30 July 2012

Imitating the Bees—Logismoi & Comparisons

No, I have not forgotten my promise to write a report on the CiRCE Conference we went to in Louisville two weeks ago. In fact, I have already made a beginning, but have yet to complete it. In the meantime, besides all of the summertime activities that have conspired against me, our air conditioner went out during church on Saturday, and this with a week before us of temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and rising. [1] We spent a hot and sleepless night at home, and then after lunch on Sunday, I came home to get some things before we headed over to my parents’ house to spend the night. There was a funeral this morning, and we only just returned home this afternoon. All that is to say, that I certainly plan on finishing up that post sometime this week! 

In the meantime, I have a couple of things to share on a theme that is important to the raison d’être of this blog. In a 1999 critique of Met. Kallistos’s popular book, The Orthodox Way, a critique which by now should be familiar to most Orthodox on the more traditionalist side of things, Hieromonk Patapios of the Old Calendarist monastery of St Gregory Palamas in Etna, CA, writes: 

Furthermore, when Bishop Kallistos cites the Talmud to the effect that the glory of God is man, and then goes on to quote the famous statement of St Irenaeus of Lyons that ‘the glory of God is a living man’, can he be sure that, despite their external similarity, the same intention lies behind both of these remarks (one clearly Christocentric and the other obviously not), or that they really mean the same thing? If he cannot be sure, then what is the relevance of the quotation from the Talmud? [2] 

Now, the reason I took note of this statement when rereading Hieromonk Patapios’s article the other day is that much of what I do at Logismoi might well fall under the same critique. It’s true that I don’t typically compare the Fathers with non-Christian writings, but my recent posts drawing on Roman Catholic authors like James Taylor (here and here for instance) might be seen by some Orthodox as a species of the same thing. Indeed, I do not wholly deny the charge. It may well be that the statements I have taken from Roman Catholic or Protestant authors in order to compare them with comments by the Fathers or other Orthodox authors do not ‘mean the same thing’ as the latter. Actually, I am rather certain that the distinctive Orthodox doctrine of the uncreated energies of God could be found to pose a fundamental obstacle to attempts to reconcile many theological statements across the East-West divide. My aim in making such comparisons is not to insist that these authors are saying exactly the same thing or that ‘the same intention lies behind’ their remarks’, but, first of all, simply to point out connections that naturally occur to me (as I frequently say, ‘This reminded me of something else...’), and second, to pose the question of whether there mightn’t be something in common between them. I typically avoid making any real claim that there is, if only because I sometimes fear that it might just look that way because I want it to. 

By an interesting coincidence, I was reminded of this recently not only by Hieromonk Patapios’s shrewd rhetorical questions, but also by some statements of one of these Roman Catholic authors themselves. In The Death of Christian Culture, John Senior writes: 

The best of us are prone to sophistry when an obvious truth contradicts a strong desire. Recent ecumenical commissions from various churches have tried to create approaches to unity by reconstructing their articles of faith so as to make room for contradictory articles of faith held by others. [3] 

Having quoted a troubling example (which I hope to share on Logismoi soon), Senior concludes, ‘The only rational way for Protestants and Catholics [and Orthodox, of course] to get along together is to practice the difficult virtue of tolerance—not to falsify their claims by ambiguities.’ [4] 

I must admit that for various reasons I do in fact have ‘a strong desire’ to find points in whatever I read that can be reconciled with or that at least bear a modicum of similarity to Orthodox belief. But I do not want my irenicism in this respect to be mistaken for a facile kind of ecumenism. I believe, with Fr Georges Florovsky, that the Orthodox Church ‘is in very truth the Church, i.e. the true Church and the only true Church.’ 

I believe this for many reasons: by personal conviction and by the inner testimony of the Spirit which breathes in the sacraments of the Church and by all that I could learn from Scripture and from the universal tradition of the Church. I am therefore compelled to regard all other Christian churches as deficient, and in many cases I can identify these deficiencies accurately enough. Therefore, for me, Christian reunion is simply universal conversion to Orthodoxy. I have no confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs solely to the Una Sancta
I know well that my claim will be disavowed by many Christians. It will seem an arrogant and futile claim. I know well that many things I belive with full and uttermost conviction are disbelieved by others. Now, I do not see any reason whatsoever to doubt them or disbelieve them myself....This does not mean that everything in the past or present state of the Orthodox Church is to be equated with the truth of God. Many things are obviously changeable; indeed, many things need improvement. The true Church is not yet the perfect Church. 
The Church of Christ has to grow and be built up in history. Yet the whole and the full truth has been already given and entrusted to the Church. Revision and re-statement are always possible, and sometimes imperative. The whole past history of the Ecumenical Councils is evidence of this fact. The holy Fathers of the Church were engaged in this task. Yet on the whole, the ‘deposit’ was faithfully kept and the testimony of faith was gained in accuracy and precision. Above all, the sacramental structure of the Body has been kept integral and intact. Here again, I know that this conviction of mine may be rejected as an illusion. For me, it is a matter of evidence. If this is obstinacy, it is the obstinacy of evidence. I can only see what I actually do see. I cannot help it. But in no way am I going to ‘un-church’ anyone. The judgment has been given to the Son. No one is entitled to anticipate his judgment. Yet the Church has her own authority in history. It is first the authority to teach and to faithfully keep the word of truth. There is a certain rule of faith and order that is to be regarded as normal. What is beyond is just abnormal. But the abnormal should be cured, and not simply condemned.... [5] 

