Thursday, December 6, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Freedom to Believe by Archbishop Lazar (Synaxis Press)

Review by Ron Dart

Freedom To Believe: Personhood and Freedom in Orthodox Christian Ontology
by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo
Synaxis Press, Second Edition, 2007

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo has ventured, faithfully and steadfastly, into intellectual and political terrain that few Orthodox theologians in North America have dared enter. The journey into such deep and demanding places has done much to reveal the splendour and motherlode of the Orthodox Tradition.

The publication of For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love: The Theology of Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (2004) did much to highlight the visionary role Archbishop Lazar has played in Orthodox theology in North American and beyond. There is a mystical depth and political breadth, a philosophic fullness and social passion that cannot be missed in Archbishop Lazar's unearthing and application of the Orthodox way. For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love articulates, in an incisive way, how and why this is the case.

The re-publication of Freedom to Believe: Personhood and Freedom in Orthodox Christian Ontology (2007) makes it abundantly clear, yet once again, why Archbishop Lazar is on the cutting edge of Orthodox theology.

Many Orthodox theologians have been rather shy about addressing the existential tradition of philosophy. Existentialism, for some, has a bad name, and should be shunned and avoided at all costs. But, should it? What is it about the insights of existentialism that need to be heard? And, more to the point, is Orthodox theology, at core and centre, existential? These are some of the questions Archbishop has taken the time to ponder in Freedom to Believe.

Freedom to Believe is divided into seven sections and an appendix by way of conclusion: 1) A Definition and Discussion of the Essential Aspects of Existentialism, 2) An Orthodox Christian Concept of Existentialism, 3) Existentialism and Free Will, 4) Freedom and Choosing Values, 5) Existentialism and Models of Reality, 6) The Existential Nature of Orthodox Theology, 7) The Existential Nature of Orthodox Christian Systematic Prayer, and Appendix 1, Platonistic Essentialism.

Freedom to Believe ponders, carefully and judiciously, how and why existentialism has been knocked, and yet, true to thoughtful form, why the existential tradition has much truth to it that should not be avoided nor missed. In fact, Freedom to Believe makes it more than obvious that the Orthodox Tradition, in both thought and deed, is the true fount and foundation of existentialism. There is an Anglican adage that 'abuse should not prohibit use', and if the existential vision has been abused by some, it should not be tossed out; its real use and insights need to be recovered. This is the task and real work of Freedom to Believe.

There is little doubt that freedom is a sacred word for the Western tradition, but the meaning of freedom often lacks meaningful content. It is often used as a justification for all sorts of behaviour. The rights of the individual are, also, front and centre for most in the midst of the culture wars of our time.

Freedom to Believe walks the extra mile to clarify the differences between 'personhood' and 'individualism', and how freedom can be distorted and abused if the language of individualism dominates the day, but, if the notion of 'personhood' is properly understood, the deeper meaning of freedom will emerge like a bird to the sky. There is even more to Freedom to Believe than these crucial distinctions and many others.

The intellectual meaning and significance of existentialism, freedom and personhood must be a lived reality in both the inner and outer, the mystical and public life. "The Existential Nature of Orthodox Theology" and "The Existential Nature of Orthodox Christian Systematic Prayer" wed the world of inner thought and transformative prayer and healing. Ideas must take legs and flesh, and such is the integrated existential conclusion in this gem and jewel of a book.

Appendix 1 in Freedom to Believe is rather thin and meagre (2 pages). I found the appendix a rather weak link in the book. "Platonistic Essentialism" tends to dim, distort and diminish the full orbed thinking of Plato. Plato was a foundational thinker to the early Christians and the Fathers for the simple reason that there is much depth and integrated thought in his approach to thought and life. George Grant has been called 'Canada's greatest political philosopher', and he held Plato high. Just as existentialism can be caricatured and distorted, so can reads and interpretations of Plato. Perhaps, in the future, Archbishop Lazar will be as fair to Plato as he has been so generous and insightful with existentialism.

Freedom to Believe takes arrow from quiver, places it well in bow, pulls taut, releases and hits the bull's eye of insight and wisdom. Do read this keeper of a book. You will understand why Orthodoxy and Existentialism are in a great round dance and cannot be separated.

Freedom to Believe can be ordered via the web site of Archbishop Lazar's monastery:

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