"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, April 26, 2017

Chryssavgis on Climacus

Released this year is a Kindle edition of a book first published more than a decade ago by the well-known Greek Orthodox scholar John Chryssavgis: John Climacus: From the Egyptian Desert to the Sinaite Mountain (Routledge, 2017).

About this book we are told:
John Chryssavgis explores the ascetic teaching and theology of St John Climacus, a classical and formative writer of the Christian medieval East, and the author of the seventh-century Ladder of Divine Ascent. This text proved to be the most widely used handbook of the spiritual life in the Christian East, partly because of its unique and striking symbol of the ladder that binds together the whole book. It has caught the attention of numerous readers in East and West alike through the ages and is a veritable classic of medieval spirituality, whose popularity in the East equals that of The Imitation of Christ in the West. Chryssavgis follows the development and influence of earlier desert literature, from Egypt through Palestine into Sinai, and includes a discussion of the theology of tears, the concept of unceasing prayer, as well as the monastic principles of hesychia (silence) and eros (love).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Turkish Denials of Armenian Slaughters

The reviews I have read so far of The Promise, which opened in theatres on Friday, have been rather ambivalent, most of them noting that the movie subsumes treatment of the Armenian Genocide into a love story, and so blunts the force of the film.

Nevertheless, to the extent that it reawakens focus on the genocide, it is to be welcomed. That genocide has been fairly widely studied in the late 20th century. For some of the many books treating the genocide discussed or noted on here, go here.

In addition, see two recent studies, including Mass Media and the Genocide of the Armenians: One Hundred Years of Uncertain Representation, a scholarly collection of articles edited by Stefanie Kappler et al. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 241pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

The role of the mass media in genocide is multifaceted with respect to the disclosure and flow of information. This volume investigates questions of responsibility, denial, victimisation and marginalisation through an analysis of the media representations of the Armenian genocide in different national contexts.

In addition, because no historical scholarship is done in a vacuum, and no historical memories are even remembered, let alone analyzed, except in a political context of some sort--which context then, as I have been showing on here the past few years in discussions of, e.g., Vamik Volkan's work and the uses and abuses of the Crusades by ISIS, shapes what is recalled and what forgotten--
this second collection merits some attention, too, for it shows scholars in situ, examining how their own disciplines have treated the genocide--or failed to treat it, as has often happened: The Armenian Genocide Legacy by Alexis Demirdjian (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

About this collection the publisher tells us:

This volume focuses on the impact of the Armenian Genocide on different academic disciplines at the crossroads of the centennial commemorations of the Genocide. Its interdisciplinary nature offers the opportunity to analyze the Genocide from different angles using the lens of several fields of study.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Failing to Understand and Appreciate Marx and Freud

I have a long review essay coming out at Catholic World Report discussing Alasdair MacIntyre's latest book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative. (A clear understanding of MacIntyre is more important than ever thanks to his having been traduced by a certain blogger hawking dégonflé tracts to fund his oyster habit while prattling fatuously about asceticism.) It is an extraordinary book for a man fast closing in on 90, showing that he has lost none of his formidable powers of synthesis and reason.

I will not repeat here what I shall say there, but let me at least note a few other things about that book and in particular two of the controversial "masters of suspicion" it treats, viz., Freud and Marx.

This latest book of MacIntyre's is in some ways a return to some of his earliest writings about Marx, as captured in, e.g., Marxism and Christianity. That title was a re-working of his earlier Marxism: An Interpretation, which is very hard to come by now.

Helpfully, however, many of MacIntyre's most recondite writings about Marx have been reprinted in a collection that got almost no attention, but without which Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity will be much harder for readers to comprehend: Alasdair MacIntyre's Engagement with Marxism: Selected Writings, 1953-1974, edited by Paul Blackledge.

That collection contains riches beyond counting. Part of its value comes from the fascinating glimpses it gives one into postwar British politics of the left, of socialist and Marxist parties and debates in which MacIntyre was heavily and intimately involved for some time before coming gradually to find himself estranged by and from those groups both politically and philosophically.

This new book is also a return to Freud, about whom MacIntyre published his first book in the 1950s when he was still in his 20s and a newly minted lecturer looking at the philosophy of psychology and of Freudian psychoanalysis in particular. That book, The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis was reprinted in 2004. In both this first book of his, and now his latest, MacIntyre does not hesitate to recognize both the problems of certain strands of psychoanalytic thought, but also the "greatness" of Freud.

What makes Freud useful for MacIntyre is his unparalleled insight into the nature of our desires, and how we fail to be good reasoners when our desires go astray or are corrupted by unconscious trauma; and what makes Marx still so important and useful is that he continues to offer those willing to listen a very powerful critique of how capitalism subtly exploits and fuels those desires Freud recognized.

It is, alas, a staple of too much cheap and grubby Christian apologetics for a century and more now to run down Freud and Marx alike without ever having seriously read either man in the original (or a scholarly translation) and to treat both as the greatest threat ever faced by Christianity. I count myself fortunate to have been introduced, as an undergraduate in psychology in Ottawa in the early 1990s, to the original writings of both Freud and Jung (and others in that first generation around Vienna) in several classes, including especially a class on psychoanalysis and religion taught by a professor who was himself a Christian and not threatened by what psychoanalysis had to offer.

That education allowed me not to assume "straightforward antagonism" between Freud and Christianity--whereas, MacIntyre says, such antagonism is too often assumed by too many Christians with regard to both Freud (and Marx). I have myself, in a very modest way, been trying on here (and elsewhere earlier in my life) to suggest certain areas where psychoanalytic thought and theology are simpatico as seen, e.g., in the work of the contemporary analyst Adam Phillips, who, like MacIntyre, comes out of the British left. In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, in fact, MacIntyre confesses a debt to Phillips and the latter's biography of D.W. Winnicott, the pioneering English psychoanalyst who did so much to help us understand the mother-child relationship.

