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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Religions and the Public Squares of Our Time

A full thirty years ago now, the late Richard John Neuhaus (whose biographer, Randy Boyagoda, has done a splendid job here) continued to make quite a splash in these United States at least with the publication of the second edition of his The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

At the time, of course, the Cold War was still going on, and these questions were thought a uniquely American preoccupation, the Soviet Union and much of the rest of the world having neither democracy nor "religious freedom" in any serious way.

Since then, of course, much has changed here and abroad, and now Eastern Christians (and all of us) in Europe and here find the debates still going on, often to the surprise of many who, e.g., are confronting forms of Islam in the Western world that are challenging the broad if at times lazy "secular" consensus about interactions between mosque/church and the public square.

Along comes a new collection of scholarly pieces to look at these issues in a variety of places, containing chapters not just on politics in the strict sense but also on ecology and violence, some authored by some of the leading lights of our time--Charles Taylor, Rowan Williams, and John Milbank, inter alia: Religion and the Public Sphere: New Conversations, eds. James Walters, Esther Kersley (Routledge, 2018), 110 pages.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Religion and the Public Sphere: New Conversations explores the changing contribution of religion to public life today. Bringing together a diverse group of preeminent scholars on religion, each chapter explores an aspect of religion in the public realm, from law, liberalism, the environment and security to the public participation of religious minorities and immigration. This book engages with religion in new ways, going beyond religious literacy or debates around radicalisation, to look at how religion can contribute to public discourse. Religion, this book will show, can help inform the most important debates of our time.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Soloviev and Divinization

Among the "rediscovered" themes and personages of contemporary Eastern Christian scholarship, and Christian theology more generally, we find many recent books devoted to deification/divinization/theosis; and a similar number of recent books devoted to the luminaries of Russian Orthodoxy's so-called Silver Age. A forthcoming book unites both: J. Pilch, Breathing the Spirit with Both Lungs': Deification in the Work of Vladimir Solov'ev (Peeters, 2017),

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
This book is an examination of the teaching of the Russian religious thinker Vladimir Solov'ev (1853-1900) about divine-humanity, the term he used to express the patristic doctrine of deification. The first chapter examines the theme of deification in the patristic tradition and shows the he himself was extremely familiar with the writings of the Church Fathers and the doctrinal teachings of the early Church Councils. The following three chapters are devoted to specific works of Solov'ev which are in detail, Lectures on Divine Humanity, The Spiritual Foundations of Life, and The Justification of the Good. Of these, the latter two have, to date, received little extended scholarly study.
The over-arching thrust of this work is that Solov'ev's concept of deification started as a reflection of the mystical and cosmic expressions of deification characteristic of the late Greek patristic period but develops so to be expressed in the western terminology of grace and focuses on the active implementation of deification in the world, taking the teaching out of its original monastic context. Chapter Two reveals the significant impact of Maximus the Confessor on Solov'ev's thought and identifies the dyothelite Christological model which Maximus develops from the dogmatic definition of the Council of Chalcedon as a crucial hermeneutical principle in Solov'ev's thought. Chapter Three shows the development of Solov'ev's teaching about deification, examining how it expands to embrace different models of deification, adopting western as well as eastern theological approaches and finding its centre in the life of the Church. Finally, Chapter Four shows how Solov'ev's deepening understanding of the western approach to deification through the language of grace is combined with an eastern understanding of human anthropology, enabling him to integrate realistic and moral approaches to deification, and address the whole range of human experience in terms of divine union and the Kingdom of God.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Praying with the Senses

I've previously noted a new interest in the role of the senses within Christian experience, a trend that was begun in part by the Orthodox scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey's well-received book on the olfactory, now some dozen years ago.

Now we have a new and wide-ranging collection to continue this exploration: Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice, ed. Sonja Luehrmann (Indiana University Press, 2017), 280pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
How do people experience spirituality through what they see, hear, touch, and smell? Sonja Luehrmann and an international group of scholars assess how sensory experience shapes prayer and ritual practice among Eastern Orthodox Christians. Prayer, even when performed privately, is considered as a shared experience and act that links individuals and personal beliefs with a broader, institutional, or imagined faith community. It engages with material, visual, and aural culture including icons, relics, candles, pilgrimage, bells, and architectural spaces. Whether touching upon the use of icons in age of digital and electronic media, the impact of Facebook on prayer in Ethiopia, or the implications of praying using recordings, amplifiers, and loudspeakers, these timely essays present a sophisticated overview of the history of Eastern Orthodox Christianities. Taken as a whole they reveal prayer as a dynamic phenomenon in the devotional and ritual lives of Eastern Orthodox believers across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
And we have a nicely detailed table of contents as well:

Introduction: The Senses of Prayer in Eastern Orthodox Christianity / Sonja Luehrmann

Part I: Senses
1. Becoming Orthodox: The Mystery and Mastery of a Christian Tradition / Vlad Naumescu
          A Missionary Primer / Ioann Veniaminov
2. Listening and the Sacramental Life: Degrees of Mediation in Greek Orthodox Christianity / Jeffers Engelhardt

Creating an Image for Prayer / Sonja Luehrmann
3. Imagining Holy Personhood: Anthropological Thresholds of the Icon / Angie Heo
          Syriac as a lingua sacra: Speaking the Language of Christ in India / Vlad Naumescu
4. Authorizing: The Paradoxes of Praying by the Book / Sonja Luehrmann

Part II: Worlds
5. Inhabiting Orthodox Russia: Religious Nomadism and the Puzzle of Belonging / Jeanne Kormina
          Baraka: Mixing Muslims, Christians, and Jews / Angie Heo
6. Sharing Space: On the Publicity of Prayer, between an Ethiopian Village and the World / Tom Boylston
    Prayers for Cars, Weddings, and Well-Being: Orthodox Prayers en route in Syria / Andreas Bandak
7. Struggling Bodies at the Crossroads of Economy and Tradition: The Case of Contemporary Russian Convents / Daria Dubovka
          Competing Prayers for Ukraine / Sonja Luehrmann
8. Orthodox Revivals: Prayer, Charisma, and Liturgical Religion / Simion Pop

Epilogue: Not-Orthodoxy/Orthodoxy's Others / William A. Christian Jr.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Armenia Christiana: Between Old Rome and New

I have long been fascinated by the Armenian Church. In my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, I spent no little time on her because her structures are utterly unique amongst all the apostolic churches of East and West. There is much else that is unique and admirable in her liturgical traditions--and food! The best vegetarian meal I ever had was at an Armenian parish in Cleveland last fall when I was giving a lecture there.

