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Now I want to return to my own experience.

I mentioned that I joined Orthodoxy through the Russian Church Outside Russia. Prior to this, however, I had a pretty thoroughgoing Orthodox formation with a smaller group - the Eglise Orthodoxe Française, attached to one of the Greek Old Calendarist connections, and to the influential US-based Holy Transfiguration Monastery. They were young, very militant, very sectarian, full of intellectual energy not to mention arrogance. They enjoyed a good relationship with the Lausanne-based publishing house, L'Age d'Homme, which specialised in French translations of Slav literature. In the 1990s, the period when I was living in France, L'Age d'Homme became the major promoters of the Serb view of the Yugoslav conflict. Through L'Age d'Homme, the EOF published a journal, La Lumière du Thabor, full of unquestionably valuable translations of the Orthodox Fathers (including modern Fathers such as the Serb Justin Popovic and his 5 volume Philosophie Orthodoxe de la Vérité) together with lively polemical accounts of mainly Catholic/Orthodox church politics.

Their leading theorist had been a young priest, Fr Patric Ranson, but he was dead by the time I came into contact with them - killed in a car accident during a pilgrimage to Greece. His death was to have very damaging repercussions for the whole adventure. But he left behind a body of work devoted mainly to criticising the influence of Augustine - for him here was no question of a 'Blessed' or a 'Holy' Augustine, he treated him as an outright heretic. Perhaps his main work was a study of the seventeenth century French pioneer of biblical criticism, Richard Simon, attacked by Bossuet and condemned because he challenged the prevailing Augustinian/Jansenist-scholastic /Thomist ideology. Ranson's book is subtitled 'On the illegitimacy of the Augustinian tradition in theology.' (26) 

(26)  Patric Ranson: Richard Simon ou du caractère illégitime de l'Augustinisme en théologie, Lausanne, L'Age d'Homme, 1990. See also Patric Ranson: 'Le lourde sommeil dogmatique de l'Occident' in Patric Ranson (ed): Les Dossiers H - Saint Augustin, Lausanne, L'Age d'Homme, 1988.

I myself was not so ill-disposed towards Augustine. My thinking, then as now, was very much structured by my admiration for the French Cubist painter, Albert Gleizes. This is what had brought me to France. Gleizes saw the collapse of representational single-point perspective painting as the collapse of a whole world view that had evolved in Western Christianity since the thirteenth century. The change was made visible in the transition from the Romanesque round arch (obliging the persons entering the church to bow their heads, consequently to direct their attention to the heart) to the Gothic pointed arch which encourages us to look up towards the sky as if that is where God is to be found - in outer space. In painting, a rhythmic art ('Celtic', Romanesque) gave way to a concentration on external appearances - the illusion of real objects situated in a three dimensional space. In theology both Thomism and Nominalism laid much more emphasis on a process by which invisible realities are deduced logically from visible realities or, in the terms we have seen used by Laos, supersensuous reality is arrived at by a process of deduction from sensuous reality.

Gleizes was therefore looking to a pre-Thomist, pre-thirteenth century theology but although he had access to a good theological library (his wife's great uncle had been Bishop of the Southern French town of Gap) he had very little knowledge of the Greek Fathers. His main interest, so far as I can see, was concentrated on Etienne Gilson's La Philosophie au Moyen Age (the first edition, structured in what Gilson later thought was a simplistic manner, round the Realist/Nominalist dispute), Scotus Eriugena and Augustine. As even Ranson acknowledges, Augustine belonged to a period when Christian doctrine was better understood than it is today so that much of what he simply takes for granted, when he is not being brilliant and original, is perfectly sound. Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century was the major Western interpreter of Maximos the Confessor.

