The Continuing Ways of Russian Theology
Fr. Georges Florovsky’s two-volume masterpiece, The Ways of Russian Theology, was the first critical-historical analysis of Orthodox theology I ever read. It helped bridge my understanding of contemporary Orthodox thought — particularly of the Paris/Crestwood variety — with its incessant dismissal of Russia’s “Western [Latin] captivity.” To crudely summarize Florovsky, Russia had, after the dawn of the second millennium, inherited the final days of Byzantine culture and thought. However, due to political factionalism, Tatar invasions, the fall of Constantinople, etc. the Russians were never able to make this Byzantine inheritance quite their own, or at least they never contributed to it in an original way. A general absence of higher learning in Russia, coupled with its relative isolation from the rest of the Orthodox world (which, by the end of the 15th C., was largely in Muslim hands), left it susceptible to external influences. Moreover, Russia’s western borderlands became a hotbed of Protestant/Catholic quarreling which threatened Orthodoxy. And so, in an effort to provide the (Russian) Orthodox with intellectual ammunition against both strands of non-Orthodox thought, learned churchmen, who had received their schooling in Western academies, began to import the theological vernacular of Latin Catholicism to “fill in the gaps” in Orthodox learning and provide readily available manuals of theology for Orthodox seminarians. Peter Moghila, who is considered a Saint by some sectors of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, is the towering — and representative — figure in this refreshing of Orthodox theology in Russia. A man versed in Greek and Latin, he was able to correct the service books in use in Ukraine and other parts of Russia, though he sometimes did so in a “Latin idiom.” (For instance, the Catholic’s sacramental theology of intention, matter, and form as prerequisites of validity are a part of Moghila’s work.) Though Russian Orthodoxy experienced a major internal blow in the 17th C. with the Old Believer schism and, later, with its forced subservience to the state following the reforms of Peter the Great, Russian theological training continued on the path Moghila had set forth. Some people refer to this era as one of “Russian Scholasticism,” though that may be a bit of an overstatement since there were few Russians at that time writing original works of theology, even with the tools Scholasticism had furnished.
Despite some tall tales that still get repeated to this very day, Russia did not remain isolated from Western intellectual upheavals. The Enlightenment may have began in France and Germany, but by the 19th C. it had made its way throughout Russia’s Francophile elite. German Idealism, which is rooted in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, dominated Germany in the 19th C., and so it wasn’t too long before Orthodox thinkers, bored with the Scholasticism they experienced in the academies, took to blending Enlightenment schools of thought with what they took to be Russia’s unique, almost singular, Orthodox history (to say nothing of its destiny). After numerous Russian intellectuals had conversion and/or spiritual experiences in front of Catholic paintings hanging in German art galleries, several of them decided the West sucked eggs (though some of them didn’t) or, following the Revolution and a few bad experiences with Jesuits, decided then that the West sucked eggs. Regardless, Russian theology went through something like a flowering or a renaissance, though to someone like Florovsky, famous for inaugurating the “neo-Patristic synthesis,” all of this Western philosophy-meets-Russian Orthodox stuff smelled like an outhouse on a collective farm. Soloviev, Floresnky, and Bulgakov wrote dense and challenging theological works, but they were almost all forgotten (or condemned) by the Russian diaspora. That’s basically where Florovsky’s narrative ends. His work, which was quite original for Orthodoxy at its time, would inspire a fresh set of eyes to look over not just the Russian Orthodox but the entire Orthodox past, leading many to the conclusion that almost everything that came out of Orthodoxy from the fall of Constantinople to roughly the dawn of the 20th C. was balderdash (unless it could later prove useful). Various theological factions arose within Orthodoxy’s ranks calling for a true renewal of Orthodox thought, not in the categories of German Idealism, but through a fresh reading of the Fathers. Given that Paris became a Russian emigre center after the Revolution, it’s no surprise that it kept close contact with Catholic ressourcement thinkers who were looking to institute a renewal of Catholic theology — one that would finally break away from the bonds of neo-Scholasticism that had been tightened by Pontiffs like Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XII. Although few have paid it much mind — though one exception would be Fr. Andrew Louth — ressourcement proved to be a movement with substantial influence in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the 20th C., though it often led to very different conclusions. Orthodoxy, like Catholicism, also experienced a liturgical movement, albeit one with less real power to institute many changes outside of some local variations. Those who were wedded to the Scholasticism of the past — whether Latin or Russian — criticized these movements and favored hyper-conservatisim in the face of cultural upheavals. This party lost the fight in Catholicism and now seems to be on the verge of extinction within Orthodoxy.
Now we’re at the dawn of the 21st C. and what do we see? Catholic theology is a mess. Ressourcement continues, but its legacy has been severely damaged due to its (alleged) responsibility for numerous theological errors, doctrinal decay, liturgical confusion, and spiritual malaise. Ressourcement has a better legacy in Orthodoxy, though it, too, is experiencing its own pushback. Just as some thinkers in Catholicism are trying to realign ressourcement along less radical lines, there are Orthodox who have become critical of Orthodoxy’s very narrow ressourcement – one which led to Gregory Palamas being regarded as the apex of Orthodox theology. Interestingly, as Catholic ressourcement tried desperately to find renewed ties between Western and Eastern theology, the Orthodoxy have used their ressourcement efforts to build the case for a near-unbridgable gulf between Latin and Greek thought. Thankfully, this, too, is being challenged, though it’s probably going to take decades before enough of the “old guard” pass on to really clear the field for a new, hard look at things. Beyond ressourcement, however, Catholics and Orthodox alike have tried to play with the stockpile of postmodern thought to build up new theologies which appear, on the one hand, doctrinally orthodox and, on the other, capable of keeping with the times. The Enlightenment/postmodern critique of Scholasticism is taken as a no brainer, and so they don’t see a return to that era as either possible or desirable. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev, for instance, has written about the need to blend Orthodox theology with existentialism while, in the Catholic world, thinkers like Jean-Luc Marion continue to out-Heidegger Heidegger. Fr. John Behr has borrowed from contemporary hermeneutics to find a way to circle around the Enlightenment’s legacy of historicism. As for the aforementioned early-century flowering of Russian theology, nobody except the Anglicans and a few Catholics seem to be paying much attention to it, even after all of these years.
For better or for worse, there has been no great divergence between Catholic and Orthodox theological trajectories over the past 600 years. The East continues to look to the West — first to Scholasticism, then to the Enlightenment, and now to postmodernity. What has changed, at least from the 20th C. onward, is that the West — particularly Catholics — have started to take the East seriously, particularly its Patristic heritage. Granted, this has not always meshed well with the continuing influence of Thomism (which has numerous varieties) in Catholicism, nor have the more radical innovators in Catholic circles felt comfortable tethering their projects to the musty writings of another millennium. The notion that there is an “Eastern mindset” or an authentically “Eastern thought” that is “eastern” is more than just geography is balderdash. It is, as Owen White pointed out numerous times on his blog years ago, all the West. This is an internecine spat, not an authentic clash of civilizations — regardless of what that Ephramite monk told you last week.