The Orthodox Church Today: Notes and Links

When I first set up this blog, I was not expecting to write so much on religion. But since I have had such a hard time learning about Orthodoxy online, I think it is good to share some of what I found with the hope of combating some common caricatures, not just of the traditionalist sort, but also of the sort that claims the Orthodox Church is full of backwards nationalists.

A good place to start is the May 2014 article in the Scottish Journal of Theology by P. Kalaitzidis, called “New trends in Greek Orthodox theology: challenges in the movement towards a genuine renewal and Christian unity.” Kalaitzidis describes the formation of what is commonly taken to be today’s Greek Orthodox theology: the emphasis on patristics coupled with nationalist, anti-Western sentiment, which is commonly associated with names such as Fr. John Romanides. But he also goes on to describe reactions against this mindset that have taken place in Greece. Contrary to the emphasis on patristic theology, Professor Savas Agourides was a pioneer in modern Greek biblical studies, and was also opposed to the strong anti-Westernism of many of his compatriots. In addition, many of the theology faculty at the University of Thessaloniki have been supportive of ecumenical efforts and attempts to engage with modernity. Kalaitzidis frequently contrasts the 1960s theologians such as Romanides with the “new generation” – which includes such journals such as Synaxi and Theologia (the latter being the official scholarly journal of the Church of Greece), both of which actively engage Greek Orthodox theology with insights from many different countries. This is of course not to say that the new generation has the upper hand. Indeed, there are still a great number of “zealots.” As an example of this, he points to the Confession of Faith against ecumenism made popular by them.

So, as I’ve tried to explain before, the situation in Greece and Russia is actually quite complicated – there are a good number of fundamentalists, but also of moderates, and even the fundamentalists often have pretty balanced opinions. I’ve decided to compile some links below for people to explore firsthand what Orthodoxy is like today.

Fr. Pavel Florensky and Mathematics

Fr. Pavel Florensky was born in 1882 to an educated, rather secular family in Azerbaijan, then part of the Russian Empire. He was educated in Tbilisi and later at Moscow. His non-religious parents gave him appreciation of science (from his father, an engineer) and of the arts (from his mother). But, starting from his teen years, he began to see that this was not everything after suffering spiritual crises and having mystical experiences. Like St. Augustine, his parents had helped given him a desire to become a well-educated man with a decent career, but again like Augustine, his religious experiences changed this: “Suddenly, all empty hope for my career lost its appeal; and I was left with an unbelievable fire in my heart, desiring the deathless qualities of Wisdom, and I made a start to rise up and return to Thee” (Confessions, 3.4.7).

The Russian world which Florensky was born into was experiencing a religious revival, centered around the Philokalia (in Russian, the Dobrotolubiye), which emphasized above all mysticism and the end of prayer as union with God. Such a world is attested to by the popularity in Russia of The Way of a Pilgrim, a lovely book about a pilgrim who learns unceasing prayer and from this experiences the “sweetness of God’s love,” “inner peace,” and a “joyous bubbling in the heart” (p. 32). Many Russian writers, such as Solov’ev, wrote about how this contradicted the West’s rationalism and individualism, which, unlike the Russian focus on community, divided and analyzed endlessly. Yet the Russian Empire also had great respect for mathematics and science, as Florensky’s parents show. Even a conservative religious writer like St. John of Kronstadt could mention proudly his scientific learning in his diary (My Life in Christ, p. 1).

Although Florensky initially left for university in Moscow to study mathematics, he was well aware by this time that physics did not cover the whole of reality. He would soon also apply to and join the Moscow Spiritual Academy to study theology. Studying mathematics and theology simultaneously, Florensky was not a man for whom faith and science were two closed off “non-overlapping magisteria.” Rather, like Solov’ev, he sought unity in reality, and like the River Forest Thomists, thought not only that science did not contradict religious truth, but was harmonious with it and that each could inform the other.