I have quoted Fr Georges at length because I want my position to be as clear as possible, and it is identical with his. I want all that I write here to be read in light of these convictions. I shall continue to make comparisons, to find the best that I can in non-Orthodox and even non-Christian culture. But I want this project to be as it was always intended to be—a carrying out of St Basil’s injunction to imitate the bee in carrying away pollen from various flowers, not an attempt to iron out differences across creeds and cultures.  

[1] Of course, some of my most consistent reading material of the last year—John Senior and his student James Taylor—has argued persuasively that climate control is inimical to the ‘poetic mode of knowledge’. Indeed, it is a position I had come to, though without the aid of that expression, on my own some time ago. The trouble, however, is twofold. First, our modern buildings are built to be climate-controlled, so if the AC breaks, there is no way to naturally cool it and it becomes unfit for human habitation. (My own house would seem to be exempt from this, having been built before AC. But it was long ago sealed up and insulated by the landlords. Even the windows are painted shut.) Second, I do in fact currently have a pregnant wife to consider. I make up for these things myself by leaving the AC off in the car when I’m driving without her and simply rolling down the windows—which has to be done by hand in our car! 

[2] Hieromonk Patapios, ‘Critical Comments on Bishop Kallistos’ The Orthodox Way’, Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVI, 3 & 4 (1999), p. 35. 

[3] John Senior, The Death of Christian Culture (Norfolk, VA: IHS, 2008), p. 16. 

[4] Ibid., p. 17. 

[5] Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, ‘The True Church’, tr. Linda Morris, Ecumenism I: A Doctrinal Approach, Vol. 13 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, ed. Richard S. Haugh (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989), pp. 134-5.


Texas Seraphim said...

Perhaps a gross over simplification, but does this teaching come in to play here?

"And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us." - Luke 9:49-50

Aaron Taylor said...

Seraphim> I certainly think it could apply. Of course, I hesitate to use it, because I'm not certain there's an exact analogy. I'd like to see what the Fathers say about that passage. Also, I just feel a little squeamish about using our Lord's words to justify my blog! Using St Basil's doesn't bother me quite so much...

Macrina Walker said...

I must confess that my first reaction to Hieromonk Patapios' critique of Metropolitan Kallistos was: "But isn't that what the Fathers themselves do? Seeds of the Word and all that..." Of course the Talmudic understanding is incomplete, but doesn't it find its fulfillment in Christ?

I appreciate what you write here, Aaron, and it is something that I have at times thought of writing about, especially after a recent conversation with a potential convert. The Orthodox understanding of the Church can be a stumbling block for many of us, and we need to wrestle with it and not just ignore it. And, at least in some circles, there is such a strong undercurrent of "inclusivity" that is just taken for granted that it can be very difficult to even see that, much less stand against it.

But there is also the other extreme that (often irresponsibly) over-emphasises the differences between East and West, for whatever reason. I don't like the word "balance" but finding the "Royal Way" - to possibly misquote St John Cassian - is important but not easy.

Texas Seraphim said...

Aaron>Point taken--currently assailed by nausea.

Aaron Taylor said...

Macrina> I think Fr Patapios could have seen his way to appreciating a nuanced and qualified comparison of the statements. Earlier in the article, for instance, he writes, 'Let us add, so as to dispel any appearance of bigotry towards things Western, that His Grace is not to be faulted in principle for quoting non-Orthodox sources, since these are in some cases appropriate for expressing a particular point, and in such a way as to make Orthodoxy more accessible to those raised in a Western milieu. George Bernard Shaw, William Blake, & T.S. Eliot, for example, are all familiar authors, whose words serve to convey some fairly difficult ideas in a succinct and appealing fashion.' (34-5) I think the issue with the Talmud quote is that he seems to present them as though they really do mean the same thing.

But yes, I appreciate the problem of the 'other extreme' you mention. I've seen a couple of writers, and had more than one friend, who almost seemed to delight in exaggerating the differences between Orthodox and heterodox almost for the sake of shocking people. I hope this post doesn't come across that way, or at least if it does, that it is balanced by all of the other content of this blog! The 'Royal Way' is precisely what I'm going for here.

Aaron Taylor said...

Seraphim> Sorry to hear it! May you quickly recover.

Ephrem Antony Gray said...


