The Ecumenical Vision of Fr. Georges Florovsky

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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.

12 comments:

  1. “The Orthodox theologian must not, and dares not, depart from this universal circulation of theological searching.”

    Isn’t one of the fundamental problems of Western Christianity that the theologian is some sort of intellectual exercise? An Orthodox theologian isn’t a scholar, but is rather a scientist, to borrow from Met. Hierotheos, among others. An Orthodox theologian learns of God from growing closer to Him, and experiencing Him. A Western theologian learns of “God” by essentially intellectual means alone. Thus relying on his own understanding, the Western theologian wanders off along the wrong path.

  2. Jeff,

    This might be an oversimplification. Ultimately, true, theology must be grounded in living experience or we will surely lose our way. And it is also true that Western theology has had a tendency to substitute a form of rationalism for this grounded experience.

    But the “West” is a very large sweep of things and it becomes problematic to just say the West does or did this… too many exceptions.

    Florovsky took the problems that the West historically encountered very seriously, and argues here that Orthodoxy must look at the same things and address them (not as superior) but as a brother helping a brother.

    We don’t need to look at the West as an enemy but a part of the world that has had its own set of problems. Orthodoxy has been deeply affected by those problems as well and if we don’t look at them carefully and sympathetically, we’ll fall into similar traps.

    The faith is living and therefore must be lived. And that always is a dangerous thing, except for the abundant mercies of God.

  3. I agree. Orthodoxy has the answers to the questions, but its hard to know what the answer is until someone asks the question. Playing isolationist is hazardous because sooner or later some member of your group becomes exposed to the outside world, and if unprepared, can become drawn away.

    I think the appeal is that Western Christianity (with the exception of Anglicanism from which I hail) has answers for everything. Whether those questions come from the CCC, or from John MacArthur doesn’t much matter – they seem to have answers. The question is how are these answers arrived at?

    What always makes me nervous are the self declared theologians within Orthodoxy. Priest or not, many are always quick to declare themselves a theologian, available to help the less able parish priest. In fact, the theologians that I find myself drawn to are monks and simple priests living the faith. In the blogosphere, that makes your blog a first stop for me. I think of the joy of sitting for a few minutes and listening to the wisdom of Gerontissa Markella at the Life Giving Spring, or Fr. Demetrios Carellas, or many others. It is from these sources that the answers will come, and surely they must engage Western Christianity at some level to do so.

    I think Ecumenism stumbled when people look at Fr. Florovsky and decide that what we need are a bunch of academics, often times scholastics, to develop for Orthodoxy what the West has.

    Well, enough rambling. Hopefully I made a little bit of sense.

  4. Fr. Florovsky wrote, “The usual outlines of western development contained more of a dialectical straightforwardness than genuine vision.”

    So true! Very insightful. In the West, philosophical and theological development is dialectical; working out propositions between “either this or that” and therefore missing the richness of “both this and that and more”!

  5. Jeff,

    When Florovsky discusses ecumenism, he does not mean anything of the sort that would involve as academic engagement, certainly he would oppose what ecumenism has become.

    Be he also recognized rightly that the East had already encountered the West, and assimilated somethings that it would have been better to have examined more carefully. I know of no one today (among the Orthodox) who would fault Florovsky or think of him as an “ecumenist.”

    I would agree that it is not academics sitting down with academics, per se, though some of our best men in every way are academics.

    Deception of prelest can occur in many places, including for simple men like myself or other simple priests as well. When you read Branchininov’s The Arena, you realize that even the most prayerful monk is subject to delusion. So one always has to judge the fruit and pray for guidance to God.

  6. Do you know any good Orthodox writings on Dante (Fr. Florovsky called him a master) or other western saints like St. Francis, St. Bernard, St. John of the Cross, or St. Therese of the little flowers?

    Thanks,

    Matt

  7. For those who don’t know, some Fr. Florovsky articles.

    And… I guess I don’t really understand much, but why is ecumenism a bad thing? Or, what kinds of ecumenism are bad? I can see that if ecumenism is stretched to mean indifferentism, that’s bad, or if it means pretending that contradiction is ok, that too is bad.

