Monday, May 24, 2010

What does the embryo in the womb do?

There is a rather beautifully evocative piece on Chiesa about Athos. Most if it is a travelogue, but this is interesting:
What Western, Catholic liturgies today are able to initiate simple hearts into similar mysteries and to inflame them with heavenly thoughts? Joseph Ratzinger, previously as cardinal and now as pope, hits the mark when he points to the vulgarization of the liturgy as the critical point for today's Catholicism. On Athos the diagnosis is even more radical: the Western churches, in trying to humanize God, make him disappear. "Our God is not the God of Western scholasticism," the igoumenos of the Gregoríos monastery on Athos moralizes. "A God who doesn't deify man can't have any appeal, whether he exists or not. A large part of the reasons behind the wave of atheism in the West are found in this functional, incidental Christianity."

I found this quite challenging:
Vassilios, igoumenos of Ivíron, another of the monasteries, echoes the sentiment: "In the West, action rules; they ask us how we can stay here for so many hours in church without doing anything. I reply: What does the embryo in the maternal womb do? Nothing, but since it is in its mother's womb it develops and grows. So it is with the monk. He preserves the holy space in which he finds himself and he is preserved, molded by this same space. The miracle is here: We are entering into paradise, here and now. We are in the heart of the communion of saints."


Laurence England said...

Yeah, yeah, heard it all before.

Get a job! These monks are clearly just workshy.

berenike said...

Well, if their God is not the God of western scholasticism, then they're in serious trouble, aren't they?



RJ said...

Don't think the criticism of scholasticism is just. I would have thought that St Thomas' doctrine of grace was actually a theology of deification. According to him, grace is a participation in the divine nature (ST 1-2.112.1). The East did not adopt scholastic developments (presumably because they were not in communion with Rome) but this arguably left them without the theological tools to go beyond Platonism.
The problems in the West are more to do with post-Cartesian dualism (and this is in some ways a regression to a self vs world dualism which is reminiscent of Plato). Pragmatism - "it's true because it works" - is the fruit of a philosophy which despairs of accessing objective truth beyond the self. That is where Cartesian philosophy followed by empiricism and Kant takes us.

B flat said...

Dear Laurence,

Were you being sarcastic, or just having an off day?

Your words about monks have been used countless times about monks in the Roman Catholic Church, and not only in England.
Try substituting "homeless" for "monks" in what you have written, to see how charity shines forth before men in what you have said.
(I am not making a personal attack on you, less still on the homeless or your work for them - all of which I admire. But this comment of yours appalls me.)

Moretben said...

The East did not adopt scholastic developments (presumably because they were not in communion with Rome) but this arguably left them without the theological tools to go beyond Platonism.

Here's a modest suggestion, RJ: why don't you ask the Orthodox themselves? You might discover that things are not as your "presumptions" suggest, in respect of Platonism, "development", communion with Rome, "theological tools" or anything else.

What the igoumen is telling you is that Orthodoxy is not "Roman Catholicism-minus-the-Pope". It simply does not think according to the categories you take for granted as "normative". The Orthodox critique of Scholasticism (for example) points the way to a far more radical and integrated understanding of the crisis of western Christianity than the "Trads'" monocular obsession with Modernism.

Hail, who broke the webs of the philosophers!
Hail, who filled the nets of the Fishermen!
Hail, thou Bride Unwedded!

Moretben said...

PS: Lossky, (whose "Mystical Theology" I'd recommend to anyone seeking an introduction to Orthodox self-understanding, and the Orthodox understanding of what theology is, and how it may be undertaken), is(IIRC)careful to note that Aquinas himself does indeed present a theology of divinisation recognisably coherent with the Cappodocian patristic tradition; that doesn't however, affect the the critique of Scholasticism per se. The indispensible "theological tools" are not the metaphysics of Plato or Aristotle, but repentance, purification and Orthodox Faith.

RJ said...

Moretben: thanks for the criticism of my presumptions: you're right that I don't know enough about eastern theology so I withdraw the comment implying that the east as it were got stuck with Platonism. The criticism of scholasticism as lacking a theology of divinization is mistaken. So it seems there is room for learning on both sides.
On another point: Faith and reason go together don't they? Can't philosophy be the handmaid of theology, provided one submits one's intellect to God?

Laurence England said...

I was joking.

Paul Knight said...

