"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, March 30, 2012

Does the Rhine Flow into the Tiber, Bosphorus, or Both? An Interview with 2 Former Lutherans

Last month I mentioned a new book written by two former Lutheran theologians, one of whom became Orthodox, the other Catholic: Mickey Mattox and A.G. Roeber, Changing Churches: An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation (Eerdmans, 2012), 336pp. This whole phenomenon of large numbers of former Protestants becoming Catholic and, more recently, Orthodox, has come in for increasing study in, e.g., Amy Slagle's The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity, which I reviewed here. Earlier works to treat the Eastward movement of Protestants include Peter Gilquist's Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith and his Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox. Mattox and Roeber's book is not only new but quite unique, in my estimation, in at least two respects: it is written by two senior academics and scholars, and it does not focus exclusively on either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, but on both, offering a very helpfully comparative approach. I asked both authors for an interview about the book, and here are their thoughts:

AD: Tell us both a bit about your backgrounds and current interests.

A.Gregg ROEBER: I was born and raised Catholic, and studied for the priesthood before becoming Lutheran. By profession I am an early-modern historian who has published on a variety of topics involving both legal and religious history in North America, Europe, and, most recently, India.

Mickey MATTOX: 
I was baptized at age nine in the Southern Baptist faith, and count a number of Baptist ministers in my extended family. As a young adult, I was brought into the Lutheran tradition (Missouri Synod) through my wife’s family. Lutheranism eventually grew on me to the point where a pursued a career in Lutheran studies. After four years in the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourgmy work on Luther came to be informed not only by historical theology but also by ecumenical theology. In addition, I lead the program in Luther studies in a Catholic context at Marquette University.  

AD: What led you to write this book in particular?

ROEBER: As we explain in detail in the preface, this came about while Mattox was the research professor in Strasbourg at the Ecumenical Institute and I was a guest presenting a paper on Orthodoxy and Lutheranism. Mattox was serving on the Orthodox-Lutheran International Commission and I suggested that the book would be a good project and he agreed—though in the interim he became Catholic and that caused us to re-think and re-write the book almost from scratch.

MATTOX: We initially had in mind to evaluate the nearness of Orthodoxy and Lutheranism after the revolution in Luther studies effected by Finnish scholars. To what extent have Lutherans and Orthodox come to agreement in the matter of justification/theosis? But we abandoned that question after we figured out that the world did not need another book in “convergence ecumenism.” After I became Catholic, however, it seemed to us that writing out of a shared Lutheran past and a separated Orthodox/Catholic present could offer a perspective that might be helpful to folks on all three sides of that divide.

AD: What do you see as some of the underlying causes for the doctrinal alterations of some Protestant traditions on questions such as sexual morality? Are these discrete issues or part of a larger pattern or problem?

ROEBER:  Some would probably claim that the changes all point to the lack of authority, but I at least don’t quite see it that way. It’s true, of course, that without some kind of settled doctrine of who is in charge of articulating the sensus fidelium, Protestantism can get dragged this way and that on issues of sexuality and more besides. But it is also true that Protestantism historically tried to place marriage at the centre of the Christian life and yet the history of women’s roles in the Church within Protestantism led in more than a few cases to an overemphasis on obedience, subordination, and the like in cultures and places where women have become educated. In those places, there’s been a pretty severe backlash against a sometimes lopsided insistence on male authority with very little convincing theology on the role of mutual servanthood in marriage. If partnership and friendship are not to be found in this way of life, I suspect that some Protestants might conclude that people are likely to look elsewhere and that can mean multiple divorces and remarriages, or sexual activity outside marriage. None of those conclusions is very easy to reconcile with the historic positions of Protestantism on human sexuality and marriage but the “causes” are probably many, and can’t be boiled down to just one.

MATTOX: Well I’ve just read the manuscript of Gregg’s new book on marriage in Lutheran history and theology in the early modern period, and I think he really gets this one right in his remarks above. At the same time, I would want to draw attention, as we did in the book, to the distorting effects of consumerist culture of sovereign choice that prevails in the West now. I would hasten to add that we, too, are caught up in this culture, so I don’t want to point any figures that don’t ultimately point back at me as well. At the same time, I do believe that the Protestant capacity for an authentic ecclesial parsing of today’s questions about gender and sexuality is significantly impaired. The same is true, I would say, for both Catholics and Orthodox but to a lesser extent based on our relatively more solid grounding in Tradition and history.

AD: The former Lutheran Richard John Neuhaus, who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1991, wrote an article in First Things in January 1997 that greatly influenced me: "The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy." 

There he argued that those trying to preserve "orthodox" doctrine and "catholic" sensibility in liturgy within Protestant traditions were fighting a losing battle. Only Orthodoxy and Catholicism, he argued, could guarantee orthodoxy and catholicity. What are your thoughts on this? Should various "continuing" movements within Anglicanism or Lutheranism abandon the fight and just become Orthodox or Catholic?

ROEBER: Well I think Mattox and I both clearly were part of the “evangelical catholic” part of Lutheranism and over and over again we saw pastors lose these battles since there is no broad consensus within any of the Protestant churches about letting the law of worship establish the law of faith—not as a set of propositions or dogmatic statements, but with the Eucharist at the very centre of the Church’s life. And in that sense, Father Richard was of course correct.

MATTOX:  Ditto to Gregg’s remarks, but at the same time, though, I would express my reticence to endorse a general principle like that one. History has a way of surprising us all after all.  Still I do agree that the trajectory of capitulation to cultural expectations within Protestantism is unmistakable. Is it also unstoppable? Only time will tell. I still pray for, and with, my many friends in the Lutheran tradition who struggle to retain their historic hold on the catholic faith. My decision for “individual conversion,” however, should be seen as an appeal for others to do the same, providing, of course, they can do so in good conscience.  

AD: What has been the biggest surprise for you in entering the Catholic/Orthodox Church?

