on the other. However, the notion of the individual mystic, Lossky argues, is comparatively foreign in Orthodox experience;[19] indicating that the common tradition and individual perception of the truth cannot be divorced in this way; and thus, by correlation, there can be no theology of the church distinct from mystical experience;[20] and no authentic mystical experience of God that is divorced from the church’s dogmatic tradition.[21]

In his Introduction to the work, where he sets out the large premises, Lossky explicitly states that he does not want to set out his macro-thesis as a comparative religion study, or (even worse) to open up an inter-church apologetic fight. But he also lets the reader know how much Yves Congar’s analysis of Orthodoxy as a set of nationalist churches that fell short of a true spirit of universal Catholicism, had really annoyed him. It is clear enough throughout the book, therefore, that his real target is the scholasticism of the French catholic post-war era, that had not as yet been sufficiently deconstructed by the labours of the real ‘neo-patristic’ Jesuit school of Paris. For Lossky the notion of a dry scholastic knowledge of God was a horrible road to the dessification of the Church as a bureaucratic institution. The Church’s understanding of God, for him, is essentially a ‘mystical theology,’ and it is the eschatological force of the Holy Spirit which vivifies and resists that reification of historical decline and institutionalization that besets all human affairs. This mystical theology does not depend on this or that knowledge gained from empirical sources, and marshalled with every increasing exactitude of definition by ecclesial scholars (again he had in mind Catholic post-war scholasticism, and also the nascent attempts in France to introduce a Christian socialist existentialism), but rather  has an intuitive gnosiological basis; the sense of God as supreme and hyper-essential Person.

This is why at the core of his project is first of all the setting out of patristic ideas on the Trinity; and secondly his elevation of Apophaticism as the supreme method of authentic Orthodox theology. Apophatic, derives from ‘turning away from speech’ and his concept here is that the divine unknowability, so much insisted on in the patristic understanding of God as Trinity, is best matched by the human acknowledgement that ineffable mysteries must be known in a manner above knowledge, and are expressed in the silence of the spirit far better than in the words of the mouth. The silence being a testimony of the human mind to its Christ-like humble kenosis before the truth; a truth which God himself will establish without dependence on the wit or intelligence of this or that intellectual.[22]

This aspect of theological method, of course, derives extensively from St. Gregory the Theologian,[23] and also from Dionysius the Areopagite, whose work Lossky champions as a core element of patristic tradition. They were, needless to say, two of the most learnedly kataphatic men of their age.  These two ideas – the shaping of the world and church by the freedom of the divine hypostases or Persons, and the confession of this in apophatic terms – mark what he sees as Orthodoxy’s main contributions to theology in his day. He offers the Orthodox voice as a corrective, indeed a healing, of serial divorces he claims to find in Western Christianity. Orthodoxy, he insists, bears witness to the ever present outreach of the Trinitarian God, which he implies the Western church has lost sight of in favour of a highly substantialist and de-eschatologised approach to Christology.[24] Lossky sees the hypostatically-personalist being of the Trinity as quintessentially the revelation that the freedom of divine personhood shapes the cosmos and manifests humanity’s destiny in the communion of the Church.[25] The individual, as well as the Church as a whole, is thus rendered quintessentially personal, never merely institutional. Over and against this extrapolation of the freedom of the divine hypostases (which he elevates out of the Cappadocian fathers as classical exponents) he finds the Latin Church to have elevated a Trinitarian theology reliant on notions of commonality of substance to provide a very static sense of divine unity in Triad. This difference in theological style, he argues, is not superficial, but demonstrative of a deep tendency in its spirituality[26] and one which emerges in such doctrines of the divided Church as the Latin Double Procession of the Spirit. It does not take much reading to demonstrate the fingerprints of this approach in hosts of subsequent Orthodox theologians not least Metropolitan John Zizioulas,[27] with his own highly philosophical rendering of what he too has elevated as Cappadocian trinitarianism resonating with personalist metaphysics.

In his 1975 doctoral dissertation dedicated to Vladimir Lossky, Archbishop Rowan Williams brings out the important aspect of this stress on Apophaticism – the empirical medium of the mystical in Lossky’s account. He says: ‘The ‘negative way’ is not, for Lossky, merely a dialectical step in theology, a ‘corrective’ to affirmative theology: it is the essential ground of all theology. Theology begins in personal encounter with a personal God, an encounter which cannot be expressed in concepts; negative theology, which declines to speak of God in concepts, most closely reflects this basic reality.’[28]  Although Lossky sees this style of theology mediated through the Cappadocian fathers and Dionysius the Areopagite, he presents it as definitively argued by St. Gregory Palamas.  This map of the tradition has since become very common among modern Orthodox as a defining mark of what the core patristic past accumulates to: and one would need to add in St. Maximus the Confessor to that small dossier. But it would be worth noting that this miniature ‘Library of the Fathers’ he is working from here, would have appeared very strange indeed to any Orthodox of an age prior to the mid 20th century. Sts. Gregory Nyssen, Dionysius and Maximus, all being, in the main, discoveries (that is as influential voices of Orthodox dogmatic tradition) of the 20th century catholic patristic revival. St. Gregory of Nazianzus being the exception to that rule.

