Excerpts from The Philosophy of Cult (1): What is orthodoxy?

Continuing our series on Florensky’s The Philosophy of Cult….we have translated some sample pages from the Italian edition….more to follow.

[What is orthodoxy?]


The nature of religion is to unite God and the world, the spirit and the flesh, meaning and reality. The emphasis of Protestants of every stripe is placed upon the separation of each one from the other into two distinct, non-communicating spheres entirely isolated from one another. They shut them up by dividing them with an impenetrable wall, once and for all guaranteeing the non-interference of divine powers and energies in the world, with the result that its autonomy becomes inviolable—“liberty of the flesh”—and the spirit becomes incorporeal—“liberty of the spirit”. I do not intend to represent or define such deviations as “heresies,” because that would mean to see them as something religious. But they are anti-religious, they are substantially contrary to religion; not estranged from the divine, but bereft of God and opposed to God. Religion leads to the inscrutable, to the terrible and unattainable union of two worlds, and this comes about by means of cult. And thus it has become clear why it is necessary to see liturgical activity as the heart of human activity in general, the primary activity, with “primary” intended not in the chronological but in the logical sense.

[. . . .]

18.“. . . we view the Symbol of faith as the most important summa of dogma. Under the influence of rationalistic theologians, it is generally held that the Symbol of faith is the theoretical declaration of our doctrine and that for this reason, insofar as it is true, it is sung or read during the eucharistic canon as a sort of collective act of faith placed there. This conception is, however, profoundly mistaken. The symbol of faith developed out of the trinitarian baptismal and sacramental formula (“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”), which is the basis of every sacred rite, of every liturgical office. Therefore the Symbol preserves the character of its original nucleus, which is to say that it exists within the liturgy and does not have a declarative character—and anyway to whom would one declare one’s own faith, if after the catechumens’ departure only the faithful are left?–, but a sacramental, active function, which is precisely that of union in love and, ontologically, and in an entirely comprehensible way, of unity of mind, through which alone it is possible to recognize and thus to profess the Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity.

19. The Symbol of faith is a living phenomenon, it is the vital accomplishment of unity in love. Just as light comes from the sun, in the same way the unity of the Church—the consubstantiality and indivisibility of the sacramental love of Christ, it’s being one body and one spirit in the body of Christ—is illuminated by the profession of the Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity: this profession is the Symbol of faith. But it has meaning only insofar as it is sung in the sacrament of the liturgical assembly, and not outside of cult, nor much less outside of the Church. Outside of the life of the Church, in fact, it is neither Symbol of faith nor faith, but only something useless and incomprehensible, and thus outside the liturgy the Symbol of faith can neither be understood or studied, just as the activity of the human body cannot be understood or studied if one begins with elements that have been separated from the body, of which were once integral parts.

Let us clarify our meaning with another example. The apostolic letters and the Holy Gospel are often considered books. The Holy Gospel and the holy apostolic letters are not “books,” but rather moments of liturgical action, derived from the liturgy, where they do not have a simply narrative or purely edifying meaning, but one even more important: precisely an active, sacramental meaning.

In the same way the “books” of the Old Testament which should be read only in prayer, in an active, liturgical manner, and not a passive, mental, theoretical manner. The Psalter, for example, is a book of exorcism. That is why it is read over the dead, to defend them from the wicked powers of the devil. Some of its psalms, such as “Qui habitas in adiutorio altissimi” (Ps 91 [90]), are principally for exorcism, which is why they are embroidered on cinctures and transcribed in cases when spiritual defense is needed, and are recited for defense against rabid dogs and wicked persons. Upon the exorcistic power of the Psalter is based also the spiritual habit of continually repeating the Psalms from memory, even in the midst of doing other things, as a form of spiritual activity and consecration of one’s whole being through the sacramental words. [. . . . ] Not only the Psalter, but all of Sacred Scripture has a cultic meaning, not merely a literary one.

In short, even to read the Holy Scriptures is something that acquires its full significance only liturgically, in prayer, and not outside of the liturgy.


To remove it from this context, even if it is very pleasing to do so, would mean to secularize it. Just as it is impossible to walk down the street wearing a chasuble just because it is a beautiful garment, for the moment one did so it would be equal to desecrating the holy vestments. [ . . . .] To read the Gospel “at work,” outside of prayer, is not only mistaken but is also absurd, because it would mean to study a living thing after having murdered it. [. . . .] It follows that the Gospel, the Epistles, and Sacred Scripture in general are only one part of the Ordo of the Church. The Typikon –and I say it as a paradox—is more than Sacred Scripture, because the latter is not outside but inside the former, and thus contained by it.

20. It is good to reflect on rules of conduct in the same way. The holy fasts, for example, do not have an autonomy or moral order to themselves. They are rather tied to the liturgy, they play a part in the liturgical order akin to the preparation for Holy Communion, the ritual organization of life. They are therefore an ordo, or rather a liturgical moment, a moment of the ecclesiastical function.

21. Homilies too are not an arbitrary add-on inserted surreptitiously by the Protestants into a sacred place and time, but are regulated interpretations, contemplated, fixed by the Church. We are dealing yet again with parts of the liturgy, of its own moments and certainly not of extemporaneous lectures upon edifying subjects that tear the cloth of the liturgical actions, prayers and the hymns.

22. The instruction in our seminaries and in our ecclesiastical schools is mistaken from the start, from the moment that it is characterized by a certain autonomy of theology and even of diverse theologies–dogmatic, moral, and so on. In this entirely formal program a Protestant mode of thinking is already embedded, because Protestantism is in its essence the negation of the centrality of cult and the substitution of the center of religion with thought that, of its nature, cannot but be autonomous.

Personally I have not the slightest doubt that orthodox instruction centers itself on cult–and not on teaching about cult, but on life in cult–and thus the diverse “subjects” are only moments in the study of cult. But as soon as they become autonomous, and forgetful of cult, notwithstanding their contents they end in the orbit of Protestantism. In fact, while orthodox in respect to the content delivered, since they are not centered on cult they are eccentric in respect to orthodoxy, which is to say they are Protestant.


[On the Cambridge Ritualist school of Frazer, Durkheim, et al.]

The proponents of this theory, though they are empiricist positivists and probably enemies of every religion, perhaps because of their very hostility have correctly discovered the central point, the living nerve of religion, that nerve so alien to the contemporary consciousness that its very emergence, the very fact of demonstrating its existence has proved ruinous for religion in our century. But precisely for this reason the proponents of the sacral theory, despite the incorrectness of their intentions, are correct in their intuitions. Even if unjust in their judgments, they actually see rightly in many cases: a hostile look often sees the core of a question more profoundly than an indifferent glance. This applies to that principle enemy of religion, Durkheim, even if his ideas require many substantial qualifications.

I should like to say to the scholars of our time:

“Religion is by its essence alien to modernity, just as modernity is not accidentally alien to religion.” Let us say it bravely, with clarity and precision! Let us finally declare war between modernity and religion! And we will see who emerges victorious.

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