October 27, 2009

orthodoxy and development

To continue a bit from my first post

Today, while everyone else was otherwise occupied, I came across a copy of Orthodoxy And Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday on my friends's bookshelves. I took a look at the table of contents, and noticed that Andrew Louth* had an essay in there entitled "Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?".

Fr. Louth correctly notes that development is implicit in the Western view of history, and therefore also in historical theology that is conditioned by Western historical practice. As he notes, much of modern Orthodox theology is done in a historical mode: Lossky, Meyendorff, Schmemman (or, for a name he does not mention, Afanasiev).

He notes early that, if Development is to be understood as making us "wiser than the Fathers", it must be rejected by Orthodox Christians. However, Newman's senses would seem to suggest just that, especially his claim that the Development of Doctrine is truly progress.

Interestingly, Louth finds that the Doctrine "strangely" anticipates Darwin's work on evolution. I do not find this strange at all. Louth correctly notes Newman's grounding in his time by mentioning his Romanticism and his similarities to Hegel. While Darwin's On the Origin of Species post-dates Newman's Essay by fifteen years, they were both coming from similar cultural sources. Evolution in no way began with Charles Darwin, and while Newman may have been more apt to follow Paley, evolutionary concepts were thick in the air for the entire 19th c. It is not strange at all that Newman would resemble Darwin (or Hegel).

Newman's Development rules out any conception of doctrine merely 'evolving' through logical accretion. Not only is the application of new technical language, as I put it, not Development by Newman's standards, but neither would be the development of new rhetoric be. Much of the power of the Fathers is in their rhetoric; it is no accident that we remember most the most literary of them.

Louth has examples of correct uses of historical relativism to understand the history of Christian doctrine; I love his note that the Cappadocians knew more of Origen than we, and Origen more of Greek philosophy (this is true simply by their greater access to texts, and greater access to a living tradition of both schools). However, he notes the folly of attempting to relativize long-standing theological disputes into mere misunderstanding (I think that this is most evident in the monophysite controversy).

Interestingly, Louth notes two cases where ideas of history would help lead to a better understanding of theology: The essence/energies distinction as found in Palamas, and the veneration of icons. I hope to touch on the former when I review Fellow Workers With God for the upcoming symposium. The latter I am too ignorant of, but I think that Louth has an interesting case in his discussion of St. Basil the Great's treatment of unwritten tradition that occurs near the end of his essay.

As he notes, Basil's examples of unwritten tradition are Liturgical: So the doxologies anticipate the formal declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example. This is a supreme example of the Liturgy as the source of theological knowledge for the teaching of the Church. That image and veneration could also be part of such unwritten tradition is no stretch; no one who has visited the Roman catacombs could doubt the early Church's relationship with visual art.

The last part of the essay is a useful reflection on the meaning of the term theology. Theology is properly the the inspired writings of sacred Scripture: St. John being the exemplar. The central task for the theologian, as it certainly was for the Fathers is "to interpret the writings of the theologoi, that is,the Scriptures, in light of the mystery of Christ".

That very mystery into which we are baptized into and feed upon.

*I regret to note that I have never read anything of length by Fr. Louth before. This is a lack that I've felt acutely the past week or so, ever since reading this review of his Discerning the Mystery. After reading this essay, I shall have to get my hands on that book as soon as I can afford a copy.

October 21, 2009

mind and heart, cont'd

A comment to the last post*:

Can you clarify your phrase "silent gnosis"? On the tail of theology being a task accomplished by grace and man's works, how can this knowledge be silent? Is silence the pinnacle of theology? I read somewhere that speechless wonder is the end of philosophy; is this the same with theology?

"Silent gnosis" was maybe redundant, but I wanted to make the meaning of the term as it is used in theology a bit more clear than if I had just said "gnosis". Translating it into philosophical English is difficult, but using words like "silent", I believe, helps define its non-linguistic character. The experience of the divine light is gnosis; the encounters with our Lord in the sacraments of the Church–most supremely in the Eucharist–could also be called gnosis.

In the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes of one (traditionally taken to be himself, a fact lost on me until I read St. John Chrysostom's homilies on the letter) taken up into paradise where he hears "unspeakable words" (as the KJV puts it). The "new names" given in Revelation are another sort of direct apprehension, God's true naming of each human person.

(The joke could go that Wittgenstein was right about one thing.)

This sort of theological silence obviously does not apply only to the divine essence, which cannot be apprehended, by the examples above. Language does not give us the experience of the uncreated light; language does not give us the experience of Communion with God in the Eucharist.

As for the second question, the question really becomes one of understanding "theology" in terms that, while lacking analytic rigor, give some scope of the craft**. Pop-theological views of the differences between "positive" and "negative" theology have led to another meta-narrative, one that is furthermore not improved by an artificial synthesis of an artificial division. No experience of God is without impact on the language we have. The direct apprehension of the guidance of the Holy Spirit found in the Church guides the Church to reject false theology and recognize the true. Neither form ever exists totally without the other; the fathers demonstrate both.

