Tuesday, September 10, 2013

O.T.R.F. Conference dedicated to Christos Yannaras: Philosophy, Theology, Culture

The Orthodox Theological Research Forum (O.T.R.F.) was held this year at St. Edmunds Hall, Oxford, dedicated to Christos Yannaras, 2-5 September 2013. This conference attracted people from all over the world, including Greece, France, Germany, Canada and U.K. The unique feature of this gathering was the fact that Yannaras was present, answering and commenting on many papers, allowing for a further understanding of his thought, philosophy, theology and culture.

The conference began with a conference address by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania (in abstentia) who claimed that Yannaras is one of the most famous Greek writers today. Due to the absence of Metropolitan Kallistos (because of health issues), Christos Yannaras gave a brief introduction to the participants. He began by thanking everyone for this conference, claiming: “I should like to extend my warm thanks to those who had the idea of organizing this meeting and took the initiative to make it a reality, those who undertook the care and responsibility of organizing it, and those who provided the funds that have enabled it to take place. I should also like to thank warmly all of you who have done me the great honour of coming here today to engage in what is the first attempt to subject my published work to critical discussion- its aims, its success or failure in attaining these aims, and the mistakes and inadequacies of my work”. He later gave a brief analysis of those elements and aspects of his work which he believes have yet to be subjected to critical scrutiny. (His talk will be posted tomorrow).   

Revd Professor Andrew Louth (University of Durham) gave a paper on ‘The Apophatic in Modern Orthodox Theology – and Modern Philosophy’. He claimed that Orthodoxy is apophatic and this apophaticism has brought interest to the Orthodox Church. Apophatic theology has become prominent, especially in the last century, by a number of scholars, including Metropolitan Kallistos, Christos Yannaras, Fr. Bulgakov. Lossky identifies that the mystical goes hand in hand with apophaticism. He identifies that apophaticism is a criterion. All of Christian theology is apophatic. Lossky claims that apophaticism enables us to transcend in knowledge; the apopahtic way is the road of repentance of Orthodox theology. Fr. Dumitru Staniloae additionaly points out the importance of apophatic theology concerning how we perceive God, in contrast not to catapahticism but rational theology. Therefore, apophatic understanding of God is to be seen in our daily life. Although we reflect on this reality, we cannot understand it. On the other hand, Christos Yannaras’ apophaticism leads us to explain theology with poetry, instead of rational language. Fr. Louth continued his paper analysing the issue of language. There he expressed the view that there is no sacred language, only privileged ones. Thus we need to refer to the Greek text in order to see the disputes and dogmas of the past. There is no right or wrong language. There are two attitudes, i.e. I) a personal, an individual experience and II) there cannot be knowledge that the individual holds, we reach knowledge through participation. This is the huge difference within the entire world, civilisation and Christianity.

  Dr Evaggelos Bartzis (Corinth, Greece) gave a paper on ‘Greek theology after Christos Yannaras: the response to a prophetic call?’ He expressed Yannaras’ idea of why do we do theology? Theology is seen as prophecy, it is rooted in history. Prophecy is forwarded against heresy. Through praxis, prophecy can be safeguarded. Therefore, we have dialogue with modernity. For Yannaras nationalism is a heresy, an asymmetry in theological conscience. Nationalism is a product of modernity, leading to issues of jurisdiction, creating issues between catholicity and ecumenicity. The speaker explained that the Church is a Eucharistic community that moves to the eschaton. He questioned whether orthodox ecclesiology can be compatible with nationalism. We currently observe that Orthodoxy past from the ecumenical to the local. Dr. Bartzis gave the terms Ecumenism – Nationalism – Missianism, relating these terms with history and politics, using the Greek paradigm. He identified the issue of theology and mission, seeing the Church in the world, giving us three eschatologies: a. apocalyptic eschatology, b. humanistic or optimistic eschatology and c. prophetic eschatology. Additionally, he explained the missiology, pointing out the positive side (love for those outside of the Church) and the negative paradigm (colonialism and proselytism). After the schism, Dr. Bartzis claimed that we have the formation of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. This brought a different understanding of catholicity. The Roman Catholics gave a quantitative understanding of catholicity, as universality. Catholicity is a problem of an ideological unity. Such a unity would need an authority, an infallible authority and an understanding of faith of the individual. These are not errors, but a historical need. On the other hand, the East continued to understand Aristotle’s catholicity. He ended up by claiming that every Eucharistic gathering is the realisation of the catholic Church; catholicity is the realisation of the wholeness.   

