Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, prioress of the Monastery of St. James the Mangled in Qâra, Syria, gave a talk yesterday evening at St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cleveland, titled What is Really Happening in Syria Today? I made a point of attending, having first heard about Mother Agnes-Mariam and her work a couple of months ago. In September, in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on East Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus, she presented a report to the United Nations in Geneva, pointing out that some of the children who were shown as victims in the amateur videos that began circulating on the internet on the morning of the attack had been kidnapped by rebels two weeks earlier after a massacre by rebel forces in the town of Latakia; also, in different videos, purportedly filmed at different locations, the same dead children reappear. In brief, the children were cynically used as props. (A brief summary of the report, written by Mother Agnes-Mariam herself, along with a link to the PDF of the full report, will be found here.)

Most of Mother Agnes-Mariam’s talk yesterday centered upon the work of the organization she heads, Mussalaha (“Reconciliation”), described as “a popular movement in Syria that mediates disputes and organizes ceasefires between opposing forces.” It became clear to me, in hearing her speak, that her peace activism in Syria long preceded the incident in August that nearly brought about US airstrikes; in her talk, she described some of the more memorable incidents in which she and her organization had made a difference. She seems to have a rare ability to maintain communications with all the different sides in this war, not excluding the Al Nusra Front. (I should qualify that: she explicitly stated that the aim of her organization is to promote reconciliation among the various Syrian parties in this war; she does not negotiate with the foreign jihadists who have flocked to the country.) One of her most moving stories concerned a local meeting in (I think) Aleppo between opposing political forces; the meeting was full of mutual recriminations, and nothing was getting done. Then a man, attending the meeting, related the story of the kidnapping of his only son, named Fayyad, 20-years-old. He and his wife tried for months to secure his release. One day, he received a phone call; the voice asked, “would you like to see your son?” The father replied, “Of course, we are ready to do whatever you ask.” The voice replied that, okay, they would bring him. The father and mother were overjoyed, and anticipated meeting their son. Two days later a car drove by their house, very fast; when the parents opened the door, they found a bag containing the remains of their son Fayyad, who had been hacked into pieces. But the point of the story, as Mother Agnes-Mariam told it, was not the heinous crime as such. The man who told the story said to the warring factions that, although the death of his son was a crime without justification, a loss that had taken away his reason for living, and that, if there was anyone there who had good reason for wanting to seek revenge, it was him, he was, nevertheless, there and then, forgiving his enemies, and beseeching them all, for the good of Syria, to forgive each other. This man, as Mother Agnes-Mariam pointed out, was a Sunni Muslim. She said this, pointing out that this kind of reconciliation is open to all, and is the only way forward if Syria is to have a future.

Like a lot of people, I have been much preoccupied over the past year by what is going on in Syria; in general, I see my own government’s policies there as shameful, duplicitous, and motivated more by calculations of geopolitics than by any genuine concern for the people in that country who are suffering and dying. It is easy to become cynical about what is going on, both in Washington and in Syria itself. It is easy to despair, or to be critical. Mother Agnes-Mariam is one courageous woman who, instead of despairing about the situation, is there on the ground actively doing something about it. She is certainly critical about lies that are told to perpetuate the war; yet the focus of her effort is not there, but on the process of reconciliation which is necessary if all the various parties are to live in peace. She is going to be in the United States for the next month, raising support for her ministry; if she plans to speak in your town, I would urge you to go and hear what she has to say.

Happy Easter

March 31, 2013

I have not written anything on this blog for a long time; indeed, some readers (if this blog still has readers) may wonder to find me still among the living. But I would like, first, to wish those who celebrated today Christ’s resurrection a Happy Easter. For myself, due to an unusually long gap this year between the dates of Orthodox Easter (or Pascha, if you prefer*) on the one hand and Catholic and Protestant Easter on the other, I shall not be celebrating the paschal feast until May 5th, along with the rest of the Orthodox world. (This discrepancy is rooted in a difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars; more precisely, it arises from the fact that the Orthodox churches, or most of them, use the date of the vernal equinox on the Julian calendar — March 21st Julian = April 3rd Gregorian — to calculate the feast day, even though this date now falls 13 or 14 days later than the actual, astronomical vernal equinox. The Orthodox calculation of Easter — first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox — also requires that the feast come after Passover: that is, after the whole seven days of that feast are concluded. But there are so many minutiae involved in the calculation of Easter that even the above description is doubtless only partially complete; for instance, there is a full moon this year on April 25th, so why isn’t Orthodox Easter celebrated on the Sunday immediately following this, April 28th? I don’t know, and I despair of knowing.) Most Orthodox I speak with feel the discrepancy between Easter dates is silly and scandalous, and wish that a common date could be arrived at. It won’t be, mainly because the bishops know that any further changes to the calendar would only exacerbate existing divisions amongst the Orthodox — it would further aggravate and complicate the New Calendar / Old Calendar split that already plagues us.

The month of March 2013 has been a bitter one for me and my family. My sister died on March 6th, a cousin’s wife drowned on March 12th, an uncle died today of old age. My address list is slowly being transformed into a necrology, as I write the dates of death next to the names of the people I know. My sister, Ann Gilbert Ortiz, would have been 60 years old in May; she died of cancer, which she had fought for some twenty years. She was a gentle, decent person, loving towards her family, kind to friends and strangers. Human beings are unique and irreplaceable. I console myself sometimes with the thought that, if God took my sister away at this time, it was perhaps because there are miseries in store that he didn’t want her to have to see. I’m glad that my mother didn’t have to witness 9/11 and all the hysteria that followed it.

I like Pope Francis. I particularly like his economics. As for those who grumble because he does not countenance blessing homosexual unions as holy matrimony, well, neither does the New Testament (see Romans ch. 1, if you are in any doubt concerning this). He is simply doing his job, which is to defend the moral and doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church.

I suppose I have said enough. Again, Happy Easter.

*Some Orthodox boldly assert that “we don’t celebrate Easter — we celebrate Pascha.” See, for instance, an article from the Orthodox Information Center — which also makes the ingenious excuse for ignoring the astronomical date of the vernal equinox, that to observe it would require that the feast be celebrated on different dates in the northern and southern hemispheres. As though the fathers of the Nicene Council, when they laid down canons for a common celebration for the paschal feast, and tied it to the date of the vernal equinox, left it equivocal which hemisphere’s vernal equinox they meant — or else did not mean to speak of the astronomical vernal equinox, but instead meant to fix a particular date on the Julian calendar in perpetuum, however far that calendar might diverge from astronomical reality. Thus, we “observe days, and months, and times, and years” (Gal 4:10). And we are proud of this, as it shows us how deeply spiritual we are.

As part of an ongoing series of lectures at my church here in Cleveland, I was asked to give a talk this past Sunday; I chose to do so on the topic of Creation and Evolution. Aside from certain initial problems connecting my laptop computer to the projector, the presentation went fairly well. I used the following outline as a basis for the talk, although it should be said that, because of time constraints, not everything in the outline was actually touched upon during the lecture.

