"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).


Friday, August 23, 2019

Michael Martin on Transfiguration

Running interviews on this blog is one of its real delights, and never more so than with authors of such fascinating and wide-ranging erudition as Michael Martin, whom I previously interviewed here about his earlier book on sophiology. This also allows me to repay, in part, the kindnesses he bestowed on me in helping get my own recent book into print and then blurbing it so generously.

As usual in these interviews, I e-mailed some questions to Michael. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background.

I started out as a musician and songwriter, long, long ago, before I eventually wandered into Waldorf teaching. Around the same time as I started teaching, I became involved with the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening movement and also did some garden design and consulting in that regard. After sixteen years of Waldorf teaching, I left to become a professor of English, philosophy, and religious studies at Marygrove College in Detroit. When the College—shockingly—announced it was eliminating its undergraduate program in 2017, I found myself at a crossroads. Since then, I’ve concentrated on farming and alternative education. My wife and I run a CSA and market garden (Stella Matutina Farm) and also raise dairy goats, poultry, hogs, and tend an apiary. I also started The Center for Sophiological Studies in 2018, where I offer online courses, education, and occasional lectures.

AD: What led to the writing of Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything?

MM: In summer of 2016 I hosted a conference at our farm on the theme of “The Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything.” We had sessions on all the themes represented in the book as well as thoughts on conviviality, liturgy, and ecumenism. In fact, my journal, Jesus the Imagination, was conceived that weekend. So I guess we could say that the seed for the book was planted then as well.

In 2017 I taught a course called “Science and Religion: At the Crossroads” and started thinking seriously about what “science” could possibly mean in a religious context. As a scholar of 16th and 17th century religious literature, I am acutely aware that what we now think of as “science” did not exist then and that understandings of phusis or natura were not exactly separate from the concerns of metaphysics, ontology, or theology. What we now call science and mysticism, for instance, were often indistinguishable from one another, as, for example, in alchemy, astrology, and magic.

John Milbank and Adrian Pabst have spoken of the “alternative modernity” that has continued since the Scientific Revolution—a modernity characterized by sympathies for hermeticism, mysticism, and, maybe not so obviously, Sophiology. I wondered what would have happened if science and religion had not been divorced at that time (and who did the kids end up living with?). What would science look like now if the realm of the spirit had not been excluded from consideration, let alone investigation? So that got me started. Eventually I expanded it to other areas of concern: education, the arts, economics, technology.

AD: People often gloss over sub-titles but I’m quite struck by what seems a real tension in yours between: notes, radical, and everything. The latter two suggest a kind of totalized, comprehensive, far-reaching, and inescapable revolution, while the first suggests provisionality, hesitation, incompleteness, a work-in-progress. Explain for us if you would a little bit about that tension (which seems to me both healthy and necessary).

“Provisionality” is exactly what I was going for: the book was meant to be an initiation to conversation and thoughtful consideration. But I am also seriously and adamantly interested in a radical re-imagination of everything. I think we are at the mercy of old forms and obligations in the Church which need to be re-imagined, or thrown out, or otherwise transfigured. If not, I think the game’s over—and by “the Church” I have a much broader understanding than meaning “Rome” or “Constantinople,” just as the “Catholic” of the title is meant to include a broader field than individual confessions. Indeed, after the disaster of last summer (which impelled you to write your important Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed) I very nearly took “Catholic” out of the subtitle. However, I felt an obligation to the impulse that started at the conference and the tiny movement that arose from it, and decided to let it stay, though not without misgivings.

AD: I have to say that your introduction really resonated with me in this being a book you did not want to write but did so out of a sense of vocation to the future, which is something I felt and feel about my own recent book. What did you mean by that?

MM: I felt a distinct call to write this book, even though I had planned on working on a volume of poetry. It was like a spiritual tap on the shoulder: you need to do this. I was not unaware of the boldness—that some might take as outrageousness—of some of my proposals. But I was also tentative.

I wrote the first chapter in 2016, but waited almost year before beginning the rest. My friend, the composer, musician, and clinician Therese Schroeder-Sheker encouraged me along the way. She reminded that me that only I could write this book, no one else: my particular biography had prepared me for it and that it was important that I should get it out there. It was my task; I was called to it. I sent several drafts to Therese and another friend as well as to my publisher with the instruction that they should tell me whether or not I’d lost my mind. They encouraged me to not hold back. So I didn’t. John Riess, publisher at Angelico, said, “It sounds like most of the things you write. What’s the problem?” Ha! I suppose I could have played it safe, like a good academic, but I didn’t want to face the Master after my death without having performed my task. That’s how strong this sense of vocation was. It’s like your book: I don’t see how anyone else could have written it. You were called to it; your biography prepared you for it.

AD: I’m very glad to hear you speak of the desperation on the part of some Catholics who bring out Mendel or Roger Bacon as examples of “Catholic scientists,” a move that you suggest leaves nothing changed by merely juxtaposing two disciplines or commitments. Instead of that, yours is a more far-reaching call—here is the ‘radical’ of your sub-title coming in, it seems to me—for a Catholic science, as you call it. That phrase, as you know, on the part of clumsy apologists and opponents alike can be easily abused (“does 2+2 = 5 if the pope says so?”), so why don’t you unpack it for us a little bit.

Well, first of all, I think it’s okay to admit that the tendency for some Catholics to point to various scientists (those you mention, as well as Lemaître...even Descartes!) is not much more than a desperate plea for cultural legitimacy. It’s embarrassing. As you can see in the book, I think Goethe’s “delicate empiricism” offers something much more hospitable to a Catholic/Christian sensibility than the exploitive, even rapacious arm of the corporatacracy that science as we know it has too often become.

There are other scientists out there—David Bohm, Brian Josephson, Rupert Sheldrake, to name just three—who offer something more holistically sympathetic to a Catholic/Christian and, indeed, sophianic worldview than that parade of “scientific saints” typically wheeled out by the Catholic mainstream; but since these figures were or are not dues-paying members of team Rome they get ignored while the scientific materialism and spiritual emptiness of the scientific saints is celebrated just because somebody went to or celebrated Mass in between materialist conquests. I don’t doubt the faith of the canonized scientists. It’s their science I have a problem with.

Also, to reiterate, when I use the term “Catholic,” what I really mean is “sacramental.” So this attributive can also be applied to Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy. As a Byzantine Catholic who grew up in the Latin church but is a scholar of the Metaphysical Poets—most of them Anglican clergymen— my spiritual psyche is pretty much all over the place. And the older I get, the more the alleged divisions between these different confessions just look stupid and petty: a reading of Christian history first as tragedy, then as farce.