Lossky presents the primacy of Apophaticism in theology as the experience of the believer’s μετάνοια, the conversion and self-sacrifice, of the intellect before the overwhelming reality of God. For him, the Greek patristic language about meeting God in the darkness, or the ‘cloud of unknowing’ is at root a ‘dogmatic metaphor’ for this personal experience of the divine encounter, the very possibility of which is rooted in the  ultimately personal gift of God’s own self in the Trinity. The equally visible theme of God’s self manifestation as light (an instance where Gregory the Theologian stands against his pupil Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of revelation) is seen by Lossky more to complement, than to negate the concept of dark unknowing. Both darkness and light together symbolize for him the core experience of transcending the sphere of human intellect and its substantively limited empirical vocabulary. Lossky, using the lens of St. Gregory Palamas, understands the transcendent Godhead reaching out to the world through his energies, so that though his essence remains absolutely incomprehensible to all creatures, his hypostasis is immanent to those who know him. Deification (theosis) is thus the fundamental shorthand for the Orthodox sense of salvific redemption. Again, this reads today like some basic summation of the Orthodox faith such as one would find on any learned parish website. But it is again worth reminding ourselves that such a summa theologiae orthodoxae would have not been found widely much before the midpoint of the 20th century if one picked up any commonly available Orthodox catechism. The centrality of theosis as the primary metaphor of the redemption, allied to a Neo-Palamite understanding of the essence and energies, and routed through a hesychastic lens, has grown out of Lossky’s thesis to become very constitutive of many parts of Orthodox self expression today.  St. Vladimir’s has, of course, been a force in the dissemination of that story.

Lossky’s original point was not so much to mount this as a historically defensible reading of patristic dogmatics, but to use the fathers that he does select, as a reliable enough ‘representation’ of the Orthodox tradition. He wishes, in highlighting this particular theological-historical trajectory, to make the epistemological point that true theology crucifies the hybris of the intellect along with the human empirical vocabulary. God, in short, is not what we would like to make of him. Lossky’s core concern, I suggest, is the cosmological anthropological one that as God manifests his personal reality in the world, through the  expression of his energies that paradoxically transcend his own transcendence,[29] making that infinite personhood ontologically present to Mankind, then just so believers encounter this grace as ecstasy that lifts them up into a deification by grace. In this way of obedient ascesis the believer finds the ascent to personality in the encounter with the Triune hypostases. Only Negative Theology, therefore, is sufficiently ‘personalist’ for Lossky, to do justice to the supremely personal mystery of the Trinity as source of humanity’s life and self-awareness. Place all this, if you can imagine it, on the horizons of the type of theology that was ‘normally’ being done in Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic circles in the forties of the 20th century, and begin to appreciate how  Lossky must have come across as a veritable thunderstorm. For all Fr. Florovsky’s careful  historical skills, and deep immersion in a broad range of patristic sources, more than those commanded by Lossky, it is clear at every instance that it was Lossky who was the more original thinker of the two.

Now there are some problems in all of this lovely, though it is. One is that Lossky’s skill in outlining the patristic tradition is not as advanced as Florovsky’s. Even in Florovsky one senses the sagging of his macro- thesis time and again when he maintains constant images of two intellectual extremes harmonized by a golden mean of ecclesial middle-synthesis; a philosophical construct he keeps thrusting onto his sources extraneously. One begins by being impressed by his ability to make such vivid synopses, but too often ends with the weariness of suspecting we are being engaged in the relentless knocking down of Aunt Sallies. The project of making the fathers into a totalist whole, similar to the manner in which the catholic exegetes of that era were bent on making a total synthesis of the ‘biblical theologies’ of X or Y, looks very worn today, in the light of a much deeper sense of the individual voices of the variety of fathers, and the large extent to which their thinking (at least before the sixth century) was so contextual and rhetorical; their metaphysical and philosophical premisses so profoundly eclectic. One also suspects the manner in which patristic ethos is here being equated with contemporary Orthodoxy so as to give a definitive position to those Orthodox engaged in the ecumenical movement who needed to  explain their resistance to the biblical reductionism of so many of their Protestant interlocutors in the nascent World Council of Churches.

Lossky, for his part, uses the fathers as fodder for his argument about what shape Orthodoxy’s contribution to the reformation of the Western church scene would be.[30] This is not to say he is always inaccurate: far from it. But it does mean that he draws vast charcoal sketches on the wall, before he really had a right to do so: and some of the macro-theories about patristic meaning, do not turn out in the end to be substantiated from a closer reading of the individual writers themselves. In other words:  to accumulate commonalities in fathers of different ages, does not equate necessarily to a representation of the patristic tradition. Notably lacking from Lossky’s approach to the fathers is the estimate, which I would project as being of central importance, that the primary patristic investment in theology was by means of the exegesis of the Gospels, not their dialogue with Late Platonic metaphysics.  The patristic mentalité, therefore was a profoundly exegetico-liturgical one, not so much the metaphysical project presented in the Mystical Theology. That emphasis comes from elsewhere, I suspect, namely the approach to the Greek fathers from the horizons of turn-of-century Russian Idealism. And while there is much to commend this effort, especially in the domains of illuminating what the fathers meant by noetic consciousness, something that seems to me a definitive and historically important breakthrough in the Christian philosophy of personhood, Lossky’s treatment of it lacks a solid foundation in the ascetical writers who actually do most to move this idea forward.[31]

