"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).

Friday, October 29, 2010

Eastern Christianity in the Modern Middle East

As I have noted before, we have seen a slew of recent books on Eastern Christianity in the Middle East, including:

Emma Loosley says that this book seeks to offer “both specialists and general readers some degree of understanding into the daily realities of…Oriental Christians…from the Eastern Mediterranean to the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan” (1). Her introductory chapter very briefly attempts an overview of Eastern Christianity in all its forms.

We have two chapters on the Syrian/Syriac churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, both in the Middle East and in India (including the Malankara Orthodox, whose synod we see assembled above in what is indisputably the most fantastic collection of cassocks ever amassed in one room). The well-known Oxford scholar Sebastian Brock has a chapter “The Syrian Orthodox Church in the Modern Middle East.” Brock spends most of his time on the modern period—from the seventeenth century onwards. He details struggles, historical and current, of Syriac Christians, but ends on a hopeful note, observing that monasticism is on the rise in this Church, and communities in the West are flourishing.

Fionna McCallum’s article, “The Maronites in Lebanon” is helpful, sympathetic portrait of one of the few Eastern Christian communities to avoid the fate of being dhimmis. The Maronites were able to do this largely because of their political skills, including their alliances with France, leading one priest I know to observe sardonically that the operative Maronite soteriology is “salvation comes from the French.”

John Healey’s article on the Church of the East is a very brief overview of the history and current reality faced by that Church. Other recent book-length studies will be more useful to the specialist than this chapter. Surprisingly, Healey’s discussion (and the book’s bibliography) of the approval for intercommunion between the Church of the East and Chaldean Catholics overlook Robert Taft’s significant and characteristically rigorous scholarly contributions to that agreement.

O’Mahony’s “The Coptic Orthodox Church in Modern Egypt” is an excellent overview that avoids the simplistic portrait one sometimes finds. Especially useful is O’Mahony’s amassing of statistical data on the size and demographic changes in the Coptic population over the last three centuries especially. Obtaining current data, however, is extremely difficult because census-taking is so fraught with political considerations, and the data subject to gross political manipulation. So nobody conducts a census. Instead we are left with guesses that Copts range from 6% to 20% of the total population.

John Whooley’s “The Armenian Church in the Contemporary Middle East” is the longest and most detailed, but he needs the length to explain the very complicated ecclesiological structure of the Armenian Church which, as I have discussed elsewhere at length, is entirely unique in the world. Whooley does a very good job at tracing out the historical and political reasons for these multiple structures, and their strengths and weaknesses. He is also very forthright in acknowledging that nationalism is perhaps more potent in the Armenian Church than in any other. That has helped preserve the faith in a history so often written in blood and drenched with tears, but it has also, at times, turned the church into a surrogate state rather than the sacrament of salvation.

O’Mahony ends the book with a fascinating study of the Syrian Catholic Church, though it leaves several unanswered questions. E.g., he says the vocation of this church is to “bring Christianity and Hinduism together, particularly in terms of spirituality” (133) but does not specify what this might mean in practice or how it might be accomplished. He also overlooks the question of whether both Hindus and Christians are open to such a rapprochement, which seems doubtful given a number of reports over the last decade of violence between the two, including an especially alarming attack just last week. He ends by expressing his hope that “the Syriac Christian Orient cannot be regarded as just a curiosity, or as an optional extra on the fringe of the Greek and Latin West” (137) but will come to be taken more seriously as the “third lung” (as others have expressed it) of apostolic Christianity. Judging by the number of recent publications on Syriac Christianity, we have cause to hope that it is now finally getting its long overdue recognition.

In sum, this is an excellent collection, and Loosley and O'Mahony are to be congratulated for gathering together so many fine contributors and producing such a smoothly edited, lucid, and useful collection that very much deserves a place in courses on Eastern Christianity and Middle Eastern history and culture.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ecumenism Binds Everybody

Certain Eastern Christians, upon hearing the word "ecumenism" and its cognates, fall into fits of apoplexy and begin, tiresomely, to fulminate about ecumenism as "the pan-heresy." Fr. John Jillions, an OCA priest at the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa, showed me a copy this past summer of a rather droll little "icon" in support of this view. It comes replete with Luther, the pope, and others apparently assailing HMS Orthodoxy and trying to sink or at least run her aground:

Others, while not paranoid about ecumenism as some destructive, demonic force, are nonetheless uninterested in supporting the move towards Christian unity. Neither position, of course, is even remotely theologically defensible. One may not agree with certain methods of ecumenism in every instance, but one cannot, precisely as an o/Orthodox Christian, disagree with the goal of unity and the dominical imperative (cf. John 17) that the Church be one. Unity is not optional. Remaining content in our divisions is sin.

Steven Harmon has written a very short little book that is very useful in trying to overcome the apathy today about ecumenism while also allaying the sometimes understandable anxieties of Christians who imagine that ecumenism means selling out to some kind of lowest-common-denominator version of the faith:

 Ecumenism Means You, Too (Cascade Books, 2010), 120pp.