I have some sympathy with the criticism. The scholastic method relies too much on human reasoning, it's incessant categorising is unhelpful, and to a large extent this has contributed to the deterioration of the liturgy in the Latin Rites. No longer are the mysteries seen as the means by which God reveals himself to his people or by which we enter into a deep communion with him, but rather as something to be stipped down into "essentials" and "non-essentials". Once you've done that anyone can do anything they like with it, making it into something man made rather than being divine.

Anonymous said...

"On another point: Faith and reason go together don't they? Can't philosophy be the handmaid of theology, provided one submits one's intellect to God?"

RJ, I suppose that depends what you mean by Philosophy and what you mean by Theology. At the end of one of his homilies on the Holy Spirit (Homily 22), St Gregory the Theologian writes: "I have set forth for you our love of wisdom, which is dogmatical and not dialectical, in the manner of the fishermen and not of Aristotle, spiritually and not cleverly woven, according to the rules of the Church and not of the marketplace". In the Orthodox Church's beautiful Pentecost troparion, we sing about the fishermen who have been revealed to be most wise by the Holy Spirit.



RJ said...

First an apology to Moretben for my unwarranted comment, as withdrawn.

I'm not sure how scholastic methods could have contributed to a decline in liturgical standards in practice, even if they seem unduly dry in theory. My impression is that scholasticism has been largely abandoned. From my experience of a Catholic third-level institution, I would have said that unless you had a special interest, you wouldn't really have to learn all that much about it (unless you count Rahner and Lonergan as scholastics). I can't see it playing a major role in the thinking of most priests under, say, 50, unless perhaps they went to a traditionalist (?) seminary. Some would say that it is the abandonment of scholasticism (more specifically thomism) which has led to the present problems.

RJ said...

From the little knowledge I have of the eastern Fathers, I believe that some of them were great admirers of Plato, so there can't have been a unanimous disapproval of Greek philosophy.
Just looking into this tonight: I found that Clement of Alexandria was very much in favour of Greek philosophy. Gregory of Nyssa, apparently, used philosophical arguments in defending Christian beliefs.

Clearly, Aquinas' theology is not just "Aristotle baptised". He used Aristotle (and Plato) among others but went beyond that. It is fully Christian.
I would hope we could have a both/and approach rather than an either/or approach: mysticism and philosophy, even in an academic sense (I am not putting them on an equal footing). I think it is a good thing to cultivate clear thinking. There is a strand of anti-intellectualism within Christianity, but I doubt that it does justice to the good gift that the creator has given us.
It occurs to me also that it would have been difficult to formulate the early creeds, on which we all agree, without the use of combined philosophical and theological reasoning. How could the council fathers have discussed and expressed these matters without some serious philosophical/theological equipment?

RJ said...

Further to my earlier post, here is what Clement of Alexandria wrote about Greek philosophy:
God is responsible for all good things: of some, like the blessings of the Old and New Covenants, directly; of others, like the riches of philosophy, indirectly. Perhaps philosophy too was a direct gift of God to the Greeks before the Lord extended his appeal to the Greeks. For philosophy was to the Greek world what the Law was to the Hebrews, a tutor escorting them to Christ. So philosophy is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.
Stromateis, Books 1-3

Moretben said...

On another point: Faith and reason go together don't they? Can't philosophy be the handmaid of theology, provided one submits one's intellect to God?

It isn't a question of whether or not philosophical categories may usefully (if cautiously) be adopted to defend or articulate dogma (the adoption, hugely controversial, of that single, non-Scriptural term in the Creed for example), but of whether “theology” properly so-called, is something that can be pursued (or “developed”) by believers merely “thinking about” God, Who is infinitely beyond every rational category. St Clement of Alexandria is famously generous among the fathers in his attitude to philosophy, but it's important not to mistake the context or overstate the intent of his statements.

Theology can be studied, investigated or thought or written about - even usefully – in a secondary sense, but it's only “done” authentically by the saints - “the pure of heart, for they shall see God”. It is the fruit of essential, ascetical struggle for true repentance and prayer, leading to illumination and contemplation. It can never be just a “science” - an academic discipline by means of which the the “data” of Revelation is sifted and “unpacked” according to philosophical categories. Metaphysics may be judged helpful subsequently to articulate, always in a contingent and provisional way, what God “Who is light and dwells in unapproachable light” has first spoken to the heart; but merely thinking (far less speculating) about Revelation according to metaphysical categories is not “theology”.

