"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Monday, January 22, 2018

The Possibility of an Ascetical Politics in Spite of Death (I)

I stumbled across this book and wasn't expecting much. I have read a lot over the last two years in the areas of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Christianity, and the vast majority of those books have proven to be extremely limited.

But not so Todd McGowan's Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. This is a fascinating and rewarding book that is at once deeply challenging to contemporary politics and theology alike. It explicitly treats the former at length and in very interesting and reflective ways; it rarely engages the latter except via polemical denigration and sometimes near-caricature, but I shall not hold that against the author because what he does say is nonetheless, in ways he does not recognize, very amenable to parts of the theological project of Eastern Christianity in particular. (The other benefit to this book, I have found--at risk of saying too much--is to understanding my own life and the operation of certain habits of mind, to which McGowan's book delivers a sharp and welcome challenge.)

There are themes in this book which are very reminiscent of those treated by Adam Phillips, as I noted here, especially in his two books Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life  and perhaps even more in Unforbidden Pleasures: Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality. I discussed both here and here.

In particular, both Phillips (whom McGowan does not seem to cite, at least in Enjoying What We Don't Have) and McGowan are concerned about changing how we relate to the world of advanced capitalism with its constant promotion of acquisition and accumulation. Both, in some senses--without using this term, which they might well recoil from--promote what seems to me to be a clear form of ascetical detachment that someone like Evagrius would find most commendable.

McGowan's point of departure is a relatively late, and often very controversial, work of Freud: the death drive, which he advances in the most detailed form in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of 1920.

For Freud, the death drive is not just or even primarily connected to death itself. It is most often encountered in the ways in which people sabotage themselves not once but repeatedly and on-goingly. Why do we do this? As strange as it may sound--though it seems extremely obvious to me--the very enactment and repetition is an attempt to get at something valuable, or perceived as valuable but lacking: “Subjects engage in acts of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage because the loss enacted reproduces the subject’s lost object and enables the subject to enjoy this object” (13).

As McGowan goes on
The repetition involved with the death drive is not simply repetition of any particular experience. The repetition compulsion leads the subject to repeat specifically the experiences that have traumatized it and disturbed its stable functioning. The better things are going for the subject, the more likely that the death drive will derail the subject’s activity. According to the theory implied by the death drive, any movement toward the good — any progress — will tend to produce a reaction that will undermine it (14)
The genius of McGowan's book is to take the death drive not as something to be lamented, or healed, or overcome (he doesn't really think any of those are possible, and to the extent that some suggest they can be, they are probably capitalists hawking some gimmick like "mindfulness," or "gurus" propagating some nonsense), but harnessed: he argues that it is by "adopting the death drive as its guiding principle that emancipatory politics can pose a genuine alternative to the dominance of global capitalism rather than incidentally creating new avenues for its expansion and development” (21).

Continues. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Nicholas Denysenko on Theophany and Chrismation

For those of you gearing up on the old calendar to celebrate tomorrow the splendid and venerable feast of Theophany, I take the opportunity of referring you again to Nicholas Denysenko's book on the topic, The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition (Routledge, 2012). I interviewed Nick about that book on here shortly after it was published.

I also want to call attention to his Chrismation: A Primer for Catholics, published in 2014 by Liturgical Press.

This latter book is the subject of a lecture Nick will be giving here in Ft. Wayne at the University of Saint Francis on 20 February 2018, a Tuesday evening at 7pm in the downtown ballroom in the Business Centre.

In my classes over the last several years with Roman Catholics, especially those who work in parishes as DREs or catechists, I have used Nick's book to help them think through the vexed issue of the age and sequence of the sacraments of initiation, above all of Chrismation/Confirmation.

So come to USF in February to hear Nick lecture. Copies of this and several of his other very recent books will be available for sale and signing by him.

Syriac and Ethiopian Christianity

One of the happy benefits of living in the last two decades is that the venerable traditions of first Syriac, and more recently Ethiopian, Christianity have started to become better known. One publisher responsible for much of this is Peeters of Belgium, which has recently brought out Ralph Lee's Symbolic Interpretations in Ethiopic and Early Syriac Literature (2017), 312pp.

About this new book (whose table of contents is here) the publisher tells us the following:
The palimpsest of Ethiopian Christianity reveals the possible impact and influence of several hands: Judaic, Egyptian, and Syrian. This book investigates the influence of Syrian Christianity upon the trajectory of Ethiopian Christianity, proposing that many of the so-called 'Judaic' practices may have arisen through interaction with Judaeo-Christian Syriac Christianity, rather than from an Old Testament context, exploring Ethiopic and Syrian literary links using Ge'ez, Amharic and Syriac sources to show how Syrian and Ethiopic traditions relate. The symbolic motifs of the Ark and the Cross, as well as the perception of Paradise are explored in Ethiopic hymnody or Deggwa of St Yared, the andemta Bible commentaries, and the national epic, the Kebrä Nägäst, compared with Syriac works of the fourth century Syriac theologian-poet Ephrem, his later devotee Jacob of Serugh, and the earlier Syriac Odes to Solomon. The material common to Ethiopic and Syriac literature demonstrates the complexity of the Judaeo-Christian thought-worlds from which they derived, implying more nuanced influences than have previously been postulated.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Holy Rus'?

Interest in Russian Orthodoxy remains high, not least because myths around the Russian Church remain carefully cultivated, often alternating between narratives of "chosen glory" and "chosen trauma," to use Vamik Volkan's terms.

