Seraphim Danckaert is Director of Mission Advancement at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds an M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
In a recent ceremony, Ss. Cyril and Methodius Theological Institute for Post-Graduate Studies in Russia bestowed a doctorate honoris causa on His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia.
The Metropolitan took the occasion as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of Orthodox theology. He also discussed his sources of inspiration, both among modern Orthodox theologians and among the Holy Fathers. After mentioning several figures, His Eminence described two key lessons from St. Gregory of Nyssa: (1) “true vision of God is non-vision, the true knowledge of God is unknowning”; and (2) “the theologian’s task is never complete. It is always provisional, always work in progress, always an unfinished programme.”
A selection from his address follows:
Theology is not only an academic discipline to be pursued with scholarly detachment and objectivity. Theology involves commitment, the dedication of our whole life. Between theology and prayer, between doctrinal studies and our profound involvement in the living out of a Christian life there is an essential connection.
We are all familiar with the words of the desert father, Evagrius of Pontus, “The theologian is the one who prays, and if you pray in truth, you are a theologian.” So it is my hope that this Institute will be not only a place of study, but also a centre of prayer. Bearing in mind the connection between theology and life, I would like to ask this morning not so much the question “what”, as the question “who”: not so much the question what is theology, but I would like to speak briefly who are the theologians who have given me the greatest inspiration.
First, thinking of Russian theologians of the 20th century, the two who most influenced me were Father George Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky. I was inspired by Father George Florovsky’s vision of neo-patristic synthesis. I was inspired by Vladimir Lossky’s understanding of mystical theology. I had the happiness and privilege to know both of them personally, and their example has inspired me in my years of teaching theology at Oxford.
But I would like to extend my question this morning: who among the Holy Fathers of the Church have most inspired me? I find it difficult to know who to choose as the father closest to my heart. Perhaps, St Irenaeus; perhaps, St Maximus the Confessor; perhaps, St Symeon the New Theologian; or perhaps, St Gregory Palamas. All of them I regard as sources of personal illumination. But perhaps the father whom I love and esteem the most is St Gregory of Nyssa.
I would like to speak this morning of two elements in his teaching that have particular value for me. They are both emphasized in his book The Life of Moses. He speaks there, in the first place, of the Christian journey as being marked by three stages. The first stage, and this is marked in The Life of Moses, is when he saw God in the burning bush. It was the vision of God in light, a cataphatic vision. Then there comes the second stage in The Life of Moses, when God accompanies the people of Israel in a pillar of cloud and fire, mixed light and darkness. Then comes the third stage when Moses enters deep darkness on Mount Sinai – an apophatic vision of God. And in this third stage he is taught that the true vision of God is non-vision, the true knowledge of God is unknowing. So there is the reconciliation of the opposites in the third stage.
What is interesting here is that St Gregory envisages the Christian life as the journey not from darkness into light, but from light into darkness. The Christian path is an entry into mystery. And this is also true of the vocation of the theologian. The theologian is one who enters into the living mystery of the living and personal God. But in Gregory of Nyssa the darkness is not negative, it is, he says, “a luminous darkness”. Thus, while the darkness signifies the Divine mystery, it is also a symbol of union with God. Moses is united with God in the darkness. So this darkness is not an absence. What Moses experiences on Mount Sinai is the love of God. But this luminosity, this union, this presence, this love are things that, on St Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding, lie beyond words, beyond understanding.
In theology we use our reasoning brain, because that is a gift from God. But always we recognize that in theology we are working on something that lies beyond our reasoning brain, because it is mystery.
That is one thing I retain particularly from St Gregory of Nyssa. And then there is the second thing. After the three theophanies of which I have spoken, in the burning bush, in the pillar of cloud and fire, and in the darkness of Sinai, there comes the fourth theophany. St Gregory speaks of the vision of God received by Moses in the 33rd chapter of Exodus. God hides Moses in a cleft of a rock; and then God passes by in all His glory, and Moses looks out and sees the back part of God. What does this mean? If you see somebody’s back, this means you are following them. So, says Gregory, to be a Christian, to be a theologian is to follow Christ. But we never totally catch up with Him. He is always ahead of us. We see His back. So here we have a further paradox in St Gregory of Nyssa: to follow God is to meet Him face to face.
Gregory sees a Christian life as involving infinite progress, which continues even in the age to come. When I was a child, I was given a book about Felix the Cat. And Felix the Cat was given a pair of magic boots. And with the help of these magic boots he kept walking everywhere. I remember the refrain in the book, “Felix, he kept walking, he kept walking on.” St Gregory of Nyssa was not, in fact, the author of this particular book, but it expresses his theology. To be a Christian, to be a theologian is to keep moving, to keep following, never to rest satisfied, always to move further. The essence of perfection is that we never become perfect. We always reach out to what lies in front of us. We always advance from glory to glory.
I would apply this also to our work in theology. The theologian’s task is never complete. It is always provisional, always work in progress, always an unfinished programme. However eloquent we are as theologians, we never express more than a small part of the truth.
St Irenaeus says, “In the age to come God will have new things to teach us and we shall always have new things to learn.” Those of you who teach theology here, those of you who are studying theology in this Institute – I hope you will always have this feeling that you have only heard a very small part of the story. There is so much more to be said. And we will never in this life say it all.
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