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Looking East in Winter: Contemporary thought and the Eastern Christian tradition, by Rowan Williams

25 June 2021

John Binns reviews a collection of reflections on Eastern theology

THERE is a delightful passage in the Coptic Life of Evagrios, one of the writers discussed in this book, who in the fourth century exchanged the life of a fashionable preacher in the capital for the unbending ascetic struggle of a monk in the Egyptian desert. It tells how his fellow monks would gather round him on Saturday and Sunday evenings and then discuss together through the night until the dawn broke.

Among the topics that they would have discussed would have been their shared humanity and their longing to know God. They would have reached towards a kind of knowing which recognises, accepts, and welcomes the presence of God in things in the world around, then responds to these patterns of divine wisdom and engages with it in solidarity and yearning.

This book invites us into a similar journey of discovery — but in the context of the 21st-century academy rather than the fourth-century desert. It introduces this exploration into our identity through some of the teachings and writings of the eastern Christian tradition.

There are two parts. First, four chapters discuss our “natural” condition, which engages with the world around, is enlightened by the logos of the divine and Trinitarian life, which entered history in the incarnate Son, and leads us into the alignment with that divine giving that is called by the tradition “deification”. The second part shows the outworking of this in liturgy, church tradition, and political action, as well as personal holiness and our love of one another.

The voices from this Eastern tradition come from different times and places, and this variety of approach adds to the freshness of the insights that the book gives. There are two main strands of the tradition which we encounter. There is, first, the set of ascetical writings from the Byzantine period which make up the Philokalia, and especially the two authors who are rightly seen as being central to its tradition and making sense of its anthropology, Evagrios and Maximos.

Then there are some of the figures of more recent Russian theology. The Athonite monk Sophrony Sakharov sees the kenosis of the incarnation as leading to theosis or deification; the iurodivyi or holy fools demonstrate something of the nature of personal holiness; then the martyr saint Maria Skobtsova, who died in Ravensbrück concentration camp, gives a powerful account of the love of neighbour. These — among others — show how the Eastern anthropological and theological tradition has been shaped.

The book is built out of a lightly edited set of essays and conference papers, which have been written for various occasions over the past ten years. Within them, there are varieties of style, and each expounds a specific aspect of this spiritual progress, which contribute to a vision of what it means to be fully human. There are phrases and ideas that recur through the book, and this gives a further sense of unity and help us to revisit ideas that we have already begun to think about.

The book does not set out to be a systematic or comprehensive account of Orthodox theology, and there are themes that could be developed in further directions — for example, to give new understandings of the place of the icon in our relation to the world around. The book will be most creatively approached in the spirit of Evagrios’s night-time companions, taking time to reflect and meditate at a devotional pace. The language is precise and exact, yet also evocative and elegant. This combines with tightly argued discussions and suggestions that guide us into areas of silence and wordlessness.

The title comes from an image in the writing of the fifth-century bishop Diadochos, who imagines himself standing looking towards the east, as the rising sun brings a warmth in a chilly and cold world. This book sets out to share some of that light from the Eastern tradition in our own fragmented and dangerous world. It gives a vision of what it means to be human before God and within the created world, and so locates us within the Church, aligning — to use a word that is often used in the book — our lives with the infinite self-giving of God.

This, as the final section states, is an eschatological event, which places us within that Kingdom of God which enters the world in Christ.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.


Looking East in Winter: Contemporary thought and the Eastern Christian tradition
Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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