A recent book by John P. Burgess looks at these narratives, especially in the post-1991 period: Holy Rus': The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia (Yale UP, 2017), 272pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
A bold experiment is taking place in Russia. After a century of being scarred by militant, atheistic communism, the Orthodox Church has become Russia’s largest and most significant nongovernmental organization. As it has returned to life, it has pursued a vision of reclaiming Holy Rus’: that historical yet mythical homeland of the eastern Slavic peoples; a foretaste of the perfect justice, peace, harmony, and beauty for which religious believers long; and the glimpse of heaven on earth that persuaded Prince Vladimir to accept Orthodox baptism in Crimea in A.D. 988.
Through groundbreaking initiatives in religious education, social ministry, historical commemoration, and parish life, the Orthodox Church is seeking to shape a new, post-communist national identity for Russia. In this eye-opening and evocative book, John Burgess examines Russian Orthodoxy’s resurgence from a grassroots level, providing Western readers with an enlightening, inside look at the new Russia.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Foucault on Power and Authority in the Church (III)

When we left off, our author, Steven Ogden, had sketched out the ecclesial problems of sovereignty, power, authority, and the epistemic hubris (and other abuses) attendant upon and resulting from the first three. This section, which I regard as diagnostic, is the stronger of the two in the book. As we move into the second half, offering suggestions for alternative models, the chapters are shorter and woefully underdeveloped.

In the remainder of his book, his burden is to ketch out an alternative vision of the Church as a space of unconstrained freedom. In chapter 5, where this discussion begins, he also resumes his larger ecumenical narrative after an excursus through the Anglican Communion's contemporary polities and politics. In doing so, he explicitly eschews the role of telling others what to do or how to structure their lives, saying instead that he will outline "a suite of catalysts which could enhance ecclesiological reflection and the renewal of authority" (110), these catalysts including "critique, space, imagination, and wisdom."

The chapter begins with a definition of freedom as practice, noting that such practices must be defined anew every generation. Freedom is a gift, Ogden notes, for the service of others. But it is a limited gift, constrained by the incomplete, partial, and transient nature of human life; liberation remains incomplete; it is an eschatological hope only partially realized here and now. As Foucault noted, people can be liberated but not free (cf. Winnicott on this).

The rest of the chapter, like this section of the book as a whole, becomes progressively more circular, repetitive, self-referential, and exhortatory in an almost homiletic mode. In the end it does not really deliver on its promise of a sustained reflection on an alternative model of the Church, saying rather limply on the ante-penultimate page, "with an eye on practice, the focus of this book has been conceptual and theoretical" and denying, in its final line, that "this is not sidestepping the complexity of unresolved problems" though it rather reads like it, alas.

Still, for raising the crucial questions of the corruptions, often unconscious, brought about by notions of sovereignty, and for examining questions of power and authority, as it does so well in the first half, this book has more than demonstrated its importance.

Concluded. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Killing Matthew Levering: A How-To Guide

If I were trapped on the proverbial island in the middle of nowhere, and could only pick one contemporary Roman Catholic theologian to share my solitude, I'm quite sure it would be Matthew Levering. Conversation with him would never flag or bore, and always unearth new things to think about, or, better, old things in a new way. He manages, with astonishing effortlessness, to range freely and widely across Christian tradition East and West (both Catholic and Protestant) in search of answers to questions today, being, as I have said of him before, that "scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven [who] is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matt. 13:52).

This scribe, whose evangelical pen never rests, has another book coming out this month. With Lent being relatively early this year, and Lent being a time to contemplate both dying to ourselves and the dying of Christ, this book will make for very suitable ante-paschal reading in our spiritual deserts: Dying and the Virtues by Matthew Levering (Eerdmans, 2018), 352pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In this rich book Matthew Levering explores nine key virtues that we need to die (and live) well: love, hope, faith, penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage.
Retrieving and engaging a variety of biblical, theological, historical, and medical resources, Levering journeys through the various stages and challenges of the dying process, beginning with the fear of annihilation and continuing through repentance and gratitude, suffering and hope, before arriving finally at the courage needed to say goodbye to one’s familiar world. 
Grounded in careful readings of Scripture, the theological tradition, and contemporary culture, Dying and the Virtues comprehensively and beautifully shows how these nine virtues effectively unite us with God, the One who alone can conquer death.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Foucault on Power and Authority in the Church (II)

Previously I noted that this book begins from the premise that the Church's understanding of power is problematic insofar as it is tied to worldly notions of sovereignty (which I have treated elsewhere at length). Much of the burden of the author consists in his trying to show how corrupting "sovereignty" is in a body which purports to incarnate in the world the kingdom of Him who came not to be served but to serve, and who surrendered His sovereignty by taking the very nature of a servant (cf. Phil. 2). In particular, Ogden notes that the Church has often failed to protect the innocent and vulnerable in e.g., child sex abuse cases, because of a belief that bishops are sovereign.

After addressing the challenges of using Foucault theologically, the author notes in his introduction that his other major interlocutor will be the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.

Ogden's second chapter begins from the premise that "authority is an important concept in the Church but it is under-theorized," which I certainly find to be true. He goes on to note that in Foucault as in others, there is often a great deal of reflection on power, but relatively little on authority--which, as I noted previously, should not surprise us insofar as one of the achievements of emotivism is to obliterate precisely this distinction. Only towards the end of his third chapter will Ogden begin to attempt defining authority, a process that is itself not at all straightforward insofar as it is often self-legitimating. It is at this point that Ogden brings Hannah Arendt into the conversation with Foucault, especially her essay "What is Authority?"

For Arendt, authority is neither coercive nor persuasive, but personal and foundational, resting on an office and its respect. For Arendt (and other historians), such foundational offices passed from the Roman Empire into the Roman Church as the former began to decline and the latter picked up some of the pieces. In time, such a move would be legitimated by being considered part of "tradition," a notion Ogden addresses briefly at this point by drawing on MacIntyre.

