Healing the Religious Tragedy of the Christian World

This was written and posted in January of ’08. Comments within a recent post make it seem worth re-posting. The works of Fr. Georges Florovsky, referenced in the article, are themselves a quiet tragedy. They have languished out-of-print for most of a generation under the legal burden of copyright problems (a complicated story). I managed to collect and read his works when I was in graduate school at Duke. My dogmatics professor when I was in seminary had done his doctorate under Florovsky at Harvard. I had been influenced by him long before I read him. An argument could easily be made that he was the most important theological figure in 20th century Orthodox life. Some of his work can be found in “print” on the net. Anything he has written is worth the time to find and read.


Last October I ran the following quote from Fr. Georges Florovsky:

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges FlorovskyWays of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

Florovsky is arguably the most important Orthodox voice of the 20th century. He argued and demonstrated time and again what he referred to as a “neo-patristic synthesis,” a clarion call for Orthodox theology to return to its roots in the Fathers and within the Orthodox Tradition. Many would today be surprised that Orthodox theology was ever otherwise – but in Florovsky’s youth, theological academies in Russia were heavily influenced by the West (from both Protestant and Catholic directions – classes in some cases were conducted in Latin), as well as those in Greece and elsewhere. There are few Orthodox theologians writing today, who have not drunk deep from the wells that Florovsky argued for. Vladimir Lossky was a protege; Met. John Zizioulas considered himself a student of Florovsky; Fr. Alexander Schmemann was a colleague both in France and in America. The landscape of Orthodox theology at the beginning of the 21st century would likely look much different had Florovsky not lived and wrote and taught.

His own view of the role of Orthodox theology, written in the mid-twentieth century, would likely have to be revised at this point in the early 21st century, even though the task he set for Orthodox theology has never been completed (and rarely attempted). The landscape of the Church has changed. The Orthodox Church that Florovsky addressed consisted almost entirely of those who had been born to the faith. Though revolution and other circumstances had created a “diaspora,” placing many Orthodox in the West – the Church was still an Eastern Church with converts being rare and frequently turned away.

Today, Orthodoxy in America is quickly becoming “native.” Both converts whose roots have always been in the West, as well as the descendants of original diaspora Orthodox becoming “Westernized,” the Orthodox Church in many places in the West today can speak of itself as “Eastern” only as an historical artifact. Its converts have not become “Eastern” in the process of becoming Orthodox – we have not become citizens of a foreign culture. Deeply influenced and immersed in Eastern experience – yes. But I would contend that converts have become to a great extent individual examples of Florovsky’s original proposal. They are now Orthodox Christians who have personally experienced the “western religious tragedy.” As a result of that tragedy they have come to Orthodoxy, but never as a tabula rasa. Every convert who enters the Church brings with them, in some fashion, the inheritance of centuries – problems not of their own creation but inherent to the West and to the modern Western world. To a large extent the problems of the “West” have now become universal problems for the simple reason that Western culture has become the dominant culture of the world. Others have our problems whether they want them or not. As converts within the West or even just Orthodox living in the West the inner encounter between Orthodoxy and Western experience is unavoidable.

Thus I see Florovsky as a “prophet” of sorts, but with the playing field drastically changed. He did not see the consequences of an Orthodoxy that could speak English (or French, or Spanish, or any number of other “Western” languages). Interestingly, my primary dogmatics professor, when I was an Anglican seminarian, had done his doctoral work under Florovsky at Harvard. His voice and vision echoed in that professor’s classes. How many Anglicans wrote papers on St. Gregory Palamas in earlier decades? I can recall reading Palamas (who was just beginning to be translated into English) and bringing his thought to bear on the problems raised in my theology classes. It was Florovsky’s vision – but in an entirely different setting. It is not surprising that I should have eventually become Orthodox – it is where the answers to my questions had always been.

Today, in ways and in places that many would not think of as “theological” in the formal sense, Florovsky’s vision is being fulfilled. We are the West – all of us who live here and many who do not. And within our own hearts is the crucible of Western tragedy meeting the patristic synthesis of the Orthodox East. At first the encounter can feel almost schizophrenic. It is all too easy to simply be anti-Western. But this is not an answer – just a reaction. God is not anti-Western, else He would have withheld Orthodoxy from us. But He has not withheld it. He has plunged it into the very midst of our culture with the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. And in the hearts of His people this great encounter of patristic theology – the living inheritance of the Christian Church – meets all the various forms that the “Western religious tragedy” has taken. I believe the meeting that takes place in the heart is not to condemn the tragedy (for Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world) but that through such an encounter the tragedy might be raised from its own brokenness into the fullness of the Church.

I write as an Orthodox Christian – but I cannot pretend that there is nothing “Western” in what I do. Who would I be kidding? By the same token, I daresay that no other Orthodox writer in the West, including those born within the faith, can claim to do otherwise. Florovsky’s vision is not an enterprise to be undertaken – it is a prophecy of an inevitability. It is an inevitability because God so loved the world. There are no tragedies that God does not take into Himself – no failures that he has disowned. He has become what we are that we might become what He is – and it is happening before our very eyes.

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.





42 responses to “Healing the Religious Tragedy of the Christian World”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: East and West. Patriarch Kyril of Moscow and All Russia, and Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA. Met. Jonah is a convert to Orthodoxy, having been received into the faith during his college years.

  2. Neil Sautter Avatar
    Neil Sautter

    I am so full of gratitude that God has plunged the Orthodox Church into North America and has recently plunged me and my family of seven children and my dear wife into the Ark of Orthodoxy. We have tested the gamut of Protestant thought and practice and by all accounts I should be a good Lutheran as my paternal grandparents came from southern Germany. We are recent catechumens and I do chuckle at times that we do not fit the classical ethnic mold of eastern Orthodoxy. Yet, in some measure we do have ties to the “Old Country” as our priest, a 30-40 year convert from the Nazerene church, has a daughter who lives in Greece and is married to a priest and is raising a family there. We were hungry for truth and the Church found us and is teaching us her ways of righteousness. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst…, for they shall be filled.”

