Over the past four years, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has become a catch-phrase for a certain kind of conservative Christian community in North America. Many Orthodox churches are striving to carve out a niche within this religious marketplace, promoting the stability of Orthodoxy in contrast to current Western Christian brands. Indeed, such stability is vital to the “BenOp” lifestyle, which envisions Christian village-style communities rooted in family life and communal worship as an antidote to a decadent modern society, unmoored from its traditional roots.
While Dreher does not promote Christian gated communities, encouraging Christians to seek allies in their cause across ideological, denominational, and religious lines, some Orthodox interpreters of his “Benedict Option” are seduced by the latent sectarianism of a BenOp-style “counter-culture” where most of the parishioners live around the corner from the Church, and where all the children attend the same parochial Orthodox school…
I would suggest that this inclination towards communities that distinguish themselves sharply from the rest of society are underwritten by a particular interpretation of the “Neopatristic Synthesis,” a school of theology that has predominated since the middle of the last century. Most often associated with the works of Fr. Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky, the movement sought to free Orthodoxy from the influence of (some would say “captivity to”) Western thought, restoring its identity in the patristic, spiritual, and liturgical heritage of the East.
The Neopatristic emphasis on the otherness of East and West extended to their view of God and the world. On this account, the world which is a “totally new, non-divine reality” that exists alongside God, while being utterly dependent on him. As Lossky put it, “Stability, permanency for the creature is therefore its relation to God. In relation to itself, it amounts to nothing.”
Neither Florovsky nor Lossky themselves intended the Neopatristic Synthesis to disengage Orthodoxy from the world’s concerns (both were committed to the ecumenism, for instance). Still, superficial interpreters of their call to “return to the Fathers” have promoted the notion of the Western “captivity” of the Orthodox Church, resulting in a popular theological culture that shows little interest in constructively addressing the economic, ecological, and political crises of our time, even as it is intensely concerned with liturgics and personal spirituality.
Given this tendency, it is perhaps not surprising that a theology that sees the world in itself as “amounting to nothing” in itself should predispose Orthodox to embrace an American cultural movement that views the world in itself—modern, secular society—as doomed to self-destruction. Indeed, the Neopatristic Synthesis and the “Benedict Option” tend to reinforce each other’s instincts, for good and ill. At best, they present a genuine critique of modernity and a strong focus on prayer and communal worship at the heart of the Christian life; at worst, they display a spirit of “narrowness, inwardness, separatism, and moral arrogance,” to echo David Brooks’ critique.
I believe that we need to revive of an Orthodox tradition to curb the orientalist, navel-gazing tendencies of Neopatristicism, which make it vulnerable to isolationist cultural influences, particularly at this moment in history. To this end, I uphold the tradition that the Neopatristic theologians rejected: the Sophiology of the Russian religious philosophers.
Sophiology has been subject to much critique through much of the 20th century, much of it unfair. Over the last two decades, scholars have demonstrated beyond doubt that the problems with the concept of Sophia (particularly in the work of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov) have been largely overstated, while the charge of heresy simply has no basis in truth.
It is certainly true that Sophiology is complex, frequently approaching impenetrability. Moreover, thinkers as diverse as Solov’yov, Florensky, Berdyaev, Zernov, and Evdokimov have all featured Sophia in their thought in multiple ways, with multiple meanings. Despite the difficulties in defining the boundaries of the concept, though, Bulgakov has shown that Sophia does indeed have a vital place within contemporary Orthodox theology.
Bulgakov begins from the conviction that in the superabundance of his love, God goes out of himself to create the extra-divine world. Though utterly different from God, the created world rests “in” its creator like a child in its mother’s womb, both distinct and dependent. Likewise, while God is separated from the world by an abyss of nothingness, he freely makes himself vulnerable to it, much as a mother is vulnerable to the needs of her child.
How are the creator and his creation united without being confused and without being separated (to echo the Definition of Chalcedon)? Bulgakov interprets the scriptural Sophia (Prov. 9:1-6) as a personalized principle holding together God and world in both unity and difference, a principle ultimately fulfilled in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Bulgakov’s mother-child image speaks to the concern for the world characterized by the Sophiological thought of the religious philosophers. Far from seeing it as “amounting to nothing,” they saw the world as potentially “sophianic,” imbued with the divine life in its creatureliness, and therefore inherently precious. Mother Maria Skobtsova’s house of hospitality in Paris exemplified a community built on a sophianic spirit. It contained a shelter and kitchen for the city’s homeless, a drawing room to host theological discussion, and a chapel—all in one building, a concrete expression of the unity of all in God, without confusion and without separation.
How might the sophianic spirit help us restore theological balance to Orthodox communities today? How might it help restore the vital tension between caring for the world at it is, while calling it to live as it ought to, according to the best instincts of the Neopatristic Synthesis? To answer this question, I propose a “marriage” of the theological cultures of Sophia and Benedict, in which (as in any good marriage) each works to curb the potentially destructive excesses of the other. Benedict can help Sophia not to confuse the world as it is with the world as it ought to be, and Sophia can restrain Benedict’s tendencies to isolate and exclude, reminding him that God has called human beings to love the world as he has loved it, joining himself to it in his Son Jesus Christ.
Fr. Richard René is a Ph.D. student at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology. He is the Pacific Regional Chaplain for Correctional Services Canada and the director of St. Silas Orthodox Prison Fellowship (Canada).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.