Synaxis of the Twelve Holy Apostles
IN 1949, shortly before becoming dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, Fr. Georges Florovsky delivered the keynote address at the 23rd annual national Convention of the Federation of Russian Orthodox Clubs in Philadelphia, PA. The title of his address was “The Responsibility of the Orthodox in America.” It has been described by Andrew Blaine as a “charter for a responsible Christian witness in America, and the most fervent and explicit expression of his aspirations for St. Vladimir’s Academy.” Florovsky’s message was also a call to move past a nationalistic Orthodoxy. The Russian attendees had immigrated to America and were now living in America and making their homes and lives in America. They were not likely to return to Russia.
Florovsky insisted on the universality of God’s message: the Message of God is not Russian or American, but Eternal and Universal. He thus offered a strong rebuke for the “lazy” manner in which Orthodox immigrants dealt with what he described as a glorious legacy given to them by their forefathers. He then boldly proclaimed to this gathering of Russian immigrants:
It is, of course, a great treasure, but is it the proper way of showing our respect for the treasure to put it aside, to put it in a safe, as it were, to deposit it in a bank or to store it in a treasury like something very delicate, very fragile, which cannot be used and which must be preserved under glass or some other kind of cover?
He went on to insist that
Christianity is not a fragile thing. It is not a delicate thing which must be protected. Christianity is a weapon given to men to be used in a resolute fight against evil and for the sake of truth on earth. It is not a delicate thing to be set aside. It is the strongest thing in the world. Do not be afraid! Learn that this heritage of the past is the power of the present and the hope of the future.
Finally, he concluded:
Orthodoxy cannot be maintained simply by inertia. No tradition can survive unless it is continued through creative effort. The message of Christ is eternal and always the same, but it must be interpreted again and again so as to become a challenge to every new generation, to be a message which may appeal to man in his concrete situation. We have not simply to keep the legacy of the past, but must first realize what we have inherited and do everything we can to present it to others as a living thing.
The year before, in the fall of 1948, at a ceremony for the opening of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Florovsky made his first public call for a proposal he had been developing for more than a decade. Although he doesn’t make the same explicit call in this 1949 address to the Russian Club, the contours of what he called a “neo-patristic synthesis” can be clearly discerned. And it is this proposal, which has been so widely influential but so poorly understood in 20th century Orthodox theology, that we offer here in a clarified form as a response to what Charles Taylor has described as a secular age.
We begin in chapter one with a historical survey of the secularization thesis. Since the 1960s, sociologists have been debating the impact of modernization on religion. Until recently, the classical thesis has asserted that modernization brings social differentiation, societalization, and rationalization, which ultimately lead to a decline in religion. But this thesis has failed to capture the reality of our complex modern world in which religious fervor seems to be increasing daily throughout many parts of the world. Some leading sociologists, such as Peter Berger, who helped formulate the thesis, have been willing to acknowledge the lack of correspondence between the thesis and reality.
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Then came the 2007 publication of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Describing this monstrous work, John Milbank suggests that one way to encapsulate it “is to say that it answers the ‘secularization debate’ with a diagnosis of Western Christendom, a diagnosis that is at once historical and theological.” He goes on to make a remarkable assertion: “What we are offered is a kind of large fragment of theologized ecclesiastical history – almost a modern equivalent of Augustine’s or Bede’s efforts in this direction.” We don’t think such a comparison is an exaggeration. By no means claiming any prophetic abilities, we nevertheless believe Taylor’s work will be read 100 and even 500 years from now, alongside the likes of Augustine, Bede, and Eusebius.
Taylor is not only able to capture the sense of what it feels like to live in the twenty-first century, providing a sort of existential map, but he makes a compelling argument for the rise of what he calls secularism 3. Taylor acknowledges that something has in fact changed over the last five decades. So he seeks to give more nuance to the standard secularization thesis, which tends to focus on the retreat of religion from the public square (secularism 1) and the decline in religious belief and practice (secularism 2). Taylor’s secularism 3 focuses on experience, on what it is like to be a religious believer or an atheist in our contemporary Western world. With this emphasis on a shift in the conditions of belief, Taylor suggests that secularism 3 describes our condition in which we have moved from an age in which religious belief was so imbedded in society that it was almost impossible not to believe in God (c. 1500 AD) to an age in which the option to believe is only one among many other options (c. 2000 AD). Moreover, it tends to be a difficult option, due to what Taylor describes as “closed world structures” which present our world as obviously closed off to the transcendent, thereby insinuating that, in the face of an increasingly rational and scientific understanding of the world, those who do believe in anything beyond the immanent frame must be backwards thinking, immature and timid, and anti-rational and anti-scientific. This is the story we tell in chapters two and three, with an emphasis on the wide range of questions this shift poses to the Christian Church. Ultimately, we acknowledge that we do in fact live in a secular 3 age. However, that is not the question to explore. The key questions to examine for the Church are, on the one hand, how to remain faithful in a secular age and, on the other hand, how to bear witness to the divine in a secular age.
