Doctrines and Things in Orthodoxy Theology
Nikos Matsoukas, Η Θεσσαλονίκη ως κέντρο ορθοδόξου θεολογίας, προοπτικές στην σημερινή Ευρώπη, Πρακτικά Συνεδρίου,
Θεσσαλονίκη 2000, σελ.27-32
Μτφρ. Αναστασία Ζαφράκα
After warmly greeting this select gathering, I would like to stress from the very beginning that speaking of Orthodoxy on this subject, necessarily means speaking of history and more specifically of the culture of Thessaloniki, the renowned second imperial city and the Cultural Capital of Europe of our Lord's year 1997. In other words, Orthodoxy is incarnated in the history and culture of this city, in the way that the truth of God ' s apocalypse is bound and conciliated with all the manifestations of life in every part of the world. Therefore I cannot help remembering the impressive phrase by Gregorius Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, from the Synodical Tome of 1351: "I struggle for doctrines and things"; therefore doctrines are things. As strange as it may seem to some people - without degrading western Christendom - when one speaks of Orthodoxy, one speaks of things. Fathers of the Church, such as the Cappadocians, call the persons of the Holy Trinity "things"; in other words, the uncreated divine nature and the whole creation.
Actions and events of the enrolled ecclesiastical community signify the truth of the apocalypse. Therefore the spirit of Orthodoxy in Thessaloniki is depicted by theory, practice, bloodstained struggles and culture. This life-giving spirit, which is always active in the sacramental body of the Church, pours out and sanctifies everything: the whole human being, the body, the senses, the soul, the logos, the mind, the land, the rocks, the waters, the walls of the city. Therefore the active ecclesiastical spirit always exists in the life and monuments of the suffering and tormented Thessaloniki throughout history; the actions of this spirit should also be considered things.
As a result, the life of the ecclesiastic congregation as expressed in Orthodoxy, is neither a private affair, nor a personal abstract idea. It is an organized popular community, it is worship, theology, art, and generally culture. This and only this should we mean when we say that the apocalypse °f God in the world has a historical character; because the apocalypse as salvation and transformation of everything is the assumption of the world. For this reason these expressions exist and are perceived in all historic courses, great triumphs, and painful adventures of this popular community. Goths, Avars, Arabs, Saracens, Normans, Catalans, Turks and others, together with civil wars, like the bloody movement of the Zealots during the 14th century, tormented exceedingly this city, which, however, showed strength, endurance, and creative spirit. The sister of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki , after whom the city was named, was wrongly killed by her first-born son, because he wanted to avert any favour on her part towards his younger brother; she gave her blood as if it was destined to lay the impregnable foundations of this city. Thessalonians after Hormisdas, who "made impregnable walls for the city", built and rebuilt their walls, carving the sign of the cross on the rocks, and thus connecting it to their dramatic adventures and great creations.
As it is said by Saint Paul and the fathers of the Church, a person who has exercised his senses can feel on these rocks, on the streets and monuments of Thessaloniki, the traces left by ruthless conquerors, the footsteps of emperors and spiritually gifted saints. According to historical determinism, foul acts coexist with great achievements; one of the former is the slaughter of thousands of Thessalonians in the racecourse by order of Theodosius the Great, in 390 a .D. However, there are gems of spirit that glitter, such as the great martyr Demetrius with his disciples, Leo the Mathematician, who was archbishop in the 9th century, Cyril and Methodius, the illuminators of the Slavs in the same century, Eustathius, archbishop of Thessaloniki in the 12th century, Constantine Armenopulus, Nicholas Cabasilas, Demetrius and Prochorus Cydones, Gregorius Palamas, archbishop of Thessaloniki in the 14th century, and finally the devout people of this city.
All this can be easily understood, when one realises that there isn't a more firm antimanichaeistic attitude than the spirit of Orthodoxy. In other words, this spirit is adamant in rejecting the notion of absolute good and absolute evil. Everything is good. The whole created reality however, has the susceptibility and the ability to be good and to be evil. Γη this case, one could confirm the Heracletian law of complementarity of the opposites, of war and peace, always in the same pure reality. This reality is depicted in the biblical, as much as in the ecclesiastical world, in a continuous course. Love and perfection go through fire and tears. In other words, the created and the perishable, creativity and mortality, move towards an eschatologically imperishable metamorphosis, a glorifying resplendence. This is the quintessence of orthodox life and thought.
