Monday, March 27, 2017

Fr. McGuckin's Orthodox Church

I recently completed The Orthodox Church, published a few years back by Fr. Anthony McGuckin.  I've always had an interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, having read Timothy (now bishop Kalistos) Ware's survey back in the 1980's.  Recent events led me to want some better background, specifically the controversies arising out of the Council in Crete, and the increasing prominence of the Russian Patriarch.  Both seem to reflect, to some extent, a conflict between the traditionally recognized primacy (in the sense of first-among-equals) of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the rising influence of the Patriarch who leads, by far, the greatest number of Orthodox Christians, and whose apparent sympathy with the government of Russia, on many levels, has raised, in different quarters, concern and rejoicing.

This is a book I can certainly recommend, keeping in mind my own very limited interaction with Orthodoxy.  A few years ago, essentially on a whim, I attended a local Divine Service.  It was an ordinary Sunday, at a small church, with fifty to sixty participants that morning.  The language was English, those who welcomed me were happy to have a Catholic visitor (the greeter was himself a former Catholic), and the liturgy, simple as it was, was sublimely beautiful.  A Catholic's relationship to Eastern Orthodoxy is rather unique; the Catholic Church recognizes as valid all the Orthodox sacraments, though that recognition is not reciprocal.  So my relationship was not one of hostility, or competitiveness, but of curiosity about a polity that, from a Catholic perspective, has been in schism for a millenium or so.

Fr. McGuckin's book pretty thoroughly covers the bases for an overview.  It begins with a history of the Church, first tracing the first centuries of full communion between Latin West and Greek East, then summarizing the subsequent history, giving sketches of each patriarchal, autocephalous and autonomous Church within the single communion.  Some of these sketches can be rather dry, but they are essential to understand the present position of Orthodoxy, especially the complex jurisdictional status of "new lands" such as the United States.

He then discusses the doctrinal foundation of Orthodoxy, looking first at what is held authoritative, then discussing, in separate long chapters, "theology" (the Trinity and the incarnation) and "economy" (teaching regarding salvation, or deification).

One of the differences between McGuckin's account, and that of Ware (as I admittedly dimly remember it), is that Ware very much emphasized the closeness of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, whereas McGuckin tends almost exclusively to contrast Orthodoxy with "the West" or "the Latins."  There are, of course, good reasons for finding similarities between Catholics and Protestants, which can broadly be summarized as the "Augustinian heritage."  But my sense is that McGuckin goes too far in emphasizing Catholic/Orthodox difference on questions where the two communions stand far apart from Protestantism:  the authority of Holy Tradition, the importance of the episcopate, the centrality of the sacraments and sacramentals,  the reverence paid to the Mother of God and the saints, and the use of images in prayer and worship.  Don't misunderstand, he isn't polemical, and part of this sense of distancing comes from what exactly he is doing, not writing a treatise on ecumenical relations between Catholic and Orthodox, but summarizing Orthodoxy in Orthodoxy's own terms.  Thus, the delineation of Orthodoxy in distinctively Orthodox terminology does help to see genuine differences, even if, from a Catholic perspective, this may appear to make of those differences more of a gulf between the two communions than in fact actually exists.

Fr. MeGuckin does a very good job of reviewing the hierarchy of sources of orthodoxy:  scripture, the seven great Councils, the very rich forms of worship and prayer, and the writings of the Fathers, the monastics and the saints, and he conveys well the sense that these things are distorted if considered separately, that scripture is not an ancient anthology, not to be considered primarily as a book, but as it is encountered in the Divine Liturgy, as it is reflected in the lives of the saints and in the continuing unfolding of Holy Tradition.

He is most disdainful of the scalpel that Western Christians have taken to scripture using form-historical criticism, seeing it primarily as a massive exercise in missing the point.  And on that issue I do in fact have much sympathy with him.  Biblical studies, in the West, have tended, in the last century and a half, to focus almost exclusively on separating the "genuine," the "historical," from the "priestly," or "mythological," or "pre-scientific."  The more sophisticated proponents of these studies have, in fact, not necessarily privileged the former over the latter, but the popular view that has trickled down to the general public is as a debunking of scripture, and I have to say that, for all its interest and continuing novelty, it seems to me to have been largely spiritually sterile.   At the same time I suspect that Orthodoxy's lack of engagement with these studies has more to do with Orthodoxy's having been suppressed and isolated for so long, and that, in some form or fashion, its welcome resurgence will require it at some point to take some more articulated position with respect to the critical acid of modern doubt.

I found the best part of the book to be the review of "theology," the Orthodox articulation of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, perhaps because those topics are arguably held most closely in common between East and West.  Fr. McGuckin reviews this teaching with extensive quotations from St. Irenaeus of Lyon, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian (a/k/a St. Gregory Nazianzus),  St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Gregory the Dialoguist (a/k/a Pope St. Gregory the Great), all of whom are also honored in the West as pillars of the patristic age.   And Fr. McGulkin does not follow the lead of some contemporary Orthodox in reading St. Augustine out of the Eastern tradition.  He correctly sets out how a number of differences between East and West come from positions which, if not entirely Augustinian in origin, certainly have come to prominence in the West due to Augustine's overarching prestige.  But McGuckin nevertheless always insists that the Blessed Augustine is an Orthodox father whose particular teachings, like those of every other Orthodox father, are never infallible or beyond being rejected or found wanting.

By contrast I was disappointed in the next section on the economy of salvation.  It set out clearly the  Eastern notion of deification, but as opposed to a rather woodenly presented  Western conception substitutionary atonement (a contrast minimized by the honest admission that the dominent Western models of salvation do indeed have some scriptural and patristic support).  There was a great deal on the importance of a correct ecological relationship to the world and to nature, not something that I would disagree with, but I was not convinced that such a concern has particularly distinctive or ancient roots in Orthodoxy.  All in all what was most noticeable was the considerably lesser citation to the great Orthodox sources compared to the prior section.