Now, although Lossky spends much time in this book discussing metaphysics, arguing very importantly and correctly, that Dionysius is no mere repetiteur of Plotinus, it nevertheless seems to me that his real interest does lie in what we might crudely call the spiritual culture of Orthodoxy.[32] But while he was closely involved in the Optina tradition, he only tangentially mentions such obvious real inspirations to his work as Philaret, or the Russian monastic tradition of the Dobrotolubiye.[33]  His father, Nikolai, famously said of his son, in a posthumous summing up of his work, that he resisted the Slavophile movement and cannot be accounted any part of it. And this remark has been taken at face value so much that most have been unable to see that it is hardly an accurate representation.[34] Vladimir Lossky might have had issues with the Slavophiles, but so did his father, who nevertheless continued that tradition along Neo-Idealist lines. This picture Nikolai drew of his son has also served to cast a veil over what I take to be a very substantive reliance  of the son on the philosophical world-view, and especially the  epistemology, of his father: an aspect of gnosiological intuitivism in the Neo-Idealist tradition.[35] If this is the case, then the Greek fathers are left in the front of the window, while the post Hegelian Russian philosophers are busy building the back of the shop. Now this is perhaps what happens  when one thinks one is being ‘patristic’ and is not carefully conscious of one’s larger intellectual context and indebtedness; be that to turn of the century Neo-Idealism in the case of Lossky père et fils,[36] or the multitude of ‘isms’ that describe us afloat in our Orthodox boat on the post-modern seas of today.

Another criticism one might raise is the extent of the flaws in the implicit ecumenical apologetic Vladimir Lossky is stating in this seminal book. Put crudely, this condenses into how the falling away of the personalist trinitarianism of the western church is eventually manifested in its divorce between the ecclesial dogmatic tradition (formalist) and its separate mystical tradition (more personalist but becoming excessively individualistic). This happens, he argues, because the dogmatic tradition is not a merely formalist thing among Christians, but inevitably manifests the core spiritual tendencies of a person. Only Orthodoxy, Lossky argued, can sustain an authentic personalism which is not individualistic but communal in so far as it is a mystical ecclesial communion. Now this, in many ways, makes sense as an idée maitresse; but it depends for it sustenance as a cognitive thesis on a rather blanket view of the western mystics as being excessively personalistic. If one did make a global review (which Lossky does not) of the mystical tradition of the West, would it be all that divergent in spiritual ethos? Were the western mystics (distinctive personalities though they surely were) all that individualistic and un-ecclesial?  In setting out this thesis has not Lossky unconsciously fallen into that very type of Bergsonian polarization that he attacks in his opening pages? For surely the Western church was able enough to receive or dismiss any theological voice from its larger sense of the Tradition: knowing well enough the significant differentiae between a St. John of the Cross and a Nicholas of Cusa. Lossky argues that the western mystical tradition is almost exclusively Christocentric and neglectful of the Trinitarian reality of God. But the mystics of the West, so it seems to me, are a long way removed from solipsism in their spirituality. There are undoubtedly different foci and stresses t the Orthodox ascetical fathers: but throughout the spirituality of the West runs a profound focus on the cross and its redemptive power: and that cannot be simply reduced to a Christological focus deprived of Trinitarian perspective.

Moreover after elevating the gnosiology of religious awareness to so central a place in his system, it was incumbent on Lossky to have given a sustained treatment of how ‘infused knowledge’ of divine reality was understood empirically in the western mystical tradition. He does not do this; nor, which is surprising given its very important place in his own system and apologetics, does he treat of the matter very extensively in his account of the Orthodox mystical theology. What is it that apophatic awareness of God contributes to the ecclesial tradition if it exceeds speech and thought? Can such a profoundly silent theological tradition actually teach? Or is it entirely turned away from discourse? Another way to put this is to ask how does the spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy contribute to the kataphatic dogmatic tradition? Or whether it only adds to the church’s ascetical praxis. The issue was crucial for St. Gregory Palamas who was being attacked for just this very point by Barlaam of Calabria[37]. If Apophaticism does not add to the knowledge of the Church, then it becomes simply a tool for closing down ecumenical discourse rather than advancing it: for pointing out that what the other tradition calls ‘theology’ is nothing of the kind, but some other form of discourse manqué. When Lossky argues passionately that theology must never be an: ‘assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding,’ but rather ‘an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically’ it is surely necessary for him to lay out more details of what such a mystical apprehension would amount to, and how it would be recognized. He may well have had extensive ideas on this, but he does not develop them clearly enough in the study: and we do not move towards a closer definition of this ‘apprehension’ of the core paradosis of the Church other than its cross-referencing with prior precedents: even though he does seem to elevate interior apprehension to significant heights throughout.

