Florovsky’s “The Challenge of Our Time”

The Challenge of Our Time

600px_55-2_Karpatorossi_Georgy-Florovsky

The great Russian bishop of the last century, Theophanes “The Recluse” (d. 1894), in one of his pastoral letters makes a startling statement. What the Russian Church most needed, he said, was “a band of firebrands,” which would set the world on fire. The incendiaries must be themselves burning and go around to inflame human minds and hearts. Theophanes did not trust a “residual Christianity.” Customs could be perpetuated by inertia, he said, but convictions and beliefs could be kept only by spiritual vigilance and continuous effort by the spirit. Theophanes felt that there was too much routine and convention in the life of Russian Christians. He anticipated a crisis and even a collapse. He resigned his diocese and retired to a monastery, because he felt that he could do much more service to the Church by writing books than by administering a bishopric.

Theophanes was a man of wide learning and experience. For some time he was Rector of the Theological Academy (in St. Petersburg). He traveled extensively in the Christian East and was intimately linked with Mount Athos. He was a good Greek scholar, and he used this knowledge for translations. He always insisted that he retired not for an advanced spiritual life (which is possible, and should be practiced for the ordinary life) but to have time and leisure for literary and scholarly work. He took to his monastic cell all his books, a selected library from which were not excluded books by Western scholars and secular literature. He wanted to know the world to which he had to bring the message of salvation. He did not dispute the labors and achievements of those who did not belong to the Orthodox communion of faith.

The retired bishop spent his time in writing: He translated “Philokalia,” [see Book Reviews ]; the works of St. Simeon the New Theologian; the ancient Monastic Rules (Eastern and Western); he published several volumes of his commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul, intended not so much for scholars, but to help all believers understand this inspired teaching; he wrote several books on Christian Ethics and Spirituality. Theophanes began every day with the Divine Liturgy, which he celebrated alone in his tiny domestic chapel, and he would use the inspiration of the daily communion for his scholarly and pastoral work.

The impact of Theophanes’ writings on the life of the Russian Church was enormous. In his retirement, as a “recluse,” he was more influential than he could ever have been as administrator of a worldly diocese. He made Christian doctrine available for average Christians, for all Christians. He wanted to equip them with spiritual weapons for their Christian struggle. He required from all Christians — from clergy first of all — a thorough knowledge and understanding of our Holy Faith, which alone could save our life from unhealthy sentimentalism and imagination. He insisted on the study of the Scriptures and of the Holy Fathers.

Now, many years have passed since Theophanes’ time. His worst anticipations were justified. The whole Orthodox Church — not only in Russia — is involved in a desperate struggle with the raging assault of godlessness and unbelief. Human souls are undergoing an incredible trial. But the protecting veil of Divine Mercy is spread over the suffering Church and the possessed world, and men are called to be Christ’s witnesses: His Messengers and Apostles. The Church is essentially a missionary institution. One has to thank God for that army of new martyrs and confessors who have revealed or manifested the strength and the beauty of Christian Faith. And yet one should not be too easily satisfied with what has been done by others. So much has been left not done by us.

Let us confine our attention this time to one aspect of our Christian duty. Everyone knows that we are desperately short of books. Behind the “iron curtain” an impressive literature of atheism has been created and widely spread. Special colleges have been established to train people “for a godless ministry.” Textbooks on anti-religious propaganda, and on the methodology of godless preaching have been prepared for classrooms.

What is our response to this challenge? In the Ancient Church, the Holy Fathers met the challenge of the pagan world by an outpouring of Christian writings, attacking point by point the arguments of the opponents. What have we done in our own situation? Can we really meet the enemy on the field and save the victims of this unparalleled spiritual persecution?

The rusty weapons will not do. I am not speaking of the Holy Tradition, of the writings of the Holy Fathers, but of the inadequate books of the last century, which were so often ephemeral and rarely presented a sufficient interpretation of the Holy Tradition. Our theological production stopped years ago, and that stoppage testifies to our neglect of the teaching mission of the Church. Ignorance is growing in the Church and we are not alarmed!