Those assuming Freudian-Marxist antagonism do a deep disservice not just to them both but also to Christianity, which has a great deal in common with both men and some (not all) of their ideas, and could be strengthened by a closer alliance with them. Alas, too many people are unwilling to hear this, let alone entertain such an alliance, and usually for one of two reasons: either because they rely on fourth-hand hearsay about what Marx and Freud actually said--a treatment that invariably turns either man into a comic-opera grotesque--or because they fail to appreciate the force of the maxim abusus non tollit usum.

Merely because Marxist thought was abused by and in "Kruschev Enterprises Inc." (one of MacIntyre's several sarcastic names for the Soviet Union) is no reason to write him off; that applies equally to Freud and whatever uses and abuses have been committed in his name. In his refusal to write either man off, and in his willingness, now in his late 80s, to confess that we still need to learn much from Freud and Marx (especially the Marx of the 1840s and his Theses on Feuerbach), MacIntyre is a superlative example of a consummate Catholic thinker who finds good wherever he can, regardless of its provenance and without regard for the fashionable prejudices that have been wreathed about either man for far too long thanks to the "spiritual-industrial complex."

Some of my students next fall will be looking critically at that spiritual-industrial complex and how deeply corrosive and corrupting it is of Christianity from within. And perhaps the weakest point of entry for the kind of commodification of Christianity that Marx foresaw is in the realm we label "spirituality," a term which drips with a repulsive bourgeois self-regard masking little more than straight-up narcissism the perfect companion to which, of course, is the purchase of this book or that program or some other commodity (a "Benedict option," say). In this task we will be aided by reading, inter alia, Vincent Miller's welcome and important book, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, which I commend to your attention.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Russian Orthodox Just War Theories

It has long been alleged, with some justice, that the Orthodox tradition has not developed its own social teaching to the same extent that the Catholic West has; this includes questions of just war. Some within the East--e.g., Alexander Webster--have said that the Eastern tradition is, or should be understood as, pacifist, though Webster himself, more recently, has recognized that the East is not unequivocal on this question.

A forthcoming historical study will shed more light on how the largest Orthodox Church, the Russian, has developed its own understanding of war.

This summer, Bloomsbury Academic will release Betsy Perabo, Russian Orthodoxy and the Russo-Japanese War (2017), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
How should Christians think about the relationship between the exercise of military power and the spread of Christianity? In Russian Orthodoxy and the Russo-Japanese War, Betsy Perabo looks at the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 through the unique concept of an 'interreligious war' between Christian and Buddhist nations, focusing on the figure of Nikolai of Japan, the Russian leader of the Orthodox Church in Japan.
Drawing extensively on Nikolai's writings alongside other Russian-language sources, the book provides a window into the diverse Orthodox Christian perspectives on the Russo-Japanese War – from the officials who saw the war as a crusade for Christian domination of Asia to Nikolai, who remained with his congregation in Tokyo during the war. Writings by Russian soldiers, field chaplains, military psychologists, and leaders in the missionary community contribute to a rich portrait of a Christian nation at war.
By grounding its discussion of 'interreligious war' in the historical example of the Russo-Japanese War, and by looking at the war using the sympathetic and compelling figure of Nikolai of Japan, this book provides a unique perspective which will be of value to students and scholars of both Russian history, the history of war and religion and religious ethics.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spiritual and Artistic Askesis

Given the ongoing iconoclastic crisis in the Latin Church, which has shown few signs of abating over the last half-century at least, it should not surprise us that the West is not only alienated from an incarnational understanding of imagery in keeping with Nicaea II, but also unaware of the fact that the very process of making icons is itself a spiritual process. Those who have produced images know that it is no mere "mechanical" or "technical" undertaking, though technical skill is of course essential. It is also a process of prayer, fasting, and contemplation.

Thus this latest book, though welcome, has, once again, the feel of the West having to "rediscover" something that was never really lost in the East: Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation (Cascade, 2015), 146pp. by James McCullough.

About this book the publisher tells us:
There is growing interest in the relationship between the arts and Christian faith. Much has been written about the arts and theology and the place of the arts in church life. Not as much has been written, however, about how the arts might actually advance spiritual formation in terms of the cumulative effect of religious experience and intentional practices. This book provides a modest step forward in that conversation, a conversation between theological aesthetics and practical theology. Understanding aesthetics as "the realm of sense perception" and spiritual formation as "growing capacities to participate in God's purposes" James McCullough suggests how these dynamics can mutually enhance each other, with the arts as an effective catalyst for this relationship. McCullough proposes an analysis of artistic communication and explores exciting examples from music, poetry, and painting, which render theoretical proposals in concrete terms. This book will engage both those new to the arts and those already deeply familiar with them.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Capital of the World

As I noted on here earlier this year, we have seen several recent studies of the great capital of the East-Roman Empire, and in February of this year a second edition was released of  Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium (Bloomsbury, 2017), 304pp. by Jonathan Harris. Harris is also the author, inter alia, of a study of the Byzantine Empire to which I drew your attention here, and of a study on Byzantium and the Crusades.

About this newest book of his the publisher tells us:
Jonathan Harris' new edition of the CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, Constantinople, provides an updated and extended introduction to the history of Byzantium and its capital city. Accessible and engaging, the book breaks new ground by exploring Constantinople's mystical dimensions and examining the relationship between the spiritual and political in the city.

