I had read Louth’s ‘The origins of the Christian mystical tradition’ with a great deal of enjoyment and edification; the former was due to quality of writing, and the latter to the level of erudition presented by a patristic authority, without any fanfares, or sounds of trumpets. The same kind of quiet assurance permeates this book. He begins by defining terms, and points out that Eastern has nothing to do with the orient, but rather refers to areas east of Rome, who have developed their own orthodoxies for historical reasons, and are yet united within a particular form of Christianity. I remember visiting the beautiful Greek Orthodox cathedral in Kilburn for a wedding, contrasting it with the austerity of the (Russsian?) Orthodox church, in Kensington. The paradox is that I could feel at home in both, whereas given the pomp and Gloria in St Paul’s in London, I felt more at home in the austerity of Southwark Cathedral or the magnificent Durham. This has enabled it to meet the contingencies of time and place; be they in Poland, or Greece, or Russia, etc. by a theology which is apothatic, which is not about ‘some kind of higher way with concepts, some ultimate refinement of human conceptual theology – kataphatic theology being deployed as we handle our concepts of God like the tacking a pilot uses in sailing a boat.’ It reminded of the guidance given by St Columbo (and Columbanus), to the pre-Romanised monks who set out in their little coracles from the coasts of Ireland – a profound faith in the Mystery.
Chapter 3 looks at the doctrine of creation, and simply describes the resolution of the antimony between the belief that everything created was created out of nothing by Divine Fiat, which actually seems to be in conflict with Genesis 1 which posits, darkness, the void, and the deep. The Platonic distinction between the Unchanging and the Changing, became first the distinction between the Uncreated and the Created, and then, between the Unknowable and the Knowable. (Quite where that leaves the statement in Ecclesiasticus 1:4, is beyond our brief.) Different sections will invite further questions from different readers, but this is only an introduction and the bibliography at the end is full enough to suggest a next step. To provide a detailed overview of each of the subsequent chapters would make this review very long, because so much ground is covered with both care and concision. The remaining chapters cover not only what is in common between the East and the West, but also what is not in common, for each have their own riches. I think Andrew Louth has done a really good job, for the benefit of both eastern and western readers, and anyone who sees themselves in a different camp.
Well, I've really enjoyed reading Andrew Louth's little introduction. Louth is clearly quite passionate about his tradition and provides a very engaging and quite personal account. What struck me quite strongly (coming from an Anglican perspective), is just how surprising 'alien' some aspects of the tradition appear to be, especially 'Christian materialism' and the use of ikons; the use of these is justified by arguments to do with the Incarnation. The use of Scripture differs quite strongly too.
It is hard not to make comparisons. I would have thought Anglicanism more 'enlightened', but Louth is a little critical of the Western tradition; don't be too upset by that, he is bold and loves his tradition; and why not? You get a sense that this is a tradition that makes full use of ancient written sources in a way that the western churches certainly do not. The liturgy is also more fully developed, and therefore not vague. You also get a sense that this is a tradition that one can't be half hearted about; one can be a casual Anglican, but the same wouldn't apply here.
It is my guess that in the western traditions, the impact of Augustine is more strongly felt, and there is therefore more salvation anxiety (perhaps not helped by Calvin); but the Orthodox church seems to have escaped this; it is less individualistic.
But we Anglicans are keen to see our towns won for Jesus; we don't yet feel convinced that the use of ikons will have much of a role in this.
Professor Fr. Andrew Louth has produced what I expect to become a standard work for any reader interested in the Orthodox faith. He sets out his stall early on, so that we have some idea of his approach, and then throughout the book he moves one clear step at a time through each topic he chooses. I recall the late Abbess Thekla saying to me "Do you believe that Christ is God?". I responded that I did indeed believe Christ is also God. "In that case you are a true Orthodox believer - but you must still keep up your studies, so that you learn how He does it." Well, here in this book we are presented with the profound learning of an outstanding Orthodox scholar of our day who has given us an opportunity to keep up our studies. The scholarship is distilled into small pieces for those of us who have not reached the author's level of scholarship, helping us to get hold of it a piece at a time. No pomposity, just an Orthodox understanding that can only come out of great learning and a prayerful life.
For those not familiar with the Eastern Orthodox Church this book is a good place to start. All the basics are there in a clear and easy read. Nothing is watered down - you get the truth presented in its fullness but it reads very smoothly. Highly recommended!