Sunday, May 15, 2011

Some Books (3)—The Pllar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky

This is a monumental work, written when Florensky was merely 26. A Russian polymath executed by the Soviets in 1937, he is known as "Russia's DaVinci." And while I heartily recommend this book, I find it impossible to summarize. It is much like reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The author goes off on tangents that may be delightful to some, but incomprehensible to others, such as myself. But the work is well worth the effort, with hidden gems of incredibly lucid insight scattered throughout. The endnotes and comments alone run 160 pages, and make fascinating reading in and of themselves. Florensky has much to say about (and against) western notions of rationality in the context of faith. He also speaks at length about friendship, perhaps in ways that may be uncomfortable to some. I also found intriguing his explication of antinomies. Beyond that, I won’t attempt to say. A few selections follow:

Catholicism and Protestantism…in both cases, life is truncated by a concept….If in Catholicism one can perceive the fanaticism of canonicity, then in Protestantism one can perceive the equally great fanaticism of scientism. The indefinability of Orthodox ecclesiality…is the best proof of its vitality….The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but it is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved. That is what there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct Orthodox experience….one can become a Catholic or a Protestant without experiencing life at all—by reading books in one’s study. But to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way. (pp. 8-9.)

The faith by which we are saved is the beginning and the end of the cross and of co-crucifixion with Christ. But so-called “rational” faith, faith with rational proofs, faith according to Tolstoy’s formula…such faith is a harsh, cruel stony growth in the heart, which keeps the heart from God. Such faith is a slander against God, a monstrous product of human egotism, which desires to subordinate even God to itself. There are many kinds of atheism, but the worst is the so-called rational faith. It is the worst, for, besides the rejection of the object of faith…it is hypocritical, accepts God but rejects His very essence, His “invisibility,” i.e., His suprarationality. (p. 48)

Something is lacking. My soul—wishing to be liberated and to be with Christ—longs for something. And something will come: “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.” (1 John 3:2). And the more acutely one feels what is being prepared, the closer and more intimate will the connection with the Mother Church become, and the easier and simpler it will be to endure out of love for Her the dirt that is cast upon Her. What will be will be in Her and through Her, not otherwise. (p. 95)

But precisely because sin is rationality par excellence, it makes God’s entire creation and God Himself absurd, depriving Him of the perspective depth of grounding and tearing Him from the Soil of the absolute. It places everything in a single plane, making everything flat and vulgar.(p. 133)

Holiness is a preliminary self-perception of one’s own freedom, and sin is preliminary slavery to oneself. (p. 160)

The philosopher leaves behind his cloak, all the learned nonsense that clutters up his soul, his ignorance, arrogance, empty words, lies, and sly questions together with his muddled intellectualizing. In other words, he leaves behind the vanity, insanity, and pettiness that consist of gold coins, shamelessness, life without restraint and idleness, deceit, airs of importance, a belief in one’s own superiority, and finally, his beard, frowns, flattery, and so on. Face to face with eternity, everyone must take off everything corruptible and become naked. This makes the emptiness of a soul that has lost most of its content understandable. (p. 173)

What does salvation consist in? It consists in being a stone in the tower that is being built; it consists in real unity with the Church. (p. 248)

To arrive at the Truth, it is necessary to free onself from one’s self-hood, to go out of oneself. But, for us, this is impossible, for we are flesh. But, I repeat, how precisely, in this case, can one grasp hold of the Pillar of the Truth? We do not know and cannot know. We know only that, through the yawning cracks of human rationality, the azure of Eternity is visible. This is unfathomable, but it is so. And we know that “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of the philosophers and scholars," comes to us, comes to our place of nocturnal rest, takes us by the hand, and leads us in a way we could not have conceived of. (p. 348)


James the Thickheaded said...

Great quotes, but let me ask whether a prospective reader needs certain preparation to read and absorb this material? and what sort of readers you think would find this book of most interest?

John said...

The book is not for beginners, to be sure. This, of course, begs the question of why I was reading it. But I thought I was ready for it, and decided to give it a try. I treated it like a college textbook, with lots of underlining and notes in the margins. I will definitely be referring back to it from time to time. That said, the book covers A LOT of ground. I would think it would be of interest to anyone who is questioning the role rationality plays in our faith, at least those of us who are heirs of the Enlightenment. I found his section on antinomies to be of great interest, as well. I guess there's a little something here for most everybody.