  3. Fr. Peter Avatar

    Father thank you for this thoughtful post. There is much food for thought here. I only wish his writings were available again to the entire world.

  4. +Ioannis Avatar

    >”Its converts have not become ‘Eastern’ in the process of becoming Orthodox”

    But they have, each one. It’s what fed their yearning for the True Faith. It is the Eastern phronema they incarnate, the localised tradition of the transcendent Tradition. Surely one may cite cradle or “Eastern”-born Orthodox who’ve yet to wear this crown of glory. Eastern or Greek or Hellenic are not spatiotemporal geographical markers; it is the heart of the Orthodox cradle and converts – living the Tradition from home to the market and through the sacraments of the Church – that make us unlike the Western mindset or Latinized lebensraum. Perhaps existentially many of us are Western in certain behaviours and lifestyle accommodations, but as Orthodox – all of us, pan-jurisdictional (though we cringe to admit) – are of a common mentality, yet greater of a common heart, the one passed on to us by those greater than we – nonetheless, we are the present repository of that Eastern/Hellenic/Greek-not-Western/Latin/et-al. vision and wisdom of creation, of humanity, and of the Holy Trinity. Many bicker and banter about the exoteric expressions of the canons and parish life, keeping pan-Orthodox unity at bay, but surely more appreciate and embrace the esoteric life of the Church despite our humble nature yet to be perfected through the phronema given us through the Tradition. Thank you for your blog, and for posting this lengthy epistle.

  5. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Polemics is something that the east and the west have both engaged in. The word is derived from the Greek word polemikos (πολεμικος), which means “warlike,” “hostile”. It’s probably the most natural thing in the world to do. I do it constantly. However, I’ve never seen how it can be reconciled with a radical living out of the gosple.

  6. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    I found the article a bit condescending in that it ignores the culpability of the East in any failure. I think the rise of militant secularism, atheism, and relativism can no more be blamed on the West than the East. These are shared failures.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree with you. However, it’s a different use of “Eastern” than I intended. The theological sense in which it is descriptive of the “phronema” of Orthodoxy would not be apparent to most readers.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Didn’t mean to affix blame – though the tragedy of the East is probably a subset of the larger Western tragedy – a boat in which we now co-habit. Secularism, I believe, has its roots in the cultural and intellectual forces unleashed by the Reformation (along with other accompanying ills). No one intended these things exactly but they’ve been unleashed and are working tragedy everywhere.

    It is difficult to say there is shared failures (there are failures for both no doubt) when Orthodoxy has spent the last 500 years or more under a variety of oppressive yokes – some from the West and some from Islam. Orthodoxy has not stood as an equal contributor to the rise of modern civilization. It has survived into the modern world, but it did not create it.

    Florovsky’s contention was that there was and is a repository of Christian experience within the Orthodox faith (that is its heart) that is fully patristic and with a wholeness that is elsewhere lacking. I think he would have contended that the Roman Catholic Church had long distanced itself from its earliest patristic moorings and had become mired in diversions – though I do not think he was interested in pressing that or engaging it as a polemic. Rather, just as he called Orthodoxy back to its core experience and proper roots – so he believed that the whole of the Christian world needed to be engaged by that reality and in that engagement find healing.

    I would think that some of John Paul II’s very favorable attitudes towards the Christian East was a recognition of some part of this.

    I do not believe it to be condescending – but a call within Orthodoxy to accept a cross within its life in modern world. Only in the shared experience of that cross will there be healing. Everything else either falls short or simply dissolves in polemics which, by now, everyone has so mastered that there is nothing new to be said.

  9. Andrew of Homer, AK Avatar
    Andrew of Homer, AK

    It seems there is an interesting juxtaposition between the intellectual call to return to Patristic roots of Fr Georges Florovsky at Harvard, and at a similar time, Elder Joseph the Hesychast’s call to return to the Hesychastic practice on Mt. Athos. Both it appears have led to a revival of the truth of Orthodoxy.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    The juxtaposition was not accidental. There were direct connections between some of Florovsky’s most influential students and the renewed Hesychast practice on Mt. Athos. The monasteries in Brookline, MA, that today are part of an Old Calendar group that is in schism with the main body of Orthodoxy, had their root originally in efforts that were both conversant with Florovsky as well as the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos. There is a very interesting dissertation by an Orthodox convert that covers some of the inner life of 20th century Orthodox theology. It’s work with private correspondence between Fr. Florovsky and Fr. John Romanides (one of his students) is quite interesting. It’s a good read. It may be downloaded at https://beardocs.baylor.edu/bitstream/2104/4847/1/daniel_payne_phd.pdf

  11. Abba Poemon the Ubermensch Avatar


    A question from one of your many “lurkers” who often happily read your blog but rarely post — you wrote at the end of one of your comments above that

    “I do not believe it to be condescending – but a call within Orthodoxy to accept a cross within its life in modern world. Only in the shared experience of that cross will there be healing.”

    What do you mean when you write about the cross in this way? It sounds to me like you mean that by enduring the consequences of late modernity and all of its confusions, while also holding fast to the vision of God in Jesus Christ, we Orthodox will somehow find a way to heal the current troubles of modernity. Is that what you’re saying?

    Forgive me if the answer should be apparent to me. I often miss the obvious. Pray for me, father!

    God’s Peace

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think you summed it up very well!