ROEBER: I suppose getting used to all the implications behind understanding God’s relationship to His creation and to the Orthodox teaching on sin, which holds that it is a sickness we’re being cured of and that the trampling down of death involves the renewal of the cosmos and can’t be reduced to “my” salvation alone. It’s in the liturgical life of the Church that one learns this more than from study in the usual sense. It takes time to see in the teaching of the iconographic tradition that the glory of God really is made manifest in humans who are fully alive and aware of that presence in themselves and in each person. Moreover, despite the appearance of rigid customs and practices, there’s a remarkable freedom that comes from the Orthodox reluctance to define or dogmatize unless forced to do so; and all of these surprises occur not, perhaps, in any particular order and depending on what one brings to the Orthodox faith.

MATTOX: I have been very pleasantly surprised by the open arms with which the Catholic faithful have received me as one of them. I am deeply grateful for that.

AD: I have numerous friends who have traveled out of Protestantism and then gotten stuck at the fork in the road: to Rome or to Constantinople? Is it possible to tell how you each answered that question—or is it the sort of thing, as Cardinal Newman famously said, that cannot be answered “between the soup and the fish”?

ROEBER: That is too long and difficult a question to answer briefly—indeed it’s what the book is about. For myself, I had already suffered a crisis of faith in Catholicism so Orthodoxy was quite simply the only option.

MATTOX: I agree with Gregg. The book is our answer to that question of how the two of us, when we were at those very crossroads, decided for different paths. I am struck, however, by how very much we will have in common, and how united we are in pursuing the unity of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition. My own decision for Catholicism reflects perhaps most fundamentally my deeply Augustinian of the shape of the Christian pilgrimage.

AD: When I was thinking about becoming Catholic, I talked to Stanley Hauerwas about it, and he raised a question I could not answer satisfactorily: would not such a move still be predicated on the notion of the autonomy and authority of the individual ("choice") to decide matters of truth, the very problem, on a larger scale, that some see bedeviling Protestantism in general? How would you tackle that question?

ROEBER: Yes, of course, there’s an individual accountability for choosing, but both of us have emphasized that we did so with an acute sense of our responsibility for our spouses and children, and I’d have to add that the example of others who had chosen likewise suggested—to both of us, I think—that this was not a move that we were making alone: we were part of a much larger pattern of choices being made by other Christians struggling to be faithful.

MATTOX: Okay, now I’m really glad I let Gregg answer first. I agree with him completely that this was anything but the last gasp of autonomous ecclesial individualism. I reject that criticism utterly as a dodge that seems to have as its point simply to render such a move impossible, out of bounds. For my own part, I well know the long history of conversions out of Protestantism and into Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and I was inspired by their examples and courage. Notably, the conversions of two noted Lutherans, Reinhard Hütter and Bruce Marshall, just prior to my own conversion, were communally validating decisions that stiffened my own resolve to just go ahead and do the right thing, and figure the rest out afterwards. I would also say, paraphrasing Augustine a bit, that I would not have come into full communion if the Catholic Church had not moved me by its authority.

AD: Some Catholic observers (e.g., Aidan Nichols
have said for some time that the ecumenical dialogue that must have pride of place for Catholics is that with Orthodoxy because both churches are already very close to one another and this dialogue is the one with the greatest prospect of actual unity. In other words, the prospect of unity between Catholicism or Orthodoxy on the one hand, and mainline Protestants on the other, recedes further into the future every year. What are your thoughts on that?

ROEBER: Our book does I think pretty clearly indicate that Orthodox-Catholic dialogue is the pressing issue and that’s where the attention of both is focused internationally and in particular countries. But it would not be accurate to suggest that these two parties are in fact “close” or that resolution of schism is imminent. The problems are acute, and there are different strains within both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches who would emphasize pessimism or indifference on the one hand, and optimism on the other.

MATTOX: That’s correct. At the same time, I think both Gregg and I are much heartened by the work of the dialogue commissions, and of scholars like you and Olivier Clément in trying to press the discussion forward. In the course of writing this book, Gregg reminded me that the authority of the Church at Rome was originally built upon its prestige as the Church in which the two great martyrs, Peter and Paul, had shed their blood for the cause of Christ. With that reality in mind, we are both hopeful at the prospects for an ecclesial reunion in the future that the Spirit may give, one that will bring change of a certain sort to all sides.

AD: In an article published in 2000, John Erickson, then-dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary, spoke of some of his students from Eastern Europe who said "when the Soviet Union existed we had to be ecumenical. Now we can be Orthodox." What is behind the hostility towards ecumenism (the "pan-heresy") on the part of some Orthodox today, including those here in North America who never lived in Soviet lands, and also those on Mt. Athos?

ROEBER: The Orthodox in Eastern Europe or the Middle East have historically been on the receiving end of economic and ecclesial pressure and proselytizing for a long time, and their suspicions with regard to Rome tend to run deep. Numerically, of course, the Orthodox in North America are a tiny minority compared to the huge numbers (at least on paper) of Catholics, so a sometimes irrational fear of being overrun tends to make some voices in Orthodoxy sound a bit hysterical. By “pan-heresy,” of course, what the Orthodox mean is the kind of soft ecumenism that tends toward dismissing the hard questions that have divided the Churches and encouraged the notion that the Churches are after all pretty much the same. That there are different ecclesiologies in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches has to be taken seriously, and that has happened to such an extent that both sides do recognize that papal primacy is “the” issue that has to be resolved before the schism has a chance of being healed.

AD: The late Pope John Paul II pushed so hard for Christian unity, above all in Ut Unum Sint, and some have have said that at the end of his life his greatest regret was not seeing full unity with Orthodoxy. Do you think that such full unity between Catholics and Orthodox is a realistic prospect this century?

ROEBER: Probably not since the Orthodox have stated repeatedly that while they need to re-examine their own understanding of primacy and get clear on just what that means (and it means a lot more than a tip of the ha toward a particular patriarch), the biggest change is the one facing Rome—so much will depend on both sides continuing to be clear and consistent about what they mean by the word “primacy.”

