FAITH Magazine July-August 2006
Wisdom from Above. A Primer in the Theology of Father Sergei Bulgakov
by Aidan Nichols OP, Gracewing, 317pp, £17.99
A Greek monk of Mount Athos once told me that Russians were incapable of being truly Orthodox, “they believe that once we get to heaven we’ll find a fourth person of the Trinity called Sophia”. Behind this prejudice there is a garbled version of the theology of Sergei Bulgakov (18711944), in particular of his sophiology: a theological meditation on divine wisdom (in Greek, sophia). Bulgakov was indeed charged with heresy by some of his fellow Russian exiles, but he strenuously defended his orthodoxy and died in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople.
This book began life as the author’s lectures to Ethiopian theological students and it begins with warm commendations from the Archbishop of Canterbury (himself an expert on the theology of the Russian diaspora) and the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia. This gives some idea of the wide interest in Bulgakov’s writings, which is bound to increase as more are translated into English. Aidan Nichols compares Bulgakov to Hans Urs von Balthasar and this seems to be valid. Both were men of wide erudition which ranged far beyond the theological, both left extensive writings, both combined a commitment to orthodoxy with daring theological speculation, and both were influenced by modern German philosophy. Bulgakov nearly became a Catholic and retained an openness to the Catholic Church which isunusual among Orthodox. Wisdom from Above opens with an overview of Bulgakov’s life, which is of interest in itself. A Marxist economist, he returned to the Church and, after the 1917 revolution, he settled in Paris where he taught at the Institut Saint-Serge. Nichols’ presentation of his theology broadly follows the shape of the creed: God, creation, incarnation, redemption, the Holy Spirit, Church and eschatology. These chapters are followed by three on the subjects of Bulgakov’s ‘little trilogy’: Our Lady, John the Baptist and the angels. Finally, his thoughts on iconography are discussed. The problematic aspects of his theology are not avoided, sophiology, his high doctrine of John the Baptist, and his universalism (all will be saved), but Nichols gives a ‘benign reading’ ofthese theories which shows that while Bulgakov may sometimes push ideas beyond their limits, he was fundamentally orthodox. Theology is about truth not safety, and each chapter is an invitation to a Catholic to look again at his own faith from a different angle. To note only one fruitful aspect, Bulgakov’s theology is rooted in worship, constantly referring to icons and the Byzantine liturgy. If we listen to the teaching of the Magisterium, Catholic theology, catechetics and faith should likewise be rooted in our liturgical worship, but is this so?
As the Eastern Orthodox lack a coherent understanding of the development of doctrine, their theology is often ahistorical. The contemporary Greek Bishop, John Zizioulas, claims his theology of the person is drawn from the early Fathers, but a recent study has shown that it actually owes much more to modern Western philosophy than he would admit. Bulgakov is not entirely free from this, but he has engaged with the concerns of the modern Western world in a way few Orthodox have done. One of the few good things to come out of the horrors of the Russian revolution was that the émigrés could present the riches of the Christian East to Western Christians. Like this historical movement, and like other studies of the Christian East by Aidan Nichols, Rowan Williams and others, this bookaids a true ecumenism. Real ecumenism is not about compromise but about looking together at the mystery of faith in the context of prayer and Christian tradition. Wisdom from Above presents a theologian from whom Western Catholics can learn if they wish to heed the desire of Pope John Paul II for the Church to ‘breathe with both lungs’, to assimilate, like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the riches of Christian East and West. It is, however, a book for those who have some basic grounding in theology, but it is also a book which can feed prayer and meditation. In this it is like the writings of Sergei Bulgakov himself, and it inspires one to turn to these writings such as the parts of his ‘great trilogy’ The Bride of the Lamb (2002) and TheComforter (2004).
Dom Augustine Holmes OSB
Pluscarden Abbey, Scotland
Opening Up. Speaking Out in the Church
edited by Julian Filochowski and Peter Stanford, DLT,284pp, £14.95
Opening Up is a collection of twenty articles and two poems. It ‘speaks out in the Church’ numerous profoundly heterodox opinions. It is published to mark the 60th birthday of Martin Pendergast, the partner of one of the editors, Julian Filochowski, director of CAFOD from 1982-2003. In 2001, a special Mass was celebrated by the Rector of Ushaw seminary to celebrate the 25 years of their partnership, with two prominent Bishops in attendance. Not surprisingly the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is the main focus of some of the articles and several others use the question to illustrate various supposed ills in the Church: discrimination (Sobrino, Heymann), confusion in the priesthood (Loftus), the unfairness of Vatican procedures (Gramick) and the recasting of moral theology (Kelly).
