A CONVERSATION ON THEOLOGY, CHURCH, AND LIFE by Andrew Louth

Father Andrew Louth came to Toronto at the invitation of a local Anglican parish for part of the first and second week of May 2018. On Wednesday the 9th, he participated in an informal public conversation at Trinity College with Dr. Christopher Brittain, Dean of Divinity. The next morning, I had the pleasure and blessing to enjoy an extended breakfast à deux with Father Andrew. The following encapsulates some of the things that we covered.

Giacomo Sanfilippo, Editor 

louthGiacomo: Father Andrew, it’s such a pleasure to chat with you today. Thank you so much for making time for me.

Father Andrew: Glad to be in touch. It was a great privilege to see you when I was in Toronto, so in a way this is a continuation of our conversation then.

Giacomo: The title of your public conversation with Dr. Brittain here at Trinity College was “Discerning the Mystery: The Nature and Task of Theology Today.” What are some of your general thoughts on what Orthodox theology ought to be doing as we approach the third decade of the 21st century?

Father Andrew: I am never very clear what to say when asked what “Orthodox theology” ought to be doing today. I don’t think abstract nouns do anything. What Orthodox theologians ought to be doing today: there again, why should anyone tell us what we ought to be interested in?  In my view, Orthodox theologians (or theologians in general) have various roles:

  • Many of them are academics trying to pursue a career in a not-very-hospitable climate—they have to teach, engage in research, and so on in whatever way seems fit, which will vary from person to person;
  • If they call themselves (or allow others to call them) “Orthodox” theologians, this must mean, to some degree, that they have a duty to the Church, they are not free-thinking intellectuals, though their duty to the Church must involve witness to the truth, or rather to the One who said, “I am the Truth;” but their function as Orthodox theologians is not “rightly to discern the word of the truth” (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15)—that is the role of the bishop, as the acclamation Ἐν πρώτοις [Among the first] in the eucharistic anaphora affirms, though not a role to be exercised in isolation, but precisely as bishop within the Christian laos, listening, as well as teaching—but is rather a kind of prophetic witness within the Church (as Newman suggested), a matter of helping the Church in its teaching to remain faithful to the breadth and depth of the Tradition, and not get distracted, as is all too easily the case, by simply repeating what we have “always said and believed.” One who, in reality an “Orthodox” theologian all his life, though only towards the end of it embracing explicitly the Orthodox Church, Jaroslav Pelikan, somewhere said that “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; tradition is the living faith of the dead.” It is an important aspect of the role of the Orthodox theologian to discern what that means.

I am reluctant, in general terms, to go beyond that in specifying what Orthodox theologians should be occupying themselves with; often the most important is the least expected.

Giacomo: Let’s be a little more specific. Briefly, what do you feel are the two or three most urgent questions on which Orthodox theologians and thinkers need to focus their attention at this moment in the Church’s life?

Father Andrew: Subject to the hesitations already expressed, I suppose there are several matters that seem to me unavoidable:

  • I discern, and I do not think I am alone in this, a tendency towards moralism in much current Orthodoxy. By moralism I mean a concern for being good, an anxiety about what is good and what is bad, often used to fuel judgments about other people (other people in our society, other societies that we cannot avoid encountering in today’s more global society, even other Orthodox). The real issue is truth, not goodness, and that requires clarity of vision, which indeed entails freedom from distracting calls on our attention, from the turmoil of our inner lives to the lack of values that seem to characterize much of modern society. Here we need discernment, and that is deeper than laying down the law about this and that.  We do not seek to come before God as good people, worthy of His attention—that is wrong, both as unachievable, and wrong as ignoring the way in which, in the Kingdom, human values are turned upside down—we come before God as sinners, hoping and confident in God’s love and forgiveness.
  • A further issue, not unconnected with the former issue, concerns how we approach issues of sex and gender. These are issues that come from the civil society in which we live, and are maybe more acute in countries not traditionally Orthodox—often dubbed “liberal Western.” These issues raise profound questions about the nature of the human and human being and well-being. I have no solution, but it seems to me imperative that we are able to discuss them, calmly, listening to each other, rather than conducting a dialogue of the deaf, which seems to me too often the case. One of the deepest problems here—deeper maybe than the actual issues of sex and gender—is the way in which reactions, on both sides, are often motivated by fear. It seems to me that decisions motivated by fear are almost certain to be wrong. We need to learn to listen to one another.
  • Another issue, not unrelated to the last issue mentioned, that seems to me important, concerns the political dimension of Orthodoxy, both the question of the relationship of the Orthodox Church in particular countries to the civil society in which they live (whether traditionally Orthodox, or not: the issues are different, but in either case important). Again behind the declarations on this issue there is often a fear of confronting the issues involved.

