"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, June 11, 2018

Ashley Purpura on God, Hierarchy, and Power

I briefly met Ashley Purpura last November at a conference on the future of the liberal arts hosted at Purdue University. I have been greatly edified by her book God, Hierarchy, and Power, and will be drawing on it for a presentation I'm giving next January in Romania at the inaugural conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association, at which I am also one of the official ecumenical observers. I was delighted to be able to arrange an interview with her about this new book. Here are her thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background

I grew up Orthodox and started really reading about saints’ lives, theology, and Christian history as a teenager. I graduated from Florida State with B.A. in Religion, and then earned a M.T.S. at Harvard Divinity School where I studied the history of Eastern Christianity (primarily in Syriac and Greek sources). I went on to complete my Ph.D. in theology at Fordham University, where I specialized in the history of Byzantine and Orthodox Christianity. Currently, I am an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Purdue University in Indiana, where I live with my husband and four children.

AD: What led to the writing of God, Hierarchy, and Power?

I wanted to write something grounded in historically Byzantine sources, but that spoke to present conversations and concerns. I thought of this project as a way to step back from the more commonly (and to my mind, unsatisfactorily engaged) question of “Why can/’t women be priests?” and address instead, why there is a hierarchy at all, and how it functions theologically when confronted with pragmatic challenges. Certainly, the experience of having an ecclesial leader who appears to fall short of the ideal of his calling is nothing new! In so many hagiographies, liturgical moments, patristic writings, etc. maintaining proper order, offering total obedience, and serving with humility appear as important markers of spirituality—and I wanted to see how theologians who address the nature and limits of hierarchy negotiate these ideals in theological, ritual, and practical terms. This led to some insights about power and about the iconic nature of hierarchy that I had not originally anticipated—but that I am very glad to have had the opportunity to explore.

AD: Your introduction notes how historically saturated Orthodoxy is with hierarchy in its ecclesio-sacramental life while facing three contemporary challenges: inclusivity, exclusivity, and the relationship between power and hierarchy. Tell us a bit about each.

By these challenges, I point to the way that hierarchy functions and is perceived to function at both theological and pragmatic levels. The hierarchy determines by councils, sacraments, etc. who is inside the Church (inclusivity) and where the Church is recognized. At the same time, however, it also excludes not only those who are not included in ecclesial participation, but also certain categories of individuals from joining the priestly hierarchic ranks (women, for example). I suppose you could say by that by naming certain boundaries of Orthodoxy, the hierarchy includes some and excludes others—but of course as Dionysius would note, the divine hierarchy is not limited to or actually subject to our ecclesiastical administration.

In terms of power and hierarchy, I really explore this in the final chapter, but even in the introduction I consider how the visible leaders of the Church have authority and in what ways this authority is limited. The relation between power and hierarchy is very much tied to spiritual leadership and authority, under what conditions does a bishop, for example, have authority to lead and speak on behalf of the Church, especially considering cases of potential abuses of power. I think being able to articulate and respond to these challenges will help contemporary Christians (and perhaps others) develop a greater understanding of how and why hierarchy functions religiously. Although it can indicate lines of demarcation, it also is divinely dynamic in ways that often are obscured.

AD: I well remember a doctoral seminar with the Orthodox scholar John Jillions some 15 years ago (while teaching in Ottawa and before he became chancellor of the OCA) who said very forcefully that he thought the ideas of Dionysius the Areopagite about hierarchy had created significant problems for Orthodoxy and the Church in general. You draw on Dionysius. Tell us your own take on him—is he problematic? 

I do not read him problematically, although several scholars I greatly respect do take issue with his writings and his legacy. Dionysius has always been debated in terms of where he fits christologically, and for some more contemporary authors, in terms of his heavy reliance on Neoplatonism. Historically, Dionysius’s concept of hierarchy was widely influential and later patristic authors cite him as an authority on a range of soundly Orthodox topics (icons, liturgy, etc.). There are certainly ambiguities in his writings, and places where he does not necessarily speak to issues modern readers would like to see him specify—so in that way he does provide us with challenges for interpretation. He is very insistent on one properly fulfilling the function of a particular rank to be actually in that hierarchic rank. Dionysius’s insistence that correction come from above rather than below one’s rank, in my read is not giving hierarchs a free pass to do what they want until the other hierarchs chastise them, but rather idealizing that those in the hierarchic positions have more knowledge to do things that may not yet be understood by those hierarchically beneath them. I think Dionysius offers us a way of understanding and speaking about God’s relation to the world and the Church that can be read as quite beneficial and insightful.

AD: The bulk of your book, after Dionysius, is spent on three Byzantine figures—Maximus, Niketas, and Nicholas—and you say (p.133) that they offer us two key insights: God alone is the source all power, and any power, to be authentic, must be divine. Those seem to me quietly subversive claims! In other words, where we may be tempted rather lazily to excuse certain exercises of power as just a lot of political intrigue or patriarchal egos on the global stage (a kind of ecclesiological “crypto-Arianism” if you will), these insights challenge us always to remember that the Church is both human and divine, and thus human hierarchy is always held to divine account, and at its best is an icon of the divine. Is that a fair read of your argument? 