However, the collection covers a range of topics. Clague proposes the thesis that the prohibition of women priests runs counter to the value of inclusion that the Church elsewhere defends; Filochowski writes on the option for the poor; O’Neill attacks the idea of Rome requiring that Catholic politicians act and vote to uphold the natural law; Flessati and Kent offer a defence of Christian pacifism, and Gearty proposes a new model of obedience and conscience.
My own candidate for the worst article in the book is Jane Fraser’s “Teenage Pregnancy: Are the Churches to blame?” She is an Anglican priest and has worked with Brook Advisory Centres for 30 years. In the first paragraph, she claims that pregnant teenagers who abort their baby face “fewer long-term consequences” than those who continue with their pregnancy. She asserts that the Teenage Pregnancy Unit has been successful in reducing social exclusion (though not, of course, teenage pregnancy). She makes the conventional (and mistaken) claim that prior to the 20th century, people believed that life began at “quickening” and (again mistakenly) claims that abortion was almost as common prior to 1967 as after. She approves the Brook approach to counselling in contrast to that of SPUC which was“based on a desire to turn people away from abortion”. She also attacks abstinence programmes and favours sex-education which “encourages [young people] to use contraception if they do have sex.”
It is no surprise that these views and attitudes should be espoused by someone who has worked with the Brook for much of her life. What does prompt a raised eyebrow at least is that prominent British Catholics—even those who dissent from the Magisterium in other ways – should find it acceptable to be associated with such a position.
Fr Timothy Radcliffe’s article “Kneading the Dough of the Eucharist” includes some characteristic paradoxes (“One cannot imagine a more solid and, in some ways, traditional Catholic than Martin”) and original imagery. The thesis is that there is a dichotomy in the Church between the centre and the margins and that our work must be like kneading dough which takes the margin and puts it back in the centre. This is helped out by the image of God “whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”.
Enda McDonagh is the preferred moral theologian in CAFOD’s justification for accepting that condoms are part of the solution to the AIDS problem. His article in this collection makes the astonishing (and false) claim that the manuals of moral theology from 1600-1960 “completely ignored love/friendship”. He suggests that the Church’s recognition of the legitimacy of using the infertile period persuaded moral theologians that contraception was acceptable “and, in a further step, that sexual loving may not be confined to just heterosexual relationships”. Therefore, he proposes that it would be appropriate to give a Christian blessing of the “love and justice” involved in a homosexual union. Conversely, it is against “love and justice” to exclude pro-abortion politicians from communion.
One recurring theme of the articles is what might be called “homosexual ontology”. James Alison makes a heartfelt case for the acceptance of homosexuality in the Church. He asks that his proposal be accepted in the Vatican as a “cry for help”. Basing his argument on Trent’s decree on justification, he argues that the homosexual inclination is not intrinsically evil because that would “fall into the heresy of claiming that there is some part of being human which is intrinsically depraved”. He accepts that one side or the other in this argument must be wrong “Either being gay is a defective form of being heterosexual or it is simply a thing that just is that way.” The answer of the Magisterium has been to speak of disorder, rather than defect, referring to the whole person, rather thanaccepting that a person could rightly define themselves as “gay”.
Regarding the teaching of the Magisterium, Jordan, defending the principles of Dignity, claims that Persona Humana (1975) “admitted a permanent and unchangeable homosexuality – that is, homosexuality much like nature” and that this was “corrected” in Homosexualitatis Problema (2005). There may be some justification in this. Persona Humana did speak of “homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable.” whereas Homosexualitatis Problema spoke instead of “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, avoiding any concession to the idea that homosexuality is “who I am”. In fact, Persona Humana based its fundamental reasoning on the natural law and the “kind of”(specie) qualification saves what might, with hindsight, be considered a loose expression.
