Theology, the Slavophiles, and the Parish Church


Ivan Kireevsky was born on April 3, 1806, and became in the course of his lifetime one of the leading intellectual forces in the group who would later be called the Slavophiles. They were interested in a revival in Russian thought, particularly along lines they considered distinctly Russian – in comparison to Western thought. Many have noted their errors: sometimes they went too far in making distinctions with the West; sometimes they identified distinctives as Russian that were not Russian at all. But their essential instinct was not incorrect. Russia was under a deluge of Western thought, a love affair with everything identified as “progressive” and “new” in Western Europe. Some of these ideas would eventually play their tragic role in the Revolutions of the 20th century. But an interest in the Slavophiles has continued, not only for historical interest, but also because their insights, if not perfect, frequently held merit. Later thinkers, far better trained, such as Fr. Georges Florovsky, would do a much better job of sorting through the ultimate sources of certain ideas, but the instinct that there was a voice within Orthodoxy that needed to learn to speak for itself and had something of value to say to the rest of the Christian world must, in part, be credited to the Slavophiles. Following is a short excerpt from one of Kireevsky’s essays:

Hence, apart from their different concepts, East and West also differed in the very method of theological and philosophical thinking. For, in seeking to arrive at the truth of speculation, Eastern thinkers were primarily concerned with the proper inner condition of the thinking spirit, while Western thinkers were more interested in the external coherence of concepts. Eastern thinkers, striving for the fullness of truth, sought the inner wholeness of reason – that heart, so to speak. of intellectual powers, where all the separate activities of the spirit merge into a higher and living unity. In contrast, Western philosophers assumed that the complete truth could be discerned by the separated faculties of the mind, acting independently in isolation. They used one faculty to understand moral matters, and another to grasp aesthetic ones; for practical affairs they had yet another; matters of truth were apprehended by the abstract understanding. And none of these faculties knew what any of the others was doing until its action was completed. They assumed that each path led to a final goal, which had to be attained before all paths could unite in combined motion. They deemed frigid ratiocination and the unrestrained sway of sincere passions to be equally legitimate human states; and when Western scholars in the fourteenth century learned that the Eastern contemplative thinkers sought to preserve the serenity of inner wholeness of the spirit, they ridiculed the idea and invented various mocking appellations for it.

From “On the Nature of European Culture and on Its Relationship to Russian Culture”

Here Kireevsky offers a very rich phrase: “the inner wholeness of reason.” This does not seek to attack reason (as I have occasionally seemed to do of late) but rather places it within a context that is unlike its place in modern thought. To be “more concerned with the proper inner condition of the thinking spirit” precisely identifies the Orthodox concern for avoiding delusion. Reason and every other human faculty are not independent of the person in whom they take place. A state of inner confusion or of enslavement to the passions will result in poor reason as well as poor everything else. Thus the first step in Orthodox thought is generally concerned with the inner battle with the passions. Ideas cannot be separated from those who speak them.

In is for this reason that Orthodoxy properly hearkens back to the Fathers, and expects holiness of life to be a rich component even of its contemporary writers. It is for this reason that Orthodoxy famously says, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” For the unity of the inner life is the rich field from which the fruit of the Kingdom is harvested. It is why the question, “Do you know God?” is an important theological and philosophical question and not merely a curiosity left to confessors. If you do not know God, why should I read anything you have written about him?

This insight is a call to repentance to the madness of the Western academy – where publishing books that attack the Tradition are a quicker means of advancement than any concern with the inner life. The result in the West has been to install wolves in the citadels of virtually every teaching institution in the West. There are notable exceptions – particularly among Orthodox academic institutions. The Catholic Church has sought to reign in their own academics, though Protestant thought has almost completely lost its place at the academic table, having been supplanted by radical revisionism.

I recall in 1990, sitting with friends at Duke University who were completing their PhD’s. There was a sense of gloom among those who were believers and conservative in their theological work. The possibility of a job at a first rate institution was almost null. The sadness was that such jobs were being lost to a competition whose credentials were political rather than real.

For me, the growing question was where such thought should take place at all. I came to the conclusion that the parish Church was perhaps the more proper place for theology to be done in our modern world. Not because the local Church had a library – but because it could have a prayer life – and a hunger for God. In time that decision proved most correct. The feast of theology that exists for an Orthodox Christian is to be found in his Church’s prayers. If those same prayers become the language of the heart the result will always be theology – as it was meant to be.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


14 responses to “Theology, the Slavophiles, and the Parish Church”

  1. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The Photo is of the parish church, All Saints of Russia, in Akademgoroduk, outside Novosibirsk, Russia.

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  3. Bosphorus Avatar

    Your last couple of posts chime agreeably with Kierkegaard’s remarkable discourse, “Becoming Sober”, in *Judge for Yourselves*. Have you read it? –The phrase you rightly celebrate above, “the inner wholeness of reason”, is one that helps in elucidating Kierkegaard, who so often is seen as attacking reason. But what he is doing is attacking “reasoning” that occurs external to the inner wholeness of reasoning.