An example of such an approach to faith and reason can be given. In early 20th century France, Georg Cantor’s set theory, due to some of the seeming contradictions it implied, was not well-received. It was commonly described by the French mathematicians as “philosophy” rather than mathematics, an accusation that presupposes the notion, common among Western scientists, that philosophy is confused, whereas mathematics and the natural sciences were precise. This was partly because of some of the difficulties and contradictions associated with it. The influence of Descartes, with his emphasis on the need for “clear and distinct ideas,” can be seen here. However, Russia’s more religious spirit lead to greater acceptance of set theory. Unlike the French, Florensky saw a connection between mathematics and philosophy. What was so dearly held about functions by the French, that they were continuous, he saw as a falsehood that lead to the determinism of modern philosophy which excluded many features of reality the existence of which were obvious to him, such as the spiritual world and free will. The existence of non-continuous functions, functions whose graphs have gaps, holes, or jump at points, allowed these back into consideration. Naturally, then, set theory appealed to Florensky, since continuous functions were only one possible set among others. But the religious influence of Florensky’s beliefs about set theory go in fact beyond merely this. In 1906, a friend of Florensky’s and mathematician, Nikolai Luzin, would write to him: “…I cannot be satisfied any more with the analytic functions and Taylor series … To see the misery of people, to see the torment of life … this is an unbearable sight … I cannot live by science alone…”. In response, Florensky, who at a younger age experienced a similar crisis of faith in science, helped lead his friend into a worldview where mathematics harmonized with answers to Luzin’s urgent religious needs. Florensky’s religious relationship with Luzin, as well as with their mutual mathematician-friend Dmitri Egorov, lead to the formation of the Moscow School of Mathematics, which had great influence in 20th century mathematics. This so-called School was influenced by religious mystical ideas. Egorov and Florensky clearly had an interest in the “Name Worshippers,” Russian monks who controversially thought the name of God was God, and tried to relate it to mathematics. This may have led to impressive results: the emphasis on names led them to argue that by naming sets, one could create them – one did not need to define them to know that they existed, as the French thought. The existence of the confusing notion of ‘transfinite numbers,’ so important to Cantor, earned far more easily acceptance in the mystical minds of the Russians than in the positivist minds of the French. It is clear, then, that the nature of mathematical objects was important in evaluating set theory, and that the Moscow mathematicians’ highly religious understanding put them in a different position regarding the existence of mathematical objects than their more rationalist counterparts, which led them to novel insights into set theory and analysis.

A genius polymath, Fr. Pavel Florensky’s contribution here to mathematics is one of many accomplishments, alongside his great number of contributions to physics, philosophy, and engineering. But it shows what can happen when religious and philosophical considerations are allowed to influence scientific considerations. This is not a legitimate endeavor for all, but to a man like Florensky, for whom the unity of reality was key, it is simply obvious.

Modern Sources
Graham, L., & Kantor, J-M. (2006). A comparison of two cultural approaches to mathematics: France and Russia, 1890–1930. Isis, 97(1), 56-74. Most of the information in the second-to-last paragraph, about the Russians and set theory, is taken from this article.

Louth, A. (2015). Modern Orthodox thinkers: From the Philokalia to the present. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity. Much of the information above are taken from here, especially about Russia’s background, including the importance of the Philokalia and Solov’ev’s stress on unity, as well as some details about Florensky’s life.

The way of a pilgrim and the pilgrim continues his way. (2001). (O. Savin, Trans.). Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Sergieff, J. I. (St. John of Kronstadt). (1897). My life in Christ. (E.E. Goulaeff, Trans.). London: Cassell and Company. It is available online in its entirety here.

Yermakova, A. (2011). Mathematical foundation in Pavel Florensky’s
philosophical worldview.
(Master’s thesis, University of Oxford). Retrieved from

Orthodox Fundamentalism?

