One of the first books I ever read about the Orthodox church was an introduction specifically for Protestants – it was in the local library, and it was this whole thing about how the Orthodox and Protestant churches could be united, and leave the power-mad Catholics out in the snow – and it was explaining all the similarities and differences between the two churches to show how reconciliation could work in practice. I haven’t been able to find that book again since, but it’s interesting that it was written for Protestants. It has an audience in mind – it’s not just about a topic, it’s also for a specific group of people, and it makes assumptions about what those people believe and why they might want to learn about the topic at hand.
And that’s a very standard practice – it’s maybe a little more obvious in that example, but it’s something really everybody does. It can be annoying, as for instance when the American Protestant website Crosswalk writes an article titled ‘What Do Catholics Believe?’. As you might expect, it’s a one-sided hatchet piece with very little integrity. It tells you a Catholic doctrine, quotes a Bible verse to make the doctrine look bad, and then tells you that Catholics are idiots. The article is essentially designed to be comforting for its evangelical audience – to assure them that they’re better and more correct than everybody else. And it’s annoying because you’ll not learn from that piece what Catholics actually believe – it’s meant to be a hit job, not something where you hear from Catholics in their own voice. I said this years back, when I was writing about a similar hit piece on The Shack, but if you actually read the work of Catholic authors, they often take Protestant criticisms into account – often even agreeing about certain risks or shortcomings in the structure of their faith. And yet they continue to be Catholic – which to me seems like the interesting part of the conversation. Why does that happen? What pushes them one way or the other?
Anyway, the Crosswalk problem is not something that we’re likely to escape from. A so-called ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ approach doesn’t offer any solutions. Our author today, Vladimir Lossky, wrote in the introduction to his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church that allegedly neutral ground in discussions of religion is really just “to refuse in advance to understand anything whatsoever about the object of study.” He continues: “There are fields in which what is commonly styled ‘objectivity’ is only indifference, and where indifference means incomprehension.” Lossky was a Russian Orthodox theologian in the 20th century – as mentioned, we’re looking at 20th century theologians in this phase of the blog, and 2022 is about the Orthodox church. Lossky’s Mystical Theology seemed a good place to start – especially with this particular comment. It’s important that we’re not pretending to any sort of objectivity or neutrality in all of this. As when we talked about the Catholics, we should just quickly note that I was raised in the Protestant tradition – so I’m not reading this as some neutral disinterested figure. I’m really just trying to understand what I can from within my context.
And that’s the way Lossky expects to be read. He writes that “it is essential, if one wishes to study the mystical theology of the Eastern Church, to choose between two possible standpoints. Either, to place oneself on western dogmatic ground and to examine the eastern tradition across that of the west – that is, by way of criticism – or else to present that tradition in the light of the dogmatic attitude of the Eastern Church.” There will be an element of criticism in all this – it’s not my tradition, sure. And yet I’m nervous about becoming like Crosswalk, right. Lossky says that the western view on eastern theology is necessarily critical, as it’s coming from a different starting place – it has its presuppositions, and they’re not the same as those of eastern theology, and therefore it can only point out where eastern theology ‘goes wrong’ – where it differs from the western perspective. I don’t like that idea. I don’t want to think it’s true – that we’re trapped in this solipsism, where all our encounters with the Other are really just reflections on ourselves. I’d like to believe that we can go further in our understanding.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is Lossky’s argument that dogma sits at the core of cultural change – specifically change within the church. He positions the split between eastern and western churches as fundamentally based in dogma. For context, one of the key differences between the two churches is about the ‘procession’ of the Holy Spirit – whether it ‘proceeds’ from the Father alone (the eastern perspective), or from both the Father and the Son (the western). I’ve never had this distinction explained to me in a compelling way, so I won’t tell you that it’s important, except as a historical fact of division between east and west. Lossky, however, sees it as the absolute heart of the issue: “From the religious point of view it [the procession of the Spirit] is the sole issue of importance in the chain of events which terminated in the separation. Conditioned, as it may well have been, by various factors, this dogmatic choice was – for the one party as for the other – a spiritual commitment, a conscious taking of sides in a matter of faith.” We’ve seen this attitude before – again with the Catholics – there’s a contentious question, especially in twentieth century theology, about the levers that underpin human behaviour. Are we driven by our sexual instincts, by economic systems – or is the primary driver our spiritual or dogmatic beliefs? Lossky clearly suggests the latter – the split between east and west, he says, was not driven by “political or social interests” or by “racial or cultural factors” – primarily, he believes that it was a conscious decision of faith.
And – you know, I don’t know if that’s true. Just for me personally, it does seem that cultural and historical factors are often more important than doctrine – especially something as woolly as the procession of the Holy Spirit. We can have some back and forth with Lossky about it – he argued, for instance, that “if we are often led to minimize the importance of the dogmatic question … this is by reason of a certain insensitivity to dogma – which is considered as something external and abstract. It is said that it is spirituality which matters. Yet spirituality and dogma, mysticism and theology, are inseparably linked in the life of the Church.” I’d accept that they’re linked, but – dogma as the sole issue of importance? Really?
Partly the stakes here are that if dogma isn’t at the base of human nature, then maybe we can have these conversations about dogma without being solipsistic – we can learn without being reduced to criticising difference. If cultural or social factors are more important – or even just part of the picture – that’s a way for us to speak to each other, to have community even in the midst of our difference. That’s really the driving impulse for me in all of this – it’s the desire for reconciliation, to believe that one day our separation will end. Even now, the things that connect us seem more important than the differences – maybe that’s why I can’t put much stock in dogma as the core of our divide. For his part, even though he obviously wouldn’t agree with all the steps of my argument, Lossky has a similar ecumenical impulse. He ends his introduction quoting the Protestant theologian Karl Barth: “the union of the churches is not made, but we discover it.” Here’s to a year of discovery, then.