The Myth of Hart

David Bentley Hart’s essay, “The Myth of Schism,” which was published nearly seven years ago, won’t go away. Though given little notice by the Orthodox community at the time of its release, it has since become one of the lynchpins of Catholic (and some Orthodox) ecumenical hopes and dreams. Just when I assumed the essay had been mined (and criticized) for all that it is worth, along comes Mark Shea to quote the essay’s most perplexing, and some might say mythical, paragraph. Here’s a sample:

I like to think—call it the Sophiologist in me—that the tribulations that Eastern Christianity has suffered under Islamic and communist rule have insulated it from some of the more corrosive pathologies of modernity for a purpose, and endowed it with a special mission to bring its liturgical, intellectual, and spiritual strengths to the aid of the Western Christian world in its struggle with the nihilism that the post-Christian West has long incubated and that now surrounds us all, while yet drawing on the strengths and charisms of the Western church to preserve Orthodoxy from the political and cultural frailty that still afflicts Eastern Christianity. Whatever the case, though, we are more in need of one another now than ever.

First, let me note that I am indeed very sympathetic toward Hart’s conclusion that Catholicism and Orthodoxy “are more in need of one another now than ever.” Hyper-traditionalist Catholics, intoxicated with a very myopic view of ecclesial history, may not think much of the Church’s “need” for the East, but I do. The Eastern Catholic churches heroically fulfill part of that need, but their size and relative isolation from Rome conspires against their theological, liturgical, and spiritual witness. There is, as they say, strength in numbers; and so of course we should welcome millions of more souls into the Corpus Mysticum and rejoice that their tradition should be allowed to shine in full. My sense right now, however, is that there are few Orthodox who would say as much about their need for the Roman Church.

Second, let me also state clearly that Hart’s appeal to the East’s “insulat[ion] from some of the more corrosive pathologies of modernity” reads more like an empty hope than a fact. As any reader of (Russian Orthodox) Fr. Georges Florovsky’s two-volume The Ways of Russian Theology surely knows, Orthodox theology was neither transmitted nor developed independent of “Western thought,” including modern pathologies. Indeed, one of the key projects of 20th C. Orthodox theology has been to “recover” or “restore” an allegedly “lost” Orthodox theological tradition, one which was violently interrupted and then slowly bled out in the early centuries of the last millennium. That story can be a bit much at times, and it’s not without critics; however, there seems to be a wide recognition among contemporary Orthodox voices that “the East” (however understood) was never out of modernity’s reach.

Third, though the movement has not been uncontroversial, I believe it is safe to say that the Roman Catholic Church, for more than a century, has internalized a great deal of the Eastern Christian liturgical, intellectual, and spiritual deposit, albeit with mixed results. In fact, one might say that the results are “mixed” because the mixing of traditions itself was highly imprudent. An excessive fascination with “things Eastern” (or what certain theologians and reformers assumed were “things Eastern”) prompted a premature, and in my estimation damaging, abandonment of “things Western.” Certainly matters were not helped by the desire of some “broadminded clerics” to play the Christian East off against the Christian West, using inchoate theological speculations and other vagaries yanked from Patristic sources to do an end-run around Scholasticism and, some might say, the Church’s magisterium altogether.

Last, I detect no “mission” on the part of the Orthodox to either enlighten or save “the West” (again, whatever that means). Though some ex-Catholic and Protestant converts to Orthodoxy believe that the Eastern patrimony gives them a firm basis upon which to critique “the West,” that’s a much different project than saving it. If anything, the construct that is “the West” serves as a foil for Orthodox triumphalism. Taken to the political level, as it often is in Russia, “the West” is diseased being, riddled with secularism, relativism, indifferentism, nihilism, and so forth; “the West” must be resisted, not converted. “The West” is, in a Schmittian sense, the enemy which inadvertently assists the Orthodox in knowing who they are. There’s nothing salvific, or holy, about that.

21 comments

  1. I appreciate what you’re saying here, but I’ve run across not a few Roman Catholics, priests in particular, 40-60 years and older, who are fairly uniform in their thought that Orthodox theology has remained “static”, “frozen”, “lacking in development” for that past 1000 years or so. Reasons given typically center on some perceived captivity or sloth of the Church, such as “caesaropapism”, “no councils in a while”, “lack of a magisterium”, etc.

    All of which they learned in their seminary formation, they tell me. I find their testimonials not aligned much with your description above, but if their thoughts are indicative of a wider swath of RC clergy, how do you account for that?

    1. I never put it past Catholic seminaries to fill the heads of its students with undiluted foolishness. My suspicion is that most Catholic clergy have only a very basic knowledge of the Orthodox, and depending on their disposition, that knowledge is either filtered through a romantic or triumphalist lens. It would behoove all Catholic priests, regardless of their assignment, to at least read Fr. Aidan Nichols’s Rome and the Eastern Churches.

