“I belong to a small country,” said the great Greek poet George Seferis in his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1963. “It is small, but its tradition is immense.”
As wrangling over the word “tradition” has become an idle pastime, particularly on that domain of debauchery known as social media, Seferis’s thoughts warrant consideration, despite his unorthodox Orthodoxy. Tradition, for Seferis, has three elements: it is alive; it is universal, but only because it is particular; and it is, above all, liberating.
Introduced to the West in Henry Miller’s 1939 travelogue The Colossus of Maroussi, the poet and diplomat (whose real name was Giorgos Seferiades) was larger than life. Miller described him as “a wild boar which had broken its tusks in furious onslaughts born of love and ecstasy.” When Orthodox lay theologian Philip Sherrard first met Seferis in person, he wrote in his diary that he radiated “profoundly direct and simple human warmth and spontaneity.” The British poet and Jesuit priest Peter Levi wrote that Seferis “was the sun in the sky to all of us who lived in Greece.”
One might not expect Seraphim Rose and David Bentley Hart to agree on much, but they do share one crucial perspective: that modernity is essentially nihilistic. However, while their diagnoses of modernity may be similar, their prescriptions are diametrically opposed. To stem the tide of modernity’s nihilistic encroachments, Rose rejected ecumenism as a modernist heresy, and he later promoted a patristic style of young Earth creationism against evolutionary biology. Hart, on the other hand, promotes instead ecumenical unity and the importance of creation as a philosophical and theological doctrine, not a historical event per se, that can be harmonized with science (provided science is rescued from its tendency to reductionism). Such distinct responses highlight the degree of variability within the American subspecies of Eastern Orthodoxy.
In Rose’s view, nihilism is the “root of the revolution of the modern age,” and this nihilism is not just a lack of faith but rather an active belief in nothingness: “No man…lives without a god,” and the god of the nihilist is “nihil, nothingness itself” (Rose 2001, 68-70). It begins with the rejection of God but manifests itself in four modern schools of thought: liberalism, realism, vitalism, and destruction. His clearest critique is on liberalism, which he describes as a more urbane nihilism—tempting, but ultimately flawed, because it cannot evade its own fundamental problem: its inability to justify its own existence (Rose 2001, 33). Likewise, Hart has written that the modern predicament is to “believe in nothing,” which he clarifies is not a faith in just anything, but rather “in the nothing, or in nothingness as such” (Hart 2009, 1-2). Hart shares Rose’s view that contemporary political liberalism is a “soporific nihilism,” but his discussion traces a different intellectual genealogy (Hart 2017, 323). Continue reading →