"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).


Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Interview with John McGuckin

To know the work of the Orthodox priest and scholar John McGuckin is at once to ask: does he ever sleep? The answer to that must surely be no! Author of an acclaimed intellectual biography of St Gregory of Nazianzus and study of St. Cyril of Alexandria, of liturgical works, books of poetry, reference books on Origen and the Fathers generally, introductory texts on Byzantine spirituality, and much else besides, he has gone from strength to strength in the past two years with several major works, all discussed previously on here. I've had a chance to catch up with him and ask him about some of his recent publications as well as current and upcoming projects. Here are his thoughts:


AD: Tell us a bit about your background, including, if you will, what it is like teaching at two institutions and your directorship of the Sophia Institute. What is the Institute trying to accomplish?

I am a Romanian Orthodox Priest, of Anglo-Irish descent, husband, father of three, grandfather of six, currently working in a small parish in Manhattan and also hold down the position of Nielsen Chair (i.e. professorship) in Early Church History at Union Theological Seminary, and the Chair in Byzantine Christian Studies in Columbia University. I write a lot; and in my spare time I….come to think of it I have no spare time. 

The joy of  being involved in two very different  institutions is sometimes muted by the necessity of having to attend two sets of faculty meetings!  But Union is an old Ivy League school of theological studies that has traditionally invested much in early Christian theology. Schaff, our early leader of History here (older than Oxford’s Church History department by the way), sponsored the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Church series, for example; and was instrumental in a very important 19th century reference set called the ‘Creeds of Christendom.’ Columbia is another old Ivy League school stressing more the phenomenology of religions (under which rubric Christianity  has a large role and voice). 

The different strands to my life, of course, are all interwoven. The theological task is  the chief coloration of my priestly service to the Church. Living in both worlds of Academy and Ekklesia is interesting--  but no more strange than most men and women will experience in the  contemporary world where multiple identities and roles often overlap, and sometimes ‘grind’ against one another. I have long held it necessary to bring critical historical scholarship to the illumination of  deep truths. I have never thought the  critical method to be its own justification, or that scholarship is self-justifying. It has inherent values (whatever one calls them – truth, qualitative difference, illumination, wisdom). One ends up as a ‘theologian’ (or at least a philosophe) in the Academy even if one is not specifically treating the  religious thought of the ancients. That or dilettantism are our choices. On the other side of the coin,  ecclesiastical  life and culture without the winnowing and aerating properties of the life of the mind, and the  currents of  broader culture, can all too easily become stifling and oppressive. They might not like each another; but they need one another.

AD: We seem to be living in a time when scholarship, at long last, is beginning to realize that "Christian" approaches to law and politics, in so far as they treat the East at all, must move beyond tiresome notions of "Caesaropapism." (I'm thinking here, e.g., of the recent three-volume collection, one volume of which was The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature.) Where does your own forthcoming book, Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization take the scholarly debate? What drew you to work on that topic? Why do you think there remains a very high level of interest today in studies on all aspects of Byzantium?

I agree with you about scholarship needing to renew itself. It can start by reviewing  the many clichéd presuppositions and short-cuts it clings to in lieu of addressing the primary sources. Our recent times have seen a great revival of interest in Byzantine studies, and more generally the  culture of patristic thought, and the life and culture of the Churches of the East.  When one looks at the majority of texts dealing with, let’s say, Eastern Christian religious culture,  from an earlier academic age, however, one is too often appalled by the undigested level of prejudices, false informations, and plain silliness one finds. One of the worst examples of all, I would suggest, is Donald Attwater’s books on the Eastern Churches. But even sharper scholars like Dvornik had an awful lot of silly things to say about the analysis of Byzantine subtleties of theology and politeia. His term "caesaropapism" has had a detrimental effect. So much of western scholarly attitudes to Byzantium up to the late 20th century were full of prejudices distilled from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. They are often blind to the real balances and subtleties that a close reading of the primary texts reveal. But you know what they say: “Why let the facts stand in the way of a good theory?"

