Title: Eastern Christianity in Its Texts, by Cyril Hovorun
Published by: T&T Clark (2022)
Pages: vxiii + 869
If there is a silver lining to the recent pandemic, it is that Cyril Hovorun was able to produce this opus magnus in the quiet of his home in Kyiv during a COVID lockdown, not long before Russian aggression began to rain death and destruction on his native city. The title of the book is misleading, let the reader be warned, as is the author’s characterization of it in the Introduction as “an annotated florilegium.” Eastern Christianity in Its Texts is not an anthology of “texts,” with some explanatory notes in between. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Approximately two-thirds of the 770 pages of the book’s chapters (supplemented by twenty-five pages of Primary Sources, thirty-two pages of Bibliography, and a helpful, thirty-nine page Index) are the author’s analysis, with selected texts inserted in between. And this is a good thing, because of his unique vision of the subject matter, a vision both rooted in tradition and sensitive to 21st-century issues.
As Hovorun guides the reader on a journey through the history of Eastern Christian thinking, beginning with the early patristic period and ending roughly with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 20th c., he focuses not only or primarily on what selected Eastern Christian voices thought throughout the centuries, but how they thought, within the logical framework of specific, dialectical taxonomies. Hence the main part of the book, and a must-read if one is not able or inclined to read the whole thing, is II.6, “Dialectical Taxonomies” (pp. 275–309), where the author explains at length the logical framework of patristic and later Eastern Christian thinking, based, mutatis mutandis, on the Porphyrian interpretation of Aristotelian “categories.” The other must-read tip for the lazy is the 26-page Introduction, a clear and concise summary of the book’s content and central purpose, which is to demonstrate that the patristically-“logical” way of thinking, in modern-day Orthodoxy perceived as “scholastic,” should be re-embraced as a way forward, for thinking through today’s issues. This is not only because it is key to understanding the patristic thought-processes, but because it is key to moving forward, through the impasses of today’s discussion of pan-Orthodox and broader, ecumenical issues. Fr. Cyril suggests moving forward based not on fashionable ideologies or vague categories either of “conservative” or “liberal” trends, but on traditional and classical “categories” of the received faith. “Categories” are generalizations about this or that aspect of being, used initially in pre-Christian philosophy and rendered in pairs, e.g., commonality and particularity, adapted and expanded by Christian thinkers to explain and help resolve theological issues. While the Aristotelian-Porphyrian canon of categories was utilized most famously by Western scholasticism, which modern-day Orthodox theology regards with suspicion or even disdain, the author points out that it was first used in the theology of the Christian East. He is at pains to emphasize that the Orthodox critique of scholasticism is largely misguided, insofar as its basis, the disciplined theologizing within the framework of classical and patristic dialectical taxonomies, “actually enhances our relationship with God by explaining it” (p. 3). Hovorun’s critical-yet-gentle handling of tricky issues throughout the book, e.g., tradition and traditionalism, Orthodox conformism vis-à-vis state authority, the “esoterisation” of gender equality and human rights in general, will be refreshing for anyone exasperated with the oft-more divisive than instructive approach to these same issues in our day.
While the book could have used an additional, thorough proofreading of its English grammar, I found it very readable. At times it is also quite witty and made me laugh out loud. For example, Fr. Cyril’s characterization of Eusebius as “primarily a spin doctor” (p. 68); his observation that Eutyches “was that kind of seemingly-ascetical personality whom people in the establishment like to have by their side to continue doing what they are doing, but with quieter conscience” (p. 508); or his quip about Simplicius’s polemics against Philoponus: “He commented on Philoponus in the way haters leave their comments on social media in our days” (p. 707).
An additional, personal touch to Hovorun’s exploration of the way(s) of Eastern Christian thinking are the many photographs inserted throughout the book and taken by the author himself, of various sites and artifacts from practically every country of the Christian East. Fr. Cyril took these photos with his iPhone during his frequent world travels and wanted to share them, lest they “get buried in his phone,” as he wrote me. This instinct to share not only his thoughts but his photos, to accompany word with image, is — characteristically for this book — both “old” and “new.” It is “old” in the sense of Orthodox tradition, manifested both through word and image; and it is “new” in the sense of social media culture, where we foster and build community by sharing both our words and photos. Thank you to Fr. Cyril, for offering us this monumental work in the way that he did, like the “scribe” in the parable of Mt 13:52: “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” His balanced approach to the past and present is a major contribution to healing our thought-processes, as we look toward the future.