June 19, 2010

Georges Vasilievich Florovsky: Philosopher of the Orthodox World (6 of 8)

Continued from Part Five

The culminating ecumenical event for Fr. Florovsky was the Second Assembly of the WCC in Evanston, Illinois, in August 15–31, 1954. The relatively small group of thirty Orthodox delegates played a key role in this Assembly. The theme was: “To stay together is not enough; we must go forward.” To do this the Orthodox witness stood out in stark contrast to other prevailing opinions. Again Florovsky spoke for Orthodox Christianity: “No Christian can ignore the fact of Christian division... the greatest achievement of the modern Ecumenical Movement is in the courage to acknowledge that there is a major disagreement. The very sting of the Christian tragedy is in the fact that, in the concrete setting of history, many divisions have been imposed, as it were, precisely by the loyalty to Christ and by sincere zeal for true faith.” Florovsky went on, again, to urge the Assembly that the distant goal of visible unity could be reached through a conscious practice by the churches of “ecumenism in time.” This, of course, as noted, meant a critical analysis of any false hopes based upon the here and now of our troubled and distorted world. A true basis for human hope must be an eschatological hope, an ultimate hope that will be sought in the Church of God — the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the New Testament and the Creed of the early undivided Church — serving as the pillar and ground of truth. The Orthodox declaration was forthright: “The return of the communions to the faith of the ancient, united, and indivisible Church of the seven Ecumenical Councils shall alone produce the desired reunion of all separated Christians.” Such stern statements by the Orthodox made it clear that the way ahead was indeed long and hard. As a sign that the ecumenical community intended at least to consider with seriousness the approach to unity being proposed by the Orthodox, the Central Committee of the WCC endorsed the initiative of Florovsky and others to take up the study of “Tradition and Traditions,” a theme that is addressed so richly and fully in so many of Florovky’s extensive corpus of writings.

Once again Georges Florovsky emerged, this time from Evanston, as a truly international religious figure. He stood at the peak of his public career. Although judged by some to be controversial, he was universally recognized as a major twentieth-century theologian and the most profound thinker and articulate spokesman for the Orthodox Church at that time.

When in the Fall of 1954, Fr. Florovsky was asked by the episcopal Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in America to lay down the deanship of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for reasons of inner policy and administration, Archbishop Michael, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, a close friend of Florovsky from their earlier meetings in London, invited him to be Professor of Patristics and Dogmatic Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. Shortly after that appointment, Florovsky was also appointed Lecturer in Eastern Church History at the Harvard University Divinity School. In addition to these new appointments, Florovsky continued for another year to teach a lecture course at Columbia University and a seminar course at Union Theological School as a commuting professor. The Florovskys moved to Cambridge in the Summer of 1956. In time Florovsky’s teaching at Harvard was extended to the Slavic Department of the University, where his broad knowledge of Russian intellectual history and literature was shared with his many graduate students.

During his years in New England, Florovsky, as always before, carried a heavy academic course load of teaching, but he also extended himself in a pastoral way to all the Orthodox of the area, especially the youth. His intense involvement with the Ecumenical Movement also remained unabated. As a member of the Central Committee of the WCC, the Executive Committee, and the Commission on Faith and Order, he continued to travel, to attend meetings, and to be engaged in encounters and dialogues dealing with fundamental theological issues, which were always at the forefront of his interests, and which would in time invariably appear in some written form.

Florovsky observed with regret that after Evanston the WCC began gradually to shift from concern for the state of the Church to a concern for the state of the world and its manifold social problems. He, of course, believed that the primary purpose of the Ecumenical Movement was the rapprochement among the churches and the restoration of Christian unity. Consequently, he found this shift of interest and focus from overcoming the divisions within Christendom to resolving the material and social problems of the modern world very troubling. While completely acknowledging the urgency of these problems and the global need for their resolution, Florovsky believed that the WCC itself could not produce any distinctively Christian statement on social issues that would bring about the essential Christian unity that was missing from Christendom. While the humanistic social work undertaken by the WCC is certainly praiseworthy in itself, Florovsky argued that it is not really ecumenical in the strict sense because it does not contribute to the essential restoration of Christian unity.

From his particular theological perspective Florovsky considered Amsterdam in 1948 and Evanston in 1954 to be “ecumenical events,” while New Delhi in 1961 and Uppsala in 1968 were not ecumenical events because they had forgotten about the Church. While the New Delhi Assembly in 1961 marked the point when the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe joined the WCC, and the Orthodox could now voice their theological and historical concerns with sufficient numbers, the shift toward social issues had already taken place. As a veteran delegate to Uppsala, Florovsky was impressed by the spiritual dynamism of the newly founded churches of the African states, but was disappointed by the virtual avoidance of the fundamental theological issues that had been the primary preoccupation throughout his life. In fact, he observed, the interest of the leadership had shifted to social problems to such an extent that the Assembly of Uppsala had no distinctive religious or Christian character.

Decisions were now being made in the WCC by men who were disinterested in dogma and theological definitions, and who were not deeply informed about the history of the Church, her Tradition and Christian culture. Those who were so informed and who would bring in difficulties by raising problems of history and theology would be edged out to the side. The interest had definitely shifted by the time of the New Delhi Assembly and the churches were now trying to find what they have in common and forgetting the “rest.” They did not realize that “the rest” is exactly what comprises the individuality of the traditions and denominations. To forget these for the sake of unity is to achieve a superficial, an unreal, and certainly not a lasting unity. The new leaders of the WCC were no longer interested in doctrines and dogmas and could not understand that these theological truths have an existential dimension. Instead of theology and doctrine guiding their actions, they preferred the humanitarian schemes and the practical actions of social accomplishment to improve the state of the world, but not necessarily the actual state of the Church. The spirit of secularism had penetrated into the Ecumenical Movement as well.

Continued...Part Seven