Home/Rod Dreher/‘Heretical’ Monks & Higher Mathematics

‘Heretical’ Monks & Higher Mathematics

The Economist writes about what it calls one of the most extraordinary events in the modern history of Christianity: the 1913 episode in which the Imperial Russian Navy attacked a Russian monastery on Mount Athos, over suspected heresy. Excerpts:

The row began in 1907, when a book entitled “In the mountains of the Caucasus” was published. It was written by an elderly monk called Ilarion. Before moving to a remoter, Caucasian spot, he had spent many years at St Panteleimon’s (see picture above), the biggest Russian house on Athos: a giant establishment, home at that time to about 2,000 monks. St Panteleimon’s was the only one of the peninsula’s 20 monasteries that was formally under Russian control. (There were a couple of other vast Russian houses on Athos, dedicated to Saint Andrew and the Prophet Elijah, but they were notionally subordinate to nearby Greek monasteries; this helped ensure that the ruling council of Athos remained overwhelmingly Greek.)

What the Russians lacked in political power, they made up for in numbers and spiritual passion, exemplified by Ilarion’s book. It extols the benefits of reciting the “Jesus prayer”, a simple supplication whose repetition had been part of eastern Christian practice for centuries: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In a tender, cautious tone, the book argues that just as “in God’s name, God himself is present”, the name of Jesus Christ, when recited prayerfully, radiates sanctity; it is more, infinitely more, than a set of letters.

In a tender, cautious tone, Ilarion’s book argues that the name of Jesus Christ, when recited prayerfully, radiates sanctity; it is more, infinitely more, than a set of letters
Ilarion had touched upon one of monotheism’s most sensitive spots. In any philosophical system in which the starting-point is the radical, primordial distinction between the Creator and the created, a hard question arises. To which side of the line should words, images or phenomena be assigned that belong to earthly reality but also pertain to God? And is it ever possible for something or someone to be on both sides of the line at once?

Turns out that the so-called Name Glorifiers may be in the process of rehabilitation:

Metropolitan Hilarion, the Oxford-trained prelate who heads the Russian church’s external arm, has studied the name-glorifying dispute and concluded that it is still an open question who was right. That is a controversial thing to say in a church where the official line is that the glorifiers were pushy rioters who deserved a good dousing.

For the glorifiers’ views, though apparently abstruse and unworldly, are subversive. Mysticism—any movement in which people believe they are having a direct experience of the divine—undermines the authority of religious leaders. In the history of virtually all faiths there has been a tension between visionaries and prophets on one hand and hierarchs and administrators on the other. In the Russian case, to say the name-glorifiers were right would imply that the masters—religious and political—of tsarist Russia were wrong.

That could be awkward for today’s Russian elites, both secular and ecclesiastical, as they present themselves as protectors (against a multitude of foes, from punk-rockers to NATO) of a strong, well-disciplined nation, in whose history Bolshevism was only a blip. Rehabilitating the glorifiers could also disturb the recent, hard-won reconciliation between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the “White” Russian church abroad; the latter was founded by the name-fighting bishop, Khrapovitsky.

What’s more, here is a fantastic story about how some heretical Russian Orthodox monks on Mount Athos led to breakthroughs in higher mathematics. Excerpts:

And so it wasn’t all that surprising that one of Bugaev’s brightest students should have developed a deep interest in the connection between mathematics and religion. Dmitri Egorov had spent 1902-1903 in Europe, where he had studied with some of the greatest mathematicians of the age, including Lebesgue. Back in Moscow, he married the daughter of one of Russia’s most famous violinists, Ivan Grzhimali, and settled into a comfortable life of lavish entertaining: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Ilya Repin. Still, Egorov was a reserved and deeply religious man; friends saw him dutifully kiss the hands of priests lurking around his home.

At Moscow University, Egorov had two outstanding students. Nikolai Luzin, the grandson of a serf, nurtured a strong belief in the liberating power of science, a hope that philosophical materialism would make the world a better place some day. Pavel Florensky, on the other hand, the son of a railroad engineer from Yevlakh in present-day Azerbaijan, had just recently converted to religious faith following a revelation. Influenced by Bugaev, he became convinced that intellectually the nineteenth century had been a disaster. The culprit was continuous thinking, the notion that all transitions from one point to the next need to pass through all the intermediates. Mathematics, in fact, had been responsible for the atrocity, the “determinism” of differential functions having seeped into Lyell’s and Darwin’s gradualism in geology and evolution, into psychology and sociology, and worst of all, into the latest plague—Marxism. Thankfully Georg Cantor had at last challenged continuity, presenting his Continuum as a “mere set of points” rather than a dogmatic directed line. Now mutation in biology, electrons jumping orbitals in physics, and subliminal consciousness in psychology were all following suit. Humanity could finally graduate to higher places.

When the attempt at revolution was beaten down in 1905, Luzin suffered a mental breakdown; the trauma of the brutality had shaken his positivist aspirations to their core. Hoping that he might gain his balance abroad, Egorov sent his brilliant student to Paris to meet, among others, Lebesgue and Borel. “To see the misery of the people,” Luzin wrote home to his friend Florensky, who had since entered the Theological Academy, “to see the torment of life….—this is an unbearable sight…. I cannot live by science alone…. If I do not find a path to seek the truth … I will not go on living.” Florensky replied that agnosticism and atheism were responsible for Russia’s chaos and confusion, and invited Luzin to stay near him in his monastery town. It was there that Luzin read his friend’s thesis “On Religious Truth,” and instantly abandoned all thoughts of suicide. He had caught a glimmer of a path to truth, an “intuitive-mystical understanding,” and Florensky had been his guide. “I owe my interest in life to you,” he wrote to him.


Throwing himself into set theory back in Moscow, Luzin maintained strong ties with Florensky, and here is where the escapades of the monks of the Aegean return to our story. It is not clear precisely when both men first learned of Name Worshipping, but already in 1906 they enjoyed calling each other by names other than their own. When news of the rebellion on Mount Athos reached Russia in 1913, Florensky spoke up publicly in its favor, and befriended monks who had endured firsthand the navy’s brutal attack on St. Pantaleimon. Soon two worlds were becoming entwined. Lebesgue had asked whether a mathematical object could exist without defining (meaning naming) it, and now the answer was becoming clear. Just as naming God via glossolalian repetition was a religious act that brought the deity into existence, so naming sets via increasingly recursive definitions was a mathematical act that conferred a reality in the world of numbers. Cantor and before him the ancient Neoplatonists had shown the way, but this was only the beginning. Infused with mysticism, Florensky believed, new forms of mathematics and religion were being born, ones that by rejecting determinism would rescue mankind from catastrophe. In both cases—God and infinity—the key to bringing abstractions into reality was bestowing upon them a name.

More things under heaven and earth…

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment