The Melody of Faith
BY VIGEN GUROIAN EERDMANS.COM, £8.99
‘The extent of evil can be measured by the power of its antidote.” These words by the 20thcentury Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov are quoted by the author Vigen Guroian, an Armenian-American Orthodox theologian. Readers get a strong dose of such direct theology throughout The Melody of Theology. This reflects the tendency of Orthodox theology to grapple with the deep evil, pain and suffering caused by sin, while avoiding empty moralising.
Rather than morality, sin and evil are first and foremost theological issues. Refreshing, then, that a theologian can talk about God, humans and sin without digressing into a 300-page morass of ethics.
Traditional Orthodox sobriety reigns throughout this book. The author’s discussion on psychology, for instance, does not mirror the politically correct social science variety fed to university students nowadays. It is the much deeper understanding of human nature that comes from the illumination of the truths of the Gospel upon the human.
Thus when talking about sin, rather than sentimentalism or moralising, Guroian describes the theological fallout for the human: “Sinning is an offence against God, but the state of sin is an illness that mortally weakens the patient.” Readers get a sense that the solution to our problems is Christ. Simple as that.
In fact, the author states outright the notion, perhaps not stated enough by Catholics and Protestants, that “doing God’s will is not merely morality”. Throughout this book, then, the author calls readers to a deeper relationship with God. This, and not ethics, will save the person and have an impact on society. This is something lacking in much feminist, liberationist, and even mainstream Catholic and Protestant theology today, where theologians often do not sound as if their theology comes from their prayer life. Readers get a sense with The Melody of Faith that the author’s theology issues from his relationship with God rather than from his thirst for academic argument.
From Christ comes our hope. God “built into the human being the capacity to transcend natural necessity, determinism, and entropy, and to grow in holiness, partake of the divine nature”, the author writes. This type of discussion is much closer to what John Paul II’s new evangelism should be.
The Melody of Faith shows how Orthodox theology pulls art up to a much higher, hope-filled mission than art could ever otherwise hold. Not merely aesthetic or educational, art is theology in the deepest way, where we can say that theology is talking about our intimate, living relationship with God. Icons are works of theology that open the soul to God.
The author skilfully describes the many sides to the theological story told by each icon. Readers get a sense of the central role of these images in Orthodox spirituality. In describing an icon by the artist Khatchatur of Christ’s descent into Hades, Guroian notes: “With his spiked boots, the angel crushes the heads and bodies of three demons who are struggling to escape the nether region as he looks toward the three women in the upper left-hand corner of the painting who are entering the cave.” The painter, Guroian notes, “also lends dramatic effect to St Paul’s theme of descent and ascent”.
Again, these words reflect the sometimes sharp contrast between contemporary Catholic and Protestant thinking on the one hand, and Orthodox writing on the other. The Orthodox have avoided sentimentalising the faith and downgrading it to emotion. Jesus is not for the Orthodox someone or something to meet one’s psychological needs.
Guroian’s depiction of this icon, with the war between good and evil, the battle between Christ and the demons of Hades, is written for a church that still talks about sin’s theological meaning. This would be the sort of theology to get young men back into church: a cosmic struggle with clear good and bad choices. Such reflection as found in The Melody of Faith is attractive because it is not giddy or therapeutic. It comes from an attitude where faith is not about “getting something” out of church.
What comes through in this excellent, sober book, then, is how the Orthodox have retained a strong understanding of sin and of the spiritual struggle. Theirs is a spirituality as much at home with masculinity as with true femininity, which is why struggle and sin carry weight in the discussion, and sentimentalism does not. Most Catholics, and both liberal and evangelical Protestants, have made touchy-feely spirituality the name of the game for decades now, yet complain that men avoid church like it’s a virus.
At the same time that the author bases his discussion on great Orthodox thinkers including Gregory Nazianzus, Vladimir Lossky, and Georges Florovsky, he offers a critique of western theology which sheds light on some of these imbalances.
The author argues convincingly that western churches, Catholic and Protestant, have overemphasised the legalistic or juridical view of redemption, at the expense of seeing Jesus as healer of a broken humanity. He blames this on the overly rationalistic tendency which “gradually forced the metaphorical and figurative imagination out of theology altogether”.
The author claims that Anselm of Canterbury erred when he held that the Cross satisfied God’s honour, which had been offended by the Fall. Rather, the Orthodox understanding of Christ as both healer and the medicine itself is more apt. It avoids puritanical moralising, emphasising God’s generous offering to broken humanity instead.
Christ as healer is the central image, not Christ as juridical offering. “Salvation is not simply a forensic transaction that changes our legal status before God, but also a transformation of our very being,” Guroian notes.
John Paul II invited Christians in Europe to breathe with both Christian lungs, East and West. The Melody of Faith demonstrates just how much Catholics can learn from their Orthodox brothers.