"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, December 30, 2011

Author Interview: Fr. Oliver Herbel

Earlier I drew attention to the recent publication of a new book by the American priest and historian Oliver Herbel. I interviewed him about his new book, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background, including your other writing projects, blog, and work on American Orthodox history. 

My background is fairly “ecumenical.”  I was baptized as a Lutheran and also later confirmed as a Lutheran.  At times, we attended a Methodist parish and in high school I attended a Presbyterian parish.  In college, I met my future wife, who was Lutheran, and we began attending church together.  I graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, went on to earn an MA in the history of Christianity from Luther Seminary, an M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Saint Louis University (SLU).  I was not church-shopping outside of the Lutheran church, but I learned about Orthodoxy from professors at Concordia College and became Orthodox while yet a student at Luther Seminary. 

At SLU, I initially was interested in the early church period but developed a strong interest in American Christianity.  I have published articles on both early church and Byzantine topics as well as American topics.  I currently have a couple of forthcoming book chapters on American Orthodoxy.  I am writing an article on the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America, a 1942-1943 predecessor to SCOBA; and editing my dissertation with the intention of publishing an edited version as a book.  I am also editing some research notes on iconography that I have had to gather over the years for various speaking engagements and class lectures, with the intention of publishing a book geared toward a more “popular” audience.  I also have some other future projects in mind, but they will remain on the back burner for some time, I’m afraid. 

I am involved with the Orthodox History blog. That is the website for the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA).  Matthew Namee and others do much of the writing on that site, though.  My main efforts with SOCHA involve the academic end such as the symposium we held this fall or the establishment of a peer-reviewed electronic journal. I did have a blog for a while that concentrated on historical theology, but it took too much time.  I do keep up a parish blog, which this is much less involved.

AD: Your publisher's blurb notes that Serapion of Thmuis has remained in "relative obscurity." How is it, then, that you first found out about him and were drawn to write about him?

I first learned of St. Sarapion in a liturgical theology class at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  His euchologion, or collection of prayers, has been studied and I was intrigued by them.  For example, in the Eucharist and at Baptism, rather than praying for the Holy Spirit’s descent, the Word of God was asked to descend.  I looked into him a little more and learned that St. Antony the Great willed one of his two cloaks to Sarapion.  The other he had willed to St. Athanasios the Great.  St. Athanasios’ letters to a “Sarapion” were, in fact, written to this same Sarapion and this led me to research whether any of Sarapion’s own writings were still extant.  Some are: two complete letters, a treatise against Manichaeans, and a letter partially preserved, written to Antony’s disciples.  

There are also a few quotes (from sources no longer extant) found in the works of others.  The partially preserved letter had been translated into French, which I think most English readers can quickly learn to read, but the two complete letters remained only in Greek and the treatise was in Greek and German.  By this point, I was curious about this “mystery saint,” if you will, and the secondary literature only piqued my interest.  There seemed to be some disagreement on whether his biblical interpretation was “Alexandrian” (allegorical) or “Antiochene” (tending toward typology and literalism).  I was also fascinated by his connection to the monks of the desert (one of his extant letters is addressed to a group of such monks) and intrigued by his notion of Hades/hell as a place of purgation, or education.  Once I started translating him, I also quickly realized just how indebted to Stoicism he had been.  Of course, all early church fathers were so indebted, but Sarapion especially so.

AD: For whom did you write the book--did you have a particular audience in mind?

The book is, admittedly, primarily for an academic audience.  The first part of the book consists of an introduction to Sarapion’s thought, focusing on his biblical interpretation and use of Stoic philosophy.  I also argue for the authenticity of Sarapion’s authorship of the Letter to the Monks.  Klaus Fitschen, the only the other contemporary scholar to have devoted a book-length manuscript to Sarapion, argued against Sarapion’s authorship of the letter, but for reasons I give in the book, I think we would do well to follow the manuscript tradition in accepting Sarapion’s authorship.  The second portion of the book consists of Sarapion’s own writings—the two letters and the treatise.  The treatise itself is the sort of writing that will tend to interest scholars primarily as it’s an extended theological argument and not a spiritual reflection of the kind that would garner a large popular readership today.  All that said, my choir director read through the book I donated to our parish and he found some portions of the treatise to be well worth the read.  So, I really do think anyone who is theologically informed would get something out of the book. 

AD: As I have noted before, there seems to be a very great interest in the Desert Fathers and Mothers today if the number of recent books is anything to go by. Why do you think that is? What wisdom do figures like Serapion and others in the desert have that people are looking for today?

I think there are many reasons people today are interested in the Desert Fathers.  I think some people hearken back to them in a nostalgic/romantic sort of way—as though they represent some lost time of real, vital spirituality and spiritual warfare.  Others, I believe, see the Desert Fathers as representing a real spirituality not in a nostalgic sort of way, but rather in a timeless way.  Such people see the Desert Fathers as being applicable even in today’s setting, despite the radically divergent historical contexts.  

Of course, there are also those who simply find many of the stories wild and fantastic, and many stories are, but I think most people fall into one of the first two categories, at least from what I can tell.  Personally, I think there is much that is yet relevant.  In St. Sarapion’s case, I think his view of hell is one that will be thought-provoking, especially in light of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (which has caused a stir amongst Evangelicals) or even Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.  Additionally, Sarapion’s writings are important for studying early Christian biblical interpretation—for noting how the “Scriptures” meant what we call “the Old Testament” and how the Trinitarian Christian message was found to be present within those Scriptures.  I also believe there is much practical wisdom, even though the writings I translated are not “sayings” from St. Sarapion.  For example, his emphasis on free will and his reminder that Christians are not dualists.  I even find his Letter to the Monks to be important as a reminder that the prayers of our monastics have cosmological significance—the ongoing cycle of prayers help sustain the universe.

