"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, August 31, 2012

Ottoman Converts and Apostates

We still do not know enough about relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the late Ottoman Empire. In particular, we have conflicting and incomplete accounts of the permissibility, process, and punishment (if any) for those leaving one of those faiths for another, especially for those leaving Islam to become Christians. A new book forthcoming in late September may shed some welcome light here: Selim Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire (Cambridge UP, 2012), 294pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The commonly accepted wisdom is that nationalism replaced religion in the age of modernity. In the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, the focus of this book, traditional religious structures crumbled as the empire itself began to decline. The state's answer to schism was to administer controls and regulations, and it was against this background that religious communities negotiated their survival by converting to Islam when their political interests or their lives were at stake. As the century progressed, however, and as this engaging study illustrates with real-life case-studies, conversion was no longer sufficient to guarantee citizenship as the state became increasingly paranoid about its apostates and what it perceived as their "denationalization." The book tells the story of the struggle for the bodies and the souls of people, waged between the Ottoman State, the Great Powers, and a multitude of evangelical organizations. Many of the stories shed light on current flash-points in the Arab world and the Balkans, offering alternative perspectives on national and religious identity and the interconnection between the two.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Visions of Community

Ashgate has just put into my hands a very hefty tome, a collection of articles--most in English but a few in German--edited by Walter Pohl, Clemens Gantner, and Richard Payne: Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World: The West, Byzantium and the Islamic World, 300-1100 (Ashgate, 2012), 575pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
This volume looks at 'visions of community' in a comparative perspective, from Late Antiquity to the dawning of the age of crusades. It addresses the question of why and how distinctive new political cultures developed after the disintegration of the Roman World, and to what degree their differences had already emerged in the first post-Roman centuries. The Latin West, Orthodox Byzantium and its Slavic periphery, and the Islamic world each retained different parts of the Graeco-Roman heritage, while introducing new elements. For instance, ethnicity became a legitimizing element of rulership in the West, remained a structural element of the imperial periphery in Byzantium, and contributed to the inner dynamic of Islamic states without becoming a resource of political integration. Similarly, the political role of religion also differed between the emerging post-Roman worlds. It is surprising that little systematic research has been done in these fields so far. The 32 contributions of the volume explore this new line of research and look at different aspects of the process, with leading western Medievalists, Byzantinists and Islamicists covering a wide range of pertinent topics. At a closer look, some of the apparent differences between the West and the Islamic world seem less distinctive, and the inner variety of all post-Roman societies becomes more marked. At the same time, new variations in the discourse of community and the practice of power emerge. Anybody interested in the development of the post-Roman Mediterranean, but also in the relationship between the Islamic World and the West, will gain new insights from these studies on the political role of ethnicity and religion in the post-Roman Mediterranean.
In perusing the table of contents, I see numerous articles that will be of interest to scholars interested in Eastern Christian realities and the often vexatious questions of "ethnicity" that dog many Eastern Churches:
  • Bernhard Palme, "Political Identity versus Religious Distinction? The Case of Egypt in the Later Roman Empire," which begins post-Chalcedon
  • Bas ter Haar Romeny, "Ethnicity, Ethnogenesis, and the Identity of Syriac Orthodox Christians"
  • Lynn Jones, "Truth and Lies, Ceremonial and Art: Issues of Nationality in Medieval Armenia"
  • Hartmut Leppin, "Roman Identity in a Border Region: Evagrius and the Defense of the Roman Empire"
  • George Hatke, "Holy Land and Sacred History: a View from early Ethiopia"
  • Ralph-Johannes Lilie, "Zur Stellung von ethnischen und religiösen Minderheiten in Byzanz: Armenier, Muslime und Paulikianer"
  • John Haldon and Hugh Kennedy, "Regional Identities and Military Power: Byzantium and Islam ca. 600-750. 
  • Alexander Beihammer, "Strategies of Identification and Distinction in the Byzantine Discourse on the Seljuk Turks"

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Council of Trent

Those who know both Eastern and Western Christian history know how important the Council of Trent was not only in reforming the Western Church and shaping Catholic-Protestant relations, but also in giving rise in the East to new relations between Orthodox and Catholics, especially in places like what we today call Ukraine and Russia. But in this year of anniversaries commemorating the opening of Vatican II, Trent is likely to get overlooked. A forthcoming book from the historian John O'Malley should help prevent that: Trent: What Happened at the Council (Harvard UP, 2013), 344pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Catholic Church’s attempt to put its house in order in response to the Protestant Reformation, has long been praised and blamed for things it never did. Now, in this first full one-volume history in modern times, John W. O’Malley brings to life the volatile issues that pushed several Holy Roman emperors, kings and queens of France, and five popes—and all of Europe with them—repeatedly to the brink of disaster.
During the council’s eighteen years, war and threat of war among the key players, as well as the Ottoman Turks’ onslaught against Christendom, turned the council into a perilous enterprise. Its leaders declined to make a pronouncement on war against infidels, but Trent’s most glaring and ironic silence was on the authority of the papacy itself. The popes, who reigned as Italian monarchs while serving as pastors, did everything in their power to keep papal reform out of the council’s hands—and their power was considerable. O’Malley shows how the council pursued its contentious parallel agenda of reforming the Church while simultaneously asserting Catholic doctrine.
Like What Happened at Vatican II, O’Malley’s Trent: What Happened at the Council strips mythology from historical truth while providing a clear, concise, and fascinating account of a pivotal episode in Church history. In celebration of the 450th anniversary of the council’s closing, it sets the record straight about the much misunderstood failures and achievements of this critical moment in European history.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Heresy's History

It has for too long been a tedious habit on the part of some academics and others to sneer at the very categories of "heresy" and "orthodoxy," viewing them through the so-called hermeneutic of suspicion as merely labels crudely covering nothing more than a will to power. But if you read early Christian history, you know how seriously Christians felt about these issues and how crucial it was to get them right. Routledge e-mails me this week with word of a new book that has just been released treating the history of the concept of heresy: Robert M. Royalty, The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity (Routledge 2012), 246pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
Heresy is a central concept in the formation of Orthodox Christianity. Where does this notion come from? This book traces the construction of the idea of ‘heresy’ in the rhetoric of ideological disagreements in Second Temple Jewish and early Christian texts and in the development of the polemical rhetoric against ‘heretics,’ called heresiology. Here, author Robert Royalty argues, one finds the origin of what comes to be labelled ‘heresy’ in the second century. In other words, there was such as thing as ‘heresy’ in ancient Jewish and Christian discourse before it was called ‘heresy.’ And by the end of the first century, the notion of heresy was integral to the political positioning of the early orthodox Christian party within the Roman Empire and the range of other Christian communities.This book is an original contribution to the field of Early Christian studies. Recent treatments of the origins of heresy and Christian identity have focused on the second century rather than on the earlier texts including the New Testament. The book further makes a methodological contribution by blurring the line between New Testament Studies and Early Christian studies, employing ideological and post-colonial critical methods.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Michael Plekon on Saints in Our Time