Yet, if epistemic theology is not grounded in an encounter with the living God in the Church, it is a science of idols. Is that a grim picture of human cooperation with Grace in the craft of theology? I think not. It says much about the insufficiency of language before God, but little against man: Gregory of Nyssa writes that it is not blessed to know things about God, but to have Him, that we have within ourselves (for the Kingdom of God is within us) the ability to apprehend the divine things, as God made us in his image, with the likeness of his glory. We speak about God to guard the teachings of the Church (and to help lead persons to her), and that is an enormous task for human cooperation.

There are certainly tendencies to make this gnosis into a justification for a gnosticism, but language is failing me on describing where this point may be seen. I should pray, read or sleep, rather than speculate.

A few thoughts about the final question:

Where the "end" of philosophy is has to do with the question of its source and beginning. If philosophy is truly to be the love of wisdom, and not simply a will to question everything (as for Pieper, who used the latter definition to keep space between Christian philosophy and theology), then its beginning and end are found in Wisdom itself. If true philosophy can not be other than Christian philosophy, it should not surprise us: like St. Athanasius said, since when did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God was made manifest?

*When a reply is going to be longer than a few sentences, I usually would rather write it as a new post.

**Fair play: I sometimes use the term "philosophical theology" to distinguish that part of theology which is expressed in language. It's not really a good general-use definition, but I do it, anyhow.

October 19, 2009

mind and heart

A late commenter to my first post writes:

Looks like this discussion has been over for a few days, but I can't help posting a remark. Perhaps the heart of Newman's mistake is in the language used here: "development was simply the fact that no idea was expressed in its fullest form". Doesn't this betray an Enlightenment assumption, namely, that what we're after is clearly defined ideas and the more fully expressed the better? As an Orthodox Christian I'd suggest that nothing is more pregnant with meaning than the image of God on a cross, that this is the "fullest form", and if this is too murky and inarticulate for Enlightenment Man, so much the worse for him. Or perhaps the scene described in Revelation 5 is the "fullest form" and only the purified heart can take it in, rather than the rational mind alone.

I think that this is an important sort of comment to make further remarks on.

In part, I agree wholly with the author: I was getting to a very similar point when I mentioned later that the Gospel is the "fullest form", and our glosses are not "development". I may disagree with him in part, though.

In the later part of his comment, I think that he accepts–at least in part (he modifies this with "rational mind alone", which is important)–the division of rational and mystical thought (or the division of mind and heart) that is set in our culture by the narrative of Enlightenment vs Romanticism. Rather than seeing them as halves of a cultural whole, we rather accept the definitions.

This leads to a certain anti-philosophical bias amongst Orthodox commenters on the internet (of a certain sort). Because the councils are the councils and the fathers are the fathers, we rarely hear condemnation of their usage of philosophical terminology (unless the father has the misfortune to be St. Augustine), but the use of it in modern contexts is seen as illicit. This is in part a wholesome reaction to the sorts of Christian philosophers who think that Heidegger or something is going to lead us to a deeper understanding of Christian metaphysics by some method other than arguing against him, but it is also simply Romantic anti-intellectualism–or, more accurately, anti-expertism*.

The question of the role of episteme in Christian theology is a long-standing one, one that's history walks between the temptations of gnosticism on one side and a sort of intellectual Pelagianism on the other, where fallen man can apprehend theology through his natural reason, alone.

If theology is a task accomplished by both grace and the works of man, then its highest knowledge is a silent gnosis, but this is not a gnosis that separates initiates from non-initiates, but one that is revealed through the teachings of the Church and her Liturgy. We all participate with that gnosis in the mystery of the Church, however much worms we may be.

*In any case, romanticism likes to move between opposing the common man or the enlightened man against knowledge, which says a lot about what it tacitly accepted from the Enlightenment.

October 17, 2009


I finally have a desk intact, here, but mentally I'm only prepared to share some more Jesse Stuart:

Good-By, My Land!

Good-by, my land! Good-by to hill and shadows!
Good-by to water falling over rocks!
Farewell, my streams that flow by little meadows!
Farewell, my stubble fields and fodder shocks!
If I had chosen my place of birth
I might have chosen fertile, level space
And not these acres of upheaved earth
Where mountain wind put color in my face
And climbing mountain paths that made me lean
Against the wind and lift my feet up high;
Good-by to paths and valleys deep and green,
To friendly mountain sheep etched on the sky.
Farewell to land I love as I depart
To, level fertile space that is less fair;
I'll search the album of my brain and heart
To visit here if I get homesick there.

Stuart's output as a poet was highly inconsistent, and this probably is not one of his best, but I re-read it when I was packing up and it suddenly came alive to me.

October 15, 2009

another book

Moving has taken just about everything out of me the past two weeks, and likely will continue to for another week or so. I look forward to a long visit with close friends coming up, and then I will have to find a new routine in a place with another rhythm.

