Applying Hegel’s dialectic to today’s situation: Modernity was the thesis, Postmodernism was the antithesis and the synthesis is currently in process, although we don’t know what it will be called. The excitement for the Christian right now, at this very time, unlike many other points in history, is that culture is in a transitory stage. And, we, as Christians, have the ability to actually help redeem those in these movements as they are emerging, searching and feeling the absence of substance.
There’s one major Christian Church that never “passed through the crucible of the Enlightenment” and ironically has something to say about the trajectory the church may be heading as it ministers in a context that is still emerging from modernity and postmodernity. (Light from the Christian East by James R. Payton; 169). That church is the Eastern Orthodox Church. The West is embracing what some are calling a “relational epistemology”, and to some degree, the Eastern Church has already held such an epistemology for well over a thousand years.
The Greek speaking East, as opposed to the Latin speaking West, had a Hellenistic history which influenced the theology of the Eastern Fathers including Clement and Origen of Alexandria (Alexandria was the center for Hellenistic thought), Athanasius of Alexandria and the Great Cappadocians (Basil and the Gregorys). .
While not intending to denigrate the West as much as praise the East, it was the Eastern fathers who rose to the heretical challenges of the early centuries (and to be fair, the controversies came from the East). The major role in the ecumenical councils that defined our Trinitarian and Christological tradition was played by the Eastern fathers. In fact, those councils that confronted the major Trinitarian and Christological heresies all took place in the East: Nicea affirmed Christ’s divinity (325), Constantinople affirmed his humanity (381), Ephesus affirmed his unity (431) and Chalcedon affirmed Christ as human and divine in one person (451).
Much of the definition of Christ and the Trinity is owed to the East.
Yet, due to the background of the East in Hellenistic philosophy, the East had “a cautious attitude regarding the possibilities of mere human reason, including Christian reason” (Payton; 30). The West, in contrast, took an Aristotelian trajectory and majored on categorization, clarity and explanation in their theological exploration. The Summa Theologiæ may be the greatest example of the Aristotelian influenced Western theological development.
For the West, the fall of Rome in the 400s marks the beginning of the Middle Ages as well as the isolation of the Eastern segment of Christianity from the Western segment; but for the East, what we know as the Middle Ages, the East knows as the Byzantine Period. And it is during this period of isolation that the distinctives of Eastern theology began to develop and the “cautious attitude” towards reason had a large part to play.
While describing the Eastern theologian, James R. Payton Jr. writes that they intended to pray, not explain (30), which is rather opposite to the theologians of the West. Payton continues,”
To be a theologian (in the East during the Byzantine Period) was the culmination of a life spent in communion with God, speaking out of the richness of his experienced grace and mercy; it was not the end result of a process of academic instruction. For Eastern Christians, “theology” was not the product of intellectual mastery of appropriate revelatory data. Their view point was well expressed by Evagrius Ponticus when he urged, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (31).
The Byzantine Period, contrasting with some of the early Eastern fathers … probably having learned from their Fathers mistakes … built, not on the static categories such as immutability, but on the dynamic character of creation and God (32). “Everything,” writes Payton, “was created by God for development and could not be understood or spoken of correctly apart from that dynamic process.”
It is out of both the early history and the Byzantine period that the Eastern understanding of the relational Trinitarian nature (and its implications for salvation, the church and epistemology) was developed … the very understanding of the Trinity that is being promoted by so many Christian theologians today who are attempting to engage Postmoderns.
And, in some sense the Postmodern chastisement of the Modern hope in human reason shares some similarities with the Eastern chastisement of their own Hellenistic history; a chastisement so well remembered by the Eastern church that they, unlike the West, were immune to the false hopes of the Enlightenment Project. And maybe that is why some are promoting the East as a beneficial aid in grasping a Christian relational emphasis that will help define the trajectory of the Gospel as we minister to the post of postmodernism.