05 December 2010
A Man Is His Faith
Fr. Aliexey Young published this book in 1980, and therefore we can be certain it was written under the influence and direct guidance of Fr. Seraphim Rose. In truth, we "hear" Fr. Seraphim's "voice" between each and every line when reading this book. The book is about Ivan Kireyevsky, a Russian philosopher who lived 100 years ago. It traces how he came to realize the futility of western civilization, about the profound questions he raised concerning modern man, and especially about the way in which a true philosophy of life might be attained, to absorb the spirit of Orthodoxy, as did the Holy Fathers of the Church, as did Fr. Seraphim Rose. -jh
A Man Is His Faith
Ivan Kireyevsky and Orthodoxy
Rev. Fr. Alexey Young
published by Saint George Information Service
243 Regent Street
London WIR 8PN
A Note about Patristic Reading
This book review consists of the Introduction, the first half of Chapter 6, and "A Note about Patristic Reading."
Spread widely your white sails, and fly towards that land, traveller, where a new sun has risen for you, and return then to us, loaded with precious treasures, and bring peace to disturbed souls, give strength to tired wills and food to hearts full of cravings!"
Alexis Khomiakov to Ivan Kireyevsky
Why is there so much darkness in today's world, so much fear, and so much confusion? Is it because man has ceased to believe in God, or is it becuase he no longer believes in truth?
This is the "television generation" -- a generation so desensitised, trivialised, and shallow that it can accept with good cheer the modern dictum to "do your own thing." Truth is vulgarized to such an extent that no one any longer feels sure of anything in his heart; we have been told over and over that everything is relative and nothing is certain or absolute.
Everything is now measured by the standard of human comfort: we consider that way of life "good" which maximises one's opportunity to enjoy oneself; we consider that political system "good" which least infringes on our personal comfort; and that religion is "good" which best agrees with our own strictly private feelings. In such a world, personal comfort has become the only "absolute" standard becasue it is equated with happiness, and everyone seems to believe that happiness is the only true and meaningful good a man can experience or find. Thus, there is no need for a philosophy of life: one must just earn, or beg, or steal enough money with which to buy personal comfort or "happiness."
But when the television is at last turned off, late at night, and the bedside novel has been consumed to its last silly page; when the noise of the chaotic outside world has been turned down to a low simmer for the night and the last coca-cola in the refrigerator has been drunk, a thinking man or woman lies awake and is terrified. Terrified at the hollowness of life, the inevitability of death, and a deep insecurity of heart -- and these may be feelings which are rarely if ever communicated to anther single human being. The futility and meaninglessness of this person's life rushes upon him at once and he gropes for a sleeping pill to shut out the waking nightmare.
Man's life in the twentieth century have become one long escape from reality. He is afraid to be alone, but he is the first to admit that he is alone even in a crowd. Perhaps the "World Series" inspires him for a moment -- but to what purpse? He consumes and consumes -- food, material goods, cheap entertainment, whatever is "in" at the moment -- surrounding himself with props like an actor on a cluttered stage. The actor knows that his life is a pretence upon which a curtain will certainly fall. And so, to convince himself that what he is doing is, after all, "real," he trots out another prop which he calls "religion." He desperately awaits the applause and praise of the audience to confirm the "rightness" of his life.
An individual surveys his life, in its various stages of chaos and ruin, and asks: what is real and what is fake? What is good, and what is evil? Is anything true -- really and objectively and always true -- and if so, how can I know it? Only nothingness can come of nothingness, and so, in order to answer these questions he must do something he has never done before and can only do now with great difficulty: he must stand outside himself for a moment and realize that he has been putting himself in place of God all through his life, from infancy onward.
Thinking about the inner life of man, Blessed Augustine of Hippo realized that there are certain things which do not depend upon a man for their truth or falsity. It is not man who establishes the truth or falsehood of things. Man can recognise whais true and esperience it, for truth is greater than man, but the human mind is not itself the source of truth, which is sufficient unto itself.
But unless a man has this fundamental understanding of life, any conclusions he comes to about existence are falsified from the very beginning, and he will never be able to understand the human condition no matter how hard, or how long, he tries. Man is so self-centered that it is only with the greatest effort that he peels away the superficial layers of his exstence and begins to ask fundamental questions. He is so far from perceiving reality, and has in fact so little actual experience of it, that he can hardly recognise it any longer. He has been conditioned to believe that all pain is at best unnecessary and at worst evil, something to be avoided at all cost [because it interferes with standards of human comfort]. And so, on the one hand he longs for release from his painful doubts about life, but on the other he is not willing to sacrifice any further personal comfort [whether physical or psychological] in order to do the work on himself that is needed. This creates an intolerable conflict, requiring still another "prop": the modern idea that there really is not any solution to the questions of life, so why bother about it at all?
Herein lies the tragedy of modern man, for there are answers, there is a way by which one might live and understand, a way that is both assured and satisfying; but modern man will have none ofit.
