30 September 2009

Yannaras's Orthodoxy & the West Reviewed

In his book Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas and Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2006), the Greek philosopher and theologian Chrestos* Yannaras is discussing the impact on Greek theology in the 1960s of Russian émigré theologians newly translated into Greek, when he comments, ‘Florovsky’s book in particular, Ways of Russian Theology, analyzed the Westernization of Russian Orthodoxy, stimulating awareness of the equivalent alienation of Orthodox thought and life in Greece’ (p. 292). The observation is significant. As the central focus of Orthodoxy and the West is precisely just that ‘equivalent alienation’, we are on solid ground in considering it as a kind of Ways of Greek Theology, but unlike Fr Florovsky’s book, giving ‘life’ nearly as equal a share of consideration as ‘thought’.

Yannaras begins documenting Greece’s ‘Western captivity’ earlier than many might expect: 1354, ‘when Demetrios Kydones, at the invitation of the Emperor John Kantakouzenos, translated into Greek the Summa contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas’ (p. 3). He then carefully and masterfully traces the course of that captivity throughout all of the succeeding centuries. It is, for the most part, a frustrating and tragic tale, and, like Fr Florovsky’s book, may prove rather disillusioning for many Orthodox readers. Yannaras finds a few bright spots amid all of the sell-outs and xenomaniacs: Patriarch Jeremias II, St Cosmas of Aetolia, St Macarius of Corinth, General Makriyannis, and Alexander Papadiamandis are the main figures he names as the ‘signposts . . . pointing to the real Hellenism, the historical embodiment of the Church’s Gospel’, and ‘the surprising exceptions to the story of decline now reaching the end of its cycle’ (p. 308).

It should also be pointed out that the last two chapters, ‘XVIII. Papadiamantis and His School’ and ‘XIX. The 1960s’, are devoted in general to positive figures and developments. Apart from those already named, as well as Kontoglou and several of the authors of the SVS ‘Contemporary Greek Theologians’ series, it was interesting to read Yannaras’s evaluation specifically of the often controversial figure of Fr John Romanides. The author lauds The Ancestral Sin unreservedly, crediting it with establishing ‘for the first time in Greek’ that the Western legalistic framework constituted a serious distortion of ‘the Church’s Gospel’ (pp. 275, 276). He is not so sanguine however about Fr Romanides’s more historically and culturally oriented works, calling them ‘too polemical’ and lamenting the ‘emphasis on intrigues and conspiracies’ (p. 277). Yannaras concludes by stating, ‘Before resigning his university chair in 1982, he taught a peculiar kind of neo-moralism, identifying the priesthood solely with a spiritual state leading to the vision of God, and disputing the ecclesiological validity of the contemporary Orthodox Church’ (p. 277). This is one of the few critical comments in a chapter full of praise for contemporary theologians.

But despite ‘the surprising exceptions’ and the promising writers described in these two chapters, the book is dominated by such figures as Kydones, who formally converted to Roman Catholicism in 1364 (p. 45), Patriarch Meletios (Pegas) of Alexandria (1550-1601), who fought ‘papal propaganda’ only to replace it with the Protestantism he had learned at Augsburg (p. 75), Theophilos Korydalleus (1570-1645), who replaced theology with scholasticism at the Patriarchal Academy in Constantinople (pp. 63-4), Adamantios Korais (1748-1833), an admirer of Voltaire who ‘attempted to reform Greek “religion” in accordance with his particular Enlightenment sensibilities’ (p. 148), Konstantinos Kontogonis (1812-1878), a product of Munich and Leipzig who singlehandedly taught every course at Greece’s only theological school from 1838 to 1852 (p. 196), Chrestos Androutsos (1869-1935), who rejected the essence/energies distinction (p. 203) and accepted ‘Anselm’s juristic interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion’ (p. 205), and Panagiotes Trembelas (1886-1977), whose hugely influential Dogmatics is ‘a non-Orthodox treatise compiled from Orthodox materials’ (p. 210) and who, as a member of the ‘Zoe’ Brotherhood, helped to disseminate an almost fascistic Protestant pietism that dominated Greek religious life in the mid-twentieth century.