AD: Are there things in Serapion's Pastoral Letters that you would recommend to pastors to read today? Are there things you would not recommend? 

I think both of Sarapion’s letters are worthy pastoral reading.  The Letter to the Monks is a praise of the monastic life and a reminder of the ascetic devotion to which monastics are called as well as a reminder of the power of prayer.  I also think that many of things for which Sarapion praises the monks may be adopted by all Christians.  The Letter to Bishop Eudoxios is a reminder that we should not let our bouts with illnesses get us down but we should remember that we have our hope in God no matter how dire our circumstances.  
There is nothing I would not recommend that pastors read today, because I think pastors should be grounded in the fathers of the church and certainly shouldn’t be reading only what they happen to like in a particular father. This does not mean, however, that everything he wrote can have a direct application today.  For example, at one point in his Letter to the Monks, Sarapion wrote an aside describing how complicated and bad and pathetic things can be for one who has chosen to raise a family in the world.  Without a context permeated by Christianized Stoicism, this can be a difficult passage to accept and I do not find it readily applicable to the average parishioner in America.  A heightened view of a single, chaste, monastic life has roots in St. Paul’s writings and continues on down throughout church history but most Americans live in cities and towns with families in a culture that presumes family life is the norm and is a good thing.  Whether St. Sarapion would have written or spoken otherwise for Christians living in Thmuis, the city in which he was the bishop, we may never know, but I suspect he did.  I think this example I’ve chosen to highlight can serve as a reminder to keep in mind a writing’s context when assessing applicability to contemporary life. 

AD: Were there any surprises as you were writing--unexpected discoveries, developments you were not expecting?

His extended discussion of the Book of Judith in his Against the Manichaeans caught me off guard.  I knew it was read by Christians, of course, as it is scripture, but hadn’t run across a lengthy discussion of that book in a theological treatise before.  I also found myself becoming sympathetic to Sarapion’s view of hell and how he grounded that view in free will.  Prior to translating his treatise, I did not have any sympathy toward that view, which I would now call “purgative inclusivism.”  What changed my perception was a realization that Sarapion’s position could not be reduced to mere “Origenism,” and, more importantly, that his view was grounded in a dual belief in God’s unrelenting mercy and humanity’s capacity for free will even after the fall.  Finally, I was surprised at how Sarapion’s biblical interpretation fit so well with some central themes found in Fr. John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea. Sarapion post-dates the second century, but there are some real parallels between how St. Irenaeus responds to Valentinianism and how Sarapion responds to Manichaeism.

AD: The Manicheans continue to provoke interest today among some, especially those for whom "heresy" seems but an expression of a "will to power" over ideological enemies. Remind us who the Manicheans were in Serapion's context and why he opposed them. 

The Manichaeans were a real threat to the existence of the Church at that time.  Mani was the third-century founder of the religion and seems to have been raised as a member of some sort of Gnostic sect.  Mani’s dualistic tendencies resonated with many and his belief that some are the elect and that such elect lived a hyper-ascetic form of life enabled Manichaeans to infiltrate Christian monasteries at the time.  Manichaeism taught that the cosmos was filled with trapped portions of light from the good kingdom, which the evil kingdom had trapped in matter. Jesus was a savior figure for Manichaeism but in the sense of being sent to inform people of this trapped light. I suppose one could argue for a Nietzschean (“will to power”) interpretation of how Christianity came to view and defeat Manichaeism.  Some pieces of history would fit such an interpretation.  Manichaeism becomes outlawed within the Byzantine Empire because it was viewed as a “Persian” religion, and indeed, a Persian religion directly antagonistic toward Christianity.  

Also, one might view treatises such as Sarapion’s treatise or the slightly earlier pastoral letter against Manichaeism by Patriarch Theonas of Alexandria as examples of the church exerting a will to power over the Manichaeans.  I think that interpretation does an injustice to the actual difficulties on the ground, however.  Such letters and treatises were written in order to present real arguments in a lively and complicated theological context.  Furthermore, Sarapion’s biblical interpretation proves to be so consistent with the general Christian response to Gnosticism and Marcionism that I think it’s much more accurate to read Sarapion’s treatise as continuing a tradition of biblical interpretation rather than seeing it simply as an expression of exerting power.  Related to this, incidentally, is the generally accepted practice amongst scholars to call Gnostics and even Manichaeans “Christians,” a phenomenon to which I do respond in my introduction.  I honestly think the contemporary fascination with Gnostic Christianity has to do with a desire by some to find some romantic, nostalgic form of tolerant, enlightened Christianity.  For others, I think the fascination exists because defending Gnosticism can be a means of attacking the current expressions of Christianity.  If one removes these two motivations, one greatly narrows the number of people interested in Gnosticism.

AD: Conflicts over biblical interpretation are as old as Christianity itself. Your book examines Serapion's biblical hermeneutics. Does he offer us any hermeneutical guidance today?

I think Sarapion’s biblical interpreation is a reminder that we Orthodox (and frankly, all Christians) need to make sure we side-step the whole parameters of biblical interpretation that were solidified in the late nineteenth century between liberal scholarly uses of the various critical methods on the one hand or a dogged insistence upon a particular literal reading on the other.  Those parameters inevitably lead to things like the Scopes Monkey Trial.  We can, should, and must do better than that.  Indeed, the same kind of Christocentric, Trinitarian reading of the Scriptures that St. Sarapion performed may be found throughout Eastern Christian hymnography. 

AD: Sum up briefly for us what the main contents and arguments of the book.

