Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

The shaking of the foundations. Lecture 3

I would like to come back to a point which was discussed at the end of the last meeting and which, to be put in all clarity and ingenuity, could be defined as: “Why on earth have we got to deal with Tillich, who seems to many of us to be both irrelevant and a bore?”

I would like to take this particular point because I think it is important for us to have it clear. There are two ways in which one can approach things, either a purely subjective way, take those things which appeal to us, which seem to need us, which we respond to emotionally or intellectually. Those things are evidently attractive to us and it is quite natural that we should please our­selves with them. But we do not live in a world which is centred round us and which exists for the sole purpose of being of interest and of helping us to find our way, whether we call this way salva­tion or whether we call it differently. We live in a world which is extremely complex, which is full of contradictions, which is made of people who have different subjective approaches and whose approaches are completely incomprehensible to us most of the time, as long as we ourselves remain completely subjective. Some people are nearer our form of subjectivity, but even those are not identical with us and therefore remains mysterious and incomprehensible to a very great extent. On the other hand we know for a fact that there are thousands of people who live by ideologies, world concep­tion which are not only different from ours but which seem to be incompatible with ours. There are thousands of people, if not millions, who derive understanding and inspiration from themes which seem to us completely void of interest and of inspiration and Tillich is one of them. He is one of the men who has stirred the greatest interest in our time, a man who has called to life, to a certain kind of consciousness of things, innumerable people. And as he puts it in the beginning of these sermons and in other things, he addresses himself, not to those people who are already saved but to those who have not yet found an approach to things divine, to God Himself and found a key to these problems of the world and to the problems of Revelation; because one of the main difficulties in our time is that we find very few people who for a reply can simply turn to the Gospel, to the Revelation of God in the Bible in general or to the Church, because the key to these sources of understanding is lost to a great many and Tillich is a man who has made his concern of approaching that kind of people and speaking to them. The fact is that he has succeeded in touching the mind of a great many and the fact is also that many of us, in all their attempts to touch the minds of people who surround them, to convey to people who are dear to them and for whom they are concer­ned, things which appear to be true to them, have failed miserably.
Here we are in the presence of the many people who are not like me or you, but who have found a way of speaking to the kind of people to whom we have no way of speaking. He has found a way of communi­cation. We can approach him on two levels, on the one hand we can discuss and try to understand his methods of communication; what has he got in common with the people who are around him that they do understand him and they do not understand us, and when I say us,
I am aware of the fact that I am speaking in too general a way, because we are infinitely different, we are extremely different even in this group.

Now there is also another problem: our appreciation of what he has got to say. Here again, whether we agree with what he says or not, we must accept the fact that an enormous number of people do agree and have found in the way in which he sees things an answer to their problems and a way to understand the Bible, that is, to find a key to God’s answer to their problems. So, from all these angles, Tillich appears worth dealing with; it may be a much less rewarding exercise for one person or for another than reading another writer who is much more akin to him and therefore pours life and understanding into him; but it is an extremely rewarding exercise or at least it can be I think — although I have not been able yet to understand enough of Tillich — but it can be a very rewarding exercise if, through him, we discover the mentality of such people whom we are incapable of reaching; and if we discover the value of his assertions we can gain in the process a much clearer understanding of what the truth is about the things he is speaking about, and also about the way in which the truth is or is not received, can or cannot be conveyed.

Last time we were rather critical of what he had to say and unfortunately there was not among us anyone who was prepared or could take a definite stand for him. I have tried to think on that subject and I would like to share with you a few of my impressions as I did last time. First of all it seems to me that Tillich is generally concerned with cultural values and with redeeming them; it seems to me that he is genuinely interested in what the human mind and the human activi­ties have created throughout the ages and he does consider them as having a positive value, in that respect he can be opposed, up to a point, to a man like Bart or to number of others writers who are critical of our values. Does he belong to our time only, or does he represent in this positive approach to culture, to creative activities, a tradition which is much older than him? If you try to find out from the earlier writers of Christendom what they thought of that kind of activities you can trace a positive approach so far back as Origen and his school, in the commentaries which exist on the beginning of Genesis. There are two types of men, the ones and it is the majority that has somehow prevailed partly became of bulk partly because of the unfortunate destiny of Origen who was condem­ned for many of his views and therefore became suspect as a whole.