A Baptist theologian teaching in the School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, Harmon, who keeps a very interesting blog here, offers us two very useful things in this book. First is his opening call for all Christians to understand that ecumenism, properly understood, does not (pace our Eastern polemicists) entail any doctrinal diminution or dogmatic compromises. Only unity founded on the truth, to which we all come and unreservedly consent, can be accepted. So the idea of ecumenism as selling out to Luther, or being dominated by the pope, or taking on false doctrines so that the ship of Orthodoxy sinks, is just great silliness. No Orthodox hierarch today that I know of is willing to compromise on fundamental dogmatic matters in order to achieve unity. That is why the process is so painstaking and time-consuming.

The second important reminder of this text comes in the sub-title: "Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity." Every Christian needs to be involved in the search for unity. If unity is to happen between Catholics and Orthodox, we have an enormous amount of work to do at the grassroots. Theological dialogue and agreements between bishops are necessary but not sufficient. Part of the reason Ferrara-Florence failed is precisely because the hierarchs did not carry the people with them. I fear we have insufficiently mastered that lesson of failure and its cause. Twenty years ago I began working in the World Council of Churches, and traveled all over the world, only to return home every time and realize that nobody had the faintest clue that the WCC even existed, let alone any interest in what it might be trying to do. Ecumenism thus remains too top-down, too "elitist," and this must change. As Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky of blessed memory used to say: the Lord will give us unity when all of His people rise up in prayer demanding it. If Harmon's book helps us to do that, then glory to God.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sophia and Slavophilia

The so-called Slavophiles continue to attract attention, and not merely among Eastern Christians or Russian historians. Anglicans like the influential John Milbank have been grappling with the Slavophiles for some time now. Two new books continue this exploration of their thought and its wide implications for church and society alike:

Laura Engelstein, Slavophile Empire: Imperial Russia's Illiberal Path (Cornell U Press, 2009), 256pp.

Three of Engelstein's seven chapters focus on the religious implications of the Slavophiles.

A second book has also come out from the same publisher:

Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, Divine Sophia: the Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov.Annotated Translations by Boris Jakim, Judith Kornblatt, and Laury Magnus (Cornell UP, 2009), 320pp.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Papacy Since 1500

The East, while never denying the seniority of the Roman bishop in the patriarchal τάξις of the early Church, has nonetheless objected to certain innovations in the modus operandi of the papacy, especially in recent history--i.e., from 1870 onward. Since the 19th century, particularly in the papacy of Leo XIII (1878-1903), we see papal roles change dramatically with the loss of the Papal States and the rise of the pope as "global teacher" whose writings begin to increase in number and scope alongside his increasingly well-financed claims to authority, most egregiously (and ecumenically intolerably) manifested in the claim (in the 1917 Pio-Benedictine code of canon law) that the pope is the one who appoints all the world's bishops. This is so startling an innovation, so unprecedented a claim (until the end of the nineteenth century the popes were not even appointing all the bishops on the Italian peninsula--never mind the rest of the world), so wholly without theological justification, that Eamon Duffy, author of the best one-volume papal history Saints and Sinners rightly called it a "coup d'Église."  This idea that one man appoints all the other bishops will never fly in the East.

Now a new volume out from Cambridge looks at other transformations, focusing, in the main, on individual popes from Julius II onward. This is not a comprehensive history like Duffy's, but still looks fascinating.

James Corkery and Thomas Worster, eds., The Papacy Since 1500: from Italian Prince to Universal Pastor (Cambridge UP, 2010), 286pp.

Going back even farther, into the latter part of the first millennium, we have another new work out from Cambridge:

Caroline Goodson, The Rome of Pope Paschal I: Papal Power, Urban Renovation, Church Rebuilding and Relic Translation, 817–824 (CUP, 2010), 408pp. + maps + illustrations.

Goodson's book looks to be a continuation of the arguments first begun by Pope Leo the Great, and analyzed by Susan Wessel: viz., the project of rebuilding (in Paschal's case quite literally) a "spiritual" Rome to recover "universal" respect and allegiance after the transfer of the capital to Constantinople and the collapse of the empire in the West.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

On Spiritual Fatherhood

The idea of spiritual fatherhood is an important one in Eastern  monasticism--and spirituality generally. There have been a number of hefty scholarly treatments of spiritual fatherhood, including one on St. Symeon the New Theologian and another on the practice in Romania. But I mean something quite different when I use the term "spiritual fatherhood" in connection with a new book by Tony Woodlief: 

Somewhere More Holy: Stories from a Bewildered Father, Stumbling Husband, Reluctant Handyman, and Prodigal Son (Zondervan, 2010), 208pp.

I have followed Woodlief's droll blog for several years, having stumbled upon it after reading one of his pieces in the Wall Street Journal. He is always interesting to read, perhaps especially recently as one watches his evolution towards Orthodoxy, a well-trod path among Protestants.

So of course I had to order his book at once and read it when it came out earlier this summer. It is a short but searing book, and in reading parts of it I was put in mind of the frequent counsel of the Desert Fathers to their sons: hold nothing back, but reveal all your struggles to your spiritual father. Woodlief's struggles are on display in this book, but not in a salacious way--though I couldn't help but wonder if he might not have written some of this if he already had access to sacramental confession with a priest. In any event, this book contains some very felicitous spiritual insights derived from fatherhood.