Late medieval scholasticism saw itself as engaged in a kind of universal, systematic synthesis, applying the same rational tools to the uncreated as to the created order. The extremely cautious and circumspect approach of the Fathers with regard to adopting philosophical categories was thus forgotten in the West and the patristic subordination of “positive” to “negative” theology reversed. Among the consequences of this fatal reversal is the paradigm of “dogmatic development”, a kind of theological Whiggery, according to which man's apprehension of Revelation gets bigger and better and penetrates deeper in time by the progressive application of intellectual effort . Another is touched upon by Paul Knight above – the relentless quest to identify (and isolate) the “essences” of everything, the liturgical monumnet to which is all around you. Returning to the original article, regardless of what Aquinas himself may have maintained in respect of the theology of divinisation (so fundamental to the Orthodox understanding of Liturgy, as well as everything else), it has been squeezed out over centuries by the sterilities of an alienated theology, with quite catastrophic results.

At the very end of his life, Aquinas is said to have experienced an episode of mystical contemplation, following which no-one could persuade him to return to his great work. “All of it is chaff”, he is reported to have replied, “in comparison to what I have seen and heard.” There, at last, speaks a living encounter with “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; of Our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Moretben said...

Just to amplify the point about the Creed: a Roman Catholic with whom I was discussing the "consubstantialem Patri" once put it to me that the Fathers "employed philosophy and metaphysics (consubstantalem) to discover the true position" in response to Arius. This is absolutely not the case. The Fathers, with great trepidation, adopted a term from philosophy in order to articulate and defend in its integrity "that which they had received". This is not "anti-intellectualism", but the insistence that there are no undiscovered Everests in the Tradition, waiting to be uncovered by philosophy in order to become visible to the saints.

Similarly, the Hesychast Fathers (St Gregory Palamas, most notably) deployed philosophy and metaphysics at the highest level in order to defend the "faith of the Fishermen" from those who, following Western Scholasticism, had begun to teach that knowledge of God is essentially propositional.

RJ said...

I would very much doubt that St Thomas and very many of his holy successors (there must have been some) approached theology in the way you censure, nor need we. I think he could probably be taken as a model for those whose talents lie in that direction and his theology is, I believe, reliable.

I guess all things of this earth would seem like straw after a mystical vision, yet I think we agree that they are not entirely without value as coming from God's hands, and that using such materials with humility is of great worth. After all, I guess the manger in Bethlehem was lined with straw, so obviously even our Saviour did not despise it.

RJ said...

Some slightly scattered thoughts: I think Aquinas would say that man's actions are raised to the supernatural level - divinized - by grace, which is not only God's action on the soul but a transformation of the soul from within. Could one not say, in this context, with Athanasius: "God became man so that man might become God"?
God takes all our ordinary activities and transforms them: "what is not assumed is not redeemed" (Gregory of Nazianzus) - but he has redeemed.
He takes the work of our hands and makes it his own. Common bread becomes 'the bread of angels'. Theological activity rises to worship.
You're making a lot of criticisms there: maybe we need to judge western theology by its best exponents, rather than by its faults. Maybe we need to listen to what they have to say in the way you recommend for Orthodox authors -go to the sources.

RJ said...

Sorry, this may be a duplicate
Somewhat belatedly, I would just like to challenge the view that the apophatic approach and divinisation got forgotten in the West. This would be to overlook the life and work of St John of the Cross for example. I would have thought that the Dark Night is apophatic. Moreover, St John says some amazing things about divinisation, e.g.
'God favours her [the soul] by union with the Most Blessed Trinity, in which she becomes deiform and God through participation' (Spiritual Canticle 39.4) and 'God now possesses the faculties as their complete Lord...As a result, the operations are not different from those of God...but are of God and divine operations.' (Ascent 3, 2, 8).
Now St John of the Cross received a scholastic education and formation, and, having some acquaintance with his works and the works of Aquinas, I would say his work bears the hallmarks of that tradition. The Carmelite tradition did not just stop after St John of the Cross but has a distinguished history down to our own time.
So I think the harsh criticism of scholasticism looks rather misconceived.
It may be that there are complementary ways of approaching the truth in east and west.
I did have a very brief look at hesychasm (only in Wikipedia!). I have some reservations.
I also have some reservations about the divine energies as distinct from God in his essence.