    What I think we should avoid is a “triumphalism” with regard to modernity and its crises. Christ would not do this. Some would convert to the Orthodox faith and then turn on the very disaster they’ve just left, shake the dust of their sandals off, and proceed to judge. I don’t think we’re called to this – but to recognize that we have been saved in order to be crucified (which is also our salvation). I carry in myself, whether I like it or not, the “religious tragedy of the West.” It’s not healthy to deny its presence. Rather, it is right to bring this existential fact into union with Christ and His self-emptying love. At that point, at that suffering and healing point, it is possible that I might have something to say that is of use to those around me. At least I believe that is the calling – despite how miserably I fail in its execution.

  13. Cheryl Avatar

    “It is an inevitability because God so loved the world. There are no tragedies that God does not take into Himself – no failures that he has disowned. He has become what we are that we might become what He is – and it is happening before our very eyes.”

    I could weep over the beauty contained in these last two sentences.

    Thank you for this post, so helpful to me as I’m trying to navigate and find my own place in Orthodoxy without jumping to condemn all of the West that I was raised in [and in some ways, has led me to ask the questions that Orthodoxy answered].

  14. St. Susanna Avatar
    St. Susanna

    Very interesting post, Father. Thank you. I am still pondering it all. One thing initially disquieting to me is that in emphasizing that we can’t entirely escape our Western thinking, and that the Church has now come to the West, you seem to be criticizing the “anti-Western” converts to Orthodoxy who nonetheless want to try as best they can to escape the tragedy of Western religion in their quest to be truly Orthodox. But I see equally those converts who do not even recognize how thoroughly they have been victims of this tragedy and who are content to incorporate wholesale into Orthodoxy all kinds of Western dogma, ideas, spirit and styles. They don’t even pause for a moment to consider whether the ways they have done things in the past as Catholics and Protestants are consistent with Orthodoxy. They assume, with that Western confidence and pride, that there’s even something universally correct about those ways and so of course that’s the way they should be done in Orthodoxy. So, for example, they think that “if this is the way I did evangelism as a Protestant, there’s no problem with me continuing to do it that way under an Orthodox label and in fact, I need to teach the Orthodox a thing or two about how to really evangelize (i.e. do it the way Protestants do it).” It makes me want to ignore converts altogether, even though I am one myself, and bury myself in the Church Fathers and the saints and theologians of the more distant past. It’s hard enough to recognize the legacy of the tragedy in my own thinking, let alone to receive my understanding of Orthodoxy through the filters of those who may not even recognize the extent to which they’ve been afflicted by the tragedy. And yet, I gratefully read your blog because I do benefit from other converts who sincerely struggle with reconciling their Western culture and their Orthodox Faith. So thank you again!

  15. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Yes they were oppressive yokes, but they are the ‘Great Tragedies of the East’ that have contributed their fair share of the problems in Europe and the West. Those oppressive yokes are worldwide errors (Islam and Communism) that were allowed to grow entirely in the Orthodox East, and they still threaten the world today like never before. Marx may have been German, but the movement spread from Orthodox Russia. They certainly were not born out of the Reformation, yet they have a role to play in the current demise of Western society. And what of Orthodox Russia, which is still a tragedy in itself? Half the people are still unchurched. It is easy to tie the failure of the West into a failure of Western Christian doctrine, but it is an all too convenient scapegoat for Orthodox to affirm themselves. The personal failure of people is not a failure of the Church. She has always remained spotless. Just as the Russian Orthodox Church initially embraced the communist revolution(before they became victims), I would not say this is a failure of Orthodox doctrine. I would rather say this is a failure of people. But if Catholics are to be “diagnosed” by those who’d offer assistance, who might they be? Where is the Eastern Orthodox model on display in the public square, in challenging these threats? The Eastern Orthodox have a long history of being disengaged from the world. It was the West that contained Islam at great cost, and it was the West(RCC in particular) that brought down Communism at great cost. Yet they are bigger threats than ever because they both have evolved into more dangerous and digestible strains. It is Western Christianity that challenges abortion, euthanasia and the culture of death. It is the Western Christianity that actively campaigns to uphold the dignity and sanctity of marriage in the public square. When people attack Western Christianity, they naturally attack the RCC, because she can be effective, but she is basically out there alone. And yes the RCC is now suffering, weak and wounded because its enemies are gaining everywhere. But the answer is not Eastern Orthodoxy for us, just as Greek Orthodoxy would not have been an answer for the ROC who were in their death throes from Stalin. We Catholics already enjoy the fullness of the Faith and we certainly do not have anything less than our Eastern Orthodox brothers, so the offers of a diagnosis is just passivity at best and proselytism at worst. One need only read any one of Pope Benedict XVI recent speeches in lapsing Czechoslovakia to know that we have no need of a diagnosis. We already know the stakes, and the problem. http://cnsblog.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/popes-talk-to-academic-leaders-in-prague/

    I don’t see the problem as the rise of Western civilization. I see it as its current and perhaps inevitable fall. What I see happening is not caused by the long forgotten Reformation. I would bet that 9 out of 10 people don’t even know what the Reformation is or what counter-knowledge came out of it. It is rather the offspring of atheistic communism in its new strains that threatens the world today. It is secular humanism, secular atheism, socialism, and moral relativism. There is no longer an Eastern Civilization to cling to, so the Eastern Orthodox ignore the situation in the West at their own peril.

  16. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! So many good thoughts to mull over. . . . There is a half-full, half-empty tug-of-war with my evangelical protestant past as I seek to assimilate my Orthodox faith. In some ways the ground has shifted so much that it’s almost like an entirely new landscape to seek to live faithful to Christ as an Orthodox Christian. It is definitely not like changing from Methodist to Baptist, or even Baptist to Catholic (though perhaps that is a bit closer). Like Cheryl, I acknowledge (with respect where such is due) that it was my heritage that led me to be asking the questions that I only found satisfactory answers to in Orthodoxy. I respond to “triumphalist” Orthodox attitudes by wanting to defend the many ways my background facilitated the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart, but I feel equally strong reservations about any “dumbing down” of Orthodox traditions to suit modern tastes and the phenomena St. Susanna describes in her comment above (importing methods of evangelism from protestant models, etc.).