AD: Reverence for life, understood much more comprehensively than any of us in the sciences or humanities alike (“we murder to dissect”!), is a key theme of your first chapter, but almost everywhere strangled by our tendencies for abstraction, materialism, and problems in operative cosmologies. Tell us a bit more about this, and how you see sophiology playing its part here.

I recently caught a video on social media of a woman, ostensibly a housewife, being interviewed while on LSD. This was in the 1950s when scientists routinely explored these kinds of phenomena. When the non-participant researcher asks her what she is experiencing, she says things like “Can’t you see it? I’m part of it…We’re all part of it... Everything is one...I’ve never seen such infinite beauty in my life.”

Sophiology does the same thing, but with none of the harmful side-effects. Something one notices when reading through the history of Sophiology is that all of the great sophiologists—Boehme, the Philadelphians, Solovyov, Florensky, Bulgakov, Merton, and Tomberg to name only a handful—came to a similar holistic insight, sometimes through liturgy or prayer, sometimes through the arts, sometimes through nature; but always through contemplation. (I don’t think it’s any accident that most of them held to apokatastasis, either.) It all goes back to Proverbs 8: “When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth.” Proverbs 8 is my touchstone, the place to which I return, again and again, to remind myself what reality is. It cuts through ideology, confessionalism, tribalism. I think this is where Sophiology meets phenomenology: it engages the epoché and is present to what is.

And “what is” is Sophia, the Glory of the Lord, the Presence, shining through Creation (to my mind, Terrence Malick’s films are essentially an extended meditation on this insight). And once you see it: that’s it. There’s no turning back. Such an experience requires, indeed, impels one to a holistic, ecumenical sensibility. Actually, the original subtitle for The Submerged Reality was “Ecology, Ecumenism, Orthodoxy.”

“Reverence for life,” unfortunately, has become something of a hackneyed and politically-charged phrase. Before one announces reverence for something, it’s a good idea to actually know what it is. But once one sees this shining, reverence is the only response. Goethe’s science, in fact, adopts reverence as a methodology. He called the science of Bacon and Newton “the empirico-mechanico-dogmatic torture chamber” for a reason.

AD: Your claim at the end of your first chapter, “We don’t need a new revelation; we need to do something with the revelation we already have” (33) seems to me linked to another bold claim at the start of your second: “Christians are afraid of the death of Christianity. This is irony at its most sublime” (35). Two thoughts: is this fear a universal problem, or perhaps more acute in the US, especially among certain evangelicals and Catholics? Second, is this fear of the death of Christianity (and perhaps more accurately the social power of its proponents) what lies behind the mania for new “revelation,” new programs (“evangelization”) and new “options” (pseudo-Benedictine and otherwise)?

Maybe it would have been better for me to have written “The Christianity that we are so desperately trying to hold onto is already dead.” I think that’s what we see all over the place—especially in America, Europe, Australia (and I am not a fan of the “the Church is strong in Africa/South America, etc.” chorus; what I see coming from those spheres seems pretty rigid)—but it is not something anyone wants to admit.

Some Traditionalists seem to think that if everybody just went back to the Tridentine Mass all of our problems would go away and there would arise a new Holy Roman Emperor or something. Dream on! Is this not a kind of infantilism? On the other hand, I share their eye-rolling at what often transpires in the typical Novus Ordo Mass, which more and more strikes me as a kind of Infomercial for Jesus.

I do think the fear is connected to a fear of losing power. But no one wants to own up to that! As you can tell from the book, I think the “bunkerism” of much of what passes for Christian culture (especially, but not exclusively, in conservative circles) is pretty desperate, and often pathetic. Let’s call it “The New Martyrdom.” That is the polar opposite of the Sophiological, which is characterized by porousness, an openness to grace, and idealism (not in a philosophical sense) and not by fear and what appears to be a death wish.

Did you ever look around during a Mass or Divine Liturgy and wonder why nobody looks happy? I mean really happy. I’ve been obsessing too much about this lately, perhaps—but would people look that maudlin if Christ were really there? (I mean, He is, but nobody acts like it). In Denys Arcand’s film Jesus of Montreal there’s a great scene in which the actress playing Mary Magdalen in a reworked Passion Play comes running at full speed down a cavernous hallway, her eyes on fire and with a tremendous smile on her face. She sees the disciples and announces, “I’ve seen Him! He’s alive!” Should we not be doing the same thing?

AD: You tell us in your second chapter, “Art as Eschatology,” that any Christian art properly so called should be “grounded in the future.” Tell us a bit more what you mean by that.

Even though there are some fine Christian artists out there doing innovative and imaginative work, much of what is promoted as “Christian art” is often a simple regurgitation of earlier forms, particularly from the Renaissance, but also in the endless iterations and appropriations of Eastern iconography. I don’t dislike the Renaissance, and I do pray before icons: but come on already. This “let’s make Christian art great again” schlock is setting back both Christianity and art—and not in the way its purveyors think. Let the dead bury their dead.

On the other hand, the appropriation of secular forms characteristic of much Christian popular “art,” particularly prevalent in Evangelical circles (such as in the dreadful God Is not Dead franchise and the phenomenon of “praise bands”) only shows, if anything, how incredibly inept Christian attempts at art can be. So maybe the Catholic-Orthodox propensity is to look to the past, while the Evangelical is to look to the present. Either way: it’s not working.

I get a surprising amount of poetry sent to Jesus the Imagination written in formal verse. Now, I have nothing against formal verse, but to assume that “Christian poetry” somehow has an allegiance to the august forms of the past is sheer ideology (the strange allegiance to “liberal education” among the same ilk is likewise performative….of something…but I don’t think it’s Christianity). Paul Claudel, T.S. Eliot, William Everson all may have appreciated tradition, but their poetry arrived from the future, and brought with it life.

For me, the paradigmatic figure of the Christian artist is not St. Luke or even St. Cecilia, but John the Baptist. He calls the Messiah from the future. That’s what Christian art should be doing now, even as, especially as, Christianity is dying. For we live in the most eschatological of times. Retreating to the imagined golden age of Christendom is to already admit defeat or at least irrelevance.