Creation and Evolution: Some thoughts on Earth history and its significance for Orthodox Christianity (16 December 2012)

  1. Introduction
    1. Who am I, and why am I talking about evolution?
      1. Peter Gilbert. I teach these days at a private Catholic school in South Euclid; I also taught for seven years at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, and, for three and a half years, I taught at the Orthodox seminary in Durrës, Albania.
      2. I am not a biologist. In matters of biology, I am what might be called an educated layman. My doctorate is in church history, from the Catholic University of America. However, last year at the Lyceum School I was asked to teach a biology class, amongst a number of other subjects.… I also taught biology from time to time at a college in New Mexico, St. John’s College (although the approach to the subject there differed from what you would find at most colleges; it does not presuppose biological expertise on the part of the instructor).
      3. Another personal note. Some twenty years ago, I taught in Albania at the Orthodox Seminary of the Resurrection in Durrës. Albania had recently emerged from forty years of Communism, of the most virulent kind; the persecution of religion in Albania was about as bad as it gets. And one result of the communist indoctrination that my students had been through is that almost all of them took it for granted that, if one accepts evolution as a fact, then one is an atheist; if one is a believer, then one rejects evolution. Because Fr. Luke Veronis knew that that was not my view, he asked me, at one point, to speak about this subject at a student forum at the University of Tirana. I did so. It wasn’t a very good lecture; it showed me, in fact, how little I really knew about this subject. But it did increase my interest in the question. The present forum is, in a way, an opportunity for me to revise the thoughts that I first tried to formulate then.
      4. One other thing. When I was four years old, I visited the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens, NY. It helped to produce an interest in dinosaurs that was probably my first scientific interest. That interest never entirely disappeared, although it was eclipsed by other things over time, and I did not, in the end, become a paleontologist.
    2. The importance of the question.
      1. Evolution is not merely a scientific issue, but is also a political one, particularly in the United States. It has been debated in American courts since the Scopes’ trial in the 1920s.
  2. The Earth History time chart

    1. A good synoptic presentation of the current scientific consensus view of geological chronology. Has the advantage that, unlike most such charts, it is to scale. It takes the form of a clock; thus, one can get a better sense of how short a time humanity has been upon the earth.
    2. Radiometric dating, based on a knowledge of the “half lives” of unstable elements, is one source of this chart. But, in fact, it brings together findings from numerous sources.
  3. The Tree of Life (include a slide of this as part of your presentation).
    1. Note that, when you were young, living things were divided into “Plants” and “Animals.” The biological consensus nowadays is that things are much more complicated than this. You might have to explain what the words “Prokaryote” and “Eukaryote” mean. (κάρυον = “nut”)

  4. Two meanings of the word “evolution”
    1. The two meanings are often confused, and this is one reason why much of the debate over whether evolution is or is not a “theory” is so pointless.
    2. On the one hand, the word refers to the claim that species have come into being and gone out of existence over the earth’s long history, and that new species in some way derive from earlier ones. This claim deserves to be called, not a theory, but a fact, testified to by all the evidence of geology and paleontology.
    3. On the other hand, a theory meant to account for the factual evidence. Usually refers to what Charles Darwin called “natural selection,” or, Descent with Modification. A theory first presented in 1859, jointly by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
      1. This view claims that new species appear because certain individuals are better fitted to their environment, more able to survive, than others are and, thus, are better able to pass on their peculiar characteristics to their offspring. The claim is made that, over a series of generations, such peculiarities in the offspring can accumulate to the point where one must speak, not merely of a variant breed within the species, but of a different species.
      2. This is a theory, but it is a theory accepted by the vast majority of biologists as being consistent with observable facts: e.g., with the fossil record, with mutations seen in rapidly multiplying populations (like microorganisms), and with the evidence of genetics. It is a theory much in the same way that, say, quantum theory is a “theory”: there are still questions surrounding it, but virtually every working scientist accepts this hypothesis as basically correct and as accounting for the evidence. (People who say “only a theory” when talking about evolution do not know what science is.)
      3. There have been other theories of evolution besides the darwinian one. Notably, the view of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was that characteristics acquired during a creature’s lifetime were passed down to its offspring. Others in the eighteenth century (Lord Monboddo; Erasmus Darwin) also held various evolutionary views.
    4. Darwin’s theory of natural selection received substantial support in the mid-20th century with the growth of the study of genetics, in particular with the deciphering of the molecular structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) by Watson and Crick in the 1950’s. The union of darwinian theory with genetics constitutes what is usually called the modern evolutionary synthesis.
  5. Four theological attitudes towards evolution:
    1. Rejection (1): Young Earth Creationism
      1. Takes the biblical chronology literally (Archbp. James Ussher).
      2. Sees the earth to have been created in 4004 B.C.; takes the six days of Genesis ch. 1 as 24-hour days.
      3. Worth noting that some of the fathers of the Church, e.g., St. Augustine, already rejected this position, without the benefit of Geology.
    2. Rejection (2): “Intelligent Design”
      1. Might be called “Old Earth Creationism”: at least, most of those who hold this position are willing to concede the geological evidence that the earth is very old.
      2. Holds that natural causes cannot fully account for the complexity observed in life forms, and that an Intelligent Designer has to be posited, even on scientific grounds. (I.e., it posits the inadequacy of natural science, and naturalistic explanation, in the presence of the facts of biology.)
      3. Its favorite expression is “irreducible complexity.” One favorite example of this, an argument advanced by Michael Behe: the flagellum of a particular species of bacteria is described as a kind of perfect molecular machine, any of whose parts would be useless except as working in concert with the whole.
        1. I have read a response to this position by a biologist who is also a practicing Catholic, who points out that some of the parts of this machine have been observed in other organisms, serving entirely different functions, which undercuts the whole intelligent design argument. (Rather like the way the carpal bones, which in primates serve as fingers, function in bats as a support for wings.)
      4. Much of the activity of the advocates of Intelligent Design is meant (designed) to affect the science curriculum at public schools in the United States. Such attempts at influencing school curricula have generally been rejected in the courts, e.g. in the case Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover (December 20, 2005), which ruled that the school board’s biology curriculum, which included Intelligent Design as an alternative to the darwinian account, “violates the Establishment Clause” of the Constitution.
    3. Acceptance (1): Theistic Evolution
      1. Sees evolution as compatible with Christian belief (or Jewish or Muslim). Evolution, on this view, is God’s way of creating new species, just as natural geological processes may be held responsible for the present physical shape of the earth.
        1. For this reason, this view is sometimes called “evolutionary creationism.”
      2. Implies that certain passages of scripture must be read allegorically, a position which, it may be said, is nothing new; Origen, in the third century, said the same thing.
      3. The current pope and his immediate predecessor both expressed support for theistic evolution. So did Cardinal Newman in the 19th century; he thought Darwin’s theory could be accommodated within the doctrine of divine providence.
    4. Acceptance (2): Atheistic Evolution
      1. Sometimes called “radical Darwinism” or “Neo-Darwinism.”
      2. Examples: Richard Dawkins; Stephen Jay Gould
      3. Take the view that evolution is necessarily atheistic, that it rules out any divine action in the origination of species. Evolution, these authors stress, is a mechanical process, and depends on certain changes happening randomly and automatically, without design. Such authors love to point to apparently improvidential features in natural history, as a way of arguing that divinity had no hand in bringing about the forms of life we see.
        1. My own view is that, when biologists start making theological claims about what God can or cannot do, they usually show their theological incompetence. They make God out to be one observable cause among many. The presumption is that God can only act miraculously, outside of the normal order of things, and cannot act through this order, cannot, in fact, have set it up.
  6. Attitudes towards evolution taken by Orthodox theologians
    1. Against
      1. Fr. Seraphim Rose (wrote Genesis, Creation, and Early Man)
      2. One of the founders of the Discovery Institute (an Intelligent Design think tank) is an Orthodox Christian. (See if you can find out his name before the lecture.) [William Dembski]
      3. The late Patriarch of Moscow, Alexei II.
      4. Under Protestant influence, a creationist institute was established in Russia not long ago. Titled “Shestodnev” (Creatio), it was blessed in May 2000 by Patriarch Alexei II. It “conducts conferences, arranges disputes, publishes books, and is actively involved in Internet projects. It places itself as an orthodox society for the defense, study, and revealing the essence of [the] Holy Fathers’ doctrine about the Creation of the World.” As in the United States, attempts have been made in Russia in recent years to include “creation science” as part of the science curriculum in the public schools; one famous case involved a Maria Schreiber, who “refused to study biology in school, saying her world outlook is in contradiction to the one Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on.” The case was brought to court; on February 21, 2007, the Russian court rejected the girl’s case; it has been labeled the “Russian monkey trial.”
    2. For
      1. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Metropolitan John Zizioulas. Most likely, the present Patriarch of Constantinople (the “Green” Patriarch).
        1. Metropolitan Kallistos:
        2. http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=DYKGPGNX
        3. “Religion and science are working on different levels and are following different methods, and using different kinds of evidence. And, indeed, what each is saying is relevant for the other, but we mustn’t confuse these two levels of discourse. The scientist is working from the evidence of our senses, the theologian, the religious thinker, is using the data of revelation, scripture. So here are two different forms of evidence, and two different ways of arguing. As I see it, there need not be any conflict between religion and science, if each is properly understood, because they are answering different kinds of question. The scientist is telling us what there is in the universe, and he is also saying, as far as we can discover, how the universe came to exist in the form which it now has, by what stages it developed. In the religious sphere, we are asking why was the world created, and what is the purpose of our life on earth. Now, in my view, those are not strictly scientific questions, and the scientist does not claim to answer them, though what he tells us about how the world is and how it came to be the way it is may help us to answer these religious questions. Some scientists would say that the question Why is there a universe, where did it come from, what existed before the Big Bang, some scientists would say that these are simply non-questions, which shouldn’t be asked. But in fact these are questions which as human beings we want to ask and need to ask. But I don’t think the scientist, simply on the basis of his scientific discipline, can answer them.

