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Discerning the Mystery: An Essay On the Nature of Theology
by Andrew Louth
Eighth Day Press, 2007
(150 pages, $25.00, paperback)
reviewed by Robert W. Grano
“Since the end of the eighteenth century, theology has been hagridden by the spectre of the Enlightenment with its rejection of ways of understanding handed down by tradition and its endorsement of ‘scientific’ procedures as the sole way of attaining truth. This book seeks to exorcise this ghost.”
So states the description on the back of this book, a reprint of a work originally published by Oxford University Press in 1983, and often considered something of a modern classic. The author, professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, has also written on St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John of Damascus. Louth is now an Orthodox priest, but was an Anglican when he wrote the book.
Noting the common idea of a division or split between reason and mind on the one hand, and feeling and heart on the other, Louth argues that “the most striking, and alarming, aspect of this split is in the one-sided way we have come to see and recognize truth,” which
can be traced immediately, though doubtless it has deeper roots still, to the Enlightenment. . . . This one-sidedness is manifest in the way in which all concern with truth has been relinquished to the sciences, and to those branches of learning which can successfully adopt the methods of the sciences.
Since at least the eighteenth century, however, some have resisted this relinquishment, beginning with the Italian thinker Giambattista Vico, and continuing through two recent thinkers, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Michael Polanyi. Louth finds in their insights “an impressive unity about the pattern underlying any of the human apprehensions of truth.”
This pattern may be summarized by the ideas that reason is more than mere ratiocination, that theology cannot allow any separation between the life of the mind and the life of the soul, and that truth cannot be restricted to thought alone, but must be lived. It is, says the author, “the pattern underlying the thought of the Fathers of the Church.” Tradition is that which provides the continuity of this pattern between the thought of the Fathers and that of today’s theologian.
Drawing on Fathers like Sts. Irenaeus and Basil the Great and modern theologians like Richard Hooker, Yves Congar, and Vladimir Lossky, he argues that tradition properly understood “is not another source of doctrine, or whatever, alongside Scripture, but another way of speaking of the inner life of the Church.” It is not “simply some message, truth, or ideology, but a life, something lived.”
But modern Christians looking back to the Fathers for inspiration into the nature of theology are jarred by their use of allegory as a way to search the meaning of the Scriptures. Louth states that this is something we must come to terms with, since allegory for them
was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something that we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic thought. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition. . . . [Allegory] is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures.
Granting that some of the Fathers attack what they call allegory and its use, he argues that what they were attacking were its results (particularly Origen’s) and not the method itself. They used very different language “to describe their exegetical practice” and search for a “deeper meaning” in Scripture, but “they all interpret[ed] Scripture in a way we would call allegorical.” They all admit a deeper spiritual meaning below the purely literal.
Thus, Louth argues, for modern theologians and exegetes to bind their hermeneutics to the historical-critical method, which rejects allegory as a tool, is wrongheaded. The “scientific” method, while helpful, is itself a modern, Enlightenment, non-traditional way of reading the Bible and carries with it the difficulties of the division between mind and heart.
While Louth never mentions postmodernism in Discerning the Mystery, the issues he discusses here touch on the subject, adding to the importance of a profound little book that effectively exorcises the ghost of the Enlightenment.
Robert W. Grano is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a regular book reviewer for All Hallows: The Journal of the Ghost Story Society. He is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy via the Assemblies of God and the Episcopal Church.