What is it that we call theology?
On an epistemological level, there is no doubt that the response seems easy: theology is every discourse concerning God regardless of source or intentions. In ecclesiastical experience, however, theology is nothing less than the very evangelical word of Christ, who ‘explains’ (John 1: 1-2) in the Spirit the things of the Father. And this ‘explanation’ does not consist primarily of an addition to the primordial metaphysical ‘great debate concerning being’ (the Platonic γιγαντομαχίαν περί τῆς οὐσίας). It is rather the proposal for our ontological introduction to a certain mode of existence through the Spirit, which occurs, according to St Nicholas Cabasilas, through the ‘Mysteries of the Embodiment’: Baptism, Chrism, the Divine Eucharist, and the attunement of our freewill by the grace they bestow. This ‘mode’ manifests the pre-eternal counsel of the Trinity within history for the eschatological gathering of Creation through its ecclesialisation in the human nature of its Creator, the enhypostatic God and Logos. Theology is manifested in this case as an imitation of Christ’s own consent to the Father’s loving good-pleasure. And in referring to imitation, we mean participation. Inasmuch as it is principally an event rather than a reductive intellectualism, theology is acted out in our burning desire, which responds to the divine unconditional desire that changes the rational creature’s mode of existence; it is the fruit, in other words, of our will-to-participation in the Eucharistic transformation of Creation in the Body of Christ. Thus theology can only be articulated as an ecclesialisation of language, as an expression of the Eucharistic transfiguration of the intellect, which in a doxological yet simultaneously critical fashion ecclesialises created concepts in light of the ‘obedience of Christ’, following the biblical-patristic sense of a right ‘discernment of spirits’.
In this sense, every form of authentic theology is contemporary or, as we say today, ‘contextual’. This indicates chiefly that this acted-out and never-ending event of gradual Eucharistic transformation of thought is expressed precisely as the assumption as gifts of all the created givens of human intellectuality, civilisation, science, etc. and their critical elevation to the possibility of their transformation in the Spirit into multiplicitous manifestations of the mystery of Christ. Put in another way, this event is a highly dynamic and creative activity, and should never be regarded as an apologetic for or defence of a mythologised or petrified ‘tradition’.
When these aforementioned criteria are met, theology naturally passes into its ‘communicative phase’, as Rowan Williams terms it, who goes on to further to define it as ‘a theology experimenting with the rhetoric of its uncommitted environment’.1 However, this communication in our era must be, first of all, intra-theological. Like von Balthasar, who never thought to dismiss his Barthian inspiration, or Pannenberg, who could not function without the synthesis of ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Roman Catholic’ sources in his ecclesiology, or Congar, De Lubac and Daniélou, who made the Greek Fathers an inseparable part of modern Roman Catholic theological awareness, modern theology needs to exist in dialogue. This real dialogue is, unfortunately, often far from being self-evident. For some representatives of the major Christian confessions, such an enterprise must bring about a kind of ultimate absorption, explicit or implicit, of any form of theological otherness, thereby rendering their own theological certainty unshakable. Centuries of alienation created isolated, ironclad identities in need of permanent theological support. It is supposed, for example, that Thomas Aquinas’ thought includes that of Gregory Palamas, Barth is more comprehensive than Maximus the Confessor, and Jonathan Edwards is more ground-breaking than John Chrysostom, etc.
Cultural submission, in the sense given to this concept by Arnold Toynbee, unfortunately seems to still be the unconscious ideal of some Western Christian theologians. It is still possible, for example, to read serious handbooks striving to give an account of twentieth century theology where Orthodox theology is not even mentioned, as if it never existed. 2 This is likely the case because some authors still insist in believing that there is nothing in Orthodox theology worth mentioning that is not already included in this or that Western theological sub-trend. Though things are rapidly changing today, confessionalism— a spiritual disease that touches theologians of all Christian confessions— is still the demise of any real theological communication. Nevertheless, it is absolutely possible to be Orthodox, or Catholic , or Protestant, and discuss theology since there are always better or worse theological expressions of the Christian experience. This discussion is not about who is saved by Christ or not (and it is good to know that Christ looks upon hearts and not upon good ideas), but about theologies to a greater or lesser degree facilitating or hindering salvation. Does this not provide sufficient ground for an honest theological communication?
On the other hand, postmodernity—the misfires of which are comprehensively described by Charles Taylor as a thoroughly self-sufficient humanism existing under the aegis of globalisation—provides some fundamental characteristics that can potentially be received positively, in a sense helping us move towards the aforementioned venture of a diachronic Eucharistic transformation of thought. When, for instance, post-modern philosophy casts doubt upon the existence of knowledge or truth as the exact replication of or a precise correspondence to reality, or objects to the idea of absolutely normative descriptions manifested through causes and distinctions that are hypothetically valid for all time periods, or resists any kind of supposedly objective ethical philosophy combined with the great narratives laying claim to a global perspective, is it not in juxtaposition to the onto-theological equalising of metaphysics in a certain sort of Scholasticism, which culminates in the Hegelian abrogation of every difference through a unity that actually murders every form of otherness? The same can be said of the critique of metaphysical rationalism as well as of the influence of the Enlightenment and the idols of social rationalism, which, according to Horkheimer and others, reinstates the social function of religion. Even when post-modern thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Vattimo as well as Searle and the other members of the analytic school resist every transcendental presupposition of thinking, they can perhaps also be read as intending to re-evaluate the real, which has sank beneath the metaphysical domination exercised by the modern transcendental subject.