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    St Susanna,

    There is always the balance. Would that I could criticize all and criticize none! The heart of this article, I think, is in its call to the Cross – and I think especially for those of us who have experienced the tragedy of religion in the West. Would that all of us could rush to the Cross and embrace its self-emptying love! It is true that for many, there is a period in conversion in which they must needs repudiate many things (and should). But having done so, they should turn and embrace in love those whom they have left behind and recognize the larger nature of the crisis that faces the West (and here the East abides almost theoretically), and serve their brothers and sisters in self-emptying love.

    I have no greater desire in my writing than to address the tragedy of our Western religious life and to bring it into a saving relationship with what I know in the treasure of Orthodoxy.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Florovsky would and did see Russia at the time of the Revolution as largely Westernized and a large part of the Church under a Western yoke. Such weakness certainly allowed for the rise of Marxism (a Western import). Nor is the rise of Islam correctly identified as a “weakness of the East.” Secularism is the offspring, however illegitimate of the modern world, which has its birth in the Enlightenment and Reformation (not all of the Reformation or Enlightenment). Saying that is not to affix blame, only to correctly identify origins and causes so as to correctly identify possible solutions – which ultimately are only found in the living out of the faith in its fullness (whether we solve the problem of civilization or not). God alone knows how all this turns out. I believe that it turns out that Christ redeems us – though the Scriptures would say that such final redemption comes after a great falling away. What time it is now, God only knows.

  19. Sarah Elliott Avatar
    Sarah Elliott

    Fr. Stephen,

    I long for Orthodoxy to be properly plunged into the midst of the hungering and thirsting population here in Australia, and to be accessible to we who are Western, ‘Anglo’, from a mixed Christian herritage.

    The Orthodox Church is around 10-15 years behind the US in this respect; So much of Orthodox theology (what I’ve been able to glean from this blog and other sites) resonates with me in a deep way words can’t describe, and believe you me, having spent 21 years as a Seventh Day Adventist (from age 13-34) only to find my way back to Anglicanism (very challenging journey in and of itself) to experience so much more is a craving within me – but where to go? Greek orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and every other permutation in between all adhering to their homeland cultural cues and mores that render the Orthodox landscape here more like a group of embassies rather than accessible Christian communities). I’ve tried ethno-specific church before and came away feeling ehm,

    Then there’s access to a variety of material in English, and more importantly for me, in a medium that is accessible due to vision impairment. (to see how VI access PC’s, see http://www.humanware.com, http://www.freedomscientific.com and http://www.serotek.com )

    I am inspired by your work, the progress orthodoxy seems to be making in North America and the UK, but its still a gated community to a great extent here in australia, with the gates largely closed to ‘Anglos’. What’s a girl to do? I am left wondering what God’s plan is for me, here… Pray for Australia and the various Orthodox churches here that progress can be made so that I, an Aussie, and others like me, can truly access this rich faith, that, I believe holds the answers to Christianity in the 21st century; Might this century be the Orthodox century?


    PS: this might sound like a stupid question, but I assure you it isn’t; how does someone with a vision impairment interact with the practice of Icon veneration? Is there a tradition of carving, sculpture or statuary? unwelcome. (perhaps other Australians have experienced this also).

  20. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    Father Stephen,

    I think it might be helpful to understand better just what the Western religious tragedy you speak of is. What is, at root, the difference?

    Toward that end, I make this feeble beginning. I think one might start with this question: “How are we, who are not of this world, to show the love of God to the world?” This is a vexed question. And I think that it is answered by the West in a different way than the East.

    In the West we try to make the Faith reasonable and socially acceptable. Something that anyone could live with and makes one feel welcome. While the East puts forth a Faith that is mysterious and odd. (from the world’s point of view)

    The Western approach inevitably makes the Church more worldly, taking on the world’s ways of thinking and doing things. And that will always lead to a tragedy. The East tries this, once in a while, too. And with the same results. The cross you speak of, I think, means that we will become even more mysterious and odder still. But, of course, that is an attractive thing to those of us being saved.

    But, if I get your meaning, we should not ever be odd for oddness sake. We can be odd in a redemptive way. We should, oddly enough, adapt our ancient medicine to modern tastes. Our odd, self-emptying, attitude, real love, should go a long way to that end.

    The Lord taught us that the world will hate us. Then He said that they will know we are Christians by our love. I look for Orthodoxy to show the love of God to the world in a real way.

  21. Sarah Elliott Avatar
    Sarah Elliott

    I understand ‘odd’; one doesn’t spend as much time as a Sev, a faith with practices and understandings very different from the world around us without embracing the ‘odd’, the ‘peculiar’, not for peculiarity’s sake alone, but because we’re called to life in Christ that by its very nature is inately different to the life of the world around us. re church ‘compromising’ to present itself in a more palletable light to the outside world, this is reaking all manner of havoc upon the Anglican Church worldwide (and I see it in the Catholic institution where I’m currently studying theology. I think it is this at once fresh and ancient approach to our standing before God and understanding of ourselves that is calling so many of us in the West to seriously consider Orthodoxy ; but where to start how to approach, how to entre in when even language itself precludes… Wish we had more like yourself out here, Fr. Stephen.

    Should one simply take the plunge and hope that (especially in my situation) that a second go around with ethno specific church might work rather than waiting for Orthadoxy to plant itself within Anglo communities (as it has done in North America and the UK very successfully).



