Orthodoxy’s Self-Definition & Its Constructions of the West
by Gary W. Jenkins
Co-sponsored by Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Program and its Center for Medieval Studies, a conference titled “Orthodox Constructions of the West,” held on June 28–30, 2010, sought to understand how “Orthodox authors . . . had created artificial categories of ‘East’ and ‘West’ and then used (them) as a basis for self-definition.” These Orthodox authors, the conference assumed, had (falsely) apophatically self-identified themselves as “what the ‘West’ is not.” To use the nomenclature the conference itself employed, these authors had cast the West as “the Other.”
At first blush, this would seem an uncharitable effort of caricaturing the West’s Orthodox critics by making “Other” of such thinkers. Yet this was hardly so, for it fell largely to the Orthodox to themselves identify the malefactor self-identifiers, as Orthodox Christians presented eleven of the fifteen papers.
With the theme of the polemical “Other,” the twentieth century was the conference’s historical locus, though it also treated medieval and early-modern topics, each with an eye to informing present understandings. The twentieth century saw a number of robust Orthodox denunciations of Western thought, theology, and categories; and several such fulminators were often cited during the conference, or their shades haunted the margins of the papers, e.g., Vladimir Lossky, John Romanides, Christos Yannaras, and Georges Florovsky. The conference sought both to clarify the categories of the last century’s polemics and to put them into their historical and geopolitical contexts for ecumenical dialogue.
Conceits of Otherness
Ecumenism loomed as an important leitmotif: If the Orthodox theologians the conference treated were correct about the West, then a substantial chasm exists between the Orthodox world and the Latin (both Catholic and Protestant) world. This gulf would relegate ecumenism to so much whistling past the graveyard: a fatuous waste of time, effort, and even hope, by the chasing of a chimera proclaiming unity, while the Orthodox continue to think that, whatever these “Others” are united with, it is not us. Consequently, the investigation of the nature of Orthodoxy’s views of what the West was and is—and since cast as a dialectical endeavor, what Orthodoxy was and is—focused on the particular historical and theological milieus which birthed these Orthodox constructions of the West.
The ambitions of the organizers and presenters, nonetheless, were not limited merely to the historical and theological. The penultimate panel developed the conference theme along political, cultural, sociological, and socio-economic lines. This panel’s first paper, “Shaking the Comfortable Conceits of ‘Otherness’,” delivered by Elizabeth Prodromou of Boston University, cut directly to the categorical and terminological quick of what the conference’s stated purpose entailed: Are Orthodox East and Latin West a real antimony, a thesis and antithesis? Is the category of “otherness” an applicable heuristic? And had not the conference made “Other” of the Eastern Orthodox?
Once pulled upon, this categorical tapestry seemingly unravels. Professor Prodromou’s paper raised questions that should have been addressed as a prolegomenon of the conference. Given time constraints, she could not address them, though she promised that her finished paper would. Nonetheless, she showed the inadequate parameters of the conference’s presuppositions, valorizing her assertions about “comfortable conceits.”
The Mind of the Émigrés
Two other papers, both by Orthodox Christians, especially stood out (though in truth all the papers were outstanding). One of them, “Russian Religious Thinkers in the Twentieth Century and the Rediscovery of the West,” by Antoine Arjakovsky (Ukrainian Catholic University), could be divided into unequal halves (I am not you; I am you) and wonderfully played out the dissonances of sympathy and otherness.
The first part of Arjakovsky’s paper traced Orthodox reaction to the 1917 Russian Revolution, which for many was merely Western materialism in the guise of Marxism. Émigrés to the West such as Nikolai Berdyaev and Nikolae Trubetskoi proffered a new identity for the dispossessed, and their efforts birthed the 1920s’ Eurasian movement. This schema portrayed Russia’s genius as something not obtained from the West, but from the Asian and Mongol east (cf. the 1938 Soviet film Alexander Nevsky).
Sergius Bulgakov gave this idea a theology with his claim that the West suffered from the metaphysical distortions of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose Triadology started with the one impersonal essence of Aristotle and not the Father of revelation. With the second generation of émigrés (Alexander Schmemann, Paul Evdokimov, and others) this assertion bore fruit not in a Russian, but in an Orthodox identity, which saw Holy Russia in opposition to the heretical West (“I am not you”).
Yet the Orthodox mind of these émigrés was not static but dynamic. Bulgakov, ever self-critical, decried the Orthodox repudiation of the Council of Florence; and Olivier Clément, who identified the stigmata of St. Francis and the uncreated light seen by Athonite monks, questioned the easy nostrums circulating among the émigrés.
Professor Arjakovsky highlighted Clément’s thought that the Holy Spirit worked still in the Latin West via a valid Eucharist. This, coupled with Bulgakov’s vision of the Church as the new life in Christ, could bring about a new paradigm, one that emphasized the Church as new life, and one that was realized in and inclusive of both East and West (“I am you.”). For Arjakovsky, this paradigm heralded a “post-secular world.”
A Personal Primacy
John Panteleimon Manoussakis (Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts) gave the other notable paper, titled “The Heresy of Anti-Papism.” For Professor Manoussakis, anti-papism (an amorphous mentality current among some Orthodox) makes church authority impersonal.
Manoussakis reviewed the various (inadequate) answers for where the locus of authority resides for the Orthodox: in the council or synod, in Christ himself, or in a common rule or rite. While each is authoritative, he argued, all are lacking.
