A single sentence in my earlier post, “A Brief Comment on Rod Dreher, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism,” has caused discomfort among a few readers on Facebook, some of whom appear to be converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. This is the offending line: “If there is anything distinctly ‘Eastern’ in Orthodoxy, it is its occasionally obstinate refusal to be open, honest, and self-critical, particularly when it comes to its complicated, and sometimes tragic, relationship with both Roman and Greek Catholicism.” Admittedly, the statement could use some unpacking and refinement in the light of both Remi Brague’s work on the (arguably unique) cultural openness of what we common refer to as “the West” and Fr. Robert Taft’s repeated calls for self-critical Orthodoxy. To say that openness and, later, self-criticism have eluded the Orthodox East over the centuries should not be a controversial statement unless, of course, one naively buys into the “pure East/degenerate West” rhetoric that is commonplace in certain Orthodox circles. As recent scholarship has shown, it wasn’t always so, though there seems to be a very long road left to travel before that finding becomes common knowledge.
Without laying any claim to covering even a fraction of the scholarly landscape, allow me to point to two fairly recent books which upset the claim that Orthodoxy, specifically Orthodoxy in the late Byzantine Empire, was entirely closed off and insular. The first, Orthodox Readings of Augustine (SVS Press 2008), collects a series of papers on the reception of St. Augustine in the Christian East, including insightful details on the use of Augustine’s De Trinitate by St. Gregory Palamas. Despite the existence of legitimate theological disagreements between the Bishop of Hippo and a number of Eastern Fathers, the anthology makes clear that the Byzantines did not reject him in toto but rather approached his work in the type of open but critical fashion expected from genuine men of learning. When it comes to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas—an even more polarizing figure for certain Eastern Christian factions—, Marcus Plested’s seminal achievement, Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, splashes cold water on the ubiquitous myth that the Orthodox never had any positive dealings with his thought. Unfortunately, this open engagement with Thomism and other schools of Latin theology came to a swift end with the fall of Constantinople and the dark centuries imposed by the Turks.
As a friend of mine pointed out, the late Byzantine engagement with Latin theology continued on after the so-called “Palamite synthesis,” a fact which ought to challenge the bunker mentality exhibited among contemporary neo-Palamites. For instance, Fr. Christiaan Kappes’s article, “A Latin Defense of Mark of Ephesus at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39),” 59 Greek Orthodox Theological Review 161 (2014), erases the Western portrait of Mark as a closeminded, obstinate, anti-Latin bigot too intoxicated on Palamite mysticism to comprehend the sterling rationalism of the Latins. At the same time, Kappes shows that that the Eastern image of Mark as a fierce defender of “pure Orthodoxy” against “corrupt Catholicism” needs serious revision as well. Mark of Ephesus, according to Kappe’s detailed analysis of his life and work, remained a stalwart defender of Eastern Christianity’s legitimate doctrinal, theological, and spiritual patrimony, but not at the expense of trying to learn what he could from Latin theology (both Thomism and Scotism) and find a way forward to healing Christendom’s tragic divide.
Sadly, contemporary Orthodoxy, at least at the popular level, is too beholden to certain tales about the past which bolster petty prejudices and untenable conclusions today. As Taft has stated many times, there remains an unwillingness on the part of the Orthodox to come clean about their past, one filled with plenty of despicable acts that demand genuine repentance. But as Taft has also stated, neither Catholics nor Orthodox have clean hands in history. Both sides ought to be held accountable for what they say and do or, rather, what they don’t say and refuse to do.
To close on a semi-positive note, let me restate a point I have found myself making several times over the past couple of weeks, namely that Orthodox priests and bishops, by and large, do a better job preserving and passing on the Apostolic Faith than their estranged Catholic counterparts. But let me temper this observation with a comment I made in the previous post, which is that Orthodoxy, like Catholicism, has failed to be an authentic source of cultural and spiritual renewal in its ancestral homelands. The reasons for this no doubt have something to do with the pathologies of late modernity, pathologies which infect East and West alike. Can the Orthodox, on their own, provide the cure? No, and neither can Catholicism. We need a united Church, and it’s almost unimaginable how that will happen under present circumstances. What we really need then is a miracle.