08 September 2014

Discussing ‘Sophia’ and a ‘Theology of the Body’
while celebrating the Nativity of the Theotokos

Icons of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) on sale in a shop in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

The Nativity of the Theotokos, celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary, is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical calendar in the Orthodox Church. This feast is celebrated today [8 September].

According to Orthodox tradition, the Virgin Mary was born in Nazareth to the elderly couple Joachim and Anna, who previously had no children, in answer to their prayers. Joachim was descended from the Prophet-King David, while Anna was descended from the first priest Aaron.

The tradition says Saint Joachim and Saint Anna were elderly but had not lost hope in God’s mercy. The story bears many parallels with the story Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac.

When the elderly Joachim brought his sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem on one of the feastdays, it is said, the High Priest refused to accept it, considering Joachim to be unworthy since he was childless.

Orthodoxy teaches that the Virgin Mary surpassed in purity and virtue not only all of humanity, but also the angels. She was manifest as the living Temple of God, so the Church sings in its festal hymns: “the East Gate ... bringing Christ into the world for the salvation of our souls.”

Her birth marks the change of the times when the great and comforting promises of God for the salvation of humanity are about to be fulfilled. This event brought to earth the grace of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of Truth, piety, virtue and everlasting life.

We were reminded of today’s feastday this afternoon when the themes of incarnation, sexuality, sacramental marriage and the understanding of the body as key concepts for Christianity were emphasised by Professor Artur Mrówczynski-Van Allen, of the Institute of Philosophy Edith Stein, ICSCO, Theological Institute Lumen Gentium, Granada.

A Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher now living in Spain, he was speaking on “The Body of Freedom. Theology of the Body as Political Philosophy. Modernity through Saint Ephrem the Syrian and Vladimir Solovyov” at the annual conference or summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies opened in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

He drew extensively on the work of the Russian theologian and philosopher, Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900), including his book The Meaning of Love, in which he introduced the concept of syzygy to denote “close union.”

Solovyov described his encounters with the entity Sophia in his works, Three Encounters and Lectures on Godmanhood among others. His teachings on Sophia, conceived as the merciful unifying feminine wisdom of God is considered unsound by many Russian Orthodox theologians. He never married or had children, but pursued idealised relationships as immortalised in his spiritual love-poetry, including with two women named Sophia.

Solovyov’s thinking was a major subject later in the afternoon when the Russian theologian and philosopher, Dr Natalia Vaganova of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Moscow, spoke on “Russian Sophiology as religio-philosophical synthesis of culture noveau.” She asked whether Sophia is a metaphysical being, but also recalled that Solovyov’s idea of the “embodied Sophia” was popular among his contemporaries and how, during his own lifetime and to his great surprise, there were many applicants for the role, including Anna Schmidt, who proclaimed herself to be Sophia.

Solovyov looked to the establishment of the “perfect social organism, the Church,” and he believed that the universal religion would be the “real embodiment” of Sophia. This religion would have “positive love” as its foundation and this is infinite, universal, absolute love.

Solovyov’s thinking strongly influenced the Russian Orthodox theologian and philosopher Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov (1871-1944), whose teaching on sophiology was highly controversial. Saint John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai (1896-1966), in his The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, condemned Bugakov’s sophianism, saying it was as destructive as Nestorianism, and he accused Bulgakov of attempting to deify the Theotokos.

Which brought me right back to considering today’s feastday as we prepared to celebrate it at Vespers in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College this evening.

The speakers tomorrow are: the Revd Professor Andrew Louth (University of Durham), Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia, the Revd Prof Nikolaos Loudovikos (University Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki), and the Revd Tikhon Vasilyev (University of Oxford).

Late summer sunshine in the Master’s Garden in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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