Apart from the specific figures themselves, the Orthodox reader is dismayed to read of the invitations by Orthodox bishops to Jesuit missionaries and the founding of various Jesuit schools in Greece—even on Mt Athos—in the 17th century (pp. 59-62), of the destruction of seventy-two Byzantine or later churches to build the ‘neoclassical’ cathedral of Athens, designed by Theophil Hansen, built by Frederic Boulanger, and painted in the naturalistic Western style by the German artist, Alexander Maximilian Seitz (p. 167), or of the activities of the ‘Zoe’ Brotherhood mentioned above, which preached, catechised, opened schools, translated Protestant literature, and organised home Bible studies and discussion groups focusing on the Zoe magazine, called ‘Friendly Circles’, which met ‘not just in every neighborhood but virtually in every block’ (p. 231)—all on the basis of a blatantly Protestant and pietistic conception of Christianity.

It is a dreary tale, not just because it is so disheartening, but because it often seems like an endless parade of names, dates, and faulty ideas. Even at the book’s most difficult moments, however, one is acutely aware that one is getting much-needed, useful information. Yannaras has performed an invaluable service in documenting all of this, and Fr Chamberas and Norman Russel have done another in translating it for the Anglophone Orthodox world. Because Orthodox theology in the West has been so dominated by the Russian émigrés, Yannaras’s tale will be largely unfamiliar to many Orthodox readers. For one thing, it constitutes wonderful background for reading the St Vladimir’s Seminary Press’s ‘Contemporary Greek Theologians’ series, all of whom are mentioned by name in the last chapter—‘The 1960s’—in connection with the return of Greek theology to the path laid out by the Fathers, and particularly by St Gregory Palamas. But the book is also a good general introduction to the various historical problems of Orthodoxy in Greece. Indeed, I daresay it is an indispensable addition to the Orthodox theological library in English.

Yet Orthodoxy and the West is not entirely without defects, I fear. In another post, I have already touched on one of the more problematic passages of the book—Yannaras’s attack on St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (pp. 131-7). But having now read the entire book, I am afraid this attack is only a symptom of a deeper problem. In his response to Yannaras’s comments on St Nicodemus (‘Introduction’, Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession, by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, trans. Fr George Dokos [Thessalonica: Uncut Mountain, 2006], pp. 33-60), Fr George Metallinos refers to an ‘attempt to overstate the admittedly pernicious spirit of Pietism’, which ‘little helps those who ardently apply their anti-Pietistic criteria to approach the work of St Nikodemos with purely Orthodox ecclesiological criteria’ (Fr Metallinos, p. 42). That Fr Metallinos holds Yannaras’s anti-Pietism in some regard is illustrated by the fact that on ‘the essence of Pietism’, he refers the reader to Yannaras’s Freedom of Morality, pointing out, ‘In theological terms, the author quite rightly calls Pietism a heresy in the realm of ecclesiology’ (Fr Metallinos, p. 42, n. 38). But it is clear from the subsequent citations of Orthodoxy and the West that Fr Metallinos considers the latter book an example of ‘the attempt to overstate the . . . spirit of Pietism’.

Unfortunately, because, like many Western readers, my knowledge of many of the figures and works under consideration in Orthodoxy and the West is scanty if not altogether non-existent, it is difficult to say to what extent overstated anti-Pietistic criteria have effected Yannaras’s evaluation of others besides St Nicodemus. It is true that as I read, I occasionally questioned whether a quoted passage really suggested the complete capitulation of a given personality to Western notions, and it began to strike me that there could be a sort of subjectivity to the charge of ‘pietism’.