Being a biological father of young children raises spiritual questions and gives rise to theological insights--tiny anabatic glimpses, to be sure, but no less valuable because of that--into the nature of the Father's love for His children. Children are, quite without intending it, theophanies in their very being. Our love for them gives us some small glimpse into the ineffable gift of God's love for us in Christ. Their love for us, in turn, can be a source of great healing to our souls. As Charles Ryder, the narrator of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (read the book first, and then see the original 1981 British mini-series--not that ghastly 2008 sodomy-and-incest-as-sacrament film which is fit only for burning): "to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom." It is to Woodlief's considerable credit that he is able to manifest this lesson to us so winsomely.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Petrine Ministry

The role of the Petrine or papal office in the Church remains, of course, the most contentious topic today between Catholics and Orthodox. It has been discussed for decades, and several books have been published in the last 15 years--collections of essays from Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox leaders reflecting on the papacy; James Puglisi edited one such previous collection. Now Eerdmans is bringing out another of his edited collections, which I look forward to reviewing in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies:

 James F. Puglisi, ed., How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church? (Eerdmans, 2010), 392pp.

This volume has twenty different contributors, including such well known figures as Walter Kasper, John Zizioulas, Hervé Legrand, Hermann Pottmeyer, and others.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Constantine: Co-Equal to the Apostles?

Eastern Christian hymnody has long lauded Constantine as "co-equal to the apostles" and as "apostle among kings" (apolytikion in the 4th tone). He is considered a saint by many Eastern churches alongside his mother Helena, both being feted on May 21. (For Helena, one simply must read the hilarious but moving historical-fictional novel Helena by the great and incomparable Evelyn Waugh. It has been unjustly neglected, though Waugh regarded it as his masterwork, and I would agree.) Lately in the West, however, it has been fashionable for a good twenty years or so to bash Constantine or, better, "Constantinianism," i.e., this belief that Christianity became too entangled with the business of empire and has suffered ever since. John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas are perhaps most clearly associated with this line of thinking. Now along comes a new book to revise, or at least challenge, their revisionism:

Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP, 2010).

This will be reviewed in Logos in 2011 by Daniel Larison.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sex and Spirituality in Russia

As I've noted before, questions of sex and gender are all the rage in religious studies today--though such studies for the Christian East still lag behind the many such studies on Western Christianity. Now Brill brings out a new book remedying this in part:

Crone's volume focuses on the work of Vladimir Solovyov, Vasily Rozanov, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Boris Vysheslavtsev, arguing that in the aftermath of Freud, these four work to re-emphasize Christianity as a religion of flesh and spirit. I've asked Judith Deutsch Kornblatt of the U. of Wisconsin's Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literature to review this in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2012.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Warrior Saints and Historical Methodology

The great historian Robert Taft has noted that, for all our theologizing about icons as being not physical representations but instead incarnations of spiritual reality, the Byzantines nonetheless quite straightforwardly approached icons as realistic representations of people as they actually existed. Elsewhere he has noted, in his reflections on historical method in his book Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It  (reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies by Peter Galadza),  that one of the useful means for filling in historical lacunae is to look at indirect evidence. If, say, one is trying to understand the position of children in the liturgy of the Great Church in the tenth century, sources treating this topic will only take one so far. But other sources, ostensibly on other topics, may be unintentionally useful insofar as they report relevant details and would have no reason not to do so in a manner relatively free from any distortion or tendentiousness. Thus, in addition to reading treatises directly on children, one might also read priestly rubrics for the administration of Holy Communion to understand if children were present, and how they received the Eucharist if such were mentioned in those rubrics.

Now Brill tells me today of a new book that has come along to approach questions of war and iconography using a similar method: 
Piotr Ł. Grotowski,  Arms and Armour of the Warrior Saint: Tradition and Innovation in Byzantine Iconography (843–1261), trans. Richard Brzezinski (Brill, 2010), 704pp. 

The publisher's blurb tells us:
The question of the independence of Byzantine iconography continues to draw attention. Following extensive research on the persistence of Classical motifs in Byzantine art, interest has recently turned to the originality of the latter and its reliability as a historical source. This study examines whether military equipment (armour, weapons, insignia and costume) shown in images of the warrior saints reflects items actually used in the mid-Byzantine Army or merely repeats Classical forms. Such representations are compared with documentary evidence gathered chiefly from Byzantine military manuals. The author demonstrates that military equipment, being a vital branch of material culture subject to constant evolution, provides a good indicator of iconographic innovation in the art of Byzantium.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Among the many faddish fatuities from which we suffer today, a fetishization of "spirituality" must be high on the list. Much nonsense is talked by those invoking this label, especially when they make that tiresome claim about being "spiritual but not religious." Whenever I hear people utter that cliché, I find they invariably mean two things: they are too lazy to get out of bed on a Sunday morning, and they are too selfish to reign in their appetites, especially in sexual matters. Too often what passes for "spirituality" today is simply self-indulgent sentimentality and narcissistic treacle. For a Christian, by contrast, being "spiritual" means ultimately being filled with the Holy Spirit, and becoming like Him. In other words, being spiritual means being divinized, becoming like God: theosis.