The Introduction discusses Sarapion’s historical context, his hermeneutics in the treatise (with sub sections describing the Stoic elements, the Christocentric dimension, and free will), and the two letters, with discussions of the concept of suffering, the hermeneutics in the letters, and an argument for Sarapion’s authorship of the Letter to the Monks.  A translation of those writings, a select bibliography, and an index conclude the book. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Remembering Fr. Bob Anderson

It is hard to believe it has been a year since the Archpriest Robert Anderson, known to everyone as Fr. Bob, so suddenly died. Little did I know when I wrote what I did last year how often Ratzinger's words would haunt me this year:
We mourn him because he is no longer among us. Never again shall we be able to hold a conversation with him, never again obtain his advice. We shall need him so often, but shall seek for him in vain.

I first met him in the summer of 2001 in Ukraine (he is on the far right in this picture, next to me; Fr. Roman Galadza is on the left: we were at the great Pochaev Lavra in this photo).

He loved to return to Ukraine each summer to teach, and these next two photos below are from the English Summer School run by the Ukrainian Catholic University, where I first met him while teaching. The photo on the left is with seminarian Joseph Matlak in 2006, and the photo on the right is from Fr. Bob's last summer there, 2010:

As you can see, it was never difficult to find Fr. Bob in a picture thanks to what he jokingly called his "big rug," the beard with which my sons were so fascinated, including Aidan, baptized by Fr. Bob in Ottawa on Theophany in 2007 as pictured here below on the left.

According to the terms of his will, I was charged with assisting in the disposition of his library, which, as I wrote last year, was very considerable indeed: he was a bibliophile on a grand scale! I knew he had read very widely, but especially since leaving Ottawa in 2007, I had not known just how widely those interests continued to range. Only after spending more than a week in May in his house organizing the books did I see how widely. Who else has not one or two but four or five books on East-Armenian verbs? Which other personal library contains just about every book ever written on Galician nationalism? How many books on Turkish dialects do you keep by your bedside? (He had at least three.) Where else--apart from perhaps two or three institutional collections in the entire world--would you find dozens of books on Syriac liturgy? (He was also a polyglot who taught himself numerous languages--and in some of them came to incredible fluency, enough to fool native speakers into thinking he was one of them--but I did not know Syriac was one of them.) I regret that my own book, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, only appeared in print two months after his death: in the preface, his counsel to me over the years of writing that book was very gratefully noted.

In the year since he died, when, as Ratzinger so eloquently wrote, we have needed him so often, and in vain sought to converse with him, I have kept this picture on my desktop:

Now the armchair psychoanalysts, those fatuous creatures leaping from the depths of what Christopher Lasch memorably called the "banality of pseudo-self-awareness," may rush in here to proclaim this macabre or the result of a failure to find "closure" (a wholly fraudulent notion, belief in which is at one with belief in bog magic and the wise woman's cabin in the woods), but there is, of course, venerable precedent in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, not a few of whom meditated daily on death and at least one of whom, St. Jerome, was reported to have kept a skull on his desk.

This picture is simply a high-tech, 21st-century version of Jerome's skull. It functions as a memento mori, a remembrance of death--both his (leading one to pray for him) and one's own (leading one to recollect that today could be one's last: as Scripture says, we "know neither the day nor the hour" when that "thief in the night" will come upon us). The same practice motivates many Eastern Christians to keep pictures of their dead friends and family in their icon corner at home.

It is, then, a good and salutary practice to remember and pray for those whom we have “loved long since and lost awhile” in Cardinal Newman’s felicitous phrase, asking God to make their memory eternal and to make our hearts strong enough to run the race that remains before us until at last we are, we hope, united again around the banquet table of the Lord.
But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn; but none can impart aright.
Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! (from John Tavener's "Funeral Ikos")

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hans Boersma on Sacramental Theology in our Time

I noted the recent publication of Hans Boersma's new book, Heavenly Participation: the Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. I interviewed him about this book and related questions, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

I grew up in a wonderful Reformed family in the Netherlands, where my Dad served as a Pastor.  After taking a degree in education (and a compulsory one-year stint in the army) in Holland, I moved to Canada (Surrey, BC), where I started teaching at an elementary school.  There I met my wife, Linda, who taught at the same school.  I soon decided to pursue further education—studying history at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, then doing an M.Div. at the Canadian Reformed Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario, and finally pursuing a doctorate in theology at the University of Utrecht.  I served as a pastor in Aldergrove, BC, for three and a half years, and then started teaching theology at Trinity Western University, an evangelical liberal arts university in Langley, BC.  For the past six years, I have taught at Regent College, an international evangelical graduate school of theology in Vancouver.  My wife and I have five children, one of whom is still at home with us.

AD: What led you to write this book?

The most immediate reason for writing it is probably that two colleagues, Richard Mouw from Fuller and John Stackhouse from Regent, both suggested I should write a more popular version of my Oxford book on nouvelle théologie. Writing popular books doesn’t come easily to me, but in the end I did decide to try it, because I feel passionately about the issues I am writing about in this book.  Perhaps I could highlight two of them.  First, I have an increasing conviction that modernity has left us with a terribly flat, horizontal, this-worldly perspective.  I am strongly convinced that earlier viewpoints rightly saw that this-worldly created appearances veil a deeper, transcendent depth, a reality that as a Christian I believe ultimately goes back to the eternal Word of God himself.  Put differently, God’s gifts of the created order participate sacramentally in heavenly realities.  This perspective gives us a much richer appreciation for the world in which we live and at the same time helps us focus more distinctly on what is ultimate: eternal life in the Triune God himself.