AD: Your chapter on education has, it seems to me, obvious echoes of Alasdair MacIntyre’s skepticism (in his Gifford Lectures, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry) about the fetish for “classical” education among some Christians today, and rightly notes how bloodless and joyless too many schools, Christian and public alike, are today. I also heard echoes of Ivan Illich when you say we need to stop thinking of education in the terms of “degree-granting institutions.” Though appreciative of much of what you learned as a Waldorf teacher, you want to go beyond that in part, if I'm not mistaken, because schools as they are currently structured function according to capitalist logic, not least in terms of their scheduling and timing, which do not allow for curious meanderings and wide-ranging exploration (the kind of “free association” method of Freud). I just finished Joshua Eyler’s fascinating new book How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching, and he argues in there that too many teachers and institutions today specialize in killing curiosity. Would the “hedge schools” you describe, based on Irish models, be a place for cultivating curiosity and the “contemplative engagement” you discuss in your last chapter?

What drew me to the Irish hedge schools was their incredibly bold and subversive aims. The Irish weren’t about to let their British overlords define what an Irish education could be; and if they had to do so in secret, so be it. We, especially in America but also in Europe and Australia from what I can tell, are typically at the mercy of our overlords, usually under the guise of accreditation and “best practices,” which are neither best nor practiced for the most part. This thinking also infects Waldorf schools (to a lesser degree, obviously) and nearly every other institutional educational model. The hedge school as I am envisioning it would be anything but institutional. Current educational models are based on the assembly line, usually with the goal of socialization in mind, but not always (a great book on the failure of most current educational models—and a fine proposal for a new one—is Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind).

After almost thirty years of teaching—and I have taught everything from kindergarten to graduate school, including a stint as a Master Waldorf Teacher—I have seen how students best learn when given time to enter into subject matter through a contemplative engagement. But that takes time, and stopping to run to the next class when the bell rings (is this not the most Pavlovian of practices?) is an absolute obstacle to such engagement.

I also think contemplative engagement arises organically through involvement in the arts, both fine and practical. This is certainly something I learned—and saw—as a Waldorf teacher. In face of the increasing totalization of the internet and online “environments” in education it seems to be absolutely crucial that people actually learn how to do real stuff—like playing an instrument, carpentry, painting, gardening, archery… Of course, some people do these things, usually as specialists, but education should be that of a whole person, and a whole person should be able to do a little of all these things—and many more. It also drives fear away. People with broad exposure to different ideas, practices, and skills are naturally engaged with the world as a real thing. Nothing could be more sophiological.

AD: A devil’s advocate reading your fourth and fifth chapters might say “Okay, you start off by talking about what was lost in medieval England during and after the Reformation, move on to attack ‘Big Agriculture’ and ‘big tech’ and their ecologically (and other) disastrous practices, approvingly mention ‘community supported agriculture,’ and then call for ‘cultivating an authentic relationship to creation’ (126). How can I, just Joe Average in suburban America, be expected to put any of this into practice?”

An easy thing would be to join a CSA. What a subversive move! Food, Inc. is a dreadful and poisonous (literally) behemoth completely tied into the governmental/industrial/pharmacological complex. Not only buying direct from farmers, but getting to know them and the place where one’s food comes from ties one to nature, to the farmer, to the cosmos.

Not long ago I went to a Facebook distributist forum to ask if anyone there belonged to a CSA. Almost no one! Then I asked what the members did that was “distributist-y.” Most of what I heard was theme on variation of “I write a blog” or “I read Tolkien, Belloc, and Chesterton.” Take me now, Lord Jesus! Just getting freed from the meshes of the interNET and engaging the arts or practical activities (gardening is a good one) is another thing anyone—even Joe Average in suburbia—can do. There was life before television and the internet, even in suburbia. There still could be.

So let’s take suburbia as an example: ditch Chem Lawn! Turn your yard into an organic garden, and add a wayside shrine. Reclaim what you’ve been given to steward for the Kingdom.

Of course there are other things (avoiding plastic, for example). But I think the key (the sophiological key) is to do this out of a sense of joy and with an eye to the Glory of the Lord, not out of some guilt-ridden sense of unworthiness and despair that all too often turns misanthropic. The Kingdom of Heaven is among you. Intentionality means everything.


I agree with Patrick Deneen and Guido Preparata (begrudgingly) that significant change in the economic sphere might not be able to occur until the current “filthy, rotten system,” in Dorothy Day’s apt expression, finally atrophies and eats itself. But we can still do things that enact what Bulgakov calls “the sophianic economy.” As he writes in his The Philosophy of Economy, the purpose of economy, “is to defend and to spread the seeds of life, to resurrect nature. This is the action of Sophia on the universe in an effort to restore it to being in truth…. Economic activity overcomes the divisions in nature, and its ultimate goal…is to return the world to life in Sophia.” Anything working to this end, and joining a CSA is just one way, is engagement with the Real. As such, in our current economic realities, it is absolutely subversive as well as radically Christian in its reverence for the Creation and our role as stewards.

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book.

My greatest hope for the book is that it might shake people out of their complacency about accepting things as they are. Why do we accept the scientific, educational, artistic, and economic paradigms we’ve accidentally inherited as the only possibilities available to us? I also hope it might help some folks migrate away from the “bunker mentality” so characteristic of Christian “culture” at the moment. Playing martyr is too easy. And boring. Create the Kingdom instead.

AD: Having finished Transfiguration, what are you up to these days? Is there another book in the works?

Well, I have an edition of the satirical 17th century alchemical romance The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkruetz coming out very soon (though I finished almost two years ago). Also, I just started work on a second book on Sophiology. I hadn’t planned on it, but I felt a nudge to explore some ideas I didn’t have time for (and didn’t exactly fit) in The Submerged Reality. I wanted to more deeply investigate the Sophia figure in Gnosticism as well as the notion of the Shekinah in the Kabbalah, among other things. The project will also examine the sophiological insights of the poets William Blake, Thomas Traherne, and Eleanor Farjeon. Other than that, I’m pretty busy farming, beekeeping, and teaching.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rebels and Their Biographers

The always-readable Terry Eagleton (whose recent book on sacrifice I discussed here) has a rather savage review in the current London Review of Books of a biography by Claire Carlisle, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Soren Kierkegaard. Eagleton's major complaint is that the biographer indulges too much in what Melanie Klein might call projective identification with her subject, turning him into an emotionally overwrought nice guy when, Eagleton says, he was anything but.

Elsewhere in the same issue the well-known historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has a critical review of Roy Flechner's St. Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland's Patron Saint, published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. MacCulloch notes that there are numerous strengths to the book, but that it sometimes gets tripped up with the same historiographical problems that tend to bedevil treatments of Patrick and others from that era, some of which will probably never be resolved no matter how many times this ground is retrod and the story retold.