There have been a half-dozen or so books on theosis published in the last 5 years alone. Several are collections by Protestant publishers of Protestant and Roman Catholic authors rediscovering this idea and practice. Now a further new book has just come out written by an Anglican and looking at theosis in Western and Eastern traditions:

Paul M. Collins, Partaking in Divine Nature: Theosis and Communion (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 240pp.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Basilians of Grottaferrata in Albania

The Basilians are sometimes thought to be the "bad boys" of Eastern Christianity, especially among Ukrainians, because they are and have been heavily Latinized in many ways for many centuries, betraying, inter alia, authentically Eastern monasticism and introducing into both Eastern Catholic and some Orthodox churches practices that are not aboriginal to them. (I remember very clearly reading the extremely hostile descriptions of them when I visited Pochaev in 2001, where they once ruled for a time.) It's true that they were reformed by the Jesuits along the lines of a Western order like the Jesuits. Now a new book by Ines Angeli Murzaku of Seton Hall University proposes a fresh look at them:

Ines Angeli Murzaku, Returning Home to Rome: The Basilian Monks of Grottaferatta in Albania (Athens: Analekta Kryptoferris, 2009), xxi + 309 (38 photos).

Drawing on extensive research in Vatican dicasteries, Jesuit archives in Italy, the state archives of Albania in Tiranë, the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, the University of Calabria, and other private archives in Calabria, the author sheds light on Catholic-Orthodox relations in southern Italy and Albania as well as Christian-Muslim relations. I asked Anthony O'Mahony, of Heythrop College, University of London, who has published in this area, to review this book for us in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2011.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Christianity and Jerusalem

Anthony O'Mahony of Heythrop College in the University of London is a most prolific fellow whose scholarship largely focuses on relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He's recently edited (and written introductions and articles for) three substantial collections, all published in the last 18 months, all dealing with Christianity in the Middle East. The first to be noted here is:

A. O'Mahony, ed., Christianity and Jerusalem: Studies in Modern Theology and Politics in the Holy Land (2010), 326pp. 

This is a very ecumenical collection whose contributors offer a wide-ranging overview of many aspects of Christian life in Jerusalem, historically and currently. As Stephen Need, dean of St. George's College in Jerusalem, notes in an article in the current issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies,  the future for Christians does not look good given recent trends of many Christians leaving or having very small families. Need will review this book for Logos in the fall of 2011. The book addresses itself to a variety of issues:
  • Christianity in modern Jerusalem
  • Jewish-Israeli views on Christianity and Christians
  • Hebrew Catholicism in modern Israel
  • the Vatican, Israel, Palestinian Christians and Jerusalem
  • the Intifada and Palestinian Christian identity
  • Palestinian Christians and liberation theology
  • the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem - Church-State politics in the Holy Land
  • indigenisation and contextualisation: the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches 
  • Jewish fundamentalism
  • Jewish-Muslim encounters
  • Jerusalem, the Holy City: a possible way to share Jerusalem in peace
  • Contributors include: Anthony O'Mahony, David Mark Neuhaus SJ, Leon Menzies Racionzer, Drew Christiansen SJ, Leonard Marsh, Sotiris Roussos, Michael Marten, Nur Masalha, Rob Johnson, et al

Slavophilia and Philosophy

Cambridge U. Press has just brought out an impressive-looking collection:

G.M. Hamburg and R.A. Poole, eds., A History of Russian Philosophy 1830-1930: Faith, Reason, and the Defense of Human Dignity (CUP, 2010), 440pp. 

This book deals with what it calls "the great age of Russian philosophy" that includes the rise of the Slavophiles. In 18 chapters the main people, schools, and controversies of the period are covered. Much of the debate continues to resonate today as all cultures grapple with the meaning of human dignity, especially in the face of the many technological challenges of our age. I've asked the scholar and Ruthenian priest Robert Slesinski, who has published extensively on East-Slavic philosophers, especially Pavel Florensky, to review this for us in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2011.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Syriac Sex

If you read any works in religious studies today, you know that sex and gender are all the rage. Books have been pouring forth for a good twenty years now examining early and Eastern Christianity's understanding of the role of women, of sexual differentiation, of "gender," and related matters.

Now a new book continues this investigation with an especial focus on Syriac Christianity:

Naomi Koltun-Fromm, Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community (Oxford UP, 2010), 328pp.

The Myth of Religious Violence

I remember reading, a good dozen years ago now, an article by William Cavanaugh  which totally up-ended my understanding of the origins of religious conflict in the West. In his  "A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House:' The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State" (Modern Theology 11 [1995]: 397-420) Cavanaugh demonstrated with breathtaking skill and considerable evidence that the idea the modern state was invented to keep Christians from killing one another was tendentious rubbish--a founding "myth" of the state in order to justify the state's monopoly on violence. Far from being the "wars of religion" that caused the birth of the state, the state came into existence for quite other reasons and then used this idea of religious conflict to justify itself. He has returned to this theme in another recent article ("Killing for the Telephone Company," which borrows considerably from Alasdair MacIntyre), and then expanded  all this now into a formidable book:

W.T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford UP, 2009), 296pp.

