A Followup Comment on the Neo-Orthodox

Is it possible that the American neo-Orthodox attack on Catholic sacraments is simply a manifestation of the same inferiority complex which has haunted other parts of world Orthodoxy for centuries? That question was proposed to me in a recent chat and I was simply unsure how to answer. It is important always to bear in mind how many Anglophone neo-Orthodox polemicists are either converts or, now, the children of converts. Having drunk the dregs of Protestantism for many years, many of these folks still can’t shake the idea that Rome is the “Great Satan” which has arbitrarily imposed its will on Western Christendom for a millennium, distorting doctrine and obscuring truth all along the way. Of course, these are the same folk who believe that the “Uniates” represent a class of duped-and-deluded wannabes who kneel before their king on the Tiber while liturgically play-acting with stolen rites. Far be it for the neo-Orthodox to take a frank look at history—including their own tumultuous history—before drawing radical conclusions about the spiritual state of millions of fellow Christians.

Catholics should keep in mind that the neo-Orthodox do not represent world Orthodoxy. In fact, they do not even represent American Orthodoxy despite the latter’s annoying penchant for repacking shopworn Protestant polemics and calling them “apologias” for the East. Some of the neo-Orthodox will parade about claiming that their “theological critiques” of, say, Roman ecclesiology or Latin sacramental theology have “never been answered.” The truth is that they are largely ignored. Why? Because all of this “stuff” has already been hashed out in respectable theological circles. Moreover, neo-Orthodox ignorance of what the Catholic Church actually believes and professes can be downright painful. As Fr. Robert Taft has stated numerous times, if you want to know what the Catholic Church actually holds to, Google it. The Catholic Church does not hide its doctrines or praxis; they are contained in numerous documentary sources for all to read. I know some Orthodox have an exaggerated interest in “mystery.” Well, I hate to break it to them, but Catholic teaching is not mysterious; it is right there, out there, and in the open for all to see, if they are so inclined.

This doesn’t mean that Catholicism is not riddled with its fair amount of theological disputes and hermeneutical quarrels. Drop by Google Scholar sometime and type in “Second Vatican Council” or, heck, “Dignitatis humanae” and you will quickly find yourself drowning in a sea of scholarship. What is wonderful today is how many of these disputes are carried out with an “Eastern perspective” as well. It is simply not possible to make absolute statements on what the Church has “always believed” without incorporating what the Eastern churches have also “always believed.” Is it neat and clean? No. Is it messy and divisive? Sometimes. But is it necessary? Absolutely. If the neo-Orthodox think for one second that the Catholic Church and her theologians have not seriously considered the Eastern perspective on sacraments, ecclesiology, liturgy, and spirituality, they are simply kidding themselves (or are woefully ignorant). Maybe the neo-Orthodox won’t always be pleased with the conclusions Catholic theologians draw, but those conclusions are not produced in ignorance of the Church’s universal intellectual patrimony. In other words, the neo-Orthodox are not sitting on a legitimate treasure chest of “secret knowledge” (Patristic consensus!) into which they can freely dip to trump Catholic doctrinal claims.

There’s always room for improvement, of course. Although the last half-century of Catholic thought has been something of a mixed bag, the introduction of Eastern sources, including contemporary Eastern theologians, into Catholicism’s theological discussion has been a great boon for the Church. I see no reason why Catholics should not take Orthodox claims seriously, at least so long as those claims are coming from individuals who are interested in doing more than grinding axes and spouting triumphalist rhetoric. As I have stated many times before, the Orthodox Church does not possess a greener pasture for any Christian to run to. Orthodoxy does have certain comparative advantages over present-day Catholicism, but it is also riddled with internal problems (not to mention doctrinal confusion) that no Catholic should envy (or mock for that matter). Most are well aware of Catholicism’s problems. They are advertised daily. Orthodoxy, for better or worse, skates by criticism in the West because it is largely an unknown quantity. That is its triumph and its tragedy.

17 comments

  1. Have you seen (and if so, how often) the Palamas-is-mystical-and-Barlaam-was-philosophical argument that sees these two figures are representative of the two churches? Dunno whether you’ve written about this elsewhere. A casual look at Palamas’ _150 Chapters_ reveals just how much he was relying on philosophical and cosmological sources for his theology — in a manner that would infuriate those who claim that theology has “a legitimate treasure chest of ‘secret knowledge’ (Patristic consensus!) into which [it] can freely dip”. I have yet to seriously dig into that area during that period. The Orthodox hostility to metaphysics, and the resulting tritheism that is often inadvertently advanced, is really disastrous.

    1. “The Orthodox hostility to metaphysics, and the resulting tritheism that is often inadvertently advanced, is really disastrous.”

      Huh?

        1. Nothing. Metaphysics, as you seem to be using that term, is clearly vital, even if not central, in the Orthodox tradition and you yourself point out an example of it. More importantly, though, Orthodox tritheism is not a real thing.