Yes, I don’t intend it to be a type of rebuke as much as reminder—but it is still subversive for those who would claim for themselves power instead of humbly considering how they are empowered and to what end. For those perhaps who feel disconnected or put off by the business of church politics and egos, in very simple terms, God is bigger than all of that! His gift of love (especially sacramentally) is not somehow impaired by our sinful humanness (although our ability to receive/perceive it might certainly be).

AD: Tell us a bit about how you arrived at your four modern interlocutors: Marx, Foucault, Butler, and Arendt. Two of them in particular—Foucault and Butler—are of course well known for their reflections not just on power but also on gender and sexuality, which themes also come up to some extent in your (65-68) discussion of Maximus the Confessor. Is it possible in Orthodoxy (and Catholicism for that matter) ever to separate out questions of power and hierarchy from sex and gender, or does such an attempted separation merely reinforce certain problems, including exclusivity and inclusivity mentioned in your introduction?

I think it is important when reframing the position of power in the world as unconventionally as I do to consider the other ways in which power has been interpreted quite influentially. With these particular four interlocutors I found parallels and reframing of the source of power and authority and how they function, that was helpful in articulating what I found going on in the Byzantine authors.

To your second question, I think gender is a category largely constructed around disparate power dynamics, so I do not think one could talk about power and hierarchy, and sex and gender separately. Even to just talk about power and hierarchy and omit sex and gender really just reinforces the notion that these issues and identities are excluded from the authoritative dominant (arguably male) discourse. This of course is a modern take, and one that I think fruitfully can be considered with pre-modern theologians. As you mention, I do give some attention to gender in its relation to hierarchy in this book, but there is still so much work to be done on how disparate power dynamics relate to gender constructions, religious ideals of authority, and one’s sex. I would like to see more consideration on these intersections, but I think there are numerous ways of entering into conversation on these topics and even a more segmented approach may prove insightful for a broader sustained and integrated reflection.

AD: This is less a question than a comment: I think the most outstanding feature of your book is its refusal to shrink from theology proper, which seems to me a particular weakness of too much ecclesiology today, focused as it often is on the understandable temptation to treat everything in terms of human politics and dynamics of power. Thus I greatly cheered your argument at both the beginning and end of the book where you insist that “hierarchy as developed and reflected by Byzantine theologians is most fundamentally and consistently rendered as the communication of divinity” (p.16) and that “justifications for breaks in communion, even when grounded in differing ecclesiological or administrative conceptions, need to be discussed at the level of divine reflectivity, divine participation, and divine communication” (164). Is it hard to keep God in the picture sometimes when the humanity of it all—the offices, personalities, rituals, and vestments of hierarchy—weighs so heavily?  

Yes, I think there is a temptation at times to want to hold tightly onto all of the “things” of our religious identities as the essence of what makes us Orthodox (or some other religion). Such offices, rituals, jurisdictions, and vestments, etc., however, do not determine our Faith. Being in communion with God, being in His image and likeness, recognizing and venerating God in others—these get to the essence of who we are as Christians! The hierarchy is about communicating God to the world through material and relational means, allowing humans to be in communion with God sacramentally, and increasingly forming humans in His likeness. I think this is the insight I find appealing in Dionysius and the later Byzantine authors I present—that the authenticity and authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as we perceive it (and its assorted trappings that you mention) are dependent on communicating God to the world and bringing us into communion with Him.

AD: On that point, you weave into a good deal of your work reflections on the ritual and liturgy of hierarchy. I’ve often heard it said that Byzantine hierarchical liturgy—e.g., the greeting and vesting of the bishop, the kissing of his hands, the repeated singing of Εις πολλά έτη—reinforces certain habits of mind that may be less than healthy or desirable and that such liturgies should be reformed today. What are your thoughts on the rituals surrounding ecclesial hierarchy? 

I think there are ways in which ritually greeting and vesting the bishop the participants are reverencing and icon of God, even if it is at times a poorly depicted icon, the one who venerates it is still blessed. I do think the rituals and liturgies need to be intelligible to and understood by their participants. That has quite a bit to do with education, and perhaps a little with reform. Outside of liturgical contexts and ritual actions of respect, personal and pastoral interactions with a bishop can be more challenging if a bishop thinks something is owed him based on his position, rather than gaining loving respect from manifesting Christ-like kenotic service on behalf of his flock.

AD: What are your hopes for this book, and who especially should read it?

I hope this book will encourage scholars, clergy, and laity to reflect further about how power in general and hierarchy specifically, functions theologically within Christianity (and perhaps reflect on parallels in other religions). Additionally, I think this book prompts a reconsideration of how theological interpretations of power relate to religious structures of authority and diverse devotional expressions. For the more Byzantine-minded reader (academic or otherwise), I hope this book sheds light on the ways four historically disparate (and in the case of Stethatos and Cabasilas, understudied) theologians can be brought into conversation with each other to inform contemporary Orthodox thought, and how our understanding of pre-modern authors can be accentuated by considering modern critical theoretical developments.

AD: Having finished God, Hierarchy, and Power, what are you at work on now?

Presently, I am working on a series of articles that focus on the constructions of gender, “the other,” and Orthodox identity in Byzantine hymns, rituals, and hagiographies. In working on these manuscripts, I find myself still coming back to power and authority quite a bit, but by focusing more on patriarchy instead of hierarchy.

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