This second edition includes a range of new material, such as:

* Historiographical updates reflecting recently published work in the field
* Detailed coverage of archaeological developments relating to Byzantine Constantinople
* Extra chapters on the 14th century and social 'outsiders' in the city
* More on the city as a centre of learning; the development of Galata/Pera; charitable hospitals; religious processions and festivals; the lives of ordinary people; and the Crusades
* Source translation textboxes, new maps and images, a timeline and a list of emperors

Friday, April 7, 2017

Married Catholic Priests

D.P. Sullins has written an important book that deserves careful attention amidst semi-regular papal chatter about possible relaxation of the celibacy requirement for presbyteral ordination in the Latin Church. In Keeping the Vow: the Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests (Oxford UP, 2016), 336pp., Sullins, himself both a married priest and a sociologist teaching at Catholic University of America, has given us a usefully detailed picture of a very select group of men in one country, the USA. Those interested in clerical life, those interested in the marriage-vs-celibacy debate, and those interested in the sociology of the Catholic Church will all find much that is informative in this welcome and tightly written book.

Sullins looks at the advent of married priests in the US from the early 1980s to the present, beginning with the Pastoral Provision, which allowed married Episcopalian clergy entering the Catholic Church the possibility of being ordained as Catholic priests notwithstanding their being married and having families.

As a sociologist, he has studied this group in some detail, and amassed in this book, in a number of tables and figures, the fruits of his research and statistical calculations. Via surveys and interviews, we learn much about the background of these married priests and their wives--education, formation, length of marriage, and location. Strikingly, the largest number of these men is to be found in just one state: Texas.

Sullins has also surveyed these men carefully on a number of controverted doctrinal issues, and all down the line these men are, compared to a comparable group of celibate Latin priests, much more "conservative" or "traditional" when it comes to such things as abortion, contraception, assisted suicide, etc. (Interestingly, however, their wives do not tend to be quite as conservative.)

He has also surveyed bishops to see what they know about these priests, about the Pastoral Provision, and now the Anglican ordinariates, asking them also about their support for married clergy and their views on celibacy.

Sullins has also usefully dispensed with some of the myths that are sometimes circulated to warn people off a married priesthood, especially the myth that it will cost dramatically more. By carefully crunching the numbers, he demonstrates that the average remuneration for a married man would only be slightly more than that of a celibate guy.

Sullins also sheds welcome light on other areas, noting that on average married priests perdure in the priesthood longer than their celibate counterparts, and have much higher levels of job satisfaction. At the same time, however, and most counter-intuitively, they tend to be lonelier than their celibate colleagues precisely because the married men have so few colleagues who can relate to them. Most of these men, entering a diocese, do so among a diocesan presbyterate that has, Sullins shows, its own internal groupings--the relative liberals, the arch-conservatives, those with certain interests or hobbies, etc. Married men find it hard to break into these pre-existing groups, and while their celibate colleagues are as a whole welcoming and friendly, they are also distant. So married clergy find developing friendships a challenge.

Only in a couple of places does he briefly mention married Eastern Catholic priests, a topic he does not seriously treat, and usually stumbles when doing so. Thus, e.g., he says that the Eastern Catholics driven out of the Catholic Church over married priests formed "today's Greek Orthodox Church in the United States" (175). It was actually the OCA that they largely formed, and the Orthodox Church of America has in fact canonized the formerly Catholic married priest, Alexis Toth, who led an exodus of Eastern Catholics into Orthodoxy thanks in part to the stupidity and intransigence of such as John Ireland. My friend D.O. Herbel gives the fullest, fairest account of all this in the first chapter of his splendid and vital study, Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox.

A little earlier he implies (p.151) that the old rule prohibiting Eastern Catholics from ordaining married men in the United States is still in effect, but it is not.

These need not concern us insofoar as I am myself hoping finally to have movement from the publisher on my own book about married Catholic priests, which features a great deal of history and canon law around Eastern Catholics in North America, as well as chapters from married priests today, including several in the Anglican Ordinariates in England and the US.

In addition to not paying much attention to Eastern Catholic priests who are married--which, I must stress, is not a fault at all insofar as this book was clearly written to focus on another group, and so this is decidedly not a criticism, just an observation--there is one group I rather expected would be attended to more than they are: the phenomenon of the several Anglican Ordinariates.  But the book seems largely to have been centred on, and perhaps even written before, the advent of Anglican Ordinariates in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Sullins alludes to them a couple of times, but that is all.

Again, though, what he has given us is a rich, important study that fills a significant gap. Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests does indeed tell an untold story, and tells it extremely well. We are in Sullins' debt for this fine book.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis

Just released this month is a new collection from two editors who have collaborated in the past on another significant collection (noted here): Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis, edited by Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 225pp.

The role of the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, and other religious groups in Ukraine during first the Maidan and then the Russian invasion has been extremely significant, and a sign of not just ecumenical co-operation and mutual suffering, but also a sign of hope for the development of civil society in Ukraine. Scholars have been paying increasing attention to these developments in a number of articles in various journals, and now in collection such as this.

About this collection we are told by the publisher:
This volume explores the churches of Ukraine and their involvement in the recent movement for social justice and dignity within the country. In November of 2013, citizens of Ukraine gathered on Kyiv's central square (Maidan) to protest against a government that had reneged on its promise to sign a trade agreement with Europe. The Euromaidan protest included members of various Christian churches in Ukraine, who stood together and demanded government accountability and closer ties with Europe. In response, state forces massacred over one hundred unarmed civilians. The atrocity precipitated a rapid sequence of events: the president fled the country, a provisional government was put in place, and Russia annexed Crimea and intervened militarily in eastern Ukraine. An examination of Ukrainian churches’ involvement in this protest and the fall-out that it inspired opens up other questions and discussions about the churches’ identity and role in the country’s culture and its social and political history. Volume contributors examine Ukrainian churches’ historical development and singularity; their quest for autonomy; their active involvement in identity formation; their interpretations of the war and its causes; and the paths they have charted toward peace and unity.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Early Christian Family Life

The University of California Press, which regularly publishes new works in early Christian history, many of which have been noted on here over the years, has recently sent me a new collection of articles edited by Catherine Chin and Caroline Schroeder: Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family (2016), 344pp.

