The Mangling Grasp of Relativism

I thought the following article posted by Gabriel on Going Along makes several good points that might be of interest. The author argues that since 1920 or so Orthodox theology has been working with one arm tied behind its back while hopping on one foot. What I mean is that, especially among English speaking Orthodox, we have more or less intentionally limited ourselves to “Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas.” While these are all luminaries in the Church, they do not exhaust our theological tradition.

He quotes Fr Patrick Reardon, an Orthodox priest and editor of Touchstone, to the effect that: “What almost always passes for ‘Orthodox theology’ among English-speaking Orthodox these days is actually just a branch of the larger Orthodox picture. Indeed, it tends sometimes to be rather sectarian.” For example,

one will look in vain in that theology for any significant contribution from the Alexandrians, chiefly Cyril, and that major Antiochian, Chrysostom. When these are quoted, it is usually some incidental point on which they can afford to be quoted. Now I submit that any ‘Orthodox’ theology that has so little use for the two major figures from Antioch and Alexandria is giving something less than the whole picture.

He notes as well, that contemporary Orthodox theology, for all its appeal to being traditional and following the theological methodology of the Fathers, glosses over how some of the Fathers did theology. For example, there is

[St John] Damascene’s manifestly ‘Scholastic’ approach to theology. Much less does it have any use for the other early Scholastic theologians, such as Theodore the Studite and Euthymus Zygabenus. There is no recognition that Scholasticism was born in the East, not the West, and that only the rise of the Turk kept it from flourishing in the East.

This resonant with my own thoughts when I read St John Damascene; he struck me as writing in a manner that was markedly similar in style and method to what I had read in Aquinas. Frankly, this is also why, though like the Prodigal Son I drifted for a time, I use an analytical methodology in my pastoral work and in my writing both in psychology and theology (I am often mistaken for a philosopher, thank you very muc).

And this brings us to Gabriel’s second point, the increasingly anti-Western sectarian orientation of much Orthodox theology and popular piety. He writes:

There is also no explicit recognition that the defining pattern of Orthodox Christology was formulated in the West before Chalcedon. Pope Leo’s distinctions are already very clear in Augustine decades before Chalcedon. Yet, Orthodox treatises on the history of Christology regularly ignore Augustine. Augustine tends to be classified as a ‘Scholastic,’ which he most certainly was not. But Western and Scholastic are bad words with these folks.

Why should I as an Orthodox Christian care? Well, “Augustine and the Scholastics represent . . . rooms in the larger castle” of Orthodox tradition and theology. And so,

This problem—if it is indeed a problem—is analogous to the problem Strauss identified in philosophy: If [insert modern philosopher here] is taken as the culmination of philosophy, then the entire history of philosophy is but a series of building blocks on the way to the great pyramid whose apex in said philosophers work. It’s the problem of the modern conception of “progress” (subtle as it oftentimes is) becoming the lens through which history is examined. This may be no less true of theological history as well.

Gabriel’s conclusion?

I believe it does a grave disservice to the Church to not have the whole of the Tradition available. When the gaps are identified and the Orthodox response is to either deny relevancy to those gaps (a useful but ultimately self-degrading “trick”) or claim all is answered in Palamas (which may very well be true, though confirmation can only be achieved by eliminating the gaps), the Church leaves itself open to charges of being reactionary, stubborn, and unfaithful to its own mission. None of this is to say all is lost, Orthodox thought is plunged into crisis, and there is no hope. Clarification is underway, but the process is slow and in the meantime there is still a deeply entrenched prejudice not simply against all things allegedly “Western” (which, to be sure, is not an unfounded prejudice if those “Western” elements are shown to be false), but anything that remotely smells “Scholastic” (in the broadest possible sense). What this has come to mean in the hands of some inept minds is that Orthodoxy begins and ends with experience, that anything cerebral is anathema and to say one thing and stick to it is to be “definitional,” “confining,” and—you guessed it—“Western.” It is not hard to see where this line can slide (and perhaps has already slid) certain elements of the Church: straight into the mangling grasp of relativism.

My pastoral experience would suggest that Gabriel’s concern about relativism is well founded. For example, I have met people attached to non-canonical or pseudo-dox (a term I use for those who are almost Orthodox) groups who would argue that because they keep the tradition of the Church, they are Orthodox. They’ve not been baptized or chrismated by any Orthodox bishop or priest. Often they would deny the importance of actually being received into Church by a canonical bishop. Again and again, these folks were simply deluded—they didn’t even keep the externals of the Church’s life—only those elements that they thought were “really” Orthodox.

What Gabriel is point to is the unfortunate tendency among some Orthodox—laity and clergy I hasten to add—is not simply to relativism, sectarianism and an anti-Western bias, but borderline Gnosticism.

Your thoughts are most welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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