I absolutely love this painting. It’s just two people walking in a pastoral setting, but there is so much there to see. It was painted in 1917, in the midst of the ongoing turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution that would result in one of these men being exiled and the other dead. The former, the man in the background wearing a black suit, is Fr. Sergius Bulgakov. The one in the front is Fr. Pavel Florensky. Bulgakov gave his own thoughts of this work. Frs. Bulgakov and Florensky are pensive: revolution is upon them and their beloved Russia. Each as a way of expressing their concern. Though the painting was done in Fr. Florensky’s back yard, the setting is actually that of the woods of the Monastery of Saint Sergius. Fitting. You can read his thoughts and much more here.
Umberto Eco once said that an author should die once his or her work has been published; their intended meaning of the text is irrelevant once the text has been finished – it is up to the reader, not the writer, to derive meaning. With this in mind, I offer my own interpretation Nesterov’s work.
Orthodox theology has been in a bit of a stale age. Why this is happening is anyone’s guess. Certainly the horrors of the Communist revolution and the subsequent generation of misery did not help. Neither has the recent phenomenon of phyletism which is increasing rather than decreasing been of any help. But there were other places, other strains, that could have picked up where the writers of the late 19th and early 20th century left off. Instead there has been a palamist resurgence in the form of neo-patristics and a neo-athonite insistence on hesychasm being the sole means through which theology is “done”.
Bulgakov and Florensky are the Orthodox writers of the early 20th century par excellence. On several occasions John Milbank has told me that he believes that Bulgakov is the greatest theologian (not just Orthodox theologian) of the 20th century. And while Bulgakov was writing amazing works of vast scope and depth, Florensky, a polymath, was infusing his theology into everything he did, including his works on imaginary numbers, physics, and electrical engineering.
In this painting, then, I see the hope of Orthodoxy. I do not see it limited to one man, but in the unity of the two – a dialogue, not a monologue. They are walking together, along a common path. They are close, indicating the closeness of their friendship, but also of their common journey. Bulgakov, in his business suit, is deep in thought. He is pensive. He is working out the complexities of his theological and philosophical concepts, seemingly in a worldly manner – in a school, a seminary. He is dealing with critics, detractors, and others who are more eager to attack than try to understand. Maybe he’s going to talk at Cambridge, or Oxford, or Basel, or Harvard. At any rate, he has the vast richness of Orthodox thought, hymnography, and hagiography at his disposal He’s brilliant, and he’s formidable. He’s trailblazing.
Pavel Florensky is altogether different. He is no less pensive, no less formidable, but where Bulgakov is seemingly fretful, Florensky is interior, deep in prayer. In Florensky the glory of God saturates everything. God is always revealing something; you just need the eyes to see it. Those “eyes” come from intense study and from a life shaped in prayer, reverberating with the love God has for us, his prized creation. So where Sergei Bulgakov frets and furrows, Pavel Florensky exudes prayer and peace.
And that is the glory of Orthodoxy.In these two, the wrestling of the intellect and the peaceableness of the nous are merged into one. There is always work to be done, and the work is intense and the work is challenging. But the beauty of God is everywhere, if you have the eyes to see. Those eyes come from that very work, and from the devoted life in prayer that is expected of everyone who calls him or herself a Christian.
“Love all God’s creation, the whole and each grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light! Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.”
Those were the last words of the last message
You left on my voicemail.
We were making plans for lunch
And what a lunch.
Syrian food from Mary’s
Dairy Queen to top it off
You were the fourth of our triumvirate
Our short-lived little fellowship
You were present, but you were casual, aloof
You were our dogmatic imprimatur, brilliant
You knew more about everything
Loved by Metropolitans, a promising young voice
Wary of experts, challenged by parish ministry
And there we were… an unlikely duo.
We never met, face to face.
I can’t recall the sound of your voice.
