22 June 2007

orthodox readings of augustine 1

I couldn't possibly summarize all the papers presented at the Augustine conference last week, but I'll attempt to hit some of the highlights. Besides, within a couple years, the entire proceedings should come out as a book, co-published by Eerdmans and St. Vladimir's.

I had a great time at the conference and in New York and really enjoyed not only hearing great speakers, but also getting to meet a number of guys I had only seen around online previously. They're a terrific bunch and I enjoyed their fellowship.

I'll also add, that despite their profound lack of hospitality in the area of internet access (inexcusable in this electronic era, I think), Fordham University is a beautiful campus, the conference was well organized, the food for catered receptions proved delicious, and the participating faculty all seemed both brilliant and generous, as well as committed to dialogue across historic divides within the Christian church.

Before diving into the conference presentations, perhaps a bit of context would be helpful. The topic of the conference was Eastern Orthodox readings of Augustine. Now, why is that so intriguing? There are several reasons.

First, the place of Augustine among the Fathers seems ambivalent from the standpoint of Eastern Orthodoxy. Certainly Augustine is regarded in the East as a saint and holy man, an important theologian and father of the church. Indeed, among Russian Orthodox exiles in France in the 1920s and 30s, Augustine was an object of friendly and appreciative study and high regard.

Yet, the larger trend among many more recent Orthodox theologians (especially post-WWII) is to see Augustine as typical of the perceived problems with western theology and, indeed, more often than not, the ultimate source of those problems. Vladimir Lossky and Christos Yannaras have both attributed to Augustine's influence the perceived western declension from the faith of the Fathers.

Second, as many are probably aware, one of the historic sticking points between the eastern and western church is the filioque - the clause added to the Nicene Creed in the Latin church affirming that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.

Setting aside canonical issues concerning whether the addition was procedurally proper, the Christian East has long questioned the theology behind the filioque. Since the East often sees Augustine's De Trinitate as the culprit behind the western development (not without some justification), the East often regards Augustine with the same suspicion as it does the filioque itself.

Third, there is a general perception on the part of some Orthodox theologians that the West begins with the essence of the one God, regarded as absolutely simple, and then attempts to incorporate the distinction of the Persons into the account of God's one essence, thereby reducing the Persons to mere relations. Augustine's trinitarian theology is taken as paradigmatic of such an approach. These theologians see the East, on the other hand, as beginning with the Persons and understanding God's one essence only in light of the trinity of Persons.

Fourth, alongside this difference in trinitarian emphasis, the western focus upon the one God and his simple essence is sometimes seen as excluding the eastern focus upon and distinction between essence and energies within the Godhead. This is particularly true with regard to contemporary theologians who are sometimes called "neo-palamist" (after Gregory Palamas, the 14th century Greek theologian who explicated and defended the essence/energies distinction against critics of the holy hesychasts of Mt. Athos). Many see the so-called neo-palamists as reading the Fathers and the West through the critical lens of Palamas' theology. On such readings, Augustine usually does not fare well.

Part of what is at stake in the essence/energies distinction is the soteriological and eschatological focus of the Christian East in the doctrine of theosis - human participation in the divine so that humanity, by grace in Christ, continues to become as much like God as is possible for creatures. The West does not exclude theosis (or "deification") and Augustine speaks often of "life together in God" as the highest human good.

Nonetheless, the East suspects that the western failure to distinguish between essence and energies leaves little room for such actual participation in the divine, forcing a choice between, on one hand, pantheistically collapsing creatures into the essence of God and, on the other hand, leaving creatures outside of God's own life, in the realm of mere created grace. The East often sees Augustine as exacerbating this difficulty.

While there are certainly issues of substantive difference between East and West, neither tradition is monolithic and some Orthodox theologians have questioned the direction taken by some so-called "neo-palamists." I also suspect that the way in which some of the recent divergences have developed is fueled, in part, by the need for Orthodox living in the West to shore up their own sense of identity - without at all trying to simply reduce theological differences to sociology.

In light of these differences between East and West - and the sometimes open hostility of eastern authors towards the West and, especially, Augustine - one can see why conference on Orthodox readings of Augustine could prove interesting and constructive.