Are there any books in which our Holy Orthodox Faith can be convincingly preached and commended to our own generation?

We in America, where the majority of Orthodox Christians are English-speaking, are in an especially difficult situation. There is no Orthodox literature in English. There are occasional books, often of modest quality, and rarely on the most urgent or basic subjects. The real problem, however, is not that of books, but of study. Each generation, especially in a new country, has to assess the Christian truth afresh, in continuous contact with the past, as well as in close contact with the changing present. It is not enough to learn by rote some ready answers. They may be perfectly right and correct. But we have to solve the questions by thinking through the answers and not by merely reciting formulas, sacred and perfect though they are. Listen to the searching man! He knows the formula, but cannot relate it to his existential questioning. Our Creed is a most perfect formula. How often do we recite it without conviction? Are we able to relate it to our urgent spiritual needs? How many Orthodox dispense with the Creed, because it has ceased to have for them any immediate spiritual appeal? The Creed is charged with an eternal and loving Truth. It is an eternal key to human unrest, but it needs interpretation. Otherwise we would not know how to fit the key in the lock.

What our present generation wants, especially in our country, is a true theological revival — a revival of a living theology, which would unlock for us that Truth which one can find in the Scriptures, in the Tradition, and in the Liturgical life of the Church, but which is sealed away from us by our ignorance and neglect. We need today more than ever before, precisely a “band of spiritual firebrands” who can inflame minds and hearts with the fire of a loving knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. God calls us, in our generation, to be His witnesses and messengers. How can men believe if they do not hear the quickening Word? Even if we are men of unclean lips, let us respond to the Divine call, and the fire of the Spirit will cleanse us, for the ministry of the Word.

V. Rev. George Florovsky, D.D.

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly , Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 1952, pp. 3–5

Memory Eternal Fr. Matthew Baker

1622546_10151898735997957_1427090618_o

The loss of Fr Matthew Baker to our small Fellowship is inestimable. He was for me, personally, one of the great hopes for articulating the theological vision that we try to articulate here at the Fellowship. He was also one of my closest friends. His scholarship, priesthood, and friendship will be missed by us. More importantly he will be missed by his wonderful widow and his incredible children. Our Church has suffered greatly in losing this incredible man.

Please join us in mourning him and praying for the repose of his soul.

Please if you can help his family with a monetary donation.

Who Fr Matthew was has been captured very well in Fr. Andrew’s post here, “We need more Spiritual Brothers” and by Heirodeacon Herman here, “The Life of Fr. Matthew Baker is a Triumph of Orthodoxy“.

We have an incredible inheritance to live up to in the work that Fr. Matthew left for us. Let us be found worthy of this calling.

The Operations of God (chapter 7 of Staniloae’s “Experience of God”)

creation_icon

The next few chapters of The Experience of God are Staniloae’s extended commentary and refining of the essential points made in the sixth chapter. In chapter seven Staniloae addresses the particular claims of the Orthodox tradition’s insistence upon the distinction between the essence and energies of God. Thankfully the English translator employs the word “operation” instead of “energy” (this may just be a peculiarity of Staniloae’s own Romanian?). I have found it difficult expressing the gist of this infamous doctrine when using the word “energy”. The word alone seems to imply powers residing within the infinite Godhead, or to be somewhat cartoonish, to imply that God is enveloped by some sort of “energy field”. I believe in employing the word “operation” there is an allowance for an English speaker to understand the dynamic nature of the energies of God and their specific relationship to the created world. God’s operations are God’s dynamic and unceasing work of sustaining and guiding His creation towards union with Himself. This cosmological and eschatological point of view seems to me to be the difference between Staniloae and other modern Orthodox interpreter’s of the operations of God.

