Fr. Georges Florovsky remains, in my mind, one of the most neglected of modern Orthodox scholars. His vision of the place of Orthodox theology in relation to the West was instrumental in the birth of the ecumenical movement – which has sadly lost that vision. The cruciform nature of his ecumenical vision exonerate him from charges of “ecumenism” in the negative sense of the word. He saw a mission for Orthodoxy within the fragmented landscape of Western Christianity – a mission that was both essential to the health and existence the Orthodox Church and essential for the Christian world. His grasp of both patristic theology as well as the history of Orthodox life and thought is largely without comparison. A variety of misfortunes have left a good part of his collected works unread (even unavailable). The following passage is from his Ways of Russian Theology, Part Two (pgs. 300-304). Though the passage is extensive, it is well worth the read. His says more, with greater depth, than one usually encounters in cyberspace, and says much that Orthodox voices either do not know or have not considered. This was first posted by me in March of 2006 on Pontifications. Florovsky’s work seems hopelessly out of print. But I cite its Amazon listing, nonetheless.
The Truth of Orthodoxy
Russian theology imitatively experienced every major phase of modern western religious thought – Tridentine theology, the baroque period, Protestant orthodoxy and scholasticism, pietism and freemasonry, German idealism and romanticism, the Christian-social ferment following the French Revolution, the expansion of the Hegelian school, modern critical historiography, the Tubingen school and Rischtlism, modern romanticism, and symbolism. In one way or another all of these influences successively entered into Russia’s cultural experience. However, only dependence and imitation resulted – no true encounter with the West has yet taken place. That could only happen in the freedom and equality of love.
It is not enough to merely repeat answers previously formulated in the West – the western questions must be discerned and relived. Russian theology must confidently penetrate the entire complex problematics of western religious thought and spiritually trace and examine the difficult and bewildering path of the West from the time of the Great Schism. Access to the inner creative life comes only through its problematics, and one must therefore sympathize with that life and experience it precisely in its full problematicality, searching, and anxiety. Orthodox theology can recover its independence from western influence only through a spiritual return to its patristic sources and foundations. Returning to the fathers, however, does not mean abandoning the present age, escaping from history, or quitting the field of battle. Patristic experience must not only be preserved, but it must be discovered and brought into life. Independence from the non-Orthodox West need not become estrangement from it. A break with the West would provide no real liberation. Orthodox thought must perceive and suffer the western trials and temptations, and, for its own sake, it cannot afford to avoid and keep silent over them. The entire western experience of temptation and fall must be creatively examined and transformed; all that “European melancholy” (as Dostoevsky termed it) and all those long centuries of creative history must be borne. Only such a compassionate co-experience provides a reliable path toward the reunification of the fractured Christian world and the embrace and recovery of departed brothers. It is not enough to refute or reject western errors or mistakes – they must be overcome and surpassed through a new creative act. This will be the best antidote in Orthodox thought against any secret and undiagnosed poisoning. Orthodox theology has been called upon to answer non-Orthodox questions from the depths of its catholic and unbroken experience and to confront western non-Orthodoxy not with accusations but with testimony: the truth of Orthodoxy.
Russians discussed and argued a great deal about the meaning of western development. Europe actually became for many a “second fatherland.” But can it be said that Russians knew the West? The usual outlines of western development contained more of a dialectical straightforwardness than genuine vision. The image of some imaginary or desired Europe too often obscured its actual face. The western soul was most often manifested through art, especially after the aesthetic awakening of the end of the nineteenth century. The heart was aroused and became more sensitive. Aesthetic sensitivity, however, never penetrates to the ultimate depths. More often it serves as an obstacle to the experiencing of the full intensity of religious pain and anxiety. Aestheticism usually remains too unproblematical and too ready to fall into an ineffective contemplation. The Slavophiles, Gogol, and Dostoevsky were the first to more profoundly sense the Christian anguish and anxiety in the West. Western discontinuities and contradictions were noted to a considerably lesser extent by Vladimir Solov’ev. He was too preoccupied with considerations of “Christian politics.” In fact, Solov’ev knew little more about the West than unionistic ultramontanism and German idealism (and perhaps one should also add Fourier, Swedenborg, the spiritualists, and, among the older masters, Dante). He believed too completely in the stability of the West, and only in his last years did he note the romantic hunger, the agony of sick and grieving Christian souls.
The conceptions of the older Slavophiles also proved rather barren. Yet they possessed a profound inner relation to the most intimate western themes. Moreover, they had something even greater: an awareness of Christian consanguinity and responsibility, a sense of and longing for fraternal compassion and a consciousness or presentiment of the Orthodox mission in Europe. Solov’ev speaks more about a Russian national than an Orthodox calling. He speaks of the theocratic mission of the Russian tsardom. The older Russian Slavophiles saw their task in terms of European requirements, the unresolved or insoluble questions raised by the other half of the single Christian world. The great truth and moral power of early Slavophilism is found in this sense of Christian responsibility.
Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world. Therein lies the entire significance of the so-called “ecumenical movement.” Orthodox theology is called to show that this “ecumenical question” can only be decided through the consummation of the Church in the fulness of a catholic tradition that is unpolluted and inviolable, yet constantly renewing itself and growing. Again, return is possible only through “crisis,” for the path to Christian recovery is critical, not irenical. The old “polemical theology” has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western “textbooks.” A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new “polemical theology.” But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fulness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now.
What is meant here is not the adoption or acceptance of Roman doctrine, nor an imitation “Romanism.” In any case, the Orthodox thinker can find a more adequate source for creative awakening in the great systems of “high scholasticism,” in the experience of the Catholic mystics, and in the theological experience of later Catholicism than in the philosophy of German idealism or in the Protestant critical scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or even in the “dialectical theology” of our own day. A creative renaissance in the Orthodox world is a necessary condition for resolving the “ecumenical question.”
The encounter with the West has yet another dimension. During the Middle Ages, a very elaborate and complex theological tradition arose and flourished in the West, a tradition of theology and culture, of searching, acting, and debating. This tradition was not completely abandoned even during bitterest confessional quarrels and altercations of the Reformation. Nor did scholarly solidarity completely disappear even after the appearance of freethinking. In a certain sense, western theological scholarship since that time has remained a unit, bound together by a certain feeling of mutual responsibilitiy for the infirmities and mistakes of each side. Russian theology, as a discipline and as a subject of instruction, was born precisely in that tradition. Its task is not to abandon that tradition, but to participate in it freely, responsibly, consciously, and openly. The Orthodox theologian must not, and dares not, depart from this universal circulation of theological searching. After the fall of Byzantium only the West continued to elaborate theology. Although theology is in essence a catholic endeavor, it has been resolved only in schism. This is the basic paradox of the history of Christian culture. The West expounds theology while the East is silent, or what is still worse, the East thoughtlessly and belatedly repeats the lessons already learned in the West.
The Orthodox theologian up to now has been too dependent on western support for his personal efforts. His primary sources are received from western hands, and he reads the fathers and the acts of the ecumenical councils in western, often not very accurate, editions. He learns the methods and techniques for dealing with collected materials in western schools. The history of the Orthodox Church is primarily known through the labors of many generations of western investigators and scholars. This also applies to the collection and interpretation of historical data. What is important is the constant focus of western awareness on ecclesiastical-historical reality, the acute historically minded conscience, the unswerving and persistent pondering of the primary sources of Christianity. Western thought always dwells in the past, with such intensity of historical recollection that it seems to be compensating for unhealthy defects in its mystical memory. The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world – a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church – and resolve the question with his historical findings. Only the inner memory of the Church fully brings to life the silent testimony of the texts.