17 October 2009

A Long Overdue Reading of Discerning the Mystery

Fr Andrew Louth is Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at the University of Durham. He is a former Anglican clergyman, and now a priest of the Moscow Patriarchate, having been received into Orthodoxy several years ago. I first became acquainted with Fr Louth in 2000 through his contribution to the Early Church Fathers series from Routledge, Maximus the Confessor (London: Routledge, 1996), followed shortly, I believe, by his published lectures on ‘mystical theology in the Fathers’, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Oxford U, 1981)—that is to say, this is the order in which I encountered his work. Next, I was thrilled to read his biographical sketch of Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) as well as his paper on the Philokalia, both in the Festschrift for the Metropolitan, Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West: Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, ed. Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, and Dimitri E. Conomos (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2003).

But, oddly, it wasn’t until last year or so that I first learned of what may be Fr Louth’s most important book, one originally published in 1983 and recently reprinted by Eighth Day Books: Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007). At some point a couple of years ago, I saw the book at the Eighth Day shop in Wichita (and based on photos of Clarendon’s original, the newer strikes me as the more attractive edition!). Then I saw some of Sr Macrina’s series on it (listed in its entirety here) at A vow of conversation, as well as some of Kevin Edgecomb’s posts—here, here, and here for example. Then I saw this and this from my ultimate blogging hero, Felix Culpa. I had also to reckon with Sr Macrina and Kevin telling me to read the book in private e-mails. By the time I received a review copy, graciously sent by Eighth Day Books, I was quite excited (though also, unfortunately, quite busy with my thesis and with Yannaras).

So the first comment I must make is that one has every reason to be excited about this book. Quite simply, Fr Louth has written one of the most important and brilliant modern works of theology (though it might be more accurate to call it ‘meta-theology’) that I’ve ever seen. While there is much here that I for one had pondered before to one degree or another, it remains the case that the author has articulated something that has long lacked proper articulation. He has drawn together disparate threads of history and thought, and exposed a problem that has all too often gone entirely unremarked. Finally, he has advanced what strikes me as a very Orthodox solution to that problem.

Drawing on the work of philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Michael Polanyi, Discerning the Mystery deftly criticises the hegemony that the scientific method has come to exercise over the human quest for truth ever since the Enlightenment, rejecting the importance of tradition in human life, forcing the humanities to formulate an ‘historical-critical method’ in a misguided attempt to reproduce science’s certifiable results, reifying the subjectivity of the human as the proper focus of study in the humanities, and, consequently, bringing theology to a complete impasse (as evidenced by Leslie Houlden’s statement, quoted in the Introduction, ‘we must accept our lot, bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and make the most of it’, p. xi). In so doing, Fr Louth points the way forward, not only for theology, but for a humanities reorientated toward its raison d’etre and situated once again in the stream of tradition, as well as for a science that does not overstep its boundaries, recognising the ‘tacit dimension’ (to use Polanyi’s expression) in its own legitimate endeavours, in human life, and, thus, in our relationship to the divine.

The brief introduction offers an overview of what’s to come. Chapter 1, ‘Dissociation of Sensibility’, borrows a phrase from Eliot to underline the symptoms of the problem Fr Louth wishes to address: ‘a dissociation manifested in the way in which the refinement of language in the eighteenth century is not matched by any corresponding refinement of feeling—rather the reverse’, ‘a dissociation between thought and feeling, between the mind and the heart’ (p. 1). For theology, this entails ‘the division between theology and spirituality, the division between thought about God and the movement of the heart towards God’ (p. 2). It is a problem caused in large part by what George Steiner calls ‘the fallacy of imitative form’ (qtd. on p. 10): that is, the post-Enlightenment trend in the humanities and in theology to try to duplicate the methods, and hence, the identifiable results, of the sciences, which is tied up in the near-exclusive association of ‘truth’ with that ‘truth’—objective, quantifiable, empirical—which is the object of science.

