Orthodox Theological Method IV

Essay series, part IV:  What is distinctive about the way that Orthodox Theologians conceive of their task with reference to the work of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

Philosophical heritage

Credal debates of the fourth and fifth century, continuing until the final schism between East and West in the eleventh, reveal diverging streams of philosophical conceptions of truth and knowing, anthropology and metaphysics. A tendency towards dualistic and concrete definitions has predominated in the West whereas a more mystical metaphysic has influenced the East. Hence, “Orthodox theology does not fit in the category of liberalism or conservatism as developed in Western Christendom.”1 Lossky argues that “the very principle of relations of opposition is unacceptable to Orthodox theology.”2 Which means in practice that apophatic theology is normative, but methods vary.3

Through the legacy of Sergei Bulgakov at St Sergius Theological School in Paris where she studied and worked, Behr-Sigel entered into the debates about the place of wisdom, ‘Sophia’, and the divine feminine. Vladimir Soloviev developed these interests most fully in nineteenth century Russia. He observed a parallel between sophia and theosis – the process of being and becoming one, an integration of the present empirical universe with that mystery which is beyond it.4 Behr-Sigel neither embraces the divine feminine fully, as Bulgakov did, nor rejected the bulk of it, as did Lossky and Meyendorff. Rather, she takes a more integrative path alongside the Orthodox Tradition of theotokos which results in a unique approach to the feminine in religious philosophy. Rather than an object of veneration, Mary’s status as the mother of the Christ directs the Christian away from herself towards the Trinitarian God and she becomes instead a model of the faithful’s right response to God. She herself is not the divine feminine, yet she opens the way for it. Mary is “the image and personification of the Spirit-bearing Church, the womb of the new humanity.”5

1 Meyendorff (2003) p.93

2 Lossky (2003b) p.169

3 Lossky (2003a)

4 Williams (2005) p.573

5 Behr-Sigel (1991b) p.204

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