"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, March 12, 2015

Philosophy, Theology, and the Search for Unity: An Interview with John P. Manoussakis

I was of course greatly interested when a new book crossed my desk bearing the title of  For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West. I was even more interested in seeing that the author is already someone on whom I had commented previously, viz., John Panteleimon Manoussakis, an archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Church and a professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. As I noted earlier, Fr. John's previous essay was a wonderfully bracing blast of cool reason in the often overheated world of East-West dialogue. We have more of that in his short but elegantly written and winsomely argued book bearing a foreword from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. I sent him some questions for an interview, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

I was born in Athens, Greece and finished my primary education there, including a year of theological studies at the Rizareios seminary. In 1994 I received a scholarship to study theology at Hellenic College, the seminary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. I was then already a novice in a monastery. So I embarked on my studies and the next year I was tonsured monk and ordained to the diaconate. I completed my bachelor’s degree and continued my graduate studies at Boston College in classics (MA) and philosophy (MA, Ph.D.). My years at Boston College were of the happier sort—the kind of happiness that one intimates in Aristotle’s description of contemplation in the tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, for example. It was a life immersed in books and stimulating exchanges and discussions with professors and classmates.

I had the good luck to study under Richard Kearney whose profound knowledge of philosophy, literature, and the arts was only rivaled by his generosity and hospitality, both academically and in his personal life. Under less hospitable circumstances one could imagine a work like God after Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic being looked upon with suspicion as crossing the borders between “unadulterated” philosophy and theology. This was never the case at Boston College—on the contrary, I was encouraged to pursue my philosophical interests no matter how far from the philosophical canon they might take me. Such an encouragement was Richard Kearney’s own work (his The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion came out just as I was working as his assistant), Fr. Richardson’s seminars on Heidegger, and Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenological readings of the Church Fathers (Marion was visiting then as the Gadamer chair). The Jesuit community at Boston College provided me with an intellectual home (I recall our endless discussions with Fr. Gary Gurtler for example) that proved equal to the excellent reputation that the Jesuits have as educators, in-forming the whole person (cura personalis). After I completed my doctorate, I was ordained a priest and continued teaching at various positions until I came to Holy Cross.


AD: What led to the writing of this book, For the Unity of All?

As I relate in the Introduction, this book was for me an outstanding debt of sorts, dating back to the theological discussions that I had with my classmates at our junior seminary in Athens. At the time—and I am afraid it might be still the case—there was a deep-rooted fear of all things Latin in the ecclesiastical environment of Greece. It was not unusual to hear teenage students recounting with the seriousness and confidence of a prelate a list of "Latin errors." These were, of course, second-hand positions, received and repeated uncritically (as one might expect) and, more importantly, very useful in solidifying one’s own identity in opposition to the West. A number of my classmates and I began to question these polemical discourses. Some of them, by the way, have moved on to become talented clergyman as, for example, the Grand Archimandrite of the Patriarchal Church at the Ecumenical Patriarchate Fr. Bessarion (we used to joke that his name was given in honor of Cardinal Bessarion who distinguished himself at the Council of Ferrara-Florence).

This interest in ecumenical dialogue, especially with the Catholic Church, was sustained throughout my life and was fostered by a number of occasions and professional engagements. I think that living and working in America—that is, in a country that is, more or less, denominationally neutral—makes it easier to engage in the ecumenical dialogue among Christians and to appreciate the need for such a dialogue. I was thinking recently of the important role that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America played, and continues to play, in this rapprochement: the great Patriarch Athenagoras, who became the man with the courage to open his arms to the Pope at that historic embrace of 1964 in Jerusalem, had previously served as the Archbishop of America. Similarly, Archbishop Iakovos of America and Athenagoras of Thyatira were instrumental to those first meetings that broke the silence of centuries. The affiliation of all these men with the Orthodox Church in America is not accidental. From the vantage point of a religiously homogeneous country (often with a “national Church”), such as the historically Orthodox countries of Russia and the Balkans, it is difficult to recognize in the face of the fellow Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, a brother or sister in Christ, without mistaking it for the face of the enemy. So, I credited the last twenty years of studying and serving as clergyman in the United States as formative of the openness that became the presupposition of writing this book.