Furthermore, there is one other major figure of whom I had previously had a favourable impression, only to find Yannaras criticising him in no uncertain terms: Metropolitan Augoustinos (Kantiotes) of Florina (pp. 240-1). One of my favourite books, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, by Fr Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), is dedicated to Met. Augoustinos, ‘a confessing Orthodox hierarch of the latter times, a zealous inspirer of the faithful, and a true shepherd who stands guard against the wolves, giving his life for his flock, in the footssteps of Christ, the chief Shepherd’ (Fr Seraphim, p. 9). In his ‘Preface’ to The Precious Pearl: The Lives of Saints Barlaam and Ioasaph, by St John Damascene, trans. Fr Asterios Gerostergios, et al. (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, ), Fr Gerostergios refers to him as ‘the renowned Metropolitan of Florina’ (Fr Gerostergio, p. v), and enthusiastically translates his notes and comments on the text. In his biography of his son, the missionary monk Fr Cosmas of Gregoriou, Demetrios Aslanidis writes warmly of Fr Cosmas’s ten years working with the Metropolitan (for part of that time an archimandrite), and quotes Fr Cosmas as having said, ‘I’ll remain a few years with Fr Avgoustinos, to strengthen myself spiritually [for foreign missionary work], because he’s the best I’ve come across in spiritual matters . . .’ (Demetrios Aslanidis and Monk Damascene Grigoriatis, Apostle to Zaire: The Life and Legacy of Blessed Father Cosmas of Grigoriou, trans. Fr Peter Alban Heers [Thessalonica: Uncut Mountain, 2001], p. 42). After all of this, it is dismaying to find Yannaras accusing him of pietism (p. 240), and, even worse, of ‘spiritual terrorism’ (p. 241) for his outspoken denunciations of ‘the bishops, the government, the palace and state officials’ (p. 240), as well as of various ecclesiastics and theologians, who ‘feared the unrestrained vituperation which he could heap on them with impunity’ (p. 241).

It is in part this zealous anti-Pietism and the suspicion that, as Fr Metallinos says, it hinders Yannaras from approaching these matters ‘with purely Orthodox ecclesiological criteria’, that also gives me pause over the third chapter, ‘The Ecclesial Framework’ (pp. 23-32). Here Yannaras expounds what he refers to throughout the book as ‘the Church’s Gospel’, in contrast that is with the ‘Gospel’ of the Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. Certainly, it would be difficult to find anything here that is simply not Orthodox. But it is on the basis of this exposition, with its particular formulas and emphases and with no direct quotation from the Scriptures or the Fathers, that Yannaras mounts much of his critique in the later chapters.

In this regard, a comparison with Fr Florovsky strikes me as fruitful, for I think a key difference is revealed. Ways of Russian Theology, Part One in particular, is an historical description throughout. True, Fr Florovsky does not hesitate to say, for instance, that ‘Skovoroda’s wandering led him away from the church’ or that ‘His return to nature is a variety of pietist Rousseauism’ (Ways of Russian Theology, Part One, by Fr Georges Florovsky, trans. Robert L. Nichols, Vol. 5 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979], pp. 154-5). But this is very different to Yannaras’s chapter-long exposition of ‘the Church’s Gospel’ and repeated and explicit charges that various figures have distorted that Gospel as he has described it. Many, I feel, will prefer the more strictly historical-descriptive approach over the more decidedly theological-polemical one, and insofar as Yannaras gives us the former, I think his study is at its most valuable.

A word on the translation: although there seemed to be a few minor errors—mostly, I thought, toward the end—this is on the whole an exemplary translation of a modern Greek theological work, and it is interesting that in the ‘Translator’s Note’ we are given an idea of why: ‘Readers familiar with the 1992 Greek edition will notice a number of differences: the luxuriant prose of the Greek original has been pruned to adapt it to current English style . . .’ (p. xi). Let this be a lesson to future translators—do not give us slavish or literal renderings of modern Greek theological and spiritual writings. Such translations are insensitive to the English language and not only negatively impact the reading pleasure of a work but can also create a negative impression of Orthodoxy generally. Orthodox translations and publications need to be completely professional.