  8. Matt,

    I do not know as of yet of any writings – Hopko has lectured some of John of the Cross.

    ben,

    Thanks for the url.

    Ecumenism. In some Orthodox circles it’s considered heretical. What they mean by ecumenism is two fold. One, seeking unity through academics and compromise where the truth is lost.

    Or secondly prayer services with the non-Orthodox of a certain sort, which are forbidden in the canons.

    There’s been some recent bad history over the past 50 years. It’s changing, but the Orthodox will doubtless be more careful about ecumenical activity in the future.

  9. “Or secondly prayer services with the non-Orthodox of a certain sort, which are forbidden in the canons.”

    Could you clarify this? For example, the concept of praying with the LDS Elder at my door is repugnant because we don’t even have the same conception of deity. However, as an example, praying while at a Protestant or RC funeral is something I would do.

    Canons are applied selectively and appealed to when convenient (the plethora of Slavic icons that depict God the Father comes to mind, though I could contrive a myriad of examples). The Ecumenical Patriarch censed the casket of Pope John Paul II at his funeral, which is an acute example of praying with non-Orthodox (an act I saw as appropriate, despite the less than hospitable reception he recieved from the clergy in Greece on his visit).

    My guess is this boils down to personal opinion. I’ve seen extremes both ways. If the occasion ever arose where I was at a Protestant or RC Bible study, I would pray with them. I simply wouldn’t go to a LDS, JW, or any other non-Trinitarian study.

  10. Father Bless,

    ‘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’

    Dear Father,

    In this sentence specifically where he speaks of “crisis”, is Fr. Florovsky speaking in line with how the the Ecumenical Councils took place, under duress, during periods when the path to deification was in danger of being obscured? When, for example, Arius claimed Christ to be a creature rather than Creator, and the Faith given to man by God was in danger, the Church produced the “antibodies” in the form of the Creed,etc. to explicate more specifically what the belief of the Church was always held to be yet previous to the “crisis” of the Arian heresy no need of a Council to be held was necessary? Or when Gregory Palamas more clearly defended against the scholastic approach to God, clearly defining the heychastic entering into the experience of God, once again the Holy Spirit guarding the path to salvation?
    I’m curious if this is what he means. Does he develop this more in the book perhaps?

  11. Sophocles,

    I think your comparisons are good examples of the sort of historical situations that Florovsky was comparing our present situation. Mind you, this was likely written in the 50’s or so. Things have become much more “critical” as time has gone on.

    Don,

    It’s not really a matter of personal interpretation (but the canons are directed largely at priests). The OCA has clear guidelines published for its clergy in ecumenical situations.

    For example, if there were some civic situation (like the memorials after 911) offering a prayer when others are also invited to offer prayers is not considered a problem. Situations similar to that are equally valid.

    However, for instance, about 2 weeks after I was ordained priest, I attended the funeral of a patient whom I had ministered to as a hospice chaplain. The service was at a Catholic Church. I wore my cassock which was entirely appropriate.

    The priest, whom I knew as a friend, stopped the service when he saw me, and invited me to come forward and concelebrate the mass with him. As politely as possible I begged off. I thought to myself, “I’ve been a priest for 2 weeks and I’m getting ready to be deposed if I do this.” It would have been entirely inappropriate and contrary to the canons for me to concelebrate in such a setting.

    The Ecumenical Patriarch, censing the Pope’s casket, is also probably across the line, but when you’re the EP you make some decisions that I personally don’t have to deal with. And I would myself leave it to wiser more learned minds in canon law (most specifically his brother patriarchs) to deal with the situation.

    If I had been there, and someone had asked me to cense his casket, I probably would have demurred, or faced possible difficulties when I returned.

    The OCA guidelines can be found at:
    http://aggreen.net/guidelines/guide01.html

    They’ve got some very specific guidelines for both clergy and laity for a variety of situations. It’s easier to look at this than to sort through and interpret all the relevant canons.

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