No longer do I call you servants, but I have called you friends. -John 15:15 (RSV)
Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) is one of modern Orthodoxy’s intellectual giants. The scope of his erudition was breathtaking, covering not only philosophy and theology, but also mathematics, physics, linguistics, art, cultural history…—he is sometimes called “the Russian Leonardo.” A leading figure of the Russian religious renaissance of the early twentieth century, unlike most prominent theologians and Christian philosophers caught up in the Bolshevik revolution and civil war, he did not go into exile, preferring to stay in Russia as a witness to Christ in the harshest persecution in Christian history.
After the communists closed the Moscow Theological Academy, Florensky spent most of the 1920s and early 1930s working for the State Electrification Commission. During these dismal times, he continued both his theological research and scientific investigations and publications. Florensky had powerful protectors in the Soviet establishment, initially Leon Trotsky, impressed with Florensky’s abilities. Florensky made no attempts to conceal his faith or his priesthood; he worked and gave scientific papers in his cassock, much to the dismay of hard-line communists. He was arrested a first time in 1928, but quickly released, thanks to the intervention of Ekaterina Peshkova, wife of writer Maxim Gorky.
If one were to put all my essays having to do with Origen in a single document, it would be about two hundred pages of material. I also did multiple (AFR) podcast episodes on Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian’s Philocalia of Origen, which totals almost five hours. On July 14, 2020, I was interviewed for an hour on Fr. Tom Soroka’s AFR podcast Ancient Faith Today Live to discuss the life of Origen. Surely some will be asking themselves, “Why would anyone dedicate so much time and effort talking about a condemned heretic?” This question reveals an ecclesiastical philosophy among a portion of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This philosophy of pious ignorance presupposes that to be truly Orthodox is to be zealously hostile and excessively uncharitable concerning pretty much any controversial figure of antiquity. However, it takes two to create controversy. Too often do we label the other as “controversial,” ignoring how such actions are designed to fulfill the very accusation.
Of all the Orthodox churches, the Serbian church was hit the hardest by the Covid pandemic, which resulted in the death of its Patriarch Irinej as well as that of the highest bishop in neighboring Montenegro, Metropolitan Amfilohije. While the Serbian and Balkan media will be laser-focused on the profile of the new Primate and what his election, on February 18, will mean for church-state symphonic ambitions, it is evident that the new Serbian Patriarch will inherit accumulated problems regarding its disputed canonical jurisdictions in North Macedonia and, to lesser extent, in Montenegro.
The election of the new Serbian Patriarch is being monitored closely in Skopje and Podgorica. The authorities in both capitals have invested considerable resources and employed a number of tactics (with variations in results) to advance their pro-autocephaly claims in recent years. So what are the stakes for the Serbian new Patriarch?
The January 2021 Schmemann Lecture delivered by Mr. Rod Dreher, a Senior Editor of The American Conservative, has provoked bewilderment and objections especially among former students of Father Alexander. Was Dreher—neither an academic nor a theologian but a polemical journalist who proclaims it pointless to “dialogue” with Orthodox progressives—the appropriate person to deliver a lecture named in honor of the late archpriest? Not, certainly, if one compares the scholarly and ecclesial standing of Dreher to previous Schmemann lecturers. Does the warm, even apparently tight embrace of Dreher by the current President of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Archpriest Chad Hatfield, signify an already accomplished “culture war” transmogrification of the seminary and portend further hardline, divisively ideological efforts to reorient the whole OCA? The answer to the first question seemed evident enough to provoke a letter of protest from a number of anxious alumni to the seminary’s board of trustees. But a plausible answer to the second question requires considerably more effort—an informed and judicious reading of many ecclesiastical signs, a dangerous task that few OCA clerics would be equipped or eager to undertake publicly. The recently provoked band of objectors seems confronted by a debilitating choice: naively continuing by impotent complaints to close the barn door after the horses have fled, or bravely and equanimously—but perhaps foolhardily (as many will surely think)—enlisting themselves among those who speak the neuralgic truth because it is the truth. Are there many people who want to listen much less act upon the latter?
Gregory Thompson, a Protestant pastor, who is himself an academically trained theologian, has written an extensive and trenchant critique of Dreher’s most recent book: see Comment, “Return of the Cold Warrior: Reflections on Rod Dreher’s Live not by Lies,” December 3rd 2020. Dreher’s book, the proximate source of his Schmemann Lecture, rhetorically targets the “soft totalitarianism” menacing American culture: in Thompson’s description, the “progressive, illiberal, and anti-religious ideology rooted in the Marxist tradition” Thompson, however, details what he considers to be four egregiously ruinous errors in Dreher’s “Cold War,” fearful political theology. It is: (1) a morally black and white, Manichean account of history; (2) an ideological division of persons into godless progressivist villains and godly conservative victims; (3) an instrumental and tendentious use of people identified as allies; and (4) a self-confirming projection of Dreher’s own politicized religiosity but a reductively escapist account of the Church’s mission. All of these themes can be found in his recent Schmemann lecture.