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Hiding in Plain Sight

In seeking to understand theophanies, Vladislav Andrejev employs his Eastern Orthodox upbringing to shed new light on old questions.
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The Angel of the Countenance of God: Theology and Iconology of Theophanies by Vladislav Andrejev (Angelico Press, 2021), 328 pages.

On a road trip this summer, I found something hiding in plain sight. My wife, three children, and myself were in need of a place to crash before making the final stretch of our drive to Washington state. Luckily, old family friends of hers (whose children are grown) were also on a trip and kindly let us stay the night in their empty Boise residence. As I scouted out rooms to accommodate every one of our hyperactive children, I stopped short. I had opened a door to another world. Maybe it would be more appropriate to say it opened into worlds; the walls of this room were arrayed with a staggering number of icons, gazing at me from every direction as the eyes on Ezekiel’s wheels stared into him. Patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and angels manifested in light and color.

My eye was drawn, however, to one icon of a female figure simply titled, Sophia. This room also contained a small bookshelf where I was stunned to discover many volumes from 19th and 20th century theologians and religious philosophers such as Vladimir Solovyov, Pavel Florensky, and Sergei Bulgakov. Their unique theological interest in the biblical figure of Sophia from Proverbs 8 and elsewhere in the wisdom literature, often called “Sophiology,” was something I had discovered only recently. It was, in my mind, almost something of an exotic Russian secret, just now beginning to be taken seriously by Catholic theologians. Yet here they were—not in the library of an academic or cleric, but in the home of a faithful lay person. He and his wife had both left Eastern Orthodoxy for Roman Catholicism many years ago; when my wife was growing up, he was part of their Dominican parish community. Yet throughout much of this time he was humbly and quietly reflecting on what this school of Russian thought could bring into the world. My wife had never heard him speak of Sophiology, not because he kept it a secret but simply because, as he later told me, he had never met someone who wanted to talk about it. My opening statement needs revising then: Neither the room of icons nor the books of Sophiology had been hidden. They were only waiting for someone who wanted to see it.

The Old Testament records many strange encounters of men and women being surprised by inhuman watchers and messengers. We tend to categorize these as angelic encounters, a clearly delineated sphere of created intelligences between God and humanity. However, the language and presentation of these passages sometimes seem to hint that these encounters are with a divine person. In the book of Judges, Samson’s parents encounter an angel who refuses to give his name, as it is Wonderful. He does however accept their sacrificial offering like a benevolent deity. Jacob wrestles a mysterious figure during the night and receives a blessing. Yet when his name is changed from Jacob to Israel, we are told it is because he wrestled with God. Genesis 32 says Jacob wrestled a man while Hosea 12 calls the figure an angel. Exodus 23 and Isaiah 63 relate that God sends an angel in front of the newly liberated Hebrews to guard and bring them to the promised land. Enigmatically, the name of God is said to be in this angel. Yet the Psalms are replete with thankful memories of the mighty deeds that God performed for Israel in the wilderness. We could add to this the LXX rendering of the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6 where the messiah is called the angel of great counsel (μεγάλης βουλῆς ἄγγελος).

Who or what then is this angel of God? This is the question which V.L. Andrejev, Eastern Orthodox icon-writer, seeks to answer in his book, The Angel of the Countenance of God. As its subtitle partially indicates, this search includes intellectual and spiritual equipment taken from dogmatic theology, iconology, biblical exegesis, pagan mythology, sacred art and architectural history, and of course, above all, the divine liturgy.

Andrejev comes to these theological topics from a somewhat different perspective than either an academic theologian or a priest engaged in pastoral ministry. An emigre to Europe and then the United States from St. Petersburg, he spent a decade teaching Russian and Byzantine iconography at the School of Sacred Arts in New York City. Then, with the blessing of his archbishop, he opened his own school of iconography and iconology: Prosopon. The result of this unique background for the reader is a style and form of theological writing that is eclectic, spiritually earnest, and wide-ranging. For instance, there are many references to the Greek patristic tradition that should be standard fare for the theologically literate reader, but there are also many specifically Russian sources (some unavailable in English) with which most will be unfamiliar. This transposition into a Slavic milieu was, for me, an enchanting reversal of Andrejev’s emigre status. He has left his home while continuing to practice his faith; now he invites us to enter a context alien to our Anglophone lives in order to deepen our readings of biblical symbols.

