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Metaphysics as a Personal Adventure, by Norman Russell

04 January 2019

Robin Ward welcomes an introductory dialogue with a Greek theologian

CHRISTO YANNARAS is one of the most important living theologians, but one of the least accessible. This is for two reasons: first, he writes exclusively and prolifically in Greek, which, he acknowledges, makes his work dependent on translators for selection and dissemination; and, second, his most original insights and themes come from the appropriation on the one hand of an ideal of Christian Hellenism hardly realised in contemporary Orthodoxy, and on the other a rigorous grounding in the philosophy of Heidegger.

Yannaras is also a combative controversialist and a prominent public commentator in Greece, which means that much of his impact has come there through weekly newspaper columns published over many years in the national press.

Yannaras is perhaps best known in the English-speaking theological world for his outstanding work on Christian ethics, The Freedom of Morality, published in 1984, although readers of Sobornost will have encountered him 12 years earlier, in an article on his doctrine of theological personhood by the 22-year-old Rowan Williams.

It is fortunate, then, that Norman Russell, a distinguished translator of many key contemporary theological texts emanating from the Greek Orthodox world, has given us this book-length interview, in which he shows himself to be an astute and perceptive interlocutor, well matched to Yannaras’s sometimes passionate, sometimes testy, exposition of his theological vision.

The book is divided into three sections: the first sets out the formative influences that led Yannaras to develop his distinctive theological outlook; the second deals with the hermeneutical principles of his thought; the third with the ecclesial context in which he moves as a forceful commentator.

The first section reveals four strands to his intellectual and spiritual formation: the Zoe movement; the experience of the Divine Liturgy; Mount Athos and its monasteries; and the study of Heidegger at the University of Bonn in the mid-1960s. Initially a disciple of the Zoe movement, essentially a lay-led reform movement that was very influential in Greece until relatively recently, he came to reject it as pietistic, crypto-Protestant, and alien to the true spirit of Christian Hellenism.

His experience of the Orthodox liturgy, in particular the revival of Byzantine chant inspired by Theodoros Hatzitheodorou, and his sometimes fraught but always profound encounters with the spirituality of the Holy Mountain have, in contrast, remained stable points of reference for Yannaras throughout his intellectual development. From his study of Heidegger, Yannaras takes his rejection of the whole Western metaphysic of Being as separate from Relation, the consequence of which is, to him, inevitably secularisation and the death of God.

The second section on Hermeneutic Principles shows how Yannaras’s eclectic thought develops from his earliest substantive work, The Metaphysics of the Body, to his fundamental exposition of his ontology of relation, Person and Eros. Woven into this account are fascinating conversations between Yannaras and Russell about all the key thinkers and issues for Orthodoxy in the 20th century: the theologians of the Russian Diaspora, the Neopatristic revival, the rediscovery of hesychasm and the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, and Yannaras’s controversial characterisation of the modern Greek state as the imposition of a completely alien Western national model unfitted to the Hellenism that it distorts and oppresses.

The third section, which is much the longest, is entitled Ecclesial Experience, and shows Yannaras at his most polemical. He is a fierce critic of the compulsory celibacy that confines the Orthodox episcopate to monks, scathing about ecumenical dialogue that treats theological difference as a matter to be resolved by negotiation between ecclesiastical bureaucracies, savage about the reduction of faith to a propositional ideology as contained in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, and provoking in linking the rise of Islam in the West to an Augustinian preference for salvation as individual. Readers may well find here his support for the Serbian regime, comparing the allied bombing of Serbia with the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, excessive and simplistic.

Russell has done a great work in undertaking this published conversation with Yannaras, as good in its way as the book-length interviews with Vittorio Messori which did so much to enhance the reputation and disseminate the ideas of Joseph Ratzinger. As more and more of Yannaras’s work comes to be published in English — much of which is translated by Russell — we need more than ever to be able to hear this difficult, controversial, incisive theologian’s voice, and this book is the ideal place to start.

Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

Metaphysics as a Personal Adventure: Christos Yannaras in Conversation with Norman Russell
Norman Russell
SVS Press £16

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