        1. What about the theory of evolution? Very many Orthodox reject this; some of them uphold a form of intelligent design; I don’t care very much for the theory of intelligent design, because I believe it is mixing the levels of science and religion in an unhelpful way. For myself as an Orthodox, I have no difficulty in accepting the evolutionary picture of the universe that is presented by modern science. And I think we shouldn’t say that evolution is merely a theory or speculation; the evidence is very powerful. I don’t find a problem here for my faith as an Orthodox Christian. It is possible for God to work through evolution. He did not have to create everything as it is now in the beginning; he could work through the evolutionary process. But of course, in saying that, we’re moving outside the realm of science, which is not going to make statements of that kind. Again, from the religious point of view, we wish to affirm that human beings have a unique status in the universe, because they are made in the image and likeness of God. The human being is not merely a superior ape. But again, using a phrase like ‘the image and likeness of God’ we are saying something about human beings that science can neither confirm nor deny. We are moving outside the scientific area. So, I believe that a correct understanding of science and the way it works can indeed help our task as religious thinkers, but we need to keep a proper distinction; and if the distinction is kept, I do not think we need see science as a threat. Thank you.”
      1. the late Theodosius Dobzhansky, geneticist and Russian Orthodox Christian (“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”)
      2. Dr. George Theokritoff, geologist (a friend of mine who lives in New Jersey)
      3. Alexander Kalomiros.
      4. Fr. George Nicozisin. http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/dogmatics/nicozisin_creationism.htm
      5. “The Eastern Fathers, generally speaking, did not take a fundamentalist viewpoint of creation. For example, Vladimir Lossky, a great Orthodox theologian of the past century, says in his famous book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, ‘The Church always freely makes use of philosophy and the sciences for apologetic (explanatory) purposes, but she never has any cause to defend these relative and changing truths as she defends the unchangeable truth of her doctrines.’”
      6. Sees the only possible conflict between the scientific account and Christian doctrine in connection with the understanding of Adam.
      7. Yours truly
    1. Some describe this difference as that between “dualism” and “compatibilism” — on the one hand, the view that view that science and faith are philosophically incompatible, that science rests upon a philosophical naturalism that denies faith necessarily; and, on the other hand, the view that both scripture and the physical world are divine revelation, and testify to the same God.
      1. The compatibilist position might be summed up by a statement of the late Pope John Paul II, who said (in connection with the question of evolution) that “truth cannot contradict truth.”
    2. My guess is that, at most Orthodox seminaries (certainly in America), the prevalent view accepts evolution as a scientific fact.
  1. Theological problems that evolution raises for Christian belief
    1. How to interpret the Genesis account(s) of creation. In particular:
      1. What is meant by the “days of creation”? (As mentioned, that already received an allegorizing response from the fathers of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries.)
      2. If human beings are descended from earlier forms of life, and if man is genetically related to all other known life forms, then how are we to understand the fundamental scriptural claim, that man is created “in the image and likeness of God”?
        1. Genetic inheritance does not preclude essential difference.
    2. Who was Adam?
    3. How to understand the doctrine of the fall of man.
      1. If the whole story of evolution presupposes death, how is one to understand the claim, that the sin of Adam and Eve brought death into the world?
    4. The official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is that, while one may accept evolution as an explanation for Adam’s body, one must hold that Adam’s soul was independently created, by a special act of God, and is not merely the result of natural evolution. Some Orthodox priests I have spoken to hold essentially the same position. Pope Pius XII also declared that one must hold Adam to have been a real individual person.
      1. This does raise the question, though, of the status of earlier hominids. For example, it is now known that Neanderthal DNA is present in both European and Asian human beings, constituting about 2% of their genome. Similarly, Australian aborigines have been found to possess DNA deriving from Denisovan man. Is one to include the Neanderthals and Denisovan man amongst the children of Adam?
      2. Some years ago, on the basis of a comparative study of mitochondrial DNA, it was announced that all current human beings could be traced back to a single mother.
  2. Final reflections.
    1. Why this question is important.
      1. At once a religious, a scientific, and a political question.
      2. If, like the present Patriarch of Constantinople, one is an environmentalist, one cannot ignore evolution. To understand how the world is in the present, one has to understand how it has been in the past.
      3. One’s attitude towards this question has a number of practical consequences. If one thinks that the earth is 6,000 years old, one will not be terribly concerned about, say, the inherent limitations in the earth’s supply of fossil fuels. If one is a new earth creationist, everything in the past is, in some sense, miraculous; the apparent necessity for hundreds of millions of years of geological processes for petroleum to be naturally produced is, on this reading, merely an illusion. Nor will one take much thought about global warming, or the idea that there have been, in the earth’s history, major extinction events, most of them having to do with changes in the earth’s climate.
    2. The debate concerns fundamental matters of faith, how one understands the world and God’s activity as “Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.” The issue is not going to go away.

From the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website.

Prot. No. 718


By the Mercy of God
Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome
And Ecumenical Patriarch
To the Fullness of the Church
Grace and Peace from the Creator
and Sustainer of All Creation
Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ

Beloved brothers and children in the Lord,

Our God, who created the universe and formed the earth as a perfect dwelling place for humanity, granted us the commandment and possibility to increase, multiply and fulfill creation, with dominion over all animals and plants.

The world that surrounds us was thus offered to us as a gift by our Creator as an arena of social activity but also of spiritual sanctification in order that we might inherit the creation to be renewed in the future age. Such has always been the theological position of the Holy Great Church of Christ, which is the reason why we have pioneered an ecological effort on behalf of the sacred Ecumenical Throne for the protection of our planet, which has long suffered from us both knowingly and unknowingly.

Of course, biodiversity is the work of divine wisdom and was not granted to humanity for its unruly control. By the same token, dominion over the earth and its environs implies rational use and enjoyment of its benefits, and not destructive acquisition of its resources out of a sense of greed. Nevertheless, especially in our times, we observe an excessive abuse of natural resources, resulting in the destruction of the environmental balance of the planet’s ecosystems and generally of ecological conditions, so that the divinely-ordained regulations of human existence on earth are increasingly transgressed. For instance, all of us – scientists, as well as religious and political leaders, indeed all people – are witnessing a rise in the atmosphere’s temperature, extreme weather conditions, the pollution of ecosystems both on land and in the sea, and an overall disturbance – sometimes to the point of utter destruction – of the potential for life in some regions of the world.