Containing articles by well-known and respected scholars of the Christian East and of antiquity (e.g., Robin Darling Young, Stephen Shoemaker), this volume has articles grouped under thematic headings: aristocracy, body and family, gender and memory, wisdom and heresy, holy places, and "modernities."

About this book the publisher tells us:
Melania the Elder and her granddaughter Melania the Younger were major figures in early Christian history, using their wealth, status, and forceful personalities to shape the development of nearly every aspect of the religion we now know as Christianity. This volume examines their influence on late antique  Christianity and provides an insightful portrait of their legacies in the modern world. Departing from the traditionally patriarchal view, Melania gives a poignant and sometimes surprising account of how the rise of Christian institutions in the Roman Empire shaped our understanding of women’s roles in the larger world.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Doctrine and Dissent in Late Antiquity

Ten years ago now, in an early book to advance the recognition that papal relations to the Christian East are much more complicated than apologists and polemicists on either side have recognized, Andrew Ekonomou, in Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes: Eastern Influences on Rome and the Papacy from Gregory the Great to Zacharias, A.D. 590-752 drew our attention to prominent Byzantine figures working closely with popes of Rome to combat, e.g., monotheletism.

Since then, other authors, including George Demacopolous and Susan Wessel inter alia, have also helped us appreciate the complexity of papal relations both in the Western Church and between her and the East.

Later this year, a forthcoming paperback version of a book first published in 2013 from the University of California Press will advance and further explore this terrain, focusing on three important ascetic-monastic figures well known in the East: Phil Booth, Crisis of EmpireDoctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity (2017), 416 pages.

As the publisher tells us:
This book focuses on the attempts of three ascetics—John Moschus, Sophronius of Jerusalem, and Maximus Confessor—to determine the Church’s power and place during a period of profound crisis, as the eastern Roman empire suffered serious reversals in the face of Persian and then Islamic expansion. By asserting visions which reconciled long-standing intellectual tensions between asceticism and Church, these authors established the framework for their subsequent emergence as Constantinople's most vociferous religious critics, their alliance with the Roman popes, and their radical rejection of imperial interference in matters of the faith. Situated within the broader religious currents of the fourth to seventh centuries, this book throws new light on the nature not only of the holy man in late antiquity, but also of the Byzantine Orthodoxy that would emerge in the Middle Ages, and which is still central to the churches of Greece and Eastern Europe.
We are also given the table of contents:



1. Toward the Sacramental Saint
Ascetics and the Eucharist before Chalcedon
Cyril of Scythopolis and the Second Origenist Crisis
Mystics and Liturgists
Hagiography and the Eucharist after Chalcedon

2. Sophronius and the Miracles
Impresario of the Saints
Medicine and Miracle
Narratives of Redemption
The Miracles in Comparative Perspective

3. Moschus and the Meadow
The Fall of Jerusalem
Moschus from Alexandria to Rome
Ascetics and the City
Chalcedon and the Eucharist

4. Maximus and the Mystagogy
Maximus, Monk of Palestine
The Return of the Cross
The Mystagogy

5. The Making of the Monenergist Crisis
The Origins of Monenergism
The Heraclian Unions
Sophronius the Dissident

6. Jerusalem and Rome at the Dawn of the Caliphate
Sophronius the Patriarch
Jerusalem from Roman to Islamic Rule
The Year of the Four Emperors
From Operations to Wills
Maximus and the Popes

7. Rebellion and Retribution
Maximus from Africa to Rome
The Roman-Palestinian Alliance
Rebellion and Trial
Maximus in Exile

Primary Sources
Secondary Sources

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Festschrift for Theofanis Stavrou

Just released is a wide-ranging and very hefty Festschrift for a Greek-American scholar: Thresholds Into The Orthodox Commonwealth: Essays In Honor Of Theofanis G. Stavrou, ed., Lucien J. Frary (Slavica Publications, 2017), 687pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This volume is a tribute to Theofanis G. Stavrou, Professor of Russian and Near Eastern History and Director of Modern Greek Studies at the University of Minnesota. A generous and penetrating scholar, as well as an award-winning teacher and mentor, Professor Stavrou is well known for his infectious enthusiasm for collaborative scholarship and wide-ranging expertise in Russian history and culture, Eastern Orthodox Church history, Modern Greek literature, and other fields. The forty-four contributors to this collection are a diverse group of mainly senior American scholars who have published erudite monographs related to the fields of Slavic, European, Mediterranean, and Eastern Orthodox studies.
Professor Stavrou has been a veritable institution in the United States for more than forty years. His works are cited broadly and his research has more often been confirmed than challenged over his career—something others could only wish for themselves. Professor Stavrou has also been the academic advisor of several generations of scholars in North America and Europe, and his ideas have influenced even young scholars who were not ever formally his students. His generosity and breadth of knowledge has been and continues to be tapped by scholars around the world, yet he remains modest about his own accomplishments and place in the field(s) he has pursued. Despite that modesty, this volume convincingly demonstrates that no one has earned the honor of a Festschrift more than he has.
The publisher has provided us with a PDF of the table of contents here.

I've met the editor a couple of times at ASEC conferences over the years, and he's always been a very witty and interesting lecturer about Russian-Greek connections, especially in the 19th century, which he has covered in such collections as Russian-Ottoman Borderlands: The Eastern Question Reconsidered, a collection edited with Mara Kozelsky.

