July 18, 2015

Orthodoxy and the World Today: An Interview With Fr. Nikolaos Loudovikos

The following interview with Protopresbyter Fr. Nikolaos Loudovikos, Professor of Dogmatics and Philosophy at the University Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki, took place in 2007.

Apostolos Diamantis: How did you, a graduate of psychology, turn to theology?

Nikolaos Loudovikos: I come from psychology, I studied psychology. Then, through monks from Mount Athos, I moved on to Orthodox theology. And I immediately read the Greek Fathers. In my work I stand critically against existentialism, which has been adopted by some Greek theologians, which has its roots in Augustine and Plotinus. Namely that the soul is celestial and the body earthly. And so they talk about nature as if it is something we must emerge from. This division does not exist in the Greek Fathers, for whom the soul is a "thinly bodied spirit".

A.D.: These are certainly difficult things to follow for an ordinary person.

N.L.: Not at all. Ordinary people experience them empirically, by their participation in ecclesiastical life. It becomes tradition. The problem is with the schematic thinking of the "educated", those of the right and the left and the centrists. The cliches of the left are three categories: Middle Ages = Disaster, Enlightenment = Resurrection, Church = Christodoulos, namely an open tomb. Those on the right identify the entire Orthodox tradition with whatever is prevailing in the Church. A good relationship had with all of these is the monastic tradition and ordinary people, who have "kept the steps of a lost dance", as Dionysios Savvopoulos once said.

A.D.: What exactly is known to ordinary people?

N.L.: They know from their grandfathers and grandmothers. Some things are simple, other things are profound. My grandmother from Portaria, an almost illiterate woman, who could barely read, would hold me in her lap and tell me: "Look, God is love, and he keeps you in His arms as I do now." God is not a punisher. He wants to make your life beautiful. And when I was young and rebelled, and my father would yell and ask where I was hanging out late at night, my grandmother held open her embrace. These things, of course, which ordinary people have must turn into words, to contemplate, in order to influence things, for culture to be fixed.

A.D.: If this does not happen? If it is only left as a tradition?

N.L.: Then we will have the problem we had in Greece when we built the state in 1830. The head leader was brought from the West. There was a wall between the state and the people. It was a great existential difference. Koumanoudis, Saripolos and Rhoides didn't understand at all what was going on with the people. Take Konstantinos Tsatsos. Have you read his autobiography Accountability of a Life? There you will see that Tsatsos was raised by a French governess, a German woman. As a child, he didn't understand exactly where he was; he lived between Trieste, Paris and London. He commanded these places he didn't understand at all. Only at the end of his life did Seferis show him Greece: "Look here," he said, "look there." Tsatsos was bewildered. This surprise is clearly seen in his book; and now, just before the end of his life, he began to understand. But he still died a Neo-Kantian.

A.D.: How did Seferis understand?

N.L.: Here is another story. It was the same with Elytis. They sank into their land like a sponge, and they took in all the sensations of Greece, even if they didn't understand completely with their minds what they were saying, but they said it. I have friends who are Europeans, Orthodox, and they tell me: "Read Elytis. Everything is full of light. He is the words of our being." For us Greeks, God is so transcendent, that He simultaneously becomes of the world.

A.D.: Is there a difference between the West and the Greek Orthodox tradition on the problem of the fall, on the problem of evil?

N.L.: Augustine, to fight the Pelagians, who gave a scandalous freedom to man - saying that man can do just about whatever he wants and he is uniquely responsible - said that things were not so: man has suffered a fall. And this darkening, to Augustine, is very important, because it is in the nature of man. This is a fundamental difference between East and West concerning the nature of evil. In Maximus the Confessor, however, in the Greek Fathers, we see that the fall of nature is without category. Our nature is not at fault. We fall as persons. Nature enters the path we put it on, personally.

A.D.: So in the matter of morals, the Greek Orthodox are more tolerant than the West?

N.L.: The Greek Fathers were not moralists. They do not speak against sex, for example. My choosing is responsible - we should no longer blame nature. The mind and the body are from God. Do not touch them, say our Fathers, because a person has the freedom as to what path to choose. Augustine did not understand this. As a former Manichean dualist, he thought that although the body is a creation of God, it fell and has an evil nature, and therefore it inherited the guilt that was transferred. But for the Greeks, evil is a matter of choice, a choosing of the person and not of nature. This is why Rousseau speaks of the good nature of man and De Sade about the evil nature: it is out of reaction, especially to Calvinistic morals. In the Western tradition nature is implicated. Take sex for example, which is steeped in guilt. Everything is implicated. To us, however, there are no such issues.

See what a battle Gregory Palamas underwent so that we do not lose the powers of the soul and the body: be careful, he says, because all these things are fashioned by God! Let us not lose our passions, but rather transform them. Yes. Because "there is no evil in nature, nothing wasted." Everything is sanctified through thanksgiving. No matter what it is.