Colin Grant offers a fascinating review of David Blight's recent book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster, 2018), 892pp. The book has already won a number of awards since publication last October. About it the publisher tells us this:
As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.
Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, using his own story to condemn slavery. By the Civil War, Douglass had become the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. After the war he sometimes argued politically with younger African Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.
In this “cinematic and deeply engaging” (The New York Times Book Review) biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. “Absorbing and even moving…a brilliant book that speaks to our own time as well as Douglass’s” (The Wall Street Journal), Blight’s biography tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. “David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass…a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the nineteenth century” (The Boston Globe).

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Preserving and Recreating the Institutions We Need

Over at The Catholic Thing I make my debut in its pages arguing in response to recent writings of Massimo Faggioli and Robert Barron about the sex abuse crisis. Both have good points to make, but neither goes far enough in contemplating the institutional reforms we need, including the recovery of long-lost synodal institutions at all levels with voice and vote to force parish clergy and diocesan bishops alike to be accountable in real, serious, permanent, and inescapable ways. Absent such enforced mechanisms of accountability, the crisis will never end.

The article, of course, is a bit of a précis of a book you should be reading and sending to 932910 of your closest friends: Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.

But don't just take my recommendation: how about that of the Romanian Catholic Bishop John Michael Botean of the Eparchy of Canton, who said this about the book:

"Adam DeVille's vision is at once forward-thinking and eminently traditional. Without a doubt this is a book that can raise quite a stir. And I hope it will. It deserves serious, prayerful reading."

Or the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, widely regarded as one of the finest theological minds in any Christian tradition in the last four decades:

“This book eloquently and cogently pleads for the Roman Catholic Church to be released from the captivity of an over-centralized, over-individualized model of authority, arguing that this model is at the heart of many other dysfunctionalities. A sober, theologically informed, and very significant work.”

Or the always sober-minded Russell Shaw, who worked for the American episcopal conference for many years and has written his own book about changes needed in the Church. He said this of my book:

“Readers with open minds and generous hearts will find this a provocative, helpful contribution to the badly needed debate about reform in the Church at a moment when reform is so urgently needed.”

The other endorsements you can read here, or inside the front cover of the book, which you can order here.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Ethiopian Christianity

As I have had happy occasion several times to note on here in the past few years, serious studies of Ethiopian Christianity are on the upswing, and to this burgeoning body of literature we can add a new book released just last week: Ethiopian Christianity: History, Theology, Practice by Philip F. Esler (Baylor University Press, 2019), 317pp., 38 color photos, 1 color illus., 1 map.

About this new study the publisher tells us this:
In  Ethiopian Christianity Philip Esler presents a rich and comprehensive history of Christianity’s flourishing. But Esler is ever careful to situate this growth in the context of Ethiopia’s politics and culture. In so doing, he highlights the remarkable uniqueness of Christianity in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Christianity begins with ancient accounts of Christianity’s introduction to Ethiopia by St. Frumentius and King Ezana in the early 300s CE. Esler traces how the church and the monarchy closely coexisted, a reality that persisted until the death of Haile Selassie in 1974. This relationship allowed the emperor to consider himself the protector of Orthodox Christianity. This position, combined with Ethiopia’s geographical isolation, fostered a distinct form of Christianity—one that features the inextricable intertwining of the ordinary with the sacred and rejects the two-nature Christology established at the Council of Chalcedon.
In addition to his historical narrative, Esler also explores the cultural traditions of Ethiopian Orthodoxy by detailing its intellectual and literary practices, theology, and creativity in art, architecture, and music. He provides profiles of the flourishing Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism. He also considers current challenges that Ethiopian Christianity faces—especially, Orthodoxy’s relations with other religions within the country, especially Islam and the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Esler concludes with thoughtful reflections on the long-standing presence of Christianity in Ethiopia and hopeful considerations for its future in the country’s rapidly changing politics, ultimately revealing a singular form of faith found nowhere else.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Politics of Roman Memory

As I noted at the beginning of the month, questions around historical memory and forgetting continue to be among the most interesting I'm exploring at the moment. So it is with keen anticipation that I look forward to the October release of The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian by Marion Kruse (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 360pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
What did it mean to be Roman after the fall of the western Roman empire in 476, and what were the implications of new formulations of Roman identity for the inhabitants of both east and west? How could an empire be Roman when it was, in fact, at war with Rome? How did these issues motivate and shape historical constructions of Constantinople as the New Rome? And how did the idea that a Roman empire could fall influence political rhetoric in Constantinople? In The Politics of Roman Memory, Marion Kruse visits and revisits these questions to explore the process by which the emperors, historians, jurists, antiquarians, and poets of the eastern Roman empire employed both history and mythologized versions of the same to reimagine themselves not merely as Romans but as the only Romans worthy of the name.
The Politics of Roman Memory challenges conventional narratives of the transformation of the classical world, the supremacy of Christian identity in late antiquity, and the low literary merit of writers in this period. Kruse reconstructs a coherent intellectual movement in Constantinople that redefined Romanness in a Constantinopolitan idiom through the manipulation of Roman historical memory. Debates over the historical parameters of Romanness drew the attention of figures as diverse as Zosimos—long dismissed as a cranky pagan outlier, but here rehabilitated—and the emperor Justinian, as well as the major authors of Justinian's reign, such as Prokopios, Ioannes Lydos, and Jordanes. Finally, by examining the narratives embedded in Justinian's laws, Kruse demonstrates the importance of historical memory to the construction of imperial authority.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Spiritual Socialists

The University of Pennsylvania Press recently sent me their fall catalogue, and among several interesting offerings, I especially noted this book with its mention of that outstanding figure on whom I have also edited a book, Dorothy Day. Set for release at the end of October: Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left by Vaneesa Cook (U Penn Press, 2019), 296pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Refuting the common perception that the American left has a religion problem, Vaneesa Cook highlights an important but overlooked intellectual and political tradition that she calls "spiritual socialism." Spiritual socialists emphasized the social side of socialism and believed the most basic expression of religious values—caring for the sick, tired, hungry, and exploited members of one's community—created a firm footing for society. Their unorthodox perspective on the spiritual and cultural meaning of socialist principles helped make leftist thought more palatable to Americans, who associated socialism with Soviet atheism and autocracy. In this way, spiritual socialism continually put pressure on liberals, conservatives, and Marxists to address the essential connection between morality and social justice.
Cook tells her story through an eclectic group of activists whose lives and works span the twentieth century. Sherwood Eddy, A. J. Muste, Myles Horton, Dorothy Day, Henry Wallace, Pauli Murray, Staughton Lynd, and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and wrote publicly about the connection between religious values and socialism. Equality, cooperation, and peace, they argued, would not develop overnight, and a more humane society would never emerge through top-down legislation. Instead, they believed that the process of their vision of the world had to happen in homes, villages, and cities, from the bottom up.
By insisting that people start treating each other better in everyday life, spiritual socialists transformed radical activism from projects of political policy-making to grass-roots organizing. For Cook, contemporary public figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, Reverend William Barber, and Cornel West are part of a long-standing tradition that exemplifies how non-Communist socialism has gained traction in American politics.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Stephen Bullivant on the Mass Exodus of Catholics: UPDATED