He himself wrote the 2014 book from Oxford University Press, Russia and the Making of Modern Greek Identity, 1821-1844.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reading Dreher with Schmemann and MacIntyre (and thus Marx)

After having written something in 2015 about Rod Dreher's project of marketing MacIntyre's concluding (and regretted) peroration to After VirtueI decided to not bother with the "Benedict option" any more pending the release of the book, which is now upon us.

In the meantime I had hoped the nascent book might deal with serious issues in a way that Dreher's journalistic jottings up to 2015 had not manifested--not least in its relentlessly tendentious treatment of one paragraph of MacIntyre while neglecting many more important essays and books of his, not the least of which is Secularization and Moral Change.

Dreher did not read Secularization and Moral Change, and we know this from the potted history he gives us as when, e.g., he insouciantly claims that "the loss of the Christian religion is why the West has been fragmenting for some time now, a process that is accelerating" (22).  MacIntyre--who is as much an intellectual historian as he is moral philosopher--writing in 1967, having laid out in this book (as well as other places--e.g., A Short History of Ethics) abundant historical evidence for his thesis, argued forcefully that “the view that moral and social change is consequent upon the decline of religion is false, and the view therefore that such change could be arrested or could have been arrested by halting the decline of religion is also false. I have argued instead that the causes of moral and social change have lain in the same urbanization and industrialization that produce secularization” (p. 58; my emphasis). While Dreher nods his head towards the Industrial Revolution, he never really takes MacIntyre seriously and investigates the role of urbanization and industrialization. Nor, worse, does he do the only sensible thing and pursue a critical analysis of the role of economics beyond the dominant neoliberal paradigm. We shall return to this problem presently.

Though I have every sympathy with Dreher's evidently sincere desire to see Christianity flourish everywhere possible, I regret to say that Dreher's book offers little that is new and fresh to assist with such a task. It is, rather, wreathed about with the stale air of apocalypticism on the cheap. In reading Dreher I was ineluctably drawn back to a passage from the great Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann's Journals: "In the Bible, there is space and air.  In Byzantium the air is always stuffy, always heavy, static, petrified."

In fact, several passages from Schmemann came back to mind in reading Dreher, whose book fixates on same-sex marriage and gender issues to an unhealthy and unhelpful degree. None seems more acute or appropriate than this one: In March 1976 during Lent, Schmemann wrote: "Students' confessions. Always sex. I am beginning to think that this sin is useful; otherwise they would consider themselves saintly and plunge into guruism." Dreher's entire project reeks of guruism.

It is, of course, the nature of gurus that they must convince you of their epistemological superiority, as it were: they know things that you cannot possibly know, or know as fully as the guru. And one of the things the guru knows is just how bad things are, and how badly you need his advice, his counsel and wisdom, his program and, especially, his merchandise to get you out of the deplorable state of affairs you are otherwise condemned to inhabit.

That is the most objectionable feature of Dreher's book: its profiteering on the back of despondency and determinism as manifested in several such claims as "the wave cannot be stopped, only ridden." Or when he counsels Christians to build an "ark" instead of fighting "unwinnable political battles" (12). Or when he flatly insists that "the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with" (18).

These claims are theologically objectionable insofar as he presumes to know that nothing can be changed, and thus there is no room for the virtue of hope.

These claims are objectionable also on historical grounds, for while Christianity has dwindled and even died off in parts of the world at different points of history (see the history of the Assyrian Church of the East for the clearest example of this), such a process is by no means inevitable or, as Dreher suggests, entirely out of our control. Such a process, moreover, forgets the surprising ways in which the Church can rebound precisely when, in worldly eyes, she seems to be at her weakest.

Those who are more literate in Catholic history than Dreher is can tell you that as recently as 1978 the Catholic Church was increasingly being written off by journalists like Dreher as having suffered mortal blows coming out of the 1960s (with the Sexual Revolution that Dreher tediously bores on about: "History's Most Revolutionary Revolution" [201]) and in the aftermath of the chaotic Second Vatican Council, which sapped the Church's energy and focus from within at precisely the moment she was also beset from without by seemingly inexorable political forces--communism, consumerism, etc. But along came the whirlwind from Poland to upend all expectations of decline, and to sow seeds of dramatic new birth, not least in Eastern Europe, but also elsewhere in the Church through new programs, communities, and movements. Many problems remain, to be sure, but it is undeniable that John Paul II gave new dynamism to the Church at a moment when some pundits were pessimistically predicting inexorable decline and doom, as Dreher is now doing with a grandly (if very superficially) ecumenical sweep that includes Protestants and Orthodox (whose own resurgence in the post-Soviet period, after far worse, and much more genuine, "persecution" than anything faced by Christians in America today, is ignored by Dreher).

At the turn of the 19th century, similar prognostications of decline and demise were made by many as the Church in the West was being clobbered in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and the rise of modern nation-states, including Italy, whose formation would deprive the Church of the Papal States which were thought--wrongly, as we now see, and as Pope Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903] himself quickly came to see--as being essential to the mission of the Church. But it was under Leo especially that the Church--and especially the papacy--found a new focus and dynamism and emerged into the twentieth century on an upward trajectory, aided in no small part by money gained as compensation from Italy for loss of the Papal States and as part of the Lateran Treaty process.

In the middle of the 16th century, in the heat of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the plight of the Church again looked dire to many, and even what ultimately proved to be the great reforming Council of Trent was, for some of the time, a very close-run thing that nearly fell apart. But ultimately Trent proved to be a success, and the Church was again on the move with new orders like the Jesuits and new dynamism that recovered much of what she had lost, and opened up new avenues, taking on new nations and continuing to grow globally.

