"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Christos Yannaras, Orthodoxy, and the West

In my adamantine conviction that no one can consider oneself educated in theology unless one know both Eastern and Western traditions, I have my graduate students in moral theology read several texts, including Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality 
which, in my judgment, is a felicitous counterpart to one of the others we read, viz., Servais Pinckaers' The Sources of Christian Ethics.

Yannaras is one of the most interesting theologians of our time. He has written, inter alia, books on anthropology (Person and Eros), on metaphysics (Postmodern Metaphysics and, one of his first, On the Absence and Unknowability of God: Heidegger and the Areopagite), a scriptural commentary (Variations on the Song of Songs), and an introductory text (Elements of Faith: An Introduction to Orthodox Theology).

To my mind, two of his most important works remain The Freedom of Morality, originally written and published in Greek in the 1970s and first introduced to anglophone audiences in a 1984 translation from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, and recently reprinted by them. It is not the easiest text in some ways, and were I the editor of it I think I would have re-arranged several chapters differently and cut out some of the breezier parts; but nonetheless it remains a deeply challenging and important book, especially for Western Christians still struggling--as Pinckaers, one of the most important Catholic moralists of our time, and, many believe, a ghost writer for Veritatis Splendor, convincingly argued--with the legacy of scholasticism and the manualist tradition of casuistry and looking for a way forward to genuine renewal of moral theology as called for by the Second Vatican Council.

More recently, Yannaras has authored Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, a book we had reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies by Brandon Gallaher of Oxford.

For those accustomed to hectoring Athonites and their often jejune disciples in North American Orthodoxy bleating about ecumenism as a "pan-heresy" and "the West" as the source of all errors, this book must be at least somewhat disconcerting. Yes, Yannaras is critical, as he was in The Freedom of Morality, of many things he sees in the West--and rightly so--but he also realizes that such criticism can only be reflexive: "the West" is everybody today. (A member of the international Orthodox-Anglican dialogue, some years ago, came back from one of their meetings and told me that, according to the other great Greek theologian of our time, John Zizioulas, "There's no such thing as 'the West' today: we're all Western.")

If one has not read his books, especially Orthodoxy and the West as well as the Freedom of Morality, one will not perhaps fully understand Yannaras' recent commencement address in Brookline at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology/Hellenic College. I really encourage the entire reading of it, but here are some key passages which clearly and strongly echo concerns--first raised nearly forty years now in Freedom of Morality--with not turning Orthodoxy into a "system":
The "Zealots" of Orthodoxy, as our own fundamentalists are called, are as a rule fanatically anti-Western: they regard the Christian churches and confessions of the West as opponents of the Orthodox camp, as a real threat. They proclaim that the West is steeped in error and at the same time has evil designs on Orthodoxy. Thus for the Zealots any attempt at Orthodox "dialogue" with Western Christians, any participation in the "ecumenical movement" signifies a betrayal of Orthodoxy, a surrender to error, an abandoning of the conviction that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
But this Zealotry certainty does not constitute a defence 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.

Thus the individualistic character of Zealotry-Fundamentalism and the accompanying idolization of formalism - of "dogmas" and "canons" rendered independent of ecclesial experience - assimilate the "Orthodoxy" of conservative Christians to every other ideological "orthodoxy": to that of conservative Marxists, conservative Freudians, etc. All these "orthodoxies" have the same characteristics in common:
As he goes on next to note, one of those characteristics is precisely an obsession with "sources." This is, of course, not a new or original criticism: Georges Florovsky made it in "St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers," first published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review in 1959-60; and it was also made later by Alexander Schmemann in his essay “Liturgical Theology, Theology of Liturgy, and Liturgical Reform,” in Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann (originally published in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly in 1969). Even earlier, the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar made a strikingly similar argument in a 1939 essay published in German and translated into English in 1997 as "The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves." All three note that fetishizing "sources" like the Fathers is a failed method that overlooks their phronema and fails, moreover, to take account of the fact that we cannot "return" to the past (a past which, in any event, was not nearly so golden, as Robert Taft has shown).

Yannaras continues by noting that this mindset of the zealots is not a theological, traditional, or spiritual one: it is, rather, "the specific product of the post-Roman West that we call 'ideology,'" an ideology that is "individualist'' in nature.

The answer to this and other problems is twofold, and here we see Yannaras and Zizioulas both working on common themes, as anyone who has read either will immediately recognize:
The ontology of the person and eucharistic ecclesiology implement criticism of the West as Christian self-criticism, because they were both born from a consistent grappling with the impasse to which the West (and now also the East) has been led by intellectualism and legalism - the rendering of Christian "religiosity" independent of the ecclesial event.
In any event, as I say, the whole thing very much merits close reading, as do his books.

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