  22. Collator Avatar

    Islam arose in pagan western Arabia. It imposed itself on the Christian Middle East, just as it did on Christian North Africa, Iberia, and Sicily (and simultaneously on Zoroastrian Persia). It makes no sense to pin the blame for the rise of Islam on the Christian East alone.
    Where did you read that the Russian Orthodox Church embraced communism initially? Certainly there were some who approved of the initial revolution (of moderate socialists — by no means Red communists), as there had been many believers, both clergy and lay, who had been keenly aware of the problems of Czarist Russia and advocated some kind of political reform in order to address them. But how could the Church embrace the radically anti-Christian Bolsheviks? If you are referring to the declaration of support for the Soviet state by Patriarch Sergius in the late 1920s, you might wish to consider how much duress was involved in that action, and how little it reflected the real sentiments of the Russian Orthodox faithful.
    As for engagement with the world, your accusation that the Orthodox have a long history of being disengaged with the world is inaccurate for most of the past 2000 years. The Church was deeply involved in the life of the world (and for the life of the world) in medieval Byzantium, Serbia, Russia, etc. (as it was in the medieval West, although the actual nature of socio-political involvement began to differ substantially with the rise of the Papacy in Western Europe). Even today, the Church in Greece (as one example) tries to be involved in the life of society, although in my opinion this is done in a clumsy and counter-productive way. But you can’t say that they don’t try!
    Your point about the voice of the Orthodox Church on controversial modern issues in the West is, however, well-taken. Perhaps it would not speak in exactly the same way as the RCC has, but there is certainly need for more of a witness. And especially among our own people, who often do not know, or consciously ignore or even reject, the Church’s teaching on issues such as abortion.

  23. Collator Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen, Dusty Henry, et al.

    The theological problem of the divergence of the West from Orthodox doctrine (speaking from an Orthodox point of view) should probably be attributed, on the one hand, to “the mystery of lawlessness that is already working in the world”, to which St. Paul refers.

    But from a historical point of view, I think it is important to consider the discrete stages in this divergence. The particular problem is that they are already apparent at a very early stage: doctrines such as the Filioque, Original Sin (in the RCC understanding), and the monarchical Papacy all have very old roots in the West (some of these going back as far as St. Hilary and St. Augustine, if not St. Cyprian of Carthage) — although of course, the significance of such phrases in their works can and should be debated from an Orthodox patristic point of view. Of course, the final schism did not occur till much later. During the first few Christian centuries, the more spectacular heresies (e.g. Arianism, Nestorianism) appeared in the East (incidentally helping establish the self-consciousness of the Roman see as the only persistently Orthodox one). But the errors that we debate now (Filioque, etc. mentioned above) were being harbored, less noticeably, in the bosom of the Christian West. Some would argue that they were ignored by Eastern theologians eager to gain support for their battles against heretical emperors and patriarchs.

    In short, to use but one example, why did the West not follow the path of St. John Cassian rather than that of St. Augustine? Was this due to certain innate tendencies in Western Roman thought (as opposed to Eastern Roman — essentially, Latin vs. Greek), especially when further influenced by the tremendous shocks and shifts of the barbarian conquests, by Germans and others?

    Yet, is it even proper to consider Church history in this way, based on the models of historical contingency and causation used in more mundane types of history?

  24. Abba Poemon the Ubermensch Avatar


    I liked much of what you wrote, and as a Celt, whose people are traditionally Roman Catholic, I am sympathetic to your defense of the West. You are right to cite the things you do to tear down the strawmen put up when Orthodox talk about “East” and “West,” referring to the latter with a sloppy categorical brush that ignores not only small details, but large and glaring facts. (I would hope you would be equally stern with those Roman Catholic converts who do something similar from the “other side.”)

    When you wrote:
    “I don’t see the problem as the rise of Western civilization. I see it as its current and perhaps inevitable fall. What I see happening is not caused by the long forgotten Reformation. I would bet that 9 out of 10 people don’t even know what the Reformation is or what counter-knowledge came out of it. It is rather the offspring of atheistic communism in its new strains that threatens the world today. It is secular humanism, secular atheism, socialism, and moral relativism.”

    “There is no longer an Eastern Civilization to cling to, so the Eastern Orthodox ignore the situation in the West at their own peril.”

    Your last point makes Eastern and Western Civilizations into two different things, and I’m not sure how different they were at first culturally. That’s for someone who knows better to answer. I think we should defend the West as best we can against those forces of decay that threaten it, and that’s what Fr. Stephen is writing about here, I think, in a way that we Orthodox would go about it, which is not programs, but asceticism in response to the showing of Jesus Christ.

    I thought I should write something about the first part of the end to your comment, though.

    The things you address as being currently problematic _do_ all have their roots in the Protestant Reformation, or rather, in the European religious wars that follow from the Reformation. The nation-state needs one law for all its members, and it needs to be able to legitimate its laws, and for that it needs a court of appeal that is greater than the nation-state (or so it was). The theological tradition of the West provided this. When that tradition was up for debate, and there was no shared point of reference between the various parties within the nation state about what Christianity was or how to do theology, then theology was no longer a viable option for securing the legitimacy of legislation. Anthropology became the way that this was done after the religious wars, as it was thought that human nature was agreed upon, and thus the West in legal practice moved from being theo-centric to anthropo-centric. As you can see from our current cultural wars, incommensurable traditions yield different understandings of the human, and (despite what some people wish to say) no empirical research from our scientific tradition can negotiate between the various schools, even if it serves as a useful critical tool in eliminating positions that are empirically testable and empirically fallacious. If you are going to say that the real enemies are “secular humanism, secular atheism, socialism, and moral relativism,” then you should look carefully at the geneaology of these things. (BTW, I’m not really sure what the difference between “secular humanism” and “secular atheism” is – do you mean, by the latter, nihilism? Or are you contrasting the latter with “theistic atheism?”). All of the things you have cited here have their roots in the West’s rejection of its own tradition, for reasons that need to be looked at carefully, and not polemically. I do not think we can say that the decline of the West was inevitable.