For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West is also a book outside the main line of my research and publications, which are focused on philosophy and, in particularly, phenomenology. Yet, the need to write it was irresistible and, therefore, worth the time that I took away from other projects. I felt that I could not move on with these other projects unless I had first “expectorated” as Kierkegaard would say what I had to say in this book. Writing it was for me an affair with a personal urgency.

AD: As you doubtless know, some people, including in the Church of Greece and atop the Holy Mountain, regard all dialogue with the West as a danger if not a ruse to distract and destroy Orthodoxy (the "pan-heresy of ecumenism"). So tell us how you see the "theological dialogue" mentioned in your subtitle.

I am well aware of the ecumenical phobias and the anti-ecumenism obsession infesting certain corners of the Orthodox world. One could say a lot about them, but very little to them. The dialogue they oppose so vehemently is not the dialogue with other Christian Churches and traditions but rather the dialogue with the Orthodox “ecumenists.” This is an important clarification, I think. The polemics of those “guardians of Orthodoxy” are not directed against western Christians (even if their language seems to suggest so): they are rather aiming at other Orthodox—it is, in short, a civil war going on within the Orthodox Church. Ironically, these very same people who denied any form of dialogue in the name of doctrinal purity are, in effect, cut off from the Orthodox Church, as their fear of becoming “contaminated” by the “pan-heresy of ecumenism” leads them often to extremes, such as refusing to commemorate their bishop or participate in the ecclesial life of their local church. They set up their own “communities”—usually “organized” around on-line sites that feed off and circulate an entirely uncritical delirium, usually coupled with propagation of conspiracy theories. They have therefore to do more with a virtual phenomenon than with a reality. This is expected: orthodoxy for them is not the truth incarnate in the person of Christ, a life lived concretely in Christ’s body, namely, within the Church and in the Eucharist; their “orthodoxy” is merely an ideological position that needs to be defended at all costs and with the same partisan zeal that, by default, remains willfully blind to both life and truth. For me there is no graver heresy than ideology (and every heresy was, historically, an ideology in its own right)—for it constitutes a denial of the incarnation. Every ideological discourse, even when carried in the name of Christianity, is fundamentally un-Christian and anti-Christian.

AD: In his preface, His All-Holiness notes that in the East-West dialogue "differences in methodological...approaches to primacy" still require attention. Tell us how you understand those methodological differences and what your book offers in this regard.

I believe that the Patriarch refers here to the recent attempts to articulate a position on primacy that would be consistent with the ecclesiology and theology of the Orthodox Church. It is important to notice that the Patriarch lists first the methodological and then the theological differences. In the chapter that discusses the issue of primacy in For the Unity of All, I try to show that the perceived theological difference on this topic between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches is rooted, in fact, in a methodological one: that is, that of inconsistency in failing to apply to the third level of the ecclesiological structure the same principles that we follow in determining primacy on the local and eparchial levels. The Orthodox Church has not adequately utilized her theological resources in thinking through the ministry of primacy. This task is being carried on at the moment, both within the Orthodox world and in the joint international commission of the theological dialogue with the Catholic Church. I have documented the progress and the shortcomings of this discussion in my book, so there is no need to repeat them here.

AD: Your chapter on the Theotokos ("Mary's Exception") is a wonderfully cogent, lucid, gracious treatment, clearing the way of difficulties and misunderstandings. But I noted you did not take up the Orthodox objection I have sometimes heard, viz., that there was no need for the West to dogmatize on the conception of the Theotokos as Pope Pius IX famously did in 1854. What are your thoughts on that?

That’s correct—as this objection does not pertain to the matter at hand but rather it questions the necessity of defining Mary’s immaculate status as well as the prerogative of the Pope to do so unilaterally. It is, in fact, more of an objection to the Pope’s role to define and promulgate the doctrine of the Church. However, in the chapter on “Mary’s Exception” I was more interested in the question itself: is Mary without sin? And how are we to understand such a statement in light of the homiletic and liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church? Perhaps the answer to this question would not have been necessary, had it not been often listed as one of the reasons that underline the separation between eastern and western Christianity. But since it has been cited as such in the past, I thought that it deserved to be re-examined under a new light.