Foucault rarely treats authority as such, preferring instead to concentrate his focus on the mesh of power-relations that is ever shifting. One must not see power in monochromatic terms here, for power is dynamic, and power-relations usually more complex than a simple binary of dominator-dominated. This is all the more true, Ogden says, in the Church whose "problems are more complex than a stereotypical bifurcation of exploitive leaders and ill-fated followers." And it is not the leaders Ogden is expecially concerned about so much as their, and the whole Church's reliance on "the influence of sovereign power" and the reliance on "a monarchical model of leadership."

From here, following Foucault, Ogden then examines the relationship between power and the production of knowledge. This has especial relevance in the Church insofar as episcopally structured ecclesial bodies see those hierarchs as having an authoritative teaching role to declare certain things to be true or false. The problem here, the very real risk abundantly in evidence in every church and indeed human organization of any sort, is that of "epistemic hubris," which Ogden introduces in ch.2 but develops further in ch.3.

The temptations to epistemic hubris seem inevitable in a system that sets up certain leaders as "my lord bishop," as patriarch of all the Russias, or "your all-holiness." Each of those figures presides over "sovereign" territory--whether a diocese, or a unit much larger. Once again, then, we are back to the problem of sovereignty, and as chapter 3 closes, Ogden rightly notes how much of the discussion here is indebted to Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and others.

At the end of ch. 3 Ogden has narrowed his focus to look at sovereignty, authority, and power, in the diocesan structures of the Anglican Communion, especially in Australia. But before he begins that, his next brief chapter "The Spell of Monarchy and the Sacralization of Obedience," deals with the fact that from its founding Anglicanism "still has not cut the head off the king." Thus Anglican episcopacy lives very much in imitation of monarchical patterns--ruling over sovereign territory, compelling conformity of behavior and discipline, and sacralizing authority and its commands as "pastoral."


A brief mention of the Christian East is introduced here from Foucault, whose understanding of "pastoral power" is traced through early Egyptian and Jewish monarchical ideas to later notions of spiritual direction in the Desert Fathers--so well treated in Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church by the Orthodox scholar George Demacopoulos.

The dangers of spiritual directors and confessors abusing their power is by no means limited to the first millennium, as this recent essay suggests.

If sovereignty, power, and authority all have risks--epistemic hubris, abuse of minorities and the vulnerable, etc--what alternatives have we? Here, in chapter 5, is where Ogden begins to sketch some alternative possibilities to conceive of the Church as "an open space of freedom."

Continues. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Healing Touch

One of the saddest jobs I had in my life was working in a pastoral care department of a large nursing home in Ottawa in the 1990s. The people were so desperately lonely that I often had to do nothing but sit and listen to them, sometimes holding their hand. There was one woman I was especially close to, who reminded me of my maternal grandmother, for both of them had lived through the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, and then emigrated to Canada after the war. She was rather cantankerous and many other people kept clear of her, making clear their dislike of her (which was often mutual), but I somehow really came to like her, and she me. On the afternoon when she lay dying and was no longer really conscious, I sat and held her hand for quite some time, which seemed to calm her and keep her from being agitated. Her family, who seldom if ever bestirred themselves to come visit, afterwards wrote me a note thanking me for being there, having apparently been told of my presence by one of the nurses to assuage the guilt of their absence.

Both then and since I have had occasion to reflect on the simple yet profoundly powerful role of human touch. Certainly the psychological literature is full of studies indicating how vital touch is for human flourishing.

Along comes a new book, from the leading Orthodox publisher in the anglophone world, treating this topic: Touch and the Healing of the World by Daniel Hinshaw (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2017), 144pp. I noted an earlier book by Hinshaw here.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Touch and the Healing of the World explores one of the most familiar yet profound of human experiences—touch. In a series of reflections that focus upon events in the life of Christ (beautifully portrayed in contemporary icons, in full color plates), Dr Daniel Hinshaw contemplates the mystery of the incarnation, focusing on the meaning and importance of touch.
Drawing on a wide range of sources, from icons, hymns, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church to the most recent findings of modern medicine, Dr Hinshaw invites readers to understand the fuller implications of the saving work of Christ. The Lord entered into every aspect of our life—the tender embrace of mother and child, the humility of a servant as he washed his disciples’ feet, and the horror of torture as he was scourged, beaten, and crucified—so that we might enter into his life—his transfiguration, his resurrection, and the never-ending joy of his kingdom.
Daniel Hinshaw is an Orthodox Christian layman and practicing physician. He teaches Palliative Care as a Professor Emeritus of Surgery and Consultant in Palliative Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, at Transilvania University in Brasov, Romania, Balamand University in Lebanon, and as Sessional Professor of Palliative Care at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Foucault on Power and Authority in the Church (I)

Ever since reading MacIntyre's After Virtue more than twenty years ago, I have been fascinated with the distinction between power and authority, a distinction which, he says, emotivism obliterates. That fascination led me in part to study the questions of papal power and authority in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy and in several other places.

It was, then, with great interest that I received recently in the mail Steven Ogden's new book, The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom (Routledge, 2017), 190pp.

The author is an Anglican cleric in Australia, and much of this book is very focused on Anglicanism in particular, especially in its Australian context. But the author has a way of writing that is genuinely ecumenical without being heavy-handed about it, and thus the reader can easily see many parallels with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, two churches which are even more hierarchical than Anglicanism and which make even 'thicker' claims to authority.