Earlier this month, in New England, I sat down one late afternoon and didn't move for the rest of the day until I had finished reading Michael Plekon's most recent book Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time (UND Press, 2012), 288pp. In reading it, I was put in mind of a reflection of John Henry Newman's which was greatly consoling many years ago when I first discovered it: in his 1856 discourse "A Short Road to Perfection," the silver-tongued genius of nineteenth-century letters wrote that 
it is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well.....We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings.... By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound....He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.
Plekon's is a splendid book of insights into what Newman would perhaps call "ordinary holiness." His work is jam-packed with so many great insights into, and reflections on, history, biography (and, in one chapter, some autobiography), psychology, spirituality, North American culture, and of course "hagiography." I very warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the above topics, which are here explored with great cogency, sensitivity to the sociological data, and a wonderfully "ecumenical" approach that does not close Orthodoxy off but appreciates the wisdom of other Christian scholars as well. I've had a chance to interview the author (having done so previously here), a professor at Baruch College in the City University of New York, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us why much of your recent writing has focused, broadly speaking, on "hagiography"

MP: First of all, thanks so much for having me talk to you again! Yes, I have now spent over 800 pages in three books and other articles on saints—who they are, what they think, feel, what they say, and what sense we make out of them. Holy women and men are where God meets humanity, where the divine and social worlds intersect. The God part is, well, up to God, but the human dimension of this is all about us, all about who were are and how we live. Since, like most, I am a voyeur about things human, I am immensely intrigued and fascinated at the same time. I want to know what makes saints laugh, cry and get excited—not just the canonized ones of the past, but also those around me,“saints-in-the-making.”

AD: You give clear emphasis on saints "in our time." Have you discerned ways in which holy people today are significantly different from those of past ages? Or are there aspects of holiness that transcend time and culture?

It’s interesting that when a guest lecturer at a theological school class, I found myself and the theologian Paul Evdokimov attacked for allegedly belittling or discarding the saints of the past for holy people of today. What was good for the 3rd or 12th or 18th century should be good enough for us—the categories of martyr, teacher, confessor, ascetic and so on as well as the ways those in the past thought, acted, even wrote. It made me, a historian and social scientist as well as theologian wonder where the critics’ sense of time and place had gone? Was I really the same as someone in the time of Benedict or Pachomius or Seraphim of Sarov, Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich, or even Theres of Lisieux? Surely our being created by God, made part of the kingdom by our baptism, wanting to live the Gospel and follow Christ transcends historical periods and different cultures. But exactly how we are and do all that varies a great deal. The challenges we live with and must face are not the same as in the waning days of the Roman or Byzantine empires. The technologies and other advances give us much but also demand much of us. Actually, the ancient monastic rules lay out basic elements and guidelines that then have to be made more specific in particular climates, locations, cultures and for persons in different ages and health conditions. If those authors recognized the need to adapt and change, why shouldn’t we see that in the details of searching for God and living God’s life?

AD: You begin by quoting Dorothy Day that people are "naturally...filled with repulsion at the idea of holiness." Do you think it's the idea per se, or the usual associations (stereotypes) people have with the idea? In other words is holiness itself the problem, or the way in which it seems typically to be thought of--plaster saints and treacly piety?

Dorothy had in mind precisely the overly sensational, often also romanticized and unreal accounts of saints doing weird and unusual things—these fascinate a few but are a major turnoff to most. After all if starving or being propelled through the air or drifting off into spiritual coma-like states are what it takes, maybe I don’t want that kind of existence. It’s also the case that the preponderance of canonized saints fall into just a few categories, are martyrs, celibates, monastics or members of the clergy. I mean, is there then any room for more ordinary married people with kids, people with training and professions, more ordinary folk? Evdokimov—and to be accurate many others in our time including the Second Vatican Council—recovered the scriptural tradition of the call to holiness being universal. All baptized into Christ are to be kings, prophets and priests. Here and there we are seeing mothers and fathers, teachers and other more ordinary people being recognized even in the official canonization process of the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and Lutheran churches. Dorothy Day herself is a “venerable” and in the Catholic process towards canonization. We in the Eastern Churches have a way to go yet.

AD: In reading Day's line, I contrasted it in my mind with statements like those of the current pope that Christianity has really only two moving "apologias": her iconography and her saints. These two are able, he suggests, to get past our rationalistic defenses and move us to consider the truth of the gospel. What are your thoughts? 

Benedict XVI is quite right. This is part of what the church’s tradition offers us—the faces of Christ, his mother and the saints and their lives, as visible gospel, as “living icons” of the life of the kingdom, as Mother Maria Skobtsova, herself now canonized, called them. We can look to holy men and women as models—admire their courage and strength. This has always been why local churches needed no official process of canonization. They simply continued to name members of their communities they wanted to remember—for a witness in suffering and death, but also the witness of their words and lives. The critical issue as I see it is we do not need to look to founders of religious orders or schools, to missionaries in foreign lands or those doing extraordinaty works of faith and love. Yes we look up to them, but we should be able to see also the holiness of care for families, reaching out to those suffering in our neighborhoods, those caught up in persecution, wars’ terror, the miseries of emigration and of economic crisis. We have been able to do this with respect to first responders say on 9/11 and to catastrophes like hurricane Katrina. If so, we ought to be able to discern very ordinary, thus less flashy, maybe more “hidden” holy people around us.

AD: In your discussion about how most canons of "official" saints are heavily tilted towards male clerics and the "official ideal of holiness," I thought of something Robert Taft says in his most recent book Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It: most of what we know about liturgy does not come "from below," from the experience of the proverbial person in the pew, but from official books and rubrical texts. Am I right in thinking that this is also a problem you see with those whom we consider saints--we don't have enough of them "from below" and instead have many from the upper levels of ecclesial hierarchy?

As I said already, so too have Robert Ellsberg, Kenneth Woodward, James Martin, Elizabeth Johnson among others, the recognition of holy people started very locally and included not only martyrs of suffering and death but also ascetics, teachers and others who gave witness to Christ in their lives as parents, community leaders and the like. In time, the more institutionalized the church and the process of recognizing saints became, the more it became a “top down” reality. With the recovery of the universal call to holiness, the priesthood of all and thus call of all to follow the Gospel, we are indeed being able to to see more diverse forms of holiness, many different holy women and men. Robert Ellsberg catalogued a year’s worth in All Saints

The “dancing saints” freso icons at St. Gregory Nyssa Church in San Franciso has also gathered a rich and diverse assembly of saints. If, in my church, a wife, mother, grandmother and healer such as the Yupik woman, Olga Arsamquaq Michael from Kwethluk, Alaska were canonized, it would be a step in the direction of recognizing more “from below.” But in the poetry of Mary Oliver, in the memoirs of Mary Karr, Patricia Hampl, Darcey Steinke, Barbar Brown Taylor and many others, I believe we have accounts from our contemporaries, from sisters ands brothers in the faith, of the effort to lead holy lives.