In a miraculous way, during the 14th century, Thessaloniki becomes an explosive crucible, carrying and maturing regenerative tendencies, social demands, revolutionary movements, civil wars, vigorous theology, the blooming of a multi-faceted culture. And all this, in the midst of suffering and that is how it usually happens; there is no other historical determinism. In these first decades of the 14th century, imperial factions struggle tenaciously for the throne of Constantinople , while the movement of the Zealots is relentlessly shaking Thessaloniki and the whole Empire, and the living traditional theology of hesychasm is in conflict with regenerative currents of basically philosophical content.
In this prevailing atmosphere, one could trace three important instances, framed and imbued with a rich spiritual content, or similar tendencies.
The first instance was the anguished quest for solutions to the Empire's crisis. Sensing the early signs of an impending collapse, many important scholars believed that the revival of Hellenism and the resurrection of the past was the only way to salvation. Especially later, in the first decades of the 15th century, one such utterly unrealistic effort was, for example, the struggle of Plethon to resurrect Ancient Greece. The tragic mistake of all those people was their failure to comprehend that Byzantium had already assimilated in the whole culture of Orthodoxy, the seed of the greek genious, the language, and the fundamental characteristics of Hellenism. This original creation took place in theology, worship, art, science, philosophy, institutions and administration. In other words, these conquests had to continue instead of a resurrection of Ancient Greece.
Here I would like to interpose that the same mistake is made by some contemporary byzantinologists, despite their significant performance in historic research. They consider as regenerations and enlightened eras of Byzantium only those in which they find some scholars commenting greek texts, or excelling in the interpretation of greek philosophy, while they strangely dismiss the rest as dark eras! In other words, they do not comprehend that Hellenism, which they consider a necessary condition for regeneration and enlightenment, survived and was preserved in theology, worship, iconography, music, architecture, etc., etc.. A culture does not live in manuscripts, annotations and memorandums. Thus these pioneering scholars of the 14th century and their immediate followers, strayed from a regenerative vision nourished by the love of a Hellenism creatively assimilated to the cells of Orthodoxy, and turned to an unrealistic goal: the resurrection of the ancient greek civilization. Such things however, cannot be done in history. If Thessaloniki had not fallen in 1430 and Constantinople in 1453, and possibly under different political and economical circumstances. Byzantium and its civilization could have moved into a dynamically developing future, and of course not return to a dead past.
In this case one should consider that the most important and fundamental characteristic of the greek culture is universality. The ancient Greek wandered from East to West. The same was done later by the Byzantines, who with love, originality, and sturdy assimilation combined the greek spirit with the impressive universality of Christianity. According to historical determinism and ad hominem one cannot imagine the orthodox civilization of the Eastern Empire without the previous existence of the expanded hellenistic territories of Alexander the Great, as described in incomparable poetic way by the Alexandrian Kavafis. Undoubtedly, this great Macedonian of the greek territory, Alexander the Great, became a conqueror with his sword ; but with his belief in greek culture he became the founder of a rare and illuminated universality. Later, the Thessalonians Cyril and Methodius using only their word and their pen glorified the universality of Orthodoxy and became the illuminators of a great civilization.
The second notable instance of this turbulent period of the 14th century was the introduction of western scholasticism into Byzantium . Some claim that this introduction of scholasticism was the beginning of the western Renaissance. This assertion is completely erroneous. This is no renaissance, and it has nothing to do either with the renaissance movements of Dante or Petrarch for example, or with the nominalism of William Ockam, Besides, the later flourishing of the Renaissance shattered traditional scholasticism. The basis of this scholasticism, which was represented in Byzantium by worthy scholars is the self-existence of general notions (universalia), the priority of reasoning based on philosophic studies, and the logical systematization of the holy scriptures. The elevation to God and the attainment of the knowledge of God stems from the application of commandments, from the philosophic studies and the holy scriptures, with the aid of created grace. The fruit of such a theological experience regulates the commandments of christian ethic.