I think his critique is a gloss. It is a critique of Kallistos himself. Paul quoted the pagan poets and the fathers affirm the 'plundering of Egypt'. I have seen this happen also with talk about the doctrines of Marriage. It is something a convert may have to undergo, especially if he is intelligent and writes not merely as a voice repeating an ethnic tradition.

Aaron Taylor said...

River! It’s good to hear from you again. Unfortunately, I'm having a little trouble interpreting your comment. Are you saying that Fr Patapios is less concerned with Met. Kallistos's use of the Talmud per se than with his ecumenism? If so, I can accept that. I can also agree that St Paul's use of the poets is applicable (couldn't Fr Patapios's critique be applied to the quotation of 'in Him we live & move...'?), more so than the Dominical saying Seraphim has quoted. But I still take Fr Patapios's criticisms of Met. Kallistos as a fair word of caution. I do want to avoid suggesting that two statements from remarkably different sources are entirely the same, merely because they strike me as being similar.

Not sure what you mean about 'the doctrines of Marriage'. Can you clarify?

Ephrem Antony Gray said...

I read a monk criticizing the idea that the marriage union had anything to do with the image of the Trinity. The reason for this, as best as I can tell, was more that these works were created by converts (with their suspicious baggage of Protestant and/or Roman ideas and maybe even the unspoken spectre of 'philosemitism'). That is, if Paul's words mean what we know they mean or what they have to mean given our Marriage rite. This particular paper suggested that these converts were actually bringing 'eastern' religion into Orthodoxy. My wife was willing to accept it because it came from a monk, but I knew then even so early on that not every one with a habit is fit to teach.

I personally think that in the case of the Talmud the intent is probably quite similar, and in the consideration of prophetic and or visionary words (like what Paul is quoting) you run into the situation where men cannot help but speak the truth even if they are against it by their thoughts and actions (Balaam comes to mind.)

I have recently come into reading and listening to some interesting material regarding the far right - ultra-traditionalists, fascists, and so forth, and though many of them are not Christian I have noticed trends in thought (as what happens with the far left) which are very similar to some of the very, very traditional Orthodox people.

Which is just to say that what Schmemman struggled with he was rightly infuriated with - for example the use of Slavonic is not for all an innocent love of its beauty, but a power of mystery and exclusion and hierarchy that the ultra-traditionalist thrives on.

These things go beyond the fences of the truth in the direction opposite the ecumenists and at least for me provide a grim reminder that not only is the Church a big tent, but that discernment is absolutely required for all reading... and that Orthodoxy's problems (ongoing indeed) with evangelism are, in my estimation:

1. From the ultra-traditional end, completely intentional
2. From the ecumenical end, not at all going to be helped by pretending like we believe the same things when we don't.

I would buy that in both cases some of it is semi-unconscious... the ecumenist really thinks that inclusion is somehow the highest virtue and the ultra-traditionalist has really narrowed beauty down to the familiar.

I hope my words are not too utterly shocking here, I am aiming to clarify something that I regard as of utmost importance for any neo-traditionalist - as I would regard myself - to know. If you disagree, I would be glad to hear it and know and understand why.

Ephrem Antony Gray said...

By the way, I think I might be able to find the article I mentioned if you'd like to read it. It was one thing that was making my wife not want to get married but instead become a nun.

Aaron Taylor said...

River> No, I don't see anything to disagree with in what you're saying.

I think I've read the article you mention, but it's been a long time. If you wouldn't mind, go ahead and send it along. I'll comment on it here if I see anything worth mentioning.

Ephrem Antony Gray said...

I will, then.

I also have some interesting ideas vis a vis the American identity itself and the problem facing American Orthodox as well as all Americans to some extent about identity and shame.

At some point when I get it more formulated, I'd like to bounce them off of you and see what you think. It's not going to be a book or anything; at worst it will be an essay (if that.)

Anonymous said...

I really like this blog post, and I fully agree with you. I do wonder if the reaction against Orthodox authors citing non-Orthodox authors is simply a knee-jerk anti-ecumenist reaction. I think there's a need for a little more maturity on our part. As was noted by a previous commentator, St Basil the Great, Elder Paisios of Athos, and many others, speak of valuing and appealing to truth wherever it lies. On the other hand, we should be mindful of integrity and not persistently manipulate the words of writers, deliberately trying to represent them as holding to beliefs we know they do not have. But we Orthodox frequently do this with our own saints and Fathers, let alone exponents of other faiths and denominations! It really depends on the context, I think. I have often quoted from C.S.Lewis, not because I'm trying to draw comparisons between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy, but because I find much of what he says pertinent to Orthodoxy. It's not a popular thing to say, but Church Fathers, due to the time they lived and, indeed, the pompous verbosity of Byzantine rhetoric, are not always easy to engage with. When more modern authors (Orthodox or otherwise) say the same things but in a way that more people can engage with, I think it is a good idea.

Aaron Taylor said...

I'm looking forward to your essay then, River!

Aaron Taylor said...

Fr Vassilios> You mean C.S. Lewis is easier to understand than the Church Fathers! Well, okay, you might have a point there...