The Philosophy of Cult (2): Method

Part I: Introduction

Trembling Before the Wholly Other:

Method of the Philosophy of Cult

In the inaugural lecture—“The Fear of God”—Florensky defines his subject and explains his method of procedure. He begins invoking the motivating principles of this new discipline: divine love and holy fear. Elaborating these themes in a way reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, he describes religious fear as the experience of the completely new, the wholly other:

In the series of sensations that come to us from the world, there intrudes itself one that has nothing in common with the others, is comparable with anything us, something completely other. . . It penetrates like a two-edged sword to the point of separation between the soul and the spirit, up to that point of contact between our noumenic essence and the sphere of phenomena, the objects of earthly comprehension. . . This new thing rends the fabric of the ordinary in a way both mysterious and unusual….What reveals itself is not of this world and thus the whole world suddenly feels unstable, vacillating, weak: the ordinary pales in the face of true Being. And with the ordinary pales also our very existence. We end up seeming like tremulous flames exposed to the winds at the extreme edge of nothingness, as non-beings. It is precisely here where we find our eternal support, in Him Who Is from all the ages. Our greatest humiliation is also our greatest exaltation.[1]

But where Otto and others are less explicit, Florensky is unequivocal: this terrifying encounter between heaven and earth takes a definite concrete shape and specificity in space and time, precisely in religious cult:

There is a source, eternal and active, of this fundamental antinomic movement: the perennial dynamism of the “yes” and “no” of our life. It is a volcanic crater in which the lava is never covered by a rocky crust. It is the open window into our reality, through which other worlds appear. It is a breach in our earthly existence, out of which rivers from another world pour to nourish and strengthen us. In a word, it is cult.[2]

Cult is the terrifying eruption of the divine into the earthly plane, into concrete reality. Thus he is in a position to give a preliminary definition of his subject:

The first, fundamental, and most substantial definition of cult is just this: it is that specific part of reality in which the immanent and the transcendent, earthly things and heavenly, things from here and things from there, the fleeting moment and the eternal, the relative and the absolute, the mortal and the immortal encounter one another.[3]

If it is true that cult is fear and trembling before the advent of the Holy, the Wholly Other, how can the philosopher dare to approach liturgy as one intellectual object among others? What can frail words do when only vital contact with the Other yields true understanding? A comprehensive system is not only inconceivable, but downright impious.

Image result for the wholly other

Nevertheless, the philosopher of cult can make a series of halting approaches, clumsy starts that lapse into silence, a ring of concentric motions around the mystery of the cult, without claiming to define cult Itself. In fact, in one sense the method is an apophatic exercise meant to expose cult’s otherness and incomprehensibility when our language so often tends to domesticate it. Why bother? Florensky is ever frank:

I would never have dared to present these conferences before you, except that for many years now I have been tormented—in a positive sense—by this one thought: that the chief cause of the Church’s current collapse has been the lack of attention to and reflexion it has paid to cult, and that the primary job of theology today is precisely in the comprehension and explanation of cult.[4]

This apophatic method sheds light on the literary form of The Philosophy of Cult. Partly as a result of his devotion to Russian Symbolism,[5] Florensky was acutely sensitive to the relation between literary form and content. His Pillar and Ground of Truth is written in the form of 12 affectionate letters to a mysterious friend, which Rudolf Gustafson interprets as a conscious stylistic choice designed to symbolize the dialogue of mystical love which is the work’s central theme. We may read the fragmentary lecture-style of Philosophy of Cult along the same lines: they are a performative contradiction to rationalist philosophy with its pretensions to exhaustive system and autonomy of individual reason. True, “integral” thinking takes place within a community of friends turned toward the liturgical cult in fear. Their utterances can never claim to capture, much less surpass, the transcendent reality they praise.

[to be continued…]


[1] The Philosophy of Cult, 69–70.

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid., 102. Thus Florensky intuited one of the principle labors of the 20th century, in which liturgy was discovered and promoted in scholarship of every confession. At his time, liturgics was virtually unknown in Russia.

[5] See Richard Gustafson’s introduction to Pillar and Ground of Truth, pp. ix–xxiii; and Orvacz, pp. 53–54.

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