Going back further still to the rise of the mendicant orders, the Church in the age of Dominic and Francis was, as is well known, thought by those giants, and many others, to be in a massive state of disrepair and dissolution, perhaps fatally so. But responding, so he believed, to the Lord's call to "repair my Church," the poverello of Assisi launched a reformation that is still going on more than 800 years after his death, as the Sisters who sponsor and run my own University of Saint Francis daily, cheerfully attest.

Knowing even just a little bit of this history must surely give one pause and reason to question Dreher's firm determination that Christianity in North America and Western Europe is finished, a judgment from which he seemingly permits no dissent. Examining Christian history all the way back to the beginning helps one to see that the Church has always been in a cycle of decline and rebirth, rising in some places at some times while sinking in others.

There are other serious problems with Dreher's recounting of history, not least his retailing of the discredited notion of "wars of religion" and his indifference--which nobody who takes MacIntyre seriously could ever justify--around the founding of the modern nation-state.

But arguably the most egregious flaw with Dreher's historical section (ch.2) is its attempt to describe the history of the Enlightenment without even mentioning, let alone having read, MacIntyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, a book MacIntyre himself said was necessitated by what After Virtue didn't accomplish, left out, or needed to be further developed or changed. The convenient neglect of such a crucial if dense book reveals once and for all that Dreher's read of MacIntyre is entirely selective and tendentious.

Dreher's lack of familiarity not just with Catholic and broader philosophical history, but also with Catholic life in this country (and others) in any serious detail is really telling--apart, that is, from his boutique examples in Italy, Oklahoma, Maryland, etc. For there are plenty of Catholics I know who have been doing the things he has packaged together, and been doing them without fanfare for decades. There are, moreover, many Catholics emerging today--especially among the much-feared and much-derided "millennials"--who have a deep grasp of the faith and a deeper desire to live it. I see them every semester in my classes, and they give me a modest degree of hope.

Dreher goes on and on about "moralistic therapeutic deism" (never taking seriously some of the criticism of that claim and its research, which I have myself heard from other Catholic sociologists), but the Catholics I see in my classes are, with each passing year, farther and farther removed from that. He also makes much of the previous pope's comments about the "dictatorship of relativism," but with all due respect to Ratzinger, and again following MacIntyre (see his essay "Plain Persons and Moral Philosophy: Rules, Virtues, and Goods," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 66 [1992]: 3-19), my classroom experience has made it clear to me that nobody is ever really a relativist. When I have taught ethics and moral theology to students, disabusing students of a lazy relativism is an easy job by asking them to tell me how they live their lives when faced with significant moral choices.

I have now taught for almost 20 years in three countries at a number of Catholic institutions at both the high-school and university level. With each passing year my students seem, quietly and imperfectly, but firmly and hopefully, to be growing in the strength and depth of their faith. I find, therefore, Dreher's narrative of unrelenting decline to be extremely selective in its evidence, and plainly to ignore plenty of evidence I have myself seen first-hand.

So are my examples correct, and Dreher's wrong? Do my anecdotes trump his? I would not for a moment claim that. In fact, for a moment, let us suppose, that Dreher is more right than wrong about our particular moment in North American and West-European Christian history. Let us suppose Christianity is largely on life support, and may soon die out almost entirely. What is to be done? The answer he proposes to this is of course the "Benedict option."

But what kind of solution is this? Here remedy and disease seem almost indistinguishable, and here a deeper appreciation of MacIntyre could, perhaps, have rescued Dreher's project at the moment of its conception. For Dreher's project seems ab initio to have fallen into the very pit MacIntyre predicted not in After Virtue but in a 1979 essay "Theology, Ethics, and the Ethics of Medicine and Health Care: Comments on Papers by Novak, Mouw, Roach, Cahill, and Hartt" in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 4 (4): 435-443. There MacIntyre recognized the dangers of "the peculiarly deep secularization of our pluralist culture," which
offers traps to the theologians into which they continually fall. A culture of systematic unbelief would provide a relatively unambiguous context for theological utterance, while a pluralist culture offers an atmosphere of tolerant absorption through which the theologian is diminished and patronized and in which the theologian too often responds either by an anxious accommodation to the culture or by an equally adaptive reaction against it.
Dreher is clearly in the latter category, offering a reactionary take on this moment in our history. Like too many reactionaries he is a member of the bourgeoisie, proof of which can be seen in the very notion of a Benedict option, which can be dismissed as both harmless and irrelevant precisely because it has failed to offer us--as MacIntyre continues later in the same essay--"a theological critique of secular morality and culture," including, of course, the economics of late capitalism.

The "Benedict option," then, seems to participate too much in the fatalistic neoliberal economics of the culture it claims to resist. Dreher's whole project seems an example of the "normal nihilism" Stanley Hauerwas, himself hugely influenced by MacIntyre of course (but here, instead, drawing on James Edwards) describes thus:
Laid out before one are whole lives that one can, if one has the necessary credit line, freely choose to inhabit: devout Christian; high-tech yuppie; Down East guide; great white hunter. This striking transformation of life into lifestyle, the way in which the tools, garments, and attitudes specific to particular times and places become commodities to be marketed to anonymous and rootless consumers.
The whole "Benedict option" smacks of just such a "transformation of life into lifestyle," and its uses and abuses of Benedict have turned that great saint into a commodity to be marketed to "anonymous and rootless [Christian] consumers," alas.

In this regard, all those commentators worried about the political implications and applications of Dreher's proposal have nothing to worry about: he is simply not radical enough, for his proposal--to borrow Pickstock's language about the dreamy reforms of Vatican II--manifests "an entirely more sinister conservatism" that fails "to challenge those structures of the modern secular world that are wholly inimical to liturgical purpose."

