June 10, 2010

Georges Vasilievich Florovsky: Philosopher of the Orthodox World (4 of 8)

Continued from Part Three

Soon after the Congress in Athens, Fr. Florovky’s magnum opus was published in Russian: Puti russkago bogoslaviia, and only recently published in English as Ways of Russian Theology.9 In this book Florovsky has presented a brilliant historical and theological analysis of Russian theology as it went through a long process of successive westernization that gradually brought about a schism in the Russian soul. Florovsky traces this process as having its beginning in the fifteenth century, well before the formal westernization policy of Peter the Great was put into effect in the eighteenth century. By the end of the fifteenth century, many in the Russian lands began to perceive the West as something more real than the destroyed and conquered Byzantium. Consequently it was understandable for Russia to begin developing and strengthening her links with the West. The Latin world itself drew nearer to Russia, through central Europe, Ukraine and Poland, while the world of Christian Hellenism seemed in time more and more remote and virtually forgotten after the deep inroads of militant Islam into the Balkans. As an original and creative thinker, Florovsky struggled with this historical problem: Russia had taken over Eastern Christianity and the whole of Byzantine culture, and yet Orthodox Christianity there had failed to develop naturally and creatively on the basis of her Orthodox presuppositions. Russia somehow opted rather to accept more or less uncritically the influences of the West, and therefore to be successively misled and distorted first by Latin scholasticism and later by Protestant pietism and idealism.

Ways of Russian Theology, expectedly, proved to be very controversial among the émigré community of Paris. Reactions were polarized between those who praised the book and those who damned it. Florovsky had made quite clear where his sympathies lay, and there was no middle ground. Obviously the book contained a stern and uncompromising critique of Russia’s religious past, and this cut all too deeply into the prevailing atmosphere of exultant religious nationalism in the circles of Russian emigration. Nor was the book to the taste of the liberal and socialist émigré press. Nevertheless, even the scorching criticism of a Nicholas Berdiaev could not conceal the enormous erudition, the broad and extensive scholarship of Florovsky’s magnum opus.

Even though Florovsky enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship with Nicholas Berdiaev, especially through the discussion groups founded and headed by Berdiaev himself, which provided Florovsky his initial ecumenical experiences, their friendship gradually became strained and alienated. Unable to shed the notion of his radical intelligentsia days that all priests were obscurantists and reactionaries, Berdiaev first reacted very negatively to Florovsky’s ordination to the priesthood in 1932. Then the publication of Ways of Russian Theology, with its severe assessment of the twentieth-century Russian religious renaissance in which Berdiaev had played a leading role, added to the rift. While Berdiaev remained in Paris promoting the resurgence of Orthodox religious philosophy, Florovsky was now spending much more time in England trying to build bridges between the Orthodox and the Anglicans. Moreover, when Berdiaev was increasingly drawn toward an intellectual accommodation with Soviet Russia, Florovsky was mainly occupied with the Ecumenical Movement and the creation of the World Council of Churches, which became his major concern in the years ahead. While the friendship between these two intellectual giants was strained and distant through all of these developments, it was never really broken. Looking back, Florovsky remembered fondly the early years with Berdiaev, but steadfastly insisted that his religious philosophy was at times outrageously off the mark.

At the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute there had developed what became known in Orthodox circles as “Parisian Theology.” There were two different types of theological approach. One type had its roots in the tradition of Russian religious and philosophical thought of the nineteenth century, and was itself an offspring of the Western tradition, especially German Idealism. This was referred to as the Russian school, whose representatives, regardless of any mutual disagreements, attributed primary importance to the problems and ideas of contemporary religious thinking. Chief representative of this group was Bulgakov. On the opposite side, standing virtually alone, was Florovsky, who had chosen the sacred Tradition of the Church as the cornerstone for the Orthodox theological revival. He, as noted above, called for a return to the Fathers of the Church, to the sacred Hellenism which had been baptized and purified as an eternal and perennial category of historical Christian Orthodoxy. In other words, Florovsky called for a reevaluation of the Russian achievement in the light of the inheritance of Christian Hellenism, rather than an attempt to reevaluate the ancient Tradition of the undivided Church in the light of the modern Russian experience.

Consequently a bitter theological controversy arose over the so-called Sophiological teaching of Father Sergius Bulgakov, the dean of St. Sergius Institute, and Florovsky. This experience was perhaps the most painful of Florovsky’s public life, especially in view of the mutual respect and affection the two men enjoyed ever since they met in Prague in 1923. In relating his understanding of this controversy, Florovsky would emphasize how men like Bulgakov, Berdiaev, and others belonged to the generation responsible for the religious renaissance of the twentieth century, and their personal story involved a return to the rank of believers by way of rediscovering the Church. “They could never forget this renaissance, for them it was basic and decisive. Whereas for me this had no meaning, for I never knew a period when I was dissatisfied with the Church as the foundation and pillar of truth. For me Christian truth had always been in the Church.”10 Bulgakov and others were interested in perpetuating and expanding the Russian religious renaissance of the twentieth century. Florovsky on the other hand could not see himself beginning with a recent event which had no existential meaning for him and which was merely an accident in the long history of the Christian Church. In the end, it was Florovsky who was fully vindicated in his theological approach and whose influence became the abiding legacy in modern Orthodox theology.

The Church and the Churches

Florovsky’s first big ecumenical meeting was in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August of 1937, when the Second Conference of Faith and Order met to discuss “The Church of Christ: Ministry and Sacrament.” As chairman on the section on Ministry, Florovsky worked diligently with many other prominent members of the conference. On the subject of ministry in particular, being the most thorny of all the subjects discussed, there was no agreement reached by the participants. When an apparent verbal agreement between the Lutherans and the Presbyterians emerged on the doctrine of Grace, Florovsky bluntly pointed out that there cannot be any real agreement on doctrinal matters as long as Lutheranism and Calvinism continue to exist as such. In fact, he insisted, it is important and necessary to disclose openly the real divergences among Christians and to acknowledge differences in thought that seem irreconcilable. He believed that this was the only proper way to advance genuine ecumenical dialogue. From Edinburgh on, this bold drawing attention to the real depths of the problem of the separation of the Churches from the Church would become the Florovskian hallmark at ecumenical encounters. From his earliest involvement in the Ecumenical Movement, Florovsky challenged theologians and ecumenists alike “to get beyond the modern theological disputes, to recover the true ‘catholic mind,’ which would embrace the whole of the historical experience of the Church in its pilgrimage through the ages.” He had no illusions regarding the present situation of Christendom. Even though unity and the union of people in Christ is the very purpose of the Church, “yet, Christians are divided, Christendom is divided. The Christian world is in schism.” The first step in overcoming this absolute schism is to acknowledge it courageously and then to work arduously toward a creative recovery of the catholic mind of the early undivided Church.

One of the significant outcomes of the Edinburgh Conference was the consideration and approval of an earlier recommendation to review the whole Ecumenical Movement and to form a World Council of Churches. Fourteen leading persons were appointed to plan for a constitution of the new body, and Florovsky was one of them—charged with the responsibility of organizing the World Council of Churches. With his election to the Committee of Fourteen, Florovsky had come to the pinnacle of the Ecumenical Movement, a place he would retain for the next twenty-five years, working indefatigably to promote and achieve essential Christian unity.

Continued...Part Five