Part three is our response to these questions. We begin in chapter four with a survey of various returns to the ancient sources of the Christian Church, with an emphasis on a French Catholic movement in the 1930s-1950s known as Ressourcement. This movement was primarily provoked by the Catholic Church’s rigid response to modernism, particularly in the rise of neo-Thomism and its separation of nature and the supernatural. This separation was problematic because it rendered the natural realm autonomous, thereby endorsing modernity’s acceptance of the autonomy of the secular in the natural realm. This also created a division between the realms of public life and theology / spirituality. It was this division that Ressourcement theologians sought to overcome through a return to the primary sources of the ancient Church. But Ressourcement also helped launch a revival in patristic scholarship, which has in turn provoked many other movements of return throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, even among Protestant scholars.
Just as the French Catholics responded to what they perceived as increasing secularization of society with a return to the sources, more than 150 years earlier Athonite and Russian monks responded similarly as a response to some of the seeds of that secularization in the Enlightenment era. This movement, which we present in chapter five, culminated in the late eighteenth-century publication of the Philokalia, a collection of ascetic texts (4th to the 14th centuries), which must be seen as the background for the patristic revival that will come to flourish among Orthodox in the twentieth century. Indeed, just as Brad Gregory has recently argued that the Reformation era constitutes a “critical watershed” (not unlike Taylor’s argument), Fr. Andrew Louth has argued that the publication of the Philokalia is also a watershed moment for the Orthodox Church. The climax of this movement, we argue, is Fr. Georges Florovsky’s call for a neo-patristic synthesis, a creative return to the Fathers of the Church. The remainder of chapter five introduces this expression, critiques the common complaint that Florovsky never clarified his proposal, and then examines the history of the appearance of this expression in Florovsky’s writings to begin a process of clarification.
We disagree with those who lament an imprecise proposal. Through a deep reading of Florovsky’s large corpus of writings, of which much is unfortunately not easily accessible, in chapter six we present eight characteristics of Florovsky’s neopatristic synthesis: Christological, Scriptural, Historical, Theological, Rational, Philosophical, Ascetico-Philokalical, and Ecclesio-Liturgical. In the concluding chapter we add two further dimensions, which are integral to the answer to our key question posed (how to remain faithful in a secular age while bearing witness to the divine in a secular age): a Patristic and Ecumenical Encounter and a New Theological Mission. Instead of saying anything more about this vitally important proposal, which we believe needs to be clarified and implemented in our secular age, we end here with two opening statements to introduce the concept. The first passage comes from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a living Orthodox theologian who we think has faithfully followed Florovsky’s neo-patristic synthesis:
In a key statement, Florovsky affirmed: ‘To follow’ the Fathers does not mean just ‘to quote’ them. ‘To follow’ the Fathers means to acquire their ‘mind,’ their phronema.’ Even if Florovsky was somewhat vague concerning what exactly this common ‘mind’ of the Fathers contains and how it is to be discerned, yet his basic meaning is clear: what matters is not simply the exact words of the Fathers, but their vision, their primary intention and their existential attitude. We are to advance beyond the letter of the patristic writings to their inner spirit. It is not enough to produce word for word what the Fathers said in the fourth or fifth century. We are to ask what they would be saying if they were alive today. Meyendorff took the same view as Florovsky: ‘Simply to repeat what the Fathers said is to be unfaithful to their spirit’; it is not enough to use ‘yesterday’s arguments to confront new heresies.’ We are to treat the Fathers as living masters, as partners in a continuing dialogue. What the Fathers provide is not fixed and irrevocable solutions but essentially a way, a path of ongoing exploration. The Patristic heritage must be re-thought in each new generation.
The second passage comes from Florovsky’s preface to his book Ways of Russian Theology, published twelve years before he first publicly used the actual expression “neo-patristic synthesis” and yet it clearly indicates the contours of his proposal:
Studying the Russian past led me to the conviction and strengthened me in it that in our day the Orthodox theologian can only find for himself the true measure and living source of creative inspiration in patristic tradition. I am convinced the intellectual break from patristics and Byzantinism was the chief cause for all the interruptions and failures on Russia’s development. The history of these failures is told in this book. All the genuine achievements of Russian theology were always linked with a creative return to patristic sources. That this narrow path of patristic theology is the sole true way is revealed with particular clarity in historical perspective. Yet the return to the fathers must not be solely intellectual or historical, it must be a return in spirit and in prayer, a living and creative self-restoration to the fullness of the Church in the entirety of sacred tradition. We are granted to live in an age of theological awakening bespoken throughout the divided Christian world. It is time to reexamine and recall with great attention all the sometimes cruel, sometimes inspired lessons and testaments of the past. But a genuine awakening can only begin when not only the answers but the questions are heard in the past and in the future. The inexhaustible power of patristic tradition in theology is defined still more by the fact that theology was a matter of life for the holy fathers, a spiritual quest (podvig), a confession of faith, a creative resolution of living tasks. The ancient books were always inspired with this creative spirit. Healthy theological sensitivity, without which the sought-for Orthodox awakening will not come, can only be restored in our ecclesiastical society through a return to the fathers. In our day theological confessionalism acquires special importance among the Church’s labors as the inclusion of the mind and will within the Church, as a living entry of truth into the mind. Vos exemplaria graeca nocturna versate diurnal [shortened phrase from Horace’s Ars Poetica: “Make Greece your model / And ponder her day and night”]. Orthodoxy is once again revealed in patristic exegesis as a conquering power, as the power giving rebirth and affirmation to life, not only as a way station for tired and disillusioned souls; not only as the end but as the beginning, the beginning of a quest and creativity, a ‘new creature.’
Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.