Chapter 2, ‘The Legacy of the Enlightenment’, delves into the various historical responses to this problem, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Beginning with Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) and his La Scienza Nuova, and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), Fr Louth argues that both properly emphasise the differences between what the latter calls Geisteswissenschaften (‘sciences of the (human) spirit’) and Naturwissenschaften (‘the natural sciences’). But the real star of the chapter is Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), whose Truth and Method took account of Vico and Dilthey and extended their insights into a critique of the ‘historical-critical method’ in ‘a profound and far-reaching attempt to reorient the humanities’ (p. 29). In Fr Louth’s words:

Gadamer’s attempt to avoid the false objectivity of the method of historical criticism involves an attempt to reinstate tradition and the authority of tradition. He argues that tradition is appropriate to the human reality we are seeking to engage with in the humanities. For in the humanities we are concerned not with the natural world of objects, but with the moral world of free persons. (p. 33)

Thus, for Gadamer, tradition is not rejected by or in favour of ‘reason’, but is itself ‘an act of reason’ (p. 35) that involves ‘growing into what we learn from reason’ through experience, and consequently, through suffering (p. 37). This means that in the humanities the tradition of Bildung or paideia must occupy the place of method in the sciences (pp. 42-3).

In Chapter 3, ‘Science and Mystery’, Fr Louth advances his argument for the kinship of theology with the humanities by considering, first, the nature of the traditional Aristotelian conception of theology as the ‘queen of the sciences’—a conception that fit ill with the growth of the experimental sciences on the one hand and the ‘object’ of theological study (a God ‘understood to have revealed himself in history’—p. 46) on the other—and second, the attempt of Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance (1913-2007) to draw out ‘a close analogy between theology and the exact sciences’ (p. 48), an attempt flawed by Torrance’s own admission that theology is concerned with grace ‘whereas science is concerned with natural objects’ (p. 53). At this point, Fr Louth turns to the Irish theologian, F.J.A. Hort (1828-1892), and even more, to the Hungarian-British philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), to argue that the nature of truth and knowledge within science itself is much closer to the humanities and theology than is usually recognised. Specifically, Polanyi argues that all knowing, even science, involves a ‘tacit dimension’ that is ‘unspecifiable in detail’ (p. 59). He writes:

We may say that when we learn to use language, or a probe, or a tool, and thus make ourselves aware of these things as we are of our body, we interiorize these things and make ourselves dwell in them. . . . Tacit knowing now appears as an act of indwelling by which we gain access to a new meaning. . . .The theory of tacit knowing establishes a continuous transition from the natural sciences to the study of the humanities. (qtd. on pp. 63, 64)

Fr Louth then brilliantly demonstrates the relevance of these observations (as well as that of Gadamer’s concerns) for theology:

This tradition [the Christian Tradition of the Fathers] was essentially non-specifiable, or if specifiable, not simply by an indication of specific doctrines, but primarily as the bond of unity, the bond of love, which established the Church as the Body of Christ. . . . The Patristic doctrine of tradition might well be paraphrased in the language of Polanyi by saying that all knowledge of God in Christ is either the tacit knowledge of tradition or rooted in such tacit knowledge. (pp. 64-5)

Lastly, drawing on the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), Fr Louth points out that this knowledge does not have the character of ‘problem-solving’ familiar from the sciences, where we move on once the problem is solved, but involves returning to the tradition and standing in contemplation before a mystery.

These last points strongly establish the thrust of the remainder of the book. In Chapter 4, ‘Tradition and the Tacit’, Fr Louth plays out this conception of Tradition as ‘tacit knowing’, by examining its rôle in such classic works as St Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana, St Irenaeus’s Adversus haereses, and St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit. In an important statement of the Patristic understanding of Tradition, Fr Louth writes:

Understood like this, tradition is not another source of doctrine, or whatever, alongside Scripture [as seems to have been assumed by Protestants and Tridentine Catholics alike], but another way of speaking of the inner life of the Church, that life in which the individual Christian is perfected in the image of God in which he was created. Speaking of it as tradition brings out the fact that it is received, that it is participated in, that it is more than the grasp that the individual has of his faith. (p. 88)