The great majority of the writers hold that man was created for pure contemplation and that the fall broke and destroyed the basic chance, the basic vocation of man, that he had to turn to activities and to a plane which was not meant to be his and which lead him to a debased form of life; he was meant to look Godwards, he began to look towards the created world and got integrated into it, united to it, involved in its destiny on a level which was not the one originally intended for him. Origen on the contrary, and some of his disciples held an opposite view, and they thought, leaving aside other aspects of the problem, that the fall had had at least one positive side and this positive side was a starting point and not simply a catastrophe. This starting point was that man who hitherto had been free from preoccupation for the created world, but also free from responsibility, free from real contact, free from involvement and at the same time devoid of creative activity in this world, by the fact of his fall was faced with his kinship with the world and was called to examine it, to enter into deep communion with it; to know and to perceive it from inside, to go to the very depth, the very core of the created in order, creatively, to achieve what God has meant for him, a lordship over the world in order to bring it to the plenitude of the divine life. There are arguments which both sides suggest, but this is not the subject of my talk to-night. There are therefore these two schools of thought; from the point of view of the one, the real purpose of man’s life is to get disengaged, disinvolved and to return as far as one can, by pure asceticism, by contemplative life, at the cost of his kinship with men and the rest of the created world, to a state of pure contemplation. For the others (?) ones there is a call to be profoundly involved, but involved without either forgetting God or forgetting his vocation, to get involved so that all the powers of intelligence of will, of createdness should come to their acuteness and that man should become able to lead the created world to its fulfilment, not only in pure contemplation but in so many other things which are rich and deep and meaningful. One can consider culture from both points of view in general; one can also consider culture in its expressions and in what happens to it and to us within it. What we see in fact is that faith, enthusiasm, the call which is within each of us, which is announced by divine commandment and divine examples and guidances, all this leads us to create forms, forms of worship, forms of life, forms and contents of thoughts and of emotion. Out of faith have grown cathedrals, out of faith have grown societies and relationships; out of faith have grown forms of worship, out of faith have come the deepest words of prayer and the deepest thoughts of philosophy. This is true, and so far, so good, if it would continue that way there would be nothing one can say against it. But on the other hand, culture, human creativeness has got a negative side. Every thing which the human mind and heart creates, creates impetuously, creates enthusiastically, out of the depth of an experience which is faith and love and hope within one, two, five generations becomes an object of value in itself. Cathedrals were built as an act of faith, later they became an object of admiration, later on they became a place of tourism. Gradually they may loose their real contents and remain as monument of a past that has gone by. Something happens which can be compared as Merezhkovsky puts it, as a reef of coral: it is life that creates the coral, but when the coral is created it kills life, what is left is a most beautiful intricate colourful shape, but all this shapes, all this colour, all this beauty speaks of death, not of life, because the moment it is fixed and petrified, it is dead and no longer alive.

And here comes an other aspect to our approach to culture, or rather a complex attitude to it. On the one hand there are those who simply would be prepared to deny culture as such; see the danger of it, see the danger of beauty, the danger of anything which is completed and fulfilled and shaped, there are such who would say, leave everything shapeless, leave everything unexpressed, informed in matter, in words, do not give a shape to things because the shape will kill it. One of the most characteristic man in this respect is Pakhomus of Egypt. When he settled first with a small group of 4 or 5 brethren in the desert they decided after a certain amount of years of spiritual life together, to build a church, a little wooden church. The disciples built it and one day they came to Pakhomus to show him the building and they said: “Look, is it not beautiful?” He looked at the thing, he looked at them and said: “So you are already the slaves of your own handy work, tie a rope to the top of it and pull hard”, and when the church had gone on one side and had become ugly, had no attraction in itself, he said: “Now it has become a place of worship: you will never desire to look at it, you will go into it to find God”.

There is another attitude to things which is also aware of the danger of forms and of achievement, it is the attitude of those who know and understand that things are to be created, that life always creates forms, that it is the nature of thing except for a few who are capable of remaining intensely alive, deeply so without even fixing this life and taking hold of it before they can move further. This attitude consists in saying what St. Paul said: “I have learned to live in poverty but also in richness”; and in another place: “we must learn to possess things as if we did not possess them”. Create forms, express thoughts in words, coin words and prayers, and yet remain sovereignly free within this frame work without any attachment, without any admiration for it because it is only a by-product and a by-product which is always below the influence, the divine impact that gave birth to it. This is not a cautious or a frightened attitude, it is the attitude of those who are capable of seeing beyond the expression something which is greater than itself, it is the attitude of those who in a present given, rejoice at the love that this present expresses rather than at the value of the present received, it is those who rejoice at the beauty of a deed because it expresses, although imperfectly something which is greater than the expression we find. But then there is another problem that occurs, this problem is that of the destiny of culture when it ceases to be an act of creativeness and becomes a reef of corals. There are two schools of thoughts, there are those who are afraid of barbarism, are afraid of periods of destruction, are afraid of periods, of vandalism and there are those who see in those periods the same great creative life-spirit of God and of man working together in order to attain a new freedom, in order to create in an unconditioned and an unslaved way.