The author's starting premise is that the Church has largely modeled herself (!) on age-old notions of sovereign power which still, often unconsciously, continue to haunt her imagination and inform her structures--a point I suggested recently in this essay where I noted that we need a new reading of Freud's Future of an Illusion to pry us away from an often infantilized ecclesiology with its unconscious imperial assumptions. (If you are going to read Freud's work, the Broadview edition edited by Todd Dufresne is the way to go as its translation is more felicitous than the Standard Edition's and as a bonus contains a number of other related, and often very recondite, essays, including, most significantly, Oskar Pfister's rejoinder "The Illusion of a Future: a Friendly Disagreement with Prof. Sigmund Freud," which Freud himself solicited and then had published in the psychoanalytic journal he founded, thus complicating considerably the picture of Freud as being desperately insecure about his views and very closed to critics.)

Ogden's is a worthwhile and very important study, and I shall be returning to it in the days ahead.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Maisky Diaries

For those interested in political diaries, and for those who want glimpses inside the mind of Soviet diplomacy before and during the Second World War, then I commend to you The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James's, 1932-1943 by Ivan Maisky and edited by‎ Gabriel Gorodetsky. Published by Yale University Press in 2015 in this condensed version (the fuller three volumes are also available), they offer revealing insights into all the largely unsuccessful diplomatic maneuvers between Britain, the USSR, and France, inter alia, in trying to prevent what everyone seems to have regarded as inevitable: another war with Germany. And then of course once war was underway, we see renewed attempts at building an alliance to defeat Hitler.

Though he says almost nothing about the plight of Eastern Christians in the USSR, he does on a couple of occasions very off-handedly dismiss Christianity in unsurprising terms as a silly bourgeois tradition--until he meets the so-called red dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson. Maisky seems to find Johnson's unflagging support of the USSR useful and encouraging if at times a little de trop. But Maisky seems almost unnerved by Johnson's desire for justice for the poor, suggesting that if more Christians were like this then they might not justify dismissal everywhere as guilty of so much middle-class twaddle and superstition.

Maisky was a clever and cunning figure to survive the purges of the late 30s in the Soviet Union, and also in knowing what information to reveal and what to conceal in official communications between London and Moscow. He also developed the neat trick of reporting to Stalin confidential conversations with British cabinet ministers and Foreign Office officials in London in which Maisky put his own plans into the mouths of British officials and then reported these back to Stalin as a way of encouraging him to think about some idea or other that Maisky would not openly advocate lest he fall afoul of the regime and wind up dead.

He would survive, and then, like Churchill, go on to write (also in a semi-official capacity) some of the history in which he was himself a participant. As David Reynolds revealed in his splendid and deeply fascinating In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, both sides used the writings of their statesmen after the war to retouch (to put it mildly in some cases) parts of the historical record in view of the politics of the immediate postwar and early Cold War periods. What they left out was often as revealing, and often more so, than what they put in.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Veneration of the Cross in the Medieval Islamic World

Today, the ancient and wonderful feast of the Theophany (about which see Nick Denysenko's book here), will often see many Eastern Christians carving crosses out of ice near newly blessed bodies of water, and then hurling wooden hand crosses into those waters to make of them an offering back to their Creator. This seems a quintessentially Christian ritual, but how was it handled in the Muslim world, where so many Eastern Christians lived and live?

I count it a success in my courses on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam when my students come to appreciate how often the boundaries were more blurred than they realize, or are often thought to be today. I tell them that they should leave the course recognizing that questions of identity, historically situated, are far messier than many thought, and that borrowings of, or at least attendance at, ritual practices of the "other's" community, happened more than we might realize.

Examples of this include some Muslims venerating Christian relics and praying in Christian shrines, and Christians attending Muslim village festivals, some evidence of which is to be found in such fascinating works as I noted here.

Now a new book further complicates and expounds the picture for us: Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World: Christian Identity and Practice Under Muslim Rule by Charles Tieszen (I.B. Tauris, 2017), 244pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
One of the most common religious practices among medieval Eastern Christian communities was their devotion to venerating crosses and crucifixes. Yet many of these communities existed in predominantly Islamic contexts, where the practice was subject to much criticism and often resulted in accusations of idolatry. How did Christians respond to these allegations? Why did they advocate the preservation of a practice that was often met with confusion or even contempt? To shed light onto these questions, Charles Tieszen looks at every known apologetic or polemical text written between the eighth and fourteenth centuries to include a relevant discussion. With sources taken from across the Mediterranean basin, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, the result is the first in-depth look at a key theological debate which lay at the heart of these communities' religious identities. By considering the perspectives of both Muslim and Christian authors, Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World also raises important questions concerning cross-cultural debate and exchange, and the development of Christianity and Islam in the medieval period. This is an important book that will shine much needed light onto Christian-Muslim relations, the nature of inter-faith debates and the wider issues facing the communities living across the Middle East during the medieval period

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Walter Sisto on Bulgakov's Mariology

I first came across Walter Sisto's name several years ago after he published an insightful article on ecumenical method. Not long after, he submitted an article to Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, which we published after very strong recommendations from the reviewers.

Now he is out with a new book, The Mother of God in the Theology of Sergius Bulgakov: The Soul Of The World and following my usual custom I sent him some questions for an interview. Here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

WNS: My name is Walter Nunzio Sisto. I am a Roman Catholic theologian and assistant professor of Religious Studies at D’Youville College in Buffalo, NY. I completed my master’s degree in theology at Seton Hall University and my doctorate at The University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. In both instances my research interest was the Orthodox-Catholic ecumenical movement. My doctoral work focused primarily on an ecumenist and Russian theologian, Father Sergius Bulgakov. I have written various articles in journals such as Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Irish Theological Quarterly, Ecumenical Trends, and Marian Studies. Recently I published a book for courses that I teach called Death and the World Religions: How Religion Informs End-of-Life Decisions. The book was inspired by Bulgakov’s sophiology of death.

AD: What led to the writing of this book?