Far from challenging, let alone overthrowing, those structures, Dreher beats an unseemly and hasty retreat from them and says the idea of anybody challenging them is pointless. Worse, Dreher sneers that those who still want to challenge the structures of the modern secular world are deluded. Those who do not read the signs as he does are dismissed as "the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right" or as out of touch as "White Russians" after the Revolution (12). But assertions do not arguments make, and such derisive dismissals as these merely underscore Dreher's very flimsy and intellectually fragile plaidoyer for a particular program that will appeal to people most like Dreher--middle-class American Christians.

But gurus have no greater insight into the future than anyone else. Indeed, gurus are especially to be put rather severely to the question (to use a MacIntyrean formula) precisely insofar as they try to see and say how things are and how they are going to turn out. Let us invent a law here--call it Merited Commensurability: the more adamant someone is in saying that such and such is bound to happen, the more we ought to greet such claims with the strongest skepticism.

I rather wish Dreher had a deeper recognition of the contingencies of culture and unpredictability of human events. At one point he edges up to such a recognition, saying "History is a poem, not a syllogism" (23) but he has no sooner delivered himself of that single line then he races back to what the psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan has called a narrative of "chosen trauma" in which the West is in inexorable decline, and persecution of Christians is coming in fast and thick as far as the eye can see. (Dreher's treatment of Freud [pp. 42-43] turns the latter into the usual sort of grotesque one would expect from those who have never read primary sources. Dreher reads everything through Philip Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud.)

Dreher's overheated narrative of trauma and decline could have benefited from a hefty dose of modesty and restraint at the urge to predict the future. Here I rather wish he had some of the modesty as manifested, e.g., in Churchill's eloquent eulogy for Neville Chamberlain delivered in the mother of Parliaments in late 1940 after his predecessor's death:
At the lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values.
Dreher's "scale of values" inclines toward recommending such things ("options" indeed!) as deeper prayer and more frequent fasting, these being unobjectionable--indeed noble--in themselves.

But when they are packaged together with still further options enjoined upon others, and when especially they are read, as they only can be read, in light of his regular gastronomic ejaculations on his blog about oysters and mustards, or, now, the bourbon cocktail invented by a friend and called the "Benedict option," I could not help but think of another work of MacIntyre's that Dreher seems never to have read, viz., Marxism and ChristianityThere MacIntyre says of the Tractarians and the "ascetic disciplines" (weekly communion, intense local community life, regular fasting, auricular confession, and other devotions practiced in ritually resplendent churches) which they commended to everyone that these disciplines "were of a kind possible only to a leisured class."

Like most members of the leisure class, Dreher evidences little interest in the social environment flourishing on a wide scale, preferring only that it do so for the small communities he advocates, and, of course, for himself. Though Dreher commendably says at one point, "love the community but don't idolize it" (137), the rest of his book is precisely such near-idolatry. Here again one can only note that a deeper, more sophisticated engagement with MacIntyre would have saved Dreher from such fatuities.

In dozens of places, MacIntyre has offered repeated demonstrations of, and arguments against, what he calls the "communitarian mistake" which is premised upon "a further mistake...that there is anything good about local community as such" because those "communities are always open to corruption by narrowness, by complacency, by prejudice against outsiders and by a whole range of other deformities, including those that arise from a cult of local community" (Dependent Rational Animals142; my emphasis). To avoid such problems and deformities, local communities must engage in many things, including "a rejection of the economic goals of advanced capitalism" (Ibid., 145). Dreher seems totally uninterested in any such rejection.

It is more than a little amazing that Dreher seems to lack self-awareness of how such advanced capitalism makes his peripatetic blogging life possible, but makes many of his proposals impossible for too many other people, who must pick up and move far from family and community merely to survive economically. Here we must include his praise of "stability" (65-67), his advocacy that one must "live close to other members of your community" (129-34), his insistence that public schools be abandoned and people should home-school their kids (165-66), and his impertinent demand that "church can't just be the place you go on Sundays--it must become the center of your life" (131). Try recommending any one of these things, never mind all of them (and still others he recommends) to the people working three jobs just to pay rent and forced to relocate every few years when jobs disappear.

Incidentally, those Tractarians recommending such ascetic disciplines as Dreher does, and those practicing them, did not always have an easy time of it in the Church of England of the late 19th century. There was considerable opposition to many of these proposals, as John Shelton Reid's fascinating book Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism showed. In the end, the "ritualists" and Tractarians, when they did not decamp for Rome, were reduced to a Dreher style of pleading merely for the right to be left alone pursuing their "option" for what Cardinal Manning came caustically to call "private judgment in gorgeous raiment, wrought about with divers colours."

Newman, of course, came to loathe private judgment. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and then especially in his famous Biglietto speech, he denounced private judgment as just another species of liberalism. Newman, acutely aware of the contingencies of history, especially Christian history, and loathe to make the sorts of facile prognostications that Dreher does, ended that speech in Rome after being given a red hat by Leo XIII with this apt reminder:

Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. ... Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.

Dreher is not content to stand still and see the salvation of God. His busybody guruism seeking to safeguard "orthodox Christianity" is, as MacIntyre suggested decades ago, a typical reaction of the leisure class that often has the greatest tendency to fixate (as Kate Daloz has recently shown in fascinating detail) on simplicity, intentional community, and various forms of voluntary self-denial--whether in monasteries or pseudo-monastic communities. It is the leisure class especially among converts to Orthodoxy (in what Amy Slagle has aptly called the The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) who most often seem to fetishize monasteries, who have the time and money to obsess over "monasticism" and "tradition" in psychologically suspect ways, running after their "spiritual fathers" for permission to pee or clip their toenails on Fridays in Lent.