Staniloae is not specifically affixed to the issues of existential knowledge vs. rationalistic knowledge being the point of the doctrine concerning operations of God – at least not in this chapter. I mention this fact because this point is what I perceive to be what many modern Orthodox thinkers argue is the crux of the doctrine and therefore a definitive difference with the Western theological tradition. Staniloae’s presentation here is a refreshing approach to understanding how God maintains God’s freedom and transcendence from the world all the while being actively sustaining and working within the world to bring it and humanity into communion with God. Typical to Staniloae’s treatment of the primary doctrines of the Orthodox Church, Staniloae has refracted this doctrine through his specific concern with the created order and its telos in God. Unlike Lossky and other modern interpreters of Palamas there is not in Staniloae a supreme focus on epistemological issues. Rather the focus of Staniloae is trained on seeing the doctrine of the essence and operations of God within the structures of “theosis” – the graced cosmos, the sacraments, and the myriad nature of human experience.

In another source Staniloae insists “Christianity must emphasize today the value and the mystery of man and the world in a special way, in order to save man from a grave moral decadence and a remarkable egoism in interhuman relations; and to save the world from total catastrophe”.[1] In discussing this chapter I want to point to two interrelated points brought out within this specific chapter and how the doctrine of the essence and energies/operations of God figures into Staniloae’s theological vision. Those two points are God’s meaningful and rationally structured creation and humanity’s place within it and the importance of Divine and human personhood and freedom. These two points reiterate Staniloae’s insistence upon what Christians must emphasize in our modern context. Let us first turn to the mystery of man and the world.

God’s attributes can be categorized in various ways. God is “good”, “just”, or “merciful”. We do not experience these attributes as abstract ideas. Rather, we experience these attributes in a myriad of ways throughout our life. We experience the “pressure” of God through various occurrences and people who are providential supplied to us. In other words, we experience God’s operations within the world as a continuous symphony – not in a single ravishing transcendent experience. Staniloae states: “Through his attributes God makes something of his being evident to us, but this something is made specific within one vast and uninterrupted symphony of continually new acts that guide creation and each element of it separately towards the final goal of full union with him” (128). The operations of God we experience are fully God, yet God is infinitely beyond our experience. I say “beyond” because we do experience God through his operations in the world, however words fail in “capturing” God. “[T]he mystery of the personal reality of God is experience, properly speaking, through the renunciation of all the words that point to the attributes and operations of God directed toward us” (129).

God stands above creation. The triune God is super-essential – existing in a superior mode to creation. God does not rely on anything, is not encompassed by a system of references, or need to participate in anything in order to exist. God’s triune life is “act or power” and he possesses all of his own attributes unaided by created reality. It may be helpful to consider this through an analogy. The operations of God in the world are like a ladder. We experience God’s goodness in varied degrees throughout our life and it is through these experiences that we taste God’s goodness. We have not “grasped” God within our own machinations or experiences. Rather our experiences have provided us with a sign that points us towards the person of God. What Staniloae has done to help me understand this doctrine is to put God’s governance into the framework of the operations of God. It is not an abstract discussion of God’s specific names or attributes that we may meditate on and by grace or will sling ourselves up towards the transcendent. It is out of the over-abundant love of God that He governs and leads our lives through various levels of communication with us. He operates or communicates to us through the encouragement of others, through the testament of Scripture, through the lives of the Saints, or as in the case of St. Poryphorios, even in the song of a nightingale. This is so because God has in creating us not abandoned us, but continues to sustain, guide, and communicate to us through the created symbolic order that is the cosmos in which we live, move, and have our very being.

