A Final Nod to the East
Over the past week, I have been thumbing through some of the works of Pavel Florensky, the polymath martyr of the Russian Orthodox Church whose main theological contribution, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, remains largely neglected by his Church. (It also remains abused by several ideological camps.) Like many (though not all) of the members of Russia’s early 20th C. intelligentsia — heirs of the 19th C. “Slavophile” movement — Florensky held deep, often unfounded and sometimes childish, reservations concerning the Catholic Church and its spiritual-intellectual heritage. In Pillar Florensky somewhat infamously derided Catholic spirituality as a “spirituality of the stomach” and likened it to pagan and orgiastic spirituality. He was rightfully chided for this by some of his contemporaries. Moreover, Florensky suffered from an unwittingly ironic anti-Western streak — ironic because like his contemporary, Sergius Bulgakov, Florensky thought and wrote in a largely Western (German/neo-Idealist) idiom. Whatever “Eastern grammar” Florensky tried to use (or build) during his lifetime never made much of a dent in contemporary Orthodox theology writ large.
I mention this because I was startled to read that Pope Benedict XVI, in what is presumed to be his last public homily, specifically referenced Florensky as an example of “radical conversion” to the Faith. Those are an interesting choice of words given the fact Florensky, unlike Bulgakov or Vladimir Soloviev, never had — to the best of my knowledge — an open atheistic streak. Not coming from a particularly pious family, however, left Florensky free to find his own spiritual path, one that eventually culminated in not only a life as an Orthodox priest, but also a brilliant (and challenging) theologian. Perhaps the Pope’s words hint at the fact that Florensky could have gone another way. He was — and remained all his life — a genius-level mathematician and engineer. A purely secular path through life would have, presumably, brought him greater fame and wealth, and likely spared him martyrdom at the hands of the Soviets. But it was Florensky’s full acceptance of the truth of Christianity that brought him to a life of deep thinking and even deeper suffering in the name of Jesus Christ.
Whether the Orthodox will pick up on the Pope’s reference remains to be seen. I doubt very much it was an accidental decision. It was also a tip, I suppose, to the Pope’s own deep learning and his vast appreciation for the Church’s rich witness and theological legacy — both East and West.