Thursday, February 17, 2011

Florovsky and the Unity to Come

In one of his lesser known articles, David Hart wrote the following: "That the language of God’s Trinity—of God’s perfect unity within the 'diversifying' act of his knowing love—should become the grammar of a dispute that seems always to harbor yet greater dimensions of suspicion and misunderstanding is an offense not only against reason, but against love."  The same goes, one could say, for the question of Atonement.  One among many fruits of a genuinely fantastic conference (publication forthcoming) was that tidy categories between Eastern and Western perspectives in this area are perhaps as suspect as they are in regard to Trinitarian doctrine.  Several of the Orthodox speakers (most notably Matthew Baker) not only suggested that the neo-patristic synthesis can veer dangerously close to Harnack's "pure essence" of Christianity, but made magnanimous gestures not only to Catholicism, but to Protestantism as well (especially Fr. Dragas and Alexis Torrance).  I was frankly moved.

Which returns us to Hart:
It may well be that the truest Trinitarian [not to mention Atonement] theology of which the Eastern and Western catholic traditions are now capable would consist in the resolution to turn in charity each to the other, in the hope of each finding mirrored in the other those hidden depths that neither is competent to recognize in itself; for the glory of the Spirit is never visible to us apart from our willingness to receive its light from without.  Such observations quickly become either saccharine or sanctimonious...  [but] so long as either East or West refuses the glory that appears in the other, it refuses the Holy Spirit—the bond of peace, of unity, and of love—and all our worlds grow dark.
Because this is the Hart blockquote blog, I'll return to him again, this time from his contribution to the Orthodox Readings of Augustine volume:
As often as not, "ecumenism" between East and West consists in little more than a relentless syncope of category errors:  the drearily predictable alarm and indignation with which traditional Thomists find that Gregory Palamas, transposed into Thomas' Latin, is not a Thomist; the deep and slightly macabre delight with which earnest Palamites discover that Thomas, read through Palamite lenses, proves to be no Palamite; arch dismissals of eastern understandings of grace as "semipelagian" by doctrinaire Augustinians; the reckless intensity with which a particular kind of Orthodox polemicist fixes upon some single principle found somewhere in Latin theological tradition - like "subsistent relations" or "created grace" - violently misinterprets it, and then uses it to diagnose a fundamental deformity in western theology that must estrange it forever from the wellsprings of Orthodox truth; and so on.  Perhaps this kind of thing is inevitable when a conversation arises between two traditions that claim to possess the sole, incontrovertible truth of things.
Such boneheaded recalcitrance was remarkably absent from the Florovsky Society's charter conference.  The passage continues:
It would be humbling indeed to discover that many of our most finely wrought systems of thought possess many accidental elements, peculiar to our particular cultural sensibilities or native tongues, or that perhaps our ways of depicting the truth to ourselves might be only partial and corrigible approximations to a truth that others, under extremely different forms, have approached with equal or better success.  More terrible yet is the possibility that many of our differences will prove to be only differences of sensibility and language, and not of substance at all, thus reducing our systems to relative expressions of the truth, rather than the pristine vehicles of truth we wish them to be.
One might sense a degree of relativism in that passage, but it's the benign kind: Doctrine, firm as its basic Creedal and Biblical contours must necessarily be, is always "relative" to the divine mysteries it describes. 

During the conference, I asked an ill-formulated question of the brilliant John Behr which, however poorly articulated, still expressed what I believe was an important point.  It will not do to trumpet what we can anachronistically call Irenaian supralapsarianism - the idea that God would have become incarnate regardless of the fall - if in doing so we approach the fragmentation of modernity in a non-Irenean way.  If God can bring unspeakable good from humankind's precipitous fall, then certainly he can do the same with our woeful academic fragmentations and even church divisions.  The unity that will (we hope) be achieved on the far side of our disciplinary and ecclesial disjunctions may be more glorious than the unity we had before it, simply because the atomization resulting from our sequestered specializations has resulted in more knowledge than we had before.  The fact that Protestant theology - through Barth - has been completely overhauled in light of the very Athanasian insights explored in this conference is an extraordinary advance toward such a unity.  Likewise, the Biblical insights so expertly mined in the conference by George Parsenios would not have come to light without the tools of modern Biblical scholarship, however damaging those tools can be in clumsier hands.

I sat next to a Protestant thinking about converting to Orthodoxy at the conference.  (They should have warned him to avoid me.)  My simple plea to him was to do what he felt called to do, so long as the question is not only "What's best for me?" but also "What's best for broader church unity?" The latter question can change everything.  As David Poecking made so clear in a piece on Ecumenical Futility today, inter-Christian converts often become wrenches in the ecumenical gears.  (Needless to say, there are fine exceptions to this general tendency, many of which I know personally, but the tendency remains.)

I'll summarize by quoting that Slavic Pope of which many are so fond:  "Could it not be that [historic church] divisions have also been a path continually leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ's Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise..."  His italics, not mine.