A council is not in permanent session. While its decisions bind the faithful, the execution of its decisions and the enforcement of its canons fall to a local bishop, who then becomes a primus to himself. A similar reality obtains for Christ’s headship. None deny this headship, but all also recognize his administrative absence, his authority now residing with each bishop. This leaves us with the same situation as with councils. As for the common rule of life, can something impersonal ever be personal?
The final alternative to a personal primacy, Manoussakis noted, though one that really should never be considered (despite its having gained near dominical status among some Orthodox), is that of the nation. Phyletism aside, this is the worst of all options, but it is one to which many Orthodox seemingly cling.
The real need, he said, is for a personal primacy, one professed as already in the monarchy of the Father within the Holy Trinity. Primacy thus is first personal. This is also the case within the Incarnation, wherein the second Person of the Trinity effects by his Person the union of divine and human natures. Manoussakis cited Metropolitan John Zizioulas that primacy is to a particular person, to a particular ministry over a particular Eucharist. Since the Ecumenical Councils recognize the doctrine of primacy, this seems an obvious item for an Orthodox Christian to affirm.
Manoussakis also noted that Rome did not lack, given its locus of authority, the ability to speak directly to moral and theological issues: No one questions Rome’s stance on abortion, for example. When questioned specifically, he said that primacy should rest with the bishop of Rome, though what this primacy entailed he did not say.
Manoussakis’s paper generated, among others, interesting responses from two women. One, who professed to be a “feminist and an Anglican,” asserted that his paper gave her no comfort. The other, a graduate student and Orthodox convert, said that Orthodoxy was a comfort to her since it had made no hard pronouncement on things that some unnamed head of some unnamed communion had. She felt at liberty to hold things that the bishop-that-shall-not-be-named did not.
To both of these women, Manoussakis was rather ambivalent. His response appeared not like some academic “Thanks for your opinion,” but more like “What I have written, I have written.” I just thought, “Q.E.D!”
Theological Issues Neglected
The conference, intimate and cordial, seemed none too keen to discuss the filioque. For many, since it was no longer a communion breaker, it seemed better left untouched. So although there were references to the work of Professor Michel Barnes of Marquette, and conversations over coffee about A. Edward Siecienski’s recent The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, and repeated (and mistaken) digs at Professor Aristeides Papadakis and his work on the subject, the issue was mostly avoided.
Further, it was never discussed why the debate over predestination and free will that bedevils the West never occurred in the East. This neglect was consonant with the thought (repeated several times) that doctrinal matters should not be considered as reasons for the schism. Father Robert Taft (to whom the conference naturally and often deferred) had severally held forth that such items are no longer in dispute, and that Catholics can now even accept St. Gregory Palamas’s distinction between God’s essence and his energies.
As a historian, I found the neglect of these issues distressing. It’s not that I yearn for polemics, but it is only by grappling with the issues, and not by slighting them, that progress can be made. Professor Arjakovsky did not shy away from this, and he pointed out that some Catholics still see theology proper (the study of God) as a rock of offense between the communions.
This same opinion, that hard theological issues should not be slighted, can be found in Fr. Aidan Nichols, whose Light from the East covered the very twentieth-century theologians the conference did, and who himself is adamant on both the doctrine of the filioque and its retention in the Creed. Ironically, Nichols’s name never surfaced at the conference.
More Questions & Concerns
Granted, the organizers did not conceive of the conference as a theological exercise, but they seemed to assume that questions other than those of theology prompted theological formulations, suggesting, for example, that émigré Nicholas Lossky’s breach with the Russian Paris community and his reaction in the mid-1930s to Bulgakov et al. affected his reading of Pseudo-Dionysius. But is this anything other than C. S. Lewis’s “Bulverism,” i.e., the assumption that certain accidents vitiate the logic of one’s interlocutor (e.g., à la Lewis, “You only say that because you’re a man”)?
Perhaps Lossky the émigré was Lossky the theologian, but to handle his arguments this way doesn’t answer them, and it only emboldens those whom Lossky has convinced: Merely going after the man, they would claim, only shows the superiority of his arguments. I don’t believe this was the conference organizers’ modus operandi, but it certainly made ancillary, if not tertiary, what for many is one of two equally ultimate concerns. In the end, however, it was the other of these concerns that seemed to be on everyone’s mind: the papacy.
And so again to Professor Manoussakis’s paper, for it provides a start for further inquiry, if not another conference, one that would take up the Orthodox notion of personal primacy and apply it to the question of papal primacy in both East and West in the Church’s first nine centuries (prior to the papacy’s metamorphosis under Pope St. Nicholas I, 858–867). Such a conference would include not just questions on ecclesiology, but also on the theological canon, the nature of theological heuristics and method, the parameters of tradition and the limits of its authority—in short, all the prolegomena of theological formulation.
These questions are not tangential to the greater matters dividing Orthodox and Catholic, and seem of more weight and a better avenue of study, with more promise, than academic questions of “Otherness” and its influence on Orthodox constructions of the West, however wonderful a conference such questions produced.
Another illustration from Lewis: The academy’s pursuit of theology is like someone at a ball who stands against the wall, watches the gaiety of the dance and the happy conversations at the tables, and thinks he understands the ball. But in fact, says Lewis, until you’re waltzing, you cannot know. An investigation of the contours of Tradition in the first centuries, even by academics, i.e., getting out on the dance floor, seems the important matter, surpassing even the academically urgent questions of the moment.
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“Identity Papers” first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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