MATTOX: Well, I would point to universal papal jurisdiction as the crucial issue. About that I think there is reason to hope for a significant rapprochement between East and West. What the next century brings in Catholic-Orthodox unity, however, may depend more on what grave challenges the future holds in store for the Christian faith. Nothing is more unifying for the Church than external hostility and persecution. I’m not pretending to have a crystal ball here, but the way the Lord leads us into unity may involve the cross and suffering in imitation of His own path.

AD: Most responsible theologians today say that major obstacles to Orthodox-Catholic unity (e.g., the filioque) have either been resolved or are no longer regarded as church-dividing. The only major obstacle left is the papacy, which I address in my own book, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity (Notre Dame, 2011). Some have said to me that I'm too optimistic and that there are all kinds of problems still to be worked out. What are your thoughts on this?

ROEBER: That your book was ingenious, a work of love, and that you should be congratulated—but, yes, that your proposed solution is too optimistic!

MATTOX: I believe that your work was just the kind of courageous exploration and proposal required to press the conversation forward between Catholics and Orthodox. Speaking more or less off the cuff, it seems to me that papal infallibility in terms of ultimate authority in doctrinal decisions will prove less a barrier to unity than papal jurisdiction. As Brian Daley and Susan Wood have argued, papal primacy has to mean something more than a primacy of honor. How far it may prove possible for Orthodox to embrace papal involvement in the affairs of the patriarchates, and how far the Catholic Church will be willing to develop its own tradition and understanding of the papacy in a consensual direction remains to be seen. I do think good will on all sides and hard theological work coupled with a spirit of genuine repentance holds out hope for real progress.

AD: Thank you very much. Sum up briefly, if you would, your hopes for your book and what you were trying to convey:

ROEBER: That Orthodox, Catholics, Lutherans, and other Christians will learn a good deal more about each of the traditions that they thought they knew and move beyond trite and easy mischaracterizations of each other admitting both what is good and what needs to be the subject of continued repentance and growth toward the unity that is demanded by Christ, the head of the Church.

MATTOX: All of the above. Plus, I’d like Martin Luther to become a meaningful conversation-partner, not just a convenient foil, for both Catholic and Orthodox theology today. 

The Spirit and Soul of Origen

Elizabeth Ann Divley Lauro, who has written for North America's leading scholarly revue of Eastern Christianity, Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, has added to the ever-burgeoning study of the great Origen of Alexandria with her The Soul and Spirit of Scripture within Origen's Exegesis (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 266pp.

About this book we are told:
Elizabeth Ann Dively Lauro discusses the theologian Origen's employment of three distinct senses of scriptural meaning within his exegetical theory and practice: somatic (bodily, factually historical), psychic (pertaining to the soul, a figurative call to shun vice and grow in virtue), and pneumatic (spiritual, revealing God's plan of salvation through Christ's Incarnation). Lauro first establishes that a correct understanding of the mechanics of Origen's exegesis is vital to an informed reading of his works, then cites Origen's theoretical foundations for each sense. She ultimately demonstrates how the relationship between the two "higher senses" (psychic and pneumatic) is central to Origen's exegetical efforts and facilitates his audience's spiritual transformation. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Persecuted Church Past and Present

With the recent news of a demented and demonic Saudi fatwa demanding the destruction of all churches in the Arab peninsula, one is confronted yet again with the ugly intolerance of Islam and its willingness to countenance violence towards those it deems its enemies. Eastern Christians have, for more than a thousand years, been on the front-lines of such barbaric treatment. As the old saying has it: plus ça change, la plus c'est la même chose. 

When it comes to the question of Christian persecution, there has never been a period in history when it has not been going on, often on a vast scale; but the last one hundred years saw more persecution and suffering than many other centuries combined. World Watch's 2011 report on the 50 worst countries for persecution of Christians makes for very grim reading. Much of that suffering befalls Eastern Christians, often in Islamic territories. E.g., how many people are aware that almost a million Christians have been forced to flee Iraq since the war started in 2003? How many people realize that the so-called Arab Spring has brought not life but death to many Coptic Christians, forcing well over 100,000 of them to flee? Where is the outrage?

A new book examines cases of persecution in our time: Baroness Cox and Benedict Rogers, Very Stones Cry Out: The Persecuted Church: Pain, Passion and Praise (Continuum, 2011), 168pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. Many face widespread and systematic persecution. The Very Stones Cry Out is a passionate challenge to the rest of the Church, and all advocates of religious freedom, to break their silence on this issue. Baroness Cox presents graphic photographs and survivors' accounts as testimony to widespread destruction, and provides powerful documentary evidence of contemporary persecution. Featuring contributions from those with on the ground experience of the nations concerned, this book details the impact that sustained persecution has on individuals, families and communities. In doing so, it provides a moving account of resilience in the face of destruction, and joy in spite of trials, making this a book that is as much about celebration as it is about challenge.
While taking a global perspective, the book focuses on countries with large Eastern Christian populations, including Egypt (ch. 5), India (6), Iran (8), and Iraq (9).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

New Greek Father Discovered!

Is it cruel and unusual punishment for you to be asked to wait until June to learn about a newly discovered Greek Father? Surely such exciting news should be heralded by immediate trumpet blasts and rushed to the presses of the world for immediate dissemination? But if you have learned nothing else during Great Lent, at least let it be a bit of patience which shall be rewarded soon enough with the publication of P. Tzamalikos, A Newly Discovered Greek Father: Cassian the Sabaite Eclipsed by John Cassian of Marseilles (Vigiliae Christianae, Supplements, Brill, 2012), 505pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This is a critical edition of texts of Codex 573 (ninth century, Monastery of Metamorphosis, Meteora, Greece), which are published along with the monograph identifying The Real Cassian, in the same series. They cast light on Cassian the Sabaite, a sixth century highly erudite intellectual, whom Medieval forgery replaced with John Cassian. The texts are of high philological, theological, and philosophical value, heavily pregnant with notions characteristic of eminent Greek Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa. They are couched in a distinctly technical Greek language, which has ameaningful record in Eastern patrimony, but mostly makes no sense in Latin, which is impossible to have been their original language. The Latin texts currently attributed to John Cassian, the Scythian of Marseilles, are heavily interpolated translations of this Greek original by Cassian the Sabaite, native of Scythopolis, who is identified with Pseudo-Caesarius and the author of Pseudo Didymus' De Trinitate.

