"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).

Monday, August 1, 2011

Authorial Interview: Christopher Pramuk

I recently drew attention to Michael Plekon's laudatory review in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies of Christopher Pramuk's recent book Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, 2009), 322pp.

I asked Pramuk for an interview to discuss his research and book.

AD: Please tell us about your background

CP: I am just beginning my fifth year as an assistant professor of systematic theology at Xavier University, a Catholic Jesuit university in Cincinnati, OH, having completed my PhD at the University of Notre Dame. My love for teaching really took root in the high school classroom some fifteen years ago, when I taught at a Jesuit high school in Denver. There I learned from my students the importance of approaching theology with the whole person in mind, head and heart, body and spirit, reason and imagination.

I am also a musician. I think I can say that I learned to pray as a child largely through music, through the piano. I think that theologians (and preachers!) have much to learn from poets, artists, and musicians. Maybe this explains my attraction to theo-poetical writers such as Thomas Merton, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Howard Thurman, and Dorothee Soelle, to name a few. Much of my teaching and writing aims to bring together mystical or poetical approaches to theology with prophetic and liberationist sensibilities.  

As I describe in the Introduction, my gravitation back to Thomas Merton during doctoral studies took me rather by surprise. My deepest theological questions have long circled around the difficult problem of Christology and religious pluralism, where it seems to me that Catholic theology and constructive Christian thinking generally has hit a kind of impasse. Even more, at the time I was beginning doctoral studies, the United States was preparing to go to war with Iraq for the second time in ten years.

It was in this atmosphere of global violence, uncertainty, and fear that Merton’s witness as a contemplative and prophetic peacemaker called out to me, and begged investigation. Who was Merton’s Christ? Who or what kept him centered in an era of terrible violence and fragmentation, and during his last decade of outreach to other faiths? While Merton had long been a kind of spiritual mentor, I began to read him now as a systematic theologian, convinced that his life and writings had something important, even urgent, to teach us in this dark moment of global and planetary history.    

More and more my research came to center around Merton’s hauntingly beautiful prose poem “Hagia Sophia” and the constellation of influences that brought the text finally to birth in him during the spring of 1961. With help from the masterful work of Paul Valliere and others such as Catherine Evtuhov and Rowan Williams, the Russian Sophia tradition opened up before me. I began to see Merton’s life and theology as part of much broader cloth, marrying East and West in a powerful way. I wrote the book hoping to awaken in readers something of the same presence and hope I found in Merton’s writings and in the Russian writers who inspired him. 

For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

Frankly, I hoped first of all to convince Catholic theologians like myself engaged in constructive theology that Merton is worthy of more serious consideration than he has generally been given by academics, or church people for that matter. Merton is essentially a church theologian, a monk and poet deeply rooted in the tradition from East to West. Second, I hoped to build bridges between Catholic theology and the Eastern Orthodox community, to illumine Merton’s contribution as a receiver and expositor of the sophiological tradition in the West. For all that has been written about him, this aspect of his writings has remained largely secret, hidden, elusive even for longtime Merton devotees. Thus my third audience is Western Christians and spiritual seekers of all sorts who may or may not be familiar with Merton’s “Hagia Sophia” but who find in the poem, and indeed in Merton’s life, something beautiful, if largely forgotten and marginalized, trying to break through in our collective experience and understanding of God.

What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?

The sophiological tradition resonates deeply with my Roman Catholic liturgical sensibilities and sacramental imagination. I would say it also stretches, purifies, and corrects that tradition, theologically, in a number of important ways. To gesture in just one direction, like most of your readers I expect, my life has been filled to the brim by relationships with strong, beautiful, loving women. Such relationships have surely given me, have given all of us, a real glimpse, analogically, into the heart of God. For too long the Catholic tradition has resisted giving positive theological language to eros and the feminine in God, failing to fully embrace and celebrate women as imago Dei, imago Christi. Though I did not set out consciously with this perspective in mind, I am sure my relationships with and indebtedness to women informed my writing of this book.

Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?

Having been schooled in the theology of Karl Rahner, I am generally reticent about highly speculative or aesthetic theologies that seem to claim too much about the inner life of God, or posit too great a chasm between Jesus Christ and the rest of us. Thus my first reaction to the elaborate Trinitarian metaphysics of the Russian school was negative. I was subsequently surprised and deeply moved by Bulgakov’s attention to the humanity of Jesus, the Jewishness of Jesus, Mary, and the apostles, and above all, the divine-human synergy at play everywhere in the gospels. Here, I discovered, is a way of conceiving the divine-human relationship in which history truly matters, where human freedom and flourishing reverberates cosmologically, eternally, as it were, in the very life of God. Our life in God is inscribed into God’s very being, freely, lovingly, from the beginning. The human and cosmic scope of the sophiological perspective is breathtaking.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

Well, here I would refer your readers to Michael Plekon’s very gracious review in Logos. While there have been a handful of serious studies of Merton’s theological legacy, no other monograph has traced the Orthodox influence—the presence of Sophia—in Merton’s extraordinary last decade, or managed to arrange the constellation of Merton’s famously expansive religious imagination and intellectual curiosity, including his dialogue with Zen, into a (more or less) cohesive whole. The difficulty with Merton is just that! By approaching his life and writings slowly, prayerfully, with deep respect especially for his monastic context, I hope I have conveyed something of Merton’s own experience and conception of God. What emerges in the book feels to me as good news, as a word of invitation and hope for human beings, inclusive of our mutual dependence and increasing vulnerability with respect to the suffering natural world.

Sum up briefly the main themes/ideas/insights of the book
Both in life and theology, Merton was haunted by the Wisdom imagery of the Bible. The book traces the emergence of Wisdom-Sophia in Merton’s writings as a Love and Presence breaking through into the world, a living symbol and name through which he encountered God and with which he chose, at his poetic and prophetic best, to structure theological discourse. From his much-discussed “epiphany” in March of 1958 at a busy street corner in Louisville, Kentucky to his climactic pilgrimage in Asia, Sophia emerges here as a kind of unifying presence centering and catalyzing his turn to the world in friendship, dialogue and peacemaking. Perhaps the heart of the book is chapter five, which offers a close reading of the prose poem “Hagia Sophia,” a celebration of divine wisdom as the feminine manifestation of God. I argue that the poem deserves close study not only as a classic of modern Christian mysticism but also for its rare and wondrously realized marriage of Eastern and Western spirituality. 

As a number of reviewers have noted, more broadly the book tackles critical questions about theological method and the development of doctrine. To what extent are we willing and able to open ourselves to a more contemplative and poetical method in theology? What role do memory and imagination play in religious experience, in our encounter with Christ, in theological discourse? Here I look not only to Merton and the Russians but also to John Henry Newman and the great Jewish philosopher-poet Abraham Joshua Heschel as signposts for a sapiential approach to theological method. Near the end of his life, Merton described his Christ as the “Christ of the ikons,” the Christ of mystical experience down through the ages. I try to take this perspective utterly seriously—and playfully, as it were—in the book, and draw out its implications for theology. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...