The discussion of this point is perhaps the most important challenge to the Magisterium on the question of homosexuality. It is linked with the discussion of ‘gender’. Homosexual ontology proposes that it is erotic ‘orientation’ and not gender which is inherent to ‘the way we are made’. In this brave new world view you can change your gender, or even as in modern Spain self-define whether you are male, female or trans-gender, whereas your very human nature determines whether you are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual—it’s ‘in the genes’. This would be effectively to re-write Genesis as ‘in the image of God he created him, gay and straight he created them’. It is necessary for the Church to elaborate clearly that ‘nothing was homosexual in the beginning’ (apologies to Tolkein) and thathomosexual tendencies and temptations are a contingent aspect of fallen human nature. The distinction between acts and condition was fine as a guide for pastors before the political and theological advance of the gay lobby. Now, it is necessary to tackle the question of the homosexual condition itself as a doctrinal matter. In Faith movement we believe that Edward Holloway has provided a good basis from which to do this for modern culture. Perhaps Fr Editor might consider commissioning something on this ever more crucial subject.
Although I believe that this is the most important question raised in the book, a review would be incomplete without mentioning two other articles which touch on other aspects of the debate. Fuller and Keenan take on the question of condoms and AIDS, promoting the use of condoms, attacking abstinence programmes, and praising the CAFOD policy. The best approach to this debate in my opinion, is to look at the statistics from those countries which have promoted condoms (e.g. Botswana, Thailand), those countries which have refused to do so (e.g. the Philippines, Senegal), and those countries which have had a mixed approach (e.g. Uganda). The figures speak for themselves. Moreover, the statistics published by the Department of Health in the UK show enormous increases from 1995-2004 in thoseSTIs that are supposedly protected against by condoms.
Sr Heymann’s article is one of the most irritating of the collection. We are treated to the story of how she was prejudiced against people who were gay or HIV-positive but learned to overcome her prejudices. She tells us of “pious churchgoers” pointing a finger at a minority and eschews the title “Ten commandments” for her list of “Dreams” because “I know such a title would be counterproductive, especially if suggested by a woman”. She suggests that someone with AIDS should be invited to preach the homily at Sunday Mass. She tells the story of a lady in Crawley who was helped to overcome her prejudices after she was hesitant about helping those with HIV/AIDS, saying “I have never spoken to a gay man in my life”. Sunlight burst through the clouds of her sheltered existence in Crawley, ofcourse, when her interlocutor told her “Well you are doing so right now”.
Close behind was the piece by Ann Smith. This is a poem where the “not simple solution” (i.e. not abstinence or condoms alone) is life-giving. “Roman purse-strings tighten” when the prophetically brave leaders speak out (to promote condoms). The poor people at risk of AIDS are threatened by the “soutaned Goliaths” (who oppose condoms) and the grey-suited Goliaths (who sell condoms): both offer “simple solutions”. The people have colluded with them and kept too quiet and now it is time to speak out in terms of “The Spirit-crafted hymn for life / -A hymn they labelled death”. Is this meant to imply that what Pope John Paul called “the culture of death” is in fact a gift of the Holy Spirit? It would be in keeping with the tenor of much of this book.
Sr Jeannine Gramick makes an appearance. After numerous complaints about her opposition to the teaching of Magisterium on the morality of homosexual acts, she was asked to assent to the teaching of the Church, which she refused to do. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith then prohibited her from pastoral work with homosexuals. Her article largely focuses on justifying her subsequent disobedience to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She offers a variety of possible models of disobedience (creative circumvention, prophetic disobedience, discernment) and effectively compares the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Nazis by suggesting that obedience is like the Eichmann principle (“I was only obeying orders”) and that a person not wishing to follow such acommand should meditate on the holocaust.
Worth notice is O’Neill’s attack on Rome’s guidance to Catholics in public life. A QC, he argues that it would be difficult to follow such guidance and be a loyal citizen of one’s country. He characterises Pope John Paul’s position in Memory and Identity to mean that Catholics are “free only to do what the Pope says.” Interestingly, his vision of the democratic society includes people having different views on moral and political questions and “having the right and opportunity to express, publicise and proselytise for those views”. Sir Iqbal Sacranaie or Helen and Joe Roberts might have a perspective on that after being investigated by police for their allegedly “homophobic” views.