But through many late evenings and nights we would chat
About everything: people, theologians, music, politics
You taught me about Florovsky and Heidegger
I taught you about dealing with parishioners
And still we talked on about lots of stuff.
Now that I think about it,
We did actually talk by phone near the end
We talked about meeting for a beer in Boston, near the end.
O God. Why?
Four years gone and I am still asking why
So many of the particulars are so damn frustrating
So many of the events are so horribly fresh
The news (I’m sitting right where I was when I found out)
Our face to face was at your funeral
Your face was hid; I kissed your hand.
That funeral. We talked, near the end, about how much
You hated our funeral
You wanted pascha, not food for worms and stench.
How ironic, that one of our last would be about that.
How fitting that in your own service you got what you wanted.
Your service. God.
Today is not the anniversary of your passing.
But it is for me.
For me you have passed from chronos to kairos.
You are defined by liturgical time.
You died on the Sunday night of the
Sunday of Orthodoxy
And that night will always bring us
To talk about Barth, and Kate Bush and Florovsky
And nosy and mean parishioners (yours, not mine)
Meanwhile, I press on in chronos
I miss your depth of thought
Most of all, I, selfishly, miss your presence.
For as short as it was, it was indelible.
Memory eternal, dear Brother and Concelebrant,
When you love someone you love them not only despite their fragility but also, because of it. They wouldn’t be who they were if they weren’t fragile and limited in their particular way.
When you have a sick kid it’s like, oh my God how can the world be constituted so that a child can unfairly suffer in this manner? You can’t have them being vulnerable and cute and interesting and small and needing care but striving to develop and grow without them also being prone to pain and destruction and vulnerability. And then what do you do?
Teach them to be strong. That’s what you do. You don’t get rid of the vulnerability. You teach them to be strong.
You don’t protect your children. In fact, you do the opposite. You expose them to the world as much as you possibly can. You make them strong. That’s the best antidote to their vulnerability.
The first noble truth of Buddhism, life is suffering. This is true. And it’s worse than that because it’s suffering contaminated by malevolence.
So that’s very pessimistic, but the optimistic part is that you are so damn tough you could actually not only deal with that, you can improve it. It’s like, “Oh, well that’s a horrible situation, but it turns out I’m armed for the task.” Well that’s a great thing for people to know.
I think the fact that we’re armed for the task is even more true than the fact that life is catastrophe contaminated by malevolence. We’re stronger than these things are terrible. And I do believe it’s the case because I’ve watched people do very difficult things. Like people who worked in palliative care wards, so all they’re ever dealing with is pain and death. And they can do it. They get up in the morning, they go to work, and they take care of those people. They lose people on a weekly basis and yet they can do it and what that shows is that if you turn around and you confront the suffering voluntarily you find out that you are way tougher than you think.
It’s not that life is better than you think. Life is as harsh as you think. It might even be worse. But you are way tougher than you think. If you turn around and confront it. It’s a very good thing to know and it’s not naive optimism. It’s a very different thing. It’s like, no, things are terrible. They’re brutal.
And you are so damn tough, you can’t believe it.
Life is catastrophe contaminated by malevolence and we are damn tough.
- 2a) humanity is made in the image of God, has free will, and in this free will has the capacity to strive for and perhaps even achieve theosis. But having free will humanity can also set up idols and turn away from God. And so we fell, though through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ death has been overcome, our estrangement from God has been overcome and our sadness has been transformed into joy.
- 2b) creation fell when humanity fell. That means it is subject to the same corruption that humanity has (a definite beginning, a definite end, and a tendency towards chaos, or disorder, which we can call entropy). But even still it is from God, and it still has the capacity to tell of the glory of God. And ultimately it will be restored just as humanity will be restored.
So Peterson speaks of “life” being malevolent catastrophe. Where in the world did he get that idea? Well, I would argue it has less to do with Jerusalem (or Cappadocia) than it does with Prussia. The whole narrative sounds more like Nietzsche and his idea of the Übermensch. Think about it: The world is turbulent, even hostile. Yet you are STRONG. You are DAMN TOUGH. This is right out of Nietzsche’s play-book: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. So let me be clear: this is about as Orthodox as Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Reinhold Niebuhr.
