Review: Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers, Andrew Louth. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Biographical sketches and theological summaries of some of the leading thinkers in the modern Orthodox Church from Russia to Paris to Mount Athos to England and the USand the significant role the Philokalia has played in Orthodox thought and piety.

Very simply, this is a “Who’s Who” among Orthodox thinkers. In twenty-one chapters, Andrew Louth, professor emeritus of patristic and Byzantine studies and an Orthodox priest, gives us sketches of the lives and theological contributions of twenty-eight significant thinkers within the Orthodox Church.

There are several things that keep this from simply being a disconnected collection of biographies. Foremost, perhaps is Louth’s appraisal of the significance of the Philokalia, a collection of texts published in Greek in 1782, translated first into “church Slavonic” in 1793, later into Russian in 1877, and more recently into English. The Philokalia represent teachings of a number of the early Church Fathers concerning contemplative prayer that provides the groundwork for the “hesychast” (quietness) movement. Louth states:

“It is my contention that the publication of the Philokalia in 1782 can be seen as marking a turning point in Orthodox theology, a move away from the defensiveness of early modern Orthodox theology – the theology of the so-called ‘Symbolic Books’ – to a more confident style of theology, based on the authentic sources of Orthodox theology, namely the Fathers of the Church. This movement of renewal had deep roots and led the Orthodox Churches out of the problems that dogged them at the end of the eighteenth century. It is difficult not to see St Nikodimos as preparing the Greek Church under the Ottoman Empire for the independence it was to achieve in the course of the nineteenth century, providing it with what was needed for its spiritual, liturgical and canonical or structural well-being. The path before it was to be long and hard, and there is still much to be done, as we shall see.”

This book begins with the publication of the Philokalia and a discussion of its significance and concludes with a chapter on Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy Ware), one of the major translators of the Philokalia into English, and one of the most significant translators of Orthodoxy for Westerners.

The organization of the book is roughly chronological, but also follows a course through several countries as well as topics. Louth begins in Russia with poet and thinker Vladimir Solov’ev. Then he follows two generations of emigrés to Paris following the Revolution, the first including Florensky, Bulgakov, Berdayaev, Florovsky, Myrrha Lot-Borodine and Maria Skobtsova. The second generation included Paul Evdokimov, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Schmemann, the latter two key in the development of modern Orthodoxy in America when they left Paris to take positions at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. The trail goes on to Romania, Serbia, Greece and England.

Along the way Louth also explores thinkers significant in Orthodox dogmatic theology (Staniloe and Popovic’) Neo-Palamism (Meyendorff), liturgical theology (Schmemann, Foundoulis, and Vasileios), patristics (Zizioulas and Romanides), the rich tradition of lay theologians (Sherrard, Koutroubis, Yannaras, Ramfos, Behr-Sigel, and Clèment) and the spiritual elders.

One of the things that is striking is the number of women included in the narrative and the other is the number of lay figures who play a major role in Orthodox thought, particularly Philip Sherrard, who in partnership with Metropolitan Kallistos helped translate the Philokalia into English. In many ways, the Revolution, far from destroying Orthodoxy, created a diaspora that resulted both in the missionary spread of Orthodoxy and the theological flourishing of Orthodox thought.

One thing that might have been helpful would have been a glossary of Orthodox terms. Non-Orthodox readers may find themselves at a loss confronting terms like “hesychia” or “Archimandrite” or “Palamite.” Louth does include a helpful bibliography following the chapters of the book including books both by and about the different thinkers. This, and his chapters on each thinker, provides a doorway to further exploring the makers of modern Orthodoxy.

This review summary makes this sound like just so many names, but what Louth does is bring these people to life, with photographs, biographies, and a focus on their distinctive theological contributions, often given to us in their own words. The Orthodox would contend that it is really the rest of us who have split off from them and that they represent a Christianity connected to both conciliar and patristic Christianity. The book acquaints us with how these modern Orthodox thinkers have appropriated these sources, including the collection of writings that make up the Philokalia, to address the spiritual concerns of modern men and women. In recent years, both Protestants and Catholics have been rediscovering these sources as well. Might the Orthodox have something to teach us of the love of God and neighbor, of how God might be encountered afresh in liturgy, in silence, and in life? Louth’s book might help us discover some of those to whom we may listen.

2 thoughts on “Review: Modern Orthodox Thinkers

  1. I think I first learned about the Philokalia from one of Henri Nouwen’s books. He found it very edifying.

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2017 | Bob on Books

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