I've been reading and enjoying the many insights in Stephen Bullivant's new book, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and American Since Vatican II (Oxford University Press, 2019), 336pp. It is the kind of book that should be read by everybody in the Catholic Church, but also anyone interested in the sociology of religion. I have an interview with the author to be published soon, and will essay more thoughts on the book later. About it the publisher tells us this:
In 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with the prophecy that 'a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendour'. Desiring 'to impart an ever increasing vigour to the Christian life of the faithful', the Council Fathers devoted particular attention to the laity, and set in motion a series of sweeping reforms. The most significant of these centred on refashioning the Church's liturgy--'the source and summit of the Christian life'--in order to make 'it pastorally efficacious to the fullest degree'.
Over fifty years on, however, the statistics speak for themselves. In America, only 15% of cradle Catholics say that they attend Mass on a weekly basis; meanwhile, 35% no longer even tick the 'Catholic box' on surveys. In Britain, the signs are direr still. Of those raised Catholic, just 13% still attend Mass weekly, and 37% say they have 'no religion'. But is this all the fault of Vatican II, and its runaway reforms? Or are wider social, cultural, and moral forces primarily to blame? Catholicism is not the only Christian group to have suffered serious declines since the 1960s. If anything Catholics exhibit higher church attendance, and better retention, than most Protestant churches do. If Vatican II is not the cause of Catholicism's crisis, might it instead be the secret to its comparative success? 
Mass Exodus is the first serious historical and sociological study of Catholic lapsation and disaffiliation. Drawing on a wide range of theological, historical, and sociological sources, Stephen Bullivant offers a comparative study of secularization across two famously contrasting religious cultures: Britain and the USA.
UPDATE: Here is the interview I did with Stephen for Catholic World Report.

Friday, August 9, 2019

A Very Short Introduction to Orthodox Christianity: An Interview with A.E. Siecienski

It is always an unfailing pleasure to read anything A.E. Siecienski writes.

We were on a panel together at IOTA in Romania in January and I learned a great deal from his fascinating paper, as I have learned a very great deal over the years from reading his books on the papacy and the filioque, both of which should be in every serious library. They are models of scholarship: comprehensive in their sources, judicious in their analysis, and cogent in their style and composition. I have returned to them often, and you will too if you have not managed to buy and read them yet.

He has another one just out, also from Oxford University Press, but this, by design, very different in size, style, and focus. As part of their long-running series of books "A Very Short Introduction," he brings us Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2019), 124pp. The book itself is scarcely bigger than my hand, so this is a very short and very small introduction, but no less worthwhile. (As OUP says: "The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.")

About this book in particular the publisher tells us this:
To many in the West, Orthodoxy remains shrouded in mystery, an exotic and foreign religion that survived in the East following the Great Schism of 1054 that split the Christian world into two camps--Catholic and Orthodox. However, as the second largest Christian denomination, Orthodox Christianity is anything but foreign to the nearly 300 million worshippers who practice it. For them, Orthodoxy is a living, breathing reality; a way of being Christian ultimately rooted in the person of Jesus and the experience of the early Church. Whether they are Greek, Russian, or American, Orthodox Christians are united by a common tradition and faith that binds them together despite differences in culture. True, the road has not always been smooth -- Orthodox history is littered with tales of schisms and divisions, of persecutions and martyrdom, from the Sack of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, to the experience of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviet Union. Still, today Orthodoxy remains a vibrant part of the religious landscape, not only in those lands where it has made its historic home (Greece, Russia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe), but also increasingly in the West. Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction explores the enduring role of this religion, and the history, beliefs, and practices that have shaped it.
I've previously interviewed the author here. With the publication of this new book, I sent him some questions about it, and am delighted to reproduce his thoughts below.

AD: Tell us about your background

A.E. Siecienski: I am a New Jersey native, and received my BA in theology and government from Georgetown University in 1990. After graduation I attended St. Mary’s Seminary and University, where I received a STB and MDiv in 1995.  I earned my PhD in historical theology from Fordham University in 2005 and have been teaching at Stockton University since 2008, where I am Clement and Helen Pappas Endowed Professor of Byzantine Civilization and Religion.  I am married with two children, enjoy European football (COYS!) and am active in both my parish and local BSA troop.  And yes, I am Orthodox.

AD: Tell us what led you to this book, Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction

AES: The simple answer is that the editors at OUP asked me to do it, and I said yes.  It wasn’t something I planned on writing, since I was still working through my trilogy on East-West issues.  However, once I said yes I took a break from azymes, beards, and purgatory and started work.

AD: After writing two wide-ranging, lengthy, highly detailed historical works on the papacy and the filioque clearly intended for a scholarly audience, how difficult was it to shift gears and write a very different book like this—introductory, no footnotes, just over 100 rather small pages? 

In some ways it was incredibly challenging, as I was constantly tempted to throw around theological lingo, assuming people knew what these terms meant.  One of the first things I did when I finished the initial draft was to give it to people — my father and our friend Stacy — who are very smart but know nothing about theology.  They circled words and phrases that I, a theologian, used all the time but (surprise!) weren’t known by people outside the field.  However, I’ve been teaching introductory courses in Christian theology and history for over fifteen years, so targeting a different audience wasn’t too big a stretch once I eliminated or explained the jargon.

AD: Over the last two decades, a number of other introductory texts to Orthodoxy have come out in English. Did you make any conscious decisions as to how yours might differ from those of, e.g., David Bell or John Garvey or James Payton or Katherine Clark?