Second, and connected to this, I believe that there are theological emphases that modernity has difficulty appreciating, such as the importance of Eucharistic celebration, the role of tradition in passing on the Christian faith, and biblical interpretation as a spiritual rather than just an archaeological practice.  The 20th-century Catholic movement of nouvelle théologie --Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar most notably—have taught me to approach theology from a different angle, one that doesn’t focus just on propositional accuracy but that looks at theology as an entry into the mystery of the Triune God. It’s not that I want to pitch mystery over against propositional truth; it’s more that our human truth statements participate sacramentally, as it were, in divine Reason.  Once you take this perspective, Eucharist, Tradition, and spiritual exegesis take on a great deal more significance.  In short, the book is a bit of a manifesto.  It is a cry from the heart about what I believe is important as we go about our theological business in our contemporary modern (and postmodern) culture.

AD: For whom did you write the book--did you have a particular audience in mind?

I wrote this book primarily for evangelicals.  I write as an evangelical for evangelicals, trying to persuade them that we need to regain a pre-modern sensibility if we want to properly navigate the challenges of late modern culture.  Younger evangelicals increasingly react against the propositionalism of an earlier generation.  Unfortunately, however, too often this reaction goes hand in hand with a further radicalizing of the Reformation.  These younger evangelicals continue to reject the authority of tradition, they are nervous about authority structures, and they are often radically biblicist, rejecting a harmonious weaving together of reason and faith, philosophy and theology.  In terms of Christian living, the individualism of their evangelical past renders them susceptible to the same moral vapidity and indecisiveness that characterizes the broader cultural context.  I am trying to suggest to them that by anchoring ourselves more deeply in the Christian tradition, we find resources there that help us overcome some of our unhelpful evangelical cul-de-sacs.  At the same time, I suspect that my appeal for a sacramental mindset isn’t important only for evangelicals.  The desacralizing of the cosmos has deeply affected other traditions, including Catholicism, as well.  So, I am hoping that the book gets read also outside the evangelical orbit.

AD: Were there any surprises as you were writing?

Not really, to be honest.  Although writing often takes me a long time, I was able to write this book quite quickly, during a few summer months.  The reason is that the book comes fairly directly out of my teaching and research.  Much of the material that you find here I have dealt with at Regent College in my classes, in one way or another.  Among my friends and colleagues at Regent, we have discussed and debated the issues involved for a number of years.  So, I was relatively clear in my mind about what it is what I wanted to do.  Also, the second part of the book draws heavily on nouvelle théologie, a topic on which I had just published an earlier book. So, I was already into the topic and knew how I wanted to rework the ideas. If there was any surprise, it was perhaps how strongly I felt about the issues involved, once I began to put pen to paper for a more popular audience.

AD: Though much of your focus is on Western Christians, evangelicals especially, is it possible to say that some of the challenges today to sacramental theology and sacramental practice are really faced by all Christians, East and West alike?

I think there is no doubt that Christians in the East face many of the same challenges that we encounter in the West.  Western culture is increasingly becoming a global culture, so to think that Eastern Orthodoxy would somehow be immune to the de-sacramentalizing challenges that are ours in the West would be naïve.  At the same time, it seems to me that the Eastern love for patristic theology gives Orthodoxy certain emphases for which we, in the West, should be grateful and from which we should learn.  I am thinking, for instance, of the importance of participation, of deification, and of typological exegesis, which naturally find a home in the Eastern mindset.

AD: Your book does draw on numerous Eastern Fathers as well as contemporary Eastern theologians, including of course Alexander Schmemann. What drew you to them? What do you think they have to offer evangelical theology today?

I indeed draw on several Eastern Fathers, though not exclusively so.  I also draw fairly extensively also on St. Augustine, whose Platonist-Christian synthesis was, I think, profound.  I love his distinction between ‘use’ (uti) and ‘enjoyment’ (frui), which recognizes that our ultimate aim is heaven and that we ought to use earthly gifts mere as sacraments, which are meant to bring us home.  I also use St. Irenaeus, whom perhaps we may describe both as an Eastern and as a Western theologian. 

But I indeed also use Eastern theologians, and I am currently writing a book on embodiment in St. Gregory of Nyssa.  His mystical, anagogical (upward-leading) theology is absolutely profound, I think.  I am attracted to theologians such as IrenaeusGregory, and others especially because they recognize that created realities find their purpose of being in the very life of God.  The East—along with the Greek Fathers—has always maintained clearly that this-worldly realities (and especially human beings!) are not strictly autonomous or self-contained, but that they find their true meaning and identity in their ultimate aim, our Christ-filled heavenly future.

AD: You reflect at some length on the challenge that medieval Nominalism poses to a coherent sacramental theology. How has the ressourcement movement helped in dealing with Nominalism?

Nominalism isn’t able to recognize that the way we identify created objects is better or worse depending on how well our naming of them corresponds to their eternal, heavenly archetypes. Nominalism, by rejecting the real existence of eternal essences or archetypes, forces us to be curved in upon ourselves and on this-worldly objects.  The result is fragmentation in how we see people and objects relating not just to God but also to each other. This modern sense of alienation and fragmentation seems to me to stem ultimately from a tearing of the sacramental link between heaven and earth. A retrieval or ressourcement of patristic and medieval sources can be tremendously helpful here, because this earlier tradition assumed a Platonist-Christian perspective that looked at earthly objects as anchored in what Plato would have called eternal ‘forms’, but which Christians identified as Jesus Christ himself.  Knowledge, therefore, even of temporal, earthly objects is based on Jesus Christ. This is something of which the Church Fathers were deeply aware. The twentieth-century Catholic ressourcement movement was, I think, in many ways an attempt to overcome the secularity that was impinging on European society, and these theologians tried to do so by recovering the sacramental modes of knowing and of reading Scripture that had been current in pre-modern society.

AD: Much of the ressourcement movement, of course, was led by French Jesuits and Dominicans. How has an evangelical of Dutch extraction teaching in Canada come to know and be influenced by their thought?

