31 August 2015

Can one say ‘Christ is divided’
for believing Christians?

Rain and reflections in Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Last night’s rain has continued all day today [Monday 31 August 2015] in Cambridge, but we are still calling this a Summer Conference. The conference in Sidney Sussex College is organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and is looking at “Christian Faith, Identity and Otherness.”

This is an ecumenical journey this week, and as Dr David Frost, the founding principal of the institute, said in his welcome, it is appropriate that the people here come from a wide variety of traditions, backgrounds, nationalities and institutions.

Dr Christoph Schneider, the Academic Director of IOCS, marked out three distinct levels of dialogue for discussion at this conference: intra-Orthodox dialogue, dialogue within Christianity, where there is still a common point of reference, and the third type which is the most challenging – dialogue with non-Christian beliefs, including different religions and secularism, with different understandings of being and reality.

In the first conference session this morning, Professor Ivana Noble of Charles University of Prague, asks: “On what common path do we embark when we converse with the other? Three different visions of ecumenism: Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Lossky.”

Dr Noble is Professor Ecumenical Theology Protestant Theological Faculty. Before looking at the ecumenical visions of Berdyaev, Bulgakovand Lossky, she introduced us to the influential lifestory and experiences of Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900), the Russian philosopher and theologian who played a significant role in the development of Russian philosophy, theology and poetry at the end of the 19th century and in the spiritual renaissance of the early 20th century. His book The Meaning of Love was one of the philosophical sources of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata (1889).

Solovyov was a friend and confidant of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), and it is widely held that he was one of the sources for Dostoyevsky’s characters Alyosha Karamazov and Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.

But, unlike Dostoyevsky, Solovyov was sympathetic to the Roman Catholic Church. He favoured the healing of the schism – (ecumenism, sobornost) – between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Eventually, “through an ethical and social standpoint,” he was received into Roman Catholic Church. But he continued to regard himself as Orthodox, and when he was dying he received the last rites from a Russian Orthodox priest.

Solovyov influenced the religious philosophy of Nicolas Berdyaev, Sergey Bulgakov, Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Lossky, Semyon Frank, the ideas of Rudolf Steiner and the poetry and theory of the Russian Symbolists. Hans Urs von Balthasar explores his work as one example of seven lay styles that reveal the glory of God’s revelation in The Glory of the Lord.

Puddles in Hall Court in Sidney Sussex College today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) was a Russian religious and political philosopher. His mother was Orthodox by birth but in her views on religion she was more Catholic than Orthodox.

He was charged with blasphemy in 1913 and sentenced to a life in exile in Siberia. But World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution intervened. Although he later fell out with the Bolshevik régime, he continued to lecture and write and founded a private academy, the Free Academy of Spiritual Culture, in 1919.

In 1920, he became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Moscow, but was accused of taking part in a conspiracy, he was arrested and jailed.

Although he was a practising member of the Russian Orthodox Church,he was often critical of its institutional policies and un-Christian behaviour, yet believed that Orthodox Christianity was the true vehicle for Christianity.

Father Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov (1871-1944) was a Russian Orthodox theologian and philosopher, and a key founding figure in the Ecumenical movement. He helped found the Orthodox Institute of Saint Sergius in Paris, formed an Anglican-Orthodox dialogue group, and after World War I he lead the way for the Orthodox engagement with ecumenical groups such as Faith and Order.

Bulgakov was certain that the Orthodox Church was the true Church of God, and that ecumenical work was essentially a reconciliation of all Christians to Orthodoxy. But he differed from his colleagues, such as Georges Florovsky, in that he never understood Church reconciliation as a movement to any particular cultural form of Orthodoxy – Hellenised or Slavofied – but simply Orthodoxy and simply Christianity.

This simple Christianity, moreover, in its spiritual essence, is shared by every true Christian who loves Christ. Therefore Christian reconciliation becomes simply the renewal of a physical unity manifesting an already present spiritual unity. In this he illuminated the most salient point of unity for Christians and avoided the snares of ethnophylism that he thought Orthodox Christians fall into far too often.

For Bulgakov, all Christians are united dogmatically through the confession of the Apostolic creeds. This underlies a deeper spiritual unity that already binds all Christians – the Name of Christ is hallowed among all Christians, and every Christian calls on him in worship, love, and faith. This very personal relationship of every Christian with Christ constitutes the very basis of full ecumenical reconciliation; it is a spiritual oneness that unites every Christian. Bulgakov says that we must begin here in order to pursue unity.

