on 6 December 2010
One of my all time favorite books. Bought my first copy at a flea market for a dollar. Have purchased more since and sent to friends and family.
He tells how true Christianity is always mystical, always experiential...and at the same time cannot be without roots in theology. Gotta have both. You can't just have what your head believes...anymore than you can have just what your heart holds true.
A dear friend who was raised in the Anglican Church read this book and because of it converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and later became a monk and founded a wonderful monastery near Redding, CA in Manton with some 20 monks. He now heads the Orthodox Church in America as Metropolitan. Be careful. This book may change your life!
This author basically lived a powerful life as a lay leader in the Orthodox church, wrote this book, died way too young. I don't know that we have any other major work by Lossky. I think sometimes you produce a classic or do something incredible and wonderful and God says, "...hey, Good job! Can't top that. Come on home." This book is that good.
on 7 January 2013
Vladimir Lossky was the son of Russian philosopher N.O. Lossky. Both father and son were extradited from the Soviet Union in 1922, together with Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergius Bulgakov and other non-Communist intellectuals. During World War II, Lossky joined the French Gaullist resistance. Despite his status as an expellee, Lossky had contacts with the Soviet-approved patriarch of Moscow, and was allowed to visit the USSR in 1956.
Otherwise, Lossky junior is most known as an Orthodox theologian. He studied the writings of Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas and Etienne Gilson, and is said to have influenced quite a few people within the Church of England. His work "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church", however, shows no Thomist or Eckhartian influences whatsoever.
"The Mystical Theology" is an extremely difficult work, as several other reviewers have already pointed out. It's not an introductory text, but rather a very advanced theological treatise. Lossky attempts to unite two strands of thought many would consider to be irreconcilable: apophatic mysticism and traditional Christian dogma. Indeed, his dependence on the latter might be one of the reasons why the work is so complex. You need a proper grounding in theology to appreciate Lossky's book, especially when it tackles issues outsiders would consider hopelessly abstruse, such as the filioque.
In the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius and other apophatic mystics, Lossky considers God to be fundamentally incomprehensible. In a certain sense, we can't really say anything about God at all. Indeed, Lossky believes that the Christian god is unfathomable in a more radical sense than The One of Neo-Platonist mysticism. To Lossky, the idea that the divine is "One" rather than "Many" can at least be conceptualized by our rational thinking, whereas the God of Christianity cannot. He is wholly other. (I recently discussed this issue with a non-Christian explorer of mysticism. He disagreed with Lossky - how can you *really* conceptualize the movement from One to Many, and back?)
Further, Vladimir Lossky regards the central doctrines of Christianity as unfathomable, standing above and beyond our rational categories. The Incarnation, the Atonement, the Trinity, the relation between nature and grace...none of these ideas can really be understood, and are therefore examples of apophaticism. Of course, there is something paradoxical about rejecting all positive descriptions of God, while insisting that the Incarnation or the Trinity are true. That's clearly a statement *of* something, and this becomes even clearer when we have in mind all the theological conflicts between different Christian groups. If the Divine is a dazzling darkness beyond both knowing and unknowing, how did the Church Fathers knew that Gnosticism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism and Monotheletism were heretical?
Lossky's response seems to be that although God is in one sense utterly mysterious, in another sense he is very near. The goal of all creation is "theosis" or deification, whereby we get to partake of the Uncreated Light of the Godhead. Theosis is described as a very concrete process, whereby the individual believer (usually a saintly mystic) becomes bodily transformed to an exalted state of being through the divine light. This temporary transformation is a foreshadowing of the new heavens and new earth said to be established by Christ at his second coming. I don't think Lossky suggests that all mystical raptures are of this sort, but this dramatic scenario seems to be the highest version of such ecstasy.