    That being said (and it needs to be understood), I cannot imagine how this situation would place culpability at the hands of the inheritors of the Western Christian traditions, though they have a great amount of reflecting to do, _as_do_we_all_. Everyone lives in the ruins of this mess. I have my criticisms of certain Roman practices that I think are actively unhelpful, and I think that Orthodoxy is essentially (if not always practically) free of them, but these aren’t anything a layman can do anything about. Affixing blame is not the point of Fr. Stephen’s post, though, and wisely so – I think he’s said that we’re all in this together, and he’s quite right.

    What he _has_ written is (I think) that the religious difficulties of the West can only be overcome by union with God in the place we’re actually located. There is no blame-game that will solve our problems, only the Cross will. Only by uprooting the passions, being transfigured, in union with Christ, receiving the divine humanity that flows from him in the Spirit, and then letting the issue of this divine radiance flow from us in transfigured glory, can we hope to do anything. So, friend, I exhort you to always have your Breviary at your side and on your lips, keep the book of the Gospels close to your bed and your heart, search your soul on your bed for sins committed that day known and unknown, and be mindful of Christ in all things, loving your neighbors relentlessly but thoughtfully. Find a good father confessor. Do not be negligent in fasting, or in attending the Mass.

    And forgive me if I was stern with you, Irenaeus.

    Pax et Bonum Tecum,
    The son of Elidyr

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fortunately, Florovsky’s point in all this is existential and not polemical. Though it’s clear that we stand at polemic’s edge – both East and West. And this is part of the tragedy. We will either face the Tragedy in the embrace of the Cross – in it’s full and existential dimension – or we’ll face it in the nakedness of the Abyss. But it looms before us, I believe, whether we see it or not.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do apologize for what can easily be a one-sided analysis on East-West matters. Eastern Civilization (or the Eastern part of Western civilization) can look very different when seen from within – in many cases it has largely been a captive or compromised civilization for such a long time. And the Church’s part in Western civilization has long been weakened, such that what was long ago unleashed here has been running on its on for ever-so-long.

    The “tragedy” described by Florovsky, is described differently depending upon where you stand (East-West). But, quite hopeful, is his contention that the tragedy is not someone else’s to heal, but is to be embraced. Thus the East cannot live in the West (as we all live beside and within one another now) as if it had no share in the life of the West (or vice-versa). Rather than live as the resident critic – it should live as a pilgrim who gathers even the tragedy into itself and within its inner life bring forth healing. It is a very gracious approach rather than a polemical approach. If I failed in making that clear – in either the post or my comments – I apologize. I have my own “buttons” and my own polemics can start shining forth even when it is not what I intended.

    May deepest prayer for a good day for all!

  27. dale Avatar

    Sarah Very interesting… your question regarding the role of sight in veneration of icons got me thinking. Our Matushka has been completely blind since birth and so she knows a thing or two about visual impairment. I can’t speak for her and won’t but I will say that she always venerates the icons and cross. I can’t say I thought much about the depth of that before now but there appears to me to be a spiritual truth expressed in this that is important. I will merely mention a few points that struck me and am willing to be corrected if I am off base here which is more than possible.

    First, we all have differing capacities for perception or “sight” One who is visually impaired may “see” the icon with more clarity than my hardened heart but more functional eyes. At one level those of us who are blind (physically or spiritually) trust the guidance of the Church in this act of veneration.

    Second, we do not venerate things because of how they affect us but for what they are… i.e. it is not a matter of if I appreciate the beauty of the icon or because it benefits me (although they are beautiful and do benefit me) but I venerate because it is an icon worthy to be venerated (the Church guides us in knowing what is worthy).

    Last thought is extending this thought to those around me. I f I am to venerate icons not for my perception of how they benefit me but because they are icons and people are icons of Christ then how do I continue to neglect those around me. I know there are many around me that I do not perceive with spiritual eyes and am quick to reject; the homeless, criminals, mentally ill, or even just the people I find irritating.

    Lord have mercy on me, a blind and disobedient sinner.

  28. Robert Avatar

    In spite of all the hoopla, our incessant attempts to understand and analyze, it all still comes down to asceticism at the end of the day. It is a way of life, or rather of being, that counts.

  29. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    If we look to that famous march in Russia, which was for workers rights (to the winter palace). It was actually led by a Russian Orthodox priest with a procession of icons and faithful (Fr Gapon?). They were met with bullets. This was the bloody Sunday Massacre that not only galvanized a largely oppressed people, but many clergy too. This impacted many Russian Orthodox negatively against the imperial family, and I don’t think the clergy spoke with one voice initially. It is also true that the ROC was going through a tremendous period of internal reform at the time which added to the confusion and anger and internal division on how to respond to what was happening. As for the book I am thinking of, it is “Red priests” By Edward E. Roslof (http://www.amazon.com/Red-Priests-Renovationism-Orthodoxy-Revolution/dp/0253341280).