Pui Ip (Heythrop College) gave a paper ‘On the patristic grounding of Yannaras’ ‘prosopo-centric ontology’: a philosophical argument’. He claimed that Orthodox theology needs to continue its patristic theology, but also use theology in a modern language. He claimed that Yannaras’ ontology is faithful to the apophatic, patristic grounding. This faithfulness can only be verified within ecclesial reality. The Church should articulate its thought through philosophical language. He identified the fact that today theologians are more flexible, and therefore in dialogue with philosophy. Philosophy, however, does not have any relation with the supernatural. If we take an apophatic stance in regards to knowledge, then we are not held back by restricted formulations. We respect the ecclesial tradition of the Church. We are, thus, able to be flexible.

Dr. Niki Tsironi was not able to be present; nevertheless, her paper was read in the conference, entitled ‘Triviality transformed to eternity: comments on the Commentary on the Song of Songs’. Revd Ciprian Burca (University of Winchester) followed, giving a paper on ‘The Power of Submission: Christos Yannaras’ Reflections on Marriage’. The key theme of his paper was ‘union’; union with God and union within marriage. Marriage is not to be understood as an obstacle to perfection and salvation. We can attain this belief from the fact that many saints were married. The speaker then moved on to question whether Yannaras’ approach had changed over time. Yannaras believes that the Trinity is the teacher for the existence of love. It is the relationship which unites and promotes wholeness. At the end of the talk Yannaras himself explained that even a dispute between the couple promotes the sharing of a common life. A marriage is the sharing of life, through daily life. The way of a marriage leads to sharing, inadvertently, without payment. He continued, by claiming that when a mother remains sleepless next to her sick child, she does not wish any payment. On the other hand, a monk who remains sleepless does so in order to receive payment, mainly in the next life. We as Christians have lost the meaning of the ecclesial character of the wedding. Marriage today is the legalisation of the sexual relation. Yannaras is, thus, explaining the asceticism of marriage. Professor Yannaras continued, by changing the theme and expressing his belief that a Christian does not need the geronta (the elder, the starets). Today we live a tragedy. If a heresy is revealed today, the believers will go to the elder and not to the bishop. Therefore, the Church is substituted by the charismatic people…if they are that.

Revd Dimitrios Harper (University of Winchester) talked about ‘The Place of Morality in the Theological Schema of Christos Yannaras’. The speaker analysed his theme by comparing and analysing many philosophers, including Kant and Nietzsche. Fr. Dimitrios compares the views expressed by Yannaras with Kantian theories and understandings. He claims that pietism consists of an eschatological heresy, adopted from the East by the West. He highlighted, among other themes, the contradictions of approach to the achievement of ethos in Yannaras’ work.

The third day of the conference began with the Divine Liturgy, celebrated in the chapel, located within St. Edmund’s Hall. Fr. Andreas Andreopoulos, later expressed his gladness and thrill for co-celebrating with two of his students, while other of his students were chanting. This showed the importance of the existence of an MA in Britain (specifically at the University of Winchester), on Orthodox Studies, bringing together Orthodox from all around the world, creating a new centre for Orthodoxy.