AD: I was of course especially interested in your chapter on Petrine Primacy, and I genuinely appreciated your direct but courteous disagreement (fn. 26, p.31) with my proposal (in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity) for a permanent ecumenical synod, which I was modeling more on the "synodos endemousa" of Constantinople than the idea of a permanent ecumenical council which, following Zizioulas (with whom I agree) is indeed an event rather than an institution. Is there value for a permanent or standing synod around the one who exercises the Petrine primacy so that it does not become unilateral or unbalanced--that the papal "monarchism" of the past does not rear its head again?

That’s a good question. I think that the confusion here might be due to a certain equivocity. There are two different bodies that bear the designation of a synod: the synod of one particular Church, assembled around its primus or prōtos, and the ecumenical synod or council. The latter is indeed an event and not an institution and therefore it cannot be a permanent body. The former, however, is an institution and it is characterized by permanence. The difference is the following: the synod of a Church is comprised by hierarchs of that Church alone: a bishop who does not belong to that local Church cannot participate in it. While the ecumenical synod aspires to the maximum representation of all hierarchs of all local Churches (it is for this reason that no synod in the Orthodox Church has been designated as ecumenical after the separation from Rome). One needs to respect the difference of these two bodies, even though they both are synods of bishops. To create a hybrid third synod that would borrow the regularity of the local synod but also be comprised by hierarchs of other local churches, as in the case of an ecumenical council, is, in my view, problematic. Nevertheless, there is a point of cardinal importance implied in your suggestion which is the need to inscribe primacy within synodality (that is, the primus, even “the universal primus,” is always in reference to a synod) and, conversely, every synod (even the ecumenical synod) is headed by a primus. This principle, however, does not necessitate that the synod of the primus on the universal level be also a permanent synod: for whoever this primus is, he is also the primate who presides over the synod of his local church, and that is a permanent body of ecclesial governance. The risk of monarchism would be accentuated were we to grant to one primate the presiding role of two permanent synods at the same time, one of his local Church, the other of the universal Church.

AD: Having just given a lecture on eschatology and the Byzantine East, I was interested in your treatment of it, especially in a Palamite light and in your chapter on Will and Grace--as well as your earlier treatment of it in the Harvard Theological Review, which was a very illuminating article. In my lecture  at Baylor on eschatology I noted a number of historians of American Christianity (especially its Protestant expressions) who said that in the 19th century preachers talked eschatology easily and frequently in Sunday sermons but would rarely if ever have preached on sex whereas today the situation is reversed: nobody talks judgment and hell, but homiletical treatments of sex are not at all uncommon. What are your thoughts on all this?

I am not sure that this is a fair assessment, given the recent revival of eschatology in every theological tradition. Think of the works on eschatology published in the last few years by Pannenberg, Moltmann, Ratzinger, and Zizioulas (to list only some representative names). On the other hand, the fact that sexuality has become a question for theology might not be unrelated to renewed interests in eschatology. One of the most pertinent concerns in every treatment of eschatology is the fate of the human body: its desires and, by implication, the question of human sexuality. A couple of days ago I was invited to give a lecture on marriage in Helsinki. I found it impossible to develop a proper theology of marriage without reference to eschatology and the role that sex plays in our salvation and condemnation.

AD: What challenges do you see remaining in the East-West theological dialogue? Do you realistically anticipate a resolution of the question of primacy any time soon?

Recent events and the kind of language that I hear generated by various Orthodox Churches has made me quite pessimistic with regards to the immediate future of the theological dialogue. In particular with reference to the question of primacy the greatest challenge is the lack of such primacy at the pan-Orthodox level. Yet, it is rather a secular mentality that demands immediate results, results which somehow we can bring about by our own efforts. The gift of Church unity and the road that leads to it does not depend on us—except in the sense of praying and working for it, remaining vigilant and receptive to God’s grace. The unity of our Churches is His gift and His doing. To oppose it is to oppose Him. Certainly, such resistance to God’s call to unity—the unity of all—is possible but it cannot be victorious. I believe, with St. Augustine, that God’s grace is ultimately irresistible and that, no matter how hardened our hearts, one day we will partake from the same bread and the same chalice at the Lord’s altar.

AD: Having finished this book, what projects are you at work on now?

I will return to my philosophical work. I am finishing a book on the ethics of time called "The Scandal of the Good." It is conceived as a sequel of sorts to the theological aesthetics presented in my God After Metaphysics. Even though I keep promising myself to refrain from writing anything theological, I am afraid that I will be returning to these theological questions from time to time.

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