Inasmuch as the Mother Church perceives and evaluates the ensuing dangers of such ecological conditions for humanity, already from the time of our blessed predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios, [it has] established September 1st of each year as a day of prayer for the natural environment. Yet, we are obliged to admit that the causes of the aforementioned ecological changes are not inspired by God but initiated by humans. Thus, the invocation and supplication of the Church and us all to God as the Lord of lords and Ruler of all for the restoration of creation are essentially a petition of repentance for our sinfulness in destroying the world instead of working to preserve and sustain its ever-flourishing resources reasonably and carefully.

When we pray to and entreat God for the preservation of the natural environment, we are ultimately imploring God to change [the] mindset of the powerful in the world, enlightening them not to destroy the planet’s ecosystem for reasons of financial profit and ephemeral interest. This in turn, however, also concerns each one of us inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage in our individual capacity and ignorance. Therefore, in praying for the natural environment, we are praying for personal repentance for our contribution – smaller or greater – to the disfigurement and destruction of creation, which we collectively experience regionally and occasionally through the immense phenomena of our time.

In addressing this appeal, petition and exhortation from the sacred Center of Orthodoxy to all people throughout the world, we pray that our gracious Lord, who granted this earthly paradise to all people dwelling on our planet, will speak to the hearts of everyone so that we may respect the ecological balance that He offered in His wisdom and goodness, so that both we and future generations will enjoy His gifts with thanksgiving and glorification.

May this divine wisdom, peace and power, which created and sustains and guides all creation in its hope for salvation in the kingdom, always maintain the beauty of the world and the welfare of humanity, leading all people of good will to produce fruitful works toward this purpose. And we invoke His grace and mercy on all of you, particularly those who respect and protect creation. Amen.

September 1, 2012

Looking through an old notebook last night, I found some brief notes which I jotted down during an ordination on April 12, 1998 (Palm Sunday) in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Tirana, Albania; I thought I would share them here. The man being ordained to the priesthood was Deacon Llazar Çullai; the speaker was Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana. The epistle reading on which the Archbishop was commenting was, apparently, Philippians 4: 4-9. I must assume that His Beatitude was speaking in Greek or Albanian, and that I was translating on the spot.

  1. Rejoice in the Lord always. This applies to all Christians, but especially to the priests. This joy is something he has to transmit to others. Seek to be a kind person. A harsh priest causes the faithful to depart. He cannot, in this manner, represent the God of love.
  2. Do everything with prayer. A priest should be a man of continual prayer. Not only with his lips, but with his heart. Both in our troubles, and in our joys, we should pray.
  3. We continually hear the word “peace” in the liturgy. A priest should seek to be a man of peace. In times like these we need to show ourselves as people of peace.
  4. The Lord is near. The priest has to know this always. Another meaning: The Lord is coming. In his second coming, in which he will judge us. In a few minutes you will be ordained. You will be bearing the body of Christ in your hands. Recognize that you will be judged according to how you fulfil this calling.

I just learned that Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) has resigned as primate of the Orthodox Church in America. He submitted his letter of resignation this past Friday, July 6; the bishops of the synod, meeting by conference call, accepted his resignation the following day, and, today, appointed Archbishop Nathaniel of Detroit as locum tenens and Bishop Peter of New York as temporary Administrator of the O.C.A. The text of Metropolitan Jonah’s letter of resignation, taken from the OCA website, reads as follows:

“To the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America,


“As per your unanimous request, as conveyed to me by Chancellor Fr. John Jillions, I hereby tender my resignation as Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and humbly request another Episcopal assignment.

“I had come to the realization long ago that that I have neither the personality nor the temperament for the position of Primate, a position I never sought nor desired.

“It is my hope that due consideration will be made for my financial situation, both in any interim and in consideration for any future position. I am the main financial support for both my parents and my sister, beyond my own needs.

“I will appreciate your consideration in this, and beg forgiveness for however I have offended you, and for whatever difficulties have arisen from my own inadequacies and mistakes in judgment.

“Asking your prayers, I remain faithfully yours,
“Metropolitan Jonah, Archbishop of Washington”

One fact that comes to light in this letter is that the synod of the O.C.A. had unanimously requested Metropolitan Jonah to step down. One wonders why.

An apology

June 21, 2011

I would like to apologize to readers of this blog for my recent neglect of it; I have not posted anything to it for some time, nor answered any of the comments. Some explanation for this is called for.

Briefly, and simply, I am tired. I have spent four years writing it, and have not yet accomplished what I set out to do at the beginning, which is to finish and publish my work on John Bekkos. At the present time, my attentions are mostly focused upon the necessity of making a living somehow in the very straitened economic environment in which we live. To that end, I have taken up various teaching positions over the past year, and, in the fall, will be taking up another one. For various reasons, I have been asked not yet to make public the details regarding this new position; but it will entail my moving from New Jersey, after which my father intends to sell the house where I currently live, in which I grew up.

This blog was started in September 2007. At that time, I was unemployed, living by myself at the end of Long Island in a house where, for many days on end, I had little contact with anyone except crows, ants, oak trees, and, of course, John Bekkos, whom I was translating. Writing a blog initially provided me a means of connecting and communicating with the rest of the world; this was both a pleasant diversion and helpful for maintaining my sanity. Without doubt, this blog has seen its ups and downs; there have been times when I have been deeply engaged in it, and there have been times, like the present, when it has suffered neglect. But, on the whole, it has served to make John Bekkos better known to the public, and has allowed me to say various things that I thought needed saying. Whether I shall be able to continue writing it much longer appears doubtful; my expectation is that the responsibility of teaching new and difficult subjects, in a new and strange environment, is going to reduce the amount of time I can spend on this blog to zero.

All writing that is worth anything has something of the nature of a conversation. But not all conversations can be maintained indefinitely, or should be. The things about which conversations on this blog have tended to revolve — the Filioque, the essence/energies distinction, the schism — are not the only things in life worth knowing or thinking about. As a Christian, I believe and understand that the God who gave himself for our salvation in Jesus Christ is supremely worth knowing and thinking about; theology is a legitimate and worthy occupation of the mind, since God is the highest object of knowing. But I also believe and understand that thought about God properly issues in worship and praise of him, and in a godly life; if it does not, if it becomes a sort of end in itself and nervous habit, there is something wrong with it. To my thinking, the schism is one long, bad conversation, revolving endlessly upon itself. And it pains me to think that my blog has sometimes facilitated, and perhaps sometimes exemplified, that bad vortex, which moves nowhere but sucks in everything around it.

The latest Orientale Lumen conference opened yesterday in Washington, D.C.; I am not going to it. Partly, this is because I am too busy preparing to move, and, partly, because I did not feel like shelling out $300 for the conference and accommodations; but it is also because I have attended a few such conferences before, and have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware will treat the audience to an eloquent, informative lecture, constructed around three main points and punctuated with witty anecdotes, but, in the end, he will tell people there why nothing more can be done, and why no real movement towards a resolution of the separation between Orthodoxy and Rome can be expected in the foreseeable future. Metropolitan Jonah will perhaps explain to those present where he has been for the past few months, and what considerations have led him to place the governance of the O.C.A. temporarily into the hands of his synod of bishops — but, more likely, he will not explain this, and will, like Metropolitan Kallistos, give an apologia for maintaining the status quo indefinitely and until the eschaton. Others will say ecumenically pleasant things; DVDs will be sold; an excursion will be made to a nearby church or to a bookstore; people will leave at the end, carrying with them the pleasant feeling that they have accomplished something.