Giacomo: Are there any instances in which you feel that contemporary Orthodox theology has taken a wrong turn? If so, how can it be righted?

Father Andrew: Again, my problem is with the expression “contemporary Orthodox theology.” It seems to me that there is a wide variety of approaches within modern Orthodox theology, and maybe the most serious problem is the tendency of some to think that there is only one approach—mine!

Giacomo: Orthodoxy in Dialogue, Public Orthodoxy, and The Wheel are frequently singled out for particularly harsh criticism. What these three have in common is that they provide a forum for controversial topics to be discussed and controversial opinions to be voiced. Do you have any words of encouragement for us, and any words of appeal to our most severe critics?

Father Andrew: We need to discuss these issues and not assume that we possess the truth. We have just (after Pentecost) begun to sing again the troparion, “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the Undivided Trinity; for the Trinity has saved us.” To be able to sing this is one of the greatest treasures of Orthodoxy, but it is important not to banalize it into a proclamation that we possess the truth, that we can dictate to others. The Truth is a person, our Lord Jesus Christ, who possesses us, not we Him. The true faith is worshipping the Undivided Trinity (cf. the apolytikion for the Feast of Theophany: “As you were baptized in the Jordan, Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest…”). The truth possesses us; the heavenly Spirit, whom we have received, is always one who comes, one whose coming and presence we beseech. We all agree with this, but don’t always follow it through.

Giacomo: You’re the guest editor for the upcoming issue of The Wheel. What’s your general impression of the breadth and quality of the articles, and how they augur for the direction of Orthodox theology in the short and long term?

Father Andrew: The most important thing about the articles in the forthcoming issue of The Wheel is that they represent different views.

Giacomo: With a little fear and trepidation, I am curious to hear your reaction to my “Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love,” which will appear in this same issue of The Wheel. For one thing, it gives a different narrative of Florensky’s life from the one in your Modern Orthodox Thinkers; for another, it has implications for the theological exploration of same-sex love which has brought me a little notoriety since Public Orthodoxy published my “Conjugal Friendship” a year ago.

Father Andrew: I don’t think we disagree as much as you think.  My chapter in Modern Orthodox Thinkers was just a chapter, not an extensive treatment of Florensky, and I restricted myself to epistemology and his views on iconography. I value your contribution to The Wheel mostly because it draws attention to the importance of friendship for Florensky. What is most striking to me about the chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth is the way in which he makes philia central, rather than agape, as most Christian thinkers do (his explanation of Jn 21:15–17 is one of the few accounts that make any sense). As you state, Florensky stands at a watershed in the understanding of human relationships, but I think he really belongs before the dramatic changes, not an eager advocate of the sexualized view of human relationships that have become dominant in modern Western society. Passionate loving relationships were not sexualized in pre-20th century Western society, but taken very seriously (whether between people of the same sex, or between close relations, brother and sister, for example); it is something that we have lost, to our detriment. One thing I would add, on which we are in complete agreement, is the importance of Sergei Troitsky (the dedicatee of The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, a fact to which I certainly did not give enough weight even in my brief treatment in my book) for Florensky’s thought, at least up to his magnum (though relatively early) opus, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Quite what the influence was requires investigation, but there is no question of the immense importance to Florensky of their profound friendship.

Giacomo: In your retirement from active teaching, what sorts of things do you do to stay involved in academic and church life? What do you do for relaxation and enjoyment? What are you most looking forward to in the years ahead?

Father Andrew: I am priest of a still-growing parish in Durham, with all the challenges that represents. On the academic side, co-editing several series (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Oxford Early Christian Texts, and Peter Lang’s Byzantine and Neohellenic Studies), editing Sobornost, and now editing the fourth edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and co-editing the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Orthodox Theology, keeps me out of trouble. I don’t relax enough: but I would read widely, given the chance, and continue to play music (on the different floors of my house I have a grand piano, a spinet, and a clavichord). What do I look forward to?  Penultimately, continuing to think and explore; ultimately, to be remembered in the Kingdom.

Giacomo: This has been delightful, Father Andrew. Thank you so much.

Father Andrew: Thank you for making me engage with these questions. Left to myself I would be a quiet scholar. 

Click here for the video of Father Louth’s and Dr. Brittain’s public conversation on May 9, 2018. We thank Father Geoffrey Ready, co-director of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, for providing the link.

Father Andrew Louth is Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University in the UK and a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. His Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology rocked the theological world when it appeared in 1983 (revised in 1999). He was received into the Orthodox Church in 1989 and ordained to the priesthood in 2003. 

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. His “Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love” will appear in the upcoming Spring-Summer 2018 issue (13/14) of The Wheel, for which Father Louth served as guest editor.

Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,
who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise
by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit.
Through them Thou hast drawn the world into Thy net.
O Lover of man, glory to Thee.Green_Leaves_PNG_Image