Moreover, when he stressed the significance of submissive obedience, crucifixion of the intellect, and humble kenosis as crucial for a theologian’s spirituality and ability to apprehend the divine truths, we have to wonder if he was always himself consistent in that methodology. If apophatic discourse is the only authentic way to approach theological truth, it might be thought that the use of kataphatic affirmation (which the fathers themselves, not least Dionysius the Areopagite, take to be an important tool of the expression of faith) is rendered void. Lossky used this argument to explain to Berdyaev why he found the latter’s theology so repugnant, in so far as it relied so much on his own individualistic sense of being right, or ‘seeking the truth come what may’. The immediate context of that argument was over Berdyaev’s bitter denunciation of Metropolitan Sergius of Moscow’s Ukase against Bulgakov. After insisting that the ‘principle of obedience’ is integral to the theological effort Lossky went on to argue that in rejecting this path Berdyaev had remained merely: ‘a subject in the face of an exterior object’ in terms of the truth. This solicited a sharp but telling criticism in reply. Berdyaev wrote publicly that Lossky, although he posed as a ‘troubadour of Apophaticism’, when it came to practical church politics seemed to revert back to a ‘monarchistical kataphatic ecclesiology whenever it suited him.’[38] This also raises an important question which Lossky never resolved, nor Florovsky to my knowledge, concerning the precise relation of the Nous to the Logos. The chief point of the early patristic use of Logos to connote the intimate relation of the human reason to the divine hypostatic archetype of reason, is refined in later Byzantine usage to reclassify the Nous as the higher, spiritual consciousness, of the human intellective sensibility. They see Nous as the spiritual, elevated, aspect of Logos. It is a new, double theory of Logos, comparable to the manner Plato had advanced a double theory of Psyche, and one which they combined with his late psychology to make a particularly Byzantine synthesis of a triadic and ascentive epistemology of Psyche, Logos and Nous. But to my knowledge the ascetical Byzantine writers do not speak so much of a crucifixion of the intellect, rather its progressive purification and constant amplification. One wonders whether this notion of the crucified mind derives not rather from some of the later catholic mystical writers whom Lossky has subconsciously subsumed. But all this is matter for much longer kataphasis. And as one of my teachers in London said to me many years ago when I was waxing excessively on such themes, having just read Lossky: ‘John, if you really are an apophatic theologian, the least you can do is: Shut Up!’

Therefore, in conclusion: let us remind ourselves, as all theologians should, that the prophet Job had a jaundiced view of religious speech-making. To his first counselor he said rather testily: (Job 16.3) ‘Shall windy words have no end to them?’  Take comfort then from my response: ‘Indeed they shall!’ And so let me  come to an end with some very brief synopses of what I learned from all this (since I cannot speak for anyone else) on revisiting for this occasion a book that had a stirring effect on me when I first read it many decades ago.

First of all, I believe, the future of Orthodox theology is neither Sophianism or Neo-Patristic synthesis; neither Neo-Palamism nor ressourciement, not Nouvelle théologie or even ancienne théologie for that matter; not progressivism or conservatism.  The future of Orthodox theology is fidelity to the Gospel lived out in the interim as we approach the eschaton. We have always known this; and accordingly have always known that we were supposed to resist the isms and secessions, scholasticisms, denominations, and all other sorts of factions that mark off a sectarian mentality from the ecclesial spirit. Now there have been endless temptations of the Christian church in recent generations to dissect itself in ever-diminishing circles. The ecumenical movement that once shone so radiantly in the early post-war years when these Orthodox thinkers of Lossky’s time were in their prime, excited and energized, is now a squeaking ghost of itself because of that spirit of divisionism that is rife. Conservative Christians can hardly speak to progressives. But when we Orthodox are being specifically conscious about our mode of discourse today, I think we should remember that the church has always used philosophical method very eclectically to exegete the Gospel; applying a purely utilitarian principle. It can never wed itself to any method or school or system except that which Gregory the Theologian calls ‘ a fisherman’s dialectic.’[39]

Orthodox have sometimes begun to imagine themselves as a denomination alongside other multiple churches in a pluralist world, and to speak of themselves in that way. But Orthodoxy’s role is not to be a subaltern in a post-colonial ambit: to appear quaint when we speak to some putative West, as some putative East. On the contrary, we have to hold an important line: the church is not a sect. It contains within its living body, conservatives and progressives, liberal reformists and die-hard traditionalists, not to mention saints and sinners. Within Orthodoxy those who want to ‘synthesize’ for the future, and those who want to keep everything intact as it was in the past, both have to learn the hard reality that it is only God’s eschaton that makes the correct judgement on what is right and what is wrong with the Church. The spotless Bride who contains all that is necessary for salvation in her trousseau, is ever the same (just seen in a different light) as that annoying baggage that is the Church on earth, which is comprised of an awful lot of flawed and compromised individuals trying to do their best to make their pilgrimage to the Kingdom. The Orthodox always attempt to be ever faithful to the evangelical tradition they have received and which they seek to preserve in the canons and the writings of the dogmatic and spiritual fathers, but above all they are called to live it out, live out that is the resurrectional presence of Christ, through his Spirit, in the largely unseen holiness of the ecclesial community.

Lossky knew this better than most. At the end of the day his book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church remains a powerful testimony to the beauty and stature of Orthodox thought, not so much because it gives us an unchallengeable account of either Cappadocian trinitarianism, or Dionysian epistemology, or Neo-Palamite anthropology, because quite simply it does not work entirely well on any of those accounts. Nor even because of its grand and majestic scope (a form of global answer to the West of what Orthodox theological style might look like in action), though it certainly has that impressive character and remains an inspiration to many, just as once it was an exciting and inspiring discovery to my younger self trying to imagine how I might become Orthodox.  Lossky stands perennially significant as an Orthodox thinker, not because his footnotes have resisted tarnishing by age, but rather because he grasped the essential fact that God is not the object of Christian theology: but rather the Subject of that inexpressible and eschatological verb which is our coming to be in Christ. This is what made him a theologian. His Orthodox credentials were beautifully affirmed by his ability to ground that revealed gnosis in the scriptures and traditions of the Church to which he belonged, and knew he belonged because he could find the same song present in singers of previous ages all the way back to the Apostles. This was his precious legacy to modern Orthodoxy. In offering it, through the medium of what he had learned from Georges Florovsky, and  above all, I think, from his father Nikolai, but also from his disagreements with other Orthodox thinkers such as Bulgakov, and from his western catholic dialogue partners, Lossky was able to rise above any  ‘ism’ or narrow school. He had a great heart as well as an expansive and creative mind. We should honor him, accordingly, by seeking to free him from the narrow parameters of being simply classed as a Neo-patristic thinker.