My recent book on  Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization was written because I wanted to study and learn about an issue

where I could find very little extant literature to guide me. I don’t mean that there aren’t a bundle of books on canon law, or on Roman civil law – but rather that I could not find much to help me with a big question: What did Christianity do in its passage through the first millennium in consciously building a civilisation with its own stamp upon it? Law was surely in the heads and minds of the Christians from the times of avoiding Nero’s secret police to the legal scholastics of Justinian’s court. Christianity has invested so much in law, both civilly and ecclesiastically; and yet has always avoided the turn into becoming a religion of the law (be it Torah or Sharia) which other religious systems have chosen. My book therefore, is not so much a review of Byzantine canon law, or the Justinianic Code, as much as it is a question about principles of culture and polity-building at the heart of historical Christianity. I hope it will have much to say to a wide body of readers and theorists who might like to take a fresh look at the way so many areas (take Europe as an example) have advanced theories of human rights as a way forward to a secular paradise; yet in the  process have divorced their understanding of human rights from the sense of divinely graced anthropology by which Christianity first advanced the notion of the special dignity of  humankind. We now postulate  elevated rights for  humanity without any sense of a workable philosophical or metaphysical grounding to the theory: and we sit and wonder why the century that saw the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also the century that reinvented slavery, and brought back genocide to the body politic.

AD:  Not a lot of academics get a chance to work on the production of a movie or documentary, but you did exactly that in Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. Tell us about the process of producing the movie, and the traveling it involved.

Having completed the film, eight years after we initiated it, I can now appreciate why so few academics want to be involved in this genre. It was so much work; travelling, writing and rewriting scripts, hauling equipment up mountains, moving  a team by plane and bus from America to Egypt, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. Of course now that the film is completed it is clear that it has a charm of its own and will have a life of its own, reaching into homes on TV screens and  computer monitors where an academic work of mine, for example, would never appear.  The film is a visual study of several famous monasteries (including Sinai, St. Antony’s, and Sergei Posad) where we went as film-makers and just made the simple request of the ancient Orthodox pilgrims: ‘Abba, give me a word.’ We asked the senior monastics of each place (including several convents)  to tell us something about their practice of the Jesus Prayer. We think the film gives a little window, often in an intriguing way, into Orthodox monastic life and the hesychastic tradition of the Jesus Prayer.


AD: The Jesus Prayer and the practice of Hesychasm both seem today to be attracting a great deal of attention if the number of recent books is anything to go by. What do you think might explain this interest, including from non-Orthodox? What have been the reactions so far to the movie and book?

The very few secular critics who have noticed the film have tended not to like it. The general gist was that it ‘Did not tell me anything new;’ which surprised yet heartened me that so many  of them were already experts in hesychastic prayer. Who would have thought it?  


The larger number of Orthodox and Catholic faithful who have seen it and have responded back to us are almost  all singing from the same hymn sheet: they found it charming, restful and reverent, a feast for the eye and the heart, and so on. So it seems to have greatly pleased those who were, perhaps, more likely to have found it pleasing. I suppose we did a good service for exposing more of the hidden world of Orthodox monasticism to a larger audience. But I think this is the kind of film that will work better for the heart than the head ( which is after all a good thing for a hesychastic piece is it not?). 

The more I go on in life the more depth I discover in this simplest of all prayer forms – known as the Jesus Prayer. I have been working recently, academically, in researching Byzantine mystical ideas of cognition change. A recent article of mine in the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly looks at the states of soul-cognition in Elias Ekdikos, a major figure of the Great Church in Constantinople at the end of the first millennium. He shows, quite clearly, how advanced studies in cognitive changes (the theory of human consciousness) were part and parcel of what we today would call 'Byzantine spirituality.’ For many generations, of course, spirituality and  human culture, let alone the human sciences, have been artificially divided (this domain church; this domain culture; this domain critical thought, and so on). But it strikes me that in their  simplest of meditative techniques on the nature of the Holy Name, the  precise idea of rising up (from material consciousness, to intellective consciousness, to mystical awareness) is ever at the heart of what the hesychastic tradition is all about; and the literature on the Prayer speaks of this incessantly in the language of the ‘descent of the Nous into the heart.’ These are all deep things, difficult to talk about, of course. But when they are practised one sees it instinctively because (as Orthodox theology consistently says) these things are archetypal in the structure of the heart and soul of human beings (drop a cat--it will always land on its feet).  This is why many outsiders find the fire in the Orthodox spiritual traditions, while  many Orthodox remain unaware of their own treasures (because of over-familiarity?).

AD: Much of the movie saw you visiting or describing many venerable monasteries around the world, including some quite famous. But monasticism seems to struggle in North America--we have no equivalent of Athos, Sinai, the Kievan Caves, Trinity Sergius Lavra, etc. Why do you think that is?

