Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Gentle Orthodoxy

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Gentle Orthodoxy

Article excerpt

A Gentle Orthodoxy Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present Day BY ANDREW LOUTH INTERVARSITY, 383 PAGES, $2.8

When I saw Fr. Andrew Louth a couple of years ago and asked him what he was doing, he said he was writing some "little books." Now that we have one of those books, we can see how modest was his reply. Modern Orthodox Thinkers is a tour of more than a hundred years of Eastern Orthodox thought presented in the form of "ways" or excurses through the history of ideas. The genre goes back to Fr. Georges Florovsky's Ways of Russian Theology, a retrospective of Russian theology with the focus on Western influences. Another noteworthy example is Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, by Christos Yannaras, which explores the "ways" of Greek theology in the modern era, but includes a polemic against supposed Western deviations, or "pseudomorphoses."

Like his predecessors, Louth emphasizes East-West relations, but his approach is different. Whereas Florovsky and Yannaras defend the Eastern identity of Orthodox theology against an alleged "Western captivity," Louth is not interested in distilling a pure Eastern tradition. Instead, he sees genuine Orthodox theology as open to dialogue with the West while still having its distinctive marks. Louth is also kinder to his authors than Fr. Florovsky and Yannaras were. Fie writes about them with greater sympathy, perhaps because he knew some of them personally.

Where Florovsky focused on Russia and Yannaras on Greece, Louth ranges widely, covering Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Greek, French, and English thinkers. He details the axis between Paris and New York-the cities that hosted the best Orthodox theological minds in the twentieth century. St. Sergius Institute in Paris and St. Vladimir's seminary in New York became hubs for the progressive trends, such as eucharistie ecclesiology and personalism. Louth includes in his survey some great thinkers of the late Soviet era, too, such as Fr. Alexander Men, Dmitry Likhachev, Aleksei Losev, and Sergei Averintsev. These authors faced a difficult task of witnessing about their faith in the Orwellian newspeak of Soviet totalitarianism.

Louth devotes particular attention to the Philokalic movement, which began in the eighteenth century at Mount Athos in Greece. It produced a compilation of ascetic writings titled Philokalia. This book was translated into many languages and triggered spiritual revival in several Orthodox countries. It exercised a profound impact on modern theological developments. Louth is warmly appreciative in his description of the origins of the Philokalic movement, and rightly so. One wishes, however, that he had added some criticism to his description. Some of its leaders, such as St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite and St. Makarios Notaras, were as open and creative as Louth suggests. Others like St. Athanasios of Paros were blinkered promoters of the idea of an isolated and selfsufficient Greek East, something later taken up by Florovsky and Yannaras to bad effect.

Like Mother Thekla (born Marina Sharf), the Russian who became an abbess of a tiny community near Whitby in England and attempted to bring Orthodoxy into English thought through readings of Shakespeare, Keats, and George Herbert, Louth uses English poetry to explicate Orthodox theology. …

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