Orthodoxy in America Lecture

The conference began Thursday evening, 14 June, with the annual Orthodoxy in America lecture as part of a program bestowing an honorary doctorate upon Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. Andrew Louth of Durham University presented the lecture “Heart in Pilgrimage”: St Augustine’s Reading of the Psalms, focusing upon Augustine's homiletics, both in general and by walking us through Augustine's sermon on Psalm 101 (LXX 100).

A focus upon Augustine's homiletics provides a different perspective on his theological thought, in contrast with approaches that typically focus either upon his major theological works (Confessions, Civitas Dei, De Trinitate) or his polemical works (against the Donatists and Pelagians). In his sermons, we hear the voice of Augustine the pastor and the exegete, with a profound concern for the spiritual condition of his flock, for finding Christ in the Scriptures, and for justice for the poor and vulnerable.

Plenary I

Friday, 15 June, began with Brian Daley, SJ speaking on Making a Human Will Divine: Augustine and Maximus on Christ and Human Salvation. I had been hoping for a more systematic comparison of Augustine's and Maximus the Confessor's respective theological anthropologies and soteriologies. The talk was, nonetheless, an illuminating assessment of the possible influence of Augustine upon Maximus.

There is no direct evidence of any influence or even that Maximus had any contact with Augustine's writings - though they treat similar topics and seem to have sympathies in some areas. Still, it seems to me that apart from more direct evidence, such similarities are likely better explained by common roots in Scripture, liturgy, and the earlier Fathers.

Moreover, as Daley pointed out, the two great figures lived in different worlds. Augustine, who died in AD 430, was a product of late Roman Africa and possessed impressive academic credentials relative to that context. His biography is relatively well-known, so I won't review it here.

With Greek/Syriac origins, Maximus lived from AD 580 to 662. He was well-educated in more philosophical or scholastic vein in keeping with Athens and Alexandria, and served in Byzantine Empire briefly under emperor Heraclius. In 613, however, he became monk and migrated to safety in west to North Africa in the wake of Persian incursions (c. 626), living in Carthage, Sicily, and elsewhere. Maximus with sympathetic with Chalcedonian Christology and the philosophy of the Aristotelian schools and figures such as Leontius of Byzantium.

As debate began to heat up over monenergism and monotheletism, that is, the view that Jesus Christ possessed only a divine energy and will, and not a fully human will. Maximus saw monothelitism as incipiently Apollinarian. Maximus debated monotheletism in a dialogue with Pyrrhus, who had succeeded him as Abbot of Chrysopolos, and Maximus won the day.

Maximus was present in Rome when Martin I called the bishops together at the Lateran Basilica 649 to condemn monothelitism. A number of scholars believe the official acts of the synod were written by Maximus, a position that Daley seemed to endorse.

So, given Maximus' biography and theology, what can one say about Augustine’s possible influence? After all, Maximus spent a large part of his adult life in areas of the Mediterranean in which Augustine had lived and in which his influence remained.

Daley pointed out that Augustine’s Christology historically falls between Nicaea and Nestorius and that he only just begins to use the language of person, substance, nature after 412. Nonetheless, Augustine affirms the full humanity of Christ, including a human mind and will that freely obeys the divine.

Daley cited a variety of evidence from Augustine's writings that affirm the humanity of Jesus as having its own full integrity and, as such, functions as the source of our healing and salvation. Thus Jesus Christ, in his graciously incarnate and transformed humanity is, for us, the grace of God.

Where Augustine speaks of grace, Maximus speaks more in terms of deification. Nonetheless, Daley cited a variety of evidence of analogies between Maximus' and Augustine's thought on the humanity of Jesus, grace, and salvation.

Daley wondered, then, whether Maximus’ Chalcedonian ways of speaking were at all influenced by Augustine’s pre-Chalcedonian formulations about grace and the person of Christ. But if Maximus was familiar with Augustine, why does he never refer to him by name as he does in the case of the Cappodocians, Leontius, and others? Was this perhaps due to Maximus' Greek audience?

But, if that is so, then why would Maximus not cite Augusinte in the Latin Acts of the Lateran Synod (assuming his authorship)? Actually the Acts do quote Augustine's Epistle 140, which may serve as some evidence of Maximus' familiarity with Augustine, if Maximus had a hand in these Acts.