    Abba Poemon the Ubermensch, Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for your words. I know there was no mal intent in any of this. And I apologize to you both if my responses were too sharp. However, let me explain my reasons for evaluating things differently. As I understand it, Marx was post enlightenment, and he was of other sensibilities and traditions than Christian. So I don’t see his work as being a derivative of Western Christian thought because he borrowed a few concepts from the likes of Kant or Hegel to make a point. If I take the names of a few prophets from of a bible and add mostly my own stuff to form a religion (i.e. Islam) can I still say its origin is Judaism? I think there can be valid disagreements on how much revision makes something new. Even still, bad writing is harmless unless it is given fertile ground to grow into a movement. That fertile ground for Marxism was in Orthodox Russia for a number of reasons. To answer the claim of it being a Western import, I feel there was no place in the West to import communism from, because it was rejected everywhere else. Russia was the first to create this style of government and became the first major exporter. There was surely Western imports of money to fund the revolution…but this was at the request of bad elements that already existed within her borders. Also, how would one reconcile Leninism and Stalinism which were purely Russian inventions? Marxism merely gave them the welfare state whereby the other two introduced the Gulags, Cheka, KGB, etc. As Solzhenitsyn summed up the revolution, he said “Men have forgotten God. That’s why all this has happened.”. This is precisely what is happening in Europe now. Communism erased the religion of over a billion people in this world. Eastern Europe is almost half of Europe’s population, so their fate is tied up with that of the West whether they like it or not. When the iron curtain fell, what happened to all these people who were catechized with atheism? There is a living memory of communism where there is not one of the enlightenment. Many emigrated(the Russian population actually decreased), and most remained atheist or agnostic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the West has since been questioning the veracity of capitalism, and shamelessly giving former communists(different strains, or more palatable versions) platforms to speak in institution of higher learning, the media and govt. Do I think that is 100% of why the West fading? Not at all, but I think it’s what I would term the fair share of the East if we are going by the criteria in the original blog post.
    One other thought I had was, if we are going back to the Reformation and the Enlightenment… why stop there? What of the materialism of Epicurus, Lucretius and Aristotles impact on Marx? Has anyone ever looked at the link between the fall of Byzantine Empire and its mass exodus contributing to the rise of the West? It might be also helpful to remember that most every heresy that came out of the East in the early church arose out of the schools of higher learning. So why does the search for the origin stop in the West in this case? Did not the intellectuals of the East bolster the schools of the West for over a 100 years in a steady migration before and after the fall of Constantinople? I agree that the East was not an equal partner in the rise of West, but neither was the West an equal partner in the rise of Communism. The other point that was made about Russia being westernized at the time of the revolution cannot be so because they were still trying to extract themselves from what can only be described as the feudal system. The serfs were only emancipated a decade or two before, and they only received other basic rights(i.e. voting, property) just before the revolution. They were still largely poor and oppressed.

    (BTW, I’m not really sure what the difference between “secular humanism” and “secular atheism” is – do you mean, by the latter, nihilism? Or are you contrasting the latter with “theistic atheism?”).

    I was thinking of secularism in the sense of that political activism which allows humanism and atheism to grow by forcing religion into the private sphere or all together underground. I probably shouldn’t use the terms together that way. I also have a bad habit of looking at things like atheism and humanism as religions in themselves. In the words of Fr Rutler, they just happen to believe in 4+ billion gods.

    In closing, I do hold Eastern Orthodoxy in very high esteem. My desire is only to give an alternate perspective to what was proposed.

  30. Sarah Elliott Avatar
    Sarah Elliott

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your understanding of the question of ‘sight’ and ‘blindness’ resonates with me very deeply; even though I may not be able to see an icon, its mere presence and that I know its there is a concept I am well acquainted with in a broader perspective. Just because I can’t see this or that doesn’t prevent me from keeping a home that is pleasant on the eyes of the sighted . A blind Australian Poetess; Barbra Blackmann, was questioned in an interview some years ago now why she had various paintings on her walls if she couldn’t see them (though this is secular art and in no way a comparison in and of itself with the work of the iconographer). Her response was, though she couldn’t see them, she knew they were there, and that knowing in and of itself was good enough.

    Now for the hurdle of good accessible Orthodox literature :-)…

    Many thanks for taking the time and thought to address my query.



  31. fatherstephen Avatar


    For what it’s worth: Florovsky offers his concluding thought (from which the paragraph is drawn at the beginning of my post) after about 1000 pages in two volumes of historiographical analysis of Russian thought (with careful examination of its outside influences, etc.). In truth, one would have to engage those 1000 pages before offering the sort of alternative you have presented. That’s much to ask – otherwise we just chew on it.

    Of course the Renaissance in the West occurs after the influx of scholars from Byzantium, etc. though it is a Western project (unmoored from a grounding in Eastern hesychasm, etc.)

    Both Solzhnetisyn and Florovsky, and pretty much any Church historian I know, quickly agrees that the Russia in which Marxism was planted, had become Westernized to a very great extent (Solz. “We had ceased to believe in God”).

    The crisis of belief in the West long predates even the advent of Communism. It is not the influx of emigres that is plummeting Church attendance in Europe. That had already happened long before.

    The greater question, worth asking, “What does Florovsky mean by the ‘religious tragedy’ of the West?” Many things: denominationalism, rationalism replacing proper theology, politics replacing true ecclesiology, etc.”

    There is a great Eastern tragedy – though it is a different story.

    Robert: You are quite right. Florovsky was thoroughly grounded in his asceticism. What he offers is an understanding of history/philosophy/theology that are then to be taken into the life of asceticism – ground down in that mill, if you will – to yield an ascetical effort of redeeming the world in which we live. He really is worth the read anytime you can find any of his works.

  32. Robert Avatar

    Irenaeus of New York:

    I would highly recommend Andrew Louth’s “Discerning the Mystery” for a superb study of (among other things) the influence of late Medieval, Reformation and the Enlightenment on the 20th century.

    Fr. Stephen,

    Yes I am looking forward to reading Florovsky, thank you. No matter how we dice it, it comes down to real lives really changed. Ontological change as some call it. Perhaps this sounds all too existential or too monastic for some, but I can’t see it no other way. What good is our “correct” understanding of things if we are not living it? Change in our very being is also the very hardest, which, it seems, we will resist the most even as Christians, Orthodox or otherwise. I have found the Orthodox tradition the most faithful to this asceticism, the most “accommodating” to this effort. The most impressive aspect of the Eastern Orthodox Church bar none. The making of saints – this would seem to be the true calling of the Church.