Byzantine Architecture

Mark Johnson, Robert Ousterhout, Amy Papalexandrou, eds., Approaches to Byzantine Architecture and its Decoration (Ashgate, 2012), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The fourteen essays in this collection demonstrate a wide variety of approaches to the study of Byzantine architecture and its decoration, a reflection of both newer trends and traditional scholarship in the field. The variety is also a reflection of Professor Curcic's wide interests, which he shares with his students. These include the analysis of recent archaeological discoveries; recovery of lost monuments through archival research and onsite examination of material remains; reconsidering traditional typological approaches often ignored in current scholarship; fresh interpretations of architectural features and designs; contextualization of monuments within the landscape; tracing historiographic trends; and, mining neglected written sources for motives of patronage. The papers also range broadly in terms of chronology and geography, from the Early Christian through the post-Byzantine period and from Italy to Armenia. Three papers examine Early Christian monuments, and of these two expand the inquiry into their architectural afterlives. Others discuss later monuments in Byzantine territory and monuments in territories related to Byzantium such as Serbia, Armenia, and Norman Italy. No Orthodox church being complete without interior decoration, two papers discuss issues connected frescoes in late medieval Balkan churches. Finally, one study investigates the continued influence of Byzantine palace architecture long after the fall of Constantinople.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Constantine Reconsidered

I noted a recent book on Constantine that we had expertly reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies last year by the Byzantine historian Daniel Larison. Now another collection has come out examining Constantine's influence and legacy: Noel Lenski, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge Companions to the Ancient World), 2nd ed (CUP, 2012), 550pp. 

About this book the publisher says:
The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine offers students a comprehensive one-volume survey of this pivotal emperor and his times. Richly illustrated and designed as a readable survey accessible to all audiences, it also achieves a level of scholarly sophistication and a freshness of interpretation that will be welcomed by the experts.
If you click through to Amazon, you can access the table of contents to this collection. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bulgakov on Images and the Divine Name

I have noted on previous occasions the ongoing interest in Sergius Bulgakov, aided in no small measure by Eerdmans commendable willingness to continue publishing English translations of his work. Just last month, they brought out another one, translated (as many others have been) by Boris Jakim: Sergius Bulgakov, Icons and the Name of God, trans. Boris Jakim (Eerdmans, 2012), 208pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In Orthodox theology both the icon and the name of God transmit divine energies, theophanies, or revelations that imprint God's image within us. In Icons and the Name of God renowned Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov explains the theology behind the Orthodox veneration of icons and the glorification of the name of God. In the process Bulgakov covers two major controversies — the iconoclastic controversy (sixth to eighth centuries) and the "Name of God" controversy (early twentieth century) — and explains his belief that an icon stops being merely a religious painting and becomes sacred when it is named. This translation of two essays "The Icon and Its Veneration" and "The Name of God" — available in English for the first time — makes Bulgakov's rich thinking on these key theological concepts available to a wider audience than ever before.
I look forward to seeing this reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

Christian Law Ascending

In the coming weeks, I hope to feature an interview with the incredibly prolific scholar John McGuckin about his latest book: Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2012).

About this book the publisher tells us:

This work asks the question: "What did Christianity do to build a civilization"? In the present age, law has been used energetically to micro-manage human societies, values, and aspirations. But did l aw work that way in antiquity? This little book is some form of answer. It is a book on law and legal thought as it emerged in its formative ages of the Christian past; it asks what the ancient writers and theorists did with law and legal thought. It is part history, part philosophy, and more than anything else an introduction to issues of law and legal adjudication in t he Patristic and Byzantine eras. 

Byzantine Canon Law

Study of Eastern canon law lags considerably behind Western law, so it is heartening to see the publication this month of Wilfried Hartmann and Kenneth Pennington, eds., The History of Byzantine and Eastern Canon Law to 1500 (History of Medieval Canon Law) (CUA Press, 2012), 400pp. 

About this book the publisher, Catholic University of America Press, tells us:
This newest volume in the History of Medieval Canon Law series surveys the history of Byzantine and Eastern canon law. Beginning in the Patristic Age, Susan Wessel outlines the evolution of ecclesiastical law before the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). She covers the earliest documents and councils in the Christian tradition, and concludes that the councils replaced other sources of authority as bishops moved to a more democratic model of church organization.Heinz Ohme then offers a detailed analysis of the Greek councils and the writings of the Greek Fathers. He treats the sources of canonical material of Byzantine canon law down to the Quinisext Council (Trullanum, 692). Spyros Troianos presents a comprehensive survey of the Greek canonical collections and their compilers from the fourth to the eleventh century. In extending his coverage to 1500, Troianos provides bibliographical and biographical information about the most important Byzantine canonists who remain virtually unknown in English language literature: John Zonaras, Alexios Aristenos, and the Byzantine Gratian, Theodore Balsamon.With Hubert Kaufhold's contribution, the book also explores the wide range and variety of law in Eastern Christian communities, including Western Syrians (Jacobites), the Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians, Georgians, Nestorians, and Maronites.
About the Editors: Wilfried Hartmann is emeritus professor of the medieval history of canon law at the University of Tübingen. Kenneth Pennington is Kelly-Quinn Professor of Ecclesiastical and Legal History at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of numerous works including Pope and Bishops: Study of the Papal Monarchy in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (The Middle Ages) and The Prince and the Law, 1200-1600: Sovereignty and Rights in the Western Legal Tradition (A Centennial Book)Hartmann and Pennington are coeditors of the History of Medieval Canon Law series.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mark and Elizabeth Barna on Dying and the Dead

Earlier I drew attention to a new book about the ars moriendi: Mark and Elizabeth Barna, A Christian Ending: a Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition (Divine Ascent Press, 2011), xii+169pp. I asked both authors for an interview, and here are their thoughts:

AD: Tell us about both your backgrounds

I was baptized in a little Carpatho Russian Orthodox Church in the coal mining village of Elkhorn, WV, in 1954. The same year, Elizabeth was baptized Roman Catholic. Her father was a college professor, so they moved around a bit until settling in Pennsylvania. Her mother’s family was primarily Mormon. She spent every summer with her maternal grandparents and became quite familiar with the Mormon sect. My hometown was four hours distant from the church where I was baptized, and there were none closer, so I was raised in a local Methodist church.