When I taught at Trinity Western University (1998-2005), we had an informal reading group of evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox theologians, which we called ‘Paradosis’ (Tradition).  One of the books that we read was Yves Congar’s Tradition and Traditions 

Congar's book revolutionized my thinking: I saw here a Catholic theologian who, on the one hand, was able to impress on me the inescapable force and significance of tradition—in ways that my own background had never done; and who, on the other hand, made very clear that he didn’t regard Scripture and Tradition as two separate sources of authority and that Scripture was materially sufficient for all Christian teaching.  In other words, Congar (and, as I now realize, most Catholic thinkers today) held to some form of sola scripturaCongar’s insistence that Tradition, based as it is in Christ, itself is sacramental in character left a strong impression on me.

Around the same time, my department asked me to present a paper on biblical interpretation.  My reading of Irenaeus had already made me nervous about the often strictly historical (and this-worldly) approach of much contemporary biblical exegesis.  As I did some research for the paper, I came across an excellent essay by Henri de Lubac on spiritual interpretation.  De Lubac made clear that the fourfold exegesis of the earlier tradition wasn’t a silly relic of the past but could continue to inform our exegetical practices today, without negating some of the more helpful contributions of critical exegesis. Moreover, de Lubac made clear that this exegesis was a sacramental practice.  So, I had encountered two theologians who were obviously sacramental in their thinking, and I knew that at some point, I had to explore their theology further, to see what I could learn from it.

AD: Your book is a wonderful model of how to do theology ecumenically, and a great reminder that today no Christian scholar can afford to work in the solitude of his own tradition. And yet for some--especially Orthodox--"ecumenism" and its cognates is a dirty word (the "pan-heresy"). Do you attract flak among evangelicals for so openly drawing on Catholic and Orthodox thought?

Many of the issues that I discuss in the book I presented first in a team-taught course at Regent and in public dialogue with my colleagues.  I dedicated the book to my colleagues and students at Regent, precisely because I am so very grateful for the open discussions that we regularly have at Regent.  That’s not to say that we are always in agreement.  As I mention in the book’s preface, we do find ourselves disagreeing on issues, sometimes even vehemently so, but we all believe that what binds us together in Christ is far more important than the theological differences that we have.  And so, I think we disagree well, and we talk, discuss, and debate as friends among each other.  It’s one of the best ways, I think, of doing theology in today’s society, and our students are certainly grateful for it.

As to the broader evangelical world beyond Regent College, I don’t know if I can fully evaluate that.  My evangelical reviewers so far have been most generous.  I suspect that one reason is that the themes I put forward in the book increasingly echo among at least some of today’s evangelical theologians.  For whatever reason, I have not encountered any kind of sharp denunciations of my book, and even those who are apprehensive of some of my emphases tend to take the arguments that I put forward seriously and engage it on its merits.  So, thankfully, I have no reason to feel defensive about the approach that I have taken in my ecumenical endeavours.

Understand This You Nations: God is With Us!

With the above interview, we will pause on here for the Nativity, returning on the 27th with a long reflection and then more new books and numerous interviews with authors of recent books.

In the meantime, think on these verses from Great Compline for the Nativity:

God is with us! Understand this, and submit you nations: for God is with us!  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, for God is with us. Upon you who dwelt in the shadow of death a light has shone for God is with us. For a child is born to us; a son is given to us, for God is with us. Of His peace there is no end, for God is with us.  They call Him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace for God is with us.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Authority in the Russian Church

Part of my own work in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity was concerned with ecclesiastical structures in the various Orthodox Churches. There is, as I showed, great diversity in structures and in ways in which authority is dispersed and handled.

Now a new book is set to take an even more detailed look at authority as it is exercised in the Russian Orthodox Church in particular: Vitali Petrenko, The Development of Authority Within the Russian Orthodox Church: A Theological and Historical Inquiry (Peter Lang, 2011), xii+310pp.

For this book, the publisher provides the following synopsis: 

Following the period of glasnost and perestroika, the Russian Orthodox Church rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union and its ideology, and started to reassert its rightful place and authority within and beyond its canonical territory. This authority was exercised and revealed on several levels in relation to the rest of Christendom, both East and West: first, in relation to the 'Mother' Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople and, second, in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches. In this book, the author addresses the previously unexplored issue of authority within the Russian Church and considers how and what type of authority was developed within the Church during its turbulent and controversial history and how this affects its operation today. The work investigates the historical contexts and events which led to a particular concept of authority being formulated in the Russian Orthodox Church within the wider framework of time, geography, theology and philosophy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

That Bloody Fig Tree and Those Damned Pharisees

Bernard Lonergan, whose turgid and rather Teutonic prose I had to plow through once in attempting to read his massively prolix Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, says in there somewhere that we are mistaken if we think that the process of understanding a difficult matter (I think he uses physics as an example) consists in simply "taking a good look" at what he calls the "already-out-there-now-real." Nowhere is that insight more important to remember than when it comes to reading Scripture. How often have we all had the experience of suffering through some hermeneutically ham-fisted dolt proof-texting an issue about which he knows less than nothing--an experience by no means confined to Christian scriptures, but also a problem, on an often larger and more lethal scale, when it comes to understanding the Quran. For Christians like that, I always prescribe a mandatory reading of Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America. There, with his characteristic swashbuckling style, Hauerwas demonstrates that he is the one for whom Kierkegaard called:
a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope.... [N]o one any longer reads the Bible humanly. As a result it does immeasurable harm.... The Bible Societies, those vapid caricatures...which like all companies only work with money and are just as mundanely interested in spreading the Bible as other companies in their enterprises: the Bible Societies have done immeasurable harm. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible (The Journals of Kierkegaard). 
Hauerwas does indeed call for the Bible to be forbidden to people:
Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their “common sense” is sufficient to “understanding” the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have all the “religious experience” necessary to know what the Bible is about (Unleashing the Scripture). 
Hauerwas then goes on to insist that nobody can be trusted to read the Bible until they have undergone the hard askesis of being divested of the habits of mind of late modernity and learned instead to discipline themselves in and under the authority of the Church as a community of character made up of resident aliens.

