Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Paris School: Myth or Reality?

Was there ever a "Paris school" of theology? Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern), for one, didn't think so. He wrote the following words about Fr Sergii Bulgakov on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the St Serge Institute in Paris:
The whole path from the Marxist lie to Church truth, Levite traditionalism on one side and daring breadth on the other, rare philosophical sensitivity, cultivation, a zealous pastoral heart and an exceptional prayerfulness – our late Dean bore all this in himself. Fr. Sergii’s significance may perhaps be not at all in what his few disciples and his many ill-wishers want to see. All of us, his colleagues and friends, while fully defending the freedom of his daring and altogether agreeing in the formulation of precisely these problems, at the same time do not at all share his theological assertions in full. One must directly and determinedly declare in the hearing of all: the Theological Institute has never considered Fr. Sergii’s conjectures to be its official theology. Fr. Sergii was unable to establish any school of his own here. Moreover: he did not leave behind a single disciple among his former students, or now among the teachers. There is no “Paris theology”! This expression rings intolerably false and provincial to the genuine Church ear and to theological taste. It could exist only in the imagination of those suspicious of all obscurantism.
His point, so far as I understand it, is that, whatever one makes of Bulgakov's theological system (if indeed he can be said to have had a single system), no one at St Serge's – or really anyone anywhere else, for that matter – continued his theological legacy. I think Fr Cyprian is quite right in arguing that St Serge's should not be made synonymous with Bulgakov. Indeed, one of Fr Bulgakov's greatest critics, Fr Georges Florovsky, was Bulgakov's colleague at St Serge's and even, at one point, his spiritual son. Fr Cyprian Kern's own patristic and liturgical scholarship – very little of which, unfortunately, has been translated into English – likewise had nothing in common with Bulgakov's thought. Indeed, one could look at many of the Russian emigre theologians in France as writing in reaction against Fr Bulgakov – sometimes tacitly, like Florovsky; sometimes not so tacitly, like Lossky (who didn't, of course, have anything to do with St Serge's). Nor did the generation after Florovsky and Lossky educated at St Serge's, such as Frs John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann, continue Fr Bulgakov's strain of theology, however respectfully they honored Bulgakov personally. Fr Sophrony (Sakharov), who was in fact heavily influenced by Bulgakov's idea of hypostasis (but not by his sophiology), rarely admitted his debt to Bulgakov for fear of controversy

It could, of course, be argued that the "Paris school" is not so much a matter of "Bulgakov-ism" as of theological "liberalism" or "modernism" – I put these in quotation marks because they are notoriously difficult to define – which has since been carried on within parts of Western Europe and North America. But this, too, I think is unfair to Paris. If one is to admit that a "liberalism" of some sort was characteristic of some of the first-generation of teachers at St Serge's, it need be remembered that these theologians were educated in Russia before the Revolution, and were in fact carrying on one particular line of theology going back, perhaps, to Soloviev. The roots of St Serge's "liberalism" lie in pre-Revolutionary Russia, not in France. It may be that this "liberalism" did indeed find its base in Paris and spread from there, but it wasn't invented there.

A sad thing happened in France beginning about the 1920s. The Russian ecclesiastical emigration broke into three waring parties: the Paris Jurisdiction (under Metropolitan Evlogy), the Russian Church Abroad (under Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky), and the Moscow Patriarchate (which recognized Metropolitan, later Patriarch, Sergii). The Paris Jurisdiction tended to be populated by the liberal intelligentsia; the Russian Church Abroad tended to be made up of monarchists, conservatives, and monastics; the Moscow Patriarchate tended to be made up of a small group of "traditionalist" intellectuals (e.g., Lossky, Ouspensky, and the St Photius Brotherhood). The theological currents of the pre-Revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church were divided among these three warring jurisdictions.

All of which is to say, I suppose, that no single one of these jurisdictions represented the ful theological sobornosti (catholicity) of the pre-Revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church. While St Serge's may have been the locus of a sort of theological "liberalism" in the West, it certainly didn't invent it: it inherited it from Russia.

But bear in mind that I'm essentially thinking out loud.

