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Antoine Arjakovsky, Church, Culture and Identity: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the Modern World.

Antoine Arjakovsky, Church, Culture and Identity: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the Modern World, Lviv, Ukrainian Catholic University Press, 2007, pp.231, $17.00

In this volume of collected papers and lectures, Antoine Arjakovsky offers us a veritable smorgasbord of reflections on an impressive array of topics. But while the topics are as wide-ranging as the rather global title indicates, the reader will readily discern a definite coherence to the overall theological vision and project of the author. Antoine Arjakovsky, of the Institute for Ecumenical Studies of the Catholic University of Ukraine, has worked extensively on the theology of the Russian emigration. He draws his chief inspiration from figures such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergius Bulgakov and Olivier Clement. Like them and many others of the "Paris School" of Orthodox theology, he is committed to a searching encounter with the philosophy and culture of the West, to a bold and vigorous re-appropriation and re-presentation of Orthodox tradition and to a prophetic engagement with the ecumenical project.

Arjakovsky claims, rightly, that we live in a time of unprecedented opportunity for the Orthodox Church. After the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian empires and the raising of the iron curtain, many of the factors that once so deadened theological debate among the Orthodox are no longer in play. For Arjakovsky, Orthodoxy has responded to this new situation by redefining itself "not as an institution but as the life in Christ through the Holy Spirit"--and here he calls to witness Bulgakov, Christos Yannaras and John Erickson. All this comes "as a welcome summer breeze, a promise of joy for disturbing times looking for a more human face and approach". Certainly, Arjakovsky is far from ignorant of the many problems besetting contemporary Orthodoxy but, to this reviewer at least, there is too little here on the distinctly wintry impediments (on which more below) to the realization of this balmy vision. We are far from being able to declare, with Shakespeare's Gloucester, that "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer". That said, let me be the first to salute Professor Arjakovsky for his consistent and noble refusal to ever surrender optimism for pessimism.

Turning now to three main subject-areas mentioned above, one notes immediately the extent to which Arjakovsky is gripped by the imperative of pursuing an active dialogue with the philosophy and culture of the West. This volume gives us examples of such fruitful dialogue with, among others, Olivier Messiaen, Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Marc Ferry. But his most congenial conversation partners seem to lie within the "Radical Orthodox" project (and Catherine Pickstock is cited with especial approval). Radical Orthodoxy seeks to rediscover what it calls a "richer and more coherent" Christianity, a Christianity rooted in patristic and early medieval (pre-Scotist) soil but conditioned by and responsive to contemporary concerns and issues. Arjakovsky is much taken by the force of Radical Orthodoxy's critique of modernity and by its aptitude for exploiting to the full the multiform possibilities of post-modernity. In his hopes for "reunion with Western Christians who overcame the temptation of nominalism", he effectively endorses the Radical Orthodox narrative of decline setting in from Duns Scotus, the first plodder (however unwitting) on the melancholy road that leads through nominalism to nihilism (a narrative analogous to that articulated recently in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age).

Arjakovsky's chief theological sympathies lie, as I have said, with the "Paris School", especially with figures such as Bulgakov who were prepared to probe and push the boundaries of the Orthodox theological tradition. Indeed, Arjakovsky goes so far as to claim that this school has the potential "to give a response to the crisis of Orthodox thought, to the crisis of the ecumenical movement, but also more generally to the crisis of the modern world". A very bold claim indeed, but Arjakovsky does give ample evidence of the richness and possibilities of this school. He also produces a solid argument for regarding the many distinct and often diverging personalities and streams of thought involved as constituting a school--by analogy with that of Alexandria and Antioch in the Early Church, both of which were considerably more diverse and fluid than they are often given credit for.

As for the ecumenical arena, Arjakovsky is deeply inspired by the difficult history of Christianity in Ukraine. Long interposed between East and West, between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds, Ukraine serves as a sign of both the problems and the possibilities facing those who work towards the reunion of Christians. Arjakovsky puts his emphasis not so much on official discussions, although these have a vitally important place, but rather on what he calls the "ecumenical value" of friendship (philia). This is an emphasis that reminded me of the remark of one wise Orthodox bishop: "Ecumenism only works if you do it". In other words it is ultimately thorough relations of friendship and joint endeavour that our hopes of reunion max, one day, be realized. Arjakovsky also has some provocative remarks to make on the subject of intercommunion which stand squarely in the prophetic spirit of Sergius Bulgakov

A book of this scope is bound to elicit quibbles on many points of detail and interpretation. It seems to me unjust to infer a straitened conceptualization of Orthodox dogmatic teaching into the French title of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware's The Orthodox Church (L'Orthodoxie: L'Eglise des sept conciles). It is also an exaggeration to call Archbishop Rowan Williams "one of the principal initiators" of Radical Orthodoxy. He is certainly a keen supporter and decisive inspiration but I believe he is best regarded as more of a fellow-traveller than as a card-carrying member, if I may be allowed the expression. One might also contest the characterization of pre-Constantinian Orthodoxy as subsisting in "right glorification", as opposed to "right faith". I doubt St Irenaeus of Lyons would have approved of (or even recognized) the distinction. And of course there are a few errors of typography and transliteration, some of which doubtless owe their origin to the often tricky process of transition from French to English (for instance "Nile of Sofa" rather than Nil Sorsky or Nilus of Sofa).

More fundamentally, the reader should be aware that there are significant circles among the Orthodox that will find much of what is written here most uncongenial. The "Paris School" of Orthodox theology remains marginal (at best) to many. Similarly, the author's enthusiasm for the ecumenical project and bold remarks on intercommunion will win him few friends in traditionalist circles. And jurisdictional and ethnic problems remain as intractable as ever. But these chill winds should not in any way diminish the importance of the evolving project of the theological vision adumbrated in these pages. Antoine Arjakovsky is one of the most talented and exciting Orthodox theologians of the younger generation working today. He writes with flair and passion, both of which are given ample witness here. This slim volume represents a very handy distillation of his chief concerns and interests that will be read with profit by anyone interested in the place of modern Orthodox theology in the modern world, and especially in the ecumenical arena. A summer breeze? Perhaps not quite yet. But a "sign of spring", to borrow a phrase from Father Michael Plekon's introduction? Certainly.

Marcus Plested

Dr Marcus Plested is Vice-Principal and Academic Director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in the Cambridge Theological Federation. He is also an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge.
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Author:Plested, Marcus
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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