Two mind-benders recently encountered, both from (what I think is) deep in my Orthodox tradition. I intuit, but cannot articulate (yet), a connection between them beyond that.
First, philosopher-theologian Christos Yannaras, on receiving an honorary Doctorate from Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, made some very challenging remarks aimed at Orthodox zealotry, particularly the fiercely anti-Western and anti-ecumenical sort. In the process, he gives a shout-out to a parade of improbables: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Baudelaire, Kafka, Bergman, and Fellini!
His critique is radical: anti-Western and anti-ecumenical fierceness can only be harbored if one has adopted an individualistic (i.e., quintessentially Western) approach to Orthodoxy:
[T]his Zealotry certainty does not constitute a defense of the decisions of the Councils; it does not derive from a conciliar expression of catholic ecclesial experience. It is an individual choice and conviction, based usually on the opinion of some geron, or elder, also chosen individually, who is lent “objective” authority by his hagiorite, or other, monastic affiliation. The defense of Orthodoxy by the “conservatives” is conducted on the basis of their individual choices and judgements, not on the basis of the Church’s conciliar expression. It is therefore a defense that manifestly undermines the coherence of the ecclesial body. It invalidates the conciliar system; it denies the episcopal ministry.
[I]n the extreme case of the fundamentalist “Zealots” the historical challenge that arose for the Church with the arrival of Modernity becomes abundantly clear. The West in Modernity is no longer the portion or party that at the time of the Schism cut itself off from the body of the One Catholic Church. Now the whole of Christendom is the West, since all of us who bear the name of Christian live integrally and self-evidently within a Western cultural context; we embody the Western mode of life. Our routines, our mental outlook, our reflexes, our prioritization of needs, the way our social institutions are formed and function are all absolutely obedient to the Western-individualistic not the social-ecclesial model. We live, we think, and we act in the mode fashioned by Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Descartes.
That is why on the level of Modernity, too, our opposition to the West, whatever our defence of ecclesial Orthodoxy, is inescapably fleshness [sic], unrelated to the reality of our common life: an abstract piece of ideology. We recognize differences between Christians but we regard them as “confessional”: as by definition ideological. They are discussed by scholarly committees of “specialists” – university professors and bishops (that is, the professional cadres” of ideology). It has never occurred to us to bring people of experience into ecumenical dialogue, people such as authentic monks and gifted artists.
… There is no entity called the West “confronting” Orthodoxy; the West is “within us” and Orthodoxy is the common nostalgia of all who perceive the falling away of both East and West. The pioneers of self-criticism, the guides to metanoia, are not those who engage in “dialogue” about “primacy” and “infallibility,” or about the puerile doctrine of the Filioque, but those who have boldly attempted to make a painful break with moral error: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, and closely related to them in the language of art, Baudelaire, Kafka, Bergman, and Fellini: All those who have proclaimed painfully that the alienating transformation of a relationship with God into ideology and legalism has led to the death of God – the God of individual “convictions” and crutch of egocentric Morality has died: “we are all his murderers” – Wir haben ihn ge late t, wir aile sind seine Marder!
(If this seems a bit jerky and disconnected, read the original, which provides some connecting dots that I, perhaps mistakenly, thought unnecessary to an adequate evocation.
Dr. Yannaras’ remarks resonate with what I’ve glimpsed repeatedly. I’d be tempted to say that I’ve apprehended but not comprehended it, but should I comprehend it, I’d probably dissect it into ideological pieces and kill it in the process.
It seems like there’s a sort of Orthodox uncertainty principle, which may be just a way of gussying up apophaticism. We walk by faith, not sight.
Second, Father Stephen Freeman illustrates, in The Last Christmas – Ever, the eschatological time-warp in which traditional (at least Orthodox) Christians live (and exposes the inadequacy of current popular concepts of eschatology):
The first proclamation of Christ (and of John the Baptist) is: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Modern scholars, having lost a proper understanding of eschatology, often misinterpret this as an announcement of an immediate coming of the end of the world in a linear, cause-and-effect manner. They equally think that Jesus was “mistaken” in this and that his followers had to change the message to fit his failure.
And the message is misunderstood as well. For many, the “coming of the Kingdom of God” is made into an ethical event, while others simply give up on the topic and make Jesus’ ministry into something else. For example, the forensic model of the atonement reduces Jesus’ ministry to His blood payment on the Cross. His teachings, healings and wonders become of little importance (again reduced mostly to ethical teachings).
Only the strange world of traditional eschatology sees Christ’s ministry and the whole of His work as a single thing and continually present within our lives at this moment. This strange world is found within the liturgical and sacramental life of Orthodoxy – indeed, it is essential.
Again, I invite you to read the original, which is chock-full of supporting evidence from the words of the Liturgy – words that tend to glide by unnoticed, or which are traditionally said “secretly” (softly at the altar) and thus unheard by laity.
Both this and Yannaras’ remarks are hard for us today even to apprehend as not just other than gibberish, but as fundamentally sane in a world largely gone mad (or at least has swung too far in one direction of the pendulum). How can I summarize what I’m still trying to grasp?
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)
Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.