      The story of late-Byzantine theology is being clarified and re-told by a number of helpful scholars. So, too, is the story of the East’s reception of late medieval Western theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas. Plested’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas is an essential read.

  2. (1) Not many Orthodox are aware of the mythical character of much of Orthodoxy’s self-talk; being likewise in a fiction regarding the value, character, history and determining power of “The West” and modernity on themselves, they would never think of how they might profit from reuniting with Rome. The Mass in most places in the US really does suck, though, and as you know, that’s a big turn-off for most Orthodox, so they don’t usually look past that. It’s a big turn off for lots of foreign-born Catholics who come here, too. I don’t see how it can be addressed, but since it’s a conversation stopper for the average Ortho, one shouldn’t be surprised that only educated folks like Hart say things like Hart.

    (2) Yes. Orthodoxy is determined by the culture in which it lives, and its “insulation” doesn’t extend into the present, where very modern decisions are being made under the aegis of fidelity to the tradition.

    (3) I have no idea how anyone could possibly play off Scholasticism against the Late Antique Christian tradition. Only if one assumed that Orthodoxy reads its heritage through a confessionalist and emotivist and somewhat Barthian notion of revelation and whatnot can one do this. One would need to throw out Ps. Denys, Maximus, John of Damascus, etc.

    I was in a graduate seminar with Fr. Maximos (Nicholas Constas, who published the _Ambigua_ of St. Maximus) this past semester at Holy Cross in MA, and some of the HC students were generally frustrated that they’d been sold a bill of goods on how and where Orthodoxy was different from Catholicism. The BC students who were taking the course made an enormous number of very natural connections between the Scholastic tradition and St. Maximus. The BC students fell in love with St. Maximus, and one said it was “the most profound Christology” he’d ever encountered. The disparity contributed to my depression (though comparing [HC] MDiv students to [BC] PhD students is never fair), and made me wonder why I was still Orthodox, when Orthodoxy was not only incapable of perpetuating the wisdom of figures like St. Maximus, but which has not even been interested over the millennia in establishing the institutions necessary to perpetuate the tradition that one finds in figures such as St. Maximus; Catholicism, however, has (regardless of whether the people populating Catholic educational institutions are of the same caliber as the Schoolmen or the Late Antique Fathers, itself another matter).

    (4) One cannot save what one does not understand. My suspicion is that most of the anti-Western stuff is either fantasy-land convertskii imaginings or else ethnic factionalism — both of which mask the demographic fallout and divisions within Orthodoxy, and a lack of a clear identity that can address the modern world, much less absorb its goods, much much less save it. Orthodoxy’s self-talk masks the true nature of the stances of most Orthodox parish cultures, which are political stances under the mask of spirituality, and it masks the true nature of Modernity, which is usually only grossly mis-described and slandered.

      1. I’m not sure why it was helpful, but so long as I haven’t hardened your heart or lockjawed your mind, I’m happy to offer what I can. (Fr. Maximos’ class was really excellent, BTW: everyone agreed. He’s an excellent professor, and a good man.)

        When I was taking a course recently on the Medieval period, one of the things that struck me is how much Scholasticism takes the task of theological reflection out of the hands of the bishops, monks and laity and places it in the sandbox of specialists. This is inevitable when one considers the diversity of the tradition and desires its coherence; the reaction of figures like St. Bernard of Clairvaux to figures like Abelard and the style of Scholastic theology he represents sounds _almost_exactly_ like the kind of criticism that the Orthodox make against Catholic Scholasticism (and, by extension, Protestant Scholasticism).

        Now, I will defend Scholasticism as a necessary development given the task at hand: the engagement with the diversity of texts from Augustine and Gregory et al., to look for their common heart, to reconcile them with one another, to solder every crack, etc. –no layperson or backwater bishop could ever do this– but it must be noted how this takes theology out of the hands of the traditioning general to the parishes and monasteries. This is a legitimate criticism. The parishes need to feel responsible for perpetuating the tradition of the Church, and can’t surrender this to popes, bishops, monks or scholastics. This is not, however, a peculiarly Orthodox criticism, and the issues involved were better handled, I think, internal to the Western Church’s own development on this point. Von Balthasar, also, in the modern world, has written about the relation between theology and sanctity: namely, that few modern saints tend to be great theologians, and few great modern theologians tend to be saints. It’s a real problem. The Orthodox do not write on it as well as von Balthasar.

    1. I agree. What a fantastic response.

      Are you originally from Boston? It’s my hometown, and I was back to visit several years ago, but we’ve lived in North Carolina for 25 years now, with no intention of ever again living in the frozen Northeast.

      Is Holy Cross part of the Boston Theological Consortium? I spent a year at Harvard Divinity School (MTS program, never finished; got tired of poverty) waaaay back in the day. The only Consortium school I was personally familiar with was Episcopal Divinity School, because, well, it was right down the street. But IIRC Holy Cross is accessible via public transportation. I should have taken a course or two there. Oh well. I met my husband during my year at HDS — he was at GSAS, and we Div School peons got to take one course per semester in the Yard, and that’s where I met Steve. So, it wasn’t a total bust.