Armenia has often been a point of contact between old and new Romes. Its history is a complex one, as a new book will allow us to see more fully: Krzysztof Stopka, Armenia Christiana: Armenian Religious Identity and the Churches of Constantinople and Rome (4th – 15th century) (Jagiellonian University Press, 2018), 400pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
This book presents the dramatic and complex story of Armenia's ecclesiastical relations with Byzantine and subsequently Roman Christendom in the Middle Ages. It is built on a broad foundation of sources – Armenian, Greek, Latin, and Syrian chronicles and documents, especially the abundant correspondence between the Holy See and the Armenian Church. Krzysztof Stopka examines problems straddling the disciplines of history and theology and pertinent to a critical, though not widely known, episode in the story of the struggle for Christian unity.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ashley Purpura on God, Hierarchy, and Power

I briefly met Ashley Purpura last November at a conference on the future of the liberal arts hosted at Purdue University. I have been greatly edified by her book God, Hierarchy, and Power, and will be drawing on it for a presentation I'm giving next January in Romania at the inaugural conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association, at which I am also one of the official ecumenical observers. I was delighted to be able to arrange an interview with her about this new book. Here are her thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background

I grew up Orthodox and started really reading about saints’ lives, theology, and Christian history as a teenager. I graduated from Florida State with B.A. in Religion, and then earned a M.T.S. at Harvard Divinity School where I studied the history of Eastern Christianity (primarily in Syriac and Greek sources). I went on to complete my Ph.D. in theology at Fordham University, where I specialized in the history of Byzantine and Orthodox Christianity. Currently, I am an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Purdue University in Indiana, where I live with my husband and four children.

AD: What led to the writing of God, Hierarchy, and Power?

I wanted to write something grounded in historically Byzantine sources, but that spoke to present conversations and concerns. I thought of this project as a way to step back from the more commonly (and to my mind, unsatisfactorily engaged) question of “Why can/’t women be priests?” and address instead, why there is a hierarchy at all, and how it functions theologically when confronted with pragmatic challenges. Certainly, the experience of having an ecclesial leader who appears to fall short of the ideal of his calling is nothing new! In so many hagiographies, liturgical moments, patristic writings, etc. maintaining proper order, offering total obedience, and serving with humility appear as important markers of spirituality—and I wanted to see how theologians who address the nature and limits of hierarchy negotiate these ideals in theological, ritual, and practical terms. This led to some insights about power and about the iconic nature of hierarchy that I had not originally anticipated—but that I am very glad to have had the opportunity to explore.

AD: Your introduction notes how historically saturated Orthodoxy is with hierarchy in its ecclesio-sacramental life while facing three contemporary challenges: inclusivity, exclusivity, and the relationship between power and hierarchy. Tell us a bit about each.

By these challenges, I point to the way that hierarchy functions and is perceived to function at both theological and pragmatic levels. The hierarchy determines by councils, sacraments, etc. who is inside the Church (inclusivity) and where the Church is recognized. At the same time, however, it also excludes not only those who are not included in ecclesial participation, but also certain categories of individuals from joining the priestly hierarchic ranks (women, for example). I suppose you could say by that by naming certain boundaries of Orthodoxy, the hierarchy includes some and excludes others—but of course as Dionysius would note, the divine hierarchy is not limited to or actually subject to our ecclesiastical administration.

In terms of power and hierarchy, I really explore this in the final chapter, but even in the introduction I consider how the visible leaders of the Church have authority and in what ways this authority is limited. The relation between power and hierarchy is very much tied to spiritual leadership and authority, under what conditions does a bishop, for example, have authority to lead and speak on behalf of the Church, especially considering cases of potential abuses of power. I think being able to articulate and respond to these challenges will help contemporary Christians (and perhaps others) develop a greater understanding of how and why hierarchy functions religiously. Although it can indicate lines of demarcation, it also is divinely dynamic in ways that often are obscured.

AD: I well remember a doctoral seminar with the Orthodox scholar John Jillions some 15 years ago (while teaching in Ottawa and before he became chancellor of the OCA) who said very forcefully that he thought the ideas of Dionysius the Areopagite about hierarchy had created significant problems for Orthodoxy and the Church in general. You draw on Dionysius. Tell us your own take on him—is he problematic? 

I do not read him problematically, although several scholars I greatly respect do take issue with his writings and his legacy. Dionysius has always been debated in terms of where he fits christologically, and for some more contemporary authors, in terms of his heavy reliance on Neoplatonism. Historically, Dionysius’s concept of hierarchy was widely influential and later patristic authors cite him as an authority on a range of soundly Orthodox topics (icons, liturgy, etc.). There are certainly ambiguities in his writings, and places where he does not necessarily speak to issues modern readers would like to see him specify—so in that way he does provide us with challenges for interpretation. He is very insistent on one properly fulfilling the function of a particular rank to be actually in that hierarchic rank. Dionysius’s insistence that correction come from above rather than below one’s rank, in my read is not giving hierarchs a free pass to do what they want until the other hierarchs chastise them, but rather idealizing that those in the hierarchic positions have more knowledge to do things that may not yet be understood by those hierarchically beneath them. I think Dionysius offers us a way of understanding and speaking about God’s relation to the world and the Church that can be read as quite beneficial and insightful.

AD: The bulk of your book, after Dionysius, is spent on three Byzantine figures—Maximus, Niketas, and Nicholas—and you say (p.133) that they offer us two key insights: God alone is the source all power, and any power, to be authentic, must be divine. Those seem to me quietly subversive claims! In other words, where we may be tempted rather lazily to excuse certain exercises of power as just a lot of political intrigue or patriarchal egos on the global stage (a kind of ecclesiological “crypto-Arianism” if you will), these insights challenge us always to remember that the Church is both human and divine, and thus human hierarchy is always held to divine account, and at its best is an icon of the divine. Is that a fair read of your argument? 

Yes, I don’t intend it to be a type of rebuke as much as reminder—but it is still subversive for those who would claim for themselves power instead of humbly considering how they are empowered and to what end. For those perhaps who feel disconnected or put off by the business of church politics and egos, in very simple terms, God is bigger than all of that! His gift of love (especially sacramentally) is not somehow impaired by our sinful humanness (although our ability to receive/perceive it might certainly be).

AD: Tell us a bit about how you arrived at your four modern interlocutors: Marx, Foucault, Butler, and Arendt. Two of them in particular—Foucault and Butler—are of course well known for their reflections not just on power but also on gender and sexuality, which themes also come up to some extent in your (65-68) discussion of Maximus the Confessor. Is it possible in Orthodoxy (and Catholicism for that matter) ever to separate out questions of power and hierarchy from sex and gender, or does such an attempted separation merely reinforce certain problems, including exclusivity and inclusivity mentioned in your introduction?

I think it is important when reframing the position of power in the world as unconventionally as I do to consider the other ways in which power has been interpreted quite influentially. With these particular four interlocutors I found parallels and reframing of the source of power and authority and how they function, that was helpful in articulating what I found going on in the Byzantine authors.

