Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ralph Wood's Orthodoxy

I recently enjoyed reading The Catholic Fantastic of Chesterton and Tolkien, by Dr. Ralph Wood, found here, on the First Things blog. This is a 3-way hook for me. Both authors are favorites of mine, each playing a role in my spiritual maturation and education. Dr. Wood is a scholar I have come to respect and admire, as well.

The article in question is actually a book review of Alison Milbank's Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real. Dr. Wood's review is highly laudatory, but as priced (originally $119.24 for a 184-page book!), I am going to just have to take his word for it. I particularly like his summation:

With clarity and wit and verve, she shows that the gift-quality of Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s art is premised on the gift-character of the universe itself. Their work, as she splendidly verifies, has profound moral implications. For in a gift-giving and gift-receiving world, we are not meant to seek our own advantage at the expense of others. Rather we are meant to create gifts—like those presents into which Galadriel has woven her own character before she gives them to the Company—that serve to free their recipients rather than putting them into our debt. Milbank has gifted us with what may well become our finest study of these Catholic artists in their unique relation not only to each other but also to our imagination-starved churches and culture.

I first became acquainted with Dr. Wood in his Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, published in 2004. This book is, quite simply, essential reading. You don't even have to be Southern (but it helps). Dr. Wood is a native of northeast Texas, who in his youth aspired to be a Baptist preacher. His family was too poor to send him to Baylor, so he had to settle for a nearby teacher's college. As Dr. Wood tells it, this turned out to be his salvation. For at this institution he found something he would have never encountered at that Bastion of Baptistocracy on the Brazos, namely, a Catholic professor. [This reminds me of a quotation from W. C. Brann, "the Iconoclast," in reference to the Baylor administration of the early 1900s. He observed that they "couldn't father an original idea if they were hurled bodily into the womb of the Goddess of Wisdom."]

Young Wood's professor opened his eyes to the Catholic literary tradition, and by this I mean Chesterton, Waugh, Percy, Maritain, Gilson and O'Connor, among others. This mentor even arranged for O'Connor to visit the small East Texas campus in 1962, two years before her death. Dr. Wood has made this his life's work, and he is today one of our nation's foremost authorities on Chesterton, Tolkien, Percy and especially, O'Connor. He is a professor of literature and theology at Baylor, introducing his students--Protestants, in the main--to the riches of the Catholic literary tradition.

And yet, Dr. Wood remains true to his roots, a committed Baptist. As one reviewer notes, he is that rarest of birds, a "Catholic Baptist Southern Literary Critic." Dr. Wood maintains a website, here. He links a number of articles and essays. Some are copies of published works, while others are simply short outlines intended for his classes. Such is his "A Brief Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition." It is very basic, intended as an encompassing overview for students. An error or two creeps in, but we won't quibble with that. I find it to be among the best of such summaries I have seen. The entire essay (only 4 pages) is found here.

Dr. Wood:

The largely unrecognized irony is that, despite the common reading of Orthodoxy as merely the Eastern version of Catholicism, Rome and Protestantism have more in common with each other than either does with Orthodoxy.


Dr. Wood identifies 3 major claims the Orthodox make against Roman Catholicism:

1. They refuses to accept primacy of the See of Rome, and Roman additions.

2. They deny that apostolic succession in confined to Rome alone, (Indeed, Wood observes that "the Eastern church has a much better claim to an unbroken chain of the laying on of hands, all the way back to the earliest bishops, including Linus, the first historically-attested bishop of Rome.")

3. They view the Virgin Mary in "maternal terms," and rebut Marian claims that interpret her in "sub-incarnational terms"

He names 4 major claims the Orthodox make against the West, both Catholic and Protestant:

1. God is indeed Trinity, but God is 3 distinct persons or hypostates, not a unipersonal subject who revealed himself in three different ways. Consequently, the Holy Spirit plays a much larger role, for example, in the life of the Eastern than in the Western churches.

2. Salvation is not understood primarily in juridical terms.

3. Thus, they understand the human condition differently. It is our likeness to God which, after the Fall, must be restored. Orthodox thus speak of “ancestral” rather than “original” sin.

4. They view the Christian existence as a lifelong undertaking in theosis—"the divinization of human life by praying and practicing the faith of the Church." .

Finally, Dr. Wood finds 4 distinguishing characteristics of Orthodoxy:

1. Their insistence that Christian faith is not a set of religious ideas but an entire way of life: a life of worship and prayer, of devotion and service.

2. Orthodox inseparably link liturgy and theology. Worship lies at the center of Orthodoxy.

3. Their use of icons in worship and devotion.

4. Orthodox understanding of the Christian life as theosis, the divinizing and deifying of our humanity.

This is hardly the first time these distinctions have been drawn. This favorable analysis from a Baptist scholar, however, is refreshing. When Protestants become Orthodox, family members sometimes remain bewildered and confused by the path their loved-ones have taken. For those in this situation, Dr. Wood's essay would be a good one to copy and leave laying about the house.


James the Thickheaded said...

Hey, thanks for this. Especially the notes on Wood's 4-pager...'cause I wouldn't know anyone with this "They even think I'm crazy since..." problem. Nah. Not me. 'Course if I can the printer working again... I just might run off a few copies for a buddy.

Young fogey emeritus said...

Fascinating. Thanks for this. Dr Wood seems a fair-minded outsider!

True more or less as far as it goes - but at the same time I agree with some common knowledge that it is an Eastern form of Catholicism - but:

They deny that apostolic succession in confined to Rome alone.

I don't think that's what Rome teaches - I've asked around and the replies confirmed it.

For example Rome unequivocally recognises Orthodox orders.

The notion that all such orders came from the Pope is new to me and may be Roman opinion but not doctrine and I trust it will stay that way.

On the other hand many Orthodox hold an opinion that only they can possibly have real apostolic succession (the Cyprianic view of orders). Although I understand the Orthodox Church teaches that it can only recognise its own orders in themselves (part of the one-true-church claim mirroring Rome's) it remains reverently agnostic about grace in other churches so again I trust that hard-line view will remain mere opinion.

Terry (John) said...

Young fogey, good points. Certainly Dr. Wood is painting in broad brush strokes here. I picked up on another point or two I might take issue with him over. But by and large, it is a refreshing overview, coming from a stauch Baptist. It would be interesting to see how he would treat Catholicism in a similar essay. For, in the main, Catholic authors have been his subject of study--O'Connor, Percy, Tolkien, etc.

Anonymous said...

I lay my ignorance before you, but, what does "sub-incarnational" mean?

Enjoying reading through this blog.

Proctor S. Burress said...

My word! Ralph Wood...the warm, thoughtful and generous spirit...a "staunch Baptist." Watch Dr. Wood is very near "swimming the Tiber." And you dear John...of all people...from the orthodox confessions...don't see it! Don't see what Dr. Wood has all but forgotten...the great and profound split from Absolutism of the 16th century. What blood and sacrifice! But we are thankful. Please correct me if I am in error!