Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Yannaras vs. the Zealots

In my systematic theology classes this year we read a few articles by Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras. We also got to hear him speak in person when the seminary presented him with an honorary degeree. While I respect Yannaras’s ability to tackle interesting, relevant topics (e.g., human freedom) from a point of view that is modern, original, and Orthodox, I disagree so strongly with his central philosophical commitment that I usually cannot follow him to his conclusions (though I can sometimes reach similar conclusions by a different route). In my reading of Yannaras, I quickly sensed a foundation of Sartrean-style existentialism underlying his thinking. My reaction to John Zizioulas was similar. I guess it should not be surprising that Greek theologians of the mid 20th century would engage with the dominant European philosophy of their day, just as Bulgakov and his generation had earlier engaged with Hegel and German idealism.

I am not entirely opposed to existentialism. I went through an existentialist phase in my early 20s, and I still retain a soft spot for Kierkegaard. But the more I thought about Sartre’s blunt assertion, "There is no human nature," the more I realized that 1) it is nonsense, and 2) it is irreconcilable with traditional Christology. If there is no human nature, then the whole concept of species does not apply to humans, and each of us is a sui generis being (rather like the Christ of Arius). If there is no human nature, then we cannot say that Christ assumed human nature, and the traditional explanation of the Incarnation falls apart. I think Yannaras and Zizioulas come dangerously close to Sartre with the notion of person transcending nature. As I understand it, this means that our path to theosis must lead to a transcending of our human nature. That strikes me as gnostic.

While Zizioulas has not, to my knowledge, accepted the existentialist label, Yannaras has been open about his influences. Toward the end of his recent commencement address at Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, for instance, he lauded Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, who "boldly attempted to make a painful break with moral error." To be fair, Yannaras went on to say that his ontology of the person was a response to "the need to confront Heidegger’s nihilism," so we should not imagine that he is an uncritical Heideggerian. But, still, he typically operates within a modernist framework of mid-20th-century European existentialism.

The main body of this commencement address, however, constituted a postmodern critique of "the problem of neoconservatism and fundamentalism which currently afflicts the way life is led in most Orthodox churches." (I’m really not sure what neoconservatism means outside the context of U.S. politics − in fact, I’m a bit hazy on what it means even in that context. Since the term did not recur, I will assume it is just a synonym for fundamentalism, and not a significant term in itself.) Yannaras clearly and correctly identifies the fundamentalist "zealots" of modern Orthodoxy − those who oppose all ecumenical dialogue and who pose as defenders Orthodox Tradition against the West − as unwitting examples of the very modernist Western ideology they claim to oppose. They set their own judgment above that of the Church and its bishops. They embrace a commitment to formal propositions and authoritative texts akin to Marxists, thereby reducing Orthodoxy to an ideology.

Yannaras then pointed out that it is not only the zealots who have fallen into a Western way of thinking and living, but "the whole of Christendom." Overcoming the pitfalls of Westernization, then, is not a matter of resisting the "other," but of self-criticism and repentance.

Read the whole address here.


Steve Peterson said...

It's quite clear that much of Orthodoxy is in deep trouble. The infiltration of ecumenism, rationalist Western Philosophy, the arrogance of the formally educated, etc. into the theology and practice of the Church is already leading to division and heresy. So the Westernized, arrogant, snob-theologians call those who want to maintain the purity and integrity of Orthodoxy "zealots?" There it is - insults, ill-will and division are already with us! Nevertheless, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. We must simply continue to be aware of false prophets in our midst.

Arimathean said...

Steve: Thanks for your contribution. If any of my readers wonder what Yannaras might have been talking about, they can look to your eye-opening post as an example. Your fundamentalist rhetoric reads like a parody of the very zealotry that Yannaras describes! You condemn namecalling while engaging in namecalling of your own, and you demonstrate just as much modern Western rationalism as those you presume to criticize - though you lack sufficient self-awareness to perceive your own modernism and rationalism.