This will be reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies next spring.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Old Testament in the Christian East

Vahan Hovhanessian, ed., The Old Testament as Authoritative Scripture in the Early Churches of the East (Peter Lang, 2010), 137pp.

The editor, who teaches at the Armenian seminary of St. Nersess in New Rochelle, NY, has gathered a dozen scholarly articles on various aspects of the uses of the OT in numerous Eastern Churches, including the Armenian and Syrian. Danylo Kuc is reviewing this for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies next year.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Down the Silk Road

Few today remember how far into Asia Eastern Christianity first penetrated. Several recent books should help us recall that, including:

Dietmar Winkler and Li Tang, eds., Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters: Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia (Lit Verlag, 2009), 400pp.

The above is an edited collection  featuring articles by scholars from around the world, looking at inscriptions, manuscripts, texts, and liturgy of Syriac Christianity as far into Asia as not only China but also Korea, with stops along the way in other places like Iran.

Another recent publication also travels down this Silk Road but takes a more expansive look:

Richard Folz, Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 208pp. 

Folz looks at the variety of religious expressions found down the Silk Road, including such Eastern Christians as those once called "Nestorian."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dostoevsky's Faith

Of the studies of Dostoevsky there is no end, which should not surprise us given not only the size of his literary corpus, but its density, complexity, and absorbing richness. Many books have been written about him in general, and his theology in particular.

Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Baylor U Press, 2008), 290pp.

Now we have a new book that tackles his theological imagination anew, and in a long review in Logos last year, Vigen Guroian called Rowan Williams' book "the best that has been written on the author's theological vision and imagination."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Crimean War

Who remembers the Crimean War today--apart, perhaps, from a few scattered verses, diffidently recalled from one's childhood, of Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade"? The Napoleonic wars before it, and the world wars in the century after it, seem to have completely overshadowed this conflict. And yet a new book out argues that this was at once a:
(i) war of immense slaughter (c. 800,000?);
(ii) religious war in which Catholics (France) and Protestants (Britain) joined with Muslims (the Ottomans) against an Orthodox Christian power (Russia) to prevent the latter from expanding too far into southern and central Europe and Asia Minor;
(iii) a precursor of modern warfare in many of its methods; and
(iv) "the last crusade" as "Holy Russia" sought to prove its theory of being the Third Rome by capturing Hagia Sophia,  dominating all Orthodox Christians, and ruling over the Holy Land after having driven Islam into the sea (Black, Mediterranean, etc) .

Orlando Figes is a somewhat controversial historian, but this looks like a fascinating book.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Leo the Great Reconsidered

Pope St. Leo the Great has come in for a scholarly reconsideration and renewed examination in the last couple of years. This is an extremely timely (perhaps Providentially so) reconsideration as the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue continues its examination of the papacy in the first millennium.

In 2008 we had Bernard Green's The Soteriology of Leo the Great.

Then last year we had two other major works, including Bronwen Neil's book Leo the Great (London: Routledge, 2009), part of the on-going and quite excellent series on the Fathers that Routledge has been bringing out for more than a decade now. Neil, who teaches Latin at the Australian Catholic University, has very helpfully gathered primary texts in this little book along with a brief introduction to the life of Leo.
The work that is most germane to the ecumenical discussion about the papacy, and therefore most deserving of wide notice, is that of Susan Wessel, Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome (Brill, 2009).  

As I said in my review in Logos, this is a work of fascinating scholarship from which Eastern Christians can greatly benefit, not least because the more polemically minded among us have sometimes portrayed the development of the papacy as one continuous process of self-aggrandizement at the expense of the East. While Pope Leo I (440-461) did indeed continually press and expand his papal brief, it was only, one must underscore, in the West that he did so, and not because he was consumed by libido dominandi but simply because of “a deeper sense of justice that facilitated order and stability within the hierarchy” (127). Leo’s concerns about West-Roman authority had nothing to do with jealousy at Constantinople as some kind of parvenu. Rather, he was a quintessential Roman deeply concerned about the importance of the tranquilitas ordinis without which disorder and dissent would destroy the Body of Christ. In view of the ongoing sociopolitical chaos to which the West was subject in his century especially—with the sacking of Rome preceding his pontificate, and the collapse of the empire in the West coming after it—Leo’s view here is pastorally understandable.

The role Leo played at Chalcedon is of course centred on his famous Tome, “the significance of which for the formation of catholic christology [sic] cannot be overstated” (41). But the second role Leo played—or, rather, refused to play—at Chalcedon has made him suspect in the East: his refusal to accept canon 28, the one underscoring Constantinople’s “privileges” next after Rome itself. In addition to the important procedural question (the canon was passed in the absence of Leo’s legates, whose reasons for leaving remain unclear), Leo refused this canon for several reasons, none of them, Wessel insists, nefarious: “the privileges that Rome claimed were not an attempt to subject the patriarchal sees to Roman domination” (285). Rather, he resisted what he saw as the nakedly “political” nature of Constantinople’s claim in contradistinction to his own much vaunted theory of “apostolicity,” which, until Leo, almost nobody thought significant in the East given the fact that all the major sees were apostolic. Only in and through Leo, in fact, does the whole idea of  Rome's "spiritual" authority, based on Peter and Paul's presence and martyrdom in Rome, come to be promulgated quite aggressively. He sees the ruins to which his city, and the empire in the West, have fallen, and he is determined to find a way to strengthen and rebuild Rome as a universal power, knowing it cannot be done in tangible political terms and so must instead be done in  less tangible spiritual-ecclesial ones.