AD: In recent years, I've come to realize how much Christian division turns on debates about history, and how often that history, especially in Eastern Christian hands, is either romanticized or demonized. But your writing manages to avoid both temptations, especially in the fascinating chapter on your history with the Carmelites. How did you manage such a marvelous balance--to narrate the past realistically and honestly? Is there a special "askesis" that authors need to avoid the romanticizing and demonizing traps? 

There has been a line of very fine historians—George Fedotov, 
Elisabeth Behr-SigelYves Congar, Edward SchillebeeckxEamon DuffyDiarmaid Maccullochto name just a few from different churches—who have tried to be honest about what the documents and other materials from other centuries actually tell us—this in contrast to either glorifying or demonizing the record. I find it telling that many of these great scholars were immediately attacked for putting forward inconvenient truth! Nicholas Afanasiev once said that ignoring what history told us turned us into Nestorians who wanted only the divine side of things. Fr. Robert Taft has marvelously reminded us of what our forbearers really said and did, liturgically and otherwise. Why should we be afraid of the real historical record? We might actually be encouraged and consoled by the failings as well as accomplishments of the past. My years in the Carmelies were ones of joy but also some frustration, difficulties, disappointment, anger and sadness. Anyone who gets close to me would know that is the same mix I live in and with today—most of us!

AD: In your chapter on your experience with the Carmelites, you note that your intent was not to "write a full memoir of my life in the church or, better, churches." Will we see more of that down the road--please??

Thanks you for the compliment and request. I had to be nudged quite a bit by my daughter Hannah to write the chapter you mention in the first place. I was also moved by Andrew Krivak’s gorgeous memoir A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life and Barbara Brown Taylor’s most courageous Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith as well as several other memoirs. 

Part of the aim of both Hidden Holiness and Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time (as well as Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Churchhas been to listen to and hopefully attract readers to a wonderful group of writers sharing their spiritual searches. I hope to add some more of my own since I have been distinctly blessed to have been is several churches in my life, finding Christ in them all.

AD: In discussing Francis of Assisi, you quote Patricia Hampl that his "temperament was mystic, anarchic--individual." After reading your fifth chapter, I wonder if this perhaps functions as something of a self-description for you? 

Now you’re making me really uncomfortable, not maliciously of course. What Patricia Hampl learned about Francis on her truly hilarious pilgrimage in Assisi, along with quite a company of Franciscan friar and sister fellow pilgrims, is that the real Francis—not that of the statues, frescoes and pious biographies—was a wild man, unwilling and unable to keep with safe social or ecclesiatical boundaries. It shouldn’t be surprising that the more we know of the actual situations and personalities of the saints we venerate, the more amazingly, even disturbingly human they reveal themselves to have been. While I am not sure about the “mystic” part, those who know me are well aware that I am somewhat anarchic, rebellious, and on the outspoken side, to say just a little of what six decades of self-knowledge have taught me. Look, I have spent my adult life both in the university and the church—is it any surprise that I find there to be a great deal of nonsense and comedy therin?

AD: That description puts me in mind of something Hans Urs von Balthasar says somewhere (I think it's in his biography of Georges Bernanos) about saints: that they can be a real pain in the ass for the bishop, that is, for the official church because they do not easily or mindlessly conform but instead often upset the comfortable arrangements and expectations about "proper" or "pious" behavior": the classic tension between charismatic and institutional authority. But instead of lamenting such disruptions, should we not instead see them as the work of the Spirit who comes to "make all things new"?

I take it as Gospel that God creates each of us in God’s own image and likeness—uniquely, to be sure, no one of us the same as another. Over and over in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures we find God utilizing not so noble kinds, prostitutes, wild preachers, headstrong intellectuals, as well as both really miserable and quite ordinary people to speak God’s message and do the work. It is actually more the exception than the rule that the real servant of God fits the model of pious religiosity. Yves Congar’s remarkable journal of his years at Vatican II include his naming of “imbeciles” and “idiots” among other church officials. Yet he was able to give credit where credit was due, even to those who’s supported his being silenced, prohibited from writing, teaching and preaching. This unweildy “mix” of souls somehow did a great work of renewal and reform in the church, in his view.Yet we seem to be stuck with the dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” girls and boys when it comes to holiness. As I understand, God uses whoever God chooses and uses all kinds of people to do the word and the work, and God does choose some doozies. This would be a working definition of sainthood for me.

AD: I was greatly heartened to see your mention (p. 201) about how socioeconomic class often plays a significant role in parish life. This is something I think that has not really been acknowledged or well studied at all--or are there works out there I don't know about treating this question?

Studies like Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites UsMark Chaves’ American Religion: Contemporary Trends and Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith and Christianity After Religion all consider variables
such as socioeconomic class, race, gender, region/location, ethnicity among others in looking at contemporary religious existence and church life. Though in Christ none of these ought to be meaningful distinctions, they nevertheless have been and still are. Why is it, for example, that most of the creative efforts among the emerging church communities today not to mention the megachurch foundations back in the 80s and 90s were among well educated, professional people? Why is it that the voice of prophecy, both to condemn and heal, has come from the poor, the marginalized, the discriminated? Why is it that religious women have been the leaders of the struggle for social outreach, service and justice, both now and for the past several centuries?

AD: You quote Diana Butler Bass (p.204) about "a faith with no lines," doctrinal lines, moral lines, behavioral lines, etc. Is that really possible or even desirable? 

I think Butler Bass is not trying to do away with doctrine or for that matter, doctrinal divisions or disagreements we see and we have on ethical and other matters. Recently David Bentley Hart has rightfully exposed some of the doctrinal bickering to be intellectually dishonest. Along with Putnam and Campbell, many Pew surveys, the work of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, she is arguing that the zeal for drawing lines and then demonizing those on the other sides has done enormous damage to religion in the general population. 

Consider the epithets hurled at those who support civil unions or marriage for same sex partners by “orthodox” Christians, likewise other “culture war” issues and the corrosive nature of proponents and opponents whether pro-life or pro-choice, for or against affordable health care, in the matter of “religious freedom” and alleged attacks on it and on particular denominations, the role and place of women in church and society—the list goes on and on. Butler Bass found intentional and spiritually healthy parishes in which the “red” and “blue” constituencies found it possible to be brothers and sisters in Christ despite political differences. Read Commonweal and America, for example, and you will find Catholic commentators anguishing over the politicization of the American church by some of its bishops. Being socially and politically engaged in the churches is one thing—Barth said to read the Bible and the newpapers together. From his joiurnals, Alexander Schmemann apparently also did this. Telling the faithful which is the party and candidates they must support, often on the basis of one or two issues, is in my mind unchurchly, and destructive. The religious right left a path of estrangement from the 70s onward.

AD: Is it possible that perhaps we misunderstand what "lines" mean in faith? I'm thinking here of both John Zizioulas and G.K. Chesterton, who, in similar ways, both insist that such dogmatic lines as the Church has had to draw (chiefly through the first seven ecumenical councils) should not be seen as restrictions or impositions, but instead as the "fence" marking out the "playground" within which we are free to roam? Lines, in other words, liberate rather than limit. What do you think?