The concern, for why Peterson’s video is so important to some people, is that we are raising a nation of “wimpy” men. Peterson’s narrative will surely help to inspire something counter to that. But is it the right message? I don’t think so. The right message would keep as its foundation the core beliefs that the world is not malevolently catastrophic yet it is subject to corruption. (“Fairness” is not an issue because it’s not like some aspects of creation are perfect and others are not – all are subject to the same conditions.) Second, it is absolutely essential to bear in mind that in the Incarnation, strength was shown in weakness, and more importantly, life was manifest in death. These beliefs are not wimpy, cowardly or pathetic (as Nietzsche would assert that they were). In fact, the will to power, the eagerness to express control through violence (the subtext of Nietzsche’s program) is more a sign of weakness than the Christian way of strength through submission. It is far tougher to turn the other cheek or walk an extra mile than it is to take an eye for an eye taken.
One more note: In Christianity there is something else, something despised when thinking of these “tough” qualities: empathy or compassion. In empathy you develop an awareness of the struggles of the people around you so that at times you actually become co-sufferers. In compassion you desire to help and heal those around you. These qualities, in the Nietzschean model, are weaknesses. In Christ and in the Christian life they are virtues. Toughness in the Christian sense often means being willing to sacrifice your desires, your will, sometimes even your life (see the life of Saint Maria Skobtsova, for example) to understand and to help the other.
In Christianity you are indeed tough. It is that very toughness, I would argue, that enables you to see that the world, in fact, catastrophe contaminated with malevolence, but is rather the creation that still – even in its entropic, “fallen” state – declares the glory of God. Christians would do well to find inspiration from places other than Nietzsche and his modern interpreters.
Distilled from the blog, “A Theologian’s Library”. The message is addressed to contributor Ben Davis. Get it here: https://theologianslibrary.com/2015/11/21/an-email-from-david-bentley-hart/
You could buy these books from Amazon, in written or electronic format. Buy local when you can, please. If Eighth Day Books has these, the link is included.
NOTE: Some of these books are plagued by Amazon’s “supply and demand” algorithm. Some of these paperbacks are selling for over 600 dollars. You money is best spent elsewhere. If there is no link, that is why. Check them out of a local library.
E. L. Mascall, He Who Is
E. L. Mascall. Existence and Analogy
W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many. Buy from Amazon
Theology (always start with the fathers):
Cyril of Alexandria On the Unity of Christ. Buy from Amazon.
St Isaac of Ninevah (especially the “Second Volume”)
Mediaeval and Early Modern Theology,
George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons Buy from Eighth Day Books Buy from Amazon
Sergius Bulgakov. Bride of the Lamb, Buy from Amazon
Hans Urs von Balthasar. Glory of the Lord. (This is a seven volume set, available in various forms and from both 8th Day Books and Amazon.)
Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics part IV, (There are 5 volumes in this set. 14 total.)
Henri de Lubac’s Supernatural (currently being translated I believe, but if you read French go ahead),
Rowan Williams’ Resurrection (2nd edition). Buy from Amazon
I hope this helps,
Me too, Kevin.
Ecumenism. I do not think there is a dirtier word that exists in the American Orthodox playbook. For decades now I have sat in national gatherings of my church and listened to the passionate and uncharitable calls from brother clergy to abandon all efforts to talk with Christians of other persuasions. “They are feminists,” they say; “they are gnostics,” others comment; “they are tree-hugging, Christa-worshipping, communist-supporting, family-bashing, left-leaning, immigrant-protecting heterodox secularists.” Or something like that. It’s hard to tell sometimes, but I am pretty sure that’s what I heard. Not a bit of charity. And certainly no interest whatsoever in learning about outsiders. Well, of course, we know everything we need to know about them, as was cited a few lines above this one (the tree-hugging part).