The quality of the articles varies quite a bit. Clague’s defence of feminism and McGreal’s article on ecumenism and intercommunion are well-written expositions of what might now be indeed called “traditional” heterodox positions. I would not personally go along with the views of Alan Griffiths on the Liturgy, but his article is thought-provoking and intelligent. However, Kaggwa’s article on the Spirit shows how easily poor theology can lead astray: “The Spirit is the point of contact where the Father and the Son touch history. Maybe we can say that the Spirit is the ‘how’ and Christ is the ‘what’.” Or maybe we can’t since it is heresy.
Also included in the collection is an article by Diarmuid O’Murchu. He believes that “Jesus was a cultural, mystical subversive who was not too worried about his inherited religion”, which makes me wonder if he has read St Matthew’s gospel. He also thinks that it is a “scholastic principle” that action follows thought. Actually, this is a new-age principle of, for example, Hattie Warner’s “Healing Therapy Garden”. The scholastic principle is agere sequitur esse. The article has little to commend it, rehashing various commonplaces such as Trent’s affirmation of “clerical monopoly”, the discovery by the Jesus Seminar of the meaning of the Kingdom which has eluded Christians for 2000 years and the idea that the spirit is plunging the patriarchal priesthood into terminaldecline.
What is interesting is that a previous book by O’Murchu called “Reframing Religious Life” was recently the subject of a doctrinal note by the Spanish Bishops. Published in L’Osservatore Romano, the note concluded that the book is “an efficient formula for the progressive distortion and destruction of religious and consecrated life, separating it little by little from the Church, divorcing it from the service of mankind and dissolving it in a world that does not know Christ.” The book had been circulating in the English-speaking world for eight years before the Spanish Bishops responded to its translation. Perhaps we should encourage DLT that there is a big Spanish audience for “Opening Up”.
Fr Timothy Finigan
Praying to Our Lord Jesus Christ. Prayers and meditations through the Centuries
by Fr Benedict Groeschel CFR, Ignatius Press, 159pp, £8.95
This is a powerful collection of prayers that presents a cohesive and chronological narrative of the experience of Christian prayer. It is to be read as a devotional and faith educating tool. Fr Groeschel is aware that it may not always be helpful to pray in someone else’s words, but he encourages us to share the experience of those that have gone before us to the benefit of our faith, and specifically to developing a personal relationship with Christ.
We are introduced to some prayers of the early Martyrs, of Church Fathers, and of great medieval and Catholic Reformation theologians, prayers, or styles of prayer which we may not have otherwise had contact with. Further on, we are exposed to prayers from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which Fr Groeschel selects to illustrate the spiritual and theological mood of these periods. Many of these subsections are briefly contextualised by Fr Groeschel and accompanied occasionally by various artistic impressions of Christ specific to the period or its subject. All this again draws our attention to contemplating the face of Christ.
For those unfamiliar with terms such as “The Dark Ages”, and “The Early Middle Ages”, Fr Groeschel provides helpful explanations which detail historical situations and the implications these events had for Catholic spiritual culture. These brief commentaries set the scene for the prayers that follow, and introduce the main figures that formed the prayer characteristic to that period. This shows an organic development towards a more personal, more sense engaging encounter with Christ.
This book is fascinating factually and a helpful companion to prayer. The snippets of devotional material hand picked by Fr Groeschel allow us to engage personally with Christ. This is an encouragement to delve deeper into the works of those founders and promulgators of our beautiful faith. Having always felt fairly intimidated by figures such as St Augustine, I found that Fr Groeschel’s section on this great figure provided me with a welcome window into his work. In a most beautiful way, St Augustine calls us to focus on Christ for our growth in faith; “He has accepted what was not his, but he remains what he was. Look, we have the infant Christ; let us grow with him.”
Within this work, Fr Groeschel’s main purpose is to address the internal yearning for Christ that all of humanity has, whether or not it can decipher this yearning amid such a chaotic world. He attempts to reawaken this desire by once again employing divinely inspired gifts which include mystical experiences and the arts to redeem, within our fallen nature, that ability to walk with Christ in the Garden. As Fr Groeschel points out, in the over psychologised world in which we live we are encouraged only to think of ourselves and the implications which an event may have for us. As a timely response Fr Groeschel points us towards Christ as opposed to self. He intends to wet our lips as it were, with the vast treasure trove of Christian experience and emotion that has inspired ordinary peopleto become great theologians and saints. All this is done in order to foster in us ordinary Christians a similar hunger for a personal and meaningful relationship with Christ.
Brierley Hill West Midlands