Who was it--Fr. Sergius Bulgakov maybe--who said that there is a providential dogmatic minimalism in the tradition of the Church, and by this he was suggesting that if the historical record were carefully inspected, the documents read critically, we’d see what you propose, along with Zizioulas and Chesterton—that there is a lot of room for debate, opinion, commentary. Fundamentalist-oriented souls are freaked out by this, whether in the Eastern churches or in the West--legalists too. That there was the gospel, the eucharist and baptism before any recorded creed, before the evolution of the clerical caste, before the decisions of most ecumenical councils, before the writings of the Fathers—Gary Wills, Diarmaid Macculloch, Nicholas Afanasiev and plenty of other scholars point this out.

AD: Sergius Bulgakov says, of the Christological lines drawn by the Council of Chalcedon, that we know what the four famous "no's" are, but not the yeses: do we in the East focus on the negative lines (to exclude) rather than seeing them as helping us to say yes to God, to welcome all into His Commonwealth?

Fr. Bulgakov paid heavily for his theological creativity, faithfulness and courage. Today still he’s condemned by fellow Eastern Orthodox as a heretic, a modernist, an ecumenist, an innovationist and more. Western Christians, interestingly, from Aidan Nichols to John Milbank, among others, know better. Bulgakov and his colleagues in Paris at the St. Sergius Theological Institute, had been well trained in history, philosophy, literature, economics and knew that the Christian tradition was a “living” one, in the sense I just described above. Of course doctrine “developed,” contrary to what official teachers often claim in the Eastern church. Of course the Christological “solution” at Chalcedon was stated in the negative and needs elaboration in the positive. Like Soloviev, Bukharev, and others, Bulgakov in his studies sought to explore this, for example, what the “humanity of God” in the Incarnation meant, not only for us humans but for God! All of Bulgakov’s much maligned “sophiology” was an effort to reflect on the effects of God’s entering time and place in the Incarnation, God’s becoming part of creation. The best efforts in modern theology I think, have been along the same lines though not always employing the figure of Sophia/Divine Wisdom as Bulgakov did.

AD: Based on your research, and that of Diana Butler Bass, give us some idea of parish communities that "work," that are healthy and not toxic. What are some of their common characteristics?

It is no surprise that Butler Bass found that work, that are healthy and not toxic are one is which there is good liturgy, fellowship, study and outreach to those in need. You cannot turn these into programs because they are in fact like organs in our bodies that feed, cleanse, grow, and sustain—i.e. this is the breathing and work of the Spirit. The New Testament, often obliquely but nonetheless certainly tells us this was the life of the earliest Christian communities. Nicholas Afanasiev brilliantly depicts this in The Church of the Holy Spirit as well as in The Lord’s Supper that we are still working to publish in translation.) Kenneth Stevenson, Aidan Kavanagh, John Baldovin and Gordon Lathrop and Frank Senn are among others who also have done so. 

The organic analogy stands up, I think. You have a cohesive community when people want to be there, and they want to be together not just for the furth “sacrament of the coffee hour and for suppers and social gatherings but also for prayer, communion, singing, discussion, and for ministering to each other, to their neighbors and others around them in need. Most of my pastoral experience has been in suburban or ex-urban “regional parishes,” in which no one lives near the church building, everyone commutes, where members come from several counties and communities, ethnic and other church backgrounds. Liturgy is the primary reason for gathering but from this flow fellowship and all the rest including service to those in need. Take any one of these aspects of community life in isolation and you get some kind of mutation. But all of them together make for real community, the desire to learn and pray and serve.

AD: "The Church has left the building": tell us more about where you are going with this research into the demographic, geographic, and social changes in Christianity in North America now and in the years ahead. If you had a crystal ball and could describe the church here 50 years or 100 years hence, what do you think will be gone? What will be different? What will remain?

This has been quite a chat already but simply, while the church will remain among us, the buildings and other arrangements of parish life are centuries old, based on small villages, factory or mining towns, as well as homogenous ethnic groups and various social class locations. These and other demographic realities are vastly changed from what they were even as recently as the end of WWII. Simply, who we are, whom we marry, where we live because of where we work, and how we’ve been educated—all these have changed enormously—but our church buildings and attendant structures, our ability to completely sustain a pastor—we continue to act as though we can keep operating as we have for centuries. 

Because of our “Rust Bowl” location and history of Eastern European immigrant foundation and location near factories and mills, of the 60 or so parishes in my diocese of the OCA, a quarter, 15 have 100 members or more, 12 have 50-100 and 23 parishes have less than 50 members. We’ve always been a small church body, but data from other, much larger mainline denominations reflect the same trends—shrinking parishes, aging members, parishes becomes redundant or unsustainable. By “redundant.” I mean there are too many parishes of the same church body in now close traveling proximity—formerly each hamlet needed its own Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist or Catholic parish. Add to this the duplication of parishes for ethnic belonging, especially true for Catholics and Lutherans. 

The basic elements of parish life will remain in the future, but we may need pastors who have fulltime occupations alongside their pastoral roles. We may need smaller, simpler buildings. We likely will have small congregations with people from different places of residence, different ethnic and church backgrounds, bound together by their desire to pray, be with each other, study and work. Church membership as a “social” requirement or a familial obligation seems to be fading. There is a slow but steady rise in those with no belonging to a religious body, and in patterns of attendance at services we see that contributions have declined. Less than 20% of American worship each Sunday. Here and there you see where necessity has led a parish community into a different way of existing—with a part-time pastor or one with a fulltime job, with simplified council and activity schedules. Churches have adapted in the past, and were in homes long before basilicas. We need to trust the Spirit and not fear change.

Many thanks for your excellent questions and mostly for your patience in listening to my answers!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Three Rival Versions of God?

Eerdmans just sent me their catalogue of forthcoming publications, and in it we find one edited by the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf (whose previous book on Allah I noted here): Do We Worship the Same God?: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue (Eerdmans, August 2012), 192pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Often the differences between the three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- seem more obvious than their commonalities, leading to the question "Do we worship the same God?" Can the answer be "yes" without denying our differences?

