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Customer Review

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.
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