My wife and I took separate routes to get here. She went visiting, and I went wandering. I needed the time alone, and we had to get two different cars here one way or another. I cut a path through the plateau, through the ridge and valley and into western Maryland. I went to Antietam, and pondered. I went to Gettysburg, and was turned away by the crass town and the preachy museum. Better still those old, black War Department signs that litter Antietam.

If Gen. Lee said that it is a good thing that war is so terrible, that we should grow too fond of it, it was because he had no idea what a wonderful marketing technique that terror can be. The Civil War is–variously–tragedy, holy war, epic or what-have-you. Rarely is it the slaughter some of my ancestors hid up in the hills to avoid fighting on either side. It was a sort of ideological madness that America is lucky to have only had go fratricidal once.

Oh, it was more than that*–but let me be cranky for a little bit longer.


I let myself get into an unfortunate discussion today–about theology, what else–that really bothered me. I love the person I was talking to, but he has that ever-so-common habit today of denying all sort of formation. You can never question a man's assumptions anymore, because he has none. His thoughts, he holds, are wholly sui generis, but if you would accuse him of that, he would only say that he would never say that.


I finally decided to read Moby Dick, recently. I was turned off by the protestations of family and friends that it was nearly unreadable, and by some distaste for how the book had been so thoughtfully interpreted for me by English professors and the like. I often page through "classics" before reading them–I already know the story, what could be spoiled?–and I am set back by the mastery of the language. Reading prose like this lets you understand that the novel is a τεχνη, even if we shrink at that, today.

Maybe I'll be brave enough to read Hawthorne, next.


I am nearly done with the schizophrenic Earthly Powers, which is worth reading enough to where I will read the sequel, even if it is less likely to have new information for me once the Great War draws to a close. It is a strange book, though, in how it criticizes liberalism while frequently accepting its assumptions. While Andrew Sullivan should have long disabused me of any notion that only in America could Edmund Burke be seen as a bastion of conservatism (pace, all ye Kirkeans), it really is there. It's the Edmund Burke notion of the right: The French Revolution was a bridge too far, the Bourbons were treated nastily, but democracy and all that are really still good in and of themselves. Burleigh is deeper than that, but it is easy to see why the books were so warmly received at First Things, now.

*Even ideological madness is not a sufficient cause, but we can overdetermine the Civil War for weeks.

October 8, 2009

upon leaving my country…

I didn’t have any choices as to where I was born,
But if I had had my choice,
I would have chosen Kentucky.
And if could have chosen wind to breathe,
I would have chosen Kentucky wind.
With the scent of cedar, pinetree needles,
Green tobacco leaves, pawpaw, persimmon and sassafras.
I would have chosen too,
Wind from the sawbriar and greenbriar blossoms.

–Jesse Stuart, from "Kentucky is my Land"

The pastures may be "greener" elsewhere, but they aren't mine. Here's to turning my way back home again, someday.

I should say that that part of Stuart's poem has always particularly got to me: I was not born to Kentucky, but Kentucky was where I became nearly everything that I am today.

October 2, 2009

natural reason and revelation

Out of my comments to the last post:

The problem of natural reason and revelation is certainly not new to Orthodoxy, and it is not a problem that is going to go away. Just this evening I had to disagree with a fellow parishioner who asserted that the Latins were the sole cause of atheism. There's a lot to be said for the assertion that atheism in its current form exists in a space granted to it by Christianity, but I do not see how those conditions are unique to the Roman and Protestant churches. In any case, Orthodoxy has provided no sure cultural inoculation against the philosophical horrors of the last 200 years, so I do not know why we'd brag about it.

"Because the Church said so" was never a great line to begin with, because the teaching authority of the Church in Orthodoxy is not understood in the terms of a Magisterium. That is to say: We believe the Creed because the Church confesses it, but there was the use of natural reason in formulating it. What the Church protects us from is the self-defeating, insular use of the reason against its own products, which tell us nothing.

The amount of room to discuss and debate within the Church is sometimes frightfully large, especially to those who maybe saw Orthodoxy as a refuge from the total voluntarism of our modern condition (unfortunately, when voluntarism is the default option, it is hard to "escape" it). We're like children who have been allowed infinite license: We desperately want the adults in charge again.

I should add that I am not in any way denying the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the councils which gave us the Creed. However, I do not think that the precise wording of the Creed was inevitable; reason and the products of philosophy shaped it, and not just in the use of homoousios (though that is probably the most important example, at least because of its prior history in theology at that time).

To say that the precise Creed was inevitable would be akin to the idolatry that says there is only one true language, or true text, for Scripture. Scripture is understood in the context of the Church, especially in its use for the Liturgy. The concern for a "truly literal translation" or the constant pursuit of "the best" Greek text (even at the expense of all reason) is a sort of madness.

One of the few good fruits of current philosophy is the increasing number of persons who realize that no text exists independently of interpretation; we have, however, a whole basis for ours.