Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present Day
by andrew louth
intervarsity, 383 pages, $28
When I saw Fr. Andrew Louth a couple of years ago and asked him what he was doing, he said he was writing some “little books.” Now that we have one of those books, we can see how modest was his reply. Modern Orthodox Thinkers is a tour of more than a hundred years of Eastern Orthodox thought presented in the form of “ways” or excurses through the history of ideas. The genre goes back to Fr. Georges Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology, a retrospective of Russian theology with the focus on Western influences. Another noteworthy example is Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, by Christos Yannaras, which explores the “ways” of Greek theology in the modern era, but includes a polemic against supposed Western deviations, or “pseudomorphoses.”
Like his predecessors, Louth emphasizes East–West relations, but his approach is different. Whereas Florovsky and Yannaras defend the Eastern identity of Orthodox theology against an alleged “Western captivity,” Louth is not interested in distilling a pure Eastern tradition. Instead, he sees genuine Orthodox theology as open to dialogue with the West while still having its distinctive marks. Louth is also kinder to his authors than Fr. Florovsky and Yannaras were. He writes about them with greater sympathy, perhaps because he knew some of them personally.
Where Florovsky focused on Russia and Yannaras on Greece, Louth ranges widely, covering Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Greek, French, and English thinkers. He details the axis between Paris and New York—the cities that hosted the best Orthodox theological minds in the twentieth century. St. Sergius Institute in Paris and St. Vladimir’s seminary in New York became hubs for the progressive trends, such as eucharistic ecclesiology and personalism. Louth includes in his survey some great thinkers of the late Soviet era, too, such as Fr. Alexander Men, Dmitry Likhachev, Aleksei Losev, and Sergei Averintsev. These authors faced a difficult task of witnessing about their faith in the Orwellian newspeak of Soviet totalitarianism.
Louth devotes particular attention to the Philokalic movement, which began in the eighteenth century at Mount Athos in Greece. It produced a compilation of ascetic writings titled Philokalia. This book was translated into many languages and triggered spiritual revival in several Orthodox countries. It exercised a profound impact on modern theological developments. Louth is warmly appreciative in his description of the origins of the Philokalic movement, and rightly so. One wishes, however, that he had added some criticism to his description. Some of its leaders, such as St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite and St. Makarios Notaras, were as open and creative as Louth suggests. Others like St. Athanasios of Paros were blinkered promoters of the idea of an isolated and self-sufficient Greek East, something later taken up by Florovsky and Yannaras to bad effect.
Like Mother Thekla (born Marina Sharf), the Russian who became an abbess of a tiny community near Whitby in England and attempted to bring Orthodoxy into English thought through readings of Shakespeare, Keats, and George Herbert, Louth uses English poetry to explicate Orthodox theology. He draws parallels between Alexei Khomiakov, the founder of Orthodox ecclesiology, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; between Vladimir Solov’ev, the founder of Russian religious philosophy, and William Blake; between George Florovsky, who married patristics with modern ideological discourses, and T. S. Eliot; and between Vladimir Lossky, a connoisseur of the Western mysticism who developed a popular system of Orthodox dogmatic theology, and John Keats.
Louth’s analysis of the “neo-patristic synthesis” and “neo-Palamism” is of particular value. The effort to explain and critique modernity on the basis of the theology of the Church Fathers was propounded by Fr. Florovsky at the theological congress in Athens in 1936. A milestone event, where “neo-Palamism” was promoted, was another theological congress, also in Athens, in 1998. It sought to redefine modern Orthodox identity on the basis of the figure and theology of St. Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessaloniki in the fourteenth century. The distinction Louth makes between these two efforts is original. He argues that “neo-Palamism” continues the “neo-patristic synthesis” and constitutes an Orthodox response to neo-Thomism.
In propounding the “neo-patristic” synthesis, however, Florovsky showed his continuing attraction to the chauvinistic ideology of Eurasianism. He had been one of the early proponents of this idea, which presents Russia as a self-sufficient civilization that should stay away from the West. Though he would later denounce it, elements of this idea could still be seen in his almost paranoid obsession with Western influences in Orthodox theology.
Neo-Palamism is even more anti-Western. Palamas argued against his contemporary Western theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, and the neo-Palamists repurposed his argument as a polemic against the West. (They are especially outspoken in their contempt for Augustine.) Louth, however, seems to be fond of the bishop of Hippo. To be Orthodox does not mean to be against Augustine, he insists. But all this is presented in an irenic fashion. Louth does not prosecute cases against the chauvinist excesses and cultural captivity of the figures he admires.
At times, Louth is personal and even autobiographical. He describes the people whom he knew, and he discusses his interactions with the ideas of people he did not meet. I was surprised to learn that Vladimir Lossky’s book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church was formative for Louth. Its Russian translation was a turning point for many young people in the early 1990s, myself included.
Modern Orthodox Thinkers should inspire another generation of scholars. It is a great and entertaining story narrated by someone who is equal to those whom he talks about. Because it is free from the polemics that characterize the similar works of Fr. Georges Florovsky and Christos Yannaras, it is the best summary of modern Orthodox theology that we have—even if it is something less than a synthesis of the kind that the sharper-elbowed figures he surveys often provided.
Cyril Hovorun is a senior lecturer at Sankt Ignatios Academy/Stockholm School of Theology in Sweden and a teaching fellow in theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.