This volume brings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers and theologians together to answer this question, offering rare insight into how representatives of each religion view the other monotheistic faiths. Each of their contributions uniquely approaches the primary question from a philosophical perspective that is informed by the practice of worship and prayer. Concepts covered include "sameness" and "oneness," the nature of God, epistemology, and the Trinity. Do We Worship the Same God? models serious-minded, honest, and respectful interreligious dialogue and gives us new ways to address an ongoing question.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Life after Death

It is an occasion of some dispute among some Orthodox as to what happens after we die. Some wholly reject Latin notions of purgatory; some entertain theories of "toll houses"; some simply say we do not know exactly what happens after we die other than we are judged, and the prayers of the living can be efficacious to those who have died. A new book by one of francophone Orthodoxy's important writers today, Jean-Claude Larchet, whose articles we have published in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, may shed some light here: Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition, trans. G.J. Champoux (Orthodox Research Institute Press, 2012), 348pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition presents the teachings from Orthodox Church tradition. On a few points, these teachings differ significantly from those of the Catholic and Protestant confessions. Some divergences between eastern and western traditions have existed since the fifth century, but have been considerably accentuated since the twelfth century, when the West, to borrow an expression from the historian Jacques Le Goff, 'invented Purgatory.' The Latin tradition is, however, in its roots, in perfect agreement with the eastern tradition. Also, although in our references we give the greatest space to the Greek Fathers, we will surely cite convergent or complementary teachings and testimonies of the Latin Fathers and hagiographers of antiquity. We hope in this way to make better known to Orthodox the teachings of their own often scattered about and poorly known tradition, and also to acquaint Catholic or Protestant readers with teachings unknown to them or which long ago ceased being within the compass of their faith, but which nevertheless belong to the rich patrimony of an ancient Christian tradition which, in its origins, is or should be common to all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Orthodox Christian World

It is a very happy day when I can report receipt in the mail yesterday from the publisher of Augustine Casiday, ed., The Orthodox Christian World (Routledge 2012, 608pp. It's the start of the academic year around here, so I've only had a chance to glance at the table of contents and list of contributors, but both look very impressive. I contacted the editor some time ago and he has agreed to an interview which I hope to feature on here in the coming weeks.

This book, Casiday tells me, aims to take a different approach to the study of Orthodoxy than other recent or comparable texts. About this book the publisher tells us:
Over the last century unprecedented numbers of Christians from traditionally Orthodox societies migrated around the world. Once seen as an ‘oriental’ or ‘eastern’ phenomenon, Orthodox Christianity is now much more widely dispersed, and in many parts of the modern world one need not go far to find an Orthodox community at worship. This collection offers a compelling overview of the Orthodox world, covering the main regional traditions of Orthodox Christianity and the ways in which they have become global. The contributors are drawn from the Orthodox community worldwide and explore a rich selection of key figures and themes. The book provides an innovative and illuminating approach to the subject, ideal for students and scholars alike.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Margaret O'Gara: In Memoriam

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death last week of Margaret O'Gara of the University of Toronto. Just this summer in fact I had been re-reading her book Triumph in Defeat: Infallibility, Vatican I, and the French Minority Bishops (CUA Press, 1988) in preparation for a lecture I am giving at St. Vladimir's Seminary in September in the context of the annual meeting of the Orthodox Theological Society of America. Her other book was also influential in some circles: The Ecumenical Gift Exchange (Liturgical Press, 1998).  The notion of an ecumenical gift exchange was picked up by none other than the late Pope John Paul II in his Ut Unum Sint, on which I have had a few things to say.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Does Papal Infallibility Actually Weaken Claims to Authority?

In writing my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity I was aware that the First Vatican Council probably needed more attention than I was able to give it. In the past few months I have been able to return to some of the issues raised before, during, and after that council, including the influence of the French Revolution, the thought of Joseph de Maistre (on whom see the fascinating interview I did recently with two Maistre scholars), and the whole problem of "sovereignty," about which I wrote recently

Part of my recent research has allowed me to return to a book by the historian Brian Tierney. Though I have read other works of Brian Tierney over the years, it is only recently that I have been able to return to and read more deeply from his early book, Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350: A Study on the Concepts of Infallibility, Sovereignty and Tradition in the Middle Ages (Brill, 1966, 1988). 

Tierney begins with Maistre's famous declaration that "Infallibility in the spiritual order and sovereignty in the temporal order are two perfectly synonymous words." No, Tierney insists, they are not synonymous, and in fact those two concepts are at war with one another. Longstanding notions of sovereignty, until at least the nineteenth century, held that no sovereign, precisely as sovereign (i.e., beholden to nobody's authority other than his own), was bound by the decrees of his predecessors--to be so bound would be an intolerable infringement precisely on his sovereignty. And yet, as defined today, papal infallibility means precisely being so bound: doctrines proclaimed as infallible are ipso facto held to be irreformable. This is made very clear in Pastor aeternus of Vatican I and its famous conclusion that "when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra....such definitions are of themselves, and not by consensus of the Church, irreformable" (ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae irreformabiles esse).

Aware of the conflict between freedom and infallibility, Tierney discusses in detail early papalists from the late Middle Ages who wanted to maximize papal authority and therefore shied away from infallibility precisely because they felt it would restrict the freedom of movement and maneuverability of popes. In reading this, I am once more put in mind of an idea I came to many years ago now in reading papal history: that history is one long illustration of the law of unintended consequences.

Tierney concludes on a note that should give all defenders of the papacy very great and serious pause: “After a hundred years of papal infallibility the main practical result…has been to weaken the authority of the pope’s ‘ordinary’ pronouncements on faith and morals….The ordinary Catholic is left with a vague feeling that, if the pope were really certain of the truth of his own teaching, he would ‘make it infallible’” (275). This paradox, it seems to me, remains lost even today on most apologists for a strongly centralized papacy, a few of whose more fatuous (and ironic) ravings (e.g., Patrick Henry Reardon) I took on in my book

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Imagining Kievan Rus'

Debates continue to rage among East-Slavic Christians as to such questions as Ukrainian independence, Ukrainian Orthodoxy, the role of Russia, and how the latter can today claim in some respects to be the "mother" of the former when it was through Kievan Rus that what we today call Russia received its faith. A new book looks at some of this changing history and debate: Christian Raffensperger, Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus' in the Medieval World (Harvard Historical Studies, 2012, 340pp.)

About this book the publisher tells us:
An overriding assumption has directed scholarship in both European and Slavic history: that Kievan Rus’ was part of a Byzantine commonwealth separate from Europe. Raffensperger refutes this, and offers a new frame for two hundred years of history, in which Rus’ is understood as part of medieval Europe, and East is not so neatly divided from West.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Coptic Papacy

With the great turmoil in Egypt since late 2010, and the death in March of this year of Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria, attention has been focused on that Church and its struggle to survive in Egypt. A new pope has not been selected yet, and the Coptic Church has historically had some of the most interesting, and widely participatory, methods for choosing her popes, as I note in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

For several years now, we have been treated to new volumes in a trilogy treating the history of the Coptic papacy. The first volume, by Stephen J. Davis, came out in 2005: The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity. This was followed in 2010 by Mark Swanson's  The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt: The Popes of Egypt: A History of the Coptic Church and Its Patriarchs Volume 2