It is frequently said that Eastern Europeans are homophobic, anti-Western, Islamophobic, xenophobic, et cetera, and that the Orthodox Church there is an accomplice to this.

Consider Serbia as an example. Some Serbians have claimed that Metropolitan Amfilohije’s rhetoric comparing the Belgrade gay pride parade to Sodom and Gomorrah was an attempt to encourage right-wingers to take violence against it, a not uncommon occurrence in Eastern European pride parades. Whatever his intentions were, many in the West would agree that such speech is prone to inciting hate. Patriarch Irinej has not spoken so harshly, but has routinely called homosexuality a disease. Similar statements can be found from other prominent Serbian Orthodox.

Take, as another example, the Russian Orthodox Church. We not uncommonly hear that it serves Russian nationalist interests more than Christ and can be dangerously fundamentalist to this end. At first glance, relatively popular priests such as Fr. Daniel Sysoev (now martyred) and Fr. George Maximov, might seem to confirm this. Both have engaged in polemics against Islam. Both have written against evolution. Former Russian Patriarch Alexy II even supported an institute meant to argue for creationism. Further, the Russian Orthodox Church’s arguments to keep close relations between Church and State sometimes claim that Russian culture is primarily Orthodox, which may seems exclusionary to Russians of other faiths. In fact, in 2005, a Russian archbishop, Nikon, called Krishna “Satan” in his opposition to a temple to Krishna being built by Hindus in Moscow.

It is not to be doubted that there are such problems in Orthodoxy. Yet such a depiction is not detailed enough, so it is more like caricature than a true to life portrait. There are many facts that the rough sketch neglects. For instance, in 2010 the Serbian Holy Assembly of Bishops released a statement concerning that year’s pride parade which discouraged violence. Another appeal released that year on the same subject by 29 priests frequently mentions love and forgiveness. For a more in-depth account of Serbian Orthodoxy’s relationship with homosexuality, read the article ‘Silence or Condemnation: The Orthodox Church on Homosexuality in Serbia’ by Miloš Jovanović.

In Russia, Patriarch Alexy II was a well-known opponent of antisemitism. In The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, the famous 19th-century works of Russian spirituality, a holy man at one point exhorts another not to curse Jews, because God made them just as He made the Christians, and we are also told that the Fathers teach that, if one has a good intention and spirit, he may learn from even a Saracen (i.e., a Muslim). More examples can be given. Archbishop Nikon’s anti-Krishna letter, mentioned above, is ironically quite ecumenical. In his attempt to criticize certain Hindus for worshiping the “Lord of death,” he claims opposition to such worship is the common opinion of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs.

Commenting on the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Fr. George Maximov criticized the publication for their crude depictions of Muhammad saying “I will never approve of such cynical and vulgar mockeries of Muslims and their faith.” At the same source, Fr. George tells us that Fr. Daniel spoke against the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Furthermore, while Fr. George has written against evolution, he has also written an article against those who think geocentrism is Orthodox dogma.

It seems fairly clear to me that since a lot of what Eastern Europeans say is behind a language barrier, only a very simple summary of they say is translated into English and so we do not get to see the details of their positions. On the other hand, even the Catholic Church – which publishes everything in English – gets misrepresented by our media.

Sholem Asch, 1880-1957

Sholem Asch, was a Yiddish Jewish novelist in the first half of the 20th century. He seems to have taken a liking to Christianity and even wrote books about not only Jesus, but St. Paul and St. Mary as well. He said, “For me it [Judaism and Christianity] is one culture and one civilization, on which all our peace, our security and our freedom are dependent.” He was criticized sharply for this by Jews in Europe (not surprisingly, given that he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s), but American Jews defended him. For his part, Asch said he was always a Jew trying to understand the Jewish spirit. His book One Destiny, a irenic book addressed to Christians, opens quite movingly:

In the young manhood of our people when it was imbued with lusty shepherd strength, our fathers, rocking in the humps of their camels across the desert, saw the stars in the sky. The stars became transparent windows, and they saw the Almighty of all the universe, and they fell on their faces before Him, stretched out their hands to Him and cried, “Thou art our God!”