All this is just a long-winded introduction to a new book that treats those passages in the New Testament rightly called the "difficult sayings" of Jesus Christ, which people often interpret at their peril: Daniel Fanous, Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus (Orthodox Research Institute, 2010), 260pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
Few would dispute that the sayings of Jesus were and are important. But though important, these very same sayings are difficult at best and incomprehensible at worst. Sayings like, "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence," or, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword," have confused readers of the Gospels for thousands of years. Others such as, "My Father is greater than I," and, "My God why have You forsaken Me?" have sparked theological infernos that have plagued Christianity from its beginnings. From the greatest theologians to the smallest child, the same question is always asked: What did Jesus really mean? In considering only the most difficult of the sayings of Jesus, Taught by God brings together the academic rigour of modern biblical scholarship and the profound wisdom of the early Church Fathers in a unique, lively, and dramatic synthesis.
I hope to interview the author of this book in the new year.  

Christos Yannaras's Relational Ontology

I have previously drawn attention to the important thought of Christos Yannaras for both contemporary philosophy and theology. A new translation has recently been published of Relational Ontology, trans. Norman Russell (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2011), 156pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
How is the person constituted? Is there a transcendent cause of existence? Starting from these questions, Christos Yannaras explores what we know about ourselves as willing, thinking, sexual beings, and suggests how we can overcome the predeterminations of nature to enter into a different mode of existence, a mode that enables us ultimately to share in the personal otherness of divine being. This book builds on the notion of the human person that Yannaras has already established in his previous works and develops it further in exciting new ways.
This book carries endorsements from two important non-Orthodox voices, an Anglican and a Roman Catholic:
"Christos Yannaras has been for several decades one of the most prolific, original, and contemporary Orthodox writers in Greece. He is perhaps one of the most significant Christian philosophers in Europe, and it is wonderful to be able to welcome this sustained enterprise in making him accessible to English-speaking audiences." - Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

"In this recent work Christos Yannaras confronts the reductionist claims advanced by some neuroscientists, and in dialogue with Jacques Lac an reflects on the relevance of relation with the Other to the constitution of the human person. Everything in us manifests itself as a form of the desire for life-as-relation. It is this relational dynamic that shapes our mode of being, going beyond the determinism of nature and opening us up to the experience of freedom, sacrifice, love, and beauty. In the light of the originally relational constitution of human existence, Yannaras presents a suggestive rereading of the Christian faith - particularly of the doctrine of original sin - and offers a fascinating new approach to the problems of evil and death. This stimulating book is a most welcome addition to Holy Cross Orthodox Press's Yannaras series." - Basilio Petra, Professor of Moral Theology at the Faculty of Theology of Central Italy (Florence)
This will be expertly reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2012.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Critical Issues in Ecclesiology

In 1963, in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, the Orthodox historian John Meyendorff noted, rightly, that the issue of ecclesiology, and not minor liturgical and administrative adjustments, or even ecumenical statements, will finally solve the problem of Christian unity.” Issues of ecclesiology, then, remain enormously important not only for themselves, but also for the purpose of seeking the unity of Christ's Church. 

Eerdmans has just sent me a copy of a new book in ecclesiology exploring these various ecclesial-ecumenical challenges in the work of one of the most prominent Protestants of our time: Alberto L. García and Susan K. Wood, Critical Issues in Ecclesiology: Essays In Honor of Carl E. Braaten (Eerdmans, 2011), xvi+239pp. 

There is not much in this Festschrift about Eastern Christianity per se, though the first essay, by Gabriel Fackre, recounts an anecdote of Braaten's study at Harvard when Georges Florovsky was there and what the latter taught the former. In addition, the final essay by Leopoldo Sánchez, "More Promise than Ambiguity: Pneumatological Christology as a Model for Ecumenical Engagement" discusses the issue of the filioque, especially in the thought of Yves Congar, and its impact on East-West relations. 

Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon

Lebanon continues to be a fascinating place especially for those of us who study relations between Eastern Christians and Muslims. Indiana University Press last fall released a study looking at both groups: Lucia Volk, Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon (Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa) (IU Press, 272pp.).

About this book, the publisher tells us:
Lebanese history is often associated with sectarianism and hostility between religious communities, but by examining public memorials and historical accounts, Lucia Volk finds evidence for a sustained politics of Muslim and Christian co-existence. Lebanese Muslim and Christian civilians were jointly commemorated as martyrs for the nation after various episodes of violence in Lebanese history. Sites of memory sponsored by Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, and Druze elites have shared the goal of creating cross-community solidarity by honoring the joint sacrifice of civilians of different religious communities. This compelling and lucid study enhances our understanding of culture and the politics of memory in situations of ongoing conflict. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christopher Hitchens vs. William Cavanaugh

With the sad news of the death of Christopher Hitchens--who wrote like the angels he purported not to believe in--William Cavanaugh has written a piece scrutinizing Hitchens' oft-made equation: religion=violence.

Much of the weakness in Hitchens--for whom I otherwise had respect, and whose death is a loss to the world of public ideas even if some of his more iconoclastic moments were more than a little de trop--turns on the fact that "religion" is a notoriously slippery category that has been evading coherent, satisfactory definition by philosophers, theologians, historians, and other scholars for centuries. I avoid the term whenever I can because it is so problem-plagued. Cavanaugh, I think, is indisputably the leading scholar today analyzing this very question in several recent and very important books. I discussed those books, including the most recent, in a long review essay last spring, which I take the liberty of reprinting here.