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  5. bblampe Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Your blog is a wonderful, and this topic is especially important to me right now as I consider conversion to Orthdoxy (from Protestant upbringing). Any thoughts on these questions would be of great help:

    1. What would you say is the difference between a cradle Orthodox (or an Orthodox raised in the East) and a Western convert to Orthodoxy in terms of the ability to recognize and understand “Western” thinking versus Eastern? Who is better equipped to discern? Who is more able to play be a healer to the West: one who grew up with it and has been led “out of the cave,” or one who was never confused by it in the first place?

    2. Does this change the way those who are Orthodox and in Academia (not theologians, but say, arts and sciences) “do” scholarship, and what does that look like?

    3. Considering possiblity of Western converts going “overboard” (see
    editorial ), how can we know when/if we are overcorrecting. Should we be thinking in terms of “throwing out” Western inquiry categorically speaking, or should it be a matter of, more modestly, “correcting” Western thought by introducing the missing ingredients preserved by the East (“breathing with both lungs”)?



  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    First, forgive me for not running the editorial link but I read what was essentially a good article. There are appropriate concerns about converts, and there are appropriate concerns about “cradle” Orthodox who may in some cases have only a cursory knowledge of their faith. As to your questions:

    1. I don’t know that there is a large difference, and it is not necessarily important to concentrate on the difference. Except that you will find some Western questions that are not addressed in Orthodoxy because those questions never came up. Or certain “defined” doctrines in the West that were never “defined” in the East – for instance there is a much wider range of metaphors to be found in the East on the doctrine of the atonement than in the modern evangelical West. I will add to that the emphasis, found here in Kireevsky, that theology must be rooted in the life of the theologian (through prayer and ascesis) thus we should not let our head run away from our heart. I have noted elsewhere that it’s a good practice to read no more a day than you pray.

    2. There is some difference in scholarship in some fields. Orthodox theology is not a dominated by secularism as is theology in most of the liberal protestant academies.

    3. Converts easily go overboard everywhere. It is why it is good to a. go to church b. be under the guidance of a priest c. don’t try to “do it yourself” following stuff on the internet (including me). Read mainline material from the larger Orthodox presses (St. Vlad’s, Holy Cross, Conciliar) reading less from some of the more fringe areas. The writers in those publishing venues tend to be more balanced themselves.

    I’m not entirely certain that the issue is breathing with both lungs – I’m not sure the East thinks it’s missing a lung. 🙂 The question is whether certain methods in the West were ever capable of doing theology in a proper integrated manner? It’s not East versus West, but fullness versus something less. Can the fullness of something be found in the West, I think so, but not always. Can it be found in the East, frequently but not without exception.

    None of this can be done without prayer and patience. God will keep us if our desire above all things is to know Him.

  7. Tracy Gustilo Avatar

    Very intriguing idea, Father, that the best place to “do theology’ would be the parish Church. Rather than a seminary? A monastery? A diocesan headquarters (by the bishops)?

    I understand that the only ones who ought to attempt theology would be (by definition) the praying Church, but it’s awfully hard for me to picture “doing theology” in the midst of parish life. Yet if the parish isn’t praying… what, pray tell, is it doing?

    Did the Slavophiles advocate “parish theology” then? As to the west, the parish is surely the place in the Church where east meets west most consistently on a concrete level, as an everyday reality. (Compare high level, diplomatic — usually academic! — “theological commissions.”)

    Hmmm. I would be interested in hearing more. Thanks.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    When I left Duke, I told Stanley Hauerwas, a professor and on my committee, that I was leaving the academy in order to return to parish to do theology. Indeed, I would say that to some degree, a parish is “what theology looks like.” It certainly doesn’t look like words on a page. Either our knowledge of God is enfleshed or it’s nothing.

    It’s hard to do theology in the parish, because we must pray, forgive, love, etc., but where else do we do all that? Bishop’s should not be removed from the parish – my Archbishop lives next door to his cathedral and almost never misses a service when he’s in town (and at age 84). I visit his cathedral and I “see” his theology. It is quite evident.

    My visit to St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex last year was one of the most profound theological experiences of my life. You don’t hear a lot of talk there – you just see the living expression. Then, if you read Fr. Sophrony’s writings, they make so much more sense.

  9. ddickens Avatar

    There is something quite suddenly repulsive about philosophy and theology which are abstracted from the person doing the thinking.

    Maybe I’ve learned something in the last few months.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed it is odd in abstraction. The twentieth century produced a number of famous Protestant theologians who later in life proved have been adulterers, etc., without mentioning names. It doesn’t necessarily negate what they said, but it does show the problem of working on theology in the abstract, when, apparently, we are saved or lost quite concretely.

  11. Alyssa Sophia Avatar
    Alyssa Sophia

    Praise God that you chose to “do theology” in the parish, Fr. Stephen! For your sake and for our/my sake…


  12. cp Avatar

    With all due respect, Father, I don’t think the Protestants are alone in this.

  13. […] A good phrase “the inner wholeness of reason.” from Fr Stephan at Glory to God for All Things. […]

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    cp, doubtless you are correct. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to have changed in any way the consideration that it might have effected their writing. It is again the secular compartmentalization of our lives. I would be just as concerned for this among the Orthodox. Sin is serious everywhere. I was speaking, at least by way of knoweldge, of things within liberal protestant circles. I am not as familiar with evangelicals. But we should assume a consistency.

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