In such a world, dominated by such a hopeless and nihilistic ideology, who is the man equipped to stand forth and speak straightforwardly?
More than a humndred years ago such a man was born in Russia, a man who experienced first hand the dead-end of western civilization. Ivan Kireyevsky was a man of surpassing intelligence and culture, capable of thoroughly grasping the most exalted philosophies of the west. This book is about him, and about the way in which he finally realized the futility of western civilization, about the profound questions he raised concerning modern man, and especially about the way in which a true philosophy of life might be attained.
Few laymen can be said to have so completely entered into and absorbed the spirit of Orthodoxy as did Ivan Kireyevsky. Thus, when he speaks to us of truth he speaks from the great seed bed of Orthodox enlightenment: the Holy Fathers of the Church. From his avid reading of these Sacred Writers he came to the conviction that their teaching, which is based upon the message of the Gospel, contains the answer to all the questions man has in vain asked of our modern "enlightenment." Kireyevsky saw that apart from these Holy Fathers man needs no philosophy whatever because the Orthodox world-view is all-encompassing and is not at all the sphere of "theologians", much less of a theology which is divorced from actual life. He laid the foundations for a Christian philosophy of "wholeness", one which would encompass not just the mind of man, but also everyday life.
The philosophy of which Kireyevsky spoke is called Patristic because it flows from the writings of the Holy Church Fathers [Pater = Father]. This philosophy still exists, and it awaits our discovery. The ardent piety, forthrightness and refreshingly sharp vision of this Orthodox Christian who was also a layman, a husband, and a father, and who was prey to the temptations and difficulties of life as we are today, can serve as an inspiration to Orthodox believers scattered throughout the world.
It is only realistic, not pessimistic, to say that these are difficult times, perhaps the most difficult any Christian has ever seen. For that reason it is all the more important for us to discover and absorb a Patristic philosophy of life. Ivan Kireyevsky, a disciple of the great Staretzi of Optina Monastery and transmitter of their magnificent spiritual tradition, can still be mentor for us today, a century after his death. In the words of a modern-day disciple of the Optina tradition, Hieromonk Seraphim Rose:
"We, the last Christians, find ourselves in the midst of temptations far
worse than he faced, and we do not have among us the God-fearing
Staretzi and great theologians whom he knew. We know that we
cannot trust our own theological wisdom, any more than we can trust
our own sanctity. And so we can only thank God that He has given
us as a guide in these last days such great lanterns of sanctity and
theology as Staretz Paissy, the Optina Staretzi, and Metropolitan
Philaret of Moscow, as well as the devout layman Ivan Kireyevsky
(emphasis supplied), who faced and resolved the basic spiritual and
intellectual problems that even more critically face the Orthodox
believer today. May their words and example truly be fruitful among
us." [Orthodox Word #52]
[first half of the chapter, maybe it is meant to be the whole chapter, since there is no chapter 7]
Western thinkers suppose that the mind, if properly trained, exercised and sharpened, is alone capable of coming to a knowledge of the truth. If one's premise is correct, westerners believe, and if strict logic is adhered to, then one's conclusions must be true. This, Kireyevsky says is rationalism, the belief that reason alone, unaided by Divine Revelation, is the only valid basis for knowledge.
Rationalism is foreign to Orthodoxy because, first, through Adam's transgresssion, human nature is fallen, imperfect, and although not in itself evil, it is mixed with evil.
In his study of Saint Makarios, the Great Kontzevich wrote:
"The mind was originally pure, remaining in purity, reigning over his thoughts and was in a blessed condition, being covered with Divine glory ... Having fallen away from God in the transgression, man began to live a false life, a 'life of death.'"
Therefore, as Saint Paul says: "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned." [ICor.2:14]
Saint Isaac the Syrian explains that in this "natural" [i.e. fallen] state, unassisted man is capable of only the lowest kind of understanding, that which comes through the senses. He can be fooled by that which is transitory and unreal. He must ascend an inner ladder, one which is hidden in the soul, in order to achieve full knowledge of the truth. He cannot do this without hard spiritual labour and the help of God.
Orthodox Christians "respect human reason as no one else, and they never violate it. They regard it as one of the useful factors in detecting falsehood and uncovering error. But they do not accept it is capable of giving man certainty, of enlightening him to see truth, or guiding him to knowledge ... Certainty is not a matter of intellectual harmony; it is a deep assurance of the heart ... The experience of knowledge is something which cannot be expressed in human words. When the Apostle Paul came to know, he said that he had heard unspeakable words -- something which is impossible for man to express."46
Secondly, Kireyevsky points out that for Orthodox believers the mind is not an end in itself. Rather, the goal of knowledge should be wisdom, and wisdom is not a series of abstract concepts, but a living Being, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." Here we have not an idea, but a Person who, as God, is Himself Wisdom, who has "given to us exceeding great and precious promised; that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world." [IIPeter1:4]
Saint Nil the Ascetic expressed it this way:
"Many of the Greeks and not a few of the Jews undertook to reason philosophically but only Christ's disciples strove after true wisdom, for they alone had Wisdom itself as their teacher."
