Ah, the East…

by modestinus

I was flipping through the online preview pages of Oxford University Press’ forthcoming Orthodox Readings of Aquinas the other day and noticed in the Introduction a brief account from a contemporary Greek Orthodox scholar of the “nature” of Orthodox theology from the 14th C. onward. In essence, he decries “Palamism” and its legacy as world-denying, neo-Platonic rubbish that has had a sour legacy in not only Greece, but the Orthodox world writ large (which, I presume, just means the Slavic Orthodox world – which, to be a fair, is pretty large). The preview was cut off before I could get a full sense of the criticism, though I suppose it aligns well with other “impressions” of Orthodoxy theology’s mystical exoticism. The critic even intimated that “Palaism” was not only a blight for Orthodox theology, but a blight on the entire socio-intellectual outlook of Eastern Europe’s Orthodox. Maybe. That seems a bit much, though perhaps no more than the usual grab-bag of Orthodox critiques of “Latin theology.” Remember folks, according to David Bradshaw, St. Thomas’ apparent failure to understand a derivative Aristotelian concept that had been filtered through centuries of neo-Platonic commentary is the reason we got shafted with Nietzsche.

There is a part of me that wants to summarize (contemporary?) Orthodox readings of Aquinas with one word: Childish. But, of course, that accusation could be extended to most Orthodox readings of any Catholic theology that was penned after 1054. (Oh, heck, it could be extended to most Orthodox readings of St. Augustine, too.) Catholic (even Protestant) readings of Orthodox thought has been, to put it mildly, exponentially more sympathetic. Part of that could be attribute to the apparent “openness” of “the West” to other modes of thought. Part of it could just as easily be attributed to the near-constant boredom of Western Christian intellectual circles with their own tradition(s). The Christian East appears new and exciting, and nobody has promoted the “newness” and “excitingness” of Eastern theology more than the Orthodox themselves. When something doesn’t appear to follow in it, well, it’s “mystical.” When a Western Christian questions the premises of this-or-that mode of Eastern thought, they’re just stuck in “Latin rationalism”; they’ll never understand how 1,000 prostrations on an empty stomach can properly short circuit the brain in order to make it open to divine emanations (or what most scientists would call “hallucinations”).

I jest, but only a bit. The mystical-theological nature of Eastern Christian thought is oftentimes overstated to the point where it becomes like shooting fish in a barrel to poke fun at it. At the same time, the “anti-mystical” nature of Western Christian theology is itself overstated to the point where it seems that some believe Aquinas thought you could get the whole of Christian revelation from reading Aristotle carefully. No, no, no. The problem with writing about something like Orthodoxy and Aquinas is that it’s more likely than not to yield a historical account of an entire society’s gross misreading of a single man in order to maintain an ecclesial-cultural prejudice rather than offering some fresh insight on the Dumb Ox’s corpus. Like it or not, Orthoox, by and large, do not seriously engage with Western Christian theology, whether medieval or modern. Yes, there have been points in (ever distant) history where Orthodox have “misappropriated” or “been taken captive” by Western theology, but that’s not exactly the same thing.

A new article in this month’s issue of First Things, “The Orthodox Renaissance,” attempts to make the case that (Western) Orthodoxy is entering something akin to the “Silver Age” of late 19th/early 20th C. of Russian religious thought (Bulgakov, Florensky, Soloviev, and other likeminded “heretics”). In some ways it’s a strange piece. To the best of my knowledge neither the aforementioned David Bradshaw nor Fr. John Behr are featured in the piece (though, naturally, David B. Hart is). Moreover, the article makes much of Orthodoxy’s “privieleged” minority status in the American theological academy, as if being a novelty is a badge of pride. From where I sit, I think the Orthodox will have truly “arrived” in theological circles which they finally managed to irk someone (or, say, an entire confession) enough to get the house brought down on them. We’re still a generation (or more) away from that, I think. Right now the Catholics are under marching orders to play nice and the Protestants, as the piece points out, seem thrilled that they have someone new to play with who isn’t simultaneously their sworn enemy (or so they think). It all makes for great fun at dissertation defenses and conference soirees, but where is it all headed? Or, to put it another way, what good is an “Orthodox renaissance” when the people who are primarily paying attention to it are non-Orthodox? Say what you will about someone like Fr. Alexander Schmemann or, to a more limited extent, John Meyendorff, but they at least wrote for an educated Orthodox laity who were otherwise unconcerned with academic esoterica. A lot of Orthodox have read For the Life of the World. Few have ever touched The Beauty of the Infinite.

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