Moreover, on an anthropological level, the critique of the transcendentality of the subject has resulted precisely in the discovery of the somatic roots of the conscience as well as the innate communality arising from human nature. The students of Marx, Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche discovered, conversely, the domination exercised upon the supposedly free transcendent Ego of Western Idealism by the coercive and absolute referentiality in the communal and natural realms. This referentiality embeds the subject in economic relations and/or in an unconscious world of instincts supported by its unavoidable somatic underpinning. Additionally, the referentiality of this kind of consciousness to the things of this world offered phenomenology— from Husserl to Marion and, in our own era, Kearney— a means of founding the subject directly in intersubjectivity, bringing along with it all of the outstanding problems associated with intersubjectivity’s ontological grounding.
Despite the fact that (and, also, precisely because of it) we do not underestimate the accompanying problems that post-modernity created—beginning with the abrogation of nearly all common sources of meaning that determine, according to Castoriades, the ‘social imaginary’, to the deconstruction of the subject, which occurs, as Besnier observes, either ‘from above’, through the social sciences analysing modern collectives , or ‘from below’, through the discoveries of neurobiology —we are bound to say that there has never been such a time when the hour of theological inquiry was so imminent for the West. It is up to us at this juncture to take advantage of the post-metaphysical—or, better, the beyond-metaphysical—and post-ontological—or, more accurately, the beyond-ontological, as we are yet able to use the expression ‘ontology’—capacity of Christian theology to see enhypostatic nature fundamentally as a relationship between created and uncreated. This is a relationship that is constituted by dialogical reciprocity between created and uncreated. Consequently, enhypostatic nature as an open relationship is likely one of the most valuable gifts Christian theology can offer to Western thought today, which is exhausted by the ruptures between body and soul, matter and spirit, person and nature, transcendence and immanence, individual and person, history and eschatology, etc.
Apart from philosophy, a discussion must forthwith be extended also in the direction of psychology and sociology. Fundamental terms and dimensions within these fields—the meaning of selfhood or of social formation, for instance—must be discussed in a way that will bring mutual benefit. The same approach can be taken in relation to the contemporary theory of the state. Christian theology has the capacity to make a particularly significant contribution to the endeavour to locate an anthropocentric foundation for political theory. It is of the utmost importance that there also be engagement with the contemporary natural sciences and biology. Here theology can, though it may seem hyperbolic or paradoxical, contribute to the articulation of the methodological presuppositions of these scientific disciplines. And, naturally, theology is also capable of making a rather remarkable contribution to the theory of art.
Orthodox theology in particular can assist in bringing about these objectives and in engaging these various intellectual perspectives in a decisive way. Of course, it goes without saying that such engagements, along with many possible others, would enable modern theology to illumine hitherto undiscovered corners of Christian experience, and turn discussion in the direction of new and unexpected horizons.
As the mission statement clearly indicates, this new Journal seeks to assist in the inauguration and promotion of discussions like those mentioned above. First and foremost, its goal is the facilitation of a dialogical Christian self-understanding in this seemingly meta-Christian world. Strangely enough for the heirs of the Enlightenment, this world still longs for a Christianity illumined by the Spirit. Orthodox theology, with its unbroken tradition, deserves a place in this dialogue. And no one doubts this today. It is therefore of the utmost significance that this academic Journal is sponsored by the Holy Great Monastery of Vatopedi, one of the largest, most ancient, and traditional monasteries of the Holy Mountain. Since its establishment more than a thousand years ago, this Monastery has given the Church dozens of canonized Saints, great Patriarchs, Bishops, and famous scholars as well as great works of philanthropy, education, and art.
It is therefore appropriate that this Journal takes its point of departure from Mary, the Theotokos, the most venerated person, after the Triune God, on the Holy Mountain, the Garden of the Panagia, as it is called by its inhabitants. Mariological theology is extremely rich in both East and West, and the articles of this issue aspire to catch a glimpse of this theology’s splendour. Starting from the New Testament, Dr Karakolis’ article gives an excellent account of Christ’s deep spiritual communion with his mother, demonstrating the uniqueness of Theotokos’ role in Divine Economy. Archimandrite Ephraim, the Abbot of Vatopaidi, offers an excellent panorama of the patristic literature concerning the Virgin’s sinlessness, correcting some modern theologians’ views concerning this matter. Dr Andreopoulos suggests a re-interpretation of the Areopagite’s description of Mary’s funeral, connecting it with the deeply Eucharistic dimension of Patristic theology. Dr Cunningham provides an exceptional essay on the connection of the Theotokos with the natural world in the Byzantine patristic sources. Prof. Bronwen Neil offers us exciting new material concerning the role of the Theotokos as selective intercessor for souls in Middle Byzantine apocalyptic literature. She concludes by proving that ‘the theme of Marian discrimination in intercession reflects an anti-Judaism found in some Marian hymns and homilies of the early Byzantine period, such as sixth-century Ephesus, but is not the standard in the hymns and homilies of John of Damascus, Andrew of Crete, or Germanos of Constantinople’. Dr Tsironi gives a convincing account of the Palamite affinities of Anthony Bloom’s Marian theology. Finally, I strive to articulate a modern systematic discussion of Cabasilas’ and Bulgakov’s hesychastic mariological humanism in dialogue with the contemporary theological and philosophical adventures of humanistic ideas.
On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), xiv.
See, for example, the massive and erudite work by Rosino Gibellini, La Teologia del XX secolo (Bres-cia: Editrice Queriniana, 1992). Contrast this with David Ford, ed., The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, 2nd edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).