This past Sunday, my bishop (Bishop Michael of New York) presided at liturgy at my church here in New Jersey. Afterwards, at the luncheon held in his honor, he fielded questions from members of the parish. Someone asked him how long it would be before there was Orthodox unity, that is, a single, unified Orthodox Church, in America. His answer: “Not in my lifetime.” He went on to explain how the influx of people from Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union had complicated matters, and how the general expectation is very different now than it was in 1970 when the autocephaly of the O.C.A. was first proclaimed, and how some jurisdictions, e.g., the Antiochians, are more cooperative than others (presumably, the Greeks). It made me think of how, growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church in the 1960′s, one occasionally heard rumors about plans for a “Great, Upcoming Ecumenical Council” of the Orthodox Church which should resolve all problems, in particular, the problem of the ecclesiastical status of the “Diaspora” and the problem of conflicting claims of authority between Constantinople and Moscow. The reason why such a Great, Upcoming Ecumenical Council could not now take place, one was told in those days, was that so much of the Orthodox world lay under Communist rule. At this point, two decades after Communist rule in Eastern Europe collapsed, one hears no more about a Great, Upcoming Ecumenical Council which should resolve all problems. My guess is that, in a country like Greece, reeling under the effects of its own unwise borrowing and the predatory lending practices of companies like Goldman Sachs, a country where the privatization even of national assets like the Parthenon is now being seriously discussed, the calling of a Great, Ecumenical Council is probably the furthest thing from people’s minds.

Christian unity is not the answer to all questions; it does not magically supply a solution to global warming, poverty, unemployment, war, and the high price of gasoline; it does not even furnish an answer, directly, to some strictly theological questions of real importance, e.g., how to read the Book of Genesis in the light of earth science, genetics, and palaeontology. But it is a kind of prerequisite to any united, effective action by Christians in the world. Most importantly, it is Christ’s will. I confess that, when I hear a bishop answer “Not in my lifetime” to a question about unity, I must infer that something is deeply wrong, and that someone is not doing his job. If not in your lifetime, then in whose? To quote Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?”

The hymn of Kassiani

April 19, 2011

Troparion in the 8th tone, sung on Tuesday evening of Holy Week.

O Lord, the woman who fell into many sins,
when she perceives your divinity
takes on the role of a myrrhbearer,
and, in sorrow, provides you myrrh before your burial.
Alas! she says,
for night is what exists for me,
a mad rage of unchastity,
the gloomy, moonless love of sin.
Accept the fountains of my tears,
you who, by clouds, draw forth the water from the seas.
Bend down to the groanings of my heart,
you who incline the heavens by your
ineffable self-emptying.
I will warmly kiss your spotless feet,
and, again, with the tresses of my head
I will wipe them,
those feet whose dreaded sound
Eve heard with her ears in paradise
so that she hid herself for fear.
Who shall trace out the multitude of my sins
and who shall trace out the depths of your judgments,
O my Savior, the soul’s deliverer?
Do not disregard me, your handmaiden,
for with you there is immeasurable mercy.

Τὸ τροπάριον τῆς Κασσιανῆς

Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις περιπεσοῦσα γυνή,
τὴν σὴν αἰσθομένη θεότητα,
μυροφόρου ἀναλαβοῦσα τάξιν,
ὀδυρομένη μῦρά σοι πρὸ τοῦ ἐνταφιασμοῦ κομίζει,
Οἴμοι, λέγουσα,
ὅτι νύξ μοι ὑπάρχει,
οἶστρος ἀκολασίας,
ζοφώδης τε καὶ ἀσέληνος ἔρως τῆς ἁμαρτίας.
Δέξαι μου τὰς πηγὰς τῶν δακρύων,
ὁ νεφέλαις διεξάγων τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ ὕδωρ.
Κάμφθητί μοι πρὸς τοὺς στεναγμοὺς τῆς καρδίας,
ὁ κλίνας τοὺς οὐρανοὺς τῇ ἀφάτῳ σου κενώσει.
Καταφιλήσω τοὺς ἀχράντους σου πόδας,
ἀποσμήξω τούτους δὲ πάλιν
τοῖς τῆς κεφαλῆς μου βοστρύχοις,
ὧν ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ
Εὔα τὸ δειλινὸν κρότον τοῖς ὠσὶν ἠχηθεῖσα,
τῷ φόβῳ ἐκρύβη.
Ἁμαρτιῶν μου τὰ πλήθη
καὶ κριμάτων σου ἀβύσσους
τίς ἐξιχνιάσει, ψυχοσῶστα Σωτήρ μου;
Μή με τὴν σὴν δούλην παρίδῃς,
ὁ ἀμέτρητον ἔχων τὸ ἔλεος.


January 25, 2011

I learned early this morning that longtime St. John’s College tutor David Starr was ordained to the priesthood on January 18, 2011 (January 5th, Old Calendar) by His Eminence Kyrill, Archbishop of San Francisco and Western America, at Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco. Fr. David will be serving as assistant priest at St. Juliana of Lazarevo Russian Orthodox Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


The second day of the conference, Tuesday, June 29th, fell upon the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Before the conference, I had written to one of the organizers to ask if there were plans to celebrate an Orthodox liturgy on campus on that day, and offering to help with the singing if necessary; I was told that, because the Orthodox chaplain of Fordham would be out of town, there would be no liturgy. Nevertheless, because Fr. Paul, who was staying at my house, wanted to attend mass that morning, I drove in early, and arrived at the Fordham campus about a half an hour before the conference was to begin. As it turned out, the 8:30 mass did not take place where I had assumed it would (namely, in the University Chapel), so neither of us attended liturgy that morning. Given the coinciding of the conference with the feast day of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and the importance of those apostles for the theme of Orthodoxy’s relationship with the West, it seems a little odd that more was not done to give the conference a liturgical setting; it suggests that scholarship and piety are, in the minds of some, things best kept in separate boxes. Fortunately, the presentations themselves did not encourage the idea of such a separation.

(3) Symposium II: Russian Thinkers of the 19th and 20th Centuries

The morning’s proceedings got underway promptly at 9 a.m., moderated by Dr. Mary-Jane Rubenstein of Wesleyan University, who introduced the first speaker, Dr. Vera Shevzov of Smith College. Dr. Shevzov’s lecture was titled “The Burdens of Tradition: Russia’s Orthodox Academic Theologians and ‘the West’ (late XIX-early XX cc).” As I do not read Russian, and am not particularly well versed in Russian Orthodox theology, much of the morning’s discussions concerned matters with which I am relatively unfamiliar. This was especially true of the first presentation, which dealt with the Slavophile movement and with Russian academic theology in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Dr. Shevzov began her presentation by noting that a negative view of the West was inculcated in Russia from very early times. She cited the account of Great Prince Vladimir’s baptism from the twelfth century Russian primary chronicle: the priest who baptized Vladimir is there represented as telling him: “Do not accept the teachings of the Latins, whose instruction is vicious. Avoid their doctrine. God guard you from this evil, O Prince!” (Of course, the baptism of Rus’ occurred in the year 988, at a time when the churches of Rome and Constantinople were still nominally in communion, so the historicity of this narrative may be doubted.) This inheritance of Byzantine distrust was noted in 1906 by the religious thinker Vassily Roznov: “It was as if decaying and dying Byzantium whispered to Russia all of its vexations and bequeathed [them to] Russia to guard them. Russia, at the bedside of the departing one, gave its word, mortal enmity towards the Western tribes.”

