Monday, February 04, 2008

Reading Lossky

This is an excerpt from Vladimir Lossky's "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church", the very first "Orthodox" book I ever read, which I found in the library at the Episcopal Church I was attending fifteen years ago. It had been checked out once in fifteen years. I still have it checked out.

"Here there appears an idea which one never finds in Dionysius, and which draws a line of demarcation between Christian mysticism and mystical philosophy of the neo-platonists. If Plotinus rejects the attributes proper to being in seeking to attain to God, it is not, as with Dionysius, on account of the absolute unknowability of God: and unknowability obscured by all which can be known in creatures. It is because in the realm of being, even at its highest levels, is necessary multiple: it has not the absolute simplicity of the One. The God of Plotinus is not incomprehensible by nature. If we can neither comprehend the One by discursive reason nor by intellectual intuition, it is because the soul, when it grasps and object by reason, falls away from unity and is not absolutely one." p. 30

As a priest once commented when I mentioned I was using Lossky's stuff for radio program material, "Well, Lossky lost me."

I recommend "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" as a primer on the foundations of Orthodox theology. However, it IS a deep wade, a slow, frustrating read and something you probably will revisit several times as you get more "Orthodoxy" under your belt.

Here are my "Instructions for Reading Lossky"

Do not attempt to read Lossky under the influence of any medications, while operating heavy machinery, after a heavy meal or Vigil, or just before bedtime. Keep a large dictionary closeby. Reading out loud and very slowly helps. As with any exercise program or lifting heavy objects, do not attempt to lift too much at once... two to three sentences at a time to begin, then add short adjectival phrases and subordinate clauses as you get comfortable. You will find doing several reps (repetitions) of the same sentence will be necessary in the beginning to build up your stamina. Above all, cool down after Lossky with something light, like Gregory of Nyssa or Alexander Schmemman. If you experience brain strain, take three Motrin, and consult a spiritual father if the pain persists after 3 days.

13 comments:

The Hermit said...

I find that I get much more from Fr. Lossky when I ask St. Gregory the Theologian to help me understand what he's talking about. I even have an 'icon card' of St. Gregory that I use as a bookmark for Lossky's "Mystical Theology."

Cameron Lawrence said...

Yikes, Lossky is coming up soon in my queue. Thanks for the warning. Maybe I'll spend some time with Fr. Schmemann first...

Philippa said...

Ah yes...I read small portions of this for the history class I took on Eastern Orthodox Theology. Wish I had 3 motrin back then. But I do have a spiritual father now! :O)

atplay said...

Mabe the problem is that we are not reading it in Russian. I bet the translator was put off by the task assigned to him and in order to gain the respect of his peers he added the mumbo to the jumbo. I wonder if the whole thing is some theological inside joke :) You know If you ask a stupid question like explain the mysteries of God then I will give you a answer you can not possibly understand

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Further instruction: read Lossky with a cevout and brainy friend and discuss, page by page or even sentence by sentence, until you both feel satisfied either that (a) you both "get it" or (b) you both think you'd better read a little further to see if THAT sheds some light on the matter.

s-p said...

Hi Anastasia,
"Cevout" friends are hard to find, so I usually settle for a devout one...they're not quite as diritual as a cevout one but, if they are brainy too it offsets their lack of dirituality and cevotion. :)

Seriously, Lossky as a first read is extremely tough sledding. I've revisited it about every 4- 5 years and it makes more sense each time, but even now there are still parts my brain just turns to Jello.

James the Thickheaded said...

Reading Lossky... I find if I just blast by the Greek words.. the teeny tiny little print things that look like someone's font changed to dingbats in the middle of a sentence... I have no problem. Then I read it again... slower. The further you go... the more you misunderstand, and the simpler things seemed 10 pages ago. So you turn back 10 pages, and hey... you keep working this thing to about page 100 and the title page becomes absolutely clear. It is indeed mystical.

Now in Russian.. this is a snap. Hot lights, rubber hoses, and you'll understand EVERYTHING. That's right comrade. Maybe the brown Vodka will taste better than the liquid shoe polish, too.

As for me, whenever the start with that Nous thing, the Homousias are surely right behind. And from there.. it goes downhill from there. I mean, you get this guy putting the Nous thing around somebody's neck, the lights go off, and... well it isn't pretty.

You see the way I figure it, Checkov must have beamed down from the Starship Enterprise when he saw that "Bones" was going to start reading Lossky to O'Huru... and that's when he wrote "The Cherry Orchard".

On the whole, I'd recommend Mother Raphaella's book, "Living in Christ" as a spacer.

s-p said...

James TTH,
ROTFL! Uhuru...wasn't she in "The Kiss"? Nous, homousios, being/non-being...the beauty of all this really is, if someone just lives properly within an Orthodox framework you never need to spell homousios or know how to tie a nous. These things are manifest as realities in your life as it is conformed to the image of Christ. The Church says a theologian is one who prays, not the one with the most footnotes.

Grace said...

Given the major heft of this book, you'll get a kick out of the fact that I just picked it up for a light read a while back because, you know, I was just SO smart.

Well ... several hundred "huh?s" later, I quietly retired the book back to a box somewhere. I think I did actually pick up one or two ideas from it, and they were good ones. But yes, I wouldn't approach it again without a paid staff of translators.

Or maybe, as you're saying, you keep another book around to give you a breather. In my case, I'm thinking it might be Winnie-the-Pooh.

JFred said...

I made the mistake of borrowing "Being As Communion" by Zizoulas last year and cried Uncle before the end of the first chapter!

I'm always thinking about the next book, but this post confirms something I've come to realize recently - that I race through my reading far too often.

Just reading something for beginner's such as "The Orthodox Way" is so loaded with profound sentences that my head spins.

Exploring the OC compels me to slow down, and I'm starting to like it!

Acolyte4236 said...

I agree that Lossky is tough reading for first timers. The problem is that his work really assumes a working knowledge of a BUNCH of philosophy as well as knowledge of how Catholics have understood these same sources, specifically Ps. D. It really does help to read the works of Plato. And besides, Plato is really fun to read.

Something LIKE an accessible text on middle and late platonism, that will illuminate what Lossky is talking about is Wallis, Neoplatonism. Its short and fairly direct.

Maxim said...

I kind of lost interest in Lossky when the author of the introduction to the book I was reading by him said that reading Lossky had helped him to become Hindu. This short book was entitled "An Introduction To Orthodox Theology" (or something like that); it seemed lucid enough to me, so maybe that's a better place to start than his Magnus Opus. I never got to read "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" because a lady had done the same thing s-p did; borrowed the book from the church library 5 years previously, and still had it. Florensky is the guy I have problems with; you seem to enter a very intricately complicated, Enlightened, German atmosphere. Soon Hegel begins to make sense to you, and the question arises, "What has all this to do with Orthodoxy?".

On the subject of Nous and Homoousios, check out the post of 6-15-2007 on "Orrologion" called "Superchristological and Homoousiosis", if you haven't already.

S-P, I don't know if, being in Arizona, you ever get over to St. Paisius Monastery in Safford, but if you do, say Hi to my daughter for me; she goes by Sr. Magdalena these days. I myself will be at St. Anthony's March 19, and hope to stay through Pascha; if any of you are down that direction during that time, I would be delighted to meet you.

Diana said...

Well, this is funny- i just ordered this book totally on impulse from amazon and now I'm already discouraged :(
~Diana