A.D.: Yes, but non-ecclesiastical organizations give a different image from yours: the Church is catechetical, unbearably moralizing, there are strict instructions to the faithful. And there is no tolerance towards what is different.

N.L.: Correct. But these things have no relationship with the Orthodox tradition. They are Western influences, directly from the logic of Anselm into our Church. For example, the book Repentance by the director of "Zoe", Seraphim Papakostas, has been distributed in the hundreds of thousands and is inside every Greek home. It is 100% Anselm: God, who punishes the sinful human race, even his Son, is incarnated with the purpose of being punished! Well, my poor grandmother read this thing and lost it. She was a woman who only knew love, who would light her oil lamp, and saw God only as love. And I told her one time not to deal with it - "these things are not ours" I told her.

A.D.: Are Westerners purely juridical, having a legalistic approach to the divine?

N.L.: Absolutely. Anselm says: why was there an incarnation? That the Son of God may be punished in the place of man. Gregory the Theologian says: the incarnation took place for the sanctification of man by God becoming man. Exactly the opposite. And the Theologian goes on to say: the only thing God wants is to stop corruption.

Now go and try to build a legalistic position on what the Greek Fathers said! It is impossible to even to attempt to do so. This is why many French fellow students told me about us Greeks, astonished: "Vous êtes anarchistes" ("You are anarchists").

A.D.: This is true. We only have free-will.

N.L.: In the West they have penalties, or penances. Here if you say you killed someone, you go to the priest, who asks you: "Did you kill? One month you will not eat meat, then we will discuss it." We Greeks have put oikonomia in the place of condemnation: weighing things according to circumstances, not strictly by impersonal laws. Ahrweiler says nicely about Byzantium, that oikonomia dominated in the public and private life of Byzantium: you see the other persons heart, their suffering, their soul, and you open to them a path.

A.D.: Yes, but the Greek Church has done excommunications.

N.L.: These things are rare phenomena. Trivial and on a small scale. Even if they were done, they are not in line with our tradition. If you observed in France only a few years ago, they abolished censorship in the publication of theological books. With us there is no such thing.

A.D.: The current leadership of the Greek Church, is it not somewhat directed towards an organizational form? Under Seraphim it seemed more traditional. Today there is much talk and strong interventions. Even politically.

N.L.: The role as national leader of the Archbishop even appears in how he dresses, which after the 16th century includes the medallion and the mitre. These are secular symbols of power. Imperial. For those years under Turkish rule it was necessary: the bishop had a national role. However, this is not the case today. Because this affects somewhat the eschatological character of the Church.

A.D.: The historic considerations in Greece of the national role of the Church has disappeared.

N.L.: In that sense, clearly they have disappeared.

A.D.: Think a little about Makarios, or the bishops of the Macedonian struggle.

N.L.: These are exceptions. They are not in the Canon Law of the Church and there is absolutely no basis for the national role in the Church. It is one thing to have the Church's views on social and political issues. This is natural. Politics also have a spiritual dimension. And if the Church intervenes to remind us of this, it is welcome, provided that it does not become a party or a faction and it influences elections! If it has a national role on the spiritual level, then yes. But for those who say the Church has no right to speak on political issues, they are speaking on behalf of the devil.

A.D.: Should the Church have reacted on the issue of the identity cards?

N.L.: The issue is somewhat complicated. Let me remind you of our tradition: the Byzantine state was an existential state. It was not the institutional Western state with a macro-historical purpose. The Byzantine state was a state of micro-historical relationships; the Western state is a state of introvert individuals who are united for a common goal, let us say democracy, prosperity, sovereignty. This comes from the theology of Augustine, for whom the essence and will of God are identical. The God of the West must prove He is God, by manifesting His will; He is forced to make this world because He is Almighty. To show that He is sovereign. From this stems the institutional state, because we cooperate for an external purpose. To the Greek Fathers, however, there is a distinction between the essence and will of God. God has no need to prove anything.

A.D.: In the Greek Orthodox tradition, in Byzantium, why are we cooperative?

N.L.: We don't know why. Community is the purpose. Many have goals, that unite when the community decides where it will go. There isn't an external purpose. This is the existential Byzantine state, where relationships have more importance than goals. And today this is the case with us: when a friend comes over, we leave off everything else and sit down to talk. For a Westerner this is incomprehensible. They will say it is impossible to do this. Work must be done. Therefore, the Orthodox put community above the law. In the West we have an introjection of the law. The English or French have incorporated the law: try and convince an Englishman to evade taxes! You will never achieve it.

A.D.: And how is this related to the topic of the identity cards?

N.L.: It is related. Because as I said, in our tradition community comes before the law. Relationships can thus, despite the decisions of the state, want the religion of the people to appear on identity cards, because this is how societal relationships are recognized. They do not see it as a legal issue. Its another thing if the reactions of the Church are excessive. Here we should discuss things. Perhaps they might want the Church to handle the matter another way.

Source: Published in the magazine ΑΝΤΙ on January 13, 2007. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.