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.
Some of my thoughts may strike you differently depending on what age you are, or any number of different factors. Many observers are noting a serious problem that has existed in Europe for many years, long enough for Dostoevsky (mid 19th century) to have referred to it as “European Melancholy.” Life goes on, but Christianity continues a cultural decline in Europe, hastened in many ways by the post-war world. Today that situation is complicated by a growing and vocal minority of Muslims.
Florovsky was both a Russian and a true European. He trained in Russia, fled to Europe and came finally to America. He had friends across all of that world – and as friends, he took them seriously whether they were Orthodox or not. Many of them were not Orthodox and yet many of them extended to him a kindness and hospitality that at times was literal life-saving.
Thus he could write about an Orthodoxy that did not shut itself away in a closet and ignore the West – but came face to face with its questions and in that engagement offered answers and solutions that the West itself could not find alone.
I believe beyond any shadow of a doubt that this is the material of my own conversion. Many of the problems the West has encountered were quite real to me, without solution, for many of my early years and through college and beyond. It was not that I was not engaged with the problems (I was) but that I had found no abiding solution nor a place to stand from which to be of any use to others.
In hindsight, the fact that Florovsky, Lossky, Schmemann, Meyendorff, and a growing list of Orthodox writers were increasingly available in English, provided a source for me that had not been available a generation before. Today, the amount of Orthodox writing available in English is astounding. Indeed, the amount that is available also means, almost for the first time, that there is plenty of useless and harmful material that bears an Orthodox label. Search the net – it’s everywhere.
It is why I tend to confine myself either to the Fathers or to those who in the 20th century have acted as “Fathers,” engaging our Western world and from the riches of Orthodoxy offering vision and salvation. This is a new phenomenon and one that has yet to completely mature.
In our American scene, the “problems” presented by the West are not always found among the intellectuals and whatever it is we have that passes for an intelligentsia. There is instead, a mass culture, in which some forms of Christianity are deeply enmeshed. I have ministered to many who are refugees from that mass culture – others who are refugees from Churches who have all to unquestioningly embraced the culture Hollywood. And yet others who, not believing in God, needed to hear news of a God who was “none of the above,” that is, the God revealed to us in Christ but distorted by the culture in which we live.
But there can be no construction of an Orthodox “ghetto.” We must have monasteries, but as citadels of prayer, not as an escape from the world. They are the front line in Orthodox spiritual warfare, not “behind the lines.”
I am fascinated by Florovsky’s suggestion that there awaits us a “new creative act,” not meaning that Orthodoxy somehow modernizes itself (God forbid), but that we so engage the West and its problems that we do not see them as “someone else,” but see them for who they are – they are us. I am not an Easterner. Born in the American South, and the descendant of the British Isles, it would be silly for me to pretend to be from the East. But England was once an Orthodox nation. My ancestors were evangelized by Orthodox monks and priests. This faith is also my inheritance.
But I have to recognize that as I engage Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy is also engaging the West. The result is not a “Western Orthodoxy,” but simply a Christianity that is the truth. That’s all Orthodoxy ever claimed for itself. There can be no pining away for Byzantium. That’s about as realistic as me pining away for a return of Orthodox Britain. Too many Normans have flowed under the bridge for that to come about (with apologies to any Normans who are readers).
Instead we live where we do and when we do and here we stand as Orthodox Christians. Not people born out of time, but people born for just such a time as this.
Glory to God for all things!