Daley wrapped up his talk by noting a 7th century family seal of a North African military leader, the reverse side of which depicts Augustine, indicating an ongoing awareness of and devotion to Augustine in North Africa. The interesting fact here, however, is that this military leader took Maximus as his father confessor, suggesting again that Maximus could hardly be unaware of Augustine and his thought.

Plenary II

Daley's talk was followed by Jean-Luc Marion's presentation on St Augustine and the Divine Names. For those familiar with Marion's thought, he covered familiar ground.

Marion reviewed a lot of textual evidence in Augustine, from Confessions and elsewhere, showing how Augustine view the divine names. So, for instance, Augustine addressed God in Confessions 1.4.4:
Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful and most just; most secret and most truly present; most beautiful and most strong; stable, yet not supported; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud, and they know it not; always working, ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing; sustaining, pervading, and protecting; creating, nourishing, and developing; seeking, and yet possessing all things. You love, but without passion; are jealous, yet free from care; repent without remorse; are angry, yet remain serene. You change your ways, leaving your plans unchanged; you recover what you have never really lost. You are never in need but still you rejoice at your gains...
Marion suggested that Augustine's language about God is both apophatic and cataphatic, and yet neither, moving beyond such distinctions in a kind of new language game. To paraphrase Augustine: We do not know what we say when we say something about God, so we speak language of praise.

Marion recognizes that Augustine links God and Being, quoting Scripture, in particular the name given to Moses – “I am who I am” (Ex 4:14), which Augustine sees as God's most proper name. Yet this is often interpreted so that, according to Augustine is “being itself” (ipsum esse). As Augustine says elsewhere, God is “is” (deus est est).

Marion challenged such readings of Augustine nothing that rather than ipsum esse, Augustine most often uses the phrase “id ipsum” with reference to God – "that itself," which is God, whatever that is. Very often, however, translations translate this as “being itself” rather than using alternative (and, in Marion's view, more accurate) language (e.g. “thing itself”).

I have to say that I had difficulty following the rest of Marion's talk. The combination of French accent, long quotations in Latin, and my own grogginess, I missed a great deal and look forward to a print version.

The gist of Marion's remarks, however, was that for Augustine God lies beyond the opposition of apophasis and cataphasis, having a name above every other name. In this respect, he argued, Augustine has deep affinities with Pseudo-Dionysius, for whom also, beyond apophasis/cataphasis, remains doxology. God, then, is not some “thing” about which we must deny or affirm predicates (though we cannot help but do so). Rather God is ultimately a person to whom we speak and aim our praise.

Symposium I

The first symposium session included two talks, both textually focused, one by Elizabeth Fisher on Planoudes’ “De Trinitate,” the Art of Translation, and the Beholder’s Share and one by Reinhard Flogaus on Inspiration - Exploitation - Distortion: The Use of Augustine in the Hesychast Controversy.

Fisher's talk was a close examination of the translation of Augustine's De Trinitate into Greek, looking at the identity of Planoudes the translator, his theological competence, how the translation was received by both Greeks and Latins, and the subsequent effects of the translation. Much of her talk focussed up "the beholder's share," that's to say, the assumptions and background that a viewer brings to an artwork, in this case the art being a work of translation.

Flogaus' presentation zeroed in on Gregory Palamas’ dependence upon Planoudes’ translation of Augustine’s De Trinitate. Within Palamas' 150 Chapters (especially chapters 27–38, 125, 132), Palamas seems influenced by Augustine in fairly direct ways and Palamas’ “Economy of Salvation” is dependent upon Augustine’s De Trinitate books 4, 13, and 15.

While Flogaus pointed out a couple of direct quotations where Augustine is named in Palamas' writings, most often the quotations of Augustine by Palamas are unattributed, though they come directly from Planoudes' Greek translation. In one case, for instance, Palamas introduced a quotation from Augustine with, “Since one of the wise and apostolic men said…,” not naming Augustine, but referring to him with deference.

One of the questions raised (though not really answered) by Palamas' use of Augustine, is whether the debate between Barlaam and Palamas can be so easily portrayed as one between Greek personalism and Latin essentialism or eastern apophaticism and Augustinian simplicity. Barlaam himself refers to Augustine once and Akidynos four times, while Palamas refers to Augustine repeatedly. The question, then, is what this suggests about the character of the difference between Palamas and his opponents?

I'll post more later on some of the other talks.