Editorial Introduction by Brian Coyne: Over the years since Andrew Kania first taught my children at John XXIII College in Perth, I've developed a deep friendship with him. I don't exactly know why it is. From some perspectives it might seem that we are light years removed from one another in our faith and spiritual outlook — he being brought up in an Eastern Catholic tradition and myself in the typical Irish-Australian Catholic tradition that formed so much of our faith outlook in this country. I confess I had only met a few Eastern Catholics in my lifetime and they came across to me either as "very different" or "foreign" and a couple of them were outright cranks or nutters.
At the heart of our friendship, which is both deep and mutual despite our continuing quite deep differences in some of our perspectives, is this shared intellectual fascination for what this whole religious, faith, spiritual or theological endeavour is about. We do both love Jesus Christ and this great Mystery of Life, and the Divine, and the intersection between the two Mysteries and what they mean in terms of how we ought live our lives and what we ought aspire to as human beings in that ultimate sense of "what is the meaning of my life?" Andrew I see as a mate, and as a fellow traveller in this great adventure we call "life".
In the last couple of years since we've begun collaborating professionally here on Catholica a new dimension has crept into my appreciation of Andrew. It is this: as we watch the present almost catastrophic collapse of Western Catholicism — I heard yesterday from some quite authoritative sources that some Australian bishops in very high places now are beginning to echo to Rome precisely the same issues that Bishop Bill Morris raised quite forthrightly a couple of years ago in ways that caused him a little trouble. If things don't change in an awful hurry the harsh, concrete reality is that there will simply not be priests to offer Sunday Masses across large regions of Australia within the space of 10 or 15 years. It is absolute fantasy land to suggest that the numbers can be made up by importing foreign priests or praying for some magical increase in the numbers of priests recruited from this remnant part of the youthful population who are attracted to the "back to 50s surplices and cassocks" and running around like grown-up altar boys rooted in the mindset of the 1950s. Absolute and total fantasy. Partly through my own explorations though, and more recently assisted by Andrew I have begun to develop this intuition that, irony or ironies, it might be certain perspectives from Eastern Catholicism that end up being the "saving grace" of Catholicism in the West — or they might provide the "new spark" that leads to whatever is to follow in the West after the remnant-lovers, the "temple police" and the wailers have finally gotten their way. Don't get me wrong, there are many things I still feel uncomfortable with in the Eastern perspectives and my intuition does not see, say Byzantine liturgies or music suddenly becoming "the norm" in Western Catholicism. I still can't really "put my finger on it". It seems to be something deep-down, perhaps a deep base understanding of what Christ actually means.
The religiosity and simple pietistic faith I was brought up on seemed to propose Jesus as this "Divine magician" we prayed to and worshipped. In return we hoped he might do us "little favours" — like find us a job, or a wife or husband — but the big hope is that if we obeyed all the rules he'd eventually put in the good word that would "get us into heaven". Jesus would SAVE us! And "heaven" was very much perceived like going to some "other worldly" version of the Whitsunday Islands on the other side of death. It was coming across that insight of the Eastern saint, Gregory of Nyssa, a few years ago that gave me an entirely new take on what the Jesus story was really all about. Jesus ain't some "Divine magician". He's a model. His story is the "Divine blueprint" as to how we ought think and act. Following Jesus is not meant to be perceived as some "game" like following some puppy dog on a lead. "Following Jesus" is about learning "to think and act like Jesus". In the words of St Gregory of Nyssa it's a lifetime's work of learning to literally "become like God". It's a far different picture to anything I was brought up on or most of what I hear from the official spiritual guides in Roman Catholicism today.