In some sense, Andrejev gives us his answer concerning the identity of this mysterious angel at the beginning of his book. He takes the stand, along with a number of exegetes, that this is not a particular created angel; it is in fact a direct manifestation of divine action in the world. This answer does not make the rest of the book superfluous, as it forms the entrance into a set of related and newly relevant questions. How are theophanies of the invisible and unutterably transcendent God possible both before, during, and after the Incarnation? As an icon-writer and artist, Andrejev is attentive to form, light, color, and shape. His reflections fold this aesthetic sense into a theological defense of symbolic realism. The manifold and pluriform wisdom of God must be rendered visible and the forms which enact this visibility cannot be discarded lightly. How then can one do justice, theologically, liturgically, iconographically, to the eternal unity of the divine who mediates our salvation in time?

This turn to reflecting on theophanies in general leads him to give a generous assessment of pagan mythology. Andrejev argues that mythology “contains something deep that has passed through the centuries, which…should be preserved as a positive phenomenon.” The visual figurative language of myth was an “intuitive anticipation” of Christ’s “continuous coming” before the definitive fact of his Incarnation. Myth served as a kind of prologue or overture which introduced the main themes of the symphony of the Word made flesh. And though the mission of the Logos is epic in scope, Christ did not arrive in medias res. Andrejev does not leave myth there. Not only the pre-theological past, but the theology future will in some part need what only the mode of mythology can give. Drawing on the little known Russian philosophical and religious writers of the 19th and 20th century (particularly Aleksei Losev), Andrejev warns that if we push mythology into the background and ignore its ontological significance “we cut off some strata of life and thinking, destroying a certain harmony of religious totality.” This is not, of course, a desire on his part to replace the doctrine of the Trinity with a doctrine of the Olympiad. It is an earnest call for the mythopoetic mode to be taken seriously as a mode of doing theology.

Andrejev’s case is bolstered by the simple fact that the entire tissue of Sacred Scripture exists in this mythopoetic mode. There is no easily applicable method for determining how far and to what extent the symbols in the text accurately depict God. The entirety of ancient and most of medieval Christianity was engaged in working and reworking the Old Testament by deploying typology, allegory, symbolism, numerology, philology, and close narrative readings in order to develop a sophisticated hermeneutical architecture which could house a faith in a living and unified divine economy. This was, of course, by no means an exclusively Christian task as Hellenistic Judaism and Alexandrian scholiasts had already developed fine-tuned critical and spiritual techniques for reading the Torah and Homeric corpus respectively. It may be surprising for some to see the term “myth” applied to the Old Testament by Andrejev, but he does not mean this in the pejorative sense of falsehood. Like Michael Fishbane’s study Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Myth-Making, Andrejev uses the term to break down the supposedly ironclad barrier between myth and revelation as genres. It is meant to emphasize the inextricable significance with the vivid and concrete images of the sacred text and the growth of their theological function over time through the communal task of exegesis. Besides the image/character of the angel of the Lord, Andrejev also highlights the curious figurae of the Shekhinah (dwelling, presence), the rabbinic term for the cloud of divine presence and glory, Chokhmah (wisdom), particularly as depicted in Proverbs 8, and Memrah (word, speech), the living and active divine Word which goes out from God and does not return empty. All three of these (and more could be added from rabbinic tradition) are attempts to deal with the problem of God’s relationship with and visibility (conceptually, linguistically, or physically) to the world. The emergence of monotheism and its concomitant emphasis on divine transcendence and unknowability prompted the Jewish people to “raise and resolve the issue of the ‘form’ of God’s presence in the world.”

Early Christians were quick to interpret these figures in Christological ways. The New Testament made this particularly easy since Christ is variously presented as a tabernacle of divine presence, the wisdom of God, and the word of God. Even the angel of the LORD is sometimes given a Christological gloss. Andrejev, while appreciative of the approach which sees Old Testament intermediary powers as shadowy images of the Trinity, wants to focus on the theological problem of representing the multiplicity of divine action in time. Andrejev’s answer turns out to be a modified or expanded application of the theology of divine energies. In the interpretation of Vladimir Lossky, George Florovsky, and other Eastern Orthodox theologians of the late 19th and early 20th century, Gregory of Palamas articulated a distinction between the unknowable divine essence and the, at least partially, knowable divine energies. Following this school and its reading of Palamism, Andrejev affirms that divine action in the world must not be seen as separate from the divine essence, but it absolutely must be distinguished from it. Andrejev’s innovation and addition to this paradigm is his stress on the iconological and prosoponic nature of the divine energies, especially with relation to the divine names manifested in Scripture. Each name is particular and concrete, which for Andrejev suggests that there should be an accompanying representation which appropriately combines words, concepts, and images, in order to convey the unique aspect of divine perfection being depicted.