The third impressive event was the elevation of the tradition of the Fathers as theory and practice through hesychasm. Hesychasts insisted that speaking of the doctrines of the Church they point out things and not reasoning, as is shown by the famous phrase of Gregorius Palamas: "I struggle for doctrines and things". Why does Palamas call doctrines things? Is this a casual statement? Of course not. Palamas simply states that the knowledge of God is not an elevation to God through commandments, reasoning, and philosophical studies. It is preceded by the descent of holy spiritual acts, and the purification and enlightenment through the sacraments (it must be stressed that in the orthodox tradition the sacraments are more than seven;; finally, the faithful is elevated to God. Therefore the hesychasts had a different methodology than the scholastics concerning the approach to the apocalypse of God in the creation and in history, through the knowledge of God. The conflict occurent at this critical point, and the hesychasts did not degrade philosophy and the renaissance. No such issue was posed in any way at that time. Today it is simply posed and imagined by historians and theologians. Besides, philosophy was rejected by the Apostles and the Fathers when it replaced the fact of salvation. Its use for educational purposes, however, is highly recommendable, as is explicitly stated by Palamas in the sixth Antirhetic Speech. He also adds that whoever does not willingly accept this truth, is evil; and whoever unwittingly rejects it, is unversed in philosophy and foolish.
According to the hesychasts, the divine manifestations of the Old and the New Testament signify and interpret the apocalypse and the knowledge of God through direct holy spiritual acts - in other words, through uncreated acts. Two impregnable forts were adamantly defended by Gregorius Palamas: the divine manifestation in Sina and the one in Thabor. The human being is not elevated to God simply through commandments and other created facts; God descends and enlightens the human being, creation and history. That was the differenciation between the hesychasts and the scholastics, and not of course contemplation, renaissance, some philosophical problem, or other caricatures.
Here, I do not intend to deal with the great variety of interpretations of historians and theologians on this subject. Besides, I believe that other wise speakers will present at least a part of this variety, which is interesting in every way. However, I am of the opinion that this complexity needs the razor-sharp criticism of Ockam, because many historians and theologians judge this era only on the surface, or without having studied the texts of hesychasts and scholastics, or even trapped in marginal phenomena and exaggerations, which seem like caricatures.
Saint Paul, speaking to the ecclesiastical community of the Thessalonians, some of whom, expecting the end of history, became spectators instead of "workers", stressed that the faithful should devote themselves to their work "quietly". Later, the Church, always expecting the eschatological transfiguration of everything, correctly interpreted the historicity of the apocalypse as an act of life, emphasizing the creation of civilization. This is natural adaptability. Therefore, the Church expressed with a vigorous assimilating force, theology and art through a dominant atmosphere of Hellenism. In this case, if this goal had not been achieved, it would have been detrimental. In this assimilation, neither the byzantine image, nor the theology is influenced by platonism. The ancient sculptors attempted to immortalize reality statically on marble; byzantine icon painters transform dynamically and glorify matter and time through colours, in dimensions of incorruption. Besides, theology dismisses the fact that truth and goodness do not exist within the boundaries of the already existing corruptible and mortal reality, but in the reality itself, when it becomes immortal and incorruptible with the advent of the transforming illumination through the sacramental eschatological expectation. This dramatic solution, within the boundaries of creation and history, is the incarnation of truth, goodness, light and beauty. Therefore, the continuous divine manifestations materialize the apocalypse, the knowledge of God, and the final solution to the drama.
Speaking of Orthodoxy, whose universality renders it familiar to the whole of Christianity, I spoke of things. Through all the malice, what does this beautiful ecclesiastical world have to say to the contemporary civilization that goes through hardships, in the midst of contradictions and rivalries? Should we perhaps repeat the desperate cry of Holderlin concerning the incongruous position of poetry in a worthless world? "Wozu dichter in durftiger Zeit?" Of course not. Christianity is life, things, worship, social aid and culture. Concerning Orthodoxy I must say that with their recent books, theologians eastern and western, have presented a cartesian Orthodoxy. This harms the whole of Christianity and the world. We must remove the frozen crust that has been placed over Orthodoxy, as the lime layers are removed from the glorious mosaics of Agia Sophia in Constantinople .