*I try consistently to spell the name with an ‘e’ to retain in English the difference between the name Χρήστος (Yannaras’s baptismal name) and Χριστός (our Lord’s Messianic title).


Fr. Peter Alban Heers said...


The Lord bless you for this review.

You are correct to have reservation over Mr. Yannaras' theological-polemical approach, especially as it pertains to Saint Nicodemos, but also to the zealous hierarch (not 103 years old) Bishop Augustinos of Florina.

And, you do well to point readers to Fr. George Metallinos' introduction to Saint Nicodemos' Exomologetarion. This is a good corrective to Mr. Yannaras' excesses in this area.

But, I also appreciate your seeing and pointing out what is good in the book and not "throwing the baby out with the bath water." Each writer has his strengths and weaknesses and we should be as bees going from book to book getting the best out of each for our spiritual benefit. We must not become devotees and cheerleaders of any one theologian, but of Christ alone, and good students of those who are lovers of Christ and initiated into the Mystery of His Economy of Salvation, the Saints.

Keep up the good work. I hope you'll also consider taking up other books, especially those on the phenomenon of ecumenism, and shedding light on both those for and against the movement.


Fr. Peter Alban Heers

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr Peter,

Thank you for your kind words and for your blessing. I'm usually fairly assiduous to be certain I'm not throwing any babies out with the bath water, and I'm glad to know this comes through! I quite appreciate too what you say about not becoming 'devotees and cheerleaders of any one theologian'. In the past I've been tempted in this direction myself and I've certainly known others who have.

I hadn't thought specifically of posting on ecumenism here before, partly because I don't read a lot about it personally, and partly because I mostly try to avoid controversy here (though you're aware, of course, of my convictions on the subject). But I would certainly be willing to discuss any books on the ecumenical movement that came my way. You'll also note that a few posts ago I linked to Patrick's paper and podcast responding to Dr Bouteneff on ecumenism. I have to be careful in this respect though, because one of my most devoted readers is Bouteneff's koumbaros!

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to hear from you again. (I'm looking forward to receiving the manuscript we discussed...)

Kissing Your Right Hand,

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I want to second Fr Peter's approbation of your review. This is a fine model for a book review, particularly of a book which has gained so much attention. Well-known books seldom receive a truly informed review, which this one certainly is.

I've avoided the book until now because of the criticism of St Nikodemos. That he critiques Bishop Augoustinos is perhaps to be expected. But the historical information sounds to be of great value. So, I'll go slumming and read the thing, I suppose, well-armed with your critique in mind.

This also makes some recent statements made to me by an inquirer comprehensible. It seems the first book he read on Orthodoxy was Yannaras (Lord, have mercy). And though this hasn't stopped him from reading others (of my and others' recommendation), I wondered at some of his odder statements, particularly his misperception of a pervasive (and persistent) western taint in Orthodox theology. Perhaps he hasn't finished the book yet!

The Ochlophobist said...

His eyebrows scared my daughter.

aaronandbrighid said...

Kevin> Poor chap! If it isn't clear from the review, as much as I recommend this book for the serious student of theology, I would never, ever recommend it as a first book to read on Orthodoxy. This book requires a strong 'digestive system' in order not to conclude that we Orthodox are all a bunch of insane people.

Owen> They scared me too! I actually thought the 'Brotherhood' guys you see around Greece looked more harmless than Yannaras. I never found them at all sinister (Protestant, yes, but not sinister) until I read this book!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Well, fortunately I put him onto Lossky's Mystical Theology and gave him an extra copy of Louth's Discerning the Mystery (this fellow teaches introductory classes in philosophy, actually), so these have impressed him much more than Yannaras, as has the Divine Liturgy.

