"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, June 28, 2018

Inventing Gregory Palamas

I just received in the mail Oxford University Press's catalogue of forthcoming works. As always, there are lots of interesting books in the works, but none more so, it seems to me, than this book, not due out for nearly a year, but well worth the wait both because of the author (who is a widely respected translator and author of many books) and especially the timeliness of the topic: Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age by Norman Russell (OUP, 2019).

For those who have followed Orthodox constructions of identity in the West in the last three decades, as well as Orthodox apologetics, the figure of Gregory Palamas looms large, almost always as a cipher and a rock against whom the horrors of (inter alia) Thomism, rationalism, and scholasticism can be dashed to pieces in triumphalist fashion. But that narrative construction, always shaky at best as far as real scholars were concerned, really began to fall apart when Christiaan Kappes (interviewed here) published his book on the Immaculate Conception; and when, a few months later, Marcus Plested published his book on Orthodox Readings of Aquinas. Both showed that Palamas was far from the anti-Western figure he had been made out to be; both showed that he engaged, often quite positively, with Thomism and other Western schools of thought. (For an interview with, engagement of, and lecture by Plested, go here and follow the links.)

To be fair, it is not only Orthodox apologists who got into this act. As Russell's forthcoming book notes, a key figure in Western distortions of Eastern thought, a key figure in Western polemics and triumphalism of an equally repellent variety, is Martin Jugie, who had an obvious hatred of Palamas and did everything he could to poison Western Catholicism against him. As Jaroslav Pelikan once archly said of Jugie, his tragedy was that he knew so much but understood so little.

Jugie and others figure prominently in Russell's forthcoming book, for which the publisher has given us this table of contents:

List of Abbreviations
1. The Orthodox Struggle to Assimilate Palamite Thinking
2. Martin Jugie and the invention of Palamism
3. John Meyendorff's Response to Jugie
4. New Directions since Meyendorff
5. What Does Doctrinal Development Mean?
6. How is a Participatory Understanding of the Divine Mystery to be Attained?
7. What is the Reality of Divine-Human Communion?
8. Could Palamas Become 'the Inheritance of all Christians'?

And this description:
The fourteenth-century Greek hesychast and controversialist, Gregory Palamas, has been so successfully cast as 'the other' in Western theological discourse that it can be difficult to gain a sympathetic hearing for him. In the first part of this book, Norman Russell traces the historical reception of Palamite thought in Orthodoxy and in the West, and investigates how 'Palamism' was constructed in the early twentieth century by both Western and Eastern theologians (principally Martin Jugie and John Meyendorff) for polemical or apologetic purposes. Russell argues that we need to go behind these ideological constructions in order to gain a true perception of the teaching of Gregory Palamas. In his recent survey of Palamite scholarship, Robert Sinkewicz noted that it is now time to raise the larger questions. The second part of the book attempts to do this, following the contours of Palamas' thinking in three areas: his relationship to tradition, his philosophy, and his theology. Russell shows that Palamite thought, when freed of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, has the potential to enrich our understanding of divine-human communion. This study contributes to the changing paradigm of scholarship on Palamas, nudging it towards the point at which Palamite thought can be used fruitfully by contemporary Western and Eastern theologians without the need to subscribe to what has been regarded as 'Palamism'.
When the book is published next year, I will have more to say about it then. 

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