One of the topics that academic theologians like to discuss is the development of doctrine. It gives them something to prattle about over coffee breaks. The question is like an academic Myers & Briggs personality test, except instead of introvert v. extrovert, representing “INFP” or “ENFJ” we would create alphabet letters to measure personality traits of more liberal or conservative, more historian or systematician, more theoretical or empirical, more Platonist or Aristotelian. If the reader would like to know in what quadrant I land, I will confess to saying there is not a development of doctrine, but there is a development of the explanation of doctrine. Etymologically, the word comes from desveloper, which means to unwrap, unfurl, unveil. To de-velop is the opposite of en-velop: a letter arrives in the envelope and we develop it in order to read it. The deposit of faith arrives from the apostles and we have centuries to unwrap it.
Chesterton makes the same point in his typically insightful way. He knows some people interpret development of doctrine as novel change, in the sense of furtive innovations, but he does not think that is the natural meaning of the word. “When we talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller. When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less. Development is the expansion of all possibilities and implications of a doctrine, as there is time to distinguish them and draw them out.”i That is, as there is time to unwrap the present.
I once had a mentor who suggested we should use a jurisprudence model instead of a scientific-medicinal model when we think about the question. In science and medicine, new theories replace old theories. I expect my scientist to be on this side of the Copernican divide; I do not want to go to a dentist who has not read a book on pain management since 1943. As one experiment succeeds, older and failed theories are put on the history shelf. But jurisprudence is different because precedents are included when deciding legal questions. Antecedent opinions accumulate, and can be cited as an example or analogy to resolve similar questions. The past is not disregarded even as we seek to make new applications.
I am going to risk proposing my own illustration here, which will unfold over three steps.
First, a new icon is never new. It is new in the sense of paint being put on a new board to produce a new icon to hang on the wall where there was not one before. But it is not a “new icon,” because it is still Mary whom we see, or an apostle, or our Lord. The image must present the prototype, not change it, even if there are differences in this iconographer’s brushstroke and the way he mixes the colors (which are, after all, prescribed). It is an ectype of a prototype, as Moses’s tabernacle was a representation of the heavenly prototype he was shown.
Second, icon painting is sometimes done by multiple monks. One specializes in inscribing the outline upon the gessoed board, another is skilled in painting landscape, another is particularly able to do the folds of the cloth, and another might be expert in faces. But at the end, no one of the monks signs his name because the icon is not a product of his genius. It is not his achievement, even though it is his handiwork. He is a servant to the tradition.
And third, let me take these thoughts and apply them differently. Imagine a huge canvas – I mean very huge, like the size of those medieval tapestries that covered the entire wall of the great hall. Imagine the canvas to be the surface on which theologians work. Like the icon example, there is more than one theologian working. Unlike the icon example, these multiple theologians are working across time, over the centuries. There is one revelation, one picture to paint, one deposit of faith to be unwrapped, but it cannot be done in a single day, or a single year, or a single lifetime. The painting goes on over centuries as the theologian-artists seek to depict the fullness of truth. Each generation adds to the painting; no century should bring its turpentine and erase something that has gone before. Everyone is contributing to the gestalt. A good part of the canvas has been painted on, but a good part of the canvas is still blank. We do not know the proportion between these two, because we do not know how much more time God will give to the world.
And, as with the monastic iconographers, there is a division of labor. Perhaps the Church fathers are especially expert in painting faces, which is especially important lest we get the countenance of the Mystical Body wrong; perhaps the methodical and systematic scholastics have laid out the geometric lines of the painting (I do not say that the paint must be applied chronologically!); perhaps we were not sure of those bright dabs of color applied by Rahner and von Balthasar when we first saw them, but now their contribution to the whole composition can be appreciated; perhaps some of us are more partial to the dark outline strokes of dogmatics, while others of us are more partial to the softened colors of spirituality; etc. If I knew more about painting, I might be able to go on. As it is, I will leave it here and invite the reader to continue with his or her own imagination.
I will instead make one more application that my illustration invites. If the theological picture is a cooperative effort made by the contributions of many theological traditions, then we might value the contributions those traditions have made. I am here especially thinking of East and West. Instead of thinking of diachronic contributions across the centuries in one tradition, I am thinking of the synchronic contribution of Western and Eastern traditions.
The second Vatican Council decree on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) recommends that we see with two eyes – my variation on the idea of breathing with two lungs. One cannot enjoy stereoscopic vision with one eye squinted shut. One only possesses a three-dimensional vision of reality if one opens an eastern eye along with one’s western eye. As a Roman Catholic, I’m only being obedient to my magisterium when it says in paragraph 15:
Catholics therefore are earnestly recommended to avail themselves of the spiritual riches of the Eastern Fathers which lift up the whole man to the contemplation of the divine. The very rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches should be known, venerated, preserved and cherished by all. They must recognize that this is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fullness of Christian tradition, and for bringing about reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christian.
The spiritual riches being daubed on our canvas by the East is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fullness of our Christian painting.