As a young man, I spent much of my time at our local Ruthenian Catholic Church as well as the local Roman Catholic Church. I have always had a fascination with Mary and how she is encountered in the Eastern churches as well as the Western. However, I was never fully able to reconcile our Lady of the Rosary with the Most Holy Theotokos.

As a graduate student at St. Michaels in Toronto, I recall having a conversation about this, and my professor, Dr. Jaroslav Skira, suggested that I read The Burning Bush by Sergius Bulgakov, which was then being translated by his colleague, Dr. T. Allan Smith—who later become my mentor, adviser, and thesis director. When I started studying Bulgakov, I was somewhat astonished by how little was written on his theology, and his Mariology. This led to my dissertation on Bulgakov’s Mariology that was eventually revised into this book.

AD: You note in the introduction that Bulgakov thought the Theotokos was the "hidden nerve of the whole movement towards reconciliation" among Christians. This will surely strike not a few people as very counter-intuitive: isn't Mary precisely one of the areas where we are divided? Tell us a bit more about what Bulgakov meant by this.

Bulgakov would agree that Mary is indeed one of the areas that divide. His point is that the Theotokos underpins the entire discussion of division. A Christian tradition that dismisses or ignores Mary falls into either the heresy of Apollinarianism or Doesticm. There is no possibility to reunite unless we accept the dogma of the Theotokos and the implications that dogma has for Christology and the life of the Church. Remember that Bulgakov lived at the beginning of the ecumenical movement before there were any bilateral dialogues on the Theotokos. His goal was to raise awareness of the importance of the Theotokos to Orthodox and Catholic theology, and to show that reunion was impossible without taking seriously her role in the life and theology of both traditions. For Bulgakov, Mariology is a litmus test for orthodox Christology: without a shared understanding of who Christ is, the ecumenical movement cannot bear fruit. 

AD: Tell us how you arrived at some of your interlocutors. E.g., what led you to Elizabeth Johnson's work on Mary as opposed to other modern RC theologians?

Bulgakov is generally ignored or unknown by non-Orthodox theologians. The interlocutors that I choose are those that are not only widely regarded as such but also have had an important influence on modern Orthodox thinking, particularly in the Western world. Because Bulgakov’s anthropology and Mariology rely on his understanding of gender and femininity, it was appropriate that I apply feminist theory to his Mariology.

Although there is no shortage of good research on Mary by feminist theologians, Johnson’s work, Truly our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2006), is, in my opinion, the most comprehensive study of Mary from a feminist perspective. Johnson not only engages pneumatological Mariologies that share close affinity to Bulgakov’s, but Johnson also poses a challenge to the Marian tradition: it must engage the historical Mary, a Mary who was far from a passive vessel but a historical woman, actively engaged in salvation history. Johnson’s study was relevant to my research in these ways. I argue that Bulgakov’s Mariology does in fact meet Johnson’s challenge, but also offers a corrective to Johnson’s research that neglects Mary’s role in the life of the Church.

AD: Today, of course, debates about sexuality and gender are rampant. But you note that many of these conversations (especially about bisexuality and androgyny) were already happening in Russia while Bulgakov was a young man. What brought those questions to the fore in Bulgakov's time in Russia?

I cannot do justice to this question in the space provided. Much like the current cultural fascination with sex for which there is not a sole source, there is not a single source for the fascination with sex in Russia during Bulgakov’s youth. I think the emerging field of psychology greatly influenced Russian thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century on this topic. For instance, C.G. Jung's work treated bisexuality as the archetypal element of the human psyche. However, the influence of Otto Weininger’s text, Geschlecht und Charakter: Eine prinzipielle Untersuchung should not go unnoticed. Both thinkers stressed androgynous terminology to explain human psychology.

AD: Your second chapter, devoted to Bulgakov's methods and sources, begins by noting that one must grapple with his Sophiology. For some, that is a very intimidating prospect--either in itself, or because of what they've heard about Bulgakov's Sophiology. You, however, begin by calling that his theological methods "quite conservative and traditional," which seems to fly in the face of some people who allege he was an innovator or 'heretic.' Tell us how you understand the controversy that surrounded Bulgakov.

Bulgakov is to Orthodoxy what Karl Rahner is to Catholicism. He was a brilliant mind that pushed the boundaries of theological thought, and for these reasons he was controversial (as Rahner was) and condemned by many of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he was unwaveringly faithful to the Orthodox Church.

Many of his publications have a polemical tone, as they were authored to explain Orthodox teaching in contradistinction to Catholic and Protestant theology. If you read Bulgakov carefully—although be aware that the English translations of his major trilogy drop many of his footnotes that function as proof texts—he was concerned about the fidelity of his thought to the liturgy, the Fathers, and Orthodox teaching. He certainly uses non-traditional sources and is influenced by various non-Orthodox philosophers, but these sources are tools that help him to better explain Orthodox theology.

Nevertheless, Sophia was not conjured out of the air, but was inspired by the Russian liturgical tradition and the Bible. Bulgakov uses all the sources you might expect an Orthodox theologian to use. He is generally viewed as the antithesis of the neo-patristic movement, but the reality is that Bulgakov did not want to leave the Fathers behind but used them as his inspiration to engage the modern world. Bulgakov takes pains to demonstrate that Sophiology is a development of Palamas’ energy-essence distinction. Bulgakov does not view his theology as something “new” but rather as making explicit the belief of the Orthodox faith.


I understand the controversy surrounding Bulgakov as primarily a debate over methodology. I found it interesting that Vladimir Lossky, who instigated the Sophiology controversy, in his pamphlet Spor i Sofii, primarily rejects Bulgakov’s method. He does not deny the validity of the sources Bulgakov uses, but in his estimation Bulgakov’s Sophiology is abstract speculation that cherry-picks from the Orthodox tradition and overemphasizes minor points in the theology of the Fathers, as well as overemphasizes minor Church Fathers. What is dangerous about Sophiology is that uses the veneer of Orthodoxy, but does not engage the Orthodox mindset for theology.

