"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).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Fascinating and Maddening Georges Florovsky

I was asked to go to Brookline later this month to Holy Cross College, the site of this year's meeting of the Orthodox Theological Society of America. OTSA asked me to be on a panel as one of the respondents to Paul Gavrilyuk's new book, Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaisance (Oxford UP, 2014), 320pp.

I will not repeat here everything of what I have said in my written remarks prepared for the panel, but let me instead note some of the strengths of this book, and some of the curiosities of the man portrayed in it.

It is, first of all, a wonderfully cogent book. Its tone and balance are striking, and the author is greatly to be commended here for avoiding any kind of polemics in response to some of Florovsky's more outrageous claims. I first studied Florovsky in a doctoral course more than ten years ago now, and I came greatly to respect him. I still do in some ways, and thus, almost every semester, I have my students read his essay "St Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers" (which they read alongside a Catholic treatment of many of the same issues, viz., Hans Urs von Balthasar's 1939 essay, translated into English only in 1997 as "The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves.") But reading Gavrilyuk's book made me re-think much of what Florovsky wrote, which now seems to me far less credible than I once thought. I think perhaps I was taken in by the force of Florovsky's rhetoric rather than the quality of his evidence, which today seems to me much more dubious.

Gavrilyuk's book is neither a “take-down” nor a pious hagiography, but intellectual history and biography of the best sort, allowing us to see the man in full. If, as Cardinal Newman famously said, the danger of hagiography is that it reduces complex people and their messy lives to mere “clothes racks for virtues,” we can be grateful to the author that he avoided that danger and allowed us to see everything Florovsky wore, winsomely captured in the--if you will--"bespoke" beret and rather déshabillé cassock on the front cover!

Florovsky was indeed a complex man, and it seems very clear that he rather sharply embodied something attributed to Cyrano de Bergerac, who said that he sought always "to stand, not so high perhaps, but always alone." Florovsky was forever breaking with his colleagues in Paris, New York, Princeton, and elsewhere. He seems almost driven towards a destruction of relationships and a refusal of any party line. It remains a mystery to me, given this track record, that he was so regularly invited to WCC and other ecumenical events over the years.

Florovsky, of course, is best known for his idea of a "neo-patristic synthesis," which is of value, but only to a limited degree, and in the wrong hands subject to abuse and distortion. His other big idea was that Orthodoxy was victimized by a "Western captivity" that corrupted it through a "pseudomorphosis." For lengthy reasons I shall argue later in the month, I think both claims now have to be very sharply revised not only because the evidence Florovsky adduces is so thin but also because there is now a good deal of other evidence to be considered that complicates the picture. Moreover, the image that Florovsky conveys here is a thoroughly unattractive one. In his caricatures, nobody looks good: Orthodoxy is always a victim, weak, helpless, supine before the rapacious and ravishing Western brute. Whom does that accurately or fairly describe--on either side? How do such characterizations help East or West, singly or together?

After the conference, perhaps I'll be able to post my thoughts in full. But in the meantime, this is a splendid book for all sorts of reasons, and anyone interested in not only Florovsky but Russian and more broadly Orthodox history in Europe and North America in the last century, and in the current one, will not want to be without Gavrilyuk's carefully researched and painstakingly argued scholarly work without which no credible future discussion of its subject will be possible.

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