What do postmodern hermeneutics and Orthodox worship have to do with each other? More than you might think….
While only rarely reflecting explicitly on liturgy, French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) gave sustained attention to several themes pertinent to the interpretation of liturgy, including symbol, metaphor, narrative, subjectivity, and memory. Inspired by his well-known aphorism, “The symbol gives rise to thought,” my Liturgical Theology after Schmemann: An Orthodox Reading of Paul Ricoeur offers an original exploration of the symbolic world of the Byzantine Rite (and specifically its “Great Blessing of Water” on Theophany), illumined by what Ricoeur called his “hermeneutical phenomenology.”
This endeavour is in turn a response to the call of Greek theologian Pantelis Kalaitzidis for Orthodox theologians to renew their dialogue with contemporary philosophy. He laments that such a dialogue has in recent times been commonly held in disfavour in the Christian East—an unintended result, perhaps, of the 20th-century “neo-patristic synthesis” promoted by the renowned Georges Florovsky (1893-1979). In “From the ‘Return to the Fathers’ to the Need for a Modern Orthodox Theology” (St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 54.1, 2010: 5-36), Kalaitzidis cites approvingly the following exhortation of Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983):
Orthodox theology must keep its patristic foundations, but it must also go “beyond” the Fathers if it is to respond to a new situation created by centuries of philosophical development. And in this new synthesis or reconstruction, the western philosophical tradition (source and mother of the Russian “religious philosophy” of the 19th and 20th centuries) rather than the Hellenistic [sic], must supply theology with its conceptual framework. An attempt is thus made to “transpose” theology into a new “key,” and this transposition is considered as the specific task and vocation of Russian theology.
Now it seems to me that such a “transposition” is incumbent not only on Russian theologians but on all who seek to reflect upon, and from within, the matrix of Eastern Christianity—at least all those who espouse, along with John Zizioulas, “the necessity of a theological synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions, without which there is no real catholicity.”
For its part, Schmemann’s own œuvre arguably exemplifies the most significant and successful modern effort at putting Orthodox thought on the relationship between liturgy and theology into a new “key.” Michael Plekon judges that, with Schmemann, “there was an entirely different approach to liturgy as the theologia prima. Worship is not just the locus of symbolism and rubrics but the very source of theology. And it is through this enactment in liturgy, in the ‘corporate action’ of the Church, that theology thereafter becomes mission in the lives of Christians.”
But for those who appreciate Schmemann’s legacy—“an unparalleled liturgical and ecclesial renewal that reached far beyond Orthodox borders”—there have in turn emerged further avenues for exploration. Hence the present book: an attempt to chart the territory “beyond Schmemann,” as it were, guided by Ricoeur, who was undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s foremost philosophers. Although Schmemann does not appear to have ever engaged Ricoeur directly, I propose that the latter can enable Orthodox liturgical theology to “respond to a new situation created by centuries of philosophical development.”
What kind of pertinent issues animate this “new situation?” Inter alia, the attributes and functions of symbol, metaphor, and narrative; the conflict engendered by interpretive pluralism; the dialectic between history and historiography; the manner in which personal and communal identity develops in time; and the dynamics operative in the act of translation. Ricoeur’s thought addresses all of the above and more—in short, almost every aspect of how meaning is made, communicated, and received. Inasmuch as liturgy unfolds the content of the Orthodox faith, in keeping with the timeworn adage lex orandi, lex credendi, Ricoeur serves to open up for liturgical theology a plethora of resources. As I demonstrate throughout the book, such is the case even if the philosopher reflected explicitly on liturgy only rarely and had but a modest personal connection to the Christian East. Such reflections as there are remain deeply suggestive, warranting a more thorough investigation of his work.
In an interview near the end of his life, for instance, conducted on the occasion of a visit to the ecumenical community of Taizé, Ricoeur mused:
We are overwhelmed by a flood of words, by polemics, by the assault of the virtual, which today create a kind of opaque zone. But goodness is deeper than the deepest evil. We have to liberate that certainty, give it a language. And the language given here in Taizé is not the language of philosophy, not even of theology, but the language of the liturgy. And for me, the liturgy is not simply action; it is a form of thought. There is a hidden, discreet theology in the liturgy that can be summed up in the idea that “the law of prayer is the law of faith.”
Ricoeur has seemed to me to be an ideal interlocutor, a guest who should be welcomed, so to speak, to the Eastern Christian hearth.
In my first chapter, after introducing Schmemann’s legacy, I consider the implications of the Ricoeurian opus for liturgical theology broadly conceived. In the subsequent chapters I lay the groundwork for applying a Ricoeurian hermeneutic to the study of a given service, namely, the “Great Blessing of Water”—a rite which is arguably paradigmatic of the Byzantine liturgical tradition as a whole. (Happily, it was decided by the publishers that the celebration of this service, by my own Ukrainian Greco-Catholic community in Ottawa, should be depicted on the front cover of the book!). The Theophany blessing is the focus of the final chapter: while not one of the Holy Mysteries, it is explicitly imitative of Baptism and the Eucharist; in turn, although only one of a myriad of Orthodox blessing rites, its significance in the church year—as well as the role of holy water as the sacramental prerequisite for many other blessings—give it both a theological as well as a practical pre-eminence.
In keeping with the thrust of the series to which my volume belongs—Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought—my intent is to explore the significance of one contemporary theorist for the elaboration of Orthodox theology in our day. In this respect I consciously adhere to English Catholic theologian Nicholas Lash’s prescription that “each [contemporary] theology must genuinely be a ‘particular’ theology, expressive of some particular context and circumstance, seeking to mediate between that context and some other particular ‘place’ or places of experience, meaning, and value.” My book thus serves as a theological mediation between the context of the Eastern Orthodox tradition in which I pray and seek to dwell, and the “place” represented by the manifold of Ricoeur’s thought.
Ultimately, of course, readers will have to decide for themselves whether the book succeeds in enriching their experience of worship and/or their understanding of the philosophy of Ricoeur.
Liturgical Theology after Schmemann: An Orthodox Reading of Paul Ricoeur (Fordham University Press , with a foreword by Andrew Louth) is available from the publisher and from Amazon.
Brian A. Butcher holds a PhD in Theology from St. Paul University/University of Ottawa. He is a Lecturer and Research Fellow in Eastern Christian Studies at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto and a subdeacon in the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church.