AD: In noting Bulgakov's rejection of the RC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, you note that it was of several pieces, including an objection to it being declared by a pope alone, who lacks authority to define dogma on his own; but that it also based on a fallacious anthropology, and then a violation of Mary's free will. But a little earlier in this chapter you also note that "Bulgakov did not completely reject the teaching of the Immaculate Conception" (p. 116). Where, in the end, does Bulgakov come down on this?

Bulgakov views the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as an inappropriate expression of a correct teaching. He of course rejects the authority of the pope to define dogma. But his main issue is with the definition. Bulgakov considered it a great heresy to admit that Mary sinned in her life. Mary never personally sinned; this is an Orthodox dogma for Bulgakov. However, to say that God removed the stain of the original sin at the moment of Mary’s conception not only robs Mary of her accomplishment but also contradicts the scriptural presentation of God, who is always actively engaged with humanity, but rarely interjects directly and arbitrarily. Moreover, the Immaculate Conception assumes an understanding of the original sin and anthropology, which Bulgakov does not share. 

In the third chapter, I address the connections between Bulgakov, Florensky, and Soloviev. On the topic of the Immaculate Conception, Bulgakov follows Florensky closely.  I argue that not only did Bulgakov consider Florensky his friend and mentor, but after comparing Bulgakov’s Mariology to Florensky’s Mariology, the similarities in their thought suggest that it is highly probable that Florensky’s thought inspired Bulgakov’s Mariology. Soloviev was also an important influence for both Bulgakov and Florensky. He initiated the Sophiological theological movement that Florensky and later Bulgakov edit and systematize. Bulgakov had no qualms in publically admitting the influence of both men on his thought. For good reason, however, he is much more critical of Soloviev than Florensky. The topic of the Immaculate Conception is one point where Bulgakov follows Florensky and diverges from Soloviev, who embraced this dogma.

AD: Your last chapter, on Bulgakov's critics, notes that he's largely been ignored by "Orthodox feminists" with the exception of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel. Why do you think that is?

With exception of his students and disciples (Elisabeth Behr-Sigel was one of them), Bulgakov was ignored by most theologians after his death. There is no doubt that the condemnation of his thought by two major Orthodox patriarchates and the rise of the neo-patristic movement, as well as interest in patristics not Sophiology among Western institutions and academics contributed to this neglect. I also suspect that Orthodox feminist theologians may not be keen to embrace his Sophiology because Bulgakov was not sensitive to feminist criticisms of patriarchy; he uses androcentric language; and, as Behr-Sigel rightly noted, he tends to mystify women.

AD: Sum up your hopes for this book, and who in particular should read it.

My hope  is that it will contribute to the reception and discussion of Bulgakov’s theological thought, but also to a better understanding of the role and importance of the Mother of God for the life of the Church, theology, and the ecumenical movement. Everyone should read this book! However, persons who are interested in Bulgakov, Sophiology, or Marian studies from a non-Roman Catholic perspective may find this text particularly meaningful. 

AD: Having finished The Mother of God in the Theology of Sergius Bulgakov, what are you at work on now?

I am currently working on a few projects related to Bulgakov’s Sophiology. In addition to a new article that is in-press with the Irish Theological Quarterly on Bulgakov’s theology of  Christ’s Ascension, I am working on a few articles, including Bulgakov’s theology of the icon, the application of his theology of ancestral sin to the contemporary study of epigenetics, and the role of his near-death experiences in his mature theological works.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through: From MacIntyre to Freud and Marx Again

In looking back, as Catholic World Report asked me to do, over some of the significant books I read in 2017, at the top of the list has to stand Alasdair MacIntyre's Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative. I've discussed parts of it on here previously, but here are some longer thoughts.

It is this book of MacIntyre's more than anything else that has forced me to start thinking about Marx seriously for the first time, and to return to Freud and engage him anew as well. When someone as vastly learned as MacIntyre says what he does in this book, those of us who are not as learned and have much to learn from and through him pay attention and follow suit. Thus one finds oneself in some fashion pulled into the unfolding of tradition-as-sustained-argument and of teaching as mentorship to an apprentice, both of which MacIntyre discussed in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry

I do not for a moment pretend that this is an exhaustive review; nor do I pretend to have understood some of its more "technical" philosophical arguments. Almost all of MacIntyre's books never cease to pay rereading over many years to continue to unpack so much of his densely argued prose, and that is certainly the case with this perhaps ironically named "essay" which, he says in the preface, is deliberately written for the non-specialist academic philosopher! MacIntyre expects a lot of his readers and refuses to assume that non-philosophers (his "plain persons") are incapable of following complex philosophical arguments.

Until 2017 a lot of those so-called plain persons had probably not heard of MacIntyre until some blogger came along hawking his tract about the “Benedict option” (does one opt for the bourbon cocktail of that name to go with the oysters, and which of those does one opt for--North Atlantic or south?).  MacIntyre, now closing in on 90, does not deserve, in the sunset of his variegated and vastly influential work as the greatest moral philosopher of the postwar period, to be remembered solely or even primarily for one paragraph (which he says he regrets more than anything he wrote) at the conclusion of just one book, After Virtuewhich was so transparently traduced by the blogger in question.

In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity he has now come full circle in reminding us of the remaining potency and relevance of two figures most often thought to be at odds with Catholicism: Marx and Freud, both of whom were treated in MacIntyre’s first two books from the early 1950s. Freud still has much to teach us about the nature of our desires, and how we fail to be good reasoners when our desires go astray; and Marx still offers us a very powerful critique of how capitalism subtly exploits and fuels those desires, even to the point of invading and eroding Christianity from within.

