Published by Pickwick Publications on October 25, 2019
Language: English
ISBN: 978-1-60899-421-2
Pages: 187

It is now commonplace to see the contours of Christian appropriation of contemporary philosophical methods, concepts, and resources. Some examples that come to mind are reformed epistemology, analytic theology, and the epistemology of theology. However, absent from some of these developments is the contribution of Orthodox thinkers and the Orthodox tradition.[1] The volume under review seems to concur with such an observation. Christoph Schneider, the editor of the volume, claims that “Even in the twenty-first century, critical and creative engagement with modern and postmodern philosophy is still a rarity in Orthodox circles—although the situation is changing rapidly now” (p. 3). As a result, this collection of essays seeks to fill this lacuna. More precisely, it aims to reflect critically and constructively on the relationship between Orthodox theology and contemporary philosophy.

Why is there such a lacuna? Does it stem from an uncritical “nostalgia for a glorious past”? A kind of “first naiveté” in which patristic texts are read and appropriated uncritically? Undergirding this kind of posture, according to the editor, is the “view that the intellectual risk of engaging with contemporary thought must be avoided, because no theological gain is to be expected from such an endeavor” (pp. 3-4). I presume that what is intimated here is a standoff between those who desire to preserve the integrity of the patristic tradition and those who strive to put it in conversation with contemporary work in philosophy. With such questions in mind, the editor says that an important aim of the volume is to “transition from a first to a second naiveté.” In other words, there is basic distinction between “blindly and unreflectively presupposing that the patristic era is normative for Orthodox theology” and “consciously and reflectively knowing why pre-Kantian and pre-Reformation thought still has something to contribute to contemporary debates” (p. 4). Or to put it another way, an important line of inquiry involves determining how patristic thought, for example, fares in light of critical philosophical analysis or how it fits with and makes sense in light of new pieces of information. There is a difference between clarifying the philosophical positions that patristic writers held and determining whether they are coherent, plausible, true, or contribute to contemporary work in philosophy. The various essays in the volume thus seek to show that a constructive vision of the intersection of Orthodox theology and contemporary philosophy does not suggest uncritical submission to what the tradition says, nor does it rule out critical modes of examination.

In an effort to understand this relationship constructively, the volume does not privilege one approach, nor does it form an artificial consensus among the contributors. No uniform philosophical approach is synonymous with Orthodox theology and its relationship with contemporary philosophy. The volume, in fact, reflects a broad range of topics from political philosophy to phenomenology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, logic, ethics, and philosophy of language. Notwithstanding the refusal to canonize one approach, the editor says that the contributors seem to imply something like an “intimate universal—a philosophical model derived from the doctrine of the Incarnation.” The editor also concludes that “both notions of ‘pure reason’ and ‘pure faith’ . . . are theologically problematic.” Yet, “theology does not have to conform to preconceived, non-theological notions of knowledge, reality and rationality. Rather, it is the discourses of faith and theology that should determine epistemology, ontology, and logic” (p. 8).

What does it mean for faith and theology to determine epistemology, ontology, and logic? The editor offers a few clarifications, though, in my estimation, they warrant further analysis and development. On the one hand, the editor seems to think that Christian philosophy can “critically and creatively appropriate new and innovative philosophical models and conceptual themes—even if they do not have an explicitly theological origin.” On the other hand, such constructive appropriations will “eventually give way to a consolidation of the Christian tradition. In the end, it must be possible to put forth a theological rationale for the innovation that was embraced” (p. 8). Perhaps, a different way of conceiving this relationship involves clarifying appropriate epistemic concepts and theories in or related to theology. Envisioned in this way, an important task involves examining and articulating what counts as appropriate epistemic evaluation in Orthodox theology. This kind of approach creates space for constructive work in epistemology as it crops up within theology.

Given some of the distinctions, clarifications, issues, and the stipulated aim of the book, what, then, does it mean for Orthodox theology to take seriously the integrity of its own ecclesial and theological commitments while charting a constructive path? It certainly does not mean forgetting the commitments of Orthodox theology, nor does it mean exempting those commitments from engagement with the broader streams of the Christian tradition and recent work in various areas of philosophy. Moreover, the volume claims that if Orthodox theology is going to make headway towards a more constructive path, it needs to formulate a more systematic account of the formative practices that put people in a better position to achieve the stipulated philosophical goals. An emphasis of this sort requires the enhancement of our cognitive capacities and deep immersion in a set of practices that regulate the inner activities of the self (e.g., the focus on a phenomenological analysis of Orthodox consciousness, discernment, and spiritual experience in chapter 3 and on personalist conceptions of “synergic anthropology” in chapter 5) and contribute towards forming a robust account of the intersection of theology and philosophy.