        2. Let me expand that comment, and perhaps it shall make sense.

          I was suggesting that the nearly-emotivist, impressionistic, and highly-subjective “spirituality” that Orthodox theology is often allegedly based upon is hostile to metaphysics, to the point that it denies philosophical theological statements found in the fathers, and ends up treating revelation as a sort of semi-/neo-Barthian surd of data that one can only get through privileged channels of such emotivist impressionism, via an ascetical regime. Without metaphysics, these “truths” just end up being misunderstood as propositions about an object, a being, and Trinitarian doctrine ends up looking really simple — so Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick (sp.?) in his “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” podcasts, as I recall, denies the Catholic (and Orthodox) doctrine of Absolute Divine Simplicity as being false, and ends up basically asserting that God is really a god, a complex composite tri-theist being. (It could be argued that Zizioulas is doing something uncomfortably similar to this, too.) This is typical of this irrationally dogmatic, anti-metaphysical strain of Orthodox thought. It leads to theology as idolatry; it leads to Dawkins and Hitchens.

          The results are awful, both for the life of piety for individuals who hold to this, the tyranny of middlebrowish thinking rampant among clergy within the ecclesiastical institution (and the attendant cronyism where these people advance those like them), and the complete inability for Orthodox to address the larger public culture without requiring a sign-on for this notion of authority that is in turns semi-Barthian and nearly New Age, just as evangelicals require a sign-on for Inerrancy before they can hold a conversation about nearly everything. The inability to engage the public culture on public principles also leads to a kind of fear, suspicion, and contempt for the larger culture, and a toxic in-group self-love that neatly exemplifies the *libido dominandi*. Sacramental theology has no rational structure anymore, but conveys some kind of divine gas that is proprietary to the institution’s plumbing. Traditionally, both Orthodox and Catholic theology do not require anyone to sign on to the authority of the Pope or the Tradition or the Fathers or the Bible in order to be able to publicly talk about politics, ethics, and even God. Catholicism has this on the books, and it can’t go away; Orthodoxy is really fuzzy about books, and the tradition, in many ways; better not to read the fathers intensely in their historical context, so one can assume they are like us, and authoritatively confirm us in our biases.

          Was that clear?

          1. What is clear is that you paint with a broad brush.

            Denials of “Absolute Divine Simplicity” are not necessarily denials of divine simplicity, if you see what I mean. The former is a particular expression — with its own collection of conceptual commitments — of the latter’s general idea. And the arguments I have seen against the former seem to have as their intention precisely to avoid conceptions about God ending up, as you put it, “being misunderstood as propositions about an object, a being.” Perhaps this is unnecessary, but it certainly is not equivalent to denying that God is “one essence, substance or nature entirely simple.” The very act of arguing against “Absolute Divine Simplicity” is itself an exercise in metaphysics.

            1. It’s funny: when I painted, it was always with very *fine* brushes. :-D

              We are in full agreement, and so I have not a word to offer to challenge what you have said, except to say that you may perhaps (only perhaps) underestimate how difficult you would find it to have this conversation with so very many of the Orthodox priests and faithful here in MA (or was it Boston?), where we are 2% of the population.

            2. You’re right that I don’t have a sense of how this conversation might go in Boston. If it is as you suggest, I understand your frustration.

            3. I am likely overstating the severity of things out of personal frustration, but I don’t think I’m wholly misrepresenting it: there are enough learned priests and laymen so that finding likeminded people who care about the philosophical dimensions of the tradition (for all the reasons I mentioned above, and to inform and regulate spiritual practice) isn’t always trouble here, but there are enough Orthodox here that, with social differentiation, people split into natural sub-communities according to their life situations, while each of these sub-communities usually sports the most natural and convenient take on the faith for those life situations — many of which militate against this kind of philosophical discourse, or treat it as irrelevant.

          2. I think you could have very different conversations in Boston depending on whether you were with the “Bulgarians” in Allston or at the OCA in the Fens.

            That said, my sense is the lack of interest (or awareness or understanding) of the philosophical you mentioned above is evidence of the democratization of society and the church rather than anything else. Most people don’t understand anything of what you just wrote, and I think I only picked up about 35%. That would be true of just about anyone. There’s an anti-intellectual bent to the faith traditions many converts come from. But, I think the more important issue is the realities of cradle Orthodoxy here and in the old country. Philosophy isn’t a primary component of the masses in Orthodoxy or its parishes (neither is it in the Catholic church). In a church where tradition dominates over theology and philosophy, the vast majority of tradition-bearers hold to a less sophisticated tradition and propagate it. It’s the more day to day version of the fact that every weirdo convert learned that weirdness from a cradle cleric, monk, or layman. That also means that even the most academically oriented among the clergy and seminaries is also balancing the more common tradition with the more philosophical. Even a Magisterium and an infallible Pope (on matters of faith and morals, propounded ex cathedra, etc. etc. etc.) don’t lead to unanimity in such things, much less so in the more informal traditioning of Orthodoxy. And, glory to God, I say.

  2. Great post and great comment thread. I would love to see a discussion of some of the issues raised here about +Zizioulas sometime.

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