Archive for January 20th, 2008

The Theological Task of Orthodoxy – A Further Word

January 20, 2008


Last October I ran the following quote from Fr. Georges Florovsky:

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.” – Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

Florovsky is arguably the most important Orthodox voice of the 20th century. He argued and demonstrated time and again what he referred to as a “neo-patristic synthesis,” a clarion call for Orthodox theology to return to its roots in the Fathers and within the Orthodox Tradition. Many would today be surprised that Orthodox theology was ever otherwise – but in Florovsky’s youth, theological academies in Russia were heavily influenced by the West (from both Protestant and Catholic directions – classes in some cases were conducted in Latin), as well as those in Greece and elsewhere. There are few Orthodox theologians writing today, who have not drunk deep from the wells that Florovsky argued for. Vladimir Lossky was a protege; Met. John Zizioulas considered himself a student of Florovsky; Fr. Alexander Schmemann was a colleague both in France and in America. The landscape of Orthodox theology at the beginning of the 21st century would likely look much different had Florovsky not lived and wrote and taught.

His own view of the role of Orthodox theology, written in the mid-twentieth century, would likely have to be revised at this point in the early 21st century, even though the task he set for Orthodox theology has never been completed (and rarely attempted). The landscape of the Church has changed. The Orthodox Church that Florovsky addressed consisted almost entirely of those who had been born to the faith. Though revolution and other circumstances had created a “diaspora,” placing many Orthodox in the West – the Church was still an Eastern Church with converts being rare and frequently turned away.

Today, Orthodoxy in America is quickly becoming “native.” Both converts whose roots have always been in the West, as well as the descendants of original diaspora Orthodox becoming “Westernized,” the Orthodox Church in many places in the West today can speak of itself as “Eastern” only as an historical artifact. Its converts have not become “Eastern” in the process of becoming Orthodox – we have not become citizens of a foreign culture. Deeply influenced and immersed in Eastern experience – yes. But I would contend that converts have become to a great extent individual examples of Florovsky’s original proposal. They are now Orthodox Christians who have personally experienced the “western religious tragedy.” As a result of that tragedy they have come to Orthodoxy, but never as a tabula rasa. Every convert who enters the Church brings with them, in some fashion, the inheritance of centuries – problems not of their own creation but inherent to the West and to the modern Western world. To a large extent the problems of the “West” have now become universal problems for the simple reason that Western culture has become the dominant culture of the world. Others have our problems whether they want them or not. As converts within the West or even just Orthodox living in the West the inner encounter between Orthodoxy and Western experience is unavoidable.

Thus I see Florovsky as a “prophet” of sorts, but with the playing field drastically changed. He did not see the consequences of an Orthodoxy that could speak English (or French, or Spanish, or any number of other “Western” languages). Interestingly, my primary dogmatics professor, when I was an Anglican seminarian, had done his doctoral work under Florovsky at Harvard. His voice and vision echoed in that professor’s classes. How many Anglicans wrote papers on St. Gregory Palamas in earlier decades? I can recall reading Palamas (who was just beginning to be translated into English) and bringing his thought to bear on the problems raised in my theology classes. It was Florovsky’s vision – but in an entirely different setting. It is not surprising that I should have eventually become Orthodox – it is where the answers to my questions had always been.

Today, in ways and in places that many would not think of as “theological” in the formal sense, Florovsky’s vision is being fulfilled. We are the West – all of us who live here and many who do not. And within our own hearts is the crucible of Western tragedy meeting the patristic synthesis of the Orthodox East. At first the encounter can feel almost schizophrenic. It is all too easy to simply be anti-Western. But this is not an answer – just a reaction. God is not anti-Western, else He would have withheld Orthodoxy from us. But He has not withheld it. He has plunged it into the very midst of our culture with the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. And in the hearts of His people this great encounter of patristic theology – the living inheritance of the Christian Church – meets all the various forms that the “Western religious tragedy” has taken. I believe the meeting that takes place in the heart is not to condemn the tragedy (for Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world) but that through such an encounter the tragedy might be raised from its own brokenness into the fullness of the Church.

I write as an Orthodox Christian – but I cannot pretend that there is nothing “Western” in what I do. Who would I be kidding? By the same token, I daresay that no other Orthodox writer in the West, including those born within the faith, can claim to do otherwise. Florovsky’s vision is not an enterprise to be undertaken – it is a prophecy of an inevitability. It is an inevitability because God so loved the world. There are no tragedies that God does not take into Himself – no failures that he has disowned. He has become what we are that we might become what He is – and it is happening before our very eyes.