Being children of the 60’s and coming of age in the early 70’s, our formative years were quite turbulent. To our continuing surprise, when we decided to get married, the first question we asked ourselves was “which church”? So, in our effort to decide, we read the book of Mormon and visited a Catholic church with her dad, to no avail. We finally settled on the Orthodox Church for a variety of reasons. We were married on our farm by two priests of the Antiochian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church. The farm burned not long after the birth of our second son. We were homeless for a year with two babies and two dogs until we finally settled back into the suburbs. We were both active in our church.

There I became one of the first trained English chanters in the Antiochian Archdiocese. We started a business in a large urban mall, ran it for six and half years then went bankrupt, lost everything again and finally moved to Charleston, SC where Elizabeth had a job opportunity. Here we joined the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity. I continued chanting some of the services and became the campus minister for the Orthodox cadets at The Citadel. Since then we’ve helped establish two Orthodox missions in the Charleston area; one for the Antiochian Archdiocese and one for the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). I was ordained deacon in Holy Ascension Orthodox Church (OCA) in 2006 and still serve there today. This is about where the story picks up in the introduction to A Christian Ending with the death of Elizabeth’s mother and our growing interest in hospice care.

AD: What led you to write this book in particular?

Over the years my discomfort with the American funeral industry led me to explore burial in an Orthodox Christian context.

Clearly, it is an important part of life and we want to do it right. To my surprise, I had accumulated a good amount of information on traditional Christian burial. One day I mentioned this to Fr. John Parker and half joking, told him to find a seminarian in need of a thesis and I’d turn my files over to him to write a book. He said, “No, you do it.” “A Christian Ending” started out as a simple instruction manual for preparing a body for burial. The first draft was simply a step by step, hands-on description of how to prepare a body for burial. We wrote it specifically for Orthodox Christians and therefore took a lot of basic Christian knowledge for granted. Our later experiences led us to include information on legal matters; dealing with the coroner, hospitals, and nursing homes; and mobilizing parishioners to help. Later we included some short chapters on the evolution of funerals. Realizing that natural burial is becoming popular with the new-age and "green" folks, we added a chapter of some basic theology for the non-Orthodox or non-Christian reader as a form of outreach.

The first opportunity we had to use our own instruction manual was for a dear friend and parishioner who died unexpectedly. It was a great shock to us all. We went to the morgue to prepare his body and everything went “by the book.” Everyone involved with that first “in-house” funeral was so touched by it that we knew we would continue. Another thing really struck me. The director of the Medical University morgue told me as we were leaving, “We’ve had Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in here. You’re the first Christians.” That struck me as very sad: “You’re the first Christians.” We of all people, the people of the Cross and the martyrs, have not been taking care of our own departed brethren in an intimate, traditional way as other cultures and religions do. What kind of witness is that?

During the preparation procedure we had been reading selections from the psalms, so we developed a small service of prayers and readings to use specifically during the preparation of the body for burial. The readings typically last about as long as the preparation and were included in the book for ease of use. The book was not written for profit or notoriety, but simply to make what we have learned available to the Church and any others who are interested. To us it just makes sense that we should render this final service to our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. We have done this for friends, family, and complete strangers. We have also trained other people, including those we would never expect who have insisted on preparing their loved ones themselves. Everyone who has been involved has been touched and greatly moved by the power and simplicity of this simple service.

AD: How has your Orthodox faith had an impact on your own work with the dying and the dead?

I don’t think we would be doing this if it were not for our faith. This is not something Elizabeth and I would have chosen to do. I was trained as an artist and spent many years as an industrial/technical photographer. Elizabeth has worked in both healthcare and the hospitality industry. Orthodoxy has taught us that all that we have is a gift from God. Growing in the faith, we continue to learn to seek the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and to conform ourselves to the image and likeness of Christ. This inevitably leads to a life of thanksgiving and offering. If I know that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot make my heart beat one more time, how can I get puffed up about what I have accomplished or accumulated in my life? If every heartbeat is a gift then certainly everything else is too. So what can you do with that, but offer it back to God with thanksgiving. One offering we make is serving others. We always knew we would be the ones to care for our parents in their old age.

We didn’t know we would have three of them living with us for six years. Initially, my interest in natural burial was purely selfish. I was motivated by my own desire not to be embalmed and to find a legal way to do that, other than cremation, which is not Orthodox. However, when I discovered that natural burial is truly the proper ancient Orthodox Christian form of burial I felt obliged to share that knowledge with others. Our Lord Jesus Christ and Christian love both give us the strength to overcome primal fears, superstitions, and our own squeamishness. It gives us the strength to serve others in most any capacity. We can do things we never thought possible before--such as changing a mother’s diapers a thousand times or caring for dad’s catheter and feeding tube, even washing and anointing their bodies for burial.

AD: Since the 1960s at least, as the books of Jessica Mitford and Evelyn Waugh both make clear, North Americans seem to have been deeply conflicted about death--or even, as Ernest Becker argued in his 1974 book The Denial of Death, plainly in denial about it. What factors help to explain our culture's denial and conflicts over death?

I am not a sociologist. I’m just a guy who didn’t want to be embalmed. I agree that it is clear we are mostly in denial of our own impending death. We discuss a bit of the history of the funeral industry in the book. Industrialization, urbanization, the increase and improvement of hospital care and the development of the funeral industry all had an impact on our culture’s estrangement from the daily reality of death. America is a very materialistic society. Our culture is all about the acquisition of bigger and better, all-new, super-fantastic, whiz-bang stuff. We are trained from birth to be consumers and, if we want to really be successful, inventors of the “next big thing.” Our culture worships youth and disposes of the old. It worships youth so much that our laws are willing to sacrifice the next generation of young so as not to inconvenience the current generation of youth. America no longer has any cultural reverence for the wisdom of age like we see in many other cultures. The world has passed through the post-Christian age and, as it enters the anti-Christian age, the hunger for stuff has replaced any understanding of the acquisition of virtue.