      Sorry for the trip down memory lane. Get a geezeress going on something from her storied past, and there’s no shutting her up.

        1. Boston Irish-Italian here. The classic Boston mongrel.

          Very interesting! I still have family up that-away, but fewer and fewer all the time: both parents deceased and most aunts and uncles gone, too. My sister lives in Lowell and my brother in Vermont. That’s about it.

          I miss some stuff but not as much as I would have expected. When we visited in 2012, we discovered that Harvard Square had turned into a glorified mall. When on earth did *that* happen?

          1. Most of the people I grew up with were Irish, Italian, or Irish-Italian. Irish cuisine is rather lackluster: we seem to think that water is a spice, so the Italian connection is rather natural, at least from the Irish side. :-D

            To be honest, I don’t really like Lowell, and I’m sorry your sister lives there. It’s like Revere, only metastasizing. VT, however, is fantastic. You should visit often, and get out of the wretched not-New-England area. ;-p

            Harvard Square is owned by Harvard — nearly all the property in the area is owned by Harvard. Gotta make money, right? Harvard and BU are buying up all the real estate around them, driving out the poor and the minorities, whom no one really goes to bat for, sadly. Allston is one of the only areas in Greater Boston where ordinary people can still afford to live, but that will change in the next ten years. Just give it time. Southie is already being rapidly gentrified.

            1. I heard that Southie was being gentrified!!! I couldn’t believe it. It was bad enough when the North End got gentrified…but Southie??? Both of my parents are from Southie.

              We lived in Vermont for three years. Loved it. But there are no jobs there. My kid brother works remotely for a software firm. Nice work if you can get it! Most of us can’t.
              More later. Pls pardon typos. Am typing on my phone and cannot even see what I’m typing!

            2. I don’t mind Lowell. Lawrence OTOH is the most depressing place I’ve ever seen in my life.

              Used to live in Alkstoon. And in Brighton. And in Slummerville. And in Arlington. All the plebe places around Bodton. Ah, memories.

              Again pls excuse typos. Can’t see what I’m typing

    2. To be clear: when I write that “Orthodoxy is incapable of perpetuating the wisdom of figures like St. Maximus”, I don’t mean that Fr. Maximos fails this: he succeeds marvelously, and I wish only for many more such guides. I know there are other wise guides amongst the Orthodox: my rhetoric was too intense. My frustration was this: in order to _fully_ understand St. Maximus, or nearly any of the Fathers from the early Church, one must be steeped in Late Antique philosophy specifically and learning generally, and the Orthodox do not seem generally interested (and do not seem to have been generally interested) in building institutions to perpetuate this. One has to go elsewhere to learn it. Without Fr. Maximos’ course, though, and his excellent work, I don’t think this would have dawned on me.

      1. Maybe if 99% of the Orthodox weren’t always so caught up in fighting “the other” or defining themselves in opposition to “the other” they’d have more time and energy to explore and expand upon the good in their own tradition.

        1. Yes, but the opposite is evacuation, which is what Catholicism seems to me to have done out of a desire to affirm a public Christianity — a good desire, carried out in a way that makes Orthodox scared. The problem in this case doesn’t seem to be Orthodoxy, but the unrecognized landscape of modernity (unrecognized by both Orthodox and Catholics, et al.), and the way modernity frames the range of possible responses to itself, even when communities understand neither their response nor what they are responding to — and often, not even that they are responding to something. Finally, Orthodox don’t always fight The Other; frequently, perhaps mostly, they are too busy with ordinary soft suburban nihilism.

  3. “First, let me note that I am indeed very sympathetic toward Hart’s conclusion that Catholicism and Orthodoxy “are more in need of one another now than ever.” Hyper-traditionalist Catholics, intoxicated with a very myopic view of ecclesial history, may not think much of the Church’s “need” for the East, but I do. […] There is, as they say, strength in numbers; and so of course we should welcome millions of more souls into the Corpus Mysticum and rejoice that their tradition should be allowed to shine in full.”

    I must be a ‘Hyper-traditionalist’ Catholic of sorts, “intoxicated with a very myopic view of ecclesial history” [?!], and thus a bit anti-ecumenical, because in one important matter of recent concern, I honestly wonder about our ‘need’ for any Eastern Orthodox orientale lumen. More assessment and discussion required.

    “51. The synod father [sic] also considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. ”

    “38. With regard to the divorced and remarried, pastoral practice concerning the sacraments needs to be further studied, including assessment of the Orthodox practice and taking into account “the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances” (n. 52) [sic]. What are the prospects in such a case? What is possible? What suggestions can be offered to resolve forms of undue or unnecessary impediments?”

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20141209_lineamenta-xiv-assembly_en.html

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