Unfortunately, this paradigm leaves him in an awkward position when he moves on to spend considerable time explicating the image of divine wisdom. Rightly noting her feminine aspect in the Old Testament (chokhma, sophia), he delivers a lovely overview of her history in exegesis, theology, and art. The section “The Iconography of Sophia” is a tour de force of obscure monasteries, churches, illuminated manuscripts, and icons (both Eastern and Western) which solidly support Andrejev’s interest in the figure as a theologoumenon worth serious consideration. The difficulty arises because the Eastern Orthodox theologians most interested in reflecting on the theological significance of the figure of Sophia (sophiology) vehemently reject a reading that would lead to a strict essence-energy distinction. Andrejev ends up calling the figure of Sophia an icon of the Logos in action. Sergei Bulgakov, the most systematic of the Sophiologists, famously disagreed with Lossky and Florovsky on these fundamental issues (and also wrote The Icon and Its Veneration, which Andrejev cites, along with Bulgakov’s commentary on the Apocalypse of John). Andrejev is forced into a position where he affirms Russian Sophiology on the one hand and has to quietly disavow it on the other.

Even if the reader does not agree with Andrejev in the theological particulars, the attentiveness to images, icons, and symbols makes the book valuable in itself. Like the practice of spiritual exegesis, the very act of prayerfully searching the sacred text is edifying. It is unsurprising that Andrejev spends much of the book considering the text and interpretive history of the Song of Songs. In one chapter, he even categorizes seven distinct approaches to the text through Christian history. These pages are another high point in the text as he draws liberally from Origen, Maximus the Confessor, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, John Damascene, Basil, Macarius, and many others while expounding what he takes to be the central mystery of the Christian faith: the Incarnation as the marriage of humanity with divinity. In Andrejev’s words, “the logos entered the cosmic garden of his flesh.” And in the words of St. Maximus the Confessor “the mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos contains in itself the whole meaning of the riddles and symbols of Scripture, the whole significance of visible and invisible creatures.” Andrejev also includes a helpful passage from Archbishop Gennady Fast’s commentary on the Song of Songs: “God’s entire creation is in some sense God’s bride…Similarly the human flesh received by the divine Logos became his bride.” Christianity gives to flesh and matter in general a dignity that would have been incomprehensible to ancient philosophers and a destiny which would baffle modern materialists.

This then is the significance of the icon and iconological reflection. The Incarnation, as a permanent theophany, makes the depictability of God not simply possible, but a necessary condition of salvation. As St. John Damascene wrote in his first treatise in defense of icon veneration, “I saw the human shape of God and my soul found its salvation.” It justifies the very form of Sacred Scripture, which is filled with more symbols and poems than clearly reasoned treatises on the divine nature. The written word of God is also a kind of incarnation which does not despise the finite but actually demands this creaturely mediation and makes it part of the divine resplendence. God is radically transcendent but it is important to note that this radical transcendence is the same divine power who was able to fully enter creation. As the shrewdest of Christian theologians have noted, the most extreme forms of apophasis naturally lead us to the realization that kataphasis is the deepest of divine mysteries and that praise is more profound than silence.

After spending the night in that gorgeous icon-bearing room in Boise, I felt a connection with a man I had not yet met. For my wife, it was a new insight into an old and familiar friendship. I think our relationship to the Scriptures should be akin to both of these recognitions. When we read with care and desire, the text with which we are familiar should startle us with difficulties and strangely unresolved figures and events. And we can only be surprised or spurred by curiosity when we have that prior familiarity with the text and friendship with the Spirit who breathes it out. The mysteries of our sacred oracles are hidden in plain sight. The divine realities are occluded not to discourage but to entice us. As an old parable relates, the spiritual depths of Scripture are like a princess hidden in a tower who every so often passes by the window to give us, her lover, a sign of recognition. We must make a permanent encampment outside her castle, never letting our ardor diminish, if we want to catch a glimpse of her. And the One who is the Word of God most truly made a permanent encampment in our flesh in order that we might do this.

Andrew Kuiper enjoys reading and writing about Christian theological appropriation of esoteric discourses and lives in Hillsdale, Michigan with his wife and three children. His essays and poetry have been published in the Regensburg Forum, Ekstasis MagazineTouchstone Magazine, the Imaginative Conservative, Tradinista!, Church Life Journal, Jesus the Imagination, Macrina Magazine, and the Lamp.

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