You may have seen the bumper sticker that reads, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Wins what? He’s still dead. Then what? Generally our society doesn’t even want to consider “what then.” We want it all and we want it now. If all of life is about more and more stuff, power, ambition and pleasure, then naturally you don’t want to think about what comes after. Death marks the end of our existence and our ambitions. It is the ultimate defeat and proof that life is meaningless. We don’t want to think about that. It’s really just so terrifying that denial seems like a valid option.

If losing everything twice in a decade taught Elizabeth and me anything, it was that “it’s just stuff.” It is not at all what is important in life. As Christians our entire life is, or should be, in preparation for our death and judgment. To the Christian death is a defeated enemy. This is the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Death is conquered by the life-giving death of Christ on the cross. By his resurrection from the dead, Christ destroyed the power of death and transformed our death from ultimate annihilation to eternal life in peace, joy, and love. The saints teach us to keep the remembrance of our own death on the very tip of our nose, always right in front of our face. Imagine how different the world would be if everyone was able to do that. The constant remembrance of death is a very sobering and important practice according to the saints. They universally teach that the antidote for the fear of death is the fear of sin. If we were even half as afraid of sinning as we are of dying, we would not sin and therefore would have no fear of death and judgment.

AD: While instinctively respecting the Orthodox prohibition on cremation, I confess that I've not always found the arguments for that tradition very strong, but your own book has helped me to see anew the wisdom of Orthodoxy on this position. Explain for our readers the Orthodox position on cremation and its theological rationale.

I would never presume to speak for the Orthodox Church. I can only speak for myself and my own understanding. I’m a pretty simple-minded fellow. My understanding is that God created us with bodies for a reason. Man was created for an intimate relationship with the creator unlike any of the angels or heavenly hosts. The image in Genesis where God breathed life and spirit into Adam’s nostrils is the picture of a very intimate relationship.

According to scripture, this is the living temple where our creator dwells. It is washed in the sacred waters of Baptism, anointed with Holy Chrism and nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a temple beyond price. Yet, through pride and jealousy we throw away that intimate relationship and desecrate the temple daily. In the history of the early church and the Lives of the Saints we read that the faithful would “rush” to retrieve the bodies of the martyrs, often at the risk of their own lives. They would kiss and caress them, clean and anoint them and give them an honorable burial. The physical remains of the martyrs and all the saints had, and have, value beyond price. We have never thought of the body as a disposable container for the soul. We have never had a dualistic understanding of the body and spirit as separate pieces of the human puzzle. Human beings were created to be a whole being, body and soul. It is sin and death that causes the rupture. The Lord said, “My Holy One shall not see decay.” We have evidence from every age, all around the world that his words are true. All over the world there are incorrupt, often wonder-working remains of saints. Obviously, these are very valuable relics that would not be with us today if they had been destroyed by cremation. As an Orthodox Christian, my entire life is supposed to be a reflection of our Lord’s own extreme humility. It is to be lived humbly and selflessly as an offering of love. Each day I try to place my whole life completely in God’s hands and trust Him to guide me in the way wherein I should walk. I trust Him with my life, my breath and my heart beat. Can I not trust Him to properly dispose of His own earthly temple? In that regard, cremation is my final act of pride. By choosing to have my body burned, I decide what will happen to my remains, not God.

AD: Anecdotally, I've seen a trend growing in the past decade or so, as more and more North Americans seem to be eschewing funerals entirely. Many obituaries today say things like "At Mr. Smith's request, no visitation or service will be held" or "Sophia asked for no services but for family and friends to gather for a drink at the Fox and Hound Pub in her honor." Is this a trend you see, and if so, what do you think is behind it?

That type of thing is alien to everything Orthodox Christians understand about funerals. The funeral is not for the deceased, it’s for the living. I can understand a person not wanting to cause their loved ones the stress of dealing with a funeral, but that is just a fundamental misunderstanding of what the funeral is for. A funeral is for the living to show honor, pay tribute and say goodbye to the deceased. We’ve been doing this since prehistoric times. It is, in some ways, the climax or culmination of the grieving process. In other ways it is just the beginning of that process. Either way, without it we are short-changed.

In the Orthodox funeral service the body is censed several times. There is a great censing where the body, the altar, the people, and the entire church are censed. The great censing is always an act of union, essentially, circling the entire church in a ring of smoke, a sacrifice rising up to God. This act of including the deceased in the typical great censing of the temple is a unifying movement. It is a reminder to all that the deceased is still a member of our body. At the end of the service, our last act is to kiss the body of the deceased as we did when we greeted them in life. I can’t understand anyone wanting to willingly give that up.

AD: I don't know if you have read the work of Fr. Cyprian Hutcheon, whose 2003 doctoral dissertation is entitled "From Lamentation to Alleluia : An Interpretation of the Theology of the Present-Day Byzantine-Rite Funeral Service analyzed through its Practical Relationship to Bereaved Persons." Hutcheon is now a priest of the OCA in Canada, and has for years worked as a physician also. (Details about him are here.) He makes a quite convincing argument that the Byzantine funeral obtains a marvelous balance between mourning and grief on the one hand ("lamentation"), and joy in the resurrection ("alleluia") on the other. Do you see that balance? What other resources besides the funeral does Orthodox Christianity offer to people struggling with death?

Oh yes, without question. The Holy Fathers understood human psychology better than anyone today. Why shouldn’t they. They were in intimate communion with the inventor of human beings and human psychology. Our memorial services are prescribed for the third, ninth and fortieth day and then again on the first and third anniversary. Psychologists have since proven that these are precisely the periods which are milestones in the grieving process. The Church knows us better than we know ourselves.

