Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 24, 2010

Fr. Seraphim Rose and Blessed Augustine

I am thankful for and wish I could find and credit whomever it was that wrote on their blog about Fr. Seraphim Rose’s “The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church”. Your compliments inspired me to buy and read the book, and I am thankful on many accounts for that. First and foremost, I am thankful to find Fr. Seraphim far more approachable than I’d feared, and more balanced as well. But I’m also pleased that much of his wisdom applies – even as he suggests – to so much more than simply his subject… and in fact to controversies almost of every stripe and nature. How easily we forget that first principle of almost any college philosophy course in formal logic is to consider the arguments of others with charity.  In fact, a good logician by nature almost always seeks first to strengthen the argument of someone with whom he disagrees before beginning his discourse in opposition… so that the force of his argument is more compelling and most likely not stuck in fallacies of one kind or another. So of course it should seem natural that Christians should do the same in their own matters. And yet we seldom in fact find this to be the case.

And yet Fr. Seraphim does precisely this is overlooking whatever deficiencies may lie in Augustine’s theology and forgiving him on account of his demonstrable love of Christ, and the favorable testimony of the other Fathers who were his peers and  contemporaries. And we should be so lucky should someone far into the future come upon our own scribblings and similarly forgive us our errant ideas and misdeeds for our well-known love of Christ and obvious christian life and temprament. Since their’s not much chance of that given contemporary public sensibilities that many may even know of our faith, it wouldn’t be surprised if many of us aren’t abused far worse than poor Augustine apparently has been by many to the point where Fr. Seraphim felt compelled to speak on his behalf.

In particular, as someone whose worship is largely in the Western Rite  and so often bedevilled by those who would freely belittle it as similarly unworthy or unequal or anemic in contrast to the Eastern liturgies… I find comments regarding the contrast between East and West of particular interest. So often these efforts seem to unglue even the most put together and so it was of particular pleasure that here Fr. Seraphim did not disappoint but instead proved his mettle:

“To some extent the faults of Augustine’s teaching are the faults of the Western mentality, which on the whole did not grasp Christian doctrine as profoundly as the East. St. Mark of Ephesus makes a particular remark to the Latin theologians at Ferrara-Florence which might be taken as a summary of the differences between East and West: “Do you see how superficially your teachers touch on the meaning, and how they do not penetrate into the meaning, as for example do John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian and other universal luminaries of the Church?” (“First Homily on Purgatorial Fire,” ch. 8; Podgodin, p. 66). Some Western Fathers, to be sure, such as Sts. Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, Cassian – do penetrate deeper and are more in the Eastern spirit; but as a general rule it is indeed the Eastern Fathers who teach most penetratingly and profoundly of Christian doctrine.

But this in no way gives us grounds for any kind of “Eastern triumphalism.” If we boast of our great Fathers, let us beware of being like the Jews who boasted of the prophets whom they stoned (Matt. 23:29-31). We, the last Christians, are not worthy of the inheritance  which they have left us; we are unworthy of even beholding from afar the exalted theology which they both taught and lived;  we quote the great Fathers but we do not have their spirit ourselves. As a general rule, it may even be said that it is usually those who cry the loudest against “Western influence” and are the least forgiving of those whose theology is not “pure” – who are themselves the most infected by Western influences, often of unsuspected kinds. The spirit of disparagement of all who do not agree with one’s “correct” views, whether on theology, iconography, church services, spiritual life, or whatever subject, has become far too common today, especially among new converts to the Orthodox faith, in whom it is particularly unfitting and often has disastrous results. But even among “Orthodox peoples” this spirit has become too prevalent (obviously as a result fo “Western influence”!), as may be seen in the unfortunate recent attempt in Greece to deny the sanctity of St. Nectarios of Pentapolis, a great wonderworker of our own century, because he has supposedly tuaght incorrectly on some doctrinal points.

Today all we Orthodox Christians, whether of East or West – if only we are honest and sincere enough to admit it – are in a “Western captivity” worse than any our Fathers in the past have known. In previous centuries, Western influences may have produced some theoretical formulations of docrine that were wanting in preciseness; but today the “Western captivity” surrounds and often governs the very atmosphere and tone of our Orthodoxy, which is often theoretically “correct” but wanting in true Christian spirit in the indefinable savor of true Christianity.

Let us then be more humble, more loving and forgiving in our approach to the Holy Fathers. Let the test of our continuity with the unbroken Christian tradition of the past be, no only our attempt to be precise in doctrine, but also our love for the men who have handed it down to us – of whom Blessed Augustine was certainly one, as was also St. Gregory of Nyssa, despite their errors. Let us be in agreement with our great Eastern Father, St. Photius of Constantinople, and “not take as doctrine those areas in which the strayed, but we embrace the men.”


Responses

  1. I am thankful to find Fr. Seraphim far more approachable than I’d feared, and more balanced as well.

    Fr. Seraphim was more ‘zealous’ in his earlier years, but this tempered through the 70s into the early 80s as he saw what was happening due to the overzealous, “temptation from the right” coming out of Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, MA. He was in the uncomfortable position of being attacked by HTM for being too liberal and western and by the OCA/GOA for being so backwards and reactionary. This is how one should understand descriptions of him as being ‘controversial’.

    While one may point to errors in his scholarly conclusions, he was a faithful carrier of the traditions of Holy Russia as he received them (any errors were usually based on his acceptance of the best pre-Revolutionary texts and writers), a translator and an ascetic. He was no more gnostic for his views on the tollhouses than are the prayers for the dead served in every Orthodox church and monastery which refer to them – even if they do represent more of a theologoumena than Church dogma. (See Aaron Taylor’s posts on this topic here: http://orrologion.blogspot.com/2009/11/oft-maligned-little-understood-doctrine.html)

    The fact that Fr. Seraphim’s co-struggler in Platina was defrocked soon after Fr. Seraphim’s death for disobedience [and sexual immorality], teamed up with a child molester ‘bishop’ and became the Christian guru to a New Age cum Orthodox cult didn’t help to quell the ‘controversy’ surrounding Fr. Seraphim either. Hopefully, the acceptance of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood back into canonical Orthodoxy and the conversion of the former HOOM/CSB parishes into canonical Orthodoxy and their uneventful Orthodoxy will allay fears concerning the questionable activities and status of the schismatic and cultish, post-Fr. Seraphim years under “Abbot Herman”.

    • Chris: I remember that post… thanks. Seems to me that so many of our hangups in Orthodoxy live more in story and song than they do in real life. Like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz…. it’s just never quite as terrible or terrifying in real life as it is in the billing. Have to pursue this one in due course.


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