Along these regulative lines, David Bentley Hart argues for the inevitability of metaphysics, while clarifying the extent to which we should maintain the “old imperative of apophatic reserve.” The move towards a “fully non-metaphysical theology,” Hart adds, would not result in the formation of a “purer faith.” Instead, it would merely “inaugurate faith’s eclipse.” He shows how metaphysics plays a regulative role in disabusing us of “false pictures of divine transcendence” (p. 78). The labor of metaphysics, in his view, can be “a pious act of intellectual acceptance, a kind of prayer,” “a necessary modality of spiritual openness” (p. 90).  We can stipulate that “God’s mystery transcends our speculative schemes, but should nevertheless remain suspicious of the suggestion that theology should purge itself of all principles drawn from natural revelation” (p. 77).

Rico Vitz’s chapter likewise rejects the claims that Orthodox theology is incompatible with philosophy and that it should conform to some “antithetical system of philosophy” (p. 147). He seeks to “develop the groundwork for greater dialogue on ethical issues at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and the neptic tradition of Orthodox Christianity” (p. 162; see also similar attempts to navigate the relationship between Orthodox theology and disciplines such as political philosophy, logic, and philosophy of language in chapters 1, 2, 6, 8).  Undergirding Vitz’s proposal is a more integrative understanding of the relationship between philosophy and spirituality. More exactly, Vitz mentions three ways in which Orthodox theology has been and can be engaged with contemporary philosophy. That is, philosophy can (1) contribute to the formative process (intellectually as well as spiritually) that prepares, shapes, and contributes to the goal of perfecting people in Christ, (2) provide concepts and approaches that can be appropriated in fresh ways to help clarify and explain the Christian faith, and (3) function as a source for evangelization and apologetics. Vitz rightly links patristic thought with recent work in virtue ethics. Another extension that could be added along these lines is recent work in virtue epistemology. Vitz also highlights the conceptual affinities and differences between Orthodox theology and virtue ethics. Orthodox Christian ethics, for example, is well suited to handle the situationist challenge to virtue ethics because it “is committed to a weaker conception of the motivational self-sufficiency of character and a stronger conception of the sustaining social contribution to character” (p. 162). In other words, the cultivation of virtue requires long-term intensive training.

As intimated earlier, I think the volume needs greater clarification of the relationship between Orthodox theology and epistemology. The introduction seeks to clarify how instrumental and foundational uses of philosophy undermine the “transformative power of the Incarnation” and how they fail to “envisage a christological and trinitarian reconfiguration of reason and rationality” (p. 8).  However, I think we need greater clarification and justification of what counts as appropriate epistemic evaluation in Orthodox theology. In what sense does the Incarnation norm epistemic evaluation? What does it mean for reason, knowledge, understanding, as epistemic concepts, to be reconfigured in christological and trinitarian terms?

Notwithstanding such a concern, this volume will be of interest to those who desire to explore appreciatively, carefully, and critically the relationship between Orthodox theology and contemporary philosophy and the ways in which the latter has and can appropriate insights from and contribute to the former. The interdisciplinary focus of the volume provides a preliminary and interesting set of issues, questions, and proposals for further consideration, exploration, and evaluation. This volume also succeeds in its attempt to move from a first to a second naiveté. It refuses to insulate the tradition-specific commitments of Orthodox theology from recent work in different areas of philosophy, nor does it strip its particular habits, practices, and beliefs under the guise of a thinly conceived approach. More importantly, this volume operates under the assumption that a “Christian philosophy is always in the making. It is a never-finished, eschatological project” (p. 7). The hope is that this volume will prompt greater work, attention, and development of the relevant themes. I look forward to seeing what emerges!

Frederick D. Aquino
Professor of Theology and Philosophy
Graduate School of Theology
Abilene Christian University

[1] However, there are some exceptions; see, for example, Paul Gavrilyuk, “Modern Orthodox Thinkers,” in the Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology, ed. Frederick D. Aquino and William J. Abraham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2017), 578-90; Terrence Cuneo, Ritualized Faith: Essays on the Philosophy of Liturgy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).