22 January 2009

'Like a Pelican', Part II: 'Without God, the world becomes unintelligible'

Part II of the first 'Logismoi' book review, continued from 18 January:
Ramfos’s purpose is not to present the material like an historian, nor is it simply to draw ethical or spiritual lessons for Orthodox Christians, but to present the spiritual life of the Desert Fathers in such a way that its relevance to modern man, whether pious or even, perhaps, agnostic, is unmistakably clear. To accomplish this, Ramfos often utilises the terminology of modern psychology and secular philosophy, such as ‘Ego’ or ‘ontology’ (in the Gerontikon, 'Ego' is simply the first person singular pronoun, while I don't believe 'ontology' is used at all), and acknowledges his debt to Paul Ricoeur’s The Self as Other and Max Scheler’s Formalism in Ethics and the Non-Formal Ethics of Values (Ramfos, pp. 259-60). Fortunately, it is rare that he directly mentions these sorts of writings, and so the book is a bit more accessible than it might otherwise have been.

Nevertheless, it is still quite difficult. Actually, the average Orthodox Christian simply looking for spiritual guidance would do better to look to the Gerontikon itself, or to such modern-day figures in the Desert Fathers’ tradition as St Silouan, Elder Joseph the Hesychast (or, if you’re Christopher Orr, Elder Aimilianos!), or the elders of Optina. Like a Pelican in the Wilderness is essentially an intellectual book, but a good intellectual book with, I believe, a good purpose. Most importantly, it is not content to leave the intellectual in the world of theory, but continuously points toward and leads the reader to the putting into practice of the Fathers’ teachings—see for example, Ramfos’s response to the question ‘But how do we counter [condemnation] beyond applying the general principle of active restraint which is valid for every passion?’ (p. 134). I recommend this book for educated, intellectual-type people who are having difficulty keeping their feet on the ground, in other words, realising the importance—the full psychological, philosophical, and theological significance—of praxis and purification.

I only have one real reservation: the author appears to over-psychologise demons in a few places, in other words, to interpret them as simply aspects of the human psyche. Because of an apparent inconsistency in this regard, and because of certain other things which he makes clear about his beliefs, I don’t think he would, when he wrote the book, have denied completely the hypostatic reality of the demonic powers. Nevertheless, to say, as Ramfos does at one point, that the references to demons are ‘in fourth-century terms’ (p. 198), or to give a parenthetical aside after the word ‘demons’ saying, ‘for which read: the overweening Ego’ (p. 127), seems too great a concession to the this-worldliness of modern intellectuals. It is clear in the Gerontikon that the Fathers believe very much in the reality of the demonic powers. They see them in physical shapes, they are sometimes beaten or physically attacked by them. Ramfos chastises those who attempt to come up with scientific explanations of miracles (pp. 237-8), but he himself comes dangerously close in his tendency to psychologise demonic phenomena. For this reason, I cannot recommend the book as whole-heartedly as I otherwise would have done.

I should add, as well, that since I originally wrote this review several years ago, a friend told me that he had heard that Ramfos had become an agnostic or something similar. I cannot confirm whether this is true, although I have found that he gave a rather ambiguous interview (unfortunately, only in Greek) in 2007. While it seems to suggest he still considers himself a Christian, there is, on the other hand, his odd answer to the question, ‘Do you believe?’: ‘But certainly, I believe. I believe in the potential of man to be born again, to resurrect from the dead.’ But if he cannot be counted a Christian this is quite sad. The man clearly has a sharp intellect and a thirst for truth and meaning, and as he himself writes, ‘Without God the world becomes unintelligible, unreceptive to answers and, therefore, without meaning’ (p. 238).


The Ochlophobist said...

I imagine that a connection between some form of "modern Orthodox thought" and Max Scheler would be quite an avenue of thought for Catholic personalists to take. Scheler was a huge influence upon the thought of John Paul II. And these folks are always looking for ways to build bridges with Orthodox. Though, given your post, I continue to be inclined to think that the sort of Orthodox thinkers that could provide such bridges are those who have crossed other bridges and gone to other intellectual environs.

aaronandbrighid said...

Very interesting, sir. I'm familiar with Ricoeur, but not, directly, with Scheler. Now I don't know whether to take a look or not!

Sorry you had to see this post inadvertently denuded of italics!

Anonymous said...

I think its only natural for more contemplative personalities to move through phases of thought in their life. It is not always easy.

In the protestant world, ontological struggles or doubt necessitates a change in affiliation. ("I'm 'this' now" or "I'm not 'that' anymore.")

The "medicinal" aspect of the Church, on the other hand, provides a safe haven in which to rest, rather than obsess about one's doubt. Anthony of Sourozh wrote that in times of unbelief, it is important that we continue to cry out in prayer and petition the saints, asking that their faith would support us, in case our faith lacks.

I make no secret about struggles I've had in this area, mostly because if I talk about it, perhaps it will help others. Times of doubt may come and go, but there is one fact that remains unchanged- our Church is the living continuation of the early Church, our worship has continued unbroken.

I covet the time it takes for me to write a good book review. I have one review posted on another Orthodox site, and I cringe every time i see it.