To your second question, I think gender is a category largely constructed around disparate power dynamics, so I do not think one could talk about power and hierarchy, and sex and gender separately. Even to just talk about power and hierarchy and omit sex and gender really just reinforces the notion that these issues and identities are excluded from the authoritative dominant (arguably male) discourse. This of course is a modern take, and one that I think fruitfully can be considered with pre-modern theologians. As you mention, I do give some attention to gender in its relation to hierarchy in this book, but there is still so much work to be done on how disparate power dynamics relate to gender constructions, religious ideals of authority, and one’s sex. I would like to see more consideration on these intersections, but I think there are numerous ways of entering into conversation on these topics and even a more segmented approach may prove insightful for a broader sustained and integrated reflection.

AD: This is less a question than a comment: I think the most outstanding feature of your book is its refusal to shrink from theology proper, which seems to me a particular weakness of too much ecclesiology today, focused as it often is on the understandable temptation to treat everything in terms of human politics and dynamics of power. Thus I greatly cheered your argument at both the beginning and end of the book where you insist that “hierarchy as developed and reflected by Byzantine theologians is most fundamentally and consistently rendered as the communication of divinity” (p.16) and that “justifications for breaks in communion, even when grounded in differing ecclesiological or administrative conceptions, need to be discussed at the level of divine reflectivity, divine participation, and divine communication” (164). Is it hard to keep God in the picture sometimes when the humanity of it all—the offices, personalities, rituals, and vestments of hierarchy—weighs so heavily?  

Yes, I think there is a temptation at times to want to hold tightly onto all of the “things” of our religious identities as the essence of what makes us Orthodox (or some other religion). Such offices, rituals, jurisdictions, and vestments, etc., however, do not determine our Faith. Being in communion with God, being in His image and likeness, recognizing and venerating God in others—these get to the essence of who we are as Christians! The hierarchy is about communicating God to the world through material and relational means, allowing humans to be in communion with God sacramentally, and increasingly forming humans in His likeness. I think this is the insight I find appealing in Dionysius and the later Byzantine authors I present—that the authenticity and authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as we perceive it (and its assorted trappings that you mention) are dependent on communicating God to the world and bringing us into communion with Him.

AD: On that point, you weave into a good deal of your work reflections on the ritual and liturgy of hierarchy. I’ve often heard it said that Byzantine hierarchical liturgy—e.g., the greeting and vesting of the bishop, the kissing of his hands, the repeated singing of Εις πολλά έτη—reinforces certain habits of mind that may be less than healthy or desirable and that such liturgies should be reformed today. What are your thoughts on the rituals surrounding ecclesial hierarchy? 

I think there are ways in which ritually greeting and vesting the bishop the participants are reverencing and icon of God, even if it is at times a poorly depicted icon, the one who venerates it is still blessed. I do think the rituals and liturgies need to be intelligible to and understood by their participants. That has quite a bit to do with education, and perhaps a little with reform. Outside of liturgical contexts and ritual actions of respect, personal and pastoral interactions with a bishop can be more challenging if a bishop thinks something is owed him based on his position, rather than gaining loving respect from manifesting Christ-like kenotic service on behalf of his flock.

AD: What are your hopes for this book, and who especially should read it?

I hope this book will encourage scholars, clergy, and laity to reflect further about how power in general and hierarchy specifically, functions theologically within Christianity (and perhaps reflect on parallels in other religions). Additionally, I think this book prompts a reconsideration of how theological interpretations of power relate to religious structures of authority and diverse devotional expressions. For the more Byzantine-minded reader (academic or otherwise), I hope this book sheds light on the ways four historically disparate (and in the case of Stethatos and Cabasilas, understudied) theologians can be brought into conversation with each other to inform contemporary Orthodox thought, and how our understanding of pre-modern authors can be accentuated by considering modern critical theoretical developments.

AD: Having finished God, Hierarchy, and Power, what are you at work on now?

Presently, I am working on a series of articles that focus on the constructions of gender, “the other,” and Orthodox identity in Byzantine hymns, rituals, and hagiographies. In working on these manuscripts, I find myself still coming back to power and authority quite a bit, but by focusing more on patriarchy instead of hierarchy.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Image of Christ in Russian Literature

Northern Illinois University Press continues to be in the front lines of scholarship about Russian history, including Russian Christian and literary history. Just last month it published a fascinating new study by John Givens: The Image of Christ in Russian LiteratureDostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pasternak (2018), 329pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Vladimir Nabokov complained about the number of Dostoevsky’s characters “sinning their way to Jesus.” In truth, Christ is an elusive figure not only in Dostoevsky’s novels, but in Russian literature as a whole. The rise of the historical critical method of biblical criticism in the nineteenth century and the growth of secularism it stimulated made an earnest affirmation of Jesus in literature highly problematic. If they affirmed Jesus too directly, writers paradoxically risked diminishing him, either by deploying faith explanations that no longer persuade in an age of skepticism or by reducing Christ to a mere argument in an ideological dispute.
The writers at the heart of this study understood that to reimage Christ for their age, they had to make him known through indirect, even negative ways, lest what they say about him be mistaken for cliché, doctrine, or naïve apologetics. The Christology of Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Boris Pasternak is thus apophatic because they deploy negative formulations (saying what God is not) in their writings about Jesus. Professions of atheism in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s non-divine Jesus are but separate negative paths toward truer discernment of Christ.
This first study in English of the image of Christ in Russian literature highlights the importance of apophaticism as a theological practice and a literary method in understanding the Russian Christ. It also emphasizes the importance of skepticism in Russian literary attitudes toward Jesus on the part of writers whose private crucibles of doubt produced some of the most provocative and enduring images of Christ in world literature. This important study will appeal to scholars and students of Orthodox Christianity and Russian literature, as well as educated general readers interested in religion and nineteenth-century Russian novels.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Biblical Images and Liturgy

In his often very droll and always very enlightening Christianity in the West 1400-1700, the late John Bossy noted that the motto of the Reformation really should have been in principio erat sermo. The Reformation's focus on (fetish for?) written texts like Scripture and their homiletical exposition often came, as we know, at the expense of the other senses, including the eyes, leading to outbreaks of iconoclasm ("stripping of the altars") not just in Calvin's Geneva or Knox's Scotland but in England and elsewhere.

But over the last quarter-century, many Protestant scholars have begun to re-examine Christian history and even to ransack it for things missing in their own traditions today. Thus we have, e.g., as I've often noted on here, a huge new interest in icons and iconography as well as patristic and sacramental theology.

