Saturday, December 26, 2015
"Modern Orthodox Thinkers" by Andrew Louth. A Review
Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present
IVP Academic (InterVarsity Press)
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5121-8; $35.00; September 2015
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur
Insightful; 5 Stars out of 5
For one who hardly knows the difference between an archimandrite and an apolytikion, or a hatjis and a heretismoi, it’s a bit of a stretch to pick up and stay with the 416 page paperback “Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present”. Yet Andrew Louth, who serves as a priest in the Russian Orthodox parish in Durham and is professor emeritus of patristic and Byzantine studies at Durham University, England, as well as a visiting professor of Eastern Orthodox theology at the Amsterdam Centre of Eastern Orthodox Theology in the Faculty of Theology, the Free University, Amsterdam, has made what at first appears insurmountable into something obtainable. This scholarly tome leads an interested reader through the development of a particular stream of Eastern Orthodox thought that winds its way from Mount Athos, to Russia, on to Paris, over into Greece, across to America and to finally settle in England. For the non-Orthodox, it is an unfamiliar world with its own language and choreography, but it’s an intriguing world.
The premise of “Modern Orthodox Thinkers” is stated squarely in the subtitle, “From the Philokalia to the Present”. The Philokalia was compiled in the eighteenth century by two Orthodox monks, St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarias of Corinth, on Mount Athos as an instructive guide for other monks. The work collected texts written by earlier Christian pastors, monks, theologians and spiritual guides as part of a renewal movement within the Orthodox Church that sought to restore the tradition of Byzantine monasticism, return to the Fathers, reestablish the importance of a monasticism that focused on prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, and restore the role of spiritual fatherhood (9). Though the multi-volume work of the Philokalia was meant for monastic renewal, once it was published and began to be read by a larger Orthodox audience, it became part of a watershed moment in the history of Orthodox theology (10). “The Philokalic movement provided a powerful resource for such return to Orthodox principles, as it had at its heart a programme for a renewed personal spirituality, based on the Jesus Prayer, and an emphasis on the importance of…spiritual eldership that, at its best, made sure that the spiritual revival remained sound and healthy” (11).
The author weaves and walks his way through numerous Orthodox examples, most of whom were not theologically trained, and many who were not ordained clergy. Louth largely focuses “on the presence of Orthodoxy in the West, and especially the influence of the Russians who found themselves in Paris after their expulsion from Russia in 1922” (282). He follows the trail which “blossomed in the Russian Religious Renaissance” and found its way into Greece and beyond, because he sees this renewal, that was marked out by the publication of the Philokalia, as representing “all that is best in Orthodox theology over the last two centuries” (333).
“Modern Orthodox Thinkers” snakes its way through the life stories of a crowd of people. The Author begins with Solov’ev and ends with Metropolitan Kallistos, bringing along a troop of others such as Florensky, Bulgakov, Berdyaev, Florovsky, Mother Maria, Staniloae, Popovic, Evdokimov, Meyendorff, Schmemann, Vasileios, Zizioulas, Romanides, Sherrard, Koutroubis, Yannaras, Ramfos, Behr-Sigel, Clement, Mother Thekla, Silouan, Sophrony, and Men’. Each chapter gives just enough biographical data to help the reader feel informed about the particular person being discussed, and then the sample aspects of how the Philokalia worked into and out of that persons experience are graciously opened up and worked through. It appears to me that the author is fair in his approach and judicious in his analysis. Some of the subjects that are covered with quite a bit of regularity are Sophiology, apophatic theology over and above the kataphatic, starets and the starchestvo, the Jesus Prayer, Gregory Palamis, palamism and neo-palamism, theosis, and monasticism. But always the distinctive thread sown into the fabric of this book is the Philokalia and that “theology is not concerned with concepts, though it makes use of them, but concerned with engagement with God” (138).
Louth is skillful in translating concepts and ideas that may be foreign to the non-Orthodox reader, while keeping the flow of the book from stalling. Not only was “Modern Orthodox Thinkers” helpful to me in pointing out some of the unique ways Orthodoxy views the Christian faith, but it also pulled together the historical developments of the Orthodox Church in America and gave me a richer understanding of several of the Orthodox writers I have read in the past. I’m certain that many Orthodox readers will find the book a worthwhile read, and for American Protestants, this book may well give you better insight as to why Orthodoxy is finding a foothold in North America. Though I personally and confessionally don’t agree with all of the theological conclusions of the book, nevertheless I highly recommend it.
Thanks to IVP Academic for the free copy of “Modern Orthodox Thinkers” used for this review.