Since "the Word Himself ... was everything to Adam, before the fall, whether knowledge or experience, or inheritance or instruction," so also must He be for us, Orthodox Christians [Saint Makarios the Great]. In other words, let us not think that our reasoning capacity can do for us what only God Himself can do; let us not worship rationalism.
But reason is different from rationalism. Reason itself is the capacity for sound and sane thought, good judgment, discrimination. Saint John Chrysostom says that just as birds are given wings in order that they might avoid snares, so was man given reason, "that they may avoid sin." Therefore, reason can be a life-preserving tool so long as the darkness of rationalism does not pollute it.
Yet western man is trained from youth to exalt rationalism above all else. This is why "a whole new world must be born in a westerner's heart in order for him to understand something* of Orthodoxy. How can someone who has breathed the dry air of rationalism from the cradle and learned to worship human cleverness as an idol be humbled and become simple as a child?"47
A Note about Patristic Reading
It should be made clear that Ivan Kireyevsky was writing to and about Russians who, even though growing farther and farther away from their Orthodox roots, were still at least nominally Orthodox. Thus his hope for a patristic revival was directed to Orthodox Christians, not to the non-Orthodox. Indeed, he would have been horrified at the modern idea that non-Orthodox should be invited to study these holy texts, as in fact they often do today. For Kireyevsky, as for all who are truly Orthodox, the primary condition for studying these Fathers is to have the same faith as they -- the faith of Orthodoxy.
A contemporary theologian has discussed another aspect of this question: he says that we who read them "must approach these Fathers with the Fear of God,with humility, and with a great distrust of our own wisdom and judgment. We approach them in order to learn. . . We must remember that the whole purpose of reading the Holy Fathers is not to give us some kind of 'spiritual enjoyment' or confirm us in our righteousness or superior knowledge or 'contemplative' state, but solely to aid us in the practice of the active path of virtue." Furthermore,in order for patristic reading "to be fruitful it must be tempered by actual experience of the difficulties of spiritual struggle, and by the humility born of this struggle if it is genuine. Without this tempering, it will lose contact with the reality of spiritual life and be made fruitless." [Orthodox Word #60 #65]
With this in mind, Orthodox Christians ought to be eager in their study of the foundation of spirituaol life and the patristic view of human nature. But one should start only with the most elementary patristic books, those most suitable for beginners. It is wise to begin with latter-day teachers who are in direct line of succession from the older Holy Fathers and can tell us more about how to read them. Highly recommended in this regard is the book Blessed Paisius [Paissy] Velichkovsky, by Schema-monk Metrophanes [St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood 1976]. Starets Paissy was himself the inspiration for the great Optina tradition which later produced Kireyevsky's own spiritual father, Starets Makary. Blessed Paissy is important because he was the compiler of the first slavonic Philokalia. This biography details his laborious work, on Mount Athos and elsewhere, to collect and translate these writings of the Holy Fathers.
Another teacher is Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov. In the tradition of Blessed Paissy and himself a discipole of Staretz Leonid [Lev] of Optina, his book, The Arena [Madras 1970], is written primarily for monastics but is directly applicable to lay men and women today.
After thoughtful reading of these two books one should read Unseen Warfare [as corrected by Blessed Theophan the Recluse]. This splendid volume contains practical instruction on many aspects of the day-to-day spiritual struggle and is soundly based upon the tradition of the Church Fathers.
These three works will prepare the Orthodox believer for a more direct study of patristic literature. We recommend first The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus and Spiritual Homilies of Saint Makarios the Great [Eastern Orthodox Books, 1974]. The Ladder is a spiritual classic filled with many insights and observations concerning the Christian struggle for virtue. Spiritual Homilies, founded upon the personal experience of Saint Makarios, contains instruction and rules for those at different stages of spiritual life, and also for beginners. As I.M. Kontzevitch described it is his introduction, this volume "develops the philosophy of communion with God."
Finally, it should be pointed out that to read these "beginning" books, these "ABC's" of patristic literature, will be most difficult even for the above-average reader. This is because the more we are in harmony with the environment of western society, the harder it will be to understand these Holy Fathers who speak to us not of this world, but of another world, a higher life, something indeed otherworldly, and alien to our present frame of mind. As one writer has observed: "In order to approach the Holy Fathers one must be striving to get out of this worldly atmosphere, after recognizing it for what it is. . . We must face squarely a painful but necessary truth: a person who is seriously reading the Holy Fathers and who is struggling according to his strength [even if on a very primitive level] to lead an Orthodox spiritual life -- must be out of step with the times." [Ibid.]
["Ibid."is Fr. Seraphim -jh]
Available at SJKP
A Man Is His Faith $5
The Arena $18
Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky: The Man behind the Philokalia $17
Unseen Warfare $20
The Ladder of Divine Ascent $28
Especially with the Ladder of Divine Ascent you will want to have a hard copy.