But, Dr. Shevzov pointed out, Russian attitudes towards the West were complicated; religious enmity was not the whole story. At least from the time of Peter the Great, another attitude had also been fostered, that of admiration for the West’s material accomplishments. Nineteenth century Russian religious thinkers knew that the West was a fact that had to be faced if they were to give an account of Christian Orthodoxy that related it to the realities of modern life. Their various assessments of the West, in keeping with their commitment to Orthodox faith, constituted the theme of Dr. Shevzov’s presentation. “How,” she asked, “did Russia’s academic theologians conceptualize the West during these critical decades before Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution?”

From 1855, during a period of “glasnost” that occurred during the reign of Tsar Alexander II, “many Orthodox academics embarked on a conscious mission to make Orthodoxy relevant to the modern world.” In this attempt, much use was made of the writings of Aleksei Khomiakov. Some nineteenth century writers credited him with framing the subject of Orthodoxy’s relationship with the West in new terms. Shevzov summed up Khomiakov’s teaching in the following way:

“Khomiakov conceived of the religious West, not as two separate and opposed confessions of faith, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but as a single phenomenon that, culturally and historically, could be traced to the civilization of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church through the Germanic tribes and the appearance of Protestants and beyond to the emergence of the modern culture of unbelief.”

Unlike previous writers, Shevzov noted, Khomiakov did not see doctrinal issues as the primary grounds for the split, but traced it back to “relational, dispositional, and ultimately experiential” causes, to a fundamentally different way of understanding ecclesial communion.

“‘Romanism began,’ wrote Khomiakov, ‘at the moment when Christians in the West placed personal independence and regional opinions over and above a universal unity of faith.’ By its act of unilaterally changing the Creed, the Roman world, he argued, implicitly declared that in its eyes the entire East was nothing but a world of bondsmen in matters of faith and teaching. And, with it, the ecclesial life ended for an entire half of the Church. The act of inserting the Filioque into the Creed, for Khomiakov, therefore, was more significant than the meaning of that clause. Its insertion was no less than what he called ‘an act of moral fratricide in the life of the Church.’”

“The propensity for unilateral thinking and action” resulted in what Khomiakov saw as “the unavoidable decline of faith in the West.” It “deprived faith of its moral foundation, thereby making authentic faith impossible.”

Even for Khomiakov, however, this characterization of the West as the scene of a religious decline does not tell the whole story. It is significant that Khomiakov’s most influential work, the essay “The Church is One,” had to be translated into Russian out of French.

In the latter part of her lecture, Dr. Shevzov surveyed some of the responses to Khomiakov among Russian academic theologians, responses which feature as one aspect of the nineteenth century Russian debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers. Not all academic theologians agreed with Khomiakov’s account of the West and of Orthodox Christianity. While some criticized his views about the Orthodox Church, many of them criticized his identification of Christianity with “national or cultural types.” A certain Professor Tsernovsky, from Kiev, argued against drawing sharp lines between Western and Eastern spiritual dispositions. He pointed out that many religious stereotypes (the organic, spiritual-minded East; the fragmented, legal-minded West) do not hold up upon close scrutiny; he asked why, if Russia represents a spiritually higher type, is the West so successful? In 1885, one Aleksandr Lupokhin wrote of Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine types; he thought only the Johannine type fully captured the essence of Christianity. (This motif was later taken up by Vladimir Soloviev, who drew from it a somewhat different conclusion.)

Dr. Shevzov ended her lecture by noting that, by the early twentieth century, Khomiakov and his views on the West were already coming to be regarded as “tradition,” and that this “tradition,” although never accepted completely uncritically (Fr. Pavel Florensky was cited as one author who saw it as raising a host of problems), continues to pose important challenges for us at the present time.

At the risk of sounding overly critical, I will add one further word. The impression was occasionally given, in the course of Dr. Shevzov’s lecture, that the necessity for her to read her paper within the allotted time overruled, in her own mind, the necessity for her audience to understand what she was saying. If (as is most unlikely) she should ever read this account of her lecture, I would urge her, in future presentations, to make a greater concession to human frailty, and speak more slowly.

* * *

Next, Professor Antoine Arjakovsky, a Russian Orthodox Christian who is Director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University at Lviv, spoke on “The Russian Religious Thinkers of the 20th Century and the Rediscovery of the West.” Dr. Rubenstein, the moderator, noted that Dr. Arjakovsky is a leader in ecumenical discussions, someone who has consistently advocated closer contacts and cooperation between Orthodox living in the West and Eastern-rite Catholics living in the East. A book of his essays has been translated into English, Church, Culture, and Identity: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the Modern World.

Dr. Arjakovsky stated at the outset of his lecture that this conference is important, not only for Orthodox identity, but for Christian identity as such. Orthodox have come to define themselves against the West; in response, Westerners have come to define themselves as not Orthodox. “But, if the consciousness of the universal Church succeeded in not opposing these two notions of West and Christian Orthodoxy, a new world,” he said, “would be outlined.” This remark was echoed again at the very end of his lecture, where he mentioned his hope for seeing the beginnings of “a post-secular world.”

Most of Dr. Arjakovsky’s lecture was organized into two parts. The first part treated of “critics of the West among Russian philosophers”; the second, longer part examined “the reversal of this criticism.”

Dr. Arjakovsky pointed out that, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, many members of the Russian emigration viewed the West as responsible for the human disaster that had just taken place. Men like Florovsky, Berdyaev, Zinkovsky, Trubetskoi, Bulgakov and others were vocal in their criticisms of the West, with its rationalism and individualism; some of them shared Oswald Spengler’s views about an inevitable decline in the civilization of Europe. Berdyaev, in an essay written in 1926 about Konstantin Leontiev, acknowledged Leontiev as one of the first to recognize the multifarious nature of Western bourgeois culture and agreed with him in looking towards the Russian soul as a source of revival for all humanity. The linguist Nikolai Trubetskoi, who had settled in Berlin in 1925, wrote of the Russian soul’s having become contaminated by the Western enlightenment, and needing to look eastward towards the Mongolian tribes of Ural and Altai; his theories became the source of something called “the Eurasian movement,” which, before this conference, I had never heard of, but which, apparently, is the source of some important currents of political thought in contemporary Russia; mention was made of a certain Aleksandr Dugin, a contemporary writer of this school who has been influential on Vladimir Putin. In the 1920’s, members of the Eurasian movement included the writers Bitsili, Savitsky, Florovsky, Zuvchinsky, and Zinkovsky (note: this is from audio transcription; it is quite possible that some of these names are misspelled).

“For these thinkers, the crisis of the West was bound to a metaphysical problem,” a problem traced to a deviation from Orthodox faith. Like the later Yannaras, Sergei Bulgakov wrote at this time of Thomas Aquinas as beginning, not from the personal, trihypostatic God, but from Aristotle’s impersonal divinity. This metaphysical analysis led, in the second generation of the Russian Orthodox diaspora, to a new self-definition as Orthodox (rather than as Russian, Serb, etc.) among men like Lossky, Schmemann, Meyendorff, and Evdokimov. An insistence upon Orthodoxy as the heart of their Christian identity, which they defined in a universal, not nationalistic, way.