I think this sentiment – and make no mistake, I do think it is a sentiment (def: 1 – a view of or attitude toward a situation or event; an opinion. 2 – a feeling or emotion. [I choose both]) – comes from many people who themselves are converts to the faith from some other form of Christianity. That means they came from somewhere else first, like Methodism, or Lutheranism, or Calvinism, or Catholicism. Maybe, if they are truly industrious, they came from all four of those! Journeys take weird paths sometimes. Thank God.
Anyway, I was given an article a while back from someone, a convert, who was sharing his own thoughts about ecumenism and the Orthodox Church. I thought it might be of use to add my thoughts to his. I am not going to say who the writer is. Sorry. The writer says that he spent a great time in seminary “studying theology as an intellectual, academic enterprise with philosophical underpinnings”. So did I. But even then, when I was in seminary, I was not unaware that I needed to do some heavy lifting on my own. I knew that theology was literally the study of God and needed to be augmented with worship, spirituality and ethics. I knew that some ethicists disdained spirituality and that even some theologians never went to church. I didn’t care. I did what I knew was right. I did not despise them, I actually kind of pitied them for their lack of dimensionality.
I read Henri Nouwen. I read Thomas Merton. I read the great collection of books from Renovare (Devotional Classics, Spiritual Classics). I read voluminously from the Classics of Western Spirituality. I also read the writings of the Desert Fathers (thanks to Merton and Nouwen), and especially my beloved patron saint, Gregory of Nyssa (thanks again to Merton). I learned to appreciate the Church Fathers as voices to listen to and learn from, recognizing that they have an enduring authority in that they were dealing with matters quite similar to our own and they were largely bishops and priests or nuns – people immersed in the theology of the church along with the worship and spirituality of it as well. I found that their sacrifices and their love and commitment to God put my own feeble way of life to shame, and they made me appreciate the need to devote my life to God – heart, mind, soul, strength. So in effect, Christianity outside of Orthodoxy is not merely an intellectual pursuit – it has a rich spiritual tradition as old as that of Orthodoxy, even going so far as to include the very church Fathers we ourselves honor. Note: I learned this as a Christian, not necessarily as an Orthodox Christian.
So why did I convert? Because everywhere I went politics, not theology, ruled the day. Who cares about theology? what matters is how you feel about abortion, the death penalty, liberalism, conservatism, red, blue, etc. And look: now those denominations are splitting into conservative and liberal facsimiles of themselves. How cute (actually how tragic). I became Orthodox because Christianity’s fulness was preserved in her, from theology to worship to spirituality to ethos. It was there, and the politics was not. Thank God!
Back to the writer. He mentions Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos and his understanding of theology as therapy. He sees this as a crucial aspect of life in the Orthodox chuch. But he writes as if the only way that the Orthodox think of theology is the way that Metropolitan Hierotheos does. If this is really what he believes, then he is mistaken. In my early years, I learned that Orthodoxy was big – global in fact, and diverse. In seminary I learned about and read Ugolnik, Bulgakov, Hopko, Florovsky, Zizioulas, Yannaris, Lossky, Romanides, Schmemann, Meyendorff, Florensky, Evdokimov, Rose, Ware, Azkoul, Tsirpanlis, Allen, Harakas, Guorian, and others, for sure. I read a lot. They were more my conversation partners than were Edward Farley and Hendrikus Berkhof (the ones I was supposed to read in seminary). I learned that the writers that I was reading came to write their books from many disparate points of view. I learned that Romanides and Azkoul really disliked Augustine. I thought that Schmemann wrote clearly and pastorally, and reminded me of Stanley Hauerwas at points. Rose reminded me somewhat of a Orthodox Thomas Merton, but his path was and is not my path. I had some I liked, others I did not. I did not see one as more Orthodox than the other, much like I did not see Hans Kung and Hans Urs von Balthasar as more Catholic than the another.