Moreover, he resisted this canon because his decade-long campaign to strengthen papal “privileges” in the West led him to believe that what he had painstakingly accomplished on that score was exactly what Constantinople wanted for itself when it used the word “privileges” in canon 28. In fact Constantinople simply wanted to have “‘a comparable authority over metropolitan sees.’…It was not, in other words, competition with Rome, but rather practical considerations that governed Constantinople’s plan to formalize its exercise of jurisdiction in the region” (306).

As the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue continues to discuss the papacy in the first millennium, they and all of us will find that there is much to learn or relearn about such popes as Leo (and later Gregory, also called Great, among others), whose exercise of papal authority is sharply at odds with the received notions in the West of a "universal" pope with real "universal" jurisdiction exercised over East and West alike. That notion of papal authority has done enormous damage to the entire Church, leading some in the West to imagine their own ultramontane fantasies have an actual basis in history when they do not, and leading some in the East precisely to fear such a kind of papacy as--in David Bentley Hart's memorable words--the "advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire." Clearly, then, both Catholics and Orthodox alike have much to reconsider as the study of the the papacy in the first millennium continues, and we can do so thanks in part to the illuminating scholarship of such as Susan Wessel.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Eastern Christian Anthropology

Chris Hann and Hermann Goltz, eds., Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective (Berkeley, CA: U of California Press, 2010), x+375pp.

This is a new and very interesting study by sociologists and anthropologists in Western Europe--Germany especially.  Such an approach to the study of Eastern Christian populations and practices lags considerably behind comparable Western studies, and those few that have been done recently have often been of mixed to very poor quality--as I have noted elsewhere. This study of various Eastern Christians--Greco-Catholics in Ukraine and Romania, Orthodox in Macedonia, Russia, and elsewhere--looks much more promising. It covers numerous topics, including several articles on iconography, monasticism, and pilgrimages. Prof. Myroslaw Tataryn of St. Jerome's University will review this for Logos next year. 

Alexander Schmemann's Journals

Fr. Michael Plekon has a review in the forthcoming issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies of the longer version (924pp. + 16pp. of photos) of Alexander Schmemann's journals published last year in Paris in French: Alexandre Schmemann, Journal (1973-1983) (Paris: Éditions des Syrtes, 2009).

Fr. Michael notes that a much fuller, richer portrait of Schmemann emerges here--more so than what one got from the heavily edited excerpts of his journal published by SVS Press in 2000. In his review, he notes that "this is a publication of immense importance and worth" for many reasons he discusses in detail.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Steps Towards a United Church

 It's not a new book, but nonetheless a meaty new text, just published by the official North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, on what steps we would need to take to restore full communion between Orthodox and Catholics. It's very much worth reading here.

The Church of the East

Most people know little about Eastern Christianity in its "Byzantine" expressions (a term nobody used until Gibbon popularized it: those whom we today call "Byzantine" understood themselves to be Romans), but they know even less about Eastern Christians who were beyond the boundaries of the Byzantine or East-Roman Empire. This is especially the case with the Assyrians, otherwise known as the Church of the East--that is, east of the imperial boundaries, in places that today include Iran, Iraq, and further into Asia down the Silk Road. At one point in its history, this church was enormous, and had communities all throughout Asia. Gradually those were lost, and today the Church of the East is a tiny shell of its former self.

The history of its rise and fall has come in for increasing scholarly attention in the last four years alone. In 2006, we saw the publication of Christoph Baumer's The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity (I.B. Tauris, 2006).

Then two years ago this month, the prolific historian Philip Jenkins published his The Lost History of Christianity: the Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How it Died (Harper, 2008).

Now, Routledge has just put into print The Church of the East: A Concise History by Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar Winkler (Routledge, 2010). 

I look forward to seeing this book reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies next year.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Qui Ex Patre Filioque Procedit?

Any and every textbook treatment of Catholic-Orthodox division puts the filioque high on the list of issues driving the two apart. In the last fifteen years, however, great strides have been made, and many no longer regard this issue as church-dividing.There are at least three important texts to consider here:

1) The 1995 clarification issued by Rome, available here. The pope asked for this to be published when the Ecumenical Patriarch visited him in June of that year for the Church of Rome's patronal feast. Met. John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon has commented on that document here.

2) The 2003 declaration of the North American Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, available here.

3) John Zizioulas, Lectures on Christian Dogmatics, where he says (as Kallistos Ware and other Orthodox theologians have before him) that "understood in the right way, we may indeed accept the filioque." He notes that we cannot talk about a filioque in the eternal Trinity because the Father is sole cause of the Spriit. But the Greek Fathers allow for a role for the Son in the procession of the Holy Spirit. This is clearest in St. Gregory of Nyssa's That There Are Not Three Gods.