The third volume, co-authored by Magdi Guirguis and Nelly van Doorn-Harder, was recently released: The Emergence of the Modern Coptic Papacy: The Popes of Egypt: A History of the Coptic Church and Its Patriarchs, Volume 3 (American University of Cairo Press, 2011), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This third and final volume of The Popes of Egypt spans the five centuries from the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517 to the present era. Hardly any scholarly work has been written about the Copts during the Ottoman period. Using court, financial, and building records, as well as archives from the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and monasteries, Magdi Guirguis has reconstructed the authority of the popes and the organization of the Coptic community during this time. He reveals that the popes held complete authority over their flock at the beginning of the Ottoman rule, deciding over questions ranging from marriage and concubines to civil disputes. As the fortunes of Coptic notables rose, they gradually took over the pope’s role and it was not until the time of Muhammad Ali that the popes regained their former authority. With the dawning of the modern era in the nineteenth century, the leadership style of the Coptic popes necessarily changed drastically, as Egypt’s social, political, and religious landscape underwent dramatic changes, the Coptic Church experienced a virtual renaissance, and expanded from a local to a global institution. In the second part of the book, Nelly van Doorn-Harder addresses the political, religious, and cultural issues faced by the patriarchs that led the Coptic community into the twenty-first century. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Death of the Virgin and the Prophet

Eastern Christians today celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos
(known in the West as her Assumption), about which Stephen Shoemaker wrote The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption (Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2006). Shoemaker is also the author of two recent books, one on the Theotokos, and another on Mohammad. I asked him for an interview about both, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

I am Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, where I have taught since 2000.  I teach primarily the history of Christianity, covering the full span of the tradition, from ancient to modern, East and West.  My research studies religion in the late ancient and early medieval Near East.  Apocryphal narratives about the Virgin’s life and death have been the primary focus of my publications, with a secondary interest in the beginnings of Islam.

For roughly the past two decades I have been studying and publishing on early narratives about Mary, and this text is clearly an important and early source that has been ignored and neglected, despite a published edition and French translation.  For several years I had been considering a translation, and as I studied this earliest Life of the Virgin more and more, it became increasingly clear that it is a pivotal text in the history of Marian piety – regardless of its authorship.  Thus it seemed that an English translation might be useful and would perhaps draw more attention to the text and its significance and possibly encourage more serious consideration of its authorship.

AD: Tell us why you think a text originally composed in Greek now only survives in Old Georgian.

This is not that unusual.  There are many texts that were written in Greek but now survive only in Old Georgian.  For one thing, Georgians were a significant presence in the main centers of Greek monasticism from early on, and they were prolific translators.  As for why the Greek original is sometimes lost, I suppose that there can be any number of explanations, and the possibilities would likely depend on the particular text.  In this specific case, however, it would appear that this Life of the Virgin’s success was its own undoing.  This early narrative was adapted by several later authors, including George of Nicomedia, Simeon the Metaphrast, and John the Geometer.  Each of these writers composed new Marian narratives on the basis of this earliest Life, whose contents they largely reproduce.  Accordingly, these “new and improved” narratives were the ones to be copied going forward: Simeon’s Life of the Virgin and George’s Passion homilies in particular proved quite popular.  The “Maximus” Life, it would seem, was overlooked in favor of these newer productions.  Nevertheless, a Georgian translation of this earliest Life had been produced on Mount Athos toward the end of the tenth century, and from there it was disseminated to the monasteries of Mar Saba, Mount Sinai, and Georgia.  The Georgians remained faithful to this earliest biography.  Moreover, one should additionally note that this text’s survival in Old Georgian also reflects a broader trend in the history of early Byzantine hagiography: it is often the case that the pre-metaphrastic Lives of various saints survive only in Georgian translation, having been lost in Greek due to their displacement by the new revisions of these older narratives by Simeon and others of his era.

AD: If you didn't know that Maximus was the author of this text, would you have been able to surmise that he had a hand in it? In other words, is there a distinctly "Maximian" style to the text that would tip you off to his authorship?

I’m no expert on Maximus, and so I could not be the judge of any distinctive “Maximian” style in this work or in others.  But if one were to take such an approach, it would be essential to bear in mind the generic difference between this work and the other writings assigned to Maximus.  And I wonder, for instance, if one did not know for certain that the Life of Antony was written by Athanasius, would one be able to discover in it a distinctive Athanasian style by comparing its Georgian translation with On the Incarnation and Orations against the Arians?  Or likewise for Maximus’ mentor Sophronius and the Life of Mary of Egypt (which I’m inclined to believe that the latter wrote)?  Maybe so, but I’m not sure that we should necessarily expect this to be the case.

AD: Were you able to find or trace out a "lineage" of influence to this text? In other words, what were the predecessor influences on Maximus in writing? Similarly, are there later or successor texts, devotions, or persons whom Maximus in turn influences with his Life of the Virgin?

Yes.  The author identifies his sources at the beginning.  Of course he names the gospels and other biblical texts, but also specifically writings by Gregory the Thaumaturge, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysius the Areopagite.  He also makes prolific use of early Christian apocrypha, most notably the Protevangelium of James and the various ancient Dormition apocrypha, and the author invokes patristic warrant for the use of these texts from Gregory of Nyssa.  He specifically rejects, however, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  I suspect this indicates that the author was aware of certain collections of Marian apocrypha that had begun to circulate by the fifth century, in which the Protevangelium, the Six Books Dormition apocryphon, and often the Infancy Gospel of Thomas were gathered together as a kind of “proto-Life” of the Virgin.  Presently such collections only survive in several Syriac manuscripts of the fifth and sixth centuries, but other sources indicate that these collections originally circulated in Greek.

As for its successor texts, I’ve said a bit about this already.  The most important were George of Nicomedia’s Passion homilies and the Lives of the Virgin by Simeon the Metaphrast and John the Geometer.  Primarily through the mediation of these texts, the traditions of this earliest Life of the Virgin had a formative influence on the Virgin’s representation in Byzantine literature.  One of the Life’s most notable influences appears in the Orthodox hymns of lamentation for Holy Friday and the matins of Holy Saturday.  The Virgin’s lamentations from this earliest biography echo clearly in these hymns still today.  Another area that remains to be more fully explored is the relationship between the Life’s representation of Mary at the crucifixion and the so-called “affective piety” of the western High Middle Ages.  Scholars of religion in the medieval West have tended to see this phenomenon as an unprecedented eruption of a new style of piety in this era; nevertheless, it is clear that this sort of devotion emerged much earlier in the Byzantine world, and this Life now shows evidence of such piety already in the seventh century.  I have written an article raising the possibility that such piety may have moved from east to west during the early Middle Ages, but there is much uncertainty.  It would seem that there needs to be more concerted study of the religious interaction between eastern and western Christianity during this period, particularly in Italy.

AD: I've noted before on the blog the very considerable number of publications devoted to Maximus that have appeared just in English in the last decade. Why do you think he remains a figure of such interest?

I’m not sure, but there does seem to be a trend.  He’s certainly a profound and fascinating author who is often difficult to understand.  I would suspect that these qualities hold much of the cause.

AD: One of my doctoral courses ten years ago now was on Maximus, and I remember clearly reading the assessment of several scholars, including Andrew Louth, that Maximus' Greek was notoriously difficult. Did you find him difficult to translate?