I have been reading William Cavanaugh for over fifteen years now. His 1995 article "'A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House': the Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State" began sketching out his thinking--and my consequent re-thinking--of the relationship between "religion" and the state in the modern West. There he began to build the case that the so-called Wars of Religion were not, in fact, about "religion" but were the bloody birth-pangs of the modern state. These are arguments he would amplify greatly in his 2009 book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, published by Oxford University Press. (This latter book is being reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in the fall.)

In the article, and then especially in the book, he has convincingly demonstrated that one of the founding myths of modernity--viz., that the state was necessarily founded in Europe (and later in North America) to keep Christians from killing one another in the aftermath of the Reformation--is rubbish. In the book he amasses evidence aplenty to support this thesis, and I will not reiterate that evidence here, instead strongly encouraging readers to buy the book and discover for themselves.

One of the many useful things about the book is that Cavanaugh does not deny that self-identified "religious" people sometimes use violence against one another, and against other non-religious actors; nor does he engage in the usual "apologetics" whereby such actions are dismissed as the unrepresentative antics of a fanatical fringe. What makes Cavanaugh's book so important is that he shows that the very creation of the categories of "religion" and "politics" or "secular" and "sacred" are tendentious attempts by the modern state to justify its existence, and especially its monopoly on violence, and to privatize "religion" while disguising the fact that the state itself makes certain transcendent metaphysical and "theological" claims. (Much of this argument is, of course, reliant upon, e.g., John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre.) In other words, it is impossible to speak of pure motives as though the sacred and secular were discrete and separable. The suicide bomber flying planes into buildings is doing so not only because of his understanding of a religious text ostensibly tells him to do so, but also because he has political goals in mind: to see a people, their economy, and ultimately the state itself mortally wounded and thereby ripe for conquest by another polity.

This pseudo-sacral nature of the state, with its covert theology, is the object of analysis in Cavanaugh's most recent book: Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Eerdmans, 2011), v+200pp.

This is, in parts, an extremely important book for Eastern Christians to read, though I fear most will not do so. For the modern history of Eastern Christianity, especially in Europe and especially since the end of the eighteenth century, is inseparable from various nationalistic and ethno-phyletistic movements. For too many Eastern Christians--Eastern Catholics as well as Orthodox--nationalist aspirations were kept alive during the Soviet period by and in the Churches, which in some cases functioned as surrogate "states" for those who had none in the Soviet Union. (This is true for some Western Christians who also fell under Soviet domination.)

Cavanaugh's arguments are important for both Eastern and Western Christians alike, and they are stated with the greatest cogency in the introduction and first two chapters of the book, which is really an anthology of articles disguised as a monograph. Several of the chapters fit only loosely with the book and, in my estimation, constitute something of a distraction from his very important main thesis.

Cavanaugh opens by declaring that "I don't believe that the state can be understood without theology. Carl Schmitt was right to say that all modern concepts of the state are secularized theological concepts if by 'secularized' one means 'covert'" (3). Cavanaugh will go on to note that while the "separation of church and state" can be accepted "as a liberation of the state from the wielding of coercive power, I nevertheless reject the separation of 'religion' from 'politics'" (4). It is simply impossible, Cavanaugh says, "that Christianity belongs to some special, nonempirical realm of 'religion' cordoned off from some other essentially distinct realm of human behavior called 'politics'" (4). He rejects this distinction for several reasons, not least because the relevant history shows it is false: it is a distinction we find invented in the West only in the last 400 years or so. Here a key person to read is John Bossy: Christianity in the West 1400-1700. Bossy's book is
a rollicking good historical revision of much of what we have taken for granted about Reformation and post-Reformation Christianity in the West.

Cavanaugh argues that those who think we can separate 'religion' from 'politics' end up smuggling the former back in under the disguise of the latter. This is a process he calls (borrowing Bossy's terminology) the "migration of the holy." What we once regarded as holy--viz., Christ's body in the Eucharist and the Church, understood together as Henri de Lubac showed--is no longer seen as such by more and more people today: on this, I would say, one must also read Charles Taylor's massive A Secular Age. Instead, what is increasingly regarded as holy, that for which we are willing to lay down our very lives, is precisely the modern nation-state: it, today, is regarded as holy; it, today, has become our biggest idol demanding our biggest sacrifice. How many Christians in North America are willing to kill in the name of their faith? Thankfully almost none. But how many of them are willing and ready to kill in the name of their country, and what does that startling fact tell us about Christianity today and the power--the imaginative power above all--of the modern state?

Cavanaugh's second chapter is the heart of the book. Here he argues that the nation-state is not the keeper of the common good. Making this argument requires dealing at the outset with some prominent Roman Catholic theologians who have attempted to argue that today the pursuit of the common good requires supporting the modern state. The chief person here is Charles Curran. Cavanaugh makes short work of him and spends the rest of the chapter demonstrating "the case against seeing the state as the promoter and protector of the common good" (8). He does this in significant measure by tracing the origins--philosophical, terminological, theological, sociological--of the institution of the modern state, whose roots are undoubtedly prepared "in the medieval period." Though he does not cite her, much of Cavanaugh's argument here has striking parallels to Jean Bethke Elshtain's recent Gifford Lectures:  Sovereignty: God, State, and Self,  
another very important recent contribution toward understanding the historical roots of the state's insistence on it having "sovereignty," a notion Cavanaugh briefly treats here through a discussion of Jean Bodin. This notion of the sovereign individual, and the sovereign state, are both contrary to sound Christian anthropology--a point Cavanaugh does not really develop enough.  He also does not treat the fact that the idea of sovereignty has been hugely influential in ecclesiology in the East (in its debates about "autocephaly") and in the West (in its debates, before, during, and after Vatican I, about the jurisdiction of the "sovereign pontiff," the bishop of Rome: a key person to see here is Hermann Pottmeyer; in the background, of course, is Joseph de Maistre).