In this context, the author highlights the importance of liturgy in this reception and participation in the life of the Church, for ‘The liturgy unfolds the varied significance of the mystery of Christ, and the fact that it cannot all be explained, the fact that much that we do, we do simply because we have always done it, conveys a rich sense of the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery’ (p. 89). Fr Louth even quotes the early Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) on this significance of liturgy, who himself concludes by quoting St Dionysius the Areopagite—‘the sensible things which religion hath hallowed, are resemblances framed according to things spiritually understood, whereunto they serve as a hand to lead, and a way to direct’ (qtd. on p. 91). (One wonders if perhaps Hooker had simply not thoroughly read Lorenzo Valla and Martin Luther on the Corpus Dionysiacum!) Finally, having drawn on Vladimir Lossky’s notion of a ‘margin of silence’ in Scripture, the author concludes this chapter by observing, ‘The mystery of faith is not ultimately something that invites our questioning, but something that questions us’ (p. 95).

Chapter 5, ‘Return to Allegory’, may be the most unusual chapter in an unusual book. Fr Louth argues that Patristic allegory is not something that can be safely passed over in the Fathers as a quaint relic of pre-critical days, ‘Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the “margin of silence” that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures’ (p. 97). Unfortunately, the importance of allegory has been downplayed, if not altogether dismissed, in the wake of the Reformation and its new doctrine of sola scriptura (Fr Louth quotes Keble—‘During the Reformation, men had felt instinctively, if they did not clearly see, that the Fathers were against them’—p. 98), and then in the wake of the Enlightenment doctrine of the historical-critical method. Much of the chapter is taken with responding to these two enemies of the Christian Tradition: sola scriptura, because in Henri de Lubac’s words, Christianity is not ‘the biblical religion’, but ‘the religion of Jesus Christ’ (qtd. on p. 101), and the historical-critical method because, as we have seen in Gadamer in particular, it is a violation of the proper approach to the human—and how much more the divine!—subject. Allegory, by contrast, is a way of responding to ‘the depth and richness of Scripture, a richness derived from the mystery to which it is the introduction, of which it is the unfolding’ (p. 110). It is not a technique for solving ‘contingent difficulties, but a means of ensuring that we do not evade the fundamental “ontological difficulty” which opens us to the ultimate mystery of Christ contained in the Scriptures’ (p. 112). Drawing on the French Jesuit, de Lubac (1896-1991), Fr Louth shows how the Patristic exegete moves from the literal to the allegorical, a distinction interpreted as that between ‘the letter and the spirit, shadow and reality, the old and the new’, so that ‘The movement from the literal sense to the allegorical is a movement of understanding the mystery which the facts revealed by the literal sense disclose’ (p. 117). As an example, Fr Louth chooses the Gospels’ account of Christ’s baptism and the interpretations of it—invariably Trinitarian—in Origen, St John Chrysostom, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Augustine, liturgies East and West, and finally, the 17th-c. theologian Jeremy Taylor. Finally, returning to a lesson drawn from St Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana that ‘the message of the Scriptures is . . . love’ (p. 130), Fr Louth sums up the ‘way of allegory’ in words from Pascal’s Pensées 270 (qtd. on p. 131):

Tout ce qui ne va point à la charité est figure.
L’unique objet de l’Écriture est la charité.

(Everything that does not lead to love is figurative.
The sole object of Scripture is love.)