Now a new book comes along, building on such Orthodox scholars as the late Alexander Schmemann, to repair some of the gaps in Protestant approaches to Scripture and liturgy: Gordon Lathrop, Saving Images: The Presence of the Bible in Christian Liturgy  (Fortress, 2017), 224 pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
The Protestant Reformation emphasized the centrality of Scripture to Christian life; the twentieth-century liturgical movement emphasized the Bible’s place at the heart of liturgy. But we have not yet explored the place of the Bible as the subject of critical exegesis in contemporary liturgy, argues Gordon W. Lathrop. He seeks to remedy that lack because it is critical historical scholarship that has shown us the grounding of the text in the life of the assembly and the role of intertextuality in its creation. “Saving” and revitalizing images of the past are at the heart of Scripture and are the work of the gathered community. Lathrop finds patterns in biblical narratives that suggest revising our models of the “shape” of liturgy (after Dix and Schmemann) and our understanding of baptism, preaching, Eucharist, and congregational prayer. He lifts up the visual imagery at the Dura Europos house church and elsewhere as a corrective to the supersessionist impulse in much Christian typology. He identifies the liturgical imperative as seriousness about the present rather than an effort to dwell in an imagined past. Saving Images is a call for a new, reconceived biblical-liturgical movement that takes seriously both biblical scholarship and the mystery at the heart of worship.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Jesus in Asia

It has long been known, if only to certain scholars, that Christianity (especially Assyrian and Syriac Christianity) spread far into Asia early in the first millennium, and was not a post-Reformation import of either Protestant or Jesuit missionaries. And just as Western cultures sometimes turned Jesus into a blonde, blue-eyed football player, so too were images of Jesus recreated in a variety of different cultural contexts across Asia, as R.S. Sugirtharajah's new book reminds us: Jesus in Asia (Harvard UP, 2018), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Reconstructions of Jesus occurred in Asia long before the Western search for the historical Jesus began in earnest. This enterprise sprang up in seventh-century China and seventeenth-century India, encouraged by the patronage and openness of the Chinese and Indian imperial courts. While the Western quest was largely a Protestant preoccupation, in Asia the search was marked by its diversity: participants included Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Catholics, and members of the Church of the East.
During the age of European colonialism, Jesus was first seen by many Asians as a tribal god of the farangis, or white Europeans. But as his story circulated, Asians remade Jesus, at times appreciatively and at other times critically. R. S. Sugirtharajah demonstrates how Buddhist and Taoist thought, combined with Christian insights, led to the creation of the Chinese Jesus Sutras of late antiquity, and explains the importance of a biography of Jesus composed in the sixteenth-century court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. He also brings to the fore the reconstructions of Jesus during the Chinese Taiping revolution, the Korean Minjung uprising, and the Indian and Sri Lankan anti-colonial movements.
In Jesus in Asia, Sugirtharajah situates the historical Jesus beyond the narrow confines of the West and offers an eye-opening new chapter in the story of global Christianity.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Christian Politics: Is There Any Such Thing?

As someone who grew up in and remains a citizen of Her Britannic Majesty's Canadian Dominion, I watch many things in these United States with puzzlement, sometimes with horror, but never with boredom. I developed a fascination with politics when I was quite young, and recall the summer of 1984 as being something of an awakening, with the Reagan re-election here, and the Tories elected to a landslide majority in Ottawa just weeks before that. I was hooked for years after that on federal politics in both countries, along with following Thatcher in Britain closely.

Given, inter alia, the so-called legal system in this country, with its massive rates of incarceration and bloody capital punishment (if prisoners survive that far and are not shot by police beforehand), as well as the racket which is health insurance and medical care, it has always puzzled me that both Britain and Canada are held up as more "secular" countries, while the United States is somehow more "Christian."  Part of that seems to me to be nothing more than the volubility of certain politicians and Christian leaders alike here more loudly proclaiming some version of "faith," often in defense of "family values." (I learned long ago from Stanley Hauerwas that the gospel sharply relativizes the value of families, and ever since have never trusted a word from anyone who utters the phrase "family values.") Too often, it seems, Christianity in the US is a handmaid of advanced capitalism, militarism, and the inescapable imperialism that this country has always practiced even while fatuously pretending otherwise.

But Christianity cannot be reduced to those dubious "values," and it is the salutary reminder of this crucial fact which I take to be the central virtue of a new book authored by Matthew Bowman: Christian: The Politics of a Word in America (Harvard UP, 2018), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Religious diversity has long been a defining feature of the United States. But what may be even more remarkable than the sheer range of faiths is the diversity of political visions embedded in those religious traditions. Matthew Bowman delves into the ongoing struggle over the potent word “Christian,” not merely to settle theological disputes but to discover its centrality to American politics.
As Christian: The Politics of a Word in America shows, for many American Christians, concepts like liberty and equality are rooted in the transcendent claims about human nature that Christianity offers. Democracy, equality under the law, and other basic principles of American government are seen as depending on the Christian faith’s sustenance and support. Yet despite this presumed consensus, differing Christian beliefs have led to dispute and disagreement about what American society and government should look like. While many white American Protestants associate Christianity with Western Euro-American civilization, individual liberty, and an affirmation of capitalism, other American Christians have long rejected those assumptions. They maintain that Christian principles demand political programs as wide-ranging as economic communalism, international cooperation, racial egalitarianism, and social justice.
The varieties of American Christian experience speak to an essentially contested concept of political rights and wrongs. Though diverse Christian faiths espouse political visions, Christian politics defy clear definition, Bowman writes. Rather, they can be seen as a rich and varied collection of beliefs about the interrelationships of divinity, human nature, and civic life that engage and divide the nation’s Christian communities and politics alike.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Marxism and Psychoanalysis (I)

Before the month of May--the month of the birth of both Freud (whose usefulness to Christianity I've argued elsewhere), and Marx--passes, let me return to a book I mentioned on here some time ago: David Pavón-Cuéllar's Marxism and Psychoanalysis: In or Against Psychology (Routledge, 2017), 242pp. It is a sharply worded and polemically argued book published late last year. Why this book, and why now? I cannot speak for the author, of course, but if ever we needed irrefutable evidence for the central thesis of this bookwe have it in the rise of Jordan Peterson, about whose execrable tract I wrote at length here.

That thesis is one I have long suspected myself: viz., that too much of contemporary academic psychology, especially in North America, is uninterested in human nature except insofar as it can be turned into a handmaid to advanced capitalism. As Ian Parker (about whom more below) notes in the foreword, "this is a book that meticulously documents how and why psychology is the enemy of both psychoanalysis and Marxism" (x).

This notion of enmity confirms what I have long suspected and seen with my own eyes: academic psychology seems to be populated by, and to produce, nothing more than compliant, well-adjusted but badly formed and intellectually shallow members of the upper-middle class: as Pavon-Cuellar will argue later in the book, "psychology is so powerful among the privileged that it makes them forget the economy" (77). Anyone who has been forced to sit through a workplace seminar on "mindfulness" will immediately recognize this as true. If further proof is needed, then once again look to Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist of dangerously shallow learning (as another clinician and colleague of his makes painfully clear here) who is not at all unrepresentative of others in his guild. His book, as my above-linked review tried to make clear, totally ignores economic factors--indeed, scorns the very introduction of them as a distraction to his mythologizing about the libido dominandi of lobsters.

Even as a mere sophomore in psychology a quarter-century ago now in Canada I was shocked by trying to enter into conversations with my professors thinking they would of course have had basic formation in philosophy, history, literature, theology and much else. They had none. Nothing in my experience since then has led me to alter this view.