Like Yannaras' criticism of St Nikodemos and Bishop Avgoustinos, I wouldn't put too much into his critique of the Zoe Brotherhood. For many an older Greek, it was a very good thing, and they are still quite Orthodox, moreso than their children and grandchildren, one might say. Whatever it was, it was certainly not an unmitigaged evil.

aaronandbrighid said...

Kevin> I know what you mean about Zoe. In fact, it wasn't really the pietism per se that disturbed me so much, it was the whole method and growth of the organisation. It sounded like the rise of the Nazi party or something. I mean, the whole idea of people meeting once a week on every block to discuss a magazine and calling it a 'Friendly Society'? It's like Brave New World! Maybe if I was European I'd understand it better...

Actually, one of the kindest couples we met, who did so much for us while we were in Greece, belonged to a Brotherhood and had many of the hallmarks of the Brotherhood pietism--even the sentimental painting of Christ and the disciples walking in the forest! I would never presume to negate those people's faith.

By the way, I think 'unmitigaged' is a new word. I like it!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Sanctus lapsus digitum!

Somehow "unmitigaged" does work, like "unmitigated" and "ungagued" all in one. Strange!

Yes, the magazine club thing is pretty cultish, and quite protestanty, and no doubt that was the motivation behind it all, to "catch up with the protestants" or whatever. That whole xenophilic thing is disgusting. But I think the concept of the Zoe Brotherhood was noble, and something like it would be very beneficial, if it were under proper ecclesiastical control, and not just some kind faddish experiment. People would have to care, I suppose....

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Thank you for this. I re-read the intro to St. Nikodemos' book on Confession last night to think further about the question of pietism. My reaction, and my reaction every time I even glance at that tome, is to weep at how poor I am as a confessor, let alone how poor I am at repenting of my own sins. Lord have mercy!

Have you had the opportunity to spend any time with the collection Orthodox Readings of Augustine, published recently by SVS? The question of Western influence is much too thorny for me to ever sort through satisfactorily, but my sense is that it provides a startling window into the issue's complexity and (perhaps) irresolvability.

And on another topic, will any more snippets of your thesis be forthcoming on the blog?

God bless you in your work!

Fr Mark

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Father. As a matter of fact, I was just having a look at that book yesterday at the library of the local AOANA parish. I read a bit of David Bradshaw's paper (difficult!), but didn't get to finish it. I am very eager to read more of that and the other papers as well (with the exception, perhaps, of DBH's!).

Thank you for raising the issue of more thesis snippets. I will have to work on that. It's difficult to find blog-sized sections that work on their own!

Kissing Your Right Hand,

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I was such a hopeless speller yesterday!

For "ungauged" read "unguaged".

Aaron, instead of snippets of your thesis, maybe just summarize sections of it and toss them onto the blog. It's very interesting!

aaronandbrighid said...

Good idea! I'll give it a shot!

Esteban Vázquez said...

Regarding Dimitrios Kydones, I own a strange publication edited by one James Likoudis and entitled Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism which contains the Apologia for his apostasy in English translation. Have you perhaps chanced upon this? It is, well, quite the read.

aaronandbrighid said...

Esteban> I have NOT chanced upon that. How intriguing!

Is the book from a sympathetic perspective? The title sounds a little Romish...

Esteban Vázquez said...

The editor is a Roman Catholic, and is the former president of an organization called Catholics United for the Faith. So while the book is sympathetic in tone, it is unabashedly aimed at "bringing back" the "schismatics" to Popery.

In addition to Kydones' "Apologia" (and a fine introduction to his life and works), the book contains Aquinas' "Contra errores graecorum," Peter Damian's treatise on the procession of the Holy Spirit, Johannes de Fontibus' letter to the Abbot and monks of a monastery in Constantinople, and a handful of modern apologetical articles. But on account of the sources that appear there in translation, it is invaluable.

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh yes, when I wrote 'sympathetic' I meant 'towards Kydones'! Come to think of it, I believe I HAVE heard of this James Likoudis fellow. Seems like I stumbled across his name on the internet a month or two ago. Can't remember why...