We can learn much from him, when talking about the future of Orthodox theology, not  so much by following his specific recipe for what the Orthodox  church needs to be doing in the 21st century (whether that is a certain approach to patristic analysis, or the creation of a western rite, or the advancement of a neo-idealist epistemology) but rather by emulating his example of faithfulness to his scholarly vocation – the brilliance of his reflections on the antique vocabularies of our Church, as followed through with assiduous and ascetical perseverance on that ‘one thing necessary’ the obedience to One Lord, ‘the same yesterday and today’; the submission of all things in joyful repentance to the Lord who ever grants to his world the communion of the church: but never for long allows it the safe haven of ‘isms’ and schools of division. These ideological forces have death bred into them from the outset. Our historians, philosophers, liturgists, exegetes, canonists, educationists, pastors and theologians, all have their part to play in making the future of Orthodox thought: but so too do our children even in their lisping faith, as do the aged and uneducated, the liberal and the illiberal, the ethnic, and post-ethnic, the Old Calendarists as well as the New.

This great and often chaotic mix is part of what being church means. It is a hard and testing path to follow in a world where divisions are often canonized and efficiency is lauded as a god. But the apostolic and catholic sobornost of true Orthodoxy is an affair both too important and too complex to be  given into the hands of any superficially attractive reductionism. The Orthodox theologian today must know his or her way around the footnotes,  around the main texts, around the real church – not merely the  building in which the divine liturgy is celebrated, but the world in which believers and unbelievers alike suffer and groan for that liberating Spirit, in ‘sighs that are often too deep for words’. Lossky knew that, and his work abides – however much we may abstract ourselves from this or that detail – in its great eschatological spirit. It is that eschatological force of the Spirit which perennially humanizes us, as Lossky sensed: and in humanizing us in Christ, renders us ‘like to God’. If you want my prognosis of the way forward for Orthodoxy, I envisage that such divinely human eyes looking out from a radiant, young, and beautiful Orthodox ecclesia, will surely turn their gaze more and more acutely on the pressing problem of our day: how to offer compassion and hope in the face of the manifold sorrows caused to our broken and deeply self-alienated society, by the still violent, still callous, still arrogant, principalities of this cosmos. It is an economy which can only be enabled in his church by the deep grace of God; but surely one which is part of his unfailing promise to affirm the truth, through us: indeed sometimes in spite of us.

[1] Telly Papanikolaou has argued, for example that Lossky was notably ‘Bulgakovian’ in so far as he used the ‘central categories’ of Bulgakov and their heavy antinomies (such as person-centred freedom as distinct from natural necessity, or kenotic repentance as distinct from individual self-expressionism) and ‘apophaticises’ them in a ‘self-consciously anti-sophiological theology’.  See: A. Papanikolaou, ‘Eastern Orthodox Theology’, in C. Meister and J. Beilby (edd). The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought. Routledge. London. 2013. 538–48 (this citation at p. 544). Brandon Gallagher has taken up this insight arguing that: ‘Lossky and Bulgakov have much more in common than is normally believed. They certainly differ in their respective attitudes towards reason and philosophy and, above all, in their position on the uncreated/created distinction. However, the fact that two very different thinkers embraced a common methodology points to a basic continuity in the theological divisions of modern Orthodox theology. What draws Bulgakov and Lossky together is a common emphasis on theosis and an understanding of truth and theology as being fundamentally experiential always involving paradox, awe, transformation and encounter. B. Gallagher. ‘The ‘Sophiological’ Origins of Vladimir Lossky’s Apophaticism.’  Scottish Journal of Theology. 66. 3. 2013. p. 298. The antinomies and parallelisms they both cite, of course, are just as prevalent in the works of Lossky’s father Nikolai, and his mentor Georges Florovsky, and seem to me owe more to a generic indebtedness to the impact Hegelianism had on end of century Russian Neo-idealist philosophy. So far from signalling a direction for modern Orthodox thought they indicate rather the philosophical stable where post-war Russian philosopher-theologians were taking their syllogistic axioms from, in contradistinction to French existentialism.

[2] B Foltz. ‘N Lossky’, in the Wiley Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization. Oxford. 2011.

[3]B. Gallagher. ‘The ‘Sophiological’ Origins of Vladimir Lossky’s Apophaticism.’  Scottish Journal of Theology. 66. 3. 2013. 278–298.

[4] ibid. p. 298.

[5] Bulgakov increasingly responded to advice from his circle in Paris, to include more patristic authority as foundations for his dogmatic arguments, and on occasion described himself as in harmony with a Neo-Palamist, hesychastic, view of the world.

[6] Of November 23rd. 1935.

