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The Disintegration of Western Theology

January 17, 2011 Length: 15:01

A recent discussion with a friend causes Fr. Gabriel to reflect on the pervasiveness of Western thought.

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I had a conversation with a friend just today in which he mentioned about the fact that so many people who came from more or less marginal or radical backgrounds were, in his understanding, seeking out Orthodoxy. He mentioned specifically—and this is not the latest wave—punk rockers back in the day of his youth—he’s considerably younger than I am—who were seeking out the Orthodox Church.

He said, “It’s because they wanted the whole thing. They wanted monks. They wanted icons. They wanted the fullness of liturgy and theology.” And I thought, “He’s on to something here!” And at the same time, into my mind crept a thought: “How hard it is to leave the West. How hard it is it leave the West.”

The reason for that is [that] all of our ways of thinking are enmeshed in a system that presupposes this self as individual, autonomous, over against a world, either imagined or real, and we tend to think in the West that this self projects this world and reflects upon it, but at no time is our autonomy ever challenged. It strikes me that this is the pattern of religion in the West for many, many hundreds of years at this point.

Ever since the time of the Reformation, thinking about faith has been interiorized to the point where it’s become almost indistinguishable from a kind of psychology of the soul. Even though most intricate theological patterns seem to be really just constructions of a thinking self, and on reflection and certainly since the time of Emmanuel Kant, the great founder the so-called Enlightenment in the West, this has meant a psychologizing of faith, an interiorizing that gnaws away at all of the proposals of revelation.

Coming out of Lutheranism as I did, I began to understand that the stop-gap efforts to salvage the whole enterprise came about with the rise of what was called pietism, with its attendant and somewhat more stringent companion, Puritanism. These were sort of heroic actions that were fought on the front lines of the development of Protestantism back in the 16th and 17th [centuries]. They’re heroic actions, but they are still locked inside the conscious, thinking self.

Jaroslav Pelikan, who himself turned [to] Orthodoxy in the last decade of his life, showed so many years ago the Western sequence went from scholasticism to rationalism to pietism and then where? You see, the next logical step then seemed to be the nihilism that we inherited from Friedrich Nietzsche at the conclusion of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. All of the thinking along these lines—rationalism, scholasticism, pietism—exhibits a kind of bravado that can crash down into nothingness at any moment. And what happens in the long run, it seems to me, is that the alternatives wind up as being either atheism or theism. Some kind of a compromise situation, if you will.

Western theology began with scholasticism on a positive and high note, but because it began to drum out the whole idea of mystery, all the blanks wound up being filled in. There was no space left. The negative approach to theology, called in the Orthodox Church the apophatic approach, was suspect because the reasoning faculty was dethroned. The emptiness is filled by contemplation on revelation in this case, but that didn’t really happen. Even Luther said that the proper use of reason is the contemplation of God’s revelation, but it didn’t quite come off that way for the long haul in the West.

I want to turn to a different way of attack on this one. On a purely local level, Orthodoxy just cannot fit into a recognizable niche, and perhaps that’s one of the other reasons why on the edges or margins of society, the punk rockers, find in it such succor and comfort, because it does appeal to those who don’t want to be identified with mainstream culture. Baptists and similar rationalist Protestants stand on one side. Roman Catholics stand on the other side. We don’t have any brand recognition in Orthodoxy, and yet people continue to search us out, because that Western approach to theology simply wound up in a dead end.

You do proceed from scholasticism to rationalism to pietism and then eventually you wind up in nothingness. Look at the thousands and millions of people who have walked away from once well-structured approaches to Christian theology in Protestantism, who have simply drifted off into nothingness. I tend to think it’s because one wakes up one day and says, “You know, I’m really fooling myself about this stuff. I’m just making it up as I go along. I’m inventing this theology. It’s just a projection of my own mind.” So what’s missing? Sacramental realism? Spirituality? A community that’s truly oriented toward holiness, that has models of holiness available for people to look at, to emulate, to find their own pattern for being with?

Holiness. Is holiness possible? Not according to most of the Western models. This same conversation yielded up more information about the background of this comment, and it had to do with the shriveling of any kind of approach to holiness that’s grounded in customs, gestures, traditions. All of the rest of this stuff has been thrown out in much of the Western tradition. And this person in conversation with me said, “You know, I think Orthodoxy probably has maintained the traditions of the Faith as well as anybody possibly could under the circumstances of this great melting-pot we call America.” Maybe so. I’m not so sure about that one myself, but I certainly appreciate the comment and I hope that it’s true.

I think that the emphasis in Orthodoxy on mystery, on the acceptance of the mystery of God, really must appeal to large numbers of people who have simply worn out trying to think their way into a theological position. So what’s left? I don’t know. All proofs of the existence of God are external and are thus doomed to failure. The proof of God’s existence is most likely a changed life, and the location of God’s existence is always in the human heart.

There’s really no longer an issue of existence. Anyone can debate the pros and cons of God’s existence. It’s really a matter of indwelling, isn’t it? St. Dimitri of Rostov says, “The material closet of a man who is silent embraces only the man himself, but the inner spiritual closet also holds God and the entire kingdom of heaven.” Orthodoxy is the refuge of holiness, and, I would say, holiness which is tempered and embraced by compassion.

Compassion and holiness are not opposites. They never could be opposites. Holiness, in fact, is the framework that compassion fills, and compassion gives inter-personal meaning to holiness. Holiness is the inter-personal ground of compassion. Holiness is that emptying of one’s self before God which enables compassion as the emptying of oneself before others.

Compassion and holiness are not opposites but apposites. From a Christian perspective, from an Orthodox perspective, one is not fully spiritually possible without the other. Compassion bespeaks holiness, even as holiness bespeaks compassion.

The Western forms of Christianity seem to be in a state of disarray. That’s what came out of this conversation today. And at the same time, Orthodoxy, strangely enough, not by me in this case, was upheld as being a refuge for those who were truly seeking to put the pieces of their lives back together again in such a way that they know that they’re really standing on ground other than their own feelings, emotions, or reason.

When you come to the end of this pathway of thinking that so much of Western theology has degenerated into, you look in the mirror and you simply say, “Am I not lifting myself up by my own boot-straps? Am I not simply inventing what I believe because this is what I want to believe?” Faith has a hard edge to it. It needs that wall against which we press, that tests us, tests our mettle, tests us in such a way that we might emerge as people concerned with holiness and compassion all at the same time.


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