Yes, this was a difficult text to translate.  Not only were there problems with the edition and the challenges of the Old Georgian language itself, but the Maximus Life of the Virgin is a very high-style Byzantine text of great eloquence and elegance.  Some of this character can be seen, for better and for worse, in Michel van Esbroeck’s French translation, which often renders the text so literally that it is nearly unintelligible to the reader.  Thus, even when one has determined the meanings of all the various words, it is often incredibly difficult to turn this into readable English.  Nevertheless, the text consists largely of narrative, encomium, hymns, and exegesis, and so despite the frequent difficulties it poses for readers and translators, its content is of a decidedly different nature from the Ambigua.  For obvious reasons, these abstract philosophical and theological explorations of difficult passages from Gregory the Theologian and Ps.-Dionysius have a greater level of difficulty than this Life of the Virgin.  Accordingly, the fact that this narrative is somewhat more direct in its style is most likely a consequence of generic differences as much as anything else and on its own cannot indicate whether or not Maximus might have been its author, as the manuscripts indicate.

AD: Tell us about your other recent book, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 416pp.. To move from the life of the Virgin to the death of Muhammad seems like a large step. Are there any connections between your work on these two books? 

Well, I occasionally joke that I am aiming to be an authority on traditions about the death of the two figures about whom it is said that through them the Word of God came into the world.  But that’s being silly and a bit ridiculous.  I am generally interested, however, in religion in the late ancient and early medieval Near East, and both projects fit well within that frame.  Yet perhaps more significantly both projects reflect a strong interest in how religious traditions come to remember – and “re-remember” – the period of their origins.  I’m very interested in narrative traditions, especially “apocrypha,” that memorialize the time of origins, re-imagining the beginnings of the tradition so that it conforms to the beliefs and practices of later communities.  And one of the main conclusions of my work on the earliest sources for the beginnings of Islam is that in essence these sources are roughly equivalent in their character, and in their trustworthiness it would seem, to early Christian apocryphal narratives about Mary and the apostles.  Accordingly, we should approach these early Islamic sources in the same way that we would study the apocryphal Acts of Paul or the Protevangelium for knowledge of earliest Christian history.

AD: What were your goals or hopes for this book on the prophet's death?

I hope that it will persuasively demonstrate several things: the value of non-Islamic sources for studying the history of earliest Islam; the deeply problematic nature of the early Islamic historical sources and the need to approach them with a significant measure of skepticism; the very different approaches taken to source materials by scholars of early Christianity and early Islam; the possibility of historical-critical reconstruction of Islamic origins; and the substantially different nature of earliest Islam from what was to become “classical” Islam, particularly with respect to eschatology, the confessional boundaries of the community, and sacred geography.

AD: You note the "eschatological" expectation of Muhammad and his followers--that the world's end was imminent. Is this similar to or different from the eschatological expectation of the earliest Christians after the death and resurrection of Christ?

It is in many ways similar to the eschatological hopes of the early Christians, not only after, but especially during Jesus’ ministry and even before it (for those followers who came with him from John the Baptist’s eschatological movement).  The imminence with which the impending judgment is expected seems especially comparable, and there are other elements from the shared tradition of Jewish (and ultimately, Christian) eschatology that are familiar.  But there are some differences.  I think it is very likely that Muhammad’s earliest followers expected the eschaton sometime before his death, for a number of reasons that I give in the book.  Also, the eschatological vision of Muhammad and his followers seems to have been in some sense political: that is, it was being brought into effect through the formation and successes of their polity.  Their eschatology is also closely joined with the promised right of inheritance of the Holy Land, and it seems that reclaiming this land from the Romans held eschatological significance.  Accordingly, Jerusalem stood at the center of this eschatological map, and the Temple Mount and traditions of the Temple’s restoration also seems to have played an important role.

AD: How did the fact that the world's end did not appear as expected influence early Islam?

Well, this is then the big question.  Once we recognize that earliest Islam was in many ways radically different from “classical” Islam, and that it was driven by urgent eschatological belief that was focused on the Holy Land, we can begin to explore various ways that the Islamic tradition developed during the formative period of its first century in response to its changing circumstances – including the unexpected passage of time itself.  This is an enormous task that remains to be undertaken.  But, some specific things that I suggest in the book as likely consequences of the eschaton’s failure to arrive include the reorientation of sacred geography away from Jerusalem and the Holy Land to focus instead on the Hijaz, as well as a number of other related developments that “confessionalized” Islam, marking boundaries between it and Judaism and Christianity, including, among other things, the formation of a distinctive scripture and the transformation of Muhammad from an eschatological warner into a Messenger of God and a prophet of unique stature.
AD: What do you see are the major historiographical problems in treating early Islam as "sacred history"? Is it possible to separate "theology" from "history"?

The biggest historiographical problem here lies not so much in treating the early narratives of Islamic origins as “sacred history” but rather in the prolonged failure of most scholars to do so.  These are not simple accounts of what happened during Muhammad’s life but rather highly mythologized accounts that derive in large part from the beliefs and practices of Islam over 100 years after the fact.  In comparison with early Christianity, it is as if we were to take the second-century Acts of Paul and the Acts of Peter as relatively straightforward accounts of the beginnings of Christianity during mid-first century.  Of course, in this respect one potential historiographical problem consequent to recognizing the nature of the early Islamic sources as largely “sacred history” is the threat of a kind of epistemological collapse, in which we find that we actually know almost nothing about the beginnings of Islam, a conclusion that some scholars have in fact embraced.  My book, while recognizing the severe problems with these sources, aims to identify approaches that can potentially exhume earlier elements within the Islamic tradition by establishing a degree of probability that they reflect older beliefs and practices that are different from those of the Islamic historians of the later eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries.

As for the separation of “theology” and “history,” of course it is possible to separate these two things; I doubt, for instance, anyone would confuse a history department with a theology department.  Or to put it in more specific terms, I see little question that one can write a biography of Jesus or Muhammad from a secular, historical perspective and also a very different one from a Christian/Muslim theological perspective: and these certainly would not be the same.  But perhaps the larger question here is whether this secular history should be regarded as “true” as opposed to the theologized accounts of the early Christian and Islamic sources which are, by comparison, false.  I address such concerns, albeit briefly, in the introduction to the book.  Suffice it to say that such theological narratives about Jesus or Muhammad certainly will be seen as “true” by those within the respective faith tradition, and within those contexts, considered by the principles that govern these interpretive communities, they are indeed, “true” accounts of origins.  But for those outside of the respective tradition, such theological accounts will not seem “true” in the same sense, and this is particularly the case for historians committed to the secular, critical perspectives originating in the Enlightenment and Modernity.

AD: You suggest that trying to reconstruct early Islamic origins and texts may benefit from following methods used in biblical studies that try to tease out the "historical Jesus" from the "Christ of faith." How possible is it to separate Islamic origins from later approved "orthodox" understandings of those origins? And why is that an important goal--or even an attainable one? Is it ever possible to obtain "pure" history that has not been "theologized?"