Now we have a new work out from Oxford University Press that gives an overview of this whole debate:

A. Edward Siercinski, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology) (Oxford, 2010), 368pp.

This looks to be a very major and substantial work, and I asked the Orthodox historian Dr. Robert Haddad, Sophia Smith Professor Emeritus of History at Smith College in Northampton, MA, who has published on the filioque, to review this for us in Logos in 2011.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Conciliarism and the Catholic Crisis of Authority

The papacy is of course at the top of the agenda of the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, which recently finished meeting in Vienna. The debate turns, in significant part, on conceiving of a balanced exercise of papal authority ("the one") vis-à-vis synodical ("the many"). These are not new debates. I treat them at some length, in the modern period, in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy. In the West alone, there has been a long-standing debate about how synodical/conciliar authority is to be exercised, and whether it can ever "trump" papal authority. The scholar who has most helped us understand this 600-year-old debate is Francis Oakley in The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 (Oxford University Press, 2008, 312pp).

This is a paperback version of a disturbing book first published in 2003. Oakley, one of the most distinguished and prolific of medieval historians, has, for more than forty years, been investigating the diverse set of beliefs called “conciliarism.” This latest work makes invaluable contributions in lucid and taut prose that brilliantly condenses sources in many languages. Oakley begins by asking how it is that the Latin Church has been so successful in engaging in “a quite startling instance of institutional (and institutionally sponsored) forgetting” (2) about the teachings of the Council of Constance (1414–18).

What was forgotten, and why? Constance was called to try to bring an end to the great Western Schism, which, at one point, had successive rival claimants to the papacy in three concomitant lines: Roman, Pisan, and Avigonese. It was assembled legally under Pope John XXIII, a product of the Council of Pisa (1409), which had tried to heal the schism and only succeeded in deepening it by introducing this third papal contender, who is today counted by Rome as an “anti-pope.” John fled the scene when the political winds shifted against him. The fathers of Constance, who recognized John as legitimate pope, were unsure how to proceed in his absence, and the council came close to falling apart (which puts the lie to one of many misconceptions about this council, viz., that the bishops were “episcopalists” engaged in some kind of proto-Protestant power grab). But seeing the Church’s ever deepening disarray, the bishops screwed up their courage and went on to issue their famous decree, Haec Sancta:
this holy synod of Constance, which is a general council, for the eradication of the present schism and for bringing unity and reform to God’s church in head and members, legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit to the praise of almighty God, ordains, defines, decrees, discerns and declares … that … it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.

To Catholic ears of the last 150 years, this decree sounds radical and wholly sui generis – because of the aforementioned institutional forgetting – but Oakley shows how deeply it was grounded in the relevant and widespread canonical theory and practice of the day, and how it had even deeper, more ancient roots in the communio ecclesiology of the early Church, in the light of which Haec Sancta, he insists, is “impeccably orthodox." Misconceptions abound about this decree. One after another they wither under Oakley’s scrupulous scholarship, until we are left finally, nearly 600 years after the fact, to face the question: what should be made of this decree that is deeply unsettling to the claims of the modern papacy? What, in other words are we to make of the fact that “a divided Christendom had indeed been reunited but only because a general council, acting in the absence of its papal head, had formally claimed on certain crucial issues to be the legitimate repository of supreme power in the Church” (42)? How can this be reconciled with modern (i.e., post-Vatican I) notions of papal authority? Yet without some attempt at synthesis if not reconciliation, there are massive caesura in modern papal historiography and theology, and papal treatment of Constance ends up looking capricious and self-serving.

In examining these questions, Oakley allows no escapes here through the usual dodges about Constance’s early sessions, which produced Haec Sancta, being ultra vires. Other evasions about “emergency” situations, “development of doctrine,” or lack of “ecumenical” status (conveniently given only to select decrees from Constance, the rest, as with the above passage, being retroactively rubbished by timorous popes) all collapse in the face of the relevant evidence he has relentlessly amassed. Oakley not merely closes off all such escapes, but seals the doors, leaving nowhere to turn but to face squarely the question: what is the proper relation between council and pope, and why has one modern notion (i.e., that which culminated in Pastor Aeternus) been the only one allowed to exist with official sanction, all others in earlier councils having been bundled off into an ecclesio-historical gulag?

This question acquires even greater prominence when one realizes that Orthodox-Catholic unity will not be possible absent a renewed understanding of the role of councils and synods vis-à-vis the pope. Bringing Constance in from the outer darkness might prove helpful here. Thus one can only echo Oakley’s epilogue, where he challenges ecclesiologists (and, one presumes, ecumenists) to “steel their resolve and bring themselves to attend to the particular instance of unfinished business” (262). Until that is done, he asks plaintively, “can one hope to erect a future capable of enduring, if one persists in trying to do so on the foundation of a past that never truly was?”

These are questions to which, presumably, Oakley is returning in a forthcoming book, co-authored with Michael Lacey, to be published also by Oxford early next year: The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. I greatly look forward to reading it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Crusades

I recently received a new book that attempts to rebut much of the nonsense talked about the Crusades and present a proper understanding of the history in a much more "popular" and "accessible" form:

Rodney Stark, God's Battalions: the Case for the Crusades (HarperCollins, 2010), 276pp.