Seared into my memory is a conversation with my professor in child developmental psychology for whom I wrote a paper analyzing the then-new reports on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Canada. I titled it "Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me" and footnoted that line to, of course, Mark 10:13. In bright red pen, she circled this and scrawled, deadly earnest: "Who is Mark?" When, discussing the paper with her, I explained it was the name of the gospel writer in, you know, this thing called the Bible she appeared scarcely to have heard of it.

Not long after, in reading Robert Coles' biography, Anna Freud: the Dream of Psychoanalysis, I came across and have since often quoted the distinction that she makes in there and he quotes approvingly: between technicians and healers. Most of my psychology professors were technicians, adept in describing the patterns and apparent thought processes of, e.g., bees; in testing the workings of a sparrow's memory; or breaking down in painful detail the multivariate regression analysis of a study of rats on crack. But they couldn't have cared less about individual human beings, never mind wider cultural questions like economic justice, which would have rocked the boat and threatened their funding lines. So one must look elsewhere than today's "conformist psychology" (Jacoby) to find people who see the revolutionary potential in Freud and the tradition he bequeathed to us.

One such person, from within contemporary British psychology, who sees the revolutionary potential and criticizes the conformism, is Ian Parker, author of the foreword to Pavon-Cueller, and author of his own many works, including Revolution in Psychology: from Alienation to Emancipation. I am part-way through this book, and finding deeply edifying. I will say more about it another time, but for now can tell you it's a very worthwhile book.

He also has a brand new book just out, which I have ordered: Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory.

To be fair, Freud himself was far from a revolutionary or a Marxist in many ways. While having achieved a relatively secure life as a member of the professional classes (he trained as a neurologist), he was nonetheless aware of the revolutionary potential of some of his ideas (recall, e.g., his famed comment to Jung as they are getting off the boat in 1909 in Freud's first and only trip to America: "They don't realize that we are bringing them the plague"!) but he was loathe to see the world rocked more than it had been during and after the Great War. He avoided political commentary and engagement as far as possible, which I find very understandable given that he was aware of the precarious place Jews occupied, especially in inter-war Mitteleuropa. Those who worked out some of the political implications of his thought have done so relatively recently--e.g., Eli Zaretsky, the late Paul Roazen, and perhaps most masterfully, as I showed on here, Todd McGowan.

Sure enough, psychoanalysis took hold in America, but it was, within short order and allowing for a few exceptions such as  Otto Fenichel, a psychoanalysis willingly defanged, domesticated, professionalized, medicalized by its own members; perhaps even worse, it was further largely captured by the rise of American ego psychology, which of course was embedded in the categories and patterns of capitalism. Along the way a few questions were raised about this--by, e.g., Erich Fromm, who saw connections between Marx and Freud--but such voices always remained a minority even during the heyday of psychoanalysis, which has now been over for thirty years, perhaps longer.

Why, then, return to such a tradition and such figures as Marx and Freud, whom Peterson and others gleefully conflate as the source of all evils in the past century? I think there is value in doing so not just to illuminate the conformism of psychology, but more especially because both Marxism and psychoanalysis alike remain powerful critics of conformism and idolatry within Christianity--to say nothing of the wider culture. To Pavon-Cuellar's book, then.

The author, a professor of psychology at the Unisersidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo in Morelia, Mexico, begins by asserting that almost all schools of modern psychology "shroud precisely that which Marxism and psychoanalysis strive to uncover" (6). This shrouding is motivated in part by an abstract idealism which seeks to avoid facing the "concrete material totality" of the body in the world today, especially the body of the worker in the economic conditions of the world today (13).

In his second chapter, Pavon-Cuellar argues that there is an important continuity between Freud and Marx even as they would of course have openly disagreed with one another on certain matters: "both will always be authentic materialists" (36). Both, moreover, recognize the lingering power of history, especially traumatic history, and know that it cannot simply be set aside. But both also assert that we are not prisoners of that past but can begin to liberate ourselves from it if we are willing to stand up and stand apart from that history. Thus both Freud and Marx are anti-conformists.

From here the book reviews various schools of psychology and psychoanalysis, noting that Lacan is the most anti-psychology of all psychoanalytic schools today. It then looks at Marxist psychologies before attempting to reconstruct a critical-practical meta-psychology, as we shall see.


Georgian Church Music

I don't know about you, but my library is rather thin on works devoted to Georgian and related musical traditions. Those interested in such histories will be sure to snatch up copies of Svetlana Kujumdzieva's new book, The Hymnographic Book of Tropologion: Sources, Liturgy and Chant Repertory (Routledge, 2017), 194pp.

About this book we are told:
The Tropologion is considered the earliest known extant chant book from the early Christian world which was in use until the twelfth century. The study of this book is still in its infancy. It has generally been believed that the book has survived in Georgian translation under the name ‘ladgari’ but similar books have been discovered in Greek, Syriac and Armenian. All the copies clearly show that the spread and the use of the book were much greater than we had previously assumed and the Georgian ladgari is only one of its many versions.
The study of these issues unquestionably confirms the earliest stage of the compilation of the book, in Jerusalem or its environs, and shows its uninterrupted development from Jerusalem to the Stoudios monastery, the most important monastery of Constantinople. Over time many new pieces and new authors were added to the Tropologion. It is almost certain that it was the Stoudios school of poet-composers that divided the content of the Tropologion and compiled separate collections of books, each one containing a major liturgical cycle. In the beginning all of the volumes kept the old title but in the tenth century the copies of the book were renamed, probably according to the liturgical repertory included, and by the thirteenth century the title ‘Tropologion’ is no longer found in the Greek sources as it became superfluous, and fell out of use.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Between Christ and Caliph

As I have often noted on here over the years, the legal status of minority Christians under Islam is both governed by certain well-known codes in most places, but also subject to a great deal of local interpretation, application, and general variation, leading some Ottomanists to say that this entire legal history is one of endless "local exceptions."