In my many conversations with Andrew, and I think it shines through in some of what he writes in this rather "foreign theology", a different way of viewing the entire human-Divine relationship that very much echoes the contrast I was seeking to break apart in the previous paragraph. As I've been reading and editing Andrew's essays over recent years I also pick up this sense that his thinking has also been changing, or deepening. His essay today in some senses I think he would even describe as a culmination of a long process. He certainly regards it as one of his finest essays. It's as though in one fairly concise essay he's tried to bring together his entire theology and understanding of the "connecting relationship" the Christ figure represents between us and the Trinity, and between the whole of Creation and the Trinity. While I'm personally not comfortable with the literalism of his interpretation of the particular historical events we've been left with in the historical record of Jesus, I am certainly enamoured of some of the poetic or mystical beauty he shares in a longish prayer from the Eastern liturgies today. This isn't sychophantic Catholicism "look at me, Jesus, aren't I being an obedient and loyal little tyke? Please give me a pat on the head will ya?". There's a certain maturity I think to the faith outlook presented in this view of the Cosmic Christ that Andrew endeavours to share with us today. Our religious quest is ultimately a search for personal harmony — harmony with self, harmony with neighbour, harmony with our environment and, finally, harmony with our Creator. It's a quest for constant reconciliation. It IS a story of Cosmic dimension.
The search for harmony…
The Russian Orthodox philosopher, Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900) in The Justification of the Good (1897), pre-empted the eco-friendly politics of the late 20th Century by way of considering Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution in light of the theology of the Eastern Fathers of the Church.
Many years prior to Petra Kelly (1947-1992) and the Green Movement, Solovyov would stress the importance of humanity caring for the world that it inhabits. In The Justification of the Good Solovyov provides his reader with what he considers to be the summum bonum of man's purpose on earth. He writes:
"In complete inner harmony with the higher will and recognising the absolute worth or significance of all other persons, since they too are in the image and likeness of God, participate, as fully as in thee lies, in the work of making thyself and everyone more perfect, so that the Kingdom of God may be finally revealed in the world". (Solovyov, 1897, p. 152)
Seven decades after Solovyov penned this passage, a Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr, (1929-1968) would resonate much the same message in The Strength to Love (1963), emphasising that each person's salvation has a communal import to the building up of God's Kingdom:
"If a man is called a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and Earth will pause to say, Here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well".
Yet Solovyov's discourse surpasses Luther King Jr's social gospel as well as Petra Kelly's environmental mission, in how the Russian philosopher calls humanity not only to build a more equitable and more just world — but in how he perceives the quest for individual salvation to lead beyond societal salvation and matters of sustainable energy, to an end-point of cosmic re-creation. According to Solovyov, when humanity, by the grace of God, is saved; Creation, that originally fell by the act of one man, will be renewed. By so saying Solovyov has borrowed not only from the Church Fathers of the East, but also from one of his maternal ancestors, the Ukrainian philosopher and mystic, Hryhorij Skovoroda (1722-1794). Cosmic Salvation has three tiers according to Solovyov:
"The inevitable submission to the supreme power must become the conscious and free service of the perfect good; the natural solidarity with other human beings must be transformed into sympathetic and harmonious cooperation; the actual advantages we have over material nature must become rational mastery over it for our good and its own". (Solovyov, 1897, p. 405)
Solovyov speaks of the "true friend of God", being that individual who cares for Creation in its entirety, and he stresses that humanity is more than just a steward over natural resources — but a key element to the liberation of Creation from its enslavement of disorder. In Solovyov we do not find ourselves immersed in a thinker who wishes to save the forest by way of some altruistic form of atheism, but we have a spiritual writer attuned with a deep understanding of the importance of man as an image of God, as a labourer in the vineyard; the very hands and arms of the Lord, working here on earth to help restore fallen Creation. Solovyov questions that person filled with 'green' passion who wishes to save the natural environment but who has not a similar passion for the rights of man — especially the most fundamental rights of his or her neighbour:
"The immoral exploitation of land cannot stop so long as there is immoral exploitation of woman. If man's relation to his inner house (this is the name applied by the Scriptures to the wife) is wrong, his relation to his external house cannot be right either. A man who beats his wife cannot care for the earth as he should." (Solovyov, 1897, p. 309)
Renewed and reunited in Christ...