The very first funeral that we directed was an excellent example of what we claim an Orthodox funeral should be, and more importantly, should do. Our friend Zoran died quite unexpectedly as he was leaving the hospital after a short stay. He left three beautiful teenaged orphans as his wife had died several years before. He had no resources so we quickly pooled ours to bury him. Our church donated a casket, prepared his body at the hospital morgue, put it in the back of a parishioner’s Suburban and transported him to another parishioner’s farm for burial while other friends dug the grave. The location is an ideal spot on a tidal creek with a small chapel on the property. Even though Zoran had recently expanded the chapel, it was too small for the casket so we set up outside. When the kids arrived it was terrible. His two daughters clutched each other and screamed when they saw him lying there. The memory of it makes it very hard to tell you about it. They wailed so loud and long that the service was delayed. We were all there, the choir and the people, waiting until we could calm them. There was no consolation. It broke everyone’s heart. Finally, as soon as the service started, they were calmed. They sat weeping but not wailing. During the service, even the sky cried; raining just enough to wet our sheet music with drops.

At the end, we kissed his body.
There was more weeping but not like before. We carried the casket the hundred yards or so to the grave, said the graveside prayers, lowered the casket and filled in the grave. As is traditional, the sisters and their brother helped fill the grave. Then we went back to the house for a mercy meal and remembrances of our old friend. By the time we left there Zoran’s kids were smiling and laughing remembering their father. We knew it would be hard, but they would be ok. That’s what a funeral is supposed to do.

AD: You argue that "burial without a coffin is still the best option" (p. 36). This may be quite a surprise to many today. Why do you say that?

For ages that’s the way it was done. Boxes only came into use when it became necessary to carry a body some distance for burial. When the family was buried in the back yard there was no need for a box. Boxes cost money and take time to make. A burial shroud or winding sheet was all that was needed. Boxes rot and collapse, then the earth subsides. It’s kind of messy if you think about it. The idea is for the body to be in contact with the earth. Christians are not as strict about this as the Jews who still drill holes in the bottom of the coffin. The concept is sound though. Dust to dust. The traditional Christian burial gown is a baptismal robe with no pockets, signifying our hope in the resurrection and our total dependence upon God. Once in contact with the earth it is up to God to determine what happens next.

AD: You argue that "death...is an evangelical opportunity" (p.58). Say more about that. Can it be a vehicle for spreading the gospel in a culture so in denial of death?

Yes I do believe that. An example of that is what the director of the morgue told me about our being the first Christians in his morgue. That really struck me. In all the years the morgue has been operating, the only Christians to claim a body there were professional funeral directors. The morgue staff themselves have been very receptive and impressed by what we do. They ask a lot of questions and have been very helpful. The way we face death says a lot about the way we lived our lives. The love of Christ and the hope of the resurrection give one great hope and courage. Millions of people were converted to Christianity by the brave witness of the early martyrs. Often, people who watched the Christians being tortured and martyred were so impressed that they immediately believed in Christ and offered themselves up as martyrs. Clearly, death can be a great witness to the truth, power and love of Jesus Christ in a pagan world.

In addition, people are starving for a sense of community. Seeing a group of people caring for one another in such a loving, intimate way says “community” better than any billboard, television ad, or Facebook page ever could. We have a petition we pray in every service for “a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and peaceful, and a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.” We try to live our lives as a witness of the peace and joy He brings when He comes to live in us. Our death and the loving respect we show our deceased should be a continuation of that witness.

Last Judgment Icon, St. Elias Church, Brampton, Ontario
AD: In reading some of your practical suggestions (e.g., obtaining dry ice and using it for preservation of a corpse), I thought that some of this kind of work may require more work than individuals are really capable of doing. But that's part of your argument, is it not, that caring for the dead is really a parish-wide or community function? And that "clergy must be willing to discuss this subject openly with the whole church" (p.103). Are clergy doing that? Are there many Orthodox communities ready and willing to assume these responsibilities?
We have had a very good response to our book. People are certainly interested; both clergy and laity. Some clergy are taking the lead with their communities. In other churches lay people are taking the lead with the support of the clergy. The effort will vary depending on the character of the particular community. I do feel that the enthusiastic support of the clergy is essential for success. In the book we discuss mobilizing the entire parish as the ideal situation. We realize the ideal may be achieved in different degrees by different communities. There is really nothing complicated, difficult, or time-consuming about the preparation of a body for burial. We found our source for dry ice at a local supermarket. Then we put together a preparation kit before we needed it. Now all we have to do is grab the kit and stop by the supermarket on the way. I do believe that, if we claim we are The Body of Christ and we say we are a community, then we should celebrate the life and death of our members as a community. We are not called to be a loose association of individuals who find themselves in the same place at the same time every week. We pray in every litany of every service, “let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.” Just as the sin of one member affects the whole Body, the death of any member has an impact on the entire community. It is important for our community to recognize this reality and respond to it as a unified, loving body. We fall short of the ideal daily. But we continue to strive for it.

An in-house funeral can be a great community builder. Not everyone has to be hands-on dealing with the corpse. It only takes three people about forty-five minutes to prepare a body for burial. But preparing a funeral is quite another thing. As we describe in the book, there are plenty of other things to do. We have several people in our parish that have volunteered to help preparing a body. We have also had families in which everyone pitched in to prepare the body and couldn’t thank us enough for the opportunity. We have been doing this for about eight years. We’ve prepared over a dozen bodies of friends, family, and strangers. Still, our burial fellowship consists of Elizabeth, Fr. John, and me. We have not quite reached the ideal.

AD: What other books or articles have been especially instrumental in shaping your views and practices? What books would you recommend for Christians trying to come to grips with death, both practically and theologically?

We’ve included a pretty complete bibliography in A Christian Ending.

My first recommendation is the Holy Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints. The more familiar we are with them the better prepared we are for anything. I prefer the Great Collection of the Lives of Saints from Chrysostom Press but there are other good collections. I’d also recommend the funeral orations of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great. Also, St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies Concerning the Statues can be helpful. The noted professor and bioethicist, Fr. John Breck has written extensively on these issues in his books: The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and BioethicsGod With Us: Critical Issues in Christian Life and Faith; and Stages on Life's Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics. They are very helpful. There are numerous other articles on his website. I’d also recommend The Mystery of Death by Nicholaos P. Vassiliadis.

