Reimagining American Community

It was with some surprise that, when reading Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart’s article on the ‘Myth of Schism’, I found that my initial reaction was one of affront. It was odd. Why on earth should I be affronted by a philosopher’s critique of the tradition into which I had been baptised, particularly when he himself is a member and an invaluable interpreter of that tradition? His article was certainly well-argued, and the claims he made were audacious but made with rigour. Is there an ‘anti-Western’ passion in Eastern Orthodoxy which is spiritually harmful to us, and harmful to constructive dialogue with the jurisdiction of Rome? Are we indeed ‘incapable or unwilling to acknowledge any recognizable distinction between substantial and accidental differences, between real and imagined difficulties, between obvious and merely suppositious theological issues, and between matters of negligible import and those that lie at the heart of our division’?

First, Dr. Hart’s account of the substantial differences, real difficulties and obvious theological issues at the heart of the East-West Schism needs to be adjudged. His insistence that young Orthodox converts read S. Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas I can’t fault at all. Perhaps I ought to count myself lucky to have read both before my conversion! I’ve often defended Augustine’s legacy – full stop, he’s an incredibly keen intellect and one who deserves to be read far more widely, if for the sole reason that he tends to get misinterpreted across the board on matters ranging from the first sin to sex to the state.

Aquinas, I think, is useful insofar as he represents a style of theology from which we can take many valuable insights, particularly in the Summa Theologiæ and De Regno. Aquinas is wonderful for his bulletproof theological syllogisms, particularly against sins like usury or in defence of the poor and hungry! Also, De Regno, for its clear articulation of the ends of human life and government particularly in an urban setting, ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the fate of the modern city, or in politics in general – Orthodox very much included. And I certainly don’t want to attack the entire tradition of Scholasticism of which Aquinas is the prime representative in the West – the same tradition which gave us S. John of Damascus’s Exact Exposition. How Aquinas gets used popularly by later Roman Catholic thinkers is another story entirely, however… and not (as many Orthodox, myself very much included, sometimes tend to forget!) the fault of poor Thomas himself!

Regarding the filioque, Dr. Hart does treat it as a serious doctrinal difference, though one also subject to a good deal of fetishism on our end. At certain points I think Dr. Hart tries to make the filioque controversy into something of a well-intentioned misunderstanding, albeit one of tragic long standing which cannot be solved by theological quibbling but only by a purging of the filioque from the Symbol of Faith.

His understanding of the doctrinal issue is clearly far deeper by leagues than my own – and I would say the same of many Catholic theologians as well. Thus, I must take him at his word when he asserts that post-Losskian Orthodox accounts of the Trinitarian oikonomia have the potential to be theologically disastrous, particularly if they do indeed claim that ‘the Trinitarian relations as revealed in the economy of salvation are distinct from the eternal relations of the immanent Trinity’. I wouldn’t know personally as I haven’t read either Lossky or Romanides, but even I’ve read enough to figure that such formulations of the Orthodox position are nonsensical.

But given that the filioque itself represents a wound inflicted on the unity of the Church, I think he is right that it needs to go, not to be altered, not to be amended, not to be bargained over. To the Roman Catholics it may be a minor and even a trivial difference, but they of all people ought to be sensitive to the argument that even minor and trivial differences can have profound and dangerous implications! To the Orthodox, the filioque represents an attempt to peer inside the divine oikonomia, to take it apart and see what makes it tick – a human presumption, in other words, to understand and therefore master the essence of the divine. Perhaps it is indeed much too convenient, much too fetishistic, to see the filioque and the turn in theology it represented as the West’s ancestral sin, the root and the beginning of the era in the West of man’s quest for mastery over man and nature – of the Renaissance, of ‘exploration’ and colonialism, of the Reformation, of the enclosures, of the Baconian worldview, of the ‘Enlightenment’ and of the twin revolutions of modernity. But for an Orthodox believer it remains a tempting view all the same, the more so when it has a fairly plausible historical justification!

And here is where I think Dr. Hart’s statements to the effect that ‘ultra-Orthodox’ types tend to approach Roman Catholic dialogue with a ready list of bitter recriminations in hand start to strike home. I am a Westerner. No part of my cultural background is non-Western; the closest I come is through my Bohemian grandmother. I’m not even a self-hating Westerner! I love unconditionally the Western world, the authentic Western tradition and what it represents – or at least those quiet, contemplative and Platonic parts of it, those which are content to live and let live, those which are reminiscent of Tolkien’s Shire and not of the White Wizard’s Isengard. I converted to Orthodoxy primarily because of my personal encounters with it, but certainly more on account of S. Bede and Nicholas Berdyaev – both of whom I have read, and of whom the former is unquestionably Western and the latter very arguably so by means of his heritage, his upbringing and his exile – than on account of Vladimir Lossky or John Romanides. And I have absolutely no desire to see the West decline or fall.

It need hardly be said that Dr. Hart’s final exhortations against the ‘soothing and saccharine nihilism’ which seems ascendant in a consumerist and capitalist post-Christian West, and his clarion call to the rest of the Eastern Orthodox communion to bring its spiritual witness to the aid of Rome and of Western Christendom, ring too true to my ear for comfort. If I have felt affront, is it because of my own neglect? Rome has for too long now been fighting, largely alone, the nihilistic tides which have followed from the ideology of conquest mentioned above. Are we content to cling in our dotage to our historical grudges and to the last scraps of our failing kingdoms, or do we indeed ride for Gondor in its hour of need, in spite of our history of division?

I do think we Eastern Orthodox need to be consistent, insofar as we are socially engaged, in opposing the fruits of nominalism wherever we find them, whether they are in the wanton destruction of the natural environment, or in the wanton destruction of human lives. We ought to uphold as much as we are able the dignity of the human person as she is embedded in her community and in her social context, with as much fervour as the Romans have done. We certainly ought to join with consistent Roman Catholics in opposing the appalling abuses of society’s most vulnerable members: the unborn, refugees, widows and orphans, the elderly, wage labourers. We ought to bring our witness firmly against the machineries of unjust warfare and of the obscene gap (within countries and between them) between the wealthy and the poor.

That is not to say we should not admonish Western polities when they betray the trust they have been shown, particularly nowadays and particularly in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, and particularly where we are members of those polities. The humanitarian and refugee crisis being caused by the new Ukrainian government’s civil war in the east of the country is utterly intolerable. Further, the fact that it was fuelled by a dispute over the fate of local linguistic communities and local industries (in which the Russian Orthodox communities were fighting for principles of federalism, subsidiarity and local coöperative ownership of land, resources and capital) ought to be held up as an example of where Roman Catholics, particularly the Uniates, have cravenly abandoned for reasons of political expediency and power politics the social teaching their own church proclaims. In Syria and Libya as well, where nations of Western Christendom (France and Spain in particular) have been and continue to be instrumental in legitimating and funding insurgencies and newfangled governments which directly threaten both local Catholic and Orthodox populations (in Libya, primarily black) with political persecution, forced conversion, genocide and displacement, there are also certainly grounds for admonition. But it must always be admonition in the spirit of brotherhood rather than of recrimination. Else, we are doomed to a needless war we cannot win, with an unwilling enemy.

In other words, Dr. Hart is absolutely right that we can’t afford to be anti-Western. For one thing, the better side of our own Eastern tradition would not permit it. For another, to withdraw completely from engagement with the West and with sympathetic Roman Catholics would be irresponsible, if not suicidal.

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.