At this point, Dr. Arjakovsky moved on to the second part of his lecture, his consideration of the reversal of the criticism of the West. He first pointed out that Russian thought in the twentieth century was not static or monolithic. Through their bonds of friendship with Western Christians in Germany, France, and Great Britain, many members of the Russian diaspora, in the 1920’s and 30’s, came to a new discovery of the complexity of the West, and, with that, came to reexamine certain ways of understanding the Christian East. Notions of a “Holy Russia” (Sviataya Rus’) opposed to a heretical West were seen as partaking of a certain mythologizing tendency, bordering on Manichaeism. Fedotov wrote, in 1926 in the journal Put’ (“the Way”), of his friendship with Benedictines; Bulgakov wrote in his memoir of his friendship with a Greek Catholic priest from Lithuania; likewise, there was his friendship with Bp. Gore, in connection with the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. One landmark discussion at this time was a conference held in Paris on May 27, 1930, on the subject of East and West, attended by such men as Malraux, Maritain, Berdyaev; the “East,” for the French at that time, meant, more particularly, Germany. Berdyaev was convinced that notions of “East” and “West” are “myths”: we are always to the East of somebody else. At this conference Berdyaev asserted, carelessly, that “Russia is the country of revelation; Russia will one day save the West.” To which a friend of Malraux’s, Jean Absence [?], replied: “That Christianity comes from Jerusalem does not mean that the West was not baptized.” (I would note, in passing, that this reply recalls the response given by St. Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century to those, at the Second Ecumenical Council, who were claiming that the East enjoys primacy or spiritual seniority, because that is where Christ was made man, and that is where the sun rises; St. Gregory replied that, if Christ became incarnate in the East, it was very possibly because he knew that, to work human salvation, he had also to die, and it was easier for him to get killed there.)

These contacts and experiences of life in the West, Dr. Arjakovsky noted, led some of these Russian thinkers to rethink Orthodox history, a rethinking that was connected with their involvement in the ecumenical movement. He gave three concrete examples:

  1. Berdyaev’s critique of Florovsky’s voluntarist historiography;
  2. Bulgakov’s critique of the Orthodox historiography of the Council of Florence; and
  3. Nikolai Zernov’s and Mira Lot-Borodine’s criticism of the myth of Holy Rus’.

I will speak mostly about the first two of these. Berdyaev, in an article that appeared in the journal Put’ in 1937, criticized Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology, with its story of the fall of Russian theology from the standards of Byzantine perfection, as romanticized nostalgia for a mythical, lost paradise. Florovsky, Berdyaev wrote, “does not admit that Byzantinism either fell into decline or died by virtue of its own actions.” He saw him as uncritically accepting anti-Western Slavophile theories. According to Berdyaev, Florovsky’s failure to engage with philosophical categories of thought prevented him from appreciating many Russian authors, including Tolstoy. (Dr. Arjakovsky noted that, in a recent book on Orthodoxy, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev tries to rehabilitate Tolstoy, but he doesn’t address Tolstoy’s reasons for being dissatisfied with the Russian Orthodox culture of his day.) Moreover, Florovsky rejects Peter Moghila as a latinizer, although he can find in his works not one theological proposition that he can positively dismiss as unorthodox; in a similar vein, the Council of Jassy, which accepted Moghila’s statement of faith, was accepted by the four Eastern patriarchates, yet Christos Yannaras describes it as a “Latin council.”

In moving on to his second point, Bulgakov’s critique of the Orthodox historiography of the Council of Florence, Dr. Arjakovsky noted that, although Bulgakov later rejected “the temptation to accept papal infallibility,” he never went back on his acceptance of the ecumenicity of the Council of Florence, an acceptance first stated in 1922; even in his memoir, Quiet Thoughts, written late in his life, he still maintains this point. Bulgakov thinks that many of the problems faced by the Russian Church in its history could have been avoided if the Council of Florence had been accepted by the Orthodox people. (Among these problems: its paralysis, its support for Caesaropapism, its incapacity to set up a doctrinal authority that protects the truth of the faith….) He throws out the historiography that rejects Florence as a “pseudo-council.” All the local Churches participated in this council; all approved it. The Patriarch, the Emperor, sixteen metropolitans, signed the Decree of Union. True, Mark of Ephesus refused to sign. But never, at any previous ecumenical council, had there been total unanimity. Bulgakov did not accept the claim that “pressures” on the Greek delgation to accept union constitute sufficient grounds for rejecting the council as invalid. No previous council had allowed its delegates so much time to make up their minds (that they were not forced to stay is shown by the fact that some of the Greeks left of their own free will). No previous council had occasioned greater expenses than the pope had incurred at this council to maintain the large Greek delegation. Bulgakov questions whether a local council (Constantinople 1484) has the right to revoke the decisions of what he calls “the Eighth Ecumenical Council.” Only a new ecumenical council would possess such a right, and a new ecumenical council hasn’t occurred.

It is not only Bulgakov, among Orthodox theologians, who saw Florence as a true and canonically-valid council. Arjakovsky notes that Olivier Clément also shared this view.

Clément wrote an essay on Francis of Assisi, which, said Dr. Arjakovsky, is about to appear in print in about a month; he read a rather lengthy passage from it. The passage noted that, whereas Western (Franciscan) spirituality is commonly thought to stress the stigmata and Good Friday, Orthodox spirituality, by contrast, is seen as stressing the Taboric Light and the resurrection. But Francis’s stigmata are a reply to the glorified Lord, who, in his resurrected body, retains the marks of his crucifixion. For Clément, the holiness of St. Francis is a revelation of the Church. If Francis is a saint, it is because “the eucharist (in the West, after 1054) kept all its power of life.” This presence of holiness means, for Clément, that, in the East and in the West, there is one single eucharist, hence, one single Church. In responding to the lives of the saints, who reveal the divine-human reality of Christ in both East and West, we must not be confined to the surface level of things, but dig towards the center.

Professor Arjakovsky concluded his lecture by asking whether, if Orthodoxy is in fact, as Florovsky and Yannaras have stated, a “life-style,” and not a religion (“the transformation of the mortal individuality into the personal relation,” as Yannaras says), it is genuinely possible to confine this experience within the boundaries of Hellenic and Russian civilization. As Sergei Bulgakov wrote in 1932, “Orthodoxy is not an institution. Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on the Earth. It is the New Life, with and in the Christ, moved by the Holy Spirit.” Thanks to this definition, Arjakovsky said, “Eastern Churches can open to Western Churches in a new and more reconciled way, and vice versa. This is, for me, the beginning of a post-secular world.”

* * *

The third lecturer that morning was Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk, associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas and an author whose recent works include The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford 2004) and Histoire du catéchuménat dans l’Église ancienne [A history of the catechumenate in the ancient Church] (Paris: Cerf, 2007). He spoke on the theme, “The Case of ‘Westernization’ vs. Hellenization: the Methodological Limitations of Georges Florovsky’s ‘Neopatristic Synthesis.’”

Dr. Gavrilyuk wished participants at the conference a happy feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, thanked Professors Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou for organizing the event, and noted his sense that, at this conference, “we are witnessing something new, perhaps a new trend, perhaps a new school of Orthodox theology” (the “Fordham school”?).

He added, “it is very common among us Orthodox to use the category of the West as a blanket for everything that is wrong with the world in general, and with theology in particular.” He expressed his hope that the main contribution of this conference would be to deconstruct and question “this rather facile, cavalier, and rather obviously false assertion,” together with his hope that the results of this conference (and of recent, similar conferences at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the Volos Academy in Greece) would be disseminated among the Orthodox faithful, that we would not merely be talking amongst ourselves.

After these preliminaries, Dr. Gavrilyuk summed up the approach he would be taking to his subject. Having reminded his audience that the late Archpriest Georges Florovsky is credited with initiating a “return to the fathers” in twentieth century Orthodox theology, that Florovsky viewed Christian Hellenism as “the norm by which all modern theological proposals were to be judged,” believed Western influences had led to the “Babylonian captivity” of Eastern Orthodox thought, and offered a “Neo-Patristic synthesis” as a reform program, Dr. Gavrilyuk stated three things that he proposed to do:

”In this paper, I will discuss the polemical motivations and the constructive aspirations of Florovsky’s retrieval of the fathers.

“I will discuss how his engagement with the Eurasian movement influenced his thinking about the Ways of Russian Theology….

“I will also consider the methodological parallels between Adolph von Harnack’s view of the ‘Hellenization’ of early Christian theology and Florovsky’s account of the ‘Westernization’ of Russian theology.”