Over the last six decades, as he went from Protestantism and Marxism to a phase where he was estranged by and from both, and had not yet seen his way back to Aristotle via Aquinas and thus into the Catholic Church, there is one constant in all of MacIntyre’s writings:  his desire to unmask the liberalism of modernity and its many disguises. In this he joins with his fellow British convert Cardinal Newman, as readers of the latter’s celebrated Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and perhaps even more his biglietto speech, will know.

Given his anti-liberalism, too many people reduce MacIntyre to a reactionary or else a communitarian, when he has repeatedly denounced both as being but the false choice proffered by the dominant liberalism of modern politics, where, as he put it, there are conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals—but we are all liberals condemned to think and act in terms of the modern nation-state and its various forms of disguised capitalism.

Have we any genuine and available alternatives? MacIntyre does not answer that question directly, instead suggesting—as he has for most of his life—further lines of thought where we might yet find some possible answers. The most promising place for answers, he reminds us in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, is one that most people will not care to visit, having decided in advance it is irredeemably unprofitable and hopelessly out of date. But the place—or, rather, person—MacIntyre says we must engage anew, after two centuries of misunderstanding, misrepresenting, or misapplying him, is Karl Marx. Too many of us are not willing even to hear that, let alone undertake such a process of learning because of a false assumption that the relationship between Christianity and Marxism is, MacIntyre says, one of “straightforward antagonism.” We have assumed such antagonism and in so doing have never yet, after nearly two centuries, actually had the necessary dialogue between Christianity and the critique posed by the Marx of the 1840s in, e.g., his Theses on Feuerbach. The early Marx was, MacIntyre contends, very much an Aristotelian long before he was an Hegalian, and in his Aristotelianism is thus amenable to Christianity (as Aquinas also also found the Greek philosopher to be).

While aware of the dangers of deformed Marxism, and while agreeing that the Catholic Church was right to condemn persecution of Christians in, e.g., China and the Soviet Union, MacIntyre would insist that Catholic (and other) criticism of Marxism often conveniently masks “obfuscating and reactionary social attitudes” designed to do little more than protect people in their “economic and moral complacency.” So it’s not that Marx has been tried and found wanting so much that he has been left untried because he has been rendered invisible, MacIntyre says, by the modern academic discipline of economics. I confirmed this claim by talking to a Catholic economist, colleague, and friend of mine, Doug Meador, who, well aware of currents in his field, and the types of topics discussed at big conferences of economists, very strongly agreed with MacIntyre here when I asked him, saying that most economists today under the age of 40 have probably never even heard of Marx!

Curiously, the same thing could be said—the same dynamic discerned—in an unthinking rejection of Catholicism which seeks to protect people in their spiritual complacency. Marxism has suffered the same fate as Catholicism in some ways—rejected by seemingly intelligent people who have almost no first-hand knowledge of it but nonetheless scorn it because of the mistakes made by some, or the abuses committed by institutionalized forms and authorities.

But MacIntyre is too careful a thinker, too fair a man, to allow uses and abuses of Marx even by self-proclaimed Marxists (in, e.g., the USSR, which in one place he calls a “deformed workers’ state ruled by a bureaucratic elite” and in another acidly dismisses as “Kruschev Enterprises Inc.”) to prevent him from seeing what is of lasting value. MacIntyre is the consummate Catholic thinker and thus a model for us all insofar as he reflects the ancient patristic practice of  “despoiling the Egyptians,” finding good whatever its provenance. This is clear not just in MacIntyre’s judicious thinking about Marx, but also and equally true in his work on Freud.

For MacIntyre, the same explanatory power he found in Marxism  he later found in Catholicism. What unites both, at least conceptually, is their ability to analyze the powers and principalities of the world and to sniff out their hidden mechanisms of control, violence, and greed—what St. Augustine famously called libido dominandi. When both function well, they are not merely metaphysical systems for understanding the world: they are also, and especially, embodied moral practices that seek to change the world. (The same could be said about psychoanalysis, albeit it on a more individual scale.)

Thus both Marxism and Christianity have the conceptual resources to advance a potent critique of our world today. As he bluntly put it in Marxism: An Interpretation (which was later revised and republished as Marxism and Christianity), “the two most relevant books in the modern world are St. Mark’s Gospel and Marx’s National Economy and Philosophy; but they must be read together.” Thus Marxism and Christianity are at their best, or least in danger of corruption, when they remain on the fringes of empire and economy, offering a critique of both.

When either Christianity or Marxism are not on the “peripheries” (to use a favorite word of Pope Francis), they both run the risk, almost invariably realized, of being captured, usually invisibly, within the confines and categories of capitalism, which, MacIntyre now says in 2017, “is not only a set of economic relationships. It is also a mode of presentation of those relationships that disguises and deceives.” To unmask those relationships, we must, MacIntyre says, learn “from Marx just what it was about capitalism—that appropriation of surplus value—that transformed the relationship of the cultural and social order so radically. “ While recognizing the prosperity capitalism has brought some, MacIntyre also insists in his latest book on recognizing that it has also “destroyed…traditional ways of life, created gross and sometimes grotesque inequalities of income and wealth, lurched through crisis after crisis, creating recurrent mass unemployment and left those areas and those communities that it was not profitable to develop permanently impoverished and deprived.” All this Marx had clearly foreseen two centuries ago.