A new book examines this complicated status by focusing on the particular and often difficult question of marriage, especially for Syriac Christians: Lev. E. Weitz, Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) Lev E. Weitz 328 pages

About this book the publisher tells us:
In the conventional historical narrative, the medieval Middle East was composed of autonomous religious traditions, each with distinct doctrines, rituals, and institutions. Outside the world of theology, however, and beyond the walls of the mosque or the church, the multireligious social order of the medieval Islamic empire was complex and dynamic. Peoples of different faiths—Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Jews, and others—interacted with each other in city streets, marketplaces, and even shared households, all under the rule of the Islamic caliphate. Laypeople of different confessions marked their religious belonging through fluctuating, sometimes overlapping, social norms and practices.
In Between Christ and Caliph, Lev E. Weitz examines the multiconfessional society of early Islam through the lens of shifting marital practices of Syriac Christian communities. In response to the growth of Islamic law and governance in the seventh through tenth centuries, Syriac Christian bishops created new laws to regulate marriage, inheritance, and family life. The bishops banned polygamy, required that Christian marriages be blessed by priests, and restricted marriage between cousins, seeking ultimately to distinguish Christian social patterns from those of Muslims and Jews. Through meticulous research into rarely consulted Syriac and Arabic sources, Weitz traces the ways in which Syriac Christians strove to identify themselves as a community apart while still maintaining a place in the Islamic social order. By binding household life to religious identity, Syriac Christians developed the social distinctions between religious communities that came to define the medieval Islamic Middle East. Ultimately, Between Christ and Caliph argues that interreligious negotiations such as these lie at the heart of the history of the medieval Islamic empire.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Justice and Redress in Romania

For two years and more now, here and elsewhere, I have been examining questions of historical memory and reconciliation in a variety of contexts using a variety of methods. In this I've returned to some themes that have long interested me in my ecumenical involvements over the last twenty-five years.

A recent publication, from two of the leading scholars of contemporary Romania, explores these questions anew: Justice, Memory and Redress in Romania: New Insights, eds. Lavinia Stan, Lucian Turcescu (Cambridge Scholars, 2017), 360pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Are there any lessons Romania can teach transitional justice scholars and practitioners? This book argues that important insights emerge when analyzing a country with a moderate record of coming to terms with its communist past. Taking a broad definition of transitional justice as their starting point, contributors provide fresh assessments of the history commission, court trials, public identifications of former communist perpetrators, commemorations, and unofficial artistic projects that seek to address and redress the legacies of communist human rights violations. Theoretical and practical questions regarding the continuity of state agencies, the sequencing of initiatives, their advantages and limitations, the reasons why some reckoning programs are enacted and others are not, and these measures’ efficacy in promoting truth and justice are answered throughout the volume. Contributors include seasoned scholars from Romania, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and current and former leaders of key Romanian transitional justice institutions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Complexities of Monotheism

Often my students, including many self-identified Christian ones, have to admit, at least grudgingly, that they do not really understand Trinitarian theology and therefore find certain Islamic criticisms of the same to be unduly compelling--invariably based on a superficial reading of both. These are not, of course, new issues; but a new book, released last week, is giving them fresh and welcome attention:  Monotheism and Its Complexities: Christian and Muslim Perspectives, eds. Lucinda Mosher and David Marshall (Georgetown University Press, 2018), 208pp.

About this collection we are told:
Conventional wisdom would have it that believing in one God is straightforward; that Muslims are expert at monotheism, but that Christians complicate it, weaken it, or perhaps even abandon it altogether by speaking of the Trinity. In this book, Muslim and Christian scholars challenge that opinion. Examining together scripture texts and theological reflections from both traditions, they show that the oneness of God is taken as axiomatic in both, and also that affirming God's unity has raised complex theological questions for both. The two faiths are not identical, but what divides them is not the number of gods they believe in.
The latest volume of proceedings of The Building Bridges Seminar ― a gathering of scholar-practitioners of Islam and Christianity that meets annually for the purpose of deep study of scripture and other texts carefully selected for their pertinence to the year's chosen theme ― this book begins with a retrospective on the seminar's first fifteen years and concludes with an account of deliberations and discussions among participants, thereby providing insight into the model of vigorous and respectful dialogue that characterizes this initiative.
Contributors include Richard Bauckham, Sidney Griffith, Christoph Schwöbel, Janet Soskice, Asma Afsaruddin, Maria Dakake, Martin Nguyen, and Sajjad Rizvi. To encourage further dialogical study, the volume includes those scripture passages and other texts on which their essays comment. A unique resource for scholars, students, and professors of Christianity and Islam.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Maximus the Confessor on Scripture's Difficulties

As I have often noted on here, there are several figures around whom explosions of new publications have been found in the last two decades, and St Maximus the Confessor is certainly one of them.

Along comes a new book that Christopher Keller kindly drew to my attention, published in the longstanding and prestigious Fathers of the Church series from Catholic University of America Press: On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, trans. Fr. Maximos Constans (2018), 592pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Maximos the Confessor (ca. 580-662) is now widely recognized as one of the greatest theological thinkers, not simply in the entire canon of Greek patristic literature, but in the Christian tradition as a whole. A peripatetic monk and prolific writer, his penetrating theological vision found expression in an unparalleled synthesis of biblical exegesis, ascetic spirituality, patristic theology, and Greek philosophy, which is as remarkable for its conceptual sophistication as for its labyrinthine style of composition. On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture, presented here for the first time in a complete English translation (including the 465 scholia), contains Maximos's virtuosic theological interpretations of sixty-five difficult passages from the Old and New Testaments. Because of its great length, along with its linguistic and conceptual difficulty, the work as a whole has been largely neglected. Yet alongside the Ambigua to John, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios deserves to be ranked as the Confessor's greatest work and one of the most important patristic treatises on the interpretation of Scripture, combining the interconnected traditions of monastic devotion to the Bible, the biblical exegesis of Origen, the sophisticated symbolic theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, and the rich spiritual anthropology of Greek Christian asceticism inspired by the Cappadocian Fathers.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Papal Power

I have of course had a long-standing interest in the question of papal power, having written a book about it in light of Orthodox ecclesiology and ecumenism.

Not long ago I gave extended discussion to these themes in the context of Steven Ogden's book The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom.

And this interest is not mine alone, as my interview last year with Cyril Hovorun about his fascinating and important new book, The Structures of the Church, also shows. 

So I rather expected to be able to think further about these vital and perpetually controverted issues when the publisher sent me a copy of Paul Collins' new book, Absolute Power: How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World (Public Affairs, 2018), 384pp. The author is an ex-priest in Australia. 

Whatever this book is, it is not a serious work of ecclesiology or anything else--"high journalism" perhaps, but not theology, still less any kind of sophisticated analysis. It's not badly written, but its tendentiousness is relentless. It never treats the question of power in any serious way; indeed the theme gets lost until the last 3-4 pages when a few comments are hastily cobbled together, saying nothing that others have not said for decades. 

Thus the book really is is just another history of the papacy, recreated in the image and likeness of a particular type of Catholic of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. You won't be led terribly astray from the standard narrative, though if you want something with far more sober and sophisticated scholarly analysis then I see no reason here to deviate from my long-standing belief that Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners is the best one-volume history of the papacy.

As a story of the papacy, Collins's book is entirely standard and wholly unoriginal for this genre: the papacy is one long continuous power-grab by self-aggrandizing men. In the modern period, all the predictable villains come out--expecially the Piuses (IX-XII), and John Paul II--until, of course, the magical hero Francis emerges, at which point the book supplies its own Greek chorus, half of which offers adulation and hymn-singing to and about this man while the other half is chanting psalms of imprecation against his enemies, among whom are to be found any critics of Amoris Laetitia (or really anything else besides):
 "What is really happening here is a battle for the heart and soul of Catholicism. The sheer decency and openness of  Francis have restored the fortunes and reputation of the papacy in the wider world after the overbearing John Paul and the maladroit Benedict" (302).