On the whole, that was a very accurate synopsis of what Dr. Gavrilyuk proceeded to speak about in the course of his lecture. Rather than recount in detail what was said in it (which would carry this already-long blog post to extraordinary lengths), I will content myself here with noting some of the main things I learned.

As a young man, Florovsky lived through a time of political crisis (a world war, two Russian revolutions, the exiling of the religious intelligentsia, the rise of Hitler in Germany), and the sense of crisis never left him. One of the ways the Russian emigrés responded to their new immersion in a foreign society was to turn their attention towards the nineteenth century Russian debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles. In the early 1920’s, Florovsky (whose family left Russia in 1920) participated in the “Eurasian movement,” a kind of updated Slavophilism, about which something already was said above. It was a movement which aimed at becoming the ideological future of Russia (and which, Dr. Gavrilyuk noted, now appears to be succeeding in the persons of Putin and Medvedev). Between the years 1921 and 1923, the Eurasians produced three volumes of collected essays, The Exodus to the East (1921), The Ways [?] (1922), and Russia and Latinity (1923); Florovsky was one of the contributors to these volumes. The Eurasians were relentless critics of “the rotten, decaying West” (an expression borrowed from the Slavophile Nikolai Danievski, later to be echoed by Nikita Khrushchev). Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West had begun to appear in the year 1918, and was read by the Eurasians and other Russian emigrés; it is from this work that Florovsky borrows his term “pseudomorphosis.”

The Eurasians were strongly critical of Roman Catholicism, to which they referred using the term “Latinity.” The harshest statements occur in their third volume of essays, Russia and Latinity, in the introduction to which it is claimed that, “for a Russian Orthodox believer in France to be converted to Roman Catholicism is worse than to be killed by the Bolsheviks in Communist Russia: the former leads to the eternal perdition of the soul, the latter, merely to the temporal destruction of the body.” When this assertion was criticized by Prince Trubetskoi in the pages of the journal Put’, the Eurasians promptly responded by publishing an open letter in defense of their comparison of Bolshevism and Catholicism, an open letter which Florovsky signed. Although Florovsky later claimed that he had never completely shared in the Eurasians’ political agenda, it seems fairly clear that, at this stage in his career, he must have shared to some extent in their anti-Western, anti-Catholic sentiments. (The charge came rather quickly from Berdyaev that the Eurasian movement had fascist tendencies.)

In 1926, Florovsky began to distance himself from the other Eurasians, and his final break with the movement came with his publication of an article, “The Eurasian Delusion” (1928). It seems that it was the political side of the movement with which he chiefly disagreed.

Dr. Gavrilyuk believes that “there is a connection between the anti-Western impulse of Eurasianism and the fundamental methodological assumption of The Ways of Russian Theology.” Any rapprochement with the West, the Eurasians held, would distort Russia’s historical destiny. Similarly, in his preface to The Ways of Russian Theology, Florovsky expressed his conviction that “all interruptions and spiritual failures in Russian development” had occurred on account of Russia’s “intellectual separation from Patristics and Byzantinism,” and his intention to narrate the history of those failures in that volume.

Prof. Gavrilyuk described Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology as a drama in three acts, with a significant prelude. The prelude is Medieval Russia’s fateful decision to embrace Byzantine Christianity, but, together with this, its inadequate appropriation of the Byzantine heritage. Liturgy, iconography, and asceticism were taken on; theology, as such, was not. The enormous richness of cultural material was, Florovsky stated, a heritage “too heavy and too perfect” to be absorbed.

The first act of the drama shows a Latin pseudomorphosis. It is the period of the Kievan academy, under Peter Moghila. Florovsky acknowledges that, under Moghila, the Russian Church emerged from the disorganization it had experienced in the aftermath of the Synod of Brest-Litovsk (1596). But, he said, “everything was suffused with an alien spirit,” a Latin spirit. “The very soul of the people comes to be latinized.” Gavrilyuk noted the connection of this description with the rhetoric of the Eurasian pamphlets, and the use made by Florovsky of Spengler’s notion of “pseudomorphosis.”

The second act showed a Protestantizing pseudomorphosis. It was the period of Peter the Great’s reforms, his abrogating of the Patriarchate, his instituting of the office of Prokurator in the person of Theophan Prokopovich. Everything was to be fitted to Protestant standards. The theological effect of this was a divorce between school theology and popular piety, a divorce not overcome until the nineteenth century.

The third act was seen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a pseudomorphic transformation of Orthodox theology under the influence of German philosophical idealism. In this case, Florovsky’s polemics were directed chiefly against the Orthodox Sophiologists: Soloviev, Florensky, Bulgakov, and others. He considered them as exhibiting an even greater estrangement from patristic theology than the previous aberrations — a claim which Dr. Gavrilyuk stated was quite unfair.

Later in his lecture, Prof. Gavrilyuk drew a detailed comparison between the functional role played by the idea of “westernization” in Florovsky’s thought and the idea of “hellenization” as found in the writings of the historian Adoph von Harnack (1851-1930). Both authors see an originally pure Christian state to have been corrupted: Harnack sees “hellenization” as having corrupted the primitive Christian message; Florovsky sees “westernization,” in its various manifestations, as the recurrent bane of Russian Christianity, and that from which it must be cured by a heavy dose of the fathers — for Florovsky, indeed, Russian Christianity needs to be “re-hellenized.” Although Florovsky strongly disagrees with Harnack in his assessment of the appropriateness of Greek, ontological modes of thought as applied to the Christian Gospel, he resembles him in terms of his methodology; Gavrilyuk describes him as Harnack’s “theological antidote.”

Some of the most interesting reflections in the lecture occurred towards the end, when Professor Gavrilyuk raised questions about how far Florovsky’s attitudes towards Western Christianity may have been modified by the fact of his living in the West for most of his life. He was certainly not unsensible of the virtues of the Christians among whom he lived. In a speech given at the opening of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, at a time when he had become a notable and respected figure in the ecumenical movement, Florovsky said the following:

“Orthodoxy theology has, in recent decades, been speedily recovering from the unhappy pseudomorphosis by which it was paralyzed for too long. But to regain once more its own Eastern style and temper must mean for Orthodox theology no detachment from the rest of the Christian world. What is to be rejected and repudiated, in the Westernizing school of Orthodox theology, is its blind subservience to the foreign traditions of the schools, and not its response to the challenges of other traditions, not the fraternal appreciation of what has been achieved by others. All riches of the Orthodox tradition can be disclosed and consummated only in a standing intercourse with the whole of the Christian world. The East must face and meet the challenge of the West, and the West, perhaps, has to pay more attention to the legacy of the East….”

Professor Gavrilyuk concluded his lecture with a theological meditation, which I hope I may be allowed to quote:

“The difference of the theological grammars of East and West is not a sufficient ground for guarding our theology forever against all Western influences. The distinctly Western theological beliefs are often assumed to be false merely on the grounds that they are Western. This genetic fallacy has poisoned our theological thinking for too long. Yet it is precisely the staunchly anti-Western Orthodox thinkers who end up being utterly dependent upon the West, even if this dependence is expressed in the form of a reflective rejection. If we reject the Western Other, without making an effort to understand the Other, paradoxically we are letting ourselves be more dependent on the Other. The search for truth cannot be limited by geography. It is not the cultural uniqueness of Eastern Orthodoxy, but the divine revelation, appropriated by the mind of the Church, that should serve as the main criterion of Orthodoxy. Thus, in order to fulfill Florovsky’s inspiring vision, we need to move beyond the limitations of his historiography.”

All in all, a remarkable lecture, and a remarkable session of the conference, one that I am grateful that I was able to attend.


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