09 September 2014

Following the Fathers to the point
where theology and prayer are one

A quiet corner of Cambridge this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Our discussions of the “Horizons and Limitations of Russian Religious Philosophy” continued in Cambridge this morning [9 September 2014] with an introduction to “Vladimir Lossky and the notion of mystical theology” by the Revd Dr Andrew Louth, and to “Florovsky, Lossky and the notion of Mystical Theology” by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

The Revd Dr Andrew Louth is Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Durham. He was speaking in Sidney Sussex College this morning on the second day of the International Summer Conference organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Vladimir Nikolayevich Lossky (1903-1958), an influential Orthodox theologian who lived in exile in Paris, emphasised θέωσις (theosis) as the main principle of Orthodox Christianity. Although Russian, he was concerned to address the people among whom he lived, and so most of his work was written and published in French. His major work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, was published in French in 1944 and in English in 1957.

Father Andrew placed Lossky within the context of contemporary writers on mysticism, including Evelyn Underhill, who rooted her mysticism in the sacramental life of the Church, Baron von Hügel, and the Catholic modernists in France. He also reminded us that in 1975 Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote his DPhil thesis at Oxford “The theology of Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky: an exposition and critique.”

Lossky was forced into exile from Soviet Russia in his teens and after studying in Prague and at the Sorbonne in Paris he settled in Paris, where he was dean of the Saint Dionysus Institute and taught dogmatic theology, and the professor of dogmatic theology at the Orthodox Institute of St Irene. He died in Paris in 1958.

Lossky, like his close friend Father Georges Florovsky, was opposed to the sophiological theories of Father Sergei Bulgakov and Vladimir Solovyev, who were discussed extensively yesterday.

Lossky’s main theological concern was mystical theology and he is best known for his book, Essai sur la theologie mystique de l’Eglise d’orient (1944), published in English as The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (1957).

Lossky drew extensively on Patristic sources and argued that Orthodox theologians maintained the mystical dimension of theology in an integrated way, while the Western traditions had misunderstood Greek terms such as οὐσία (ousia), ὑπόστᾰσις (hypostasis), θέωσις (theosis) and θεωρία (theoria).

But Lossky also spent much of his time working on the writings on mysticism by Meister Eckhart, and his doctoral dissertation on Eckhart was published shortly after his untimely death. Lossky found many affinities between the thinking of the Dominican friar and Orthodox mystics.

For Lossky, Christian mysticism and dogmatic theology are one and the same, and mysticism is Orthodox dogma par excellence. He wrote:

“The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church… To put it another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of the spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically… There is, therefore, no Christian mystery without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism… Mysticism is … the perfecting and crown of all theology: as theology par excellence.”

Father Louth went on to say: “Mysticism and theology relate as experience and theory. But experience of what? Ultimately of God.”

But that is not where Lossky begins, he said. He begins by speaking of “personal experience of the divine mysteries,” the term “mysteries” being – not exactly ambiguous, but with at least two connotations – meaning both the sacraments of the Church, and also mysterious truths about the Godhead.

The mysterious truths about God – his existence as a Trinity of love, his creation of the world, his care for the world and his redemption of it, pre‐eminently in the Incarnation – are truths that we experience and celebrate in the Divine Mysteries, or the Sacraments of the Church. It is this that gives Lossky’s presentation such a different orientation from what is normally associated with mysticism in the West: it is not detached from dogma, but rooted in the dogmatic truths of the Christian tradition; it is not indifferent to Church organisation, hierarchy and sacraments, but rooted in the structured life of the Church.

It is not individualistic – indeed individualism is seen to be the deepest flaw in Western Christianity – but rooted in the experience of the Eucharistic community, the Church.

Steps in South Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The writings of Lossky continued to inform us later in the morning as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware introduced us to “Florovsky, Lossky and the notion of Mystical Theology.” He knew both Florovsky and Lossky personally, took them as his mentors while he was at Oxford, and stayed with the Lossky family. Metropolitan Kallistos is the President of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and is a much-loved lecturer at this summer school each year.

Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (1893-1979) was born in Odessa, the son of a priest. He spent his working life in Paris (1920-1948) as Professor of Patristics and later Professor of Dogmatics, and, after failing to obtain an appointment at Oxford, in the US (1948-1979), where he was a professor at Saint Vladimir’s, Harvard and Princeton. With Sergei Bulgakov, Vladimir Lossky, Justin Popović and Dumitru Stăniloae, Florovsky is one of the more influential Orthodox theologians of the mid-20th century. His pupils included Metropolitan John Zizioulas.

Florovsky was particularly concerned that modern Christian theology might receive inspiration from the lively intellectual debates of the patristic traditions of the undivided Church rather than from later Scholastic or Reformation categories of thought.

Lossky was committed to the Moscow Patriarchate, attaching great importance to links with the persecuted mother church, and disapproved of other Russians loyalties. On the other hand, Florovsky was among the Russians who belonged to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Florovsky often spoke without notes, something Lossky would never have done at a major public meeting. Florovsky disagreed strongly with Bulgakov, including their ideas on limited inter-communion with Anglicans, but never did so publicly.

His major work is Ways of Russian Theology. His collected works are available in a 14-volume collection published between 1972 and 1989.

He placed Florovsky and Lossky within the context of two 20th century movements in Orthodox theology, Russian religious renaissance and the neopatristic school.

Florovsky is the mastermind of the movement for a return to the Church Fathers. His vision of the neopatristic synthesis became the main paradigm of Orthodox theology.

His evolving interpretation of Russian religious thought, particularly Vladimir Solovyov and Sergius Bulgakov, informed his approach to patristic sources.

Florovsky’s neopatristic theology is often contrasted with the modernist philosophies of Pavel Florensky, Sergius Bulgakov, and other representatives of the Russian Religious Renaissance. He critically appropriated the main themes of the Russian Religious Renaissance, including theological antinomies, the meaning of history, and the nature of personhood, and the distinctive features of Florovsky’s neopatristic theology – Christological focus, “ecclesial experience,” personalism, and Christian Hellenism – are best understood against the background of the Russian religious renaissance.

Bulgakov’s sophiology provides a polemical subtext for Florovsky’s theology of creation, and Florovsky’s theology is marked out by his use of the patristic norm in application to modern Russian theology.

Florovsky was concerned with a living tradition, and Metropolitan Kallistos summarised his thinking as not being “Back to the Fathers” but as “Forward with the Fathers.” He suggested that to follow the Fathers is not to quote them but to acquire their mind, where theology and prayer become one.

He also traced Florovsky’s influence on Anglican-Orthodox dialogue, his advocacy of Christian Hellenism and the debate about whether he had neglected the heritage of the Latin, Syrian and Coptic Fathers, and his role in the ecumenical movement. He understood that the canonical limits of the Church, as understood in Orthodoxy, are not the same as the charismatic limits of the Church.

He recommended two books on Florovsky: Andrew Blane, Georges Florovsky. Russian Intellectual and Orthodox Churchman (Crestwood, New York: Saint Vladimir’s, 1993), and, more recently, Paul Gavrilyuk, Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance (Oxford: OUP, 2013).

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