The Kievan Caves Lavra can give an example to suggest an answer to your question. I could deduce the same thing from the monasteries of most other Orthodox countries I have visited.  Under the Soviets the Lavra was part destroyed, and more or less wholly turned over to be a museum. The monks, as you know, were thrown out. The religious memory of the place was desecrated and ridiculed. When I visited it in 1991 a tiny group of monastics had been allowed back and were inhabiting a small skete on the site, alongside many resentfully hostile government employees trying to run the site as a cash-making tourist enterprise.  

When we went back for the film, the site was more or less under the control of the Church (except for the main church). At its center was the archbishop’s administration for Ukraine, and the national seminary; but also a newly re-founded set of male and female monastic communities.  The latter were struggling to establish their typikon: a word which means not just the rule of life they should follow (how much prayer, how much study, what type of ministry etc) but also what ethos the community will manifest. It is easy to print out the typikon if it is simply the day’s schedule. It is by no means easy to “establish” the typikon in the sense of building up the spiritual ethos of a place. One needs to  have the stones and lanes of the monastery ‘prayed over’ for a long time. One needs monastics who have been themselves rebuilt by the grace of God over time. Such a  vested place is recognisable by the charisms and graces of men and women who have been rendered luminous by the Spirit: but it also an issue of having experienced and gracious pneumatikoi or startsi (spiritual elders) who can oversee the life of  these houses, nurture their members, direct and shape them over decades, and pass on the care of the houses to disciples who maintain the self-same ethos. 

America is good at building the plant for monasteries, in some cases; but it has difficulties in establishing the tradition of elders. It is still (in its head anyway) a new and ‘frontier civilization.’ The sense of quiet alignment with ancient wisdoms and old obediences does not come naturally to it. It is more Teddy Roosevelt than Paisy Velichovsky. That is why I think America still has some way to go to find itself as a monastically-graced land. It is not enough to don the klobuk and  behave as if the tsar might drop in one day. One needs to pass through the fires of God’s pitiful mercy in oneself, and emerge as someone who would like to build a shelter in the wilderness for the comfort of the poor passerby.

AD: In addition to these two major projects, you've also overseen something (to my mind) even grander, viz., the The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity published this year in 2 volumes by Wiley-Blackwell. Tell us about the Encyclopedia, and the process of producing such a massive work.

The old adage says : ‘Never work with animals or children.’ I would add a line – ‘Or  with Encylopedias of Orthodoxy.’  It was, actually, great fun to do. And I can say that now that it is all over and done with. I had a team of young and enthusiastic assistant editors to cheer things on. We had the inestimable privilege of working with so many splendid  international Orthodox intellectuals (for almost all the entries were by Orthodox people with doctoral level qualifications). It heartened me to see how greatly the Orthodox world has repaired its levels of education so devastated by oppressive forces over the previous century.  Almost all English-language reference works on Orthodoxy, if I may exaggerate only a tiny degree, have been written about the Orthodox by outsiders, who have had varying degrees of patience with us, or understanding of us.  This is the first  really large-scale work that looks at us from the inside: tells the story in our own words.  

The Moscow Patriarchate is currently bringing out a mammoth Russian language version--but they are still only up to 'A,' I believe. Even when this finally emerges in the light, nevertheless, ours will not be pushed aside; but I hope it will remain as an enduring monument because our work takes the highest levels of contemporary critical scholarship and analytical refinement, and allies it with a sense of reverence and delight in the affairs and culture of our Church. Ours also might “just fit” in a book bag. Theirs will need a truck to move it around!

AD: One of the many charms of the Encyclopedia was the inclusion of copies of beautiful icons produced by your wife, Eileen. Is she a full-time iconographer? Where did she study?

Yes, you are right. I did not realize this until I actually saw the book physically in hand, when Blackwells sent me a boxed set: but how beautiful a thing it is to hold and smell (I like smelling books!). It is charming. The production costs were mounting of course, and although the publishers wanted  illustrations they could not stretch to many colored ones. So I had to reach out to another charmer, my wife Eileen, who is a very successful professional iconographer, and I had to go playing my sad violin so she would let me use her images to  demonstrate Orthodox iconography. This was no difficult task. Even though I may be biased, of course, I find her work ‘commanding’ among the many splendid new iconographers we have in our time. She, for me, is a buoyant example of some of the best things going out there internationally. So I was  blessed to be able to include her work. 

