Should Theologians Be Spiritual? Part 3

For the third part of this discussion, I thought it would be interesting to turn to an Eastern Orthodox theologian. pantocratorsinaiThis will close out our look at more mystically minded theologians. In doing so I will look at Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (and because I wanted to remind Mark that he didn’t buy it for £3 when he had the chance!).

From the very beginning of the volume, Lossky claims that “all theology is mystical, inasmuch as it shows forth the divine mystery: the data of revelation” (7). He admits that there is a strand of mysticism that focuses solely on an “unutterable mystery” to be “lived rather than known.” On the contrary, Lossky suggests,

we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transforming spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically. Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone” (8-9).

Lossky states that, “Mysticism is accordingly treated in the present work as the perfecting and crown of all theology: as theology par excellence” (9). In contrast to the gnostic goal, knowledge is not for its own sake, but serves another end: union with God. Therefore theology serves, not the knowledge of data, but knowledge of God, and the more mystical it is, the more practical it is. Likewise, tracing Dionysius, true mystical theology is necessarily apophatic: “God no longer presents Himself as object, for it is no more a question of knowlege but of union. Negative theology is thus a way towards mystical union with God, whose nature remains incomprehensible to us” (28). Likewise:

Apophaticism…is, above all, an attitude of mind which refuses to form concepts about God. Such an attitude utterly excludes all abstract and purely intellectual theology which would adapt the mysteries of the wisdom of God to human ways of thought. It is an existential attitude which involves the whole man: there is no theology apart from experience; it is necessary to change, to become a new man. To know God one must draw near to Him. No one who does not follow the path of union with God can be a theologian. The way of knowledge of God is necessarily the way of deification” (38-39).

Therefore the content of theology itself is tied to man’s reality under God. “Apophaticism is, therefore, a criterion: the sure sign of an attitude of mind conformed to truth. In this sense all true theology is fundamentally apophatic” (39). Thus, in many ways, the nature of theology takes on the task of the mystic – to travel to greater heights of non-discursive knowledge through negation: “Thus, there are different levels of theology, each appropriate to the differing capacities of the human understandings which reach up to the mysteries of God” (40-41). Likewise, in an important summary, Lossky states:

Apophaticism teaches us to see above all a negative meaning in the dogmas of the Church: it forbids us to follow natural ways of thought and to form concepts which would usurp the place of spiritual realities. For Christianity is not a philosophical school for speculating about abstract concepts, but is essentially a communion with the living God” (42).

This is why theology will never be abstract, but will take the form of contemplation – it is a calling into the mystery of God. The Trinity is an example of this, which does not fit neatly into preconceived conceptual categories, and nor is it, for Lossky, merely an essence or a person, but that which transcends all notion of nature and person.

Lossky is (obviously for most of us who call ourselves evangelical), working within a very different tradition than our own. It is interesting though that on the broad strokes of his proposal he sounds similar to both Balthasar (Catholic) and McIntosh (Anglican – I think). Once again, the core question we are asking has not been addressed specifically. For Lossky, more than the others, it seems clear that the spiritual (mystical) “level” of the theologian is intricately connected to the task itself. Now, I don’t know how that would play out for him in any helpful manner (judging a theologian, judging theology as such, etc.). It does seem that on Lossky’s view, more than the others, spirituality would play a greater role in method.

Any thoughts about this proposal? I realize that it might be very different than what some of you are used to, but it seems valuable to learn from stream of the Christian tradition.

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9 thoughts on “Should Theologians Be Spiritual? Part 3

  1. James, yeah I think that’s right. I am weary of any theological method which acts as though the theologian itself is removed (spiritually, existentially, emotionally, etc) from its object – God, history of redemption, etc. It seems that if we are truly contrary to God in our very beings, then our method should take on the form of mortification/vivification, or putting off/putting on, etc., at least to some extent. Therefore Calvin was right, there needs to be a twofold knowledge to have true knowledge: knowledge of God and knowledge of self.

    I don’t know Lossky enough to know how he deals with dogmatic content. That would be later in the volume I think. It would be an interesting question to look into though.

  2. It seems, and again, I don’t know Lossky very well at all, that if theology serves union with God rather than, say, understanding, then dogmatic content would necessarily have to be oriented towards the Christian life. I like this aspect of his thought, if I am right about it. Theology therefore is not actually an academic field of study per se, but is an expression of life under God and for God, of God for us and God uniting us to his own life.

    Again, I don’t know how Lossky actually puts this into practice, if that is in fact what he is doing. I will poke around a bit more and ask some questions.

  3. A couple of things,

    1) As for Mark’s unfortunate abscence from this blog, I can testify first hand to the revolutions in Barth scholarship that he is currently concocting and keeping secret from the rest of the world. Soon the entire world (of Barth scholarship) will know the name Mark McDowell!

    2) As for James’ comment: “I think Lossky is probably less helpful here since he explicitly rules out the conceptualization of the world and God in favor of a personal ontology,” I don’t think this is exactly getting at what Lossky is getting with his fear of “abstract speculation.” For Lossky there just are certain mysteries of the faith and to not see them as directly involving the individual, meaning “you,” is not to understand them at all. His “personal ontology” therefore stems from the mysteries of God, Christ, Church and the salvation of the world, and doesn’t preclude their articulation and deployment.

  4. Ken, could you possibly clarify your comment “there are certain mysteries of the faith and to not see them as directly involving the individual…is not to understand them at all”? I think the double negation is throwing me off.

  5. Kyle,

    I realized how ugly my sentence was upon reading it again. What I meant to say James said way more nicely: that the mysteries of the faith are self-implicating, and to understand them as what they are is to understand them as involving the individual. Hope that is more felicitious.


    I don’t think that the movement is from apophatic ecstasy to dogmatics but the other way around (although this still isn’t a very happy way of putting it). Orthodoxy doesn’t shy away from speaking of the “givens” of the faith and the certainty of revelation (here apophaticism doesn’t mean agnosticism), but understands that revelation involves infinite mysteries that are immune to certain kinds of rationalization. I think that rationalization in this context means something like abstracting, or distancing one’s self, from the givenness of the presence and revelation of God. I think that what someone like Lossky is able to hold fairly well together is this: that the subject/object of revelation given to us and to the Church, namely God in Christ in the Church in the world, given to us, is and loves and exists in such a way that various negations, understood as a spiritual and intellectual purifying, will be helpful within theology and within the theologian. Otherwise said, Lossky’s “personal ontology” has quite a bit of dogmatic depth to it.

  6. Would non-discursive be more appropriate than non-conceptual? Or, what about something like supra-conceptual? I’m just wondering if the issue is not with being conceptual as such, but with the reality that the close you come to the divine other, the less useful (and appropriate) concepts and language becomes. Is that right or am I way off on that?

  7. What I am saying?! Haha, I thought I was just asking a question. I am trying to think about your question concerning Lossky’s apophaticism, that could possibly start with a dogmatic account that moves more and more beyond (not contrary to or against) the usefulness of language and concept. Therefore answering a question about God could truthfully take on the form of a conceptual dogmatic account, but would also necessarily move beyond that to an account of increasing negation. Or, that is what I am asking. I should really just pick Lossky back up!

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