While not romanticizing the modern period, nor demonizing the modern state, Cavanaugh nonetheless presents some startling ideas and facts, chief among which is that the engine that drives all state growth in every form everywhere is war: in the U.S. he says, "all but five cabinet departments and the majority of smaller federal agencies have come into being during wartime" (27, here citing Bruce Porter, War and the Rise of the State). We have, of course, recent evidence of this in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, now one of the largest federal bureaucracies extant. In the ongoing Congressional budget battles, nobody is talking about scaling back this department or "defense" spending. And that, Cavanaugh suggests, should not surprise us for war gives an overarching purpose or telos to the state that it otherwise deliberately if impossibly refuses to claim explicitly. (Well do I recall here my Glaswegian grandparents saying to me that the one thing they most remembered about living through World War II in Great Britain was "how united we all were." As soon as the war was over, that vanished, much to their regret--and that of many others, apparently.)

Cavanaugh notes that the nineteenth century sees the fusion of the nation with the state in the West. He has a fascinating discussion about modern nationalism as it is understood by various scholars, noting, e.g., that the very idea or "imaginary" of the nation only comes about after the idea of the state has been conceived: "nations are only impossible once states have been conceived" (34). Here he has an apt quote from the Italian patriot Massimo d'Azeglio after the creation of Italy: "We have made Italy; now we have to make Italians." This idea is crying out for critical application and empirical verification in the Christian East. I am thinking primarily of Ukraine--beyond what important work has been done already.

The problem with nationalism, and with the obeisance we give to the nation-state today, is that we make of it an idol, honoring it as we should not, and expecting of it things it cannot properly give: "the longing for true communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state" (42). This is what we call idolatry. In response to this, Cavanaugh says that the "urgent task of the Church...is to demystify the nation-state and treat it like the telephone company"--that is, as the mere bureaucratic purveyor of certain goods and services, nothing more or less.

How can the Church do that? This is the burden of his next chapter: "From One City to Two: Christian Reimagining of Political Space." Here Cavanaugh argues that the modern state is good at pretending to meet our "longing for unity...[and] fear that diversity will produce conflict and tear the body politic apart" (47). The modern liberal state, especially following Hobbes, claims to be in favor of diversity, to permit a variety of ends to be pursued, but it is secretly threatened by that diversity: "the nation-state needs the constant crisis of pluralism in order to enact the unum" (53). Cavanaugh does not, as he notes, have a lot of answers as to how we can outwit such a dynamic on the part of the state, but he does want--as he says earlier--to "argue for a more radical pluralism...[and] complex political space [that] would privilege local forms of community, but...would also connect them in translocal networks of connectivity" (4). He does not detail the practical outworkings of all this, but leaves it to readers to undertake the fascinating if difficult work of thinking through such practices.

One of the ways Christians can do that, he does argue (and not entirely adequately or with the length and depth I thought necessary) is through not merely the creation of more local forms of community, but also through better ecclesiology and liturgiology. It is in his sixth chapter, "The Liturgies of the Church and State" where he again cites (as he did earlier) John Zizioulas's landmark work Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. Cavanaugh's chapter, however, resorts to vacuous sloganeering at points as, e.g., when he says that "we must look with a critical eye on liturgies that compete for our allegiance" (122). Here he has in mind "liturgies" of the state or other non-ecclesial organizations, but in advocating for a more critical evaluation of liturgy, I think he missed a crucial opportunity to turn a critical eye on Roman liturgy today, and how precisely it fails to do what Cavanaugh rightfully thinks good liturgy must do. In saying this, I have in mind the very important criticism of Catherine Pickstock--whose work Cavanaugh surely knows, not least because they've been published together--first articulated in a 1997 article in New Blackfriars, "A Short Essay on the Reform of the Liturgy" and expanded in her breathtaking work After Writing: On the Liturgical Cosummation of Philosophy.  In that 1997 essay, she argued that 

 the Vatican II reforms of the mediaeval Roman Rite...failed to challenge those structures of the modem secular world which are wholly inimical to liturgical purpose: those structures, indeed, which perpetuate a separation of everyday life from liturgical enactment (56).

Pickstock hastens to add that her criticisms are not some kind of revanchist horror at modern liturgics. (She is, after all, Anglican and not a part of, say, the SSPX.) Rather they
issue from a belief that its revisions were simply not radical enough. A successful liturgical revision would have to involve a revolutionary re-invention of language and practice which would challenge the structures of our modern world, and only thereby restore real language and action as liturgy (56-57).
She picks this up again in her concluding paragraph, where she says that what we need is to
devise a liturgy that refused to be enculturated in our modern habits of thought and speech. Such enculturation, one would have to realise, can only be appropriate for a society that is itself, as a whole, subordinate to liturgical offering. But...our society... would have not only to register internally the need ‘to pray that there might be prayer’--by restoring a 1iturgical ‘stammer’, and oral spontaneity and ‘confusion’--but also the need to pray that we again begin to live, to speak, to associate, in a liturgical, which is to say truly human and creaturely fashion. It would have more actively to challenge us through the shock of a defamiliarizing language, to live only to worship, and to be in community only as recipients of the gift of the body of Christ (64).
Only such liturgy (which, I have argued elsewhere, can be found today in the Byzantine tradition) could remind us that the nation-state is not our true home: we have here no lasting city.

William Cavanaugh's Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church has reminded us of this crucial idea not through liturgy but through deeply challenging, and wholly welcome, argumentation, only some of which we have sampled here. I warmly recommend this book to all who are interested in these vital ideas and hope it receives the hearing it deserves.

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