People can see a fuller range here. She studied as a fine-arts student (landscape painter) at Newcastle University in England, and went on to  have a full career as an educationalist. When we moved to America in 1997,  and I took up my academic appointment here, she retired early from academia and took up her painting again (which had been a leisure-hours activity all those years). She opened up ‘The Icon Studio’ in New York and has never since been without a list of advance commissions. She absorbed the techniques of icon painting in many places: studios in Athens and the Islands, and some ateliers in Romania. Her color palette is radiant. Her line is very pure and refined. Enough already--you might think I had a special affection for the woman!

AD: Wiley-Blackwell also brought out your own The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, the latest in a considerable number of introductions to, dictionaries of, surveys covering Eastern Christianity. Why do you think we are seeing such an upsurge in major publications on Eastern Christianity today by major publishers--Wiley, Oxford, Routledge, Cambridge, Columbia, and others? Has the world--or at least the academic world--finally "discovered" the East?


Well, Wiley Blackwell is graced to have at the helm of its religion publishing list a very wonderful person called Rebecca Harkin. She is consummately professional, but also has a finely discerning eye. And, though I should not put thoughts in her head or words in her mouth, I think she saw in the traditions of the Orthodox church a fountain of real-world Christian wisdom that was both grounded and mystical at one and the same moment, and which could  be of great utility to the large numbers of intelligent Christians out there today who are ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’ It was Rebecca who came to me and pushed me to compose both these very large works. I (of course) like my Orthodox Church book.  I tried to make it always faithful to the Orthodox tradition in all respects. But I also wanted, all the way through it, to talk about the “real world.”   So it speaks of war, and human grief, and sexuality, and corporate greed in the market place; as well as speaking about the Virgin-Theotokos, the angels, the liturgy and sacraments.  That is my real world, you see: the juxtaposition of the 7th age of the unrealised hopes of humanity, with the glimmering light already breaking through of the 8th age of the Kingdom.

AD: What projects are you at work on currently?

My immediate problem is how to get through to the end of this period of Lent without staining my teeth dark brown with un-milked coffee. This is a recurring project: something of the level of what the ancients would call an aporia: roughly translatable as: Solve that one if you can!  In terms of literature I am resting my steaming head on the table at present and glad to see the release in 2012 of Prayer Book of the Early Christians

as well as The Ascent of Christian Law (SVS Press), and later in the year also the  issuing of a set of studies I have introduced and edited from a number of young scholars, titled The Concept of Beauty in Patristic and Byzantine Theology. The publisher for this is not yet settled. Make me an offer someone out there? This last book looks at the tradition in Platonic philosophy of the ‘Ascent to Transcendent Beauty’ (see the priestess Diotima’s wonderful speech in the Symposium). The Byzantine church Fathers take and adapt this theme to make it a magnificent set of reflections on the  beauty of the divine transcendent.  I think this will itself be a beautiful book, as well as a deeply instructive one. I have composed for it the Introduction on the nature of beauty as a transcendental in patristic thought; as well as an article in the  main body of the book on the manner in which St. Maximus the Confessor deals with the  idea. Other chapters deal with Plato himself, with Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Niketas Stethatos and others. I like offering patristic books which are dealing with real theology, real philosophy – full of substance not merely dead and deadly exercises in academic exactitudes; and thus as dry as dust. The great Fathers of the Church were radiant mystagogues in many cases. Many of their works still leap with the  power of the Spirit. Many  modern theologians have habitually dismissed them as theologians dead and gone, who have nothing to say to the world. This is the mistake of those who have never really read them. For us Orthodox, they are our living treasure. The lights are still on in the house. 

When my head stops steaming, I am turning my mind for the latter part of 2012, towards two projects on my open list. The first is the contract  I have with IVP Academic publishers to offer them, some time before 2014, a large  text book on the history of the Christian Church in the first millennium. It is going (tentatively) to be entitled The Cross Ascendant.    I am also starting a project I have long desired to do: a translation of the Hymns of Divine Eros of St. Symeon the New Theologian, which will itself be hymnal (poetic) in character and will reflect in English blank verse the varying metric rhythms of the poetic originals. I have lived on and off with St. Symeon for most of my scholarly life, since the day he found me as a 23-year-old know-it-all in a library in Durham. And I want to render his  magnum opus   in a version which will show what a master he was in both doctrine and poetry. Just talking about it makes me want to go and smell the Greek originals again! 

So I’m off – and thank you for your kindness is asking about my work.

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