He believed that the labels of “heretic” and “heresy” were used too often; although perhaps true of the teaching itself, the label is used to “completely anathematise” the entire person.

Bulgakov writes: “By casting another Christian as a ‘heretic,’ a spiritual judgment is also made which asserts that that person holds this belief because of spiritual pride and eristic boldness. But why is such a judgment placed on a Christian who truly loves our Lord and follows what he has been taught, though it may be doctrinally incomplete?” He asks, “can one say that ‘Christ is divided’ for a contemporary Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or believing Protestant? In their love of our Lord and their striving towards him all Christians are one.”

Bulgakov regarded it as unfortunate that “we tend to stress our dogmatic disagreements much more than our common Christian heritage.” This is very often tied in with culture, since language creates the mode of expression of creeds, and when we have an inflated love for our own language and terminology – which comes from ethnophylism – we condemn those who prays to the same Lord in a different tongue.

He points out that a great fruit of coming together in dialogue has been the realisation of our common Christian love and devotion to God, which empowers us all to work out the doctrinal differences, so that we may pray with one voice.

As an Orthodox Christian, Bulgakov stated that the ancient canons that forbade common prayer with heretics did so because heretics were in error in teaching as well as leading spiritually destructive lives. But Bulgakov says that if a Christian truly desires unity and seeks to love Christ just as any Christian, these rules no longer apply, since “there is no attacking party.”

Bulgakov argues that “the spirit of schism and division is not only a characteristic of ‘heretics’ and ‘schismatics’.” A Christian could be entirely Orthodox in confession, but entirely heretical in obstinacy, stirring up of dissension, hatred, rancour, and an unforgiving spirit, he believed. Indeed, he thought, “we all are heretics in various ways.”

If a Christian manifests the fruits of the spirit – love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – and, for example, does not hold that Christ ordained priests, will he not more quickly connect with a humble Catholic than with one who is filled with bitterness and hatred?

Bulgakov states that the common priesthood shared among the Apostolic Churches creates a unity in the sacraments that transcends divisions. If we receive Christ at the altar through a priest ordained sacramentally by the Apostles, and Christ cannot be divided, then we also receive each other. This sacramental unity in the priesthood also reflects – and becomes indeed the fountain of – the common phenomenon of sanctity experienced by Orthodox and Catholics saints through this Eucharist.

Vladimir Nikolayevich Lossky (1903-1958) was an influential, exiled Russian theologian who emphasised theosis as the main principle of Orthodoxy.

His main theological concern was exegesis of mystical theology in Christianity. He argued in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (1944) that Orthodox theologians maintained the mystical dimension of theology in a more integrated way than those of the Catholic and Reformed traditions after the East-West Schism because the latter misunderstood such Greek terms as ousia, hypostasis, theosis and theoria.

He cites the Philokalia and Saint John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent, as well as works by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and Saint Gregory Palamas, so that his close friend Georges Florovsky describes his approach as a “neopatristic synthesis.”

The genius of Eastern mystical theology lay, he contended, in its apophatic character, which he defined as the understanding that God is radically unknowable in human, thus philosophical, terms. Consequently, God's special revelation in Scripture must be preserved in all of its integrity by means of the distinction between the ineffable divine essence and the inaccessible nature of the Holy Trinity, on the one hand, and the positive revelation of the Trinitarian energies, on the other.

“When we speak of the Trinity in itself,” said Lossky, “we are confessing, in our poor and always defective human language, the mode of existence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one sole God who cannot but be Trinity, because He is the living God of Revelation, Who, though unknowable, has made Himself known, through the incarnation of the Son, to all who have received the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and is sent into the world in the name of the incarnate Son.”

Lossky and Florovsky were opposed to the sophiological theories of Bulgakov and Soloviev. For Lossky, Christian mysticism and dogmatic theology were one and the same. According to Lossky, mysticism is Orthodox dogma par excellence. The Christian life of prayer and worship is the foundation for dogmatic theology, and the dogma of the Church helps Christians in their struggle for sanctification and deification. Without dogma, future generations lose the specific orthodoxy (right mind) and orthopraxis (right practice) of the Eastern Orthodox path to salvation (see soteriology).

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