There follows a section on what the Orthodox tend to call the greater and lesser mysteries, which Catholics call the sacraments and the sacramentals.  McGuckin thoroughly runs through the differences in custom and conception, though my general sense is that the differences are minor and that the inevitable superiority that McGuckin finds in admittedly admirable, beautiful and spiritually profitable Orthodox approaches comes to sound a little perfunctory.

The long section on Orthodox liturgy and prayer is filled with numerous and generous quotations hinting at the flavor of Orthodox worship.  My only quibble with this section is that, from my quite limited experience (see the second paragraph above) the bare words on the page in fact fall far short of conveying the beauty of Orthodox prayer in the Divine Liturgy.  But I recognize that a book can only do so much.

Next there is a brief but important section on Orthodoxy and the political realm, taking the West to task for developing the papal monarchy, and strenuously denying the appropriateness of the term "Caesaropapal" for the  place accorded the Byzantine emperor.  Here, again, the Eastern and Western approaches seemed as described more similar than distinct, at least insofar as the post-Constantinian, pre-disestablished Church asserted the divine authority of both political and religious rulers, even while drawing lines between secular and sacred authority and asserting the superiority of the sacred.

While it is easy for those of us in the West to be scandalized by the giving of titles like "Equal of the Apostles" to Constantine, the foundation of the Western Empire under Charlemagne operated under many of the same assumptions that it was appropriate to recognize a particularly Christian ruler as heir of the Caesars with the special calling to care for the Church.  That notion didn't die in the Reformation, with Henry VIII most prominently claiming the privileges of Emperor and a headship of the Church in his realm.  The Western Empire, of course, didn't end until the Napoleonic wars, and a number of Christian monarchs in the West claimed privileges over the Church that only in the last two centuries have been abolished.  So, in that sense, as well, the history of the East doesn't seem that strikingly different from that of the West, and there seems to be as little desire for the re-establishment of the Christian Caesar there as here.

Finally there is a section on Orthodoxy and certain modern social issues, such as women's emancipation and sexuality.  Here there was not so much as a description of Orthodoxy's stance as the review of those issues by one Orthodox priest--Father McGuckin.  I didn't find myself disagreeing with much that he said; I just wasn't entirely sure to what extent it represents Orthodox thinking on these subjects.  Father McGuckin is a convert, an Englishman (I think) and a faculty member at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University.  I don't list those things as drawbacks, only as possible limits on the extent to which Father McGuckin may be representative on these issues.  Insofar as his stance seeks a balance between a charitable progressiveness and tradition, it reads, to me, much like the pronouncements's of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.  Again, I don't find that a basis for disagreement.  I simply suspect that some Orthodox might find him a little too accommodating.

I hope I've conveyed the sense of recommending the book.  No single volume obviously can be the last word on such a subject.  And I found it interesting that, at the same time that I was finishing up this book, I happened to run across and purchase the Pleiade edition of the works of John Calvin.  Having been raised Presbyterian, and having audited a course on Calvin, my third year of law school, at the nearby Divinity School, I've had a long relationship with him, and, in many ways, he represents the polar opposite of Eastern Orthodoxy.

I discussed above McGuckin's description of the Orthodox conception of the bible, not so much as a stand-alone book, per se, but as a series of sources integrated into the tradition.  Calvin can be taken as representative of the Western approach, at least since the Renaissance, of giving the bible the treatment that the earlier Renaissance humanists gave the received classics upon which they hoped to refound intellectual life.  Having been purified of extraneous matter the Christian scriptures were to become the standard for a wide-ranging critical role far beyond the literary standard-setting of a Cicero or a Livy.

For all of McGuckin's disdain of Western medieval scholasticism, medieval Catholicism's relative lack of 'bible-centeredness" makes the East and West in those centuries look much more similar than in the modern world.   There was always an assumption that East and West could be reconciled, even with many non-theological stumbling blocks, like the Fourth Crusade.  In some ways the ushering in of the Age of the Book in the Renaissance created a greater cultural divide.  The question, I suppose, as the Book gives way to the Net, is whether that will lessen or heighten the tensions between East and West.

1 comment:

The Thought Criminal said...

It looks like a book I should read and your post reminds me that I've been neglecting my project of reading more of the Cappadocian writers. The limited amount of them I've read has led me to have a far better understanding of the theory of the unity of God in the Trinity than I ever had before and have challenged a lot of ideas I'd had, as well.

I had another project of watching Youtubes of various Orthodox and Eastern Rite liturgies and was quite shocked to recognize very basic similarities with the Roman Catholic liturgy I was familiar with - I'd originally done it to listen to the music. It really gave me an appreciation that a lot of what we still have is very ancient and which had, clearly, even older roots than could be traced.

Recently I heard a recent Walter Brueggemann discussion in which he said that though he's ordained in the UCC, he's finding that in a lot of ways he's finding more in common with some, I assume he didn't mean all, evangelicals and Pentacostalists because, unlike liberal protestant, they took the scriptures seriously and read them seriously. I think that the decline of liberal Protestantism is probably related to its former practice of demoting the importance of that tradition in favor of milquetoast moderny isms. Having a better understanding of the world that the writers of the texts were addressing, their understandings of the words and phrases they used, that's important and I think that does give a better understanding of what those texts really instead of merely presumably were saying. So is taking the fuller context of what they would mean in line with the central texts of the entire tradition, Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Gospels, etc. None of which is easy.

It makes me wish I hadn't wasted so much time with other stuff in the past. There's so much catching up to do.