Renovationist Heresy

This may not rise to the level of heresy by itself, but it appears to exist in the context of one. Well, more probably it serves as a context, or seed-bed, for one. You will see what I mean, below. This is from a chapter of the book Not of this World, by Monk Damascene Christensen, 1993 2d edition, titled, “Renovationism”.

The 20th century Orthodox monk Father Seraphim Rose, of the Father Herman Brotherhood monastery in California, “lived at a time when there was talk among scholars and intellectuals of a fashionable ‘Patristic revival.’ This was a positive phenomenon in that many rare Patristic texts were being made known in the modern world; but Fr. Seraphim was also to see its dangers. Having himself learned how to approach the Orthodox tradition through a direct, living transmission from saints, he was unhappily though inevitably set at odds with scholars and theologians who had not received such a transmission. These people, he said, were creating ‘a whole new approach to Orthodoxy’; and his times demanded that he speak out.” (Not of this World, p.464)

In 1973 for the specific purpose of transmitting the living tradition of Russian Orthodoxy to America, monks of the Fr. Herman Brotherhood monastery, “began to publish the Lives of the desert-dwellers of Northern Russia … . One leading academic theologian chastised in print ‘those who call to non-existent deserts,’ evidently … as an appeal to a religious ‘romanticism’ totally out of step with contemporary conditions of life.” (Ibid. p.474)

“When the fathers finally printed the Lives together in a book, which they called The Northern Thebaid, Fr. Seraphim answered this criticism as follows:

First of all the monastic life here described has not entirely disappeared from the earth … even in the 20th century … The wise seeker can find his “desert” even in our barren 20th century. … Every Orthodox Christian should know the Lives of the Fathers of the desert, which together with the Lives of the martyrs give us the model  for our own life of Christian struggle. … Every Orthodox Christian should be inspired by their life of struggle far from the ways of the world. There is no “romanticism ” here. The actual “romantics” of our times are the reformers of “Parisian Orthodoxy” who … wish to “sancify the world,” (by replacing) the authentic orthodox world view with a this-worldly counterfeit of it based on modern Western thought. The spritual life of the true monastic tradition is the norm of our Christian life … . If we do not live like these Saints, then let us at least increase our far-too-feeble struggles for God, and offer our fervent tears of repentance and our constant self-reproach at falling so short of the standard of perfection which God has shown us in His wondrous Saints. (Ibid. p.474,475)

Why did he speak thus? It was because a, “new breed of scholars” had taken root in America, derived, “from the so-called ‘Parisian’ school of Orthodox thought, composed mostly of members of the Russian intelligentsia. While in Russia, some of these people had helped pave the way for the Revolution. (But) seeing the horrors this would bring, they had repented … fled the country (and) formed an emigre community in Paris, and in their philosophy attempted to return to their cultural and religious heritage. When they came to Orthodoxy, however, it was largely to an Orthodoxy of their own devising. They looked down their noses at the ‘popular piety’ of the ‘masses,’ which they felt they had to refine … . (Ibid. p.465)

From among their ranks, “Fr. Schmemann came to New York from Paris in 1951, and very soon became the unrivaled idealogue of the American Metropolia (now OCA). … Like his predecessors, he was critical of ‘old-fashioned piety,’ particularly that of the pre-Revolutionary Russia. He believed this ‘piety’ … was the result of unfortunate ‘cultural accretions’ which had to be reevaluated and stripped off in layers by modern scholars. … He spoke of finding ‘new ways of Orthodox theology,’ of intellectually ‘mastering history’ and thus ‘restoring’ Orthodoxy to … its pure form.” (Ibid. p.465)

“He and his colleagues wanted Orthodoxy to be recognized by the big names in contemporary theology and the ecumenical movement … . To do this, they naturally … (made) use of the new catch words” that were in vogue at the time. … One of the currents of ‘progressive’ Christianity was the disparagement of what was now termed ‘private virtue’ … and Fr. Schmemann also reflected it, claiming that Orthodox piety had become too self-centered … . Very quickly he gained widespread recognition as a ‘dynamic and articulate spokesman of Orthodoxy.’ (Ibid. pp.465-466)

Father Herman, who became one of the monks at the Fr. Herman Brotherhood, “had encountered Fr. Schmemann’s books when he as at Jordanville. As he explained: ‘When I came to Jordanville, I read three books which were bound up with my conversion: the Life of St. Seraphim, the Life of Elder Ambrose of Optina, and The Way of a Pilgrim. I found that the most  interesting thing about Christianity is the ascetics, because they make all of Christ’s talk about the Kingdom of God make sense. And then someone said, “If you really want to know what’s happening in Orthodoxy today, read Schmemann.” So I read it, and I was bored. I read more, and I was still bored. … And then I figured it out. He speaks abstractly, albeit eloquently, not from experience, like the ascetics. … It was two-dimensional, while the saints are three-dimensional … . (Ibid. p. 466)

Father Herman found a kindred spirit in Fr. Seraphim, who counciled him thus regarding modern academic theology: “‘If you read too much of that … you may begin to take it seriously, which will detract from the power of the true spiritual texts which gave you life.’ … In an article for The Orthodox Word, he explained why:

Orthodoxy today … has become worldly. The young people who come from comfortable homes (seeking) a religion that is not remote from the self-satisfied life they have known; the professors and lecturers whose milieu is the academic world where, notoriously, nothing is accepted as ultimately serious … the very academic atmosphere of self-satisfied worldliness–all these factors join together to produce an artificial, hothouse atmosphere in which, no matter what might be said concerning exalted Orthodox truths or experiences, by the very context in which it is said and by virtue of the worldly orientation of both speaker and listener, it cannot strike to the depths of the soul and produce the profound commitment which used to be normal to Orthodox Christians….