[7] See A Arjakovsky. The Way: Religious Thinkers of the Russian Emigration and their Journal: 1925-1940. Univ. of Notre Dame Press. Indiana. 2013. p. 393.

[8] J Donaldson (tr).The Apostolic Constitutions.  Ante Nicene Christian Library, vol. 17. part 2.(1870); Also in Ante Nicene Fathers. vol. 7. 1886. pp. 385-505; DA Fiensy. Prayers Alleged to be Jewish: An Examination of the  Constitutiones Apostolicae.  Brown Judaic Studies. 65. Decatur. 1985; CH Turner. ‘Notes on the Apostolic Constitutions.’ Journal of Theological Studies. 16. 1915.  54-61, 523-538.

[9] Thanks to the scholarly labours, not least of Boris Jakim and Fr. Michael Plekon.

[10] Whose voice and writings carried much further in his own lifetime by the way he was lifted up, and Bulgakov was set aside, as representative of world Orthodoxy at the counsels of the Faith and Order movement.

[11] Florovsky himself described the Mystical Theology as a work of Neo-Patristic synthesis.’

[12] Lesley Chamberlain, Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, St Martin’s Press, 2007.

[13] 1882-1952. Disciple of Soloviev, and very concerned with elevating, on the basis of the Platonically influenced Church fathers, a theory of epistemology.  He saw historical process as driven by the dynamism of ‘growth of being’. This movement within history was characterized by the emergence of personalism. Works include: Filosofiia istorii. Berlin, 1923; and PerÍ archón: Ideen zur christlichen Metaphysik. Memel, 1928. Further see: D Rubin. The Life and Thought of Lev Karsavin: Strength made Perfect in Weakness. Amsterdam Press. New York. 2013.  Exiled on Lenin’s Ship of Philosophers, he finally made his way to Lithuania where he was eventually caught up in the soviet invasion of that country, and spent the last two years of his life in the gulag.

[14] Obituary in: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 2 (New Series) No. 2. Spring 1958, p.48.

[15] Ibid. pp 47-48.

[16] La Vision de Dieu. Paris. 1961. English translation: The Vision of God. SVS Press. New York.

[17] Also including: Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. SVS Press. 2001; In the Image and Likeness of God. SVS Press. 1997; The Meaning of Icons. (with Leonid Ouspensky 1947; 2nd. ed. SVS Press. 1999); Sept jours sur les routes de France:  Editions Cerf. Paris. 1940 (repr. 1998); and Theologie Negative et Connaissance de Dieu Chez Maitre Eckhart Editions Vrin. 1960; repr. 2002.

[18] Beginning he suggests with St. Bernard – who I think not accidentally is regarded by the Latin church as ‘the last of the fathers.’

[19] V Lossky. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.  J. Clarke & Co. London 1957 (1968, 1973). pp. 8-11. Henceforward MTEC.

[20] By which he means ‘spiritual culture’; a personal relation with God in the nurturing ethos of the Church.

[21] Further on Lossky’s ecclesiological thought see: C Ioja. ‘Vladimir Lossky´s Hermeneutics of Tradition as a Patristic and Ecclesial Theology.’ International Journal of Orthodox Theology 3. 2 2012. 157-174.

[22] In his letter to Berdyaev (Nov. 23. 1935) Lossky first set out his philosophy of Apophaticism: ‘The dogmas of the church are basically apophatic in so far as they teach the intellect to reject its habitual ways of reasoning and testify to the limits and partial nature of its knowledge. This does not mean that the dogmas become manifest by something exterior to them, like a deus ex machine; it means that the Holy Spirit not only transmits the truth to the church but also reveals the ways to arrive at this truth, in a perfect, conscious, and creative manner. Yet the dialectic of this acquisition is different from that of any other art. At the outset there is the principle of obedience; that is, the recognition that the truth does not depend on my creative efforts, that I cannot add anything to it…’ (see. Arjakovsky. (2013). p. 393).

[23] Succinctly expressed in his First Theological Oration (Orat. 27), where he sets out the relation between divine revelation and human reason: the limits of comprehension and the intellective (that is noetic) response of the human creature to the gift of divine incomprehensibility, as illumined by the Holy Spirit.

[24] Rowan Williams has an interesting critique of this argument, demonstrating how much Lossky relies on western theological concepts to maintain this argument. c.f. R Williams. The Theology of VN Lossky: An Exposition and Critique. DPhil. Diss. Wadham College. Oxford. 1975. chs 4-5.

[25] Following from the insistence that the divine hypostases are the archetype and paradigm of total personal freedom, Lossky goes on to argue that human beings must never be understood in terms of fixed natures (‘pure nature’  understood as something distinct from divine grace he describes as a ‘philosophical fiction’ MTEC. 101) but have to be seen as quintessentially ‘mystical’, that is not simply accidental instances of a generic nature  but as wondrously unrepeatable persons who are radically free; transcendent even on regard to their own nature.

[26] ‘This dogmatic choice [the Filioque doctrine wherein the West departed from Eastern Christian trinitarian theology] was, for the one party as for the other, a spiritual commitment, a conscious taking of sides in a spiritual matter.’ Lossky. MTEC. 13.

[27] JD Zizioulas. Being As Communion. SVS Press. New York. 1985.

[28] R Williams. The Theology of VN Lossky: An Exposition and Critique. DPhil. Diss. (Wadham College). Oxford. 1975. (Prelude).