The transcendence of God is key for Staniloae for two reasons. The first reason is the reality of monotheism, God is beyond the created order and this is a good for creation. All of reality flows from the will of the Triune God, not out of necessity but out of God’s freely chosen act of creating, sustaining, and ultimately redeeming reality. This grounds Staniloae’s “apophatic personhood”. What grounds reality is the fact of the divine persons of the Godhead have created not out of necessity but out of love. If it were otherwise meaning and difference would collapse. Divine super-essential persons sustain reality. Second, this transcendence is actually extremely important for humanity. Being made in the image of God we participate in the mystery of personhood, specifically the gift of freedom. In fact, for Staniloae it is the reality of the transcendence of the divine Personal reality that “assures the existence of human persons who are not totally enclosed within nature’s system of references (once God secures for them this liberty). Otherwise everything would fall under the rule of the meaningless laws of nature and death” (138). The transcendent reality of the essence of God has become for Staniloae the lynchpin in securing human freedom and therefore morality. The world is meaningful because it flows out of the Divine community of love. The world is going somewhere and for a real purpose, namely, personal communion with God.

Staniloae’s weaving of the doctrine about the operations and essence of God has been tuned to the contemporary issues of scientism, nihilism, and utilitarianism. We must affirm the transcendence of the Creator in order to secure the freedom of the human being. This affirmation is an affirmation of moral and cosmic significance. In fact, to separate the cosmic from the moral is to make a serious error. We experience God through the “pressure” of every day existence. It is in and through our varied experiences we are able to experience God’s guidance of the cosmos into communion with Himself.

[1] Charles Miller, Gift of the World: An Introduction to the Theology of Dumitru Staniloae, 55.

THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD VOLUME 1, CHAPTER 2

Creation-Icon

Staniloae’s theological universe seems drastically opposed to his Swiss contemporary Karl Barth. As we have found in chapter 2, Staniloae’s world is alive with the signs of God. This is no mere romanticism, where we find the infinite in the awesome expanses of landscapes or in the flowering of the inner recesses of the heart. No, Staniloae is representative of an older theological age – the ordered and empowered universe of the Fathers. The universe is meaningful because its creator, sustainer, and consummation is the Triune God. The infinite is bound up in every instance and in every thing.

sta_barth

My understanding of natural revelation has been bound my theological heritage, Western and flowing from two trajectories: Augustine/Aquinas & Barth and Post-Barth. Staniloae’s critique of Western theology I think is spot on. “Western theology has accustomed us to hold, that in natural revelation man is the only active agent. This separation of God from nature, a nature through which God speaks and works…has easily led to various kinds of conceptions that have sought to explain the world exclusively on the basis of an immanent reality” (21). I believe what Staniloae is pointing to when he characterizes Western theology as seeing man as the only active agent in natural revelation is the extreme rationalism found in “natural theology” in the West. (Not that these types of theology have not arisen in the East and/or thrive there) For example, think of the post-Cartesian search for indubitably true proofs for the existence of God. Or, think of anything like Josh McDowell and the evangelical or fundamentalist desire for truth claims based solely in amassing data or driven by an apologetics that creates an iron fortress of “t”ruth around faith. It seems to me that Staniloae sees in this a denial of the graced nature of reality. This brings us to the second half of the quote above. The natural theology that I believe Staniloae is pointing to is a theology that is purely logos and no theos.

Revelation is not something completely alien to humanity. We swim in a world alive with the glory of God. It is either the hardening of our hearts through an over attachment to the lust of the eyes and flesh (which I would argue is not just due to individuals but also emanates in cultures), or the separation of God from the world through the intellect (again, also a cultural emanation as well). Staniloae’s whole cosmology is then quite different than many modern conceptions. There is no supreme gulf between humanity and God – in fact, in Staniloae’s understanding God is constantly present to us, it is the fault of our darkened hearts and weakened wills that we are unable to commune with him personally. We know this because we feel the pangs of regret (18) in our conscience and because we innately pursue meaning (15). We learn a lot about God through natural revelation but it is only through supernatural revelation that the truth of God and our end within Him is clear.

