"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, October 23, 2017

God, Hierarchy, and Power

The older I get the more I find my younger self's idealization of ecclesial hierarchy not just impossible to understand, but almost a little obscene. I was, to use Richard John Neuhaus's memorable phrase, among those who "exult in the freedom to submit to authority with wild abandon"--and this even in my Anglican days long before the thought of becoming Catholic crossed my mind. By early adolescence I was convinced that hierarchy and apostolicity were the sine qua non of the most sophisticated forms of Christianity, and congregationalism was only for the lower classes.

Since then I have become far more aware of the dangerous and destructive tendencies of all human institutions to use and abuse power and to protect themselves often at all costs from even the most elementary forms of accountability. The trick becomes holding this recognition in tension with a proper theology of authority that does not deny human weakness but still insists that fallible human beings are owed respect and even obedience for the offices they bear in the name of God. As Eamon Duffy nicely titles it in his great one-volume history of the papacy, the Church is led by Saints and Sinners.

A book set for November release will take up all these questions and then some, and thus is something I greatly look forward to reading: God, Hierarchy, and Power: Orthodox Theologies of Authority from Byzantium by Ashley M. Purpura (Fordham University Press, 2017), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In the current age where democratic and egalitarian ideals have preeminence, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, among other hierarchically organized religious traditions, faces the challenging questions: "Why is hierarchy maintained as the model of organizing the church, and what are the theological justifications for its persistence?" These questions are especially significant for historically and contemporarily understanding how Orthodox Christians negotiate their spiritual ideals with the challenges of their social and ecclesiastical realities.
To critically address these questions, this book offers four case studies of historically disparate Byzantine theologians from the sixth to the fourteenth-centuries--Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, Niketas Stethatos, and Nicholas Cabasilas--who significantly reflect on the relationship between spiritual authority, power, and hierarchy in theoretical, liturgical, and practical contexts. Although Dionysius the Areopagite has been the subject of much scholarly interest in recent years, the applied theological legacy of his development of "hierarchy" in the Christian East has not before been explored.
Relying on a common Dionysian heritage, these Byzantine authors are brought into a common dialogue to reveal a tradition of constructing authentic ecclesiastical hierarchy as foremost that which communicates divinity.

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