[29] Making the unknowable divine essence present to the creature through the life-giving energies.

[30] He spent a great deal of energy trying to interest Moscow in the Orthodox Western Rite movement. His contacts were Fr. Evgraph Kovalesky and especially Archimandrite Alexis Van der Mensbrugghe his colleague at St. Denys’ Institute (see: W.J. Grisbrooke, “Obituaries: Archbishop Alexis van der Mensbrugghe” in Sobornost 4.2 .1981. 212–216), who composed a Romano-hybrid liturgy for the Western rite. In 1953 Moscow disavowed them; but ROCOR admitted them to communion in 1959 (until 2013). It was an area where Fr. Schmemann deeply disagreed with Lossky as to the utility of this movement: see A Schmemann. ‘Some Reflection Upon ‘A Case Study” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 24.4 (1980), pp. 266–269. Further see A Arjakovsky. The Way: Religious Thinkers of the Russian Emigration and their Journal: 1925-1940. Univ. of Notre Dame Press. Indiana. 2013. p. 232.

[31] See, for example, my earlier studies: Gregory of Nazianzus. in: The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity. (ed.) L Gerson. CUP. Cambridge. 2011. vol. 1. pp. 482-497; and ‘The Shaping of the Soul’s Perceptions in the Byzantine Ascetic Elias Ekdikos.’ St. Vladimir’s Theol. Quarterly. 55. 3. 2011. 343-363.

[32] As Lossky says as his initial premise: ‘In the present work, therefore, the term ‘mystical theology’ denotes no more than a spirituality which expresses a doctrinal attitude.’ MTEC p.7.

[33] The Russian Philokalia.

[34] As Williams notes: ‘Lossky’s hostility to the conceptual mechanisms of Russian religious philosophy should not blind the student to the extent of his debt to the tradition. To deny this debt is to deny a great part of the creativity and comprehensive vision of Lossky’s system, his ability to transcend patrological fundamentalism in a theology which is, in every sense, personal.’ R. Williams. The Theology of VN Lossky: An Exposition and Critique. DPhil. Diss. Oxford. 1975. (preludium).

[35] Nicholas Lossky began studying the German idealists in Gottingen under Windelbant, Wundt, and Muller. In his subsequent career he became one of the most important Russian neo-idealists of his day. His gnosiology was a form of Intuitivist-Personalism which combined Hegelian dialectics of opposites and synthesis with a reading of the Greek fathers seen as an extension of late Platonic metaphysical principles. He synthesized Origen and Russian mystical writers such as Kireevsky, Khomyakov and the late works of Soloviev. His epistemological theory was central to his work advancing Kant’s problema of the way in which we approach immaterial conceptualization on the paradoxical basis of empirical (material) sense perceptions and vocabulary derived from them. Lossky senior argued that most of an object’s conceptual understanding is derived intuitively by the Nous, not discursively by empirical reason; and is abstracted from psychic sensory perception. He summed this up in his notion that: “all is imminent in all”. The Nous was for him the psyche’s own centre of awareness and served as the “organic connection” to the material object that was known, and to that extent all of our link to the external cosmos collectively. This was why, he argued, the existence of objects cannot be fully expressed in words, or properly grasped by purely logical constructs; since even the material cosmos bears the marks of uncreated energies, and have this character in them from their divine causation. Things such as love, freedom, kenosis, for example, thus being wholly outside the semantic range of empirical materialism. To signify that matter as well as energy has an uncreated, extra-empirical character, Lossky invented the phrase ‘substantive agent’. He mounted this philosophy as a re-presentation of Orthodox epistemological principles in opposition to dialectical materialism, nihilism, and forms of positivism, that maintained that objects have no integral essential reality behind their presentations to sense perception – positions that were in high vogue among the Bolshevik state philosophers. His theories are set out in three main studies: The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge «Обоснование интуитивизма» (1906); The Fundamental Problems of Epistemology «Основные вопросы гносеологии» (1919); and Mystical Intuition «Мистическая интуиция» (1941). Much of a similar approach to the Greek Fathers is also found in Vladimir’ Lossky’s teacher in Prague: Karsavin.

[36] Rowan Williams gives a very useful synopsis of the way 19th century Russian philosophy determined so much of this clash in the post war years, and how the reaction of the Neo-Idealists to Hegel and Kant set the agenda: ‘The problems of historical and national identity created by the Petrine reforms perhaps predisposed the Russians to Hegelianism, a philosophy very much rooted in a sense of historical conflict: the basic question of much 19th century Russian thought is the issue between voluntarism and historical determinism – that is, the problem of the relation of individual identity to corporate identity, of individual volition to corporate process. Russian religious philosophy attempts to discover a point of equilibrium between individualism and collectivism, a kind of personalism, in fact, which resolves the tension between the particular and the general by seeing the general in the particular. Different philosophers incline to different sorts of solution, depending largely upon whether they are (like Kireevsky) more concerned with the history and self-awareness of the Church (in which case they will tend to a very radical voluntarism), or (like Soloviev, and, to a lesser extent, Khomyakov) more interested in global or cosmic patterns (in which case they will tend to some sort of determinism). Soloviev’s use of the myth of ‘Sophia’ was to have an immense influence on those thinkers inclined to the latter school. By the turn of the century, the tension between the impulse to voluntarism and the metaphysical attraction of ‘sophiology’ has become acute.’  R. Williams. Diss. Oxford. 1975. (preludium).