So I would here like to comment on things I have appreciated about the East’s contribution to the canvas. I pick my term deliberately: this is not a comparison, it is an appreciation. When comparing, one looks for differences. If we were to compare Americans and the French, we would start with stereotypical statements like “the French love good food, they appreciate art, they take their children to the park on Sunday.” But since these things are equally true of many Americans, at least in part, we would press on to differences in absent or contradictory habits. Similarly, if we were to compare Western and Eastern Christianity, we would start with some stereotypical statements like “Eastern Christians are mystical, they appreciate liturgy, they are grounded in patristic theology.” But since these things are equally true of many Latin Catholics, at least in part, to find true differences we would press on to name absent or contradictory habits. I fear that when ecumenical dialogue is pitched in the key of comparison, it often takes this turn.
But the tone would be changed if we pitched our dialogue in the key of appreciation. If we asked, “What does an American appreciate about the French?” we would get different answers. And sometimes by noticing a different instantiation, we discover something about ourselves. I frequently say that after I catch the scent of something in Eastern liturgy, Eastern spirituality, Eastern theology, I thereafter find it somewhere in the West, but would not have noticed it otherwise.
I would like to give six examples.
(1) Liturgical theology. The Eastern approach to the Christian faith is fundamentally liturgical. Theology is an articulation of the Church’s self-awareness as an eschatological worshiping community. In Alexander Schmemann’s view, liturgical theology is not an object of theology, “but above all its source, and this by virtue of the liturgy’s essential ecclesial function: i.e., that of revealing by the means which are proper to it (and which belong only to it) the faith of the Church; in other words, of being that lex orandi in which the lex credendi finds its principal criterion and standard.”ii Liturgy is truly a theologia prima – the primary mode in which theology is conducted. The test to be applied on all doctrine is not so much whether it is logical, or will be accepted in academic journals, or coordinates with the reigning philosophy of the day, the test is whether it is ortho-doxia, i.e. does this teaching (dokein) give right glory to God?
I find Eastern theology to be more iconic than syllogistic. Theology is not merely cogitation, it is vision. Theology is seeing all things by the light of Mount Tabor, a light that still shines from the altar of the Lord. So in his Journals, Schmemann writes “I always come to the same conclusion: it is first of all a certain vision, an experience of God, the world, the man. The best in Orthodox theology is about that vision,” and then he identifies the supreme sight. “Pascha. Holy Week. Essentially, bright days such as are needed. And truly that is all that is needed. I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is there. All that is needed for one’s spirit, heart, mind and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It’s all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows in one’s heart and mind.”iii
(2) Liturgical Mysticism. The test of a doctrine includes its mystical nature. By “mystery” I don’t mean unintelligent or anti-intellectual. Christ is the mystery of God; the Mystery has passed over into the mysteries (as western Pope Leo said about sacraments); that is mystical which brings us nearer to conformity with Christ. Theology comes from the altar and leads back to the altar. One cannot have theological vision except in a state of prayer, which is why Andrew Louth calls prayer the womb of theology. “The silence of the tacit makes immediate contact with the silence of prayer: and prayer is seen in the Fathers to be, as it were, the amniotic fluid in which our knowledge of God takes form.”iv The theologian must be a man or woman of prayer; the theologian must be a mystic; the theologian only operates Christologically and pneumatically. Tomas Spidlik writes, “The ancient Christian East understood the practice of theology only as a personal communion with Theos, the Father, through the Logos, Christ, in the Holy Spirit – an experience lived in a state of prayer.”v Theology is knowing the Trinity, but in the Biblical sense of ‘knowing.’ To attain such participatory knowledge, theology requires the mind (nous) to undergo a deep change (meta-nous): theology depends on metanoia, conversion.
(3) An apophatic emphasis. Do not begin any theological enterprise without confessing the transcendent distance between God and man. God is beyond knowing. Augustine’s Latin phrase would satisfy any Eastern theologian: si comprehendis, non est deus – if you comprehend it, it is not God. The creature cannot know the Creator, and yet the Creator has made himself knowable, describable, circumscribable. God has done so first through revelation in the cosmos (where tracks of the Logos are imprinted as the creature’s logoi), second through revelation in Scripture (which Ephrem the Syrian said is the “first incarnation” because God clothed himself in our metaphors), and third through revelation in person, whom the Holy Spirit continues to make present in the mystical body of the Church.
The golden chain connecting the apophatic Creator with his creation is the hierarchies. In the East, this word has none of the political baggage the modern world has come to associate with it. The inventor of the neologism, Dionysius, defines a hierarchy as “a sacred order, a state of understanding and an activity approximating as closely as possible to the divine … The goal of a hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him.”vi When people ask me if the Church is hierarchical, I reply, “I hope so! I hope it has the power to enable me to be as like as possible to God.” If the Church is just the Jesus Club getting together to kill a Sunday morning then – as Flannery O’Connor said about the Eucharist being nothing more than a symbol – to hell with it.