    I am not calling for some sort of anti-intellectualism, please don’t misunderstand me. I am an avid reader, however one must come to realize the intellect’s limitation in the process of transformation. It is no substitute for the nous.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    We are in complete agreement – as was Florovsky. He was an intellectual but saw that as something in the service of the true ascetical life. He spoke of a “historicosophical” reading of history – that is – a reading that also seeks to discern what was happening in its larger scope – sometimes quite necessary to understand our own times. But having understood it is nothing if it is not taken up into the fullness of the ascetical life. Some of the greatest of the Church Fathers engaged in this work. Thank you. I always appreciate your comments. (Louth is a very good suggestion, indeed).

  34. St. Susanna Avatar
    St. Susanna

    This continues to be a great discussion. Fr. Stephen and others have said far better than I could what I was trying to get at earlier. It is the fullness of the Orthodox ascetical life that can bring transformation and healing better than anything. It is that wholistic approach to medicine in the best spiritual hospital I’ve ever found. But the ascetical life doesn’t “sell” and we in the West are so much about marketing and quick fixes. That’s my concern about some of the, albeit well-intentioned, efforts to make Orthodoxy more “accessible” to people in the West. It has the danger of presenting a watered down Orthodoxy-Lite, rather than preserving the full healing power of the Faith. And that danger is increased when those who have barely spent any time healing in the hospital, start thinking they know how to improve upon the medical care.

  35. St. Susanna Avatar
    St. Susanna

    I don’t mean what I just said in the bitter, critical way it sounds. I mean it in the sense that it may make it harder in America to know where to turn for sound guidance about the true Orthodox ascetical life because so many others are patients who have just checked into the hospital.

  36. Irenaeus of New York Avatar


    Thank you for that. I will add it to my reading list. I am currently reading the wonderful Catena Aurea which came back into print.


    I do not deny the influence of the Enlightenment; its good as well as ill effects. I am denying that it is the true origin of things like secularism, atheism and materialism. For that, one must look to the Greeks I mentioned(and some others I haven’t). In my earlier post I was distinguishing between Eastern and Western Civilization even though they had common origins. When the West fell into the dark ages, so did its widespread knowledge of sophists like Epicurus, Lucretius, Aristotle which still thrived during the golden age of the East. The West translated the liturgy from Greek to Latin partly out of necessity. There are many references to the lacking knowledge of Greek in the West during the lead up to the schism. This began to change during the Crusades, and finally with the collapse of Eastern Christendom. The mass exodus brought Greek sophistry which became the bedrock of the Enlightenment. I am nobody. This is why you should be able to find Epicurus referred to as the father of the Enlightenment and even as the father of Secularism, if you read anything about him. He is just one of many huge Greek influences that came to bear on the West. So if we are trying to pin down the true origins without assigning blame, then one ends up talking about the earliest known influences. In this case, I believe it can be argued that it rightly derives from the East in the form of Greek sophistry.

  37. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless!

    Robert said: “What good is our “correct” understanding of things if we are not living it?” Quite! Not only that, but I’m finding the enemy loves to keep the barrage of ideological quandaries coming at a frenetic pace in order to keep me from getting down to the business of prayer and the ascetic struggle. There are no end of angles for him to work, given the current state of the major Orthodox institutions in America (and elsewhere) and the dominant surrounding religious culture that is part of my background. St. Susanna has described the predicament of most American Orthodox quite well it seems to me. I take heart only that our adversary is no match for Jesus, so I don’t give up! By His grace, every day is a fresh beginning.

  38. Irenaeus of New York Avatar


    I meant “I am nobody….but there are others who write about this link.”

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    All, Asceticism is difficult but not complicated. Pray with humility. Fast as you are able. Give alms generously and not grudgingly. Avoid judging others. Be a faithful steward of whatever ministry you are given. Wherever possible, seek to live in obedience rather than by craftiness. Make a good confession without excuses and a good communion. Remember God above all things and be kind – always.

    Not complicated. Just hard.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  40. fatherstephen Avatar


    your analysis is interesting but needlessly obscure. I mean, Epicurus as the author of secularism. It’s like playing intellectual 6 degrees of separation. Maybe Kevin Bacon invented secularism. 🙂

    just because something is in Greek doesn’t meanit’s Eastern in the sense that Florovsky uses the word. Socrates was not an Orthodox Christian.

    But it’s obvious that this element of the conversation is not productive. it’s my fault for the weaknesses in the original post. Forgive.

  41. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    🙂 Keep up the good work Father, and may God bless you.

  42. Fr. Daniel Payne Avatar
    Fr. Daniel Payne

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your post on Florovsky. I too as a former Lutheran was heavily influenced by Florovsky in my conversion to Orthodoxy. It was primarily his call to return to the fathers, yet interpret them for a new era that drew me to Orthodoxy intellectually. Spiritually, I came for other reasons.

    I also want to thank you for plugging my dissertation research. It is now available as a book “The Revival of Political Hesychasm in Contemporary Orthodox Thought” at Amazon.com.

    May you have a Blessed Lent and Kali Anastasi!

    Keep up the good work,

    Fr. Daniel Payne

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. What does it mean to “experience God”? I think 1 Corinthians 2 is sorely overlooked in thinking about this question:…

  2. Matthew, Regarding the notion of testing the spirits: this is indeed a biblical reference. However when implemented within the very…

  3. Matthew I trust the Lord. Not so much in men. Please forgive me. I appreciate your kindness and comments.

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast