Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why is St Symeon called the “New Theologian”? (3 of 4)

How are we to view these radically different readings of the “newness” of St Symeon’s life and writings? The cause for such divergent conclusions, it seems to me, can be found in the differing methodologies and presuppositions of the two camps. Archbishop Basil, Bishop Hilarion, and Hieromonk Alexander all start with the conclusion that the monastic spirituality of the Orthodox Church forms an unbroken tradition from the desert fathers of the fourth and fifth century, continuing through the Byzantine period, reaching full doctrinal expression in the Hesychast controversy of the fourteenth century, and continuing unbroken to his day. They then place St Symeon squarly within this unbroken tradition, granting him at most a shift in emphasis onto the person experience of the divine light. Their motivation in so doing seems as much confessional and apologetic as historical: their interest seems focused not so much on St Symeon himself but rather on St Symeon as a striking personal example of a much larger living tradition. Fr John McGuckin, on the other hand, seeks to dispense with what he calls a “global ‘synthesising hermeneutic” [20] place St Symeon firmly within his historical context. His reading of St Symeon’s accounts of the vision of divine light seeks not so much a doctrine of divine light as much as an understanding of his motives in describing his visions in a particular way to a particular audience at a particular time. And he reads Nicetas Stethatos’ Vita only in order to distinguish “the real motives of Symeon from those attributed to him a generation later.” [21]

The results of Fr McGuckin’s approach are, in my opinion, mixed at best. While he insists repeatedly that it is not his intention to doubt the authenticity of St Symeon’s spiritual experience, his results more often than not read as though he were projecting onto St Symeon the most uncomplimentary motives. To give a few examples, Fr McGuckin writes that in “Symeon’s central theological argument, that only the initiated mystic has the right to theologize, the central point is one of authority.” [22] For Fr McGuckin this appeal “represents nothing more than a pre-emptive appeal to individually adjudicated authority within, yet above society.” [23] St Symeon’s disciplinary exhortations in the Catecheses are, for Fr McGukin, “control techniques for all those associative kin groups within the monastery that were not under the direct control of its hegoumenos and which Symeon rightly sensed to be serious threat to his own position.” [24] While Fr McGuckin insists that he does not wish to deny St Symeon’s spiritual authenticity, the motives he ascribes to him are such as effectively to undermine his holiness.

[20] McGuckin, “Luminous Vision,” 96.

[21] McGuckin, “Byzantine Monasticism,” 18.

[22] Ibid., 30

[23] Ibid., 30


David.R said...
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David.R said...

I agree.I would have to stand against Fr John on this point.