Like many of the Eastern Fathers, Solovyov takes up the theory of "Apocatastasis", a notion that discusses how the whole of Creation will eventually become renewed and reunited to God. Such a moment cannot take place without man first being reconciled to God; and this reconciliation is not possible without an initial bridge for humanity to cross over; that bridge must be both God and Man — and therefore the only possible bridge to salvation of the human spirit and of Creation — must be Christ (cf. 1 Timothy 2: 5 - 6). A prophet can win hearts and minds — but God, the very Creator, is the only being that has the power to restore the Cosmos.
If we recall Maximus the Confessor; the Incarnation, the reality of God in the world, must have been felt not only by human beings, but by all of Creation. The Incarnation was a cosmic event that involved the Creator who was present at the dawn of time. Matter and energy must have been in some way effected by the Divine Birth at Bethlehem. When we read in St. John's Prologue of the Cosmic Christ, we begin to fathom, the awesome nature of what occurred in Bethlehem:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made." (John 1: 1-3, RSVCE)
Whereas some today may claim that the events depicting miracles in the New Testament must be read strictly as allegorical, St. Maximus and the Eastern Fathers read into these events a scientific reality, a reality that flows from their understanding of Christ being He that made the world; the Creator enfleshed on the face of the earth. Thus the Word made flesh could now feel beneath his human feet, the grass; thus the God who Created the heavens, could now feel the warmth of the sun on his brow and the cool wind on his cheek. The child who helplessly lay in a manger, was also He that without Him nothing that was made could have been made; the suckling babe was the second person of the Holy Trinity; He is The Divine Word.
If one believes, as did Sts Maximus and Gregory of Nyssa that the Divine Word came to earth, then it naturally follows that Creation must have responded to the presence of the Almighty. That an unusual star appears in the heavens when He is born, that the fig tree withers when he speaks, that the water supports His footsteps, that bread and wine change their substance, and that an earthquake roars and the skies erupt at His death, all testify to the fact that Christ's Incarnation was not only for the saving of humanity — but for the restitution of Creation: "The mountains quake at him, and the hills are shaken, and the earth recoils at his presence, even the world, and all that dwell in it". (Naum, 1: 5, LXX - cf. Luke 19: 40) Christ consistently called on mindless matter as an integral part of His Divine mission (cf. John 9: 6; cf. Mark 6: 30 – 44; cf. John 2: 1-11). The Incarnation therefore had an additional purpose to the salvation of man — the restitution of the cosmos, to restore all things to where they were at the first. (cf. Romans 8: 19 – 23, RSVCE)
In the Byzantine Rite's Liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Theophany, (a Feast only surpassed in the East by the Great Pasch), the text that is read is replete with Christ's Baptism at the River Jordan, being a cosmic event of incomparable proportion. Like a prism that takes a single ray of light and splits it into many colours and — the entire cosmos on the Feast of the Theophany is recollected as tracing back the various rays of 'createdness' to its single source — God:
"We glorify You, O Master, Lover of mankind, Almighty King before eternity.
Solovyov would have heard this prayer — throughout the course of his life, as part of his Byzantine liturgical tradition. One notices in these lengthy prayers that the Trinity is glorified and praised both as a diversity and as a unity. God the Father is heard — God in Christ is revealed — and God the Holy Spirit is made apparent. The hymn, like a mighty wave brings the diversity of Creation back to God and then thrusts this Creation back into the Cosmos once more. It is a hymn that gives both matter and energy a voice. The modern intellectual may scoff at the images used to highlight Creation shuddering at the Theophany — but how many intellectuals have ever considered that we live in a world of so many great 'unseens': the human voice and image carried by invisible radio waves — billions at a single moment crossing the globe and being launched into space; and because these cannot be seen or heard as one walks down the street — does this make them any the less real? Somewhere in the air an encyclopaedia is being downloaded, or a classic two hour movie, passes unhindered from New York to a neighbour's computer.
If we were to tell a 17th Century atheist that this was indeed possible — how similar would be his derision of our claim — to that derisive smile we receive from a 21st Century atheist who denies the reality of God on the basis that He too, like the radio waves, cannot be seen. Much exists in this world that is unknown to the human senses — and the greatest of all, God, is far larger both in intellectual concept and in reality — for humans to truly understand, even to those who most ardently strive to do so.
©2009 Dr Andrew Thomas Kania