07 July 2009

Yannaras's Orthodoxy & the West


Yesterday I received a review copy of Chrestos Yannaras’s Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas and Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2006), courtesy of Aimee Cox Ehrs, Managing Editor of Holy Cross Orthodox Press. It arrived in fine condition, a nicely designed volume featuring a painting of the contemporary Greek iconographer and painter, George Kordes, entitled ‘Ο Ήλιος ο Ηλιάτορας’ (1997). Here is the publisher’s description from the back cover:

From the fourteenth century to the present day the Greek Church has either willingly adopted Western religious ideas or had them forced upon it by authoritarian Greek governments. This book tells the story, from a Greek perspective, of the penetration of Orthodoxy by Western theological attitudes, beginning with the first translations of Thomas Aquinas and ending with the tradition of academic theology of the modern Greek universities. The unfolding of the story, punctuated by many vivid portraits of the chief personalities of the times, raises searching questions about the nature of Hellenic self-identity.

I requested this book, in part because of my admiration for Yannaras based on his brilliant The Freedom of Morality, trans. Elizabeth Briere (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1984), but also on the basis of Felix Culpa’s posted excerpts on Papadiamandis here. Yannaras’s appreciation of the great Skiathan as ‘the most important figure in modern Greek literature’ (Orthodoxy, p. 252), but also as ‘the most important and most authentic modern Greek theologian’ (p. 254), even if it may be ever so slightly hyperbolic, and particularly in the second statement, is an important testimony from a giant in modern Greek theology and philosophy. His evaluation is quite valuable and full of insight. Here is a passage that did not appear on Ora et Labora:

Papadiamantis excels at telling stories that bring the kingdom of the Gospels to life, enabling us to experience it in the popular holiness of a still-surviving eucharistic community. Old island women who love the Church services and simple priests with the common faults of human nature, goatherds and sailors unaware of their own sanctity, drunkards and petty criminals of childlike innocence, are all justified and made resplendent within the eucharistic body which was then still a living reality. (p. 254)

Of course, the observations about Papadiamandis are offered in the context of a wholly invaluable study of contemporary Greek theology, whether expressed in academic theology, philosophy, or literature, and its relationship with the piety of the Greek people. Thus, we also find discussions of Kontoglou, Fr Romanides (he strongly applauds Ancestral Sin, but is less enthusiastic about Fr Romanides’s subsequent work), Panagiotes Chrestou, George Mantzarides, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), and others. Yannaras's study promises to contribute much to the acquaintance of English-speaking Orthodox—whose acquaintance with contemporary theology is so often limited to the Russian émigrés—with the trends and overall context, as well as the specific figures of Greek theology. It is thus in some ways a fuller, but also more impassioned, presentation of some of the information in Yannaras’s article ‘Theology in Present-Day Greece’, trans. Angeline Bouchard, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 16.4 (1971) pp. 195-214 (I’m not familiar with his article, ‘Orthodoxy and the West’, of the same year, and so cannot comment on its relation with the present book). Here is his concluding paragraph on Mantzarides, the retired head of my department at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki:

Mantzaridis published other studies on Palamite theology which were later collected in a volume entitled Palamika. As Professor of Christian Ethics at Thessalonica, he transformed the legalistic character which this branch of theology had acquired through Ch. Androutsos, B. Antoniadis and their imitators. In Mantzaridis’s writings Christian ethics insists on theosis as humanity’s goal, and appeals to the witness of the patristic experience for every subsidiary aspect of moral teaching. The morality of the ecclesial person is restored to its real existential dimensions of freedom from death. It is a morality revelatory of true life: Christian ethics is ‘a revelation of God’. (p. 280)

Until it arrived, however, I’d forgotten that I had already been exposed to one unfortunate defect of Orthodoxy and the West: Yannaras’s almost wholly negative evaluation of St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (pp. 131-7), which is only hinted at in the earlier ‘Theology’ article (p. 197). It’s true that Yannaras grants, ‘St Nikodemos’s theological originality is obvious; he is the theologian of ecclesiastical worship, drawing his main themes from the Liturgy’ (pp. 130-1). But immediately afterward, I’m afraid he falls into the trap of being so vigilant against ‘Western captivity’ that he does not hesitate to cry ‘J’accuse!’ when he finds—particularly in St Nicodemus’s Εξομολογητάριον and Χρηστοήθεια των Χριστιανών—the sort of language that he doesn’t care for even in the Holy Fathers and Saints of the Church. Thus, his treatment of St Nicodemus consists mostly of individual phrases taken out of context and assumed to prove that ‘the books remain Roman Catholic in their theology and language’ (p. 131).

Fortunately, Fr George Metallinos has produced a wonderfully apt response, diplomatically addressing Yannaras’s objections to the Saint, and reverently re-evaluating and explaining the latter’s writings in accordance with the undeniably valuable insights Yannaras has provided into the ethos of Orthodoxy. One can read an earlier version of it here, at the Orthodox Christian Information Center, and a revised version published as the ‘Introduction’ to the beautifully done English translation of the Εξομολογητάριον, St Nikodemos the Hagiorite, Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession, trans. Fr George Dokos (Thessalonica: Uncut Mountain, 2006), pp. 33-60. Having granted that the language to which Yannaras objects is indeed a feature of the Saint’s writing in places, Fr Metallinos concludes:

However, we should not confuse language with the spirit of Holy Tradition, which is preserved, not simply by language and intellectual expressions, but above all by the practice of asceticism and the entire spiritual struggle. St Nikodemos, despite the language of the Exomologetarion and other related works of his, is faithful to the Hesychastic tradition and is a successor to St Gregory Palamas, by virtue of the ascetical experience to which he fully adhered. (p. 45)

Given Yannaras’s concession that St Nicodemus ‘was brought up surrounded by Orthodox worship, studied patristic texts, especially [St] Gregory Palamas, and had theological knowledge of the ascetic fathers’ (p. 131), one can’t help but wonder, with Fr Metallinos, why we do not then read him within the context of this Tradition and interpret him accordingly, rather than in the context of a Western scholasticism and pietism with which, by contrast, he had very little to do.