So now we come to today. The Orthodoxy of America today, in the context in which this article appears to have been written, has veered. In some present-day circles, it seems, the neo-patristic/neo-athonite/neo-palamite theology of Romaindes and Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos has become the exclusive theology of Orthodoxy, even the litmus test of one’s orthodoxy. The model of theology as therapy (a valid model, for sure, but not the only one, as Larchet himself points out in his magisterial Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses), and the rejection of anything that is outside of the narrow band of palamite/hesychastic theology has the (hopefully) unintended side-effect of promoting a form of Orthodox fundamentalism. Among its characteristics is that fundamentalism rejects ecumenical discussions as being unfruitful and useless because of the insistence that, in all honesty, it is perceived that the east is so very far from the west.
The picture at the top of this article comes from a poster from the Mennonite Central Committee. As pacifists, they believe that embracing Christianity means embracing a lifestyle that makes real the possibility that swords will indeed be beaten into plowshares and that one day we will indeed learn war no more. It is living into the “ethos” of Christ’s Gospel teachings in the fullest way possible. The only way we can do this indeed is to agree, and to agree about some important things. We can agree not to kill each other. We can agree, each of us, to live honestly into our Christian faith – not judging, but loving our neighbor, and loving God fully and completely. We can learn about each other, and this is where I think ecumenism is most important: I am not looking for pan-Christian sacramental participation. I am hoping for each expression of Christianity to talk openly and honestly about themselves and about each other. Do I think Orthodoxy is Christianity in its fulness? Yes. But I also believe it is important to talk with others. We learn about ourselves when we do. Our faith may be perfect, but we humans are only human – corruptible and imperfect. We see through the mirror dimly and we must have the humility to understand that God can teach us in any way He chooses. And we can learn just how far we have to go sometimes to attain the theosis we are so eager to partake of. It is foolish and arrogant to abandon opportunities to talk to each other, to learn from each other, to work often with each other in times of need or common purpose, and help all peoples to get closer to the living God whom we love and revere.
Fr. Aidan Kimel posted an interesting essay written by Fr. John Behr on the limits of the neo-Patristic school. You can read it here: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2018/06/14/passing-beyond-the-neo-patristic-synthesis/.
I have been going through a transition of sorts. Actually a return. I can’t explain it, but I am recalling the summer of 1993 (25 years ago… Ugh!) and the beginning of my journey to Orthodoxy. The recollections are so clear. Clearer than they have been for some time.
Here is what I remember: I remember Umberto Eco, Anton Ugolnik, and Sergei Bulgakov.
Umberto Eco: In 1993 I read Foucault’s Pendulum for the first time. The book is monstrous. It is saturated with allusions to actual events, to philosophical and theological concepts, to a widely diverse array of topics and ideas. And in the end it signifies absolutely nothing. In many ways it is a laborious journey to nowhere. It drives home Eco’s sense of the importance of details that is joined with the pointlessness of one’s journey. I could not help but get the sense that one of the characters was Eco. And just think: Eco was not a believer (well, maybe he was…), but he spent all of that time working over details and concepts and philosophies and cabals and yet… It was all seemingly pointless. To use one’s brilliance to go nowhere… Imagine if you actually had someplace to go.
Anton Ugolnik: I had met Fr. Ugolnik in 1989, in the closing weeks of my college experience. Who knew that it would be so transformative. I read his book, The Illuminating Icon, in the summer months between college and seminary. It was excellent. For me it served at minimum three major purposes. First, it helped to introduce Eastern Orthodoxy to me in an excellently constructed book (he is a professor of English after all…); second, it helped to show the tenacity of Orthodoxy under communism (under any regime, honestly); and third, it helped to show that Orthodox Christianity is far from a rigid, rules-driven, legalistic faith. It has its fasts and its canons, but Orthodox Christianity is organic, and takes the mandate of Christ, “Love God with all your mind” seriously. It is an all-encompassing faith, integrating all of the senses. It is a rich faith, requiring you to use your brain but not to worship it.