Towards the end of his life Gleizes quarrelled irreparably with the Thomists - of the tradition of Jacques Maritain - who were championing 'modern art' in the Church (as it happens part of the problem was his continued friendship with and sympathetic interest in René Guénon). But he took up with the group of Jesuits based in Lyon who had launched 'Sources Chrétiennes' - the huge project of publishing scholarly (excessively scholarly) translations of the early Fathers, including the Greeks. (27)

(27)  All this is discussed in some detail in my book Albert Gleizes - For and against the twentieth century, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2001. I discuss the tension there is between Gleizes's championing of the rhythmic art of Western Europe prior to the thirteenth century and the canons that govern icon painting in the Orthodox tradition in Peter Brooke: 'The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Council of Frankfurt and the Practice of Painting' in Janet Rutherford (ed): The Beauty of God's Presence in the Fathers of the Church, Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2014. 

I published some reflections on this revival of Catholic interest in the early Fathers in an article first published in the Dublin Review of Books, now available on my own website. (28) I argued that the Catholic Church could never receive the Fathers as Orthodoxy received them. For the Catholic 'ressourcement' movement (Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI) the Fathers are intellectually interesting. In the words of the leading Irish representative of the movement, Fr Vincent Twomey, 'to study the early Fathers is to be initiated into the original way of doing theology.' In Orthodox eyes, however, they are deified Saints. Having become one with God they speak with an authority analogous to that of the prophets and the apostles.

(28)  Peter Brooke: Can an intellectual be a saint? - Reflections on the Maynooth Patristics Symposium, a review of Janet E.Rutherford and David Woods (ed): The Mystery of Christ in the Fathers of the Church, Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2012. Accessible here.

If Augustine is not to be numbered among the deified Saints his intellectual achievement is nonetheless astonishing. He spans almost the whole width of the Western Christian tradition, from the aesthetic Platonism of his early writings to the 'Calvinist' doctrine of grace (the absolute nullity of human effort in the work of salvation) of the end of his life. He is, I think, the only Christian writer between Saint Paul and, say, Wyclif, to be found on the shelves of the Evangelical Bookshop in Belfast. It was of course the early Platonist Augustine who particularly appealed to me and I made use of him - particularly his first Christian writing, On Music - in a book I helped organise on the nineteenth century German Benedictine painter, Desiderius Lenz, founder of the 'School of Beuron', who in the nineteenth century developed a mathematically based theory of painting in a reaction against naturalism that I see as prefiguring Cubism. (29)

(29)  Desiderius Lenz: The Aesthetic of Beuron and other writings, London, Francis Boutle publishers, 2002 

There are many Orthodox writers who have launched into a fundamental critique of the Western tradition but they tend to agree, with different emphases, on the centrality of Augustine and also that Orthodoxy proposes an approach to fundamental truth that is independent of discursive reasoning. The human being, so the argument goes, has been created to know God but the faculty by which this can be achieved - the 'noetic faculty', the 'intellect' in the (somewhat Augustinian as it happens) terminology used by the translators of The Philokalia, 'mind' in Nicholas Laos's version - has been darkened. It needs to be polished so that this fundamental truth can be experienced directly. That is the purpose of the radical ascesis of the hesychasts and what we might call the lighter ascesis of the ordinary Christians. It has nothing to do with scholastic, or any other sort of philosophy.


The Eastern Church is sometimes likened to St Mary who, in the story of Mary and Martha, sat at the feet of Jesus and concentrated on the 'one thing needful', while the Western Church plays the role of St Martha (still, we must notice, a Saint) who was 'troubled about many things' (Luke 10:41-2). The Orthodox Church cannot 'adapt to the times'. It does not have the institutions that would enable it to change radically its philosophical assumptions, its doctrines, its liturgical practice. Its nose is, so to speak, kept to the grindstone. Individuals of course may have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things but the Church is not a suitable vehicle for transmitting them. The Church can only transmit itself. The person who submits to its discipline is submitting to a discipline that has been more or less constant for over a thousand years.

Certainly the history - intellectual and political - of Western Christianity has more excitement and variety in it. But if Heidegger is right and the whole of Western philosophy is based on a fundamental error introduced at the beginning either by the Greeks or perhaps, if Laos is right, by the Western misunderstanding of the Greeks, the originally Greek speaking Church that did not participate in the evolution of this Western philosophy may be well placed to survive what Heidegger sees as the final collapse of that line of development into nothing more than a scramble for "dominion over the earth".