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  • Contemplation, Speculation, Action: Reflections on Orthodox Theology
  • David Tracy

Each contemporary Christian theologian, like any other intellectual, becomes more singular, not less, by learning other forms of Christianity. To take on the responsibility of a Christian theology today demands a willingness to be transformed by serious, that is, historical–hermeneutical–dialogical study of at least the three major forms of Christianity: Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant. Christianity, like every religion, is both a vision of life and a way of life. Vision and way should not be separated but mutually reinforce, challenge, and transform one another—which is why practical theology is the most complex and difficult of the three major forms of Catholic theology. Fundamental, systematic, practical theology—each has distinct tasks but tasks inseparable from the other two. Each seeks to find conceptualities, images, and above all, vision-transformed action appropriate to articulate a Christian way of life both informing and being transformed by some major version (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) of their shared Christian vision.

For my part, Orthodox theology in its diverse and sometimes conflictual forms is distinguished by its profoundly contemplative character. This contemplative form holds whatever the issue—cosmic, iconic, liturgical or, in my focus here, the contemplation of God.


Vladimir Lossky was surely correct to resist any understanding of apophasis or contemplation of God as merely epistemological corrective; that is, apophatic thought in [End Page 1] much classical Orthodox theology from the Cappadocians forward is not a convenient epistemological corrective to all cataphatic names for God as it sometimes is in Western and some Orthodox theology. On the contrary, apophasis is a fundamental spiritual and theological attitude in all apophatic contemplative theology, as Lossky and many, but of course not all, Orthodox theologians hold. An apophatic attitude is present in a major strand of the common tradition from Gregory of Nyssa through Dionysius the Areopagite to Maximus the Confessor. For Orthodox theology, that orientation received a systematic formulation in John Damascene’s clarifying systematic text An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, as well as in Gregory Palamas’s defense of the hesychast mystical tradition and the apophatic contemplative tradition by discovering conceptualities able to distinguish while uniting the Incomprehensible God and the Infinitely Loving Trinitarian God.

In the deepening experience of communion with God defined as the deified heart of salvation by the Orthodox, the theologian becomes far less involved in discursive thought but deepens her thinking into direct, immediate—that is, contemplative thinking. Contemplative thinking may well be preceded by dialectical discursive argument or even by speculation: for example, Gregory of Nyssa’s articulated dialectical arguments in Contra Eunomius prior to his later, more constructive theological-spiritual works Life of Moses and Commentary on the Song of Songs. Contemplative-intuitive theology can also quite naturally lead to new systematic theological speculation. Such systematic speculation will be based on contemplative thinking, therefore itself grounded in a realistic Christian experience of divine-human communion. Such theological speculation—again in fidelity to intuitive contemplative thinking as well as in experienced communion with God—if radically apophatic will find paradoxical conceptualities (e.g., God’s essence and uncreated energies) to express both discursively and speculatively what the divinely saturated theological contemplation has intuitively sensed as true.

This theological move from experienced communion to intuitive contemplation to discursive speculative theology is analogous to Alfred North Whitehead’s statement at the beginning of Process and Reality that all speculative thought begins with some basic intuition of reality and then struggles to find conceptual categories and discursive arguments to expand, clarify, and defend the intuition.

Sometimes a more ambitious speculation takes hold, as in classical Neoplatonism in the ancient world or Neoplatonism’s most natural successor, German idealism, in the modern world. When such a strictly theological transformation does not occur (or is misapplied), then Christian contemplation yields, as Nicholas Berdyaev rightly insisted about his own work, not a theology but a religious philosophy. The Orthodox contemplative and highly speculative theologies (Soloviev, Florensky, Bulgakov), despite the suspicions of many non-Russian Orthodox theologians is, in my judgment, an entirely legitimate, indeed intellectually natural move for any contemplative thinker to undertake. The Cappadocians, unlike Origen...


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