In conclusion, thank you very much for this opportunity. You may hear another interview with the authors at: Ancient Faith Radio here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm (I)

On the plane to Los Angeles last week and the fantastic Huffington Institute's 2012 symposium on Pan-Orthodoxy in North America, organized by the liturgical theologian and OCA deacon Nicholas Denysenko, I finally had a chance to dive into a book I've wanted to read for some time: Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasmtrans. J.M. Todd (University of Chicago Press, 2000 [2009]). 

The French original, published in 1994 as L'Image interdite: une histoire intellectuelle de l'iconoclasme, received wide acclaim, and justly so. This book is a magnificent survey of iconoclasm and iconodulia, starting with the philosophers Cicero, Aristotle, Plotinus, and especially Plato in the antique period; and, in the modern period, Hegel looms large. In his first chapter, on the philosophical history of images, the author notes that Plato is both "the father of iconoclasm" and also "the father of iconophilia." 

Along the way, Besançon examines the theological arguments for and against the use of images in Christianity, with a comparative glance at Judaism and Islam. Of these latter two he says, interestingly, that Judaism has to forbid images (the Greek eidolon for "idol" in the LXX apparently translates 30 different Hebrew terms) because God is so close to His people in the covenant that iconoclasm was almost a relief valve, a way of escaping from Him who is "everywhere present and filling all things" (as Byzantine Christians say of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Monday):  At the root of "iconoclasm, whether Christian or Jewish, is the overwhelming feeling of divine transcendence" (131). 

Of Islam he says there is no such problem: the God of the Quran is so far distant, so aloof, so transcendentally uninterested in being part of the world that the Quran does not even think to say anything about images. Islamic iconoclasm, then, must look to other sources for arguments and justification, chiefly the hadiths of the post-Mohammad period. 

The author examines four Fathers of the Church for their theology of images: Irenaeus, Origen (about whom, agreeing with Henri Crouzel's judgment, he says that the condemnations are virtually worthless), Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. He never really explains why he focuses on these four other than saying apologetically he could not entertain all the patristic literature because it is so immense nobody can account for it. But it is more than passing curious why his list does not include such paramount figures as John of Damascus and Theodore of Studion, though these two will be briefly mentioned passim. 

Besançon notes that the usual argument put forward by Orthodox Christians justifying icons in terms of the Incarnation does little to solve the problem of iconoclasm: "the theological resolution of the problem, which entails a reaffirmation of the Incarnation, does not of itself guarantee that the image expresses and realizes the goal of the incarnation" (3). He also notes that the East and West will handle these problems by generating a different theology: "the Roman Church refused to view the image from the same metaphysical perspective as did the Greek Church" (4). 

When he gets to his third chapter on Christian arguments about images, Besançon begins by noting that the causes of iconoclasm "were so complex that they can dishearten the sage historian." He lists at least six: 
  • imperial agrarian policy attacking monasteries (because they were large, wealthy, and major centres of production of icons)
  • imperial centralizing policy
  • imperial religious policy on the Church-state divide, and the Rome-Constantinople divide
  • imperial foreign policy
  • Islam
  • and of course dogmatic arguments.
Besançon's treatment of the theological or dogmatic arguments draws heavily on Christoph von Schönborn, L’Icône du Christ : Fondements théologiques (Éditions Universitaires, Fribourg, 1976), published in English in 1994 by Ignatius Press as God's Human Face: The Christ-Icon.

In reviewing the arguments over the Incarnation, Cyril of Alexandria looms large here even if, in the author's words, "he was a dreadful person" (119)--or, as the great historian Robert Taft, not discussed here, has put it, Cyril was undeniably a thug. (Newman put it more delicately in noting that Cyril's sanctity could not be deduced from his actions!) Others of importance who are briefly reviewed include of course the great Athanasius as well as Maximus the Confessor. 

When he comes to the arguments of the early Byzantine iconoclasts, he notes that they did not forbid all art, but only certain types. The more iconoclasm succeeds in destroying Christian imagery, the more it also succeeds in reestablishing "pagan" art across the empire. 

In response to iconoclasm, the decrees of Nicaea II in 787 are "minimalist" and leave many questions unanswered. Nicaea II posits a balance that will forever elude most Christians: that between "the twin errors of iconolatry and iconoclasm. But it takes a considerable effort to remain upright on the precarious summit between them and not to slip down either of the opposing slopes....Simply put, in the place of iconophiliac equilibrium, one finds a mixture or unstable juxtaposition of iconolatry and iconoclasty" (142). 

Nicaea II's arguments will also have unintended consequences in different parts of the Church. In the West, he argues that "the poor reception of the Council of Nicaea II 'poisoned Western art at the source'," an argument also mentioned, but not developed, in Joseph Ratzinger's The Spirit of the Liturgy.

In his fourth chapter, on Western treatments of images in the Middle Ages, he notes that the West has been--not surprisingly--much more pragmatic and propadeutic in its assessment and use of images. The key text here, Besançon says, is a letter from Pope Gregory I to Serenus around the year 600 in which the pope makes the argument that icons are tools to instruct the illiterate and those too poor to afford books to read, prompting them to devotion: ex visione rei gestae ardorem componctionis percipiant. In time, this pragmatism will give rise to a greater freedom in the West, which insists far less on the holiness of the iconographer than the East does. Indeed, by the time the West reaches the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it will be accepted by many that beautiful and truthful art may be produced by those who are neither--personal morality, much less sanctity, is scarcely considered. Besançon notes the gains this freedom makes possible, but does not ask the question: what is lost with this approach?

The third part of this book focuses on modern iconoclasm, and here Besançon examines three pivotal figures: Calvin (who seems to substitute snobbery and sneering for serious arguments about images), Pascal, and Kant. Against these three, he will array the different arguments of Hegel, which we will review in due course. 

To be continued. 
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