The first talk of the day was given by Metropolitan Kyrillos of Abydos (University of Athens), on ‘Orthodoxy and the West in modern Greece: the work of Christos Yannaras’. He looked into Yannaras’ book ‘Orthodoxy and the West’. He explained that Christianity was intended as a new mode of being, not just merely as another religion. However, in the West, individualism is expressed, following a moralistic paradigm. The God of the West is a punisher, a law giver. This promotes a legalistic perception of God. Returning to the East, the bishop explained that the national churches follow the Barbarian paradigm; it is alien to the synodical system of Orthodoxy. Theology cannot be set apart from the Eucharistic practice and the patristic tradition of the Church. Metropolitan Kyrillos later stated that the Greek state has remained indifferent to the Ecclesiastical Renaissance of the last decades. He identified that Greek education has low standards and how theological studies are seen in contempt. On the other hand, Orthodoxy is a seed which must be placed in the West; however, she is still growing in the East.  Is Ecumenical dialogue relevant today? Bishop Kyrillos explained that it is; however, the speaker identified that Yannaras’ book shows that he is against the dialogue. Inevitably he identifies that we cannot visualise a reform within the Church because it goes against the Trinitarian example. Professor Yannaras commented on certain aspects of the paper, explaining that the history of the Church is a total failure. Today we have more than 300 churches. The challenge is how we can transform this reality into a relation. Does the Ecumenical dialogue respond to the needs of the Church and the faithful? Yannaras stressed his belief that monks, poets and those in the periphery of the Church should be involved in the dialogue, and not bishops and University professors; an interesting and revolutionary notion (if we are to look at the life and the course of Ecumenism).

Redv Dr Andreas Andreopoulos (University of Winchester) gave a paper on ‘Hatjidakis and Yannaras: A Quest for a Dynamic Relationship between Greece and Western Europe’. The speaker presented a few strands of thought, since the topic is great. It is, however, an unusual topic. Theologians talk about theologians, musicians about musicians… Nevertheless, here he is comparing two distinct people, ideas and approaches. Here Fr. Andreas wished to point out the Greek identity and culture. Greek surrealism was adopted by poets, giving new spirit to tradition, promoting therefore a renewed sense of identity. Hellenic identity has been quite elusive. Nonetheless, dialogue between Greece and the West is an inclusive dialogue. After WW II, Greece was not a leader, nor did it follow Communism. Most importantly, Greece could not find a path of its own. Fr. Andreas pointed out Yannaras’ significance, explaining the issues of ethos, his beliefs against pietism and his ideas for the future. The speaker later spoke about Hatjidakis, who had thrown his Oscar in the dustbin, which was thankfully salvaged by his mother. Hatjidakis’ work, especially during the Greek junta was analysed, showing how a poetic and romantic piece of work can be the greatest anti-junta propaganda. He followed the poetic path and not the philosophical, which Yannaras did. However, both these figures remind us of each other, i.e. Greekness, a poetic-philosophical stance, both fought against the touristic-ancient Greek course and   mentality of modern Greece. The speaker at the end claimed that a better contrast would be between Yannaras and Papadiamantis, being the obvious choice. However, this contrast between Yannaras and Hatjidakis is a more exciting one.

Sotiris Mitralexis (Freie Universitat, Berlin) presented a paper ‘On Christos Yannaras’ Propositions for a Critical Ontology’. He explained various notions, including the preconditions for a critical ontology: logos, relation, consciousness; ontological categories: essence, particulars and activities; the activities (ενέργειαι) as a primary ontological category; otherness (ετερότητα) and artistic expression; axiomatic dichotomies and problematic ontologies; different accesses to reality: a personal causal principle and the fullness of participation and attaining reality, attaining truth. He finalised explaining that the question of a critical ontology is a question of meaning, a question of truth.  This question, however, is not limited to the philosophical world, but it extends to the world of human coexistence, of civilization and history.

Dr. Stoyan Tanev (University of Southern Denmark) spoke about ‘Christos Yannaras and the Encounter between Theology and Physics’. He explained that theologians have a lot to say to scientists; however, this does not happen. On the other hand, physicists are scared of using the term ‘energy’. It is too philosophical for them. Orthodoxy theology, however, embraces this idea.