“In the Russian emigration, the ‘theologians’ of the new school, who are eager to be in harmony with the intellectual fashions, to quote the latest Roman Catholic or Protestant scholarship, to adopt the whole ‘casual’ tone of contemporary life and especially of the academic world–have been aptly called ‘theologians with a cigarette.’ …” (Ibid. p.467)

The concept of Orthodox tradition carried forward by living transmission stands in stark contrast to the above. One of the spiritual guides of Fr. Seraphim was Archbishop Averky, “to whom Archbishop John (Saint John Maximovich) had once told the brothers to turn whenever they had questions. ‘Archbishop Averky,’ Fr. Seraphim wrote, ‘is in the genuine Patristic tradition as few other living Orthodox fathers.” (Ibid. p.472)

Archbishop Averky himself addressed the phenomenon of the new theologians. ‘Alas!’ he wrote. ‘How few people there are in our times, even among the educated, and … contemporary “theologians” and … clergy, who understand correctly what Orthodoxy is and wherein its essence lies. They approach this question in an utterly external, formal manner … overlooking its depths completely and not at all seeing the fullness of its spiritual contents.'” (Ibid. p.472)

Renovationist vs. Apocalyptic Theology

“One difference between a modern Holy Father like Archbishop Averky and a mere explainer of Patrisitc doctrine was their respective attitudes toward the apocalyptic and prophetic aspects of Orthodoxy. Being in a direct line of prophets, Archbishop Averky did not hesitate to impart what to the lovers of this world might be a hard saying. Modern academic theology, on the other hand, was already too much a part of the world to do this. ‘If the Christian faith is indeed eschatological,’ Fr. Schemann (sic) wrote, ‘it is precisely not apocalyptic…. Apocalypticism is truly a heresy.’ Not only Archbishop Averky, but all the holy people Fr. Seraphim had known had a very sober view of imminent tribulations and deceptions. The new theologians demonstrated their foreignness to this traditional outlook by calling such people ‘neurotic’ and ‘defeatists.'” (Ibid. p.472. Later editions of this book redact the above words of Fr. Schmemann and soften them. Presumably this has to do with ROCOR and OCA joining forces between earlier and later editions.)

“It was clear to Fr. Seraphim that today’s academic theology could not be successfully blended with the life of monasticism. Various attempts at such a combination bore this out, and the reasons were not difficult to discern. Whereas the former was abstract, the latter was down-to-earth; whereas the former was filled with talk of complex theological ‘problems,’ the latter required simplicity of heart; and whereas the former was devised according to the way the world thinks, the latter was by nature at odds with the world. Of all the academic theologians, Fr. Schmemann had the most animated vision of Orthodoxy in America; but even this … could not inspire one to take the first step of the Ladder of Divine Ascent: renunciation.” (Ibid. p.473)

“In theory Fr. Schmemann regarded monasticism very highly, but in practice he was suspicious of it for what he regarded as its corruptions, blaming monastic influence in large part for the piety and church traditions of which he disapproved. He placed the monastic-ascetic tradition at odds with the ‘lay’ Orthodoxy he envisioned, rather than seeing the former as the prime motivator and inspirer of the latter. As Fr. Seraphim wrote, however: ‘It is precisely the monastic services which are taken as the standard of the Church’s life of worship, because monasticism itself most clearly expresses the ideal toward which the whole believing Church strives.'” (Ibid. p.473)

“In some of his later works … Fr. Schmemann succeeded in … avoiding modern criticism of the ‘defects’ of traditional Orthodoxy. But for him, and especially for his followers, the transmission remained severed. Although he made frequent mention of St. Seraphim (of Sarov) in his lectures, he could only appreciate selected aspects of him. He could not fully enter into this Saint’s ascetic and apocalyptic spirit …, for he had cut himself off from the saints of his own time, even from those of St. Seraphim’s same spiritual lineage who lived nearby (Fr. Adrian, Archbishop Averky, Fr. Gerasim, and countless others were, together with St. Seraphim, in the direct lineage of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky). (Ibid. p.475)

“Father Seraphim saw the final argument against modernist theology in its very fruits. Traditional Orthodoxy, with all its alleged ‘cultural accretions’ and ‘impurities,’ has nurtured saints even in our own times; ‘restored’ or ‘rediscovered’ Orthodoxy, with all its claims at being more pure or better informed, has produced, at best, clever men. The latter, Fr. Seraphim perceived, has lost the feeling for the whole atmosphere of piety in which saints have been raised.” (Ibid. p.473)

“Fr. Seraphim wanted to inspire (a true Orthodox theology through) ascetic podvig: ’emphasis on doing spiritual life rather than talking about it.’ Podvig was what had moved all the great ‘living links’ to become men and women of sanctity, and it alone would give birth to more sanctity in the American land. As Archbishop Averky had said, ‘Orthodoxy is an ascetic faith that calls to ascetic labor in the name of the uprooting of sinful passions and the implanting of Christian virtue.’ And, according to the teaching of St. John Climacus and other Holy Fathers, one must conquer the passions before even attempting to theologize.” (Ibid. p.473,475)

1 Response to Renovationist Heresy

  1. Anna says:

    I thought this was very clear , making a stark distinction between 2 types of Orthodoxy and the reasons they exist.

Your Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s