I never made a conscious decision to make the book similar to, or different from, other introductions, although having read Metropolitan Kallistos’s The Orthodox Church early in my own journey I did appreciate how he presented Orthodoxy to the wider world.  A lot of my thinking about structuring the book was dictated by the VSI series and its goals, since its purpose is not to provide a “So you’re thinking about becoming Orthodox” guide but instead a very basic introduction to the topic aimed at those who know nothing about it.  I know that the “history, beliefs, and practices” approach to studying religions is sometimes considered trite and has its critics, but I use it when I have to teach comparative religions at my university (e.g., Abrahamic Faiths) and even when I taught Eastern Christianity a few years back.  In fact, my notes for that course provided the backbone of the book.

AD: Ch. 5 on sources of Orthodox thought takes a fairly strictly historically delimited approach, concerning itself with the Scriptures and Fathers as well as liturgy. But there was no mention of thinkers from Palamas onward, including the burgeoning of Orthodox thought in the 20th century under prominent people like Bulgakov, Zizioulas, Staniloae and others. Was that an approach dictated by word counts or other factors? 

Not so much by word count but rather because of the material I would have had to introduce and cover.  Obviously everyone you mentioned has helped shape the modern Orthodox intellectual tradition, but the minute you start introducing ideas like “neo-palamism,” “sophiology,” and the “ontology of personhood” you start losing people.  The real problem was dealing with Orthodoxy outside Europe, since American Orthodox (myself included) tend to focus on what’s happened, historically and theologically, on the continent.  Dr. Michael Azar, who read early drafts of the book, reminded me that I had to include something about Orthodox Christianity in the Middle East and Africa.

AD: I really appreciated your bluntness in ch. 11 on Orthodoxy in the modern world and the divisions that have opened up on questions like abortion, the council in Crete, ecumenism, etc. Did you feel any sort of “apologetic” urge to downplay such issues?

AES: No, like I said before, this was not supposed to be a “Welcome to the Orthodox Church” pamphlet handed out to perspective converts at the church door, but rather an objective look at Orthodoxy, warts and all.  Orthodoxy has its problems, and some are so glaring — e.g., the fact that half the Church is not currently in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch— that not mentioning it would simply be silly.  I must admit that I was a bit nervous about this particular chapter since it wasn’t in my original plan for the book and, being more of a dogmatic historian, I’m more comfortable with the past than the present.  I had a few people more familiar with modern Orthodoxy  — Drs. George Demacopoulos and Paul Gavrilyuk — double check that chapter to make sure that what I presented was, to their minds, accurate.

AD: Tell us a bit about your hopes for the book, and who would benefit from reading it

AES: Well, the editors at OUP designed the VSIs so that anyone who hears about a subject and wants a good, quick, clear introduction  — in 35,000 words or less — can avail themselves to the books in the series.  In many ways that is my hope as well.  That said, I also hope that the book could be used by university students, curious onlookers, and (most especially) by Orthodox Christians themselves.  When I was writing the book I did an adult education class at my own church (Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Medford, NJ) and so many people  — cradle Orthodox and converts — told me that a lot of this stuff was all new to them.  I have pre-teen and teenage children, so if they eventually use this book to learn about their own faith, I’d see that as a win.

AD: Having finished such a book as this, what is next for you? What are you working on now? 

AES: Now it’s back to Purgatory, Beards, and Azymes: The Other Issues that Divided East and West.  I’m about halfway through the first draft, so it will be a few years before it’s in print.  The idea is to have trilogy of books covering the issues that divided East and West so that if we can’t heal the schism we can at least figure out how we got there in the first place.  I’m having a lot of fun writing this one.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Notes on the London Review of Books

In the 18 July 2019 (vol. 41/14) issue of the London Review of Books, I spy several interesting publications.

Perhaps the most interesting is a major long review essay of many recent books on the topic of a universal basic income (UBI). This is a topic I have not yet seen taken up and discussed in, e.g., Catholic social teaching; nor have I seen other Christians who are working on social and political ethics discuss UBI, but it certainly should be looked at. The reviewer notes the divergent pictures in the literature and the incomplete nature of several experiments that have been attempted on a small scale in economies around the world.

The books he reviews include Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght  (Harvard UP, 2019), 400pp; Basic Income: A Guide for the Open-Minded by Guy Standing (Yale UP, 2017); and Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by Annie Lowrey  (Crown, 2018). I'm no expert, but there seems to be more than enough small-scale evidence to proceed with larger scale experiments of several of these proposals, all of which to date have shown promising signs but seemingly without clearly and easily reproducible conditions to answer some important and lingering questions.

Similar issues are taken up in another long review essay, looking at several English and German books, including Germany's Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of Europe by Oliver Nachtwey, trans David Fernbach and Loren Balhorn (Verso, 2018), 256pp., about contemporary German politics, including especially the deliberate decline in Germany's social-welfare state as a result of the ideology of "austerity" that has gripped many parts of Europe.

For those interested in slavery, British imperialism, Irish politics, and international trade, there is a review of the bewilderingly complicated life of Colonel Edward Despard and his execution in 1803 on what clearly seem fabricated charges of high treason. All this is told in Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard by Peter Linebaugh (University of California Press, 2019), 488pp.

For contemporary international politics involving intrigue, death, and huge amounts of money and corruption in an atomic shadow, then Pakistan's Nuclear Bomb: A Story of Defiance, Deterrence and Deviance Hardcover by Hassan Abbas  (Oxford UP, 2018), 356pp. makes for harrowing reading.

I read with great interest a review of Freedom's Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science by Audra J. Wolfe  (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 312pp.

The book would seem to offer a very useful reminder that "science" is not some kind of stand-alone oracle dispensing infallible results untainted by human deception, error, or political machination and manipulation. It can, with depressing ease, be hijacked by those with money and the desire to do so, to get it to reproduce the results desired by its political overlords--or to kill undesirable results.