Friday, May 18, 2018

Deification Then and Now

As I have had many occasions to note over the last 15 years, deification/divinization/theosis has become hugely popular with many Western authors "rediscovering" it, or otherwise acting as though this is some new thing--new, that is, once it has been stripped of its supposedly suspicious "Eastern" understandings. Protestant and Catholic authors alike have been in on this for some time now, as many books and collections noted on here will make abundantly clear.

This high level of interest shows no signs of declining soon based on books published in the last year or so, and another collection to be released next month: Mystical Doctrines of Deification; Case Studies in the Christian Tradition, eds. John Arblaster, Rob Faesen (Routledge, 2018), 230 pages.

About this collection the publisher tells us this:
The notion of the deification of the human person (theosis, theopoièsis, deificatio) was one of the most fundamental themes of Christian theology in its first centuries, especially in the Greek world. It is often assumed that this theme was exclusively developed in Eastern theology after the patristic period, and thus its presence in the theology of the Latin West is generally overlooked. The aim of this collection is to explore some Patristic articulations of the doctrine in both the East and West, but also to highlight its enduring presence in the Western tradition and its relevance for contemporary thought.
The collection thus brings together a number of capita selecta that focus on the development of theosis through the ages until the Early Modern Period. It is unique, not only in emphasising the role of theosis in the West, but also in bringing to the fore a number of little-known authors and texts, and analysing their theology from a variety of fresh perspectives. Thus, mystical theology in the West is shown to have profound connections with similar concerns in the East and with the common patristic sources. By tying these traditions together, this volume brings new insight to one of mysticism’s key concerns. As such, it will be of significant interest to scholars of religious studies, mysticism, theology and the history of religion.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Visible God of our Fathers

To do anything in patristics today is to come across the name of the Jesuit scholar Brian Daley, whom I have met at least twice, always finding him to be a very gracious and unassuming man. His scholarship has been widely respected for years now, and recognized, inter alia, by the Ratzinger Prize several years ago. His scholarship has also been valuable in advancing the cause of Orthodox-Catholic unity, which he has served faithfully for many years now in the official North American dialogue.

He has a new book out: God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered (Oxford UP, 2018), 317pp. The book is based in part on lectures Daley gave in 2002 at the Jesuit Campion Hall in Oxford on the occasion of the Martin d'Arcy Memorial Lectures. (D'Arcy was himself a Jesuit who instructed and received Evelyn Waugh into the Church.)

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered considers the early development and reception of what is today the most widely professed Christian conception of Christ. The development of this doctrine admits of wide variations in expression and understanding, varying emphases in interpretation that are as striking in authors of the first millennium as they are among modern writers. The seven early ecumenical councils and their dogmatic formulations are crucial way-stations in defining the shape of this study. Brian E. Daley argues that the scope of previous enquiries, which focused on the declaration of the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 that Christ was one Person in two natures, the Divine of the same substance as the Father, and the human of the same substance as us, now seems excessively narrow and distorts our understanding. Daley sets aside the Chalcedonian formula and instead considers what some major Church Fathers--from Irenaeus to John Damascene--say about the person of Christ.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The End of the Endless Great War

Almost five years ago now, I noted that we were gearing up for the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, which was already in 2013 occasioning a steady publication of new books, which only accelerated in the following year. For general histories, see the link at the top. For a specifically theological analysis of the war, I noted here Philip Jenkins' surprising, almost shocking, book on the war as a holy war.

And now, as this interesting photo array at The Atlantic reminds me, we are coming upon the centenary of the end of the war. 

The war may have ended nearly a century ago now, but as the always-fascinating Cambridge historian David Reynolds has shown, that war has had very long shadows. Eastern Christians are aware of that only too well, living in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its genocides against Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians.

As we come to the centenary of the end of the war, and then to the abysmal legacy of the peace conference afterwards, I draw your attention once more to a splendid book by the Anglo-Canadian historian (and great grand-daughter of David Lloyd George) Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. 

This book tells a complicated story with great insight and panache. She allows the major characters--especially Clemenceau, George, and Wilson--to come alive alongside an equally fascinating set of other leaders in Paris--e.g., the Greek prime minister Venizelos, various minor Romanian royals, and others. And the sarcastic comments made by Clemenceau against George and Wilson are revealing and hilarious in about equal measure--and far from undeserved. It is a fascinating history sure to delight.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Old Believers in Imperial Russia

In 2008, Roy Robson published Old Believers in Modern Russia. This was followed, in 2011, by R.O. Crummey's Old Believers in a Changing World. Crummey had, in 1970, published another work looking at the role of apocalyptic in the life of the Old Believers.  

Now, in 2018, we have what appears to be a fresh take written by Peter De Simone and set to appear this July: The Old Believers in Imperial Russia: Oppression, Opportunism and Religious Identity in Tsarist Moscow (I.B. Tauris, 2018), 272pp.

About this book we are told:
"Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth."
So spoke Russian monk Hegumen Filofei of Pskov in 1510, proclaiming Muscovite Russia as heirs to the legacy of the Roman Empire following the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. The so-called "Third Rome Doctrine" spurred the creation of the Russian Orthodox Church, although just a century later a further schism occurred, with the Old Believers (or "Old Ritualists") challenging Patriarch Nikon's liturgical and ritualistic reforms and laying their own claim to the mantle of Roman legacy.
While scholars have commonly painted the subsequent history of the Old Believers as one of survival in the face of persistent persecution at the hands of both tsarist and church authorities, Peter De Simone here offers a more nuanced picture. Based on research into extensive, yet mostly unknown, archival materials in Moscow, he shows the Old Believers as versatile and opportunistic, and demonstrates that they actively engaged with, and even challenged, the very notion of the spiritual and ideological place of Moscow in Imperial Russia.
Ranging in scope from Peter the Great to Lenin, this book is essential for all scholars of Russian and Orthodox Church history.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Desire Giveth and Desire Taketh Away

I once had a professor, whose lovely temperament I knew to be immune to be temptations to sadism, nonetheless try to get me to read Lonergan. And then when I got hired at the University of Saint Francis, my predecessor as departmental chairman, David Fleischacker, was another Lonerganian who suggested we read Method in Theology together. At no point have I ever been able to see what the attraction of Lonergan is: having to read him feels like a forced march through a sweltering and tangled jungle. As I've long thought, for a Canadian he writes like a Teuton--prolix, leaden, and lethal. Those who are into Lonergan seem to be all in; and for the rest of us, his attractions remain recondite. But that could be just me.