Anyway, I feel quite certain that this unfortunate opinion does not mar the work as a whole, and I greatly look forward to reading it through.

9 comments:

Terry said...

So, random question, but how does one go about asking for review copies of books?

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, I've only done it a few times, so I'm no expert, plus each of the 4 times I've done it has been a slightly different situation (in 3 of the 4 cases, I had a connection, which helped I think). Basically, though, I would say you contact the publisher, tell them about your blog, mentioning that you've got a fair number of readers who seem to regard your opinion on a book as something worth taking into account, and ask for the book you want. At least, that's what I've done!

frphoti said...

Off topic (sort of), does anyone know how the author of Ora et Labora is doing? I really loved his blog.

aaronandbrighid said...

You're not the only one to wonder about that, Father (nor the only one to love his blog). Esteban was supposed to be working on finding out about him, but I don't know that he has yet. I'll ask him, and I'll also let you know if I hear anything from my own attempt that I've just now made to find out something.

Zac said...

I liked Fr. George Metallinos' defense of the holy Hesychast, but I got the sense that it was almost a "protesteth too much" endeavor. I found many places where St. Nikodemos' commentaries on the Faster's canons at least had the appearance of a Western scholastic approach.

I told my confessor about St. Nikodemos'commentary in the Exomologetarion where, after citing the Faster's canon penalizing parents for failure to emergency baptize their sick child before death with a year's excommunication, St. Nikodemos himself goes on to say that should a parent perform the emergency baptism and the child were to recover, the priest should go through the entire rite, including re-baptism. This is because, in St. Nikodemos' opinion, the emergency baptism is really no baptism at all but simply a way to prevent a child from departing into the next life "with no hope at all. My confessor replied, "That is NOT our Tradition."

That having been said, he is such a profound preacher of repentance who labored to restore frequent communion of the faithful and to compile the great texts of the Philokalia. I do notice, however, that certain Orthodox and Orthodox groups tend to value St. Nikodemos to such an extent that his theologoumena are considered unquestionable criteria for Orthodoxy itself.

I believe it was St. Nikodemos who persuaded the Ecumenical Throne to contradict the canons of the Quinisext Council(s) which prescribed the reception of Severians by the third rite, by mandating baptism. I think I can find the essay that mentions this episode (by Pogodin) if you want a look at it.

aaronandbrighid said...

Zac> Obviously, no isolated statements of any single Father should be considered 'unquestionable criteria for Orthodoxy itself', and I have no problem at all with the possibility that St Nicodemus may have made a mistake or two. But I found Fr Metallinos's argument that St Nicodemus should be read within the context of the Philocalic tradition deeply persuasive. He grants that St Nicodemus occasionally has 'the appearance of a Western scholastic approach', but the whole argument is that 'the appearance' is not the whole story. Yannaras goes so far as to suggest St Nicodemus has done harm to Orthodoxy, and even seems to question his sanctity! In the face of such hyperbole, I find Fr Metallinos's attempt to give St Nicodemus the benefit of the doubt to be a breath of fresh air. And if the latter does in fact err, I prefer to follow St Photius's advice and 'hide my father's shame, by using silence and gratitude'.

Zac said...

Well said. For Yannaras to refer to the the wrathful angry God of Augustine and Nikodemos is unfair, and Fr. George mentions this. Very ironic, I think, is that it is none other than Patriarch Athenagoras who adds St. Nikodemos to the dyptychs! However, such language as is found in the Exomologetarion, when used by Russian writers, is called "western captivity"... double standard?

Death Bredon said...
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Aaron Taylor said...

I don't know why I never responded to Zac's last comment here, but rereading it now, I feel I can't leave it alone.

'However, such language as is found in the Exomologetarion, when used by Russian writers, is called "western captivity"... double standard?'

My response would be, who precisely is practicing this double standard? I myself do not recall having attacked any Russian writers for their 'Western captivity'. Fr Metallinos and his bosom buddy, Metropolitan Hierotheos, do not to my knowledge say anything of Russian writers. I'm not aware of any of the Russian émigré theologians who speak of 'Western captivity' defending St Nicodemus. In other words, I don't think this 'double standard' can actually be found in any real Orthodox theologians.

That said, I will take the opportunity to make one point. A case could be made for applying a defense along the lines of Fr Metallinos's to certain Russian writers that have been accused of 'Western captivity'. Indeed, it seems to me that some of Fr Seraphim (Rose)'s thoughts on older Russian theologians like Fr Michael Pomazansky are very much in this vein. But one must be careful: how many of the Russian writers so accused are, like St Nicodemus, indisputable practitioners and intellectual heirs of the hesychastic tradition? This is the basis of Fr Metallinos's defense of St Nicodemus, and if a Russian writer is to be so defended, I would argue that this basis must be present. St Theophan the Recluse and St Ignatius Brianchaninov, if they were to be accused of 'Western captivity', are good candidates for such a defense, but I'm not so sure that many of the people that Fr Georges Florovsky describes in Puti could make the same claim.

It is however interesting to note, along these lines, that at least one figure associated with the very epitome of 17th-c. Western captivity in Russia, Peter Mogila's Kiev collegium, is to my knowledge not even mentioned in Fr Georges's extended account of that school. St Theodosius of Chernigov may well have escaped being named thanks to his undoubted sanctity and thus, one supposes, his real embodiment of the Orthodox Tradition, whatever the shortcomings of his intellectual milieu. So, no double standard there!