(4) Monastic. I find less tension between cleric, laity, and monk in the East. Indeed, as John Paul wrote in Orientale Lumen 9, “In the East, monasticism was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized; … it was presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity.” Eastern spirituality has a lively sense of asceticism in it. I personally don’t like the word “spirituality” because I think modern Americans use it to mean a rather undisciplined, hyper-emotional feeling. Modern spirituality has the consistency of a jellyfish; asceticism is vertebrate spirituality. There is a backbone and skeleton to this spirituality. The athletes in the desert discovered the cost of discipleship, and how the human heart is trained (which is what askesis means). These truths and practices are not just for monastics. The training (asceticism) is applicable also to us. Paul Evdokimov speaks of an “interior monasticism,” or “the monk within.”vii We are sinners struggling to break free from the passions that have distorted our imago Dei. We are each a block of marble within which lies an image of the image of God (the Son), and each strike of the chisel by the Holy Spirit frees that image a bit more from stone-cold vices in order to create out of women and men a liturgical son who shares the Son’s filial relationship with God the Father.
(5) Synergy. The East speaks about growing from the image of God into the likeness of God, and this is very helpful for understanding our continuous Christian growth. We are constantly called “from glory to glory,” as St Paul put it; or called “further up and further in,” as C. S. Lewis put it. This puts a forward trajectory upon everything Christian: we are shot like an arrow from the bow toward beatitude. A favorite metaphor by the fathers is that being in the image of God is like a charcoal sketch: you can recognize the king by his silhouette outline, but how much more the icon will look like the king when the features are filled in with colored paints. Ephrem goes on to use this as an explanation of our synergy, or co-operation with God. He acknowledges that God could have “forced us to please Him.” but instead He toiled by every means so that we might act pleasingly to Him of our free will, that we might depict our beauty with the colours that our own free will had gathered.”viii The patient cannot be cured without the doctor’s medicine, but the patient must cooperate in his cure. The East articulates the human involvement less self-consciously because it did not suffer the Pelagian controversy, which forces more muted language.
George Lindbeck used to compare doctrines to pearls, and then point out the way pearls are formed: the oyster secretes a protective fluid to protect itself from a grain of sand irritating it. Heresies, Lindbeck would say in class, are those grains of sand, which caused the Church to protect herself: Arius, Pelagius, Nestorius, iconoclasts, etc. The Church of the West and the Church of the East each has its own beautiful pearl necklace, with some pearls created by shared controversies, some pearls created by different controversies.
(6) Deification. What is transacted at liturgy is a glimpse of heaven on earth – an eschatological vision of our world. When things are seen in that eschatological light, then matter can seen be sacramentally, the cosmos seen as raw material for eucharist, history becomes a training school for eternity, and man and woman are understood in their role as cosmic priests. The icon depicts this by showing persons in their deified state. The end of Christian life is not moral goodness, virtuous behavior, it is holiness. There is only one sorrow: not being a saint. Salvation is healing. That’s the etymology of the word, anyway. You put salve on a wound; your mother salved your cut; it was an act of salv-ation. The Church is both a hospital for sinners and the nursery for young newborn saints. Men and women are to become by grace what Christ is by nature: a son of God, possessing eternal life through the energies of the Holy Spirit.
Vladimir Lossky uses a maritime example. “After the Fall, human history is a long shipwreck awaiting rescue: but the port of salvation is not the goal; it is the possibility for the shipwrecked to resume his journey whose sole goal is union with God.”ix Baptism is not being pickled in holy water until judgment day. Baptism is being filled with the Holy Spirit whose energies root out anything that would separate us from the Father, and so complete our deification.
I have gathered together some of the favorite themes that I have appreciated in Eastern Christianity, the places on the canvas where it has made its mark. I say again, if this was a comparison, I would have to conclude by noting how these themes are also present in the west, at least most of them, at least in some manner. And that would not be difficult. But I am not comparing, I am appreciating. And I am also appreciating the way in which these themes have been expressed, for reasons the second Vatican Council explains:
[T]he heritage handed down by the apostles was received with differences of form and manner, so that from the earliest times of the Church it was explained variously in different places, owing to diversities of genius and conditions of life. (Unitatis Redintegratio 14)
As if anticipating my metaphor of the artistic theological canvas, the decree has said there are different forms and manners of brushstroke. And, it adds, we may appreciate the complementary excellences without pitting them as conflictual expressions:
In the study of revelation East and West have followed different methods, and have developed differently their understanding and confession of God’s truth. It is hardly surprising, then, if from time to time one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed it to better advantage. In such cases, these various theological expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting.” (UR 17)
(Editor’s note: The original version of this essay referred to the Enneagram; the correct reference was to the Myers & Briggs test.)
i G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas, in Vol 2 of Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987) 427.
ii Alexander Schmemann, “Liturgical Theology: Remarks on Method,” in Liturgy and Tradition, ed. Thomas Fisch (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990) 137-38.
iii Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983 (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002) 13.
iv Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) 65.
v Thomas Spidlik, The Spirituality of the Christian East (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Press, 1986) 1.
vi Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy, 3.2 (Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987) 154.
vii Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998) 73-74. First translated into English as The Struggle With God (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1966).
viii Ephrem, Hymns on Faith, cited in Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St. Ephrem the Syrian (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1985) 61.
ix Vladimir Lossky, Orthodoxy Theology, An Introduction (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir′s Seminary Press, 1978) 84.