The Dark Night : St John of the Cross and Eastern Orthodox Theology
Abstract: Russian émigré theologian Vladimir Lossky's (1903-1958) claims in his classic study of 1944, The Mystical Theology of Eastern Church, that the emphasis on the experience of spiritual separation from God in Western mystical theology ultimately goes back to how Latin churches began to add the word filioque (and-of-the-Son) to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in the sixth century. In his explanation Lossky discusses the theology of the Greek fathers suggesting that the idea of the Spirit’s generation from both the Father and the Son both builds upon and generates philosophical ideas that conflict with the possibility of receiving personal experiential knowledge of God. To exemplify such ideas and their negative influence Lossky points especially to neo-Platonism and the Western mystical theology of dark nights. Simultaneously he makes positive mention, for example, of the Orthodox theologies, of St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) and St Maximus Confessor (580-662).The problem with Lossky’s claims and suggestions is that he never substantiates them by actually comparing relevant sources with each other. As a consequence many refuse even to consider his claims, leaving the question of what distinguishes Western theologies of the dark night from Eastern Orthodox theology untouched. This study discusses the Spanish Carmelite St John of the Cross’ (1542-1591) theology of dark nights of the soul from the point of view of Lossky’s claims. It conducts a substantial comparison of St John’s theology with the theology of St Symeon the New Theologian. In addition, it also compares select aspects of his theology with aspects of Vladimir Lossky’s and St Maximus Confessor’s theologies and the thought of the neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus (204-270). The purpose of these comparisons is to propose a definition of the relationship of St John of the Cross’ theology of dark nights to central orthodox theological principles and emphases and to evaluate the truth of Lossky’s more general attempt to define the Western notion of dark nights from an Eastern Orthodox perspective.
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