Finally, Princeton University Press advertises several interesting new books, including The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging by Robert J Barro and Rachel McCleary (2019), 216pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:
Which countries grow faster economically―those with strong beliefs in heaven and hell or those with weak beliefs in them? Does religious participation matter? Why do some countries experience secularization while others are religiously vibrant? In The Wealth of Religions, Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro draw on their long record of pioneering research to examine these and many other aspects of the economics of religion. Places with firm beliefs in heaven and hell measured relative to the time spent in religious activities tend to be more productive and experience faster growth. Going further, there are two directions of causation: religiosity influences economic performance and economic development affects religiosity. Dimensions of economic development―such as urbanization, education, health, and fertility―matter too, interacting differently with religiosity. State regulation and subsidization of religion also play a role.
The Wealth of Religions addresses the effects of religious beliefs on character traits such as work ethic, thrift, and honesty; the Protestant Reformation and its long-term effects on education and religious competition; Communism’s suppression of and competition with religion; the effects of Islamic laws and regulations on the functioning of markets and, hence, on the long-term development of Muslim countries; why some countries have state religions; analogies between religious groups and terrorist organizations; the violent origins of the Dalai Lama’s brand of Tibetan Buddhism; and the use by the Catholic Church of saint-making as a way to compete against the rise of Protestant Evangelicals. Timely and incisive, The Wealth of Religions provides fresh insights into the vital interplay between religion, markets, and economic development.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Secularity and Science

I know for some people these "debates" between so-called religion and science are really difficult but I confess to always having found them very tedious and artificial. In the hands of many, the problem may be found in treating "science" as some kind of omniscient ideology rather than the epistemically circumscribed set of methods it really is. Once you stop treating "science" like some kind of oracle, many problems disappear. Still, for those for whom these are live issues, a just-released collection looks like it contains some fascinating research in a multi-authored volume: Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion by Elaine Howard Ecklund, David R. Johnson, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Kirstin R.W. Matthews, Steven W. Lewis, Robert A. Thomson, Jr., and Di Di (Oxford University Press, 2019), 352pp.

Here is the description supplied by the publisher:
Do scientists see conflict between science and faith? Which cultural factors shape the attitudes of scientists toward religion? Can scientists help show us a way to build collaboration between scientific and religious communities, if such collaborations are even possible?
To answer these questions and more, the authors of Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion completed the most comprehensive international study of scientists' attitudes toward religion ever undertaken, surveying more than 20,000 scientists and conducting in-depth interviews with over 600 of them. From this wealth of data, the authors extract the real story of the relationship between science and religion in the lives of scientists around the world. The book makes four key claims: there are more religious scientists then we might think; religion and science overlap in scientific work; scientists - even atheist scientists - see spirituality in science; and finally, the idea that religion and science must conflict is primarily an invention of the West. Throughout, the book couples nationally representative survey data with captivating stories of individual scientists, whose experiences highlight these important themes in the data. Secularity and Science leaves inaccurate assumptions about science and religion behind, offering a new, more nuanced understanding of how science and religion interact and how they can be integrated for the common good.
And here is the Table of Contents:

Chapter 1: From "Carriers" of the Secular to Religion in Scientific Work

Part I: West
Chapter 2: The United States- Scientists Respond to Evangelicals
Chapter 3: United Kingdom- "Impotent Anglicans" and "Dangerous Muslims"
Chapter 4: France- Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Chapter 5: Italy- Everyone's Catholic and Nobody Cares

Part II: East
Chapter 6: Turkey- The Politics of Secular Muslims
Chapter 7: India- Science and Religion as Intertwined Intimates
Chapter 8: Hong Kong and Taiwan- A Science Friendly Christianity and Buddhism

Part III: Looking Forward
Chapter 9: An Integrated Global Science and Religion

Friday, August 2, 2019

Forgetful Remembrance of Ireland's Troubles

Back in 2016 I began exploring several new works treating the theme of forgetting as an unexplored category for how we treat controversial, divisive pasts, particularly between Eastern and Western Christians. I continue to read in the area for an article I'm working on.

Two weeks ago, on a tiny lake in northern Indiana while my kids spent the day swimming and playing, I sat on the deck and began reading a very dense but fascinating new work by Guy Beiner, Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster (Oxford University Press, 2018), 736pp. If you have any interest in Irish history, or the history of religio-political conflict, of British imperialism, and of historiography, this book will give you depth and detail in abundance. It is the very impressive fruit of serious and wide-ranging research into all kinds of out-of-the-way places and sources.

Being no expert in Irish history, I will not essay comments on the book's treatment of it. Let me, rather, note that the book's introduction alone is worth the price and effort of slogging through the whole thing. The author has given a wonderful summary of a large body of literature in memory studies, cognitive psychology and neurology, and historiography. Much of this he picks up again in his concluding chapter, "Rites of Oblivion."

The book breaks new and important ground between the heavy emphasis found in much of Western culture since at least 1945 on social remembering (of, e.g., the Holocaust), and the more recent, and still developing, awareness of the importance of forgetting both as an important phenomenon in its own right, but also as part and parcel of how human remembering works. Its use of the category of "social forgetting" shows how, in situations of longstanding and complex conflict such as that of Northern Ireland, politically mandated forgetting of, say, "The Troubles" does not always or even usually result in total obliteration of any and all memories of those events. Instead, what one finds is that officially or publicly "forgotten" events may not be discussed openly by those in power, but unofficially, in, say, families, or cultural societies or historical associations, they may be kept alive in varying forms. Thus socially and politically one may pretend to "forget" while, sotto voce as it were, one does not. The relationship between these two phenomena has not been well studied, and so, as the author says in his preface, that is what he seeks to do: "Studies of cultural and social memory have too often made sweeping claims that have not been fully substantiated. It is therefore necessary to lay out the nuts and bolts of remembrance in order to closely examine the mechanics of how social forgetting actually works" (xvii). Thus his book is situated somewhere between les lieux d'oubli and les lieux de mémoire.

The irony of any requests or still more demands--especially those enforced by the power of the state--for forgetting is, of course, that it makes remembering more likely. But curiously, Beiner notes, "the request to disregard does not" have the same effect. As he puts it, reviewing a number of recent studies, including those of juries in courtrooms, a "conscious effort to forget produces an altered form of memory, and this 'forgetful memory' needs to be better understood" (18).

Forgetting of all kinds, Beiner notes, is still given short shrift in many places, and it is often badly understood, too. Later in the book Beiner distinguishes, based on what he has observed in Ulster historiography since 1798, different kinds of forgetting: troubled forgetting, partial forgetting, nonconformist remembering that forgets differently from others around it, and a kind of "restored forgetting" brought to bear once the prevailing politics shifts again and something that was for a time officially remembered must now be suppressed in the interests of, say, an "amnesty" after a long period of political violence and a fragile social peace that feels victims must "forgive and forget." These and other types of forgetting are similar to what Mary Douglas (in an essay in Shifting Contexts) called "selective remembering, misremembering, and disremembering."