It only is possible if one is willing to let go of the fairly widely held beliefs that the Qur’an is an accurate transcript of what Muhammad taught and that the traditional accounts of Islamic origins are in the main accurate.  Once it is allowed that the early community may have shaped the contents of the Qur’an beyond Muhammad’s lifetime (or also that some of its contents may even predate Muhammad) and that the nature of the Islamic tradition and its memory of the period of origins might have developed during the period of over 100 years before our earliest texts were composed (excepting the Qur’an), then one can proceed using a variety of methods and perspectives that have been developed in early Christian studies.  A number of such specific approaches are identified in the book, and to get the full sense, one will have to look especially to the second half of the book.  But to give a couple of examples: the use of form and tradition criticism for studying the Qur’an seems like an endeavor that could bear much fruit.  Also, something like Walter Bauer’s model for the development of early Christian orthodoxy might be usefully applied to formative Islam, as John Wansbrough suggested.  And, as noted in response to the following question, evidence of theologically “embarrassing” traditions that contradict the received tradition may very likely point to earlier doctrinal and ritual formations.

Such an endeavor is an important task only if one is interested in producing a secular history of the beginnings of Islam, as we have done now for Judaism, Christianity, and other religions as well.  If one is content with the Islamic account of Islam’s history and believes it to be accurate, then I suppose such a project will not be important.  But if one is interested in a history of early Islam that derives from the principles of modern and post-modern historical criticism, then this task is an important one.  Basically, if one is interested in the history of religious culture, then it is important to understand how the Islamic tradition, like others, developed during its earliest history.

As for the final question, I believe that I have more or less addressed that point already above, in answering the previous set of questions (Is it possible to separate "theology" from "history"?).  And I’m not sure what a history of a particular religion that was “pure” of any theology would look like: perhaps some sort of Marxist or purely sociological analysis?  But even then theology would be an important component of what is being studied.  Certainly, what I’m interested in is how the theology of the tradition differed and changed over time.  If the question is whether or not modern and post-modern historical criticism can claim that it is not a “theologized” perspective, then I suppose that question hinges on whether or not one considers secularism to be a theological point of view.  But that’s a broader philosophical question that I don’t really deal with in this book.

AD: You note that the criterion of embarrassment or dissimilarity is especially useful in helping us discern what may really have happened from what a writer may wish or claim to have had happen. Where has this criterion been especially useful to you in understanding Islamic origins and the Quran?

In this study I found the criterion particularly useful for understanding the eschatological views of Muhammad and the early community, much in the same way that it is especially useful in this area for studying Christian origins.  Although scholars of New Testament have often questioned the value of this criterion in some respects, and the principle of dissimilarity from early Judaism is particularly problematic, at the same time it seems highly improbable that later redactors would have attributed predictions of the imminent end of the world to Jesus or Muhammad if they had not in fact taught this. And it’s important to emphasize that this criterion does not necessarily tell us what “really” happened but rather it identifies elements that are highly unlikely to have been the creation of later traditonists and thus very likely belong to the earliest layer(s) of the tradition.

AD: Your book speaks of how "disheartening" it is that some people will not countenance a more "skeptical" approach to Islamic origins and prefer not to raise some of the questions you do. Why are people so resistant? How much of that resistance is motivated by genuinely methodological or scholarly considerations, and how much of it is motivated by other factors, not excluding fear of the likely reaction from some Muslims today? 

For reasons that I explain in the book, I think that there is a genuinely methodological element that has largely to do with the formation of early Islamic studies as a discipline closely tied to Semitic philology and Hebrew Bible studies and relatively isolated from New Testament and early Christian studies.  But there are other elements as well.  As noted above, there is seemingly some concern about a kind of epistemological collapse if one adopts a skeptical approach to the sources: if we recognize that the sources are indeed highly problematic, then there is a worry that we will know almost nothing about the beginnings of Islam.  Moreover, disciplinary pressure against such approaches within Islamic studies can be significant, creating an environment that may discourage many scholars, and particularly younger scholars, from adopting more a critical approach to the early tradition.  The outright hostility that some scholars in the field have shown to such “skepticism” is discouraging and disappointing, particularly to one trained in the “skepticism” of early Christian studies.

But fear of possible reactions from some Muslims today is certainly a factor as well, and here I can speak from my own experience in publishing this book.  I originally began with a different publisher.  After an almost year-long process of review, we were within a week of having a contract formally authorized.  Then I suddenly received an email informing me that some people higher up at the press were only just becoming aware of the book and had concerns that they could not publish any “titles that challenge traditional Islamic orthodoxy” without endangering the staff in their Pakistan office.   An additional review was then done by Pakistani scholars of early Islam through the press’s Pakistan office.  In the end the press – a major English language academic publisher – decided to reject the book solely on the basis, as I was explicitly told, that its contents might upset some in the Islamic world and Pakistan in particular, despite the press’s recognition that purely on its scholarly merits the book deserved publication.  It was a shocking act of censorship that demonstrates perfectly the difficulties in studying Islam the way that we study other religious traditions.  In essence, the press’s actions proved my basic thesis: as a general rule we do not study and publish on the history of the early Islamic tradition in the same way that we do for other religious traditions.

AD: Why is there no Islamic equivalent to the Jesus Seminar? Why, in other words as you note towards the end of your book, is there a "marked contrast" between treatments by scholars of the death of Jesus and similarly scholarly treatment of the death of Muhammad?

In general the main trend within the study of early Islam has been to assume that the Qur’an presents a transparent record of Muhammad’s teachings and that the historical traditions about his prophetic career and the formation of the community are, despite some problems, an accurate account in the basic core of their facts.  This leaves little room for the skepticism of the received tradition that guides the Jesus Seminar and even other more mainstream elements of biblical scholarship as well.  Alternatively, a minority opinion within early Islamic studies holds that the early traditions are so determined by the pious memories of later Muslims that we really can know very little at all about first-century of Islam and accordingly should focus instead on the second and subsequent centuries.  While there certainly have been some notable exceptions, these two main trends do not invite much possibility for scrutinizing the early traditions in order to determine which are arguably earlier and which are more recent.  Very many scholars simply assume that the traditional narrative of Islam’s origins is in fact largely accurate in its most fundamental points, obviating the need for such analysis, while others are alternatively convinced very little can be known about the first century. 

So there is a marked difference not just concerning the death of Jesus and the death of Muhammad but more generally between the study of early Christianity and early Islam.  The source of this difference lies, it would seem, in the skeptical approach that early Christian studies brings to traditional sources and narratives of origins on the one hand, and on the other hand in a correlate belief that one can arguably identify earlier traditions within later collections.  With respect to the latter point, however, I think it is worth noting that perhaps one of the main reasons for this difference in approach is that there are much better and more numerous sources for studying formative Christianity.  By comparison the earliest Islamic sources (outside of the Qur’an) are quite late and less diverse.  Yet while perhaps this gives cause for less optimism regarding the extent to which we will be able to reconstruct the earliest traditions, it certainly does not mean that the formative history of Islam has been completely effaced by the traditional narratives of its origins.
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