During the war I remember one of the deepest physicians I have known, a man with a deep and moving heart, that one day said to me, looking at Notre-Dame de Paris :”I hope that the bombings will not touch this; rather should they kill men”. And I said “What do you mean?” because I knew him as a sensitive and intelligent man and he said: “As long as Notre-Dame stands, millions of people will grow into being real men, when that is gone we will have nothing to teach the survivors; it is not worth surviving if there is nothing that can lead you further than your poor limited experience”. This is not as inhuman an approach as it seems, if you leave aside the problem of violent death and take simply the normal, what we call the normal event of death, it remains true that as long as the great monuments of faith, of wisdom, of beauty, stand on earth, millions of people can become partakers of an experience which they will never be able to recapture themselves, not any more indeed that any individual is nowadays capable of recapturing scientific knowledge from naught or work up from naught to the modern philosophical width and depth of thought and experience. But what happens when all this survives, what happens when a generation or a (?) people concentrated on nothing but the survivals of those things which remain as glorious witnesses of the past. These things first of all become idols, they become objects of secular or religious worship, and very often their meaning is obscured by their beauty. They were created out of a living faith, they are forms created by life itself and what we see is that they are prevented from being touched by life in order to remain fossils as witness of the past. Centuries may pass by and they stand there seemingly meaningless. Is it true, are these monuments of culture, whether in literature or art or architecture, in any form and way, are they aimlessly there? There are moments when suddenly they come to life again.

When I was in Russia for the first time I was profoundly impressed, in a country where it is forbidden and impossible to build new churches, to see that the worship of millions of people depended on the fact that all the churches that had been born out of the faith of men, six-five hundred years ago and still stood on the ground of a country that had rejected God, that these churches conditioned the possibi­lity for these people to worship. Here something happened which is important for our valuation of culture. These churches were born out of faith, then faith, religious experience, religious creativeness grew thin, grew poor, seemingly disappear and nothing was left except these shells of faith, buildings, icons, music, liturgical texts, vestments, movements, things which had gradually grown to be for a great majority of people, purely esoteric; things that belong to the outside of things, things that are void of their essential meaning. And one day, because life had become tragic, because faith had come back, every single monument of the faith of the past, the buildings, the icons, the words and the tunes, the gestures and the vestments, the old folkloric habits, everything has come to life again. It appears to people that this is evidence that all the experience which is the underlying ground of this revival, that all the faith which corresponds to it, belong to the past centuries. In reality it is something different; the culture of the past is a form in which live the eternal values and the eternal truth; they need find new ways, but at this particular moment they cannot even look for new ways and they exist, they can continue because the past has created forms which for their beauty for their meaning, for their human quality history has not wiped out. And yet even in this particular experience there is another moment which I believe is important: the fact that the past and the present have met because of a tragedy which is a retu­rn to a barbarian, time, a time of denial and a time of destruction.

This is not a judgement past on a political system, it is a judgement past on the fact of violent revolution. This fact of violent revolution may be considered as a major tragedy, it may be consider­ed as something which is rooted in the power of evil; without saying that the power of evil is not at work in this or that aspect of every act of violence, whether small or great, there is something else in it; there is a violent but perhaps legitimate reaction against the fixity and the deadness of forms which are now offered instead of content, the fixity of forms which have replaced life, the presence of forms which are now devoid of life which only could give them meaning. As long as life and form are knit together inseparably nothing shakes them, either in society or in personal life, when the divorce occurs, then tragedy occurs, and this can be seen on every level, on the level of culture in general and on the level which we observe around us. We pass easily judgement of values and we consider easily forms of behaviour which we call or which we consider as being anti-social or being completely strange to the consciousness of a given society. This applies to Teddy-boys and to abstract art equally, it applies to everything which is an act of non-conformity, and the ultimate, the most decisive and violent act of non-conformity is revolution and Nihilism. Can we consider them as nothing, nothing but destructiveness. Is it not true to say that the destructiveness is directed against what is dead; what is void of life, that as long as there was life, there was no destructiveness directed towards it in that way? It is true, up to a point. It is not true in the sense that there is, as I have alluded before, there is a presence of evil that fights, that combats against what is right, what is true, what is God’s, but if we leave aside this which is expressed by the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, by God’s promise that we are send into the world like sheep amongst the wolves, by all these eschatological promises of Christ, it still remains that a great many things are an object of destruction because we accept them as form devoid of life, because they belong as expression to something which we value although we do not always possess the life that created them.

