The Challenge of Our Time
The great Russian bishop of the last century, Theophanes “The Recluse” (d. 1894), in one of his pastoral letters makes a startling statement. What the Russian Church most needed, he said, was “a band of firebrands,” which would set the world on fire. The incendiaries must be themselves burning and go around to inflame human minds and hearts. Theophanes did not trust a “residual Christianity.” Customs could be perpetuated by inertia, he said, but convictions and beliefs could be kept only by spiritual vigilance and continuous effort by the spirit. Theophanes felt that there was too much routine and convention in the life of Russian Christians. He anticipated a crisis and even a collapse. He resigned his diocese and retired to a monastery, because he felt that he could do much more service to the Church by writing books than by administering a bishopric.
Theophanes was a man of wide learning and experience. For some time he was Rector of the Theological Academy (in St. Petersburg). He traveled extensively in the Christian East and was intimately linked with Mount Athos. He was a good Greek scholar, and he used this knowledge for translations. He always insisted that he retired not for an advanced spiritual life (which is possible, and should be practiced for the ordinary life) but to have time and leisure for literary and scholarly work. He took to his monastic cell all his books, a selected library from which were not excluded books by Western scholars and secular literature. He wanted to know the world to which he had to bring the message of salvation. He did not dispute the labors and achievements of those who did not belong to the Orthodox communion of faith.
The retired bishop spent his time in writing: He translated “Philokalia,” [see Book Reviews ]; the works of St. Simeon the New Theologian; the ancient Monastic Rules (Eastern and Western); he published several volumes of his commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul, intended not so much for scholars, but to help all believers understand this inspired teaching; he wrote several books on Christian Ethics and Spirituality. Theophanes began every day with the Divine Liturgy, which he celebrated alone in his tiny domestic chapel, and he would use the inspiration of the daily communion for his scholarly and pastoral work.
The impact of Theophanes' writings on the life of the Russian Church was enormous. In his retirement, as a “recluse,” he was more influential than he could ever have been as administrator of a worldly diocese. He made Christian doctrine available for average Christians, for all Christians. He wanted to equip them with spiritual weapons for their Christian struggle. He required from all Christians — from clergy first of all — a thorough knowledge and understanding of our Holy Faith, which alone could save our life from unhealthy sentimentalism and imagination. He insisted on the study of the Scriptures and of the Holy Fathers.
Now, many years have passed since Theophanes' time. His worst anticipations were justified. The whole Orthodox Church — not only in Russia — is involved in a desperate struggle with the raging assault of godlessness and unbelief. Human souls are undergoing an incredible trial. But the protecting veil of Divine Mercy is spread over the suffering Church and the possessed world, and men are called to be Christ's witnesses: His Messengers and Apostles. The Church is essentially a missionary institution. One has to thank God for that army of new martyrs and confessors who have revealed or manifested the strength and the beauty of Christian Faith. And yet one should not be too easily satisfied with what has been done by others. So much has been left not done by us.
Let us confine our attention this time to one aspect of our Christian duty. Everyone knows that we are desperately short of books. Behind the “iron curtain” an impressive literature of atheism has been created and widely spread. Special colleges have been established to train people “for a godless ministry.” Textbooks on anti-religious propaganda, and on the methodology of godless preaching have been prepared for classrooms.
What is our response to this challenge? In the Ancient Church, the Holy Fathers met the challenge of the pagan world by an outpouring of Christian writings, attacking point by point the arguments of the opponents. What have we done in our own situation? Can we really meet the enemy on the field and save the victims of this unparalleled spiritual persecution?
The rusty weapons will not do. I am not speaking of the Holy Tradition, of the writings of the Holy Fathers, but of the inadequate books of the last century, which were so often ephemeral and rarely presented a sufficient interpretation of the Holy Tradition. Our theological production stopped years ago, and that stoppage testifies to our neglect of the teaching mission of the Church. Ignorance is growing in the Church and we are not alarmed!
Are there any books in which our Holy Orthodox Faith can be convincingly preached and commended to our own generation?
We in America, where the majority of Orthodox Christians are English-speaking, are in an especially difficult situation. There is no Orthodox literature in English. There are occasional books, often of modest quality, and rarely on the most urgent or basic subjects. The real problem, however, is not that of books, but of study. Each generation, especially in a new country, has to assess the Christian truth afresh, in continuous contact with the past, as well as in close contact with the changing present. It is not enough to learn by rote some ready answers. They may be perfectly right and correct. But we have to solve the questions by thinking through the answers and not by merely reciting formulas, sacred and perfect though they are. Listen to the searching man! He knows the formula, but cannot relate it to his existential questioning. Our Creed is a most perfect formula. How often do we recite it without conviction? Are we able to relate it to our urgent spiritual needs? How many Orthodox dispense with the Creed, because it has ceased to have for them any immediate spiritual appeal? The Creed is charged with an eternal and loving Truth. It is an eternal key to human unrest, but it needs interpretation. Otherwise we would not know how to fit the key in the lock.
What our present generation wants, especially in our country, is a true theological revival — a revival of a living theology, which would unlock for us that Truth which one can find in the Scriptures, in the Tradition, and in the Liturgical life of the Church, but which is sealed away from us by our ignorance and neglect. We need today more than ever before, precisely a “band of spiritual firebrands” who can inflame minds and hearts with the fire of a loving knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. God calls us, in our generation, to be His witnesses and messengers. How can men believe if they do not hear the quickening Word? Even if we are men of unclean lips, let us respond to the Divine call, and the fire of the Spirit will cleanse us, for the ministry of the Word.
V. Rev. George Florovsky, D.D.
St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly , Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 1952, pp. 3–5