Staniloae’s characterization of Western theology as making natural theology bereft of God may seem odd to those on this side of the 20th century – but if we are aware of the nature and grace debates within Roman Catholic circles and of certain aspects of Lutheran and Reformed theology this characterization stands. I began with mentioning Karl Barth because of his notoriety for rejecting natural theology and the tone that this set for later 20th century theology (Protestant & Catholic (Von Balthasar). Staniloae is not afraid of natural theology because he does not see “natural theology” in the way that Barth and others do. Staniloae is aware of these debates and comes to them from a serious immersion in the fathers of East. Especially important here is St. Maximos the Confessor, who is mentioned multiple times within the second chapter. St. Maximus’s Christo-centric cosmology takes to heart the Pauline and Johannine ideas of Christ as Logos and Mediator and systematizes them in a magnificent way. The salvific economy of Jesus Christ is to come into the world and to raise it back into communion with the Triune God. As the Spirit rests upon the Son in eternity so the Spirit rests upon the Son in His actions for our salvation. The Son has plunged fully into the material world in taking upon himself human nature and has therefore, through the power of the Holy Spirit, confirmed and fully revealed the meaning of creation (35). Nature is not at odds with God but is the very material through which God communicates and communes. Let us not think of “nature” as those with the low-fi vision of scientism do. Rather, nature is creation – not inert matter ready to be poked, prodded and organized. Instead, it is ultimately to be consecrated, elevated, and consumed as our eucharist. Reality now has meaning, not plagued by death or fatigued by an abyss of meaninglessness, but is an eternal communion of love between humanity and God.

How could we dispense with natural theology if this is a key way in which God brings us up in the ways of our Lord? “…the revealed Christ remains and goes on working within creation, that is, he makes the entire revelation perpetually effective to lead believers towards union with himself and towards deification” (36).

On another front – I find it extremely interesting that Staniloae begins his dogmatics by discussing revelation. This fact seems to indicate that Staniloae is quite aware of modernity’s challenges while at the same time not capitulating to modernity’s terms. I mean specifically the modern desire to place an incredible weight on epistemology – how we know what we know – without addressing other issues – e.g. ontology – what is. Again, to bring Barth back into the conversation, we find in Barth’s theological trajectory an intense focus on God revealing God’s self in the face of historicism and modern skepticism. Barth’s move is to abdicate the world of any of God’s presence (at least the earlier Romerbrief Barth). It would then become necessary for T.F. Torrance (referencing Fr Aidan’s comment on Chapter 1) to bridge Barth’s lacunae. Let me quote it here:

I do not deny that there is a proper place for rational argumentation in what is traditionally known as ‘natural theology’, for I find it contradictory to operate with a deistic disjunction between God and the universe, which presupposes belief in the existence of God but assumes at the same time that he is utterly detached and unknowable. Genuine argumentation must take place within the active interrelation between God and the universe, and is argumentation in which theoretical and empirical components in knowledge operate inseparably together, much as they do in the indissoluble fusion of geometry and physics in a ‘relativistic’ understanding of the universe. This demands of us, doubtless, a proper natural theology in which form and content, method and subject-matter, are not torn apart–that is, not a ‘natural theology’ as an independent conceptual system, antecedent to actual or empirical knowledge of God upon which it is then imposed, quite unscientifically, as a set of necessary epistemological presuppositions! (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 1)

It would also be the impetus as to why Sarah Coakley would argue that if Barth lived now he would not have rejected natural theology.

For Orthodox theology it would be impossible to be faithful to the faith of the Fathers and put aside some form of natural theology. Because of the challenge of scientism, atheism, nihilism, and our generally materialistic society Staniloae’s work is essential for modern Orthodox to engage with in order for us to be able to adequately engage with our challenges now. Or so it seems to me.

 

 

____________________________

Chapter four of Theology and the Church by Staniloae entitled “Revelation Through Acts, Words and Images” would be quite beneficial to read alongside these chapters on revelation here in the first volume of the dogmatics.