Many people assume that forgetting is bad, remembering good, and there is a straightforward connection between them. But in some ways, at least as far as human memory is concerned, remembering is the problem or, better, the aberration: we spend most of our time forgetting most things. Think, e.g., just over the last 12 hours of your life: can you give an hour-by-hour, or even more minute-by-minute recounting of everything you saw, thought, smelled, heard, and did? Would not most of us recollect only in broad outline: "Well, I was in a meeting this morning until 11:30, and then I had lunch, and then I did some paperwork at my desk for a couple hours, took tea about 3pm, and knocked off around 5 to drive home?" In other words, we forget much more of the details of a given day than we remember, and this is not only normal but necessary for if we remembered every detail out memory would soon approach saturation and exhaustion.

If attempts to enforce forgetting are problematic, so too are those demanding remembrance of an event, for it is becoming clear in the literature that "constructions of memory are not uniform and cannot be simply imposed from above and passively adopted by subservient communities" (23). Practices of social forgetting are similarly complex and incompletely successful. They may and often do come at some cost: "Practices of disremembering bury secrets" (30), with all the well-known psychic sequelae that follow from keeping traumatic secrets.

This is perhaps especially clear in the partition of states, the formation of new states, or civil war between factions within a state (see, e.g., the el pacto del olvido decreed in the 1977 Amnesty Law after Franco left office in Spain). Much of that violence is forcibly buried, resulting in disremembering in the very peculiar ways we see--what Vamik Volkan, to whom I have so often returned, calls narratives of "chosen trauma" and "chosen glory." Here ostensibly (or even genuinely) traumatic pasts get traduced for present felt purposes. Much of these dynamics and developments are still only just now being understood, and so as Beiner comes to the end of his very long and dense book, he notes that "the history of these dynamics of generating, repressing, and regenerating social forgetting has been mostly missed by conventional historiography."

There is much in Forgetful Remembrance that needs to be brought to bear on Christian ideas of forgetting, especially of major conflicts in ecclesial history--e.g., the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, or the Union of Brest, or the pseudo-sobor of 1946. It is clear that exhortations to remember such events as these have left Christians unable to move towards that "healing of memories" so often called for by the late Pope John Paul II. But it is equally clear that simply calling for all such events to be forgotten will not work either. Instead, I think we need to explore that "thin line between an inner duty to remember and a right to be outwardly forgotten" which Beiner calls "social forgetting," for it "offers another way to approach this dilemma" by seeing that "the desire for willful forgetting produces rites of oblivion, which are in effect forms of unofficial remembrance that are discreetly performed alongside social memory in defiance of state prohibitions and social taboos" (626).

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Electrified Tightrope Between Psychoanalysis and "Religion"

I'm working on a long essay right now about what I've learned from the literary scholar and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, whom I have often discussed on these pages. He persuaded his fellow analyst Michael Eigen to publish a collection of his essays, and since they came with Phillips' recommendation and under his editorship, I made a point of just finishing Eigen's The Electrified Tightrope, ed. Adam Phillips (Jason Aronson, 1993), 320pp.

The essays rather meander somewhat which is not surprising at all. There are three things I found of benefit in the book.

First, I found Eigen's insight into the lust for omniscience very provocative and important. Psychoanalytic thought, going back to Freud, has been aware of the similar, and sometimes related, lust for power and domination and the many psychic implications and permutations of that. (I treat a good bit of that in my own new book, Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.) But a similar demand for omniscience has not been reflected on nearly as widely until Eigen came along.

"The fantasy of omniscience is a denial of the unconscious," Phillips says in opening the book with his introduction. This is a point that would easily link up with Christopher Bollas's reflections on "normotic illness," which I discussed here. It is also, as Eigen  makes clear late in the book, a fantasy usually founded upon, and fueled by a desire for mastery over, some earlier trauma. If we cannot ourselves become omniscient, then we often project this desire and expectation onto others--priests, popes, and therapists being perhaps the three biggest examples. But Eigen offers an important clinical caution here in saying that the pressure to know, or to show that one knows, can often impede the therapist from doing good work, which sometimes consists simply in letting go and being taken up by and into that "evenly hovering attention" Freud first described, an attention in which one deliberately chooses not to know for a time, not to focus on anything, but instead to allow for the freedom to grow and develop in the transference.

I know how often that has been my experience. I was well into my analysis when, somewhat distastefully, I realized that my analyst wasn't cranking out instant interpretations of the myriad dreams I would bring her, sometimes on a daily basis. What was she good for? Why did she say so little? These were complex dreams, sometimes terrifying, and I wanted them decoded and thereby mastered. But analysis doesn't work that way when it comes to dreams.

Nor does it work that way in most other respects, either. It wasn't until many years after my analysis that I came to realize, with extreme reluctance and through clenched teeth, that I could spend the rest of my life on the couch and still not exhaust, let alone defeat, all unconscious dynamics and matter and achieve mastery over everything--an insight I resented and still do in some ways. Instead, it offers the freedom to move out from behind the prison of one's self-diagnosis and self-sabotaging search for absolute control.

It has been Phillips, and now Eigen, who have been helpful in showing that one of the benefits of analysis is that you can learn to forget about yourself, and forget about the futile quest of seeking total coherence, total understanding, total comprehension of and mastery over the unconscious mind. Perhaps such a desire is an occupational hazard of the intellectual life, especially if one's personality is of the schizoid type Fairbairn, Guntrip, Winnicott, Klein, and others have so well described.

Second, picking up themes that Phillips would later develop, Eigen talks about the role of excess in our life, and the role of asceticism--a word he repeatedly uses, with obvious suggestive connotations in the Jewish and Christian spiritual traditions. Reflections on excess I think are important for Christians to consider because of how often we are miserly towards ourselves, and recreate God in that image instead of understanding His lavish "excessive" love, as I tried to suggest here, drawing on the insights of Jean Vanier.

Third, Eigen is noteworthy in coming from something of a Jewish mystical background, and being quite open with discussion of God in a way that avoids the reductive and often almost adolescent caricatures of God one sometimes finds in psychoanalysis. He openly discusses the notion of "faith" in several chapters, drawing on Winnicott, Guntrip, and others of the British Middle School and clearly going beyond Freud, whose treatment of God he finds, rightly, very reductive. As he puts is:
A goal of analysis is to unmask the hidden god sense displaced onto or mixed up with some mundane reality. ....In the West God was to function as the one living Reality which possessed the qualities of the ideal imago as such, thereby objectifying it. In Bion's language he was to be the one container for human desire who could not be exploded by it.
Finally, at the end of his book, in an offhand way, he notes that analysis should be seen not just as a talking cure, but also a "writing cure," which has certainly been my experience. So expect to hear more about this on here, including, soon, three new books by Adam Phillips I have just finished, including the very short Attention Seeking. 
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