Archive for August 7th, 2007

Finding the Problems at Home – Its All in Your Mind

August 7, 2007


If you like history (as I do) then there is always a temptation to look to history for answers. It is certainly the case that the present has much of its situation from the givens it inherited in its history. But we are none us completely explained by our forebears. I certainly have aspects inherited from my parents, but my personal world is still not the sole result of long historical forces at work.

We can see this in individuals – the interplay between the givenness of history and the freedom of the present – and we are not usually so thickheaded or prejudiced as to completely write-off another individual because of his history (racial, cultural or otherwise).

By the same token it is never accurate to describe the present situation of Christianity solely by its previous historical moments. It is certainly impossible to describe the present without a great deal of historical knowledge (particularly if your Church happens to be 2,000 years old and not started last Wednesday in a shopping center). Nevertheless, having described what happened in the filioque controversy or the Photian Schism is to describe a moment, or a century in the life of the Church and not everything that has happened since, much less its present situation.

Thus, although it is useful to describe East and West (as was done by the quote from Kireevsky in my previous posting), it is increasingly not descriptive of the present. The world is becoming a very small place indeed. Modes of thought in one place are easily transferred to another. Knowledge is becoming quite universal. For some strange reason I sat with my wife and watched part of a program last night on rhinoplasty (“nose jobs”) in modern day Iran. It was obvious that the influences were not the result of some critical moment in Iranian history, but from the global culture that reaches everywhere. The magazines and pictures the young women (and men) were admiring and using for describing their ideal noses, were all Western glamour magazines. Apparently a Western nose is to be preferred to a “Roman” nose (that was their term) even in Iran. Go figure.

There is certainly a set of doctrines that are unique to Orthodoxy, or certain doctrines that are absent from Orthodoxy. The services of the Church, in their congregant form, offer an understanding of God, salvation, and our relationship with Him that bears only occasional similarity to Western Christianity. The more modern the Christian form, the less it is likely to bear resemblance to this rich inheritance of the faith. Some look at this inheritance and write of the “mind” or “phronema” of the Church. Such a world-view can be cultivated – but only with a certain artificiality. What exists as truly the “mind” of the Church is described quite clearly in Philippians 2:5-11:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This mind of the Church has existed from the beginning and is our gift in Christ Jesus. It is to this mind that the writings of the Fathers bear witness and it is to this mind that the lives of the martyrs bear witness. It is not a particular Byzantine or Russian mind with which Orthodoxy should concern itself. To recover a particular historical mind is of no use. But the kenotic (emptying) mind of Christ is the true phronema of the Church. It is the love of God in action in the world. It is the mind that saves us because it makes us like God.

Every saint of the Church, to some degree, gave evidence of this very mind. Every sin within the membership of the Church betrays the absence of this mind. Every murder, every adultery, every theft, every idle word of gossip bears witness that the mind of Christ is not present, or, if present, is being spurned for a darker, and deviant mind.

I have no ecumenical axe to grind, no agenda that I must see accomplished. But I know that the stated purpose of God will not be brought about without the mind which is ours in Christ Jesus:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him… (Ephesians 1:2-10).

Such a mind will not come about as a result of mastering historical argument or spiritual one-upsmanship. It comes through the slow work of prayer, repentance, fasting – in short – the full ascestical tradition of the Church.

Theology, the Slavophiles, and the Parish Church

August 7, 2007


Ivan Kireevsky was born on April 3, 1806, and became in the course of his lifetime one of the leading intellectual forces in the group who would later be called the Slavophiles. They were interested in a revival in Russian thought, particularly along lines they considered distinctly Russian – in comparison to Western thought. Many have noted their errors: sometimes they went too far in making distinctions with the West; sometimes they identified distinctives as Russian that were not Russian at all. But their essential instinct was not incorrect. Russia was under a deluge of Western thought, a love affair with everything identified as “progressive” and “new” in Western Europe. Some of these ideas would eventually play their tragic role in the Revolutions of the 20th century. But an interest in the Slavophiles has continued, not only for historical interest, but also because their insights, if not perfect, frequently held merit. Later thinkers, far better trained, such as Fr. Georges Florovsky, would do a much better job of sorting through the ultimate sources of certain ideas, but the instinct that there was a voice within Orthodoxy that needed to learn to speak for itself and had something of value to say to the rest of the Christian world must, in part, be credited to the Slavophiles. Following is a short excerpt from one of Kireevsky’s essays:

Hence, apart from their different concepts, East and West also differed in the very method of theological and philosophical thinking. For, in seeking to arrive at the truth of speculation, Eastern thinkers were primarily concerned with the proper inner condition of the thinking spirit, while Western thinkers were more interested in the external coherence of concepts. Eastern thinkers, striving for the fullness of truth, sought the inner wholeness of reason – that heart, so to speak. of intellectual powers, where all the separate activities of the spirit merge into a higher and living unity. In contrast, Western philosophers assumed that the complete truth could be discerned by the separated faculties of the mind, acting independently in isolation. They used one faculty to understand moral matters, and another to grasp aesthetic ones; for practical affairs they had yet another; matters of truth were apprehended by the abstract understanding. And none of these faculties knew what any of the others was doing until its action was completed. They assumed that each path led to a final goal, which had to be attained before all paths could unite in combined motion. They deemed frigid ratiocination and the unrestrained sway of sincere passions to be equally legitimate human states; and when Western scholars in the fourteenth century learned that the Eastern contemplative thinkers sought to preserve the serenity of inner wholeness of the spirit, they ridiculed the idea and invented various mocking appellations for it.

From “On the Nature of European Culture and on Its Relationship to Russian Culture”

Here Kireevsky offers a very rich phrase: “the inner wholeness of reason.” This does not seek to attack reason (as I have occasionally seemed to do of late) but rather places it within a context that is unlike its place in modern thought. To be “more concerned with the proper inner condition of the thinking spirit” precisely identifies the Orthodox concern for avoiding delusion. Reason and every other human faculty are not independent of the person in whom they take place. A state of inner confusion or of enslavement to the passions will result in poor reason as well as poor everything else. Thus the first step in Orthodox thought is generally concerned with the inner battle with the passions. Ideas cannot be separated from those who speak them.

In is for this reason that Orthodoxy properly hearkens back to the Fathers, and expects holiness of life to be a rich component even of its contemporary writers. It is for this reason that Orthodoxy famously says, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” For the unity of the inner life is the rich field from which the fruit of the Kingdom is harvested. It is why the question, “Do you know God?” is an important theological and philosophical question and not merely a curiosity left to confessors. If you do not know God, why should I read anything you have written about him?

This insight is a call to repentance to the madness of the Western academy – where publishing books that attack the Tradition are a quicker means of advancement than any concern with the inner life. The result in the West has been to install wolves in the citadels of virtually every teaching institution in the West. There are notable exceptions – particularly among Orthodox academic institutions. The Catholic Church has sought to reign in their own academics, though Protestant thought has almost completely lost its place at the academic table, having been supplanted by radical revisionism.

I recall in 1990, sitting with friends at Duke University who were completing their PhD’s. There was a sense of gloom among those who were believers and conservative in their theological work. The possibility of a job at a first rate institution was almost null. The sadness was that such jobs were being lost to a competition whose credentials were political rather than real.

For me, the growing question was where such thought should take place at all. I came to the conclusion that the parish Church was perhaps the more proper place for theology to be done in our modern world. Not because the local Church had a library – but because it could have a prayer life – and a hunger for God. In time that decision proved most correct. The feast of theology that exists for an Orthodox Christian is to be found in his Church’s prayers. If those same prayers become the language of the heart the result will always be theology – as it was meant to be.