In the last chapter, Chapter 6, ‘Living the Mystery’, Fr Louth is concerned not to leave all of this at the level of theory—drawing on the Austrian theologian, Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925), and John Henry Newman (1801-1890), he exhorts us to follow the Saints. In von Hügel’s words it is only in the Saint that ‘thought about God’ is transformed ‘into a religious act’, and the ‘dim apprehension’ of nascent faith becomes the ‘clear perception’ of true knowledge of God (p. 135). From Newman we learn that in the ‘Right Faith’ of the Christian life ‘a certain moral state, and not evidence, is made the means of gaining the Truth, and the beginning of spiritual perfection’ (qtd. on p. 140). Fr Louth concludes:

For theology is not simply a matter of learning, though we risk losing much of the wealth of theological tradition if we despise learning: rather theology is the apprehension of the believing mind combined with a right state of the heart, to use Newman’s terms. It is tested and manifest in a life that lives close to the mystery of God in Christ, that preserves for all men a testimony to that mystery which is the object of our faith, and, so far as it is discerned, awakens in the heart a sense of wondering awe which is the light in which we see light. (p. 147)

Taken as a much needed critique of modern theology and academia in general, and a positive indication of the way forward for such studies, it is difficult for me to see anything to criticise about this book. I did find the statement in Chapter 5, ‘Of course, the Fathers often did resort to allegory to solve problems presented by the text of Scripture’, followed by ‘I am not at all attempting to defend that’ (p. 113), though not a flaw in Fr Louth’s return to allegory argument, at least a big admission requiring some more explanation. But this is only a minor oversight in a book distinguished by its depth of discernment, brilliance, and timeliness. I paused throughout, astonished by Fr Louth’s insights and by the many wonderful passages (most of which were quite new to me) he had excerpted from his various interlocutors, and I thought continually of all of the people I would like to give a copy of this book to: my Orthodox father and sister (a social scientist and medical doctor respectively), Orthodox friends, Anglican friends, an atheist friend. Just before reading it, I had loaned my copy to an inquirer at our parish (mentioned previously in the dedication at the bottom of this post), who told me he had been struggling as an intellectual with the rôle of Tradition in Orthodoxy and the prospect of submitting to that Tradition. He told me this had been a very helpful book to read (or something like that), and urged me to read it as well. Therefore, I in turn strongly suggest all readers of Logismoi immediately order a copy of Fr Louth’s book here, at the Eighth Day site. Tell them Aaron Taylor sent you in earnest.


+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

In fact, he was received into the Orthodox Faith in Oxford. I was present for the occasion. And I second your endorsement.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you for the correction, Your Grace. It seems like I'd heard about something happening at the monastery though. Ordination perhaps?

Aaron Taylor said...

By the way, it's been a while since I had a comment from you. Welcome back!

+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

Ordination is possible. And it's always good to catch up on what you're writing. As for my long silence, who knows where the time goes?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

It really is quite a special book! I'm glad you got around to reading it.

I gave a copy to an inquirer, too, one who teaches philosophy. I don't think he's read it yet, though I do expect he'll enjoy it.

Aaron Taylor said...

Kevin> It certainly is! I'm glad I got round to reading it too!

Ephrem Antony Gray said...

I suppose it is a good follow-up to Polanyi's Meaning? I've heard that there are also some good things by Alfred North Whitehead and Bion on a similar vein. I think Bion's was called 'an intense beam of darkness'? Bob Godwin at One Cosmos mentioned a lot of them himself. Speaking of (as you have above) those who are Francophones, the philosopher Frithjof Schoun is worth reading if only because of how concisely he explains things. Well, except for Islam. That part I couldn't comprehend.

Aaron Taylor said...

River> Sure, I could see Fr Louth in some ways continuing in that line. But I hoped it was clear enough in the review that he is continually moving toward a vindication specifically of the Christian Patristic Tradition. I don't know about Bion, from what I do know of Polanyi and Whitehead this would not be a direct concern of theirs. It is clearly at the centre of Fr Louth's agenda.

Ephrem Antony Gray said...

Quite! I thought of this book perhaps building on the themes which they establish; they come from either a position of religion in general or philosophy in general - in terms of a defense of the human person in its subjective faculties; mainly that our comprehension as moderns of the 'subjective/objective' divide is fallacious. It would seem from your review that Louth is 'finishing the bridge' or so to speak. With Bion, Whitehead and Polanyi you feel like they are pointing somewhere, but not quite going there.