Sergei Bulgakov: A controversial figure in Orthodox circles, I suppose, but one that should not simply be dismissed out of hand. The man was a brilliant scholar. He was a polymath. He was an economist who wrote lucidly and powerfully about a type of economics that took Christianity seriously (something that neither socialism nor capitalism do). He wrote lengthy volumes on the Forerunner, the Mother of God, Christ, the Church, the Holy Spirit, and much more. He wrote devotions. The man was amazing. I found in him and in Pavel Florensky (a physicist and priest) powerful examples of doing everything as best as one possibly can. Given my background in electrical engineering and physics as well as religion, you can see how intriguing these figures would be.
Flash forward to now. It’s as if I have awoken from my dogmatic slumbers (hi Karl.). I remember. I remember why I love the Orthodox faith, I remember the beauty of creation and that the heavens are indeed telling of the glory of God. I remember as a younger adult how I understood that the study of the natural sciences helped to point to God’s glory. I understood that it did not so much reveal as confirm it. Christ reveals it, the creation says amen. I understood that then, and I understand now.
And more: we are not in a vacuum, we are not in diaspora. As American or western Orthodox believers we are not alone. We think the same way, we reason the same way as believers of other faiths. We have some theological and historical concerns to straighten out, but in the words of Steve Hogarth of the band Marillion, “there’s more that binds us than divides us.” To live only in the differences is both unhelpful and inaccurate. I’ll let David Bentley Hart’s comments suffice (see “The Myth of Schism“).
I will have more to say. Much more. These are interesting times. We have work to do. And most of the work is in using what God gave us to the best of our abilities to His greater glory. The field is ripe. Time to get busy.
I have a bandsaw. It’s a good one, not a plastic, big-box, disposable one, but a bring-by-pup-truck one that takes two people to construct and some training to use well. It has many moving parts, each with its own set of parameters and eccentricities. Once it is set up, it still requires care, because it has a sharp moving blade and a very powerful motor. It is not a kid’s toy. I would not let one near it, not until they’re twelve, anyway.
One you turn it on you can become captivated by the draw of it all. The sound of the current playing with the magnets, the whooshing of the wheels coming to speed; the metallic hum of the now nearly invisible blade as it sings its siren song to any soft object that it would happily – and dutifully – rend asunder. And that sound of rending too is unique and draws near to melodic, a musical tearing of one into two, straight, curved, or some more complicated mixture of the two.
It is easy to see why it is so powerfully desirable: it is powerful yet elegant, destructive yet creative, divisive yet musical.
And once you have one, every task looks like a job for the band saw. Every board should make the blade sing, no matter how thin or thick, no matter how hard or soft. To the bandsaw, every plank is just waiting for its “real” shape to be sheared out of it.
While this song is true at the onset, it soon becomes clear that the siren song is not a welcoming call at all, but an invitation to ruin. Many a board was sacrificed, too many lost without any opportunity to explore their own ring-demarked legacy. Too many boards faced a battle of the blade where either board was sundered or blade was broken. Either way the music was less than pleasant, a requiem rather than a celebration.
Such is the way, this dance between man and machine, where machine dictates the terms and man must say yes or suffer. Machines do simplify, but at a cost: all to often they render false choices, leaving destruction in their wake.
Better to take a step back, unplug the machine, get to know the wood, and skillfully discover its form-yet-to-be-revealed. Machines shorten the decision-making process, and all too often lead to a collection of scrap as opposed to anything of lasting beauty.
Beauty, after all, is what it is all about. Taking time to discover the beauty of a thing (or a person) is crucial to the meaning of existence in this world. To settle for mechanical short-cuts diminishes the act of discovery, and renders subject to object, shoves life towards death, and pushes beauty towards desolation.