This will be reviewed in Logos next year. The publisher tells us about this book:

It always seems counter-intuitive to moderns that warfare and religion can be consistent. Ideally, followers of the prince of peace are to avoid the sword and shield. Clearly, this has not always been the case. Frequently in the crosshairs of critics are the Christian wars against Muslims known as the Crusades, commonly viewed as the birth of European imperialism and the forced spread of Christianity. But what if we've had it all wrong? What if the Crusades were a justifiable response to a strong and determined foe? Stark, a prominent sociologist and author of 27 books on history and religion, has penned a compelling argument that these bloody encounters had less to do with spreading Christianity than with responding to an ever more dangerous enemy—the emerging Islamic empire. There is much to be learned here. Filled with fascinating historical glimpses of monks and Templars, priests and pilgrims, kings and contemplatives, Stark pulls it all together and challenges us to reconsider our view of the Crusades.

Another new volume will be reviewed soon in Logos by the scholar of Eastern Christian-Muslim relations, Sydney Griffith, of the Catholic University of America, who has been researching and writing about these relations for more than three decades. Griffith's own book, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, is an extremely important recent volume that I use in my courses on Eastern Christianity and Islam.

Christopher MacEvitt, The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance (U. Pennsylvania Press, 2008), viii+272pp. 

Jonathan Riley-Smith is quoted on the jacket of MacEvitt's book calling it a "first-rate piece of scholarship that will have a major impact on the field of crusade studies and medieval history in general."

Finally, Thomas Asbridge's new The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (Ecco/HarperOne, 2010), 784pp.

will be reviewed by the Crusades scholar Michael Lower of the Dept. of History at the University of Minnesota. Lower did his doctorate under Riley-Smith at Cambridge. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Syriac Idiosyncrasies

Brill has just put into my hands a new book:

Serge Ruzer and Aryeh Kofsky, Syriac Idiosyncrasies: Theology and Hermeneutics in Early Syriac Literature (Brill, 2010), 196pp.

As the publisher tells us, the study of Syriac Christianity lags behind study of other forms of Eastern Christianity, which is itself far behind scholarship on Western traditions. This volume looks at the development of the Syriac tradition from a Christian Aramaic background with considerable Jewish influences. The "idiosyncracies" in the title include certain developments in Syriac Trinitarian theology, Christology, and hermeneutics, each of which may be found in early Syriac literature before "the onslaught of Greek hegemony."

Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University's Department of Religious Studies, one of the  world's leading specialists on Syriac Christianity (whose book Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination was published in 2006 and reviewed by Vigen Guroian in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2008) recommended to me a reviewer of this book: Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent, who did her dissertation under Harvey ("Apostolic Memories: Religious Differentiation and the Construction of Orthodoxy in Syriac Missionary Literature"), was a junior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, and is now a professor here. Her review should appear in 2011.


Friday, October 1, 2010


Theosis is a popular topic today judging by the number of recent books on the matter. One recent one is

Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (SVS Press, 2009), 189pp. 

The recently chrismated Antiochian Orthodox Christian and biblical theologian, Edith Humphrey, has a review of this in Logos. She has written a number of interesting books herself, and reviewed a number of others for Logos. Her forthcoming book from Brazos Press in 2011 is Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven, which I look forward to reading and seeing reviewed.

Inventing a Russian Past

The great historian Robert Taft, in many places, has talked about the uses and abuses of the past, noting that few people read the past on its own terms, but instead plunder it for present felt purposes--or invent a past that never was, again for present purposes. (As he's said, he's often tempted to write a book "Inventing Eastern Orthodoxy," one chapter of which would be "inventing Eastern liturgy." See, inter alia, his "Eastern Presuppositions and Western Liturgical Renewal" in Antiphon 5 [2000].) The past is very convenient to justify a new course of action in the present on which one has already decided, and history is therefore often subject to all kinds of tendentious abuse today--the Crusades being a prime example of this. Margaret Macmillan has recently denounced these abuses of history and historiography in her Dangerous Games: the Uses and Abuses of History (Modern Library, 2010), 208pp. 

Brill has just alerted me to a new book they are publishing on these themes:

Cynthia Hyla Whittaker, Visualizing Russia: Fedor Solntsev and Crafting a National Past (Brill, 2010), 184pp.

This approach to history is increasingly common today. The Wolff book on Galicia, noted yesterday, is one species. I have seen many others about Armenian, Turkish, Ukrainian, and other histories.

The Trinity-Sergius Lavra in Russia

Scott Kenworthy of Miami University in Ohio has a new book coming out. I met Scott in Columbus, Ohio last October at the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture (ASEC), held at Ohio State University, a most impressive place. It was a fantastic conference under the splendid leadership of the lovely Jennifer Spock, and I'm looking forward to going next year. He is writing a review for Logos for next year.  His new book, co-published by the Woodrow Wilson Centre and Oxford University Press, is:

The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism, and Society after 1825 (2010),

William Mills is reviewing this for us in Logos next year.
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