Dreher, of course, is not made of such stern fanaticism, and, curiously but revealingly, his gaze falls primarily upon Catholic and Protestant communities in preference to, e.g., Mt. Athos (which is to his credit given some of the hysterical nonsense that sometimes issues from the so-called holy mountain). Nevertheless, one must challenge this desire to play at being a monk or a quasi-monastic, and one must regard any and all calls for "new forms of community" with a great deal of skepticism until and unless they engage in--as MacIntyre says--“rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”

Absent such serious rational thought, and attendant safeguards, one can only be cautious and reluctant to pursue such a life, much as would-be monks rightly were before their tonsure. I am told by a liturgist of impeccable scholarship that some recensions of the Byzantine rite of monastic tonsure saw the hegumen or abbot toss the scissors away three times when presented with them by the would-be monk, who would then have to scramble across the floor to retrieve them repeatedly, each time being reminded of the seriousness of the state of life he was about to enter and the real risks he would run thereby.

Because of those risks, it is imperative, then, that one must repeatedly and ruthlessly interrogate any romanticism about monastic or community life in any form, for they are fraught with conflicts and problems, not the least of which is a tendency toward escapism and subtle forms of self-promotion--and not-so-subtle forms of control and manipulation or outright sexual abuse. Returning once again to Dreher's fellow Orthodox Alexander Schmemann (the relative neglect of serious engagement with Orthodox sources in this book must be read as a marketing strategy to appeal to the vastly more numerous Catholics and Protestants in this country), we see that Schmemann has already offered us severe warnings about these temptations in a bracing and acid passage from January 1981:

More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:
–get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);
–while working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;
–after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;
–always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov)....
–do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;
–read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly...;
–be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. 
Real monastics, whether Benedictine or otherwise, know that the course of wisdom is to be found not in talking "church talk" or promoting "options" but in listening and serving everyone without drawing attention to oneself. Real monastics who have done that include another of Dreher's fellow Orthodox nowhere in evidence in his book: Mother Maria Skobtsova, who made wartime Paris her "monastery" without walls, serving the suffering she encountered there, including the Jews service to whom and protection of whom cost Maria her life in the gas chamber of Ravensbrück. She would later be canonized by the Orthodox church not just for this sacrifice of her life but also for her monastic service in and for the city of Paris--not atop some mountain somewhere or in an inaccessible cloister.

What Skobtsova was living was something later described by another Franco-Russian Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, as "interiorized monasticism" which is lived anywhere and everywhere for the life of the world.

Precisely insofar as it is interiorized, such a monastic spirit it is silent, reflecting, as Thomas Merton once said succinctly, the entire wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, thus: "Shut up, and go to your cell!"

May we all do so.

Michael Plekon Recognized for Uncommon Prayer

Last July, I had great fun in being able to interview Michael Plekon about his new book Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. It is a marvelous book, and I warmly commend it to you. I am, in fact, hoping to adopt it for a class next year.

Rightly and justly, it has been nominated for an award, and is now listed as an INDIES finalist. Axios! 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Where is the Kindness We Seek? (I)

In his letter to the church in Galatia, St. Paul famously lists the fruits of the Holy Spirit, one of which is kindness. Kindness is treated in another book by Adam Philips, the English literary scholar and psychoanalyst whose other very valuable books I have discussed here and here as part of an ongoing if ad hoc series of reflections reconsidering the relationship between Christianity and psychoanalysis.

This latest book to be considered is co-authored with the historian Barbara Taylor. On Kindness is a short book centred around the question: if kindness if the thing we most wish to see in, and receive from, other people, why do we stint so much when it comes to practicing it ourselves? How can we hope for something in others when we are so unsure of offering it ourselves?

As I make my way through this book, I shall have more to say on it.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Eastern Orthodoxy in the Academy Today (IV): The Sciences

Five years ago now, I interviewed Gayle Woloschak about her then-new book, co-edited with Daniel Buxhoeveden, Science and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

So it was no surprise to find her name appear again in the collection I have been discussing on here in several parts, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education,edited by Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides and Elizabeth H. Prodromou.

Gayle's chapter, "Perspectives from the Academy: Being Orthodox and a Scientist," begins by noting the frequency with which "science" and "faith" are portrayed as radically different, if not incommensurate, but says that in her experience such a position is only held by fanatics on the extreme edges of both ideological camps. She reveres equally the wisdom that comes from science and Orthodoxy.

Gayle, a professor of radiation oncology at Northwestern University, notes that in general scientists are not believers, and are subject to peer pressure in this area just as other groups put pressure on their members. Sometimes they make prejudicial decisions about matters of religious belief without bothering to consider them with the same critical-rational skills they would consider any other matter--without, that is, using the same skills they would regard as the sine qua non of scientific method and research. But then she notes the same can sometimes be true of Christians, especially when they are debating topics such as evolution.

She notes how much "unscientific" reasoning goes into science--the role of creativity, e.g., in making discoveries, or the number of times someone in a lab follows a "hunch" or "gut instinct" and makes a discovery in a way that was not transparent to conscious, considered, logical reasoning at the time. No scientist, then, is totally "scientific" in everything if by that we mean a sort of crude empiricism.

If there are places where science and faith come close to one another, it is often, she notes, in the context of medical schools, where the concern today is on treating the whole patient, and where, therefore, there is often an openness to spiritual realities, not least in situations where one is dying.

She concludes by noting the number of outstanding questions where science and Orthodoxy, and Christianity more generally, could have a lot to learn from each other, not least as technology and pharmacology increasingly foist difficult questions on us.

That is very much an overriding theme of this volume as a whole: the fact that Orthodox interactions inside the American academy today remain new and rare, and a whole host of questions await both as these interactions grow and continue in the years ahead.

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