The quotation from Fr Cyprian is my translation from Boris Zaitsev, Dalekoe (Inter-Language Literary Association, 1965), 70.


Esteban Vázquez said...

Excellent post, as usual! Deconstructing myths like these takes time and work, but the clarity it brings is well worth the effort. Indeed, if anything became clear to me after reading Paul Valliere's Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key (my copy of which you may have, if you'd like), it was that these thinkers, just as Father Kiprian wrote, had no successors, and therefore no "schools" to their name. (Of course, this was read repression of the "Russian school" by the "neo-Patristics," by Valliere, but that's besides the point.)

On a side note: are you aware of this enlightening article about the foundation of the Patriarchal parish in Paris (also available here)?

Felix Culpa said...

Yes, please! I've met Dr Valliere and heard him speak. While I'm no fan at all of the particular line of theology he studies, he really does write about it very well.

I'm afraid I don't follow your parenthetical comment.

I have seen the article to which you kindly link, but haven't read it with any care. I spent a year in Paris (gosh, almost 20 years ago!) living right around the corner from the Patriarchal parish in Paris.

Anonymous said...

For those of us who don't know the theology of Fr Sergii Bulgakov, perhaps you could do a little explaining? I have heard his name mentioned many times in reference to his theology being out of step with the Fathers but, honestly have no idea what he taught. Would you be willing to do a quick post about it? You know, sum it up in a nutshell?

Esteban Vázquez said...

Very well! I'll mail it to you on Bright Week. I picked up a second hand copy for a couple dollars a few years back, read it, and frankly don't have much use for it now; I'm glad to send it to someone who will appreciate it (and won't be misled by it!).

My parenthetical comment should have read, "Of course, Valliere read this as the result of the repression of the 'Russian school' by the 'neo-Patristics,' but that's besides the point." The editor apologizes for nodding.

The article which I linked above caused something of a Copernican revolution in my understanding of the Paris Russian emigration; at one point, I read it and made extensive annotations, just as though I had attended a lecture. I wonder where I put those.

Felix Culpa said...

Anonymous: I'll give it to you here, in a teeny-weeny little nutshell.

Fr Sergii Bulgakov was a theologian and priest from Moscow who later settled in Paris, where he taught at the St Serge Institute. He was by all accounts a brilliant thinker, but some of his ideas -- most notably concerning "Sophia" (Divine Wisdom) -- were considered to represent either heresy or or at least wrong theological opinion.

You can find decent (but rather negative) short articles about him at Wiki and OrthodoxWiki. For more, you can follow the link under his name in the text, which will take you to a site that's much more favorable to him.

I, quite frankly, have found most of what I've read by him to be simply incomprehensible.

Simka said...

As much as I have always admired the "Paris School" (and how can one not be inspired by gracious and eloquent work like Olivier Clement's "The Roots of Christian Mysticism" or "Three Prayers"), and have therfore been well disposed toward its "liberal" theology, I have never been able to figure out what made bright people like Fr. Serge feel the need to concoct the concept of a divine "Sophia." Obviously Vladimir Solovier - poor thing! - was in the deepest form of "prelest'", so everything that came out of his seething brain - from songs to Ophites to wandering lost in the Egyptian desert - can be explained by his particular weakness. But couldn't Fr. Sergii see that we have absolutely no need for "Sophia" when even the most fundamental grasp of the Divine Logos fills the need for "her." In short, who needs "Sophia" when you know the Logos? Maybe there are some remaining "Sophiolaters" out there who can enlighten me in my ignorance.

Benjamin said...


If you ever have the time or desire, I'd appreciate your thoughts on the content of Father Schmemann's work - both good and bad. I hold his books near to my heart, being vastly important in my understanding of the joy and the sheer eschatology of liturgy, and, consequently life. That being said, I know there has been good, healthy (and perhaps some unhealthy) criticism of his work. Can we have your thoughts at some point?

Felix Culpa said...

Simka: I'm as baffled as you are. I imagine that Paul Valliere's book, which Esteban cites, can go a long way in tracing back the intellectual lineage.

In fact, Fr Georges Florovsky, in a letter to Bulgakov, writes essentially that if one has an understanding of the Divine Energies, then why does one need Sophia as an intermediary between God and man? I've translated it, and so will post it at some point.