The deceptive power of capitalism today is such that we often fail—at least, ironically, until Donald Trump came along—to take seriously those inequalities and those deprived and destroyed areas that have been increasing in the last several decades. And it is not just politicians who fail to own up to this: many churchmen have also often gone along with, or at least failed to criticize, these developments, which MacIntyre, in an updated 1995 preface to his Marxism and Christianity, sees as a dereliction of ecclesial duty: “Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often enough been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as political and economic authorities” (here one thinks immediately of Dorothy Day).

MacIntyre’s earliest published writings on Marx were from the 1950s and 1960s. Those writings were reprinted in 2008 in the collection, Alasdair MacIntyre's Engagement with Marxism: Selected Writings 1953-1974, edited by Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson. This book has received almost no attention, but for those hoping to understand his newest book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, these Marxist writings, some of which I have quoted above, are necessary reading.

If in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity he has returned to renewed engagement with Marxism, he has also done so with psychoanalytic thought, which MacIntyre also critically appreciated in his very early book, The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis, and then later in essays reprinted in Against the Self-Images of the Age, where he argued that "psychoanalysis need not become the self-enclosed system which it so often is" (37). The tragedy of its becoming a closed system and ideology (as with communism) means for MacIntyre, as he wrote in 1958, that it obscures “Freud’s essential and unassailable greatness.”

In seeing what value psychoanalysis has when it is not self-enclosed, MacIntyre in 2017 shares much in common with the man I regard as the most interesting and unconventional psychoanalyst writing today (who also comes out of a British Marxist background along with MacIntyre), viz., Adam Phillips, whose biography of the celebrated psychoanalyst , D.W. Winnicott, MacIntyre cites approvingly. I have discussed Phillips on here extensively over the past two years.

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity is an astonishing book for a man who turns 89 this year. It shows no loss or diminution of his enormous powers of reason, his astonishingly wide-ranging reading, and his synthesis of that reading. It also shows once more his genuine modesty at admitting what he does not know sufficiently, or has not thought about rigorously enough. Again and again he admits, with disarming directness, where he got something wrong, or needed to add to, subtract from, or otherwise revise what he earlier thought and wrote. There is something enormously admirable about this, perhaps because it seems so rare today. It is a feature of nearly every book, including the most recent, but it is perhaps most clearly stated at the end of his updated (2003) edition of The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis, where he says that “I owe at least as much and probably a good deal more to those with whom I disagree as to those with whom I agree….One’s severest critics are often those to whom one is most in debt.”

Critics help us to see things differently, and even to help us live differently. In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, MacIntyre looks at the lives of four critical figures who offer us help in order to “live against the cultural grain…as economic, political, and moral antagonists of the dominant order.”

MacIntyre, in typical narrative style, focuses on Vasily Grossman (a Ukrainian Jewish writer in Stalinist Russia), Sandra Day O’Connor (an American jurist), C.L.R. James (a Trinidadian writer, activist, and cricketer), and Denis Faul (an Irish Catholic priest involved in the political troubles there). This prosopological method is similar to one he first used in his 2006 book Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922.

With the four lives in the present volume, MacIntyre seeks to ask about how each was both helped and hindered in reasoning about desires and in rank ordering of the goods of one’s life by both theoretical and practical considerations, starting with their families and schooling, which he takes to be utterly critical to the formation of virtuous character and thus sound reasoning. Families and schools are crucial insofar as they seek to inculcate in children three essential qualities: reliability, truthfulness, and imagination. Here especially one sees the influence of Winnicott's well-known ideas about the "good enough mother."

The result of narrating these four very different stories is to show that “human lives do have a teleological structure” but that the telos towards which each life aims will always and everywhere be incomplete until and unless it finds its fulfillment in “an object of desire beyond all particular and finite goods.” MacIntyre does not give a name to that “object,” for he is—as I suggested more than a decade ago in reviewing his book on Stein—the most apophatic of Christian philosophers—but he ends his book, and so perhaps the last major work of his own extraordinarily fecund life, by saying simply: “Here the enquiries of politics and ethics end. Here natural theology begins”—a suitably Thomistic ending if ever there were one.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Basil of Caesarea

Next year will be a good one for all those interested in St. Basil the Great. In April, Routledge is publishing Nicu Dumitrascu's Basil the Great: Faith, Mission and Diplomacy in the Shaping of Christian Doctrine (2018), 272pp.

About this forthcoming book the publisher tells us:
Regarded as one of the three hierarchs or pillars of orthodoxy along with Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, Basil is a key figure in the formative process of Christianity in the fourth century. While his role in establishing Trinitarian terminology, as well as his function in shaping monasticism, his social thought and even his contribution to the evolution of liturgical forms have been the focus of research for many years, there are few studies which centre on his political thought. Basil played a major role in the political and religious life between Cappadocia and Armenia and was a key figure in the tumultuous relationship between Church and State in Late Antiquity. He was a great religious leader and a gifted diplomat, and developed a ’special relationship’ with Emperor Valens and other high imperial officials.
And a few weeks before that, with an official mid-March release date, Routledge is also publishing Basil of Caesarea (2018), 238pp, written by Stephen Hildebrand, who has authored and translated other works by and about Basil. In the latter category, we have On the Holy Spirit: St. Basil the Great, in the Popular Patristics series from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. In the former category, Hildebrand first emerged with his 2009 book The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea: A Synthesis of Greek Thought and Biblical Truth. More recently he has authored Basil of Caesarea in the series Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality published by Baker Academic.

This new book, then, comes from the hand of a respected scholar of Basil. As the publisher tells us, the book

examines the life and thought of Basil of Caesarea. This unique volume brings together a lengthy introduction to his life and thought with a selection of extracts from his diverse works in new translations, with each extract accompanied by an introduction and notes. This format allows students to better understand this significant figure in the Early Church by providing an accessible representative selection of his works in one concise volume, making this an invaluable resource for students of early Christianity.
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