Prayer from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Fountain of all knowledge,
Spring of holiness,
Zenith of all glory,
Might omnipotent,
Beauty that never fades,
    I will choose the path He shows me,
    And be content with His judgments.

1QS, column 10. Translation from The Dead Sea Scriptures (3rd ed.) by Theodor H. Gaster, p. 138.

EDIT: I realize now that this isn’t strictly a prayer, but more of a vow made by initiants.

St. Augustine Alludes to Plotinus

The individual soul … is itself no slight thing. Yet it must become worthy of this contemplation … it must be quiet. Let us assume that quiet too is the body that wraps it round – quiet the earth, quiet the air and the sea, quiet the high heavens.
– Plotinus, Enneads, V.1.2

So we said: If to any man the tumult of the flesh grew silent, silent the images of earth and sea and air; and if the heavens grew silent, and the very soul grew silent to herself and by not thinking of self mounted beyond self; if all dreams and images grew silent, and every tongue and every symbol – everything that passes away … and in their silence He alone spoke to us, not by them, but by Himself: so that we should hear His word, not by any tongue of the flesh, not in the voice of an angel, not in the sound of thunder, nor in the darkness of a parable – but that we should hear Himself … should hear Himself and not them.
– St. Augustine, Confessions, 9.10.25

Change in Music History

[During a lecture] I invite someone who knows how to play the guitar to the front, and then give that person a monochord. A monochord is an old device which is hardly known today. When my friend Carl Mitcham tried to find me one at Penn State, people asked, What the hell is that? He did find an old professor in the music department who remembered using one as a student, but none could be found, until at last he hunted one up in the physics department, where it was stored for possible later use in the museum. It’s an elongated wooden box, about the span of a man’s arms, with single string mounted on it. This string can be stopped at any point along its length in order to demonstrate musical relationships. So in my class the person serving as my assistant demonstrated various divisions of the string, halving it to sound an octave and then stopping it at one third of its length. Suddenly, in this class of 150, sometimes 200 people, a number of faces lit up. They could hear the harmony produced by what musicians call the fifth or the quint. If the finger stopping the string was moved by even a fraction of an inch, it didn’t sound the same to those who could perceive it. Arrangement of these perceptibly harmonious sounds defined music throughout most of its long history.
But music, like human nature, has a glitch. If you repeat the fifth, that is, if you take the longer part of the string and again divide it in a ratio of 1:2, you take the first step in what is called the circle of fifths. If you take repeating this operation, taking the fifth of the fifth of the fifth and so on, you will finally return to your original note, sounded several octaves higher. Except you don’t quite arrive at your starting point. There is a small discrepancy, which the old Greeks called a
comma. The circle of fifths doesn’t come out quite right. This has always been a problem, and a point of discussion among musicians, but it was only around the time of Bach that its solution became a serious task. They wanted to see if they couldn’t rearrange the circle of fifths in such a way that they made each step slightly disharmonious – in effect averaging out the comma – in order that the circle of fifths should end where it began. This was in order to prevent individual instruments, or instruments playing together, from getting more and more out of tune if they ventured into keys remote from their starting point. The process was called tempering the scale, and it turned out to be a very difficult task, only fully achieved in the nineteenth century, when it became possible to measure the vibrational frequencies of musical pitches and to use logarithms to make the complex calculation of how much to shave off the tail of one quint and how much from the nose of the other in order to make the scale come out right while still giving the untrained ear the impression of being in a harmonic, rather than a tempered, scale. The key figure was the eminent German physicist and physiologist Hermann Helmholtz [1821-1894].

Source: Cayley, D., & Taylor, C. (2011). The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich. New York: House of Anansi Press. Pages 134-135.