To Lossky, the reality of theosis is captured by the orthodox Christian creeds. It is denied or rendered ineffectual by the ideas of the heretics. Thus, the Gnostics denied theosis altogether, regarding the material world as irredeemably evil. Contrary to the Arians, the Church regarded the Father and the Son to be of the same substance - if the Son wouldn't have the same nature as the Father, he wouldn't be able to divinize man. The Church condemned Nestorianism for similar reasons, since the Nestorians claimed that there was a chasm between the divine and the human in the person of Jesus himself. Contrary to the Monophysites, the Church believed that the Son had taken upon him human nature in its fullness, thereby making it possible for all of our earthly nature to be united with God. And so on! Lossky also mentions the iconoclast controversy, arguing that the issue was whether or not matter can symbolize spiritual, salvific realities. Naturally, the author responds in the affirmative.
It should be said in this context that Lossky doesn't view the Christian dogmas as strictly "empirical". They weren't discovered by clever mystics who then went on to formulate a creed based on them. Rather, the creeds are the result of divine revelation through the medium of the Holy Spirit, working in the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ. Not even a mystic can discover these truths all by himself. They have become known only because God has chosen to reveal them. Nobody knew the full truth before the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the subsequent sending of the Holy Ghost. However, I suppose the Orthodox doctrines can nevertheless be "tested" in the sense that a faithful believer will be properly transformed if he follows the orthodox mystical path. This would be a kind of "evidence" for those who crave such. In that sense, they are "empirical" or experientially based. Of course, the idea of bodily transformation exists in other religious traditions, as well. Their representatives would presumably take issue with the statement that theosis is only possible within the strict confines of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
These, then, were some of my reflections when reading Vladimir Lossky's "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church". I'm not sure how to rate this difficult work, but eventually I decided on four stars.
on 21 May 2015
Having read Markides’ beautiful ‘The mountain of silence’, and then Louth’s ‘Theology of the Orthodox church’ which is as easily accessible as the former, I then found myself moving on to Lossky, who Louth, along with other commentators reiterated the sense not only Lossky’s mastery of his subject, but also his love for it born from experience. Lossky is not something to read from beginning to end. I could not put down Markides’s ‘Mountain’, but Lossky is quite different. It demands reflection, especially from those with a Catholic perspective. It has changed my whole view of Christianity, imbibed in my neo-Catholic upbringing. It challenged so many misinformed ideas, and put them in a context much simpler than Catholic dogma, and put my somewhat idealistic or romantic idea of monasticism in a totally different light. Henry VIII had no idea of the spiritual deprivation which followed as a consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries. The recent situation of a refugee camp outside of Rome, where people have worked, and was blessed by the Pope in 2012, but has now been demolished by the local authorities because of the problem of car parking for a forthcoming celebration. Communication does not seem to have been a problem with the Eastern Church in its very long history from the early Greek Fathers.
There is no Pope in the Eastern Church, but there has been enquiry, and despite the apparent multiplicity of the Eastern Churches, there is unanimity of purpose and theology, and it has been consistent, free from any apparent schisms. This is a far remove from Aquinas’s ‘Summa’ which was supposed to answer all questions, in the same way that the almost contemporary Al Ghazali’s equivalent, was to lay the foundation stones for the teaching for the Islamic world. Lossky does not hide the differences with Rome, which is why there is, as it were, two Christian churches – apart from the others which are sectional in outlook. The difference is fundamental: be good and go to heaven, or be good and become united with God (Theosis). Why have I never become a catholic, is because I cannot accept the notion of the infallibility of the Pope, for we have had many Pope’s who in retrospect have been very infallible; the Eastern Church’ s structure – if it could be called that, has no space for a Pope. Lossky outlines key viewpoints, I would not say doctrines, but they are viewpoints which have been shared, and developed, enriching them. I could never really understand Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, but now I am a lot clearer as to what he might have intended, and certainly a lot clearer about the concept in terms of appreciating its manifestation, than I ever was. This is not for the faint hearted: Orthodox readers will be as enlightened as Catholic readers, the general reader, perhaps with a sense that they will look at Christianity, as really embodying a mystery that calls for enquiry into basic spiritual questions about who we are and what we should be doing; the kind of questions we ask once, and invariably move on from. And we will have to ask them again.