[37] And arguably failed to address the epistemological issue in his responses.

[38]  N Berdyaev. ‘On Authority, Freedom and Humility.’ Put. 50. 1-4. 1936, pp. 3-26. cited in E.T. in Arjakovsky. The Way (2013) p. 394.

[39] Such an approach would allow us, for example to embrace such things as the contemporary human rights agenda, happily and positively, for all the good things it contains,  without being afraid that such a stance would commit us to the underlying post-Christian and secularist presuppositions often embedded there.

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Remembering Father Alexander Schmemann: Ministry and Vocation

Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was a world-renowned priest, professor, seminary dean, theologian, speaker, and author. His life was devoted to the liturgical renewal and revival within the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially the Orthodox Church in America. The following excerpts on priestly ministry are taken from a new book by Father William Mills (SVOTS ‘97) entitled Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation of Alexander Schmemann’s Pastoral Theology (Chicago, IL: Hillenbrand Books, 2012).

Fr. Alexander with Met. Kallistos Ware and Prof. David Drillock

Fr. Alexander with Met. Kallistos Ware and Prof. David Drillock

Father Schmemann strongly argues that there is no special or unique vocation of the priesthood other than to reveal to others the common vocation of the entire people of God: to always offer thanksgiving to God. He was adamant that any theological or doctrinal separation between the vocations of the clergy and the laity is a false one, which reduces the priesthood to a separate caste of people, much like the Levites in the Old Testament, and thereby encourages clericalism. According to Schmemann, “If there are priests in the Church, if there is the priestly vocation in it, it is precisely in order to make the whole life of all the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world.” Thus the priest fulfills the calling of everyone who is a member of the royal priesthood, to offer prayer and praise to God and become fully a priest over creation, always giving thanks for everything.

Schmemann begins his discussion on the ordained priesthood by speaking about what is asked of all Christians as stated by Jesus, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Likewise he regards the spiritual life as not something separate from daily existence, but something that organically flows from within, “In short, spiritual preparation of future priests consists in deepening by all possible means the Christian faith and life, in making religion not something added to life—as it is understood in our nominally Christian societies—but as life itself.”

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

When speaking about spiritual preparation for the priesthood, Schmemann also emphasizes the need for intellectual training and preparation as well. The candidate should read and pray the Scriptures, regularly attend worship, and practice the basic tenants of the Gospel: love, mercy, peace, forgiveness, humility, and generosity. He also emphasized that the priest must have a well-rounded theological education. He often fought against minimalism in the Church, especially in theological training. Since the priest is the main liturgical celebrant, as well as the primary teacher and preacher, he needs to be well versed in the doctrines of the faith, and needs to know intimately the Christian faith and teachings.

He also contends that since we work out our salvation in a specific culture and society, the priestly candidate should be well versed in contemporary ethical, moral, and political struggles and temptations, so that he can adequately address these issues and concerns in his sermons and teachings. He points out that in the age of the ecumenical councils, even the great theologians such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom were aware of the culture and society around them. The priest is called to engage the world in which he lives. In his journals, Schmemann frequently reflected on the current events of the day, always rooting them within the larger framework of the Gospel and salvation. At one point in his personal notes on pastoral theology, he says:

“All the great Fathers of the Church were well instructed in the “culture” of their time and it is evident that the proper understanding of Orthodox theology is simply impossible without good philosophical, historical, and literary preparation. One can memorize the catechism and decisions of the Ecumenical Councils but unless one’s mind is trained to understand them, this knowledge will remain dead and fruitless…”

Furthermore, Father Alexander identifies the need for practical preparation of the priestly candidate. Practical preparation includes knowledge of the outline of forms and services, the customs and traditions, practice and conduct of the local Church administration—which includes keeping parish records, and maintaining correspondence with bishops and other priests—as well as the ability to perform marriages, funerals, and memorial services. This liturgical element is especially important, as the congregation will themselves feel the tension and anxiety of a priest who does not feel comfortable at the altar. This also extends to delivering homilies. If a priest is not well prepared, the congregation will certainly know. This does not mean that the priest has to be the perfect liturgical celebrant, but he really ought to have enough understanding of the rites and rituals to perform the liturgy in a way that is prayerful and smooth, and can be understood by his parishioners.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Ultimately, priestly service is a ministry of love, founded on Love itself, Jesus Christ, who was sent into this world in order to show us how to love (emphasis added). A priest cannot be a priest apart from love. His only example is Christ himself, who repeatedly demonstrates his long-suffering love through his acceptance of the stranger and outsider, through his miracles, through acts of kindness such as the washing of the feet of his disciples, and ultimately through his own sacrifice on the cross. At Golgotha we see the greatest gift of love, the giving of oneself for the neighbor, a theme that comes up throughout the Scriptures. Golgotha is where Christ affirmed his role as the High Priest for us, where the unblemished Lamb was slain. Christ became the high priest so that we could continue his priestly ministry from generation to generation, as expressed in the Eucharistic offering. It is here in the Eucharist that the entire Church, clergy and laity, is seen side by side, fulfilling their priestly roles in different ways. The same Eucharist provides a lens through which we can re-envision pastoral care for the contemporary Church.

Fr. William C. Mills (SVOTS ‘97) is the rector of Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC and is also the author of A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010). 

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