Andrew Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers From the Philokalia to the Present (2015)

Written by one of the leading scholars of patristic and Byzantine theology who is himself an Orthodox priest, Andrew Louth’s study fills a major gap. Over the past few hundred years, Orthodox theology (in the western sense of that word) has experienced an extraordinary revival that is all too little known in the West, and not universally known in the East. It is wonderful to have a book that expounds and critically engages with a mass of important and sometimes obscure material.

Louth begins where any study on this topic should, with the publication of the Philokalia in 1782. This compilation of writings on prayer, in particular the Jesus Prayer, has recently become increasingly well known, especially with the four volumes in an English translation published by Faber (it remains unclear whether a fifth and final volume will ever appear), and important work on it continues to be done, some of it appearing after Louth’s book. But the Philokalia and associated traditions already had an impact two centuries ago, when they fertilized important currents in Russian thought. The Russian tradition that Louth describes does not pass through Philaret and Khomyakov but a slightly later group who were to become well known in the West and some areas of the East after the Russian emigration of the early twentieth century.

We are therefore treated to a group of highly original Russian thinkers (Solov’ev, Florensky, Bulgarkov and Berdyaev) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By then Russian thought had accumulated a massive head of steam, and one can only wonder how different the world would have been had the massive caesura of 1917 not occurred (the same is true of church music); the attractive cover picture of Louth’s book shows two of its subjects walking side by side in front of a very Russian forest in the act of thinking in a deep and perhaps profoundly Russian way. The centre of gravity moves from Russia to Paris, where we encounter Lot-Borodine (the wife of an eminent medieval historian) and Lossky; while there are good reasons to take them as a pair, the influence and I suspect depth of the latter was clearly much greater. Thereafter a scattering occurs, as we encounter (among others; it is necessary to summarize) the Romanian Staniloe, the Serb Popovic, thinkers who made their home in the United States (among them Meyendorff and Schmemann) some Greeks (including Yannaras), St Silouan from the Holy Mountain and a number of others, before the book comes to rest on the very English figure of Kallistos Ware. It is a thoroughly appropriate termination, for quite apart from Ware’s eminence and stature within English-speaking Orthodoxy in particular, his interest in ascetic theology nicely loops back to the Philokalia with which the book began.

This is a rich, evaluative study that repays careful reading. Judgments are passed that are not invariably positive (one Greek metropolitan is evaluated in terms that make one wonder whether he deserved inclusion in the book.) While decades of feminist thought have given us every reason to believe that the significance of women has been greater than may be immediately apparent, a number of women writers are included here whose thought is perhaps less weighty than that of their male counterparts. One is struck by the genuinely counter-cultural thinking of many of these figures, and their fascinating angles to mainstream discourse. And while the book is about thinkers, the biographical information it provides as well as the discussion of their ideas continually reinforces the eastern understanding of a theologian being someone who prays truly. There is much to think about and learn from here.

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