Nevertheless, I am genuinely looking forward to reading a new book that draws on Lonergan to treat a topic I am increasingly preoccupied with, viz., desire (as I've noted in talking about Freud, and more recently Sarah Coakley's work). The new work is Randall S. Rosenberg's, The Givenness of Desire: Concrete Subjectivity and the Natural Desire to See God (University of Toronto Press, 2018), 288pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
In The Givenness of Desire, Randall S. Rosenberg examines the human desire for God through the lens of Lonergan’s "concrete subjectivity." Rosenberg engages and integrates two major scholarly developments: the tension between Neo-Thomists and scholars of Henri de Lubac over our natural desire to see God and the theological appropriation of the mimetic theory of René Girard, with an emphasis on the saints as models of desire. With Lonergan as an integrating thread, the author engages a variety of thinkers, including Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean-Luc Marion, René Girard, James Alison, Lawrence Feingold, and John Milbank, among others. The theme of concrete subjectivity helps to resist the tendency of equating too easily the natural desire for being with the natural desire for God without at the same time acknowledging the widespread distortion of desire found in the consumer culture that infects contemporary life. The Givenness of Desire investigates our paradoxical desire for God that is rooted in both the natural and supernatural.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Byzantine Concepts of Personhood and Individuality

It has been said for a while now that the major theological questions of our time will be anthropological in nature. Much of the career and writings of John Zizioulas have been devoted to trying to address such questions, but now a new generation of younger scholars is arising to meet some of the same challenges. Collected into a book just released are a number of those scholarly writings: Personhood in the Byzantine Christian Tradition: Early, Medieval, and Modern Perspectives, eds. Alexis Torrance, Symeon Paschalidis (Routledge, 2018), 248 pages

About this collection the publisher tells us:
Bringing together international scholars from across a range of linked disciplines (theology, history, Byzantine studies and philosophy) to examine the concept of the person in the Greek Christian East, Personhood in the Byzantine Christian Tradition stretches in its scope from the New Testament to contemporary debates surrounding personhood in Eastern Orthodoxy. Contributions explore various dimensions of the issue in specific historical contexts that have not hitherto received the scholarly attention they deserve. The volume thus brings forward an important debate over the roots of contemporary notions of personhood and will provide a key stimulus to further work in this area.
Earlier this year, a paperback edition of another book edited by Torrance and Johannes Zachhuber was released: Individuality in Late Antiquity (Routledge, 2018), 204pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Late antiquity is increasingly recognised as a period of important cultural transformation. One of its crucial aspects is the emergence of a new awareness of human individuality. In this book an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars documents and analyses this development. Authors assess the influence of seminal thinkers, including the Gnostics, Plotinus, and Augustine, but also of cultural and religious practices such as astrology and monasticism, as well as, more generally, the role played by intellectual disciplines such as grammar and Christian theology. Broad in both theme and scope, the volume serves as a comprehensive introduction to late antique understandings of human individuality.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Meaning and Melancholia

Christopher Bollas is a prolific writer and one of the most important psychoanalytic theorists alive today. I have previously mentioned a number of his books, and recently received and read his newest: Meaning and Melancholia: Life in an Age of Bewilderment (Routledge, 2018), 174pp. I had high hopes for this book, but they were only partially met.

The title, of course, instantly calls to mind one of Freud's wartime essays, "Mourning and Melancholia" (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV: 237-258). (This Penguin edition gives you that essay and a number of related works.)
I have been thinking about that essay and drawing on its important insights for some time in a number of lectures I gave on the underlying psychology of ISIS propaganda about Eastern Christianity and the Crusades.

Like many of Bollas' books, and not unlike the analytic process itself, Meaning and Melancholia is written in a diffuse style loosely stitching together a number of themes under an overarching narrative. As the publisher tells us: 
Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment sees Christopher Bollas apply his creative and innovative psychoanalytic thinking to various contemporary social, cultural and political themes.
This book offers an incisive exploration of powerful trends within, and between, nations in the West over the past two hundred years. The author traces shifts in psychological forces and ‘frames of mind’, that have resulted in a crucial ‘intellectual climate change’. He contends that recent decades have seen rapid and significant transformations in how we define our ‘selves’, as a new emphasis on instant connectedness has come to replace reflectiveness and introspection.
Bollas argues that this trend has culminated in the current rise of psychophobia; a fear of the mind and a rejection of depth psychologies that has paved the way for what he sees as hate based solutions to world problems, such as the victory of Trump in America and Brexit in the United Kingdom. He maintains that, if we are to counter the threat to democracy posed by these changes and refind a more balanced concept of the self within society, we must put psychological insight at the heart of a new kind of analysis of culture and society.
This remarkable, thought-provoking book will appeal to anyone interested in politics, social policy and cultural studies, and in the gaining of insight into the ongoing challenges faced by the Western democracies and the global community.
In this short book, Bollas imitates Freud in some ways insofar as he engages in broad cultural analysis of many themes of our time, especially certain developments in both technology and politics. But this is no mere restating or updating of Freud but instead clearly a book of our time. The impetus for it, he tells us, comes largely from the election of Trump in the US, the rise of Marie Le Pen in France, and the Brexit vote and ongoing discontent in the United Kingdom. But this is not a partisan book that discusses policies so much as it looks at the history of the past century to detect certain underlying psychological themes, including, he begins by claiming, unfinished mourning from the Great War, which introduced a massive splitting into the Western psyche from which it has not recovered.

The book spends more time than I wanted on the causes and effects of current American politics, and not enough time on the changes wrought by technology. But what links the two, Bollas says in a number of ways, is a preference for simplicity, homogeneity, and the deliberate destruction of complexity: "in the age of bewilderment, there was peace to be found in ridding the mind of unwanted complexity" (77). Such eliminations are widespread: today's politics preys on that anti-complexity; today's globalized capitalism demands it; and even today's therapists and psychologists go along with it, offering almost instant ready-made courses of action to "fix" one's life rather than (as a psychoanalyst would) encouraging one to reflect on it at length in all its messiness, perhaps coming later to a new course of action--or perhaps not bothering to do so but instead, as Adam Phillips might say, coming to be content not to know without being thereby frustrated.

When he does focus on technological change--especially what it means to live our life tethered to phones and tablets, and broadcasting bits and pieces of that fragmented, homogenized life on social media--Bollas provides this very apt summary of the problems of social media, as anyone who ever bothers to read the comments on any website about any topic soon realizes: "Aspects of the way we communicate and think in the twenty-first century can be seen as forms of psychic flight from the overwhelming weight of inheriting a world shattered by dumb thoughtlessness."

In the end, Bollas says that the chaos and unmourned losses unleashed by the Great War have fed into an age of bewilderment which is only getting worse, and we have not recognized or admitted this--to our peril:
With the loss of a sense of meaning--the feeling that our lives can make a contribution--mourning has turned into melancholia. When we are melancholic we are angry over the losses we have suffered, and we unconsciously blame that which has apparently left us. We now feel abandoned by the humanist predicates of Western culture and the network of belief systems that seemed to offer a progressive vision of humanity, and we have turned our rage against social efficacy itself (127).
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