There is nowadays a problem of communication, as I have said before which Tillich is attempting, but this problem of communication is much wider than anything which Tillich does. Everyone who nowadays speaks, — however discordant these voices are — paints, writes music, writes literature, behaves in one way or in the other way, everyone is making an attempt at communicating something which is inside him. And the problem of the Christian, if we were only capable of it, if we were only alive enough to be able to sense life, to understand life, to discover it where it is, the task of a Christian would be to find a mean of communication, of reinterpretation. To give an illustration to what I say, I would like to give an example: I happened to be in Athens last Summer and visiting the Byzantine museum I saw a young man standing in front of an icon, of the II century and trying to translate it in form of abstract art; the people who were with me were shocked, and I was inspired, not by what he did, because I think he was poor in form of expression, but he was doing something which is essentially true, which is necessary, which should be done. There are millions of people, or perhaps thousands of people who do no longer understand the art of a certain epoch. Why is that we can translate a book from one language into another? Why is it that we can, in form of talks of lectures, of human contacts convey the thoughts of Plato or Aristotle to young men and women of the 20th century; why is it that so many things can be put into new words and why is it that in religion every period that has come to an end becomes the past of the Church and ceases to be understandable? Why is it that we do not try to understand it and to express it, not for our own sake,— and that is where Tillich comes into it once more, — but for the sake of the person who is to look and to read? And I have been making an attempt which is far from being fulfilled at the moment to take a certain number of icons to give them to 2 or 3 abstracts painters whom I know, icons whom I know the meaning of, about whom we have got a deep and authoritative commentary, and try to find men who react to them positively or negatively, out of a religious experience or else out of an irreligious experience, in order to express them and to confront people with this problem. And if we do this, we come again to another aspect which is exemplified in a passage of Tillich which is in our program to-day, his contention that the real God is a God that one can hate, reject, try to get rid of. We are accustomed to try to work either in words or in other form of expression only for the persons who will say “yes”. Why not work for the persons who will say “No”.

One of these young men to whom I have asked to paint an icon of Rublev’s Trinity in abstract is a man who is in revolt against God. Now, here he is, confronted with an expression of the Holy Trinity, and he is offered his chance to express it, let it be in the spirit of revolt, exactly as Tillich puts it here: and once he will have expressed it, we will see whether others will respond to his protest, to his rebellion, to his rejection by an act of faith, and of communion with the God he rejects, or whether they will on the contrary join him in his rejection and his rebellion. And I think that the whole of culture nowadays must be rethought and restated. Well, when I say the whole of culture I do not mean to say that everything that has been thought under the sun should be worked at, or upon, but what I mean is that we must have an attitude which includes the whole of culture, first of all as an act of genuine creativeness rooted in faith and experie­nce, secondly as an act of creativeness that has become an object of idolatry and is no longer alive, and is more than dead, has become part of the killing forces of life. In that respect Maxim Kovalevsky is right when he says, I believe, “There is no such thing as religious art, there is either religion expressing itself in all possible ways, or else there is art which is no longer religion. But there is no such thing as religious art in which the centre of gravity is in the word art”. And that is the thing which we must redeem. In the given case we are confronted with a man who is making an attempt; he has got a certain attitude to culture which may not be the one I was expressing now; he has got a certain attitude to God which in more than one way is not what I feel about Him, He has got a certain attitude to man which is certainly not the one I have and possibly not the one certain of you have, but he is doing something which belongs to that effort, not simply to communicate things once written and once petrified, but he is making an attempt at speaking the truth; at speaking life, at creating new forms, new forms of expressions, new forms of thoughts out of old forms. I may say that from my point of view they are much too old, they are forms which make the New Testament into an Old Testament, they are forms which are Luther instead of being the 20th century even in the tradition of Luther and so on. But that is his right. This is what he knows and what he is speaking about. Well this is what I wanted to say concerning Tillich whom I am aware of understanding very little indeed, but these are the things which I would like to say because they have come out of thinking about what we discussed last time. Let us now start the discussion and I would like someone who has understanding of Tillich, anyone to whom Tillich has given something positive as hope and understanding, for whom he is a teacher of life, to say something and help us out of the difficulties in which we find ourselves last time.