"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, July 1, 2011

Interview: Sr. Nonna Harrison on God's Image

One of the important debates today concerns the nature of the human person. Questions of theological anthropology, in other words, have become increasingly prominent among Christian thinkers of all traditions.  Pope John Paul II made that clear in his inaugural encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. In the East, these questions were set forth in what has remained one of the most influential books, John Zizioulas's Being as Communion--to say nothing of his later works of theological anthropology, particularly Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church.

Today, then, we have an increasing recognition of the importance of the topic, and an increasing number of books on it. One of the most recent comes from the hand of the patristic scholar Sr. Nonna (Verna) Harrison, from whose several essays in learned journals on the theological anthropology of the Greek Fathers (the Cappadocians especially) I have learned much. She is the author of  God's Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Baker Academic, 2010), 207pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
What does it mean to be a human being made in the image of God? This book makes the case that the divine image can be seen in not just one or two aspects of human identity but in all of them. The author, a specialist in early Christianity, reveals the light that leading theologians of the early church shed on contemporary discussions of what it means to be human. Each chapter explores a different facet of the divine image and likeness and maps out a path that can lead toward wholeness and holiness. This fresh approach to theological anthropology brings Greek patristic theology to students in a readable fashion.

I asked Sr. Nonna for an interview about her book, and here are her answers to some questions:


Tell us why you wrote this book.
NVH: For Many years my research has been centered on theological anthropology, that is an examination of how Christians understand what it is to be human. What is it in each of us that manifests the “image of God” according to which we are created? My studies have focused on the Greek fathers, and I have found in their writings many facets of the image of God, not just one standard definition. These facets are what I set out to explore and to summarize in this book.
In other words, what is at the core of our human identity, and what gives each of us value and dignity as a human person? In a world where many people are subject to discrimination for one reason or another, and all too often people are treated like disposable commodities, it is important to affirm their value, to explain why each one has value.
Yet each of us is called to live in accord with that dignity, to manifest God’s image and grow into his likeness, the likeness of Christ. This intrinsically involves affirming a corresponding dignity in each of the people we encounter.  But this task turns out to be difficult, and one wonders how it can be done in practice. To address this question in the book, I brought in many concrete examples, especially from the desert fathers and mothers, but also from the contemporary world.
For whom was the book written−did you have a particular audience in mind?
NVH: When I wrote it I was teaching at Saint Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Kansas City. So it was written with my students in mind and others like them including undergraduates. I also had in mind a broader audience of lay people in parishes. My intention was to reach out to Protestants and all kinds of people, to bring them the Christian message in a way that is understandable today and addresses many people’s need for a sense of identity and meaning in their existence.
Of course, I also hoped it would be useful to the community of scholars to which I belong, those who specialize in patristics and in Eastern Christian studies. In practice, I have found that the book reaches all these audiences. It has been gratifying to learn that during the academic year 2010-2011 it has been used as a textbook in courses at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?
NVH: The real question here is, what drew me to study theological anthropology in the first place, and why has it continued to interest me? As I was writing the book, I realized that the initial impetus lay in my childhood questions, some of which I discuss there. For instance, how do I find the value within myself to do or create something of value that I can offer to others? And then there is the issue of personal uniqueness, why am I me and not somebody else? Another childhood question I did not articulate in the book was, how can I find the courage and strength to affirm my value when others so often despise and reject me? I believe many people today have the same kinds of questions I had as a child. The whole book is an attempt to respond to these questions and others like them.
The former Chief Justice William Rehnquist used to say, “It will all come out in the writing.” Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?
NVH: Much of it was drawing together what I have learned over the years. But let me mention four surprises. The first was the way the chapter on virtues formed the center of the book, the hinge that held the rest together. I realized how very important virtues are to me, how much they disclose the beauty of God. Acquiring and developing them is a gift from God, it is precious, it is worth the pain and the effort required, it fashions in us the divine likeness. As a monastic I probably should have known all this, but I had not thought about it much before.
The second surprise was Chapter Five on “Royal Dignity.” It practically wrote itself. It gave clear expression to a concern for social justice that the Methodists at Saint Paul encouraged. It came out in my teaching there, but I had not often expressed it since I was punished for doing do as a child. A related surprise was the discovery, as I researched that chapter, of slavery’s re-emergence in many parts of the world. Just in the few years since I wrote that chapter, this re-emergence has become better known in the United States.  Slavery is among the most direct and systematic denials of the image of God in human persons. Today I saw an interview on PBS with Benjamin Skinner, the investigative reporter whose book, A Crime So Monstrous, is cited toward the end of Chapter Five.
The fourth surprise was the extent to which the aims and methods of modern science manifest the image of God in the scientists themselves. In particular, I was delighted to see how the mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler made precisely this point. The ongoing conversations between theology and the sciences hold a lot of promise.
Sum up briefly the main themes/ideas/insights of the book.
NVH: Some main ideas and themes are discussed above. Each chapter is highlights a different facet of the image of God in humankind: (1) our freedom of choice; (2) our relationship with God and with Christ; (3) our capacity to perceive spiritual realities; (4) the many human virtues; (5) the dignity of every human person; (6)the necessity of the body in fulfilling our vocation as God’s image; (7) our roles in the crested world; (8) the practice of the arts and sciences; (9) human community as image of the Holy Trinity; and in conclusion, the inexhaustible mystery of the image of God.

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