"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).

Thursday, October 12, 2017

On Elisabeth Behr-Sigel's Ecclesiology and Related Matters

In late August I first drew attention to this book, and noted a few other sources of relevance to the life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

I have now had a chance to read A Communion in Faith and Love: Elisabeth Behr-Sigel's Ecclesiology (2017, 176pp), edited by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson.

It is, as with all such collections, very mixed. The first three chapters revisit a lot of Behr-Sigel's biography, and for those who are familiar with this material, as I am, these chapters offer little that is new and fresh.

The fourth chapter, by Antoine Arjakovsky, whom I have often discussed on here and interviewed in the past, is an interesting reading of Behr-Sigel in dialogue with Celia Deane-Drummond, especially her 2000 book, Creation Through Wisdom: Theology and the New Biology.

Teva Regule's chapter, the fifth, is the first one to really deliver on the promise of the title, focusing as it does on Behr-Sigel's "ecclesiological vision."

Valerie Karras writes an interesting but by no means original chapter on the questions of sex, gender, the Trinity, and ordination of women in Orthodoxy in light of Behr-Sigel. This is a helpful synthesis of questions she and others have engaged elsewhere, and for those new to those debates, this would not be a bad place to start. I'm not entirely convinced of some of her conclusions, but she certainly raises some of the right questions.

Amal Dibo's chapter is perhaps the weakest of the book, and I confess to being rather cross with it insofar as it is content yet again to repeat that tiresome slogan about the Orthodox Church not being "an institution; it is a new life with Christ." One hears this constantly, though one almost never detects the slightest effort on the part of the one making this claim to actually defend it with the necessary detail and elaboration it requires to be anything more than an empty, romanticizing, self-congratulatory assertion. (Certainly my students, coming fresh to Orthodoxy, find it the most heavily and ponderously institutional of all Christian expressions they have every encountered--regularly saying they thought Catholics were bad enough, but Orthodox are much worse!)

The editor's chapter, "Behr-Sigel's New Hagiography and its Ecumenical Significance" is a treat--indeed, the true highlight of the volume. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson writes with grace and insight and knows what the really important questions are to ask. Noting the connection between hagiography and ecclesiology whereby nobody is saved alone--that is, that we are all saved together, as part of the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews--Wilson shows how these twin themes were developed in Behr-Sigel who, though she moved from Lutheranism and the Reformed Church into Orthodoxy, nonetheless retained what Wilson calls a "characteristically gracious attitude: she always insists on validating what she finds good and worthy in other communities, even in the one she has chosen to leave." Given the shrill slandering one finds in so much of Orthodox apologetics today, especially among on-line converts who have nary a good word about their now-despised Protestant (or Catholic) pasts, this is a model worthy of holding up again and again.

Behr-Sigel's approach to hagiography was first pioneered in some of her writings in her Master's thesis, Prayer and Holiness in the Russian Church, a translated excerpt of which Wilson offers as the final chapter to this book. Behr-Sigel focused on a married woman about whom little was known: Juliana Lazarevskaya, the telling of whose life advanced a new approach to hagiography much closer to modern biography, that is, an approach that does not drown its subject "in a fog of golden legend." Among other things, Juliana was noteworthy for being married and nobody's idea of pious or "monastic."

In this--as well as in telling the life of Mother Maria Skobtsova and Tikhon Zadonsk--Behr-Sigel's hagiographic methods become something of a model for the work of Michael Plekon, a close friend of Wilson (and of me) whom she mentions with gratitude several times in A Communion in Faith and Love.

Fr. Michael's books, including Hidden Holiness as well as Saints as They Really Arehave rightly won several awards and I know students to whom I recommend them have found them very valuable and insightful. I have interviewed him over the years about most of these books, and the most recent interview is here.

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