The third day ended with a paper given by Dr Evaggelia Grigoropoulou (Durham) on ‘Christos Yannaras as a teacher: lineaments of a distinct work. She spoke through experience. She had first met Yannara through his books in her teen years. She explained that a great teacher is one who inspires, not one who merely transmits knowledge. A book has the power of achieving this objective. Yannaras is thus one of the most eminent figures in Greece, an authentic spirit, an inspired mind. Even his critics understand his intellect. It is evident that he has offered much to theology, playing a crucial role in the transformation of Greek theology. Yannaras explains that the Church is about metanoia; an invitation to a journey. Dr Evaggelia pointed out that apophaticism is crucial because it does not lead Christianity in being just an ideology. It is easily identifiable that eros is to be found in Yannaras’ work; eros is to be found in the life and heart of the Church.   

Dionysios Skliris (University of Paris – Sorbonne) gave a paper on ‘The use of the term “tropos” (“mode”) by Christos Yannaras’. He explained the possible sources of the use of the term tropos and their original synthesis; the mode of existence and the mode of energy; he looked into the question of whether tropos leads to a philosophy of adverbs; logos, tropos and logos-tropos; tropos and eros; tropos and personhood; concluding with some criticisms to Yannaras’ ontology and some possible answers to them.

Professor Neil Messer (University of Winchester) spoke about ‘The contribution of Yannaras in modern Christian ethics’. He gave a protestant theological approach to Yannaras’ works, looking specifically into the book ‘Freedom and Morality’. The problem of morality has been linked with the existential reality of humanity. We understand the person as an individual. He spoke about various issues within Christian Ethics. The speaker emphasised the fact that the Church does not have a social ethic, but is a social ethic.

Dr Mary B. Cunningham (University of Nottingham) gave a paper on ‘Logos as Signifier: the Relationship between Divine and Created Being in the Thought of Christos Yannaras’. The speaker looked into the book ‘Person and Ethos’. She argued that Yannaras understands the patristic creation in an innovative way, promoting the relationship between divine and creative being. There is an interaction of God, through erotic love; a relationship of personal communion. According to Yannaras, the Christian God is personal. The Logos provides meaning to each creative being. Someone exists in otherness, in our relationship with our Creator. Dr Cunningham later explained the vehicle of God’s self-expression in the world. The Logos functions; the Logos is the means of communication between divine and creation. Words and images connect us to the prototype in a mysterious way, inaccessible to many.

Dr Natalie Depraz (University of Rouen) analysed the topic of ‘Apophaticism and phenomenology: Christos Yannaras in the light of Jean-Luc Marion’. The last paper of the conference was given by Prof John Hadjinicolaou (University of Sherbrooke, Canada) ‘Concerning Affinity: a Personal Testimony’. His talk was different from all the rest, which analysed academically the work of Yannaras. His personal encounter with Yannaras gave a unique feel, being the best way in concluding this important and interesting conference. He analysed a number of ideas expressed by the guest of honour. He ended his talk by quoting a couple of Yannaras’ work:
But the new prophet has not yet appeared. Will it be the martyr, the monk, or some other totally new charismatic figure? …In the end, he will break with his hands the living bread of truth and distribute it to the famished people. (Crisis of Prophecy, 64).
This Alyosha, this teacher, doctor, day-labourer, …who might even have been called Christos, …those very few who held out and did not surrender, I mean to say, this tragic Odysseus of mine, pitiful and untravelled and yet more of an Odysseus than all the wanderers of our time put together. His footsteps still echo in our streets, but their sound is now alien to our ears…every step he takes is at the same time a departure, his shadow goes on ahead, he is in a hurry, he wants to tear himself away and flee, floundering about as he is at the margins of our captive itself…(Ascesis in Twelve Stories, 29).
My God, amidst the night of our world this man is a sign from You…
The conference ended with the conference banquet in honour of Christos Yannaras. There Fr Andreas Andreopoulos expressed his gratitude to everyone for presenting their papers, for everyone who was present at the conference and the organisers. Finally, Christos Yannaras expressed his amazement at the fact that his work was not criticised by the big names, by accredited and famous academics, but by young academics, who are interested in his work. This reality gives him hope for the future of both our world and the Church. At the end he embraced every participant, giving advice to continue our work, talking to each one of us like a parent in a loving and Christian manner. 

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