Benjamin, Thanks for your comment and suggestion. I've written a little bit on Fr Schmemann in the past, and so likely could search that out. I will post about him at some point in the near future. I'd actually thought of doing a running series examining various 20th century Orthodox theologians, but I was afraid it would cause too much offense, and I'm not sure I have the delicacy to put things in the right tone.

By the way, any other suggestions for future posts are always welcome. I generally simply write about whatever happens to interest me at the moment, so I'm always open for suggestions.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I'd be very interested in a series examening 20th century Orthodox theologians!

And, since you ask for suggestions, I'd be fascinated to hear your response to this post:

and, related to that, I'd also be interested in your opinion of David Bentley Hart's work. (I haven't read him and am wondering how far up or down my 'to be read' list I should put him).

Felix Culpa said...

Macrina: Thank you for the link, which made for provocative reading.

I have to say that I disagree with nearly every point made by both Fr Reardon and Dr Hart. Some reactions as I read through the quoted remarks:

1) One simply can't speak of contemporary Orthodox theology as if it were one homogenous school of neo-patristic thought. This is simply historically inaccurate.

2) While it's true that the sort of Russian emigre thought he describes exists, and has become something of a standard model, he's ignoring the concurrent stream of theology flowing from Soloviev and the religious-philosophical movement, manifest in one way or another in the works of thinkers like Bulgakov, Berdiaev. Afanasiev, Evdokimov, Behr-Siegel, Skobtsova, Karteshev, Zander, and others. But, even here, none of these thinkers can be lumped together -- except that none of them fit into the room that Fr Reardon claims to have been exclusively furnished by neo-Palamites. Nor do I think that the latter were simply dismissive of the "west." Most of the "neo-patristic" theologians (again, at the risk of over-generalization) were actively involved in ecumenical dialogue.

3) How Fr Reardon can claim that Alexandria and Antioch are dismissed is beyond me. He should read Frs Romanides, Meyendorff, Behr, and McGuckin, to name just a few.

4) I cannot for a moment accept the statement that Damascene was manifestly Scholastic. Systematic does not equal scholastic. See Fr Andrew Louth's book on Damascene.

5) To lump all the rest of his points together: whatever scholasticism existed in the Byzantine Empire before "the rise of the Turk" was borrowed from the West. How he can claim that Orthodox Christology was formulated in the West before Chalcedon also baffles me, as does the claim that Augustine and the Scholastics have rooms in the larger castle of Orthodox theology. Who are these scholastics exactly? Reardon seems to be as loose with his terms as the very "neo-Palamites" he's busy dismissing.

It's true, of course, that Orthodox writers are pretty free with their use of "Western" and "Scholastic" as terms of dismissal, rarely really defining what they mean by these terms: for some its geographical and historical, while for others these terms simply represent a sort of straw-man mentality they like to knock over.

So, again, one simply can't speak of "Russian emigre theology" as if it were one single school of thought.

I'm quite relieved to see Fr John McGuckin quoted as saying that Hart's book "is not Orthodox theology." That was precisely my impression. Yes, Hart belongs to the Orthodox Church; and, yes, he's a theologian. But I simply don't see anything "Orthodox" about his thought. I think the reason he's become popular in North America is that he's one of the few Orthodox writers who writes like a contemporary "western" (again that vague word) systematic theologian. (I think that's also what's behind the increasing interest in Fr Bulgakov's work.)

All that said, my fundamental disagreement with Fr Reardon is more profound. He's judging Orthodox theology by the output of contemporary theologians. Always a mistake. One mustn't confuse theology with theologians.

I ask your indulgence for a rather scatter-shot response to your question. I have a number of scanned articles I could email you if you dropped me a line (see the Profile page for my electronic address).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments which I found helpful and which confirm what I felt when reading that post, but I lack the background to formulate it properly. I was also interested to see Fr McGuckin's response to Hart. He can probably stay rather low down on my list of priorities! (I say this of course as a schismatic Latin Catholic - but what's the point of Orthodox theology if it's just a mirror image of the West?!)
And thank you also for your offer of articles - I will email you.