"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).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

John O'Malley on Councils and Popes

Those of you in northern Indiana, western Ohio, southern Michigan, or anywhere beyond who want to come to the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne on Friday night will be able to hear a man whom many consider the premiere historian of the Catholic Church in our time:  the Jesuit historian John O'Malley of Georgetown University. The lecture begins at 7pm, and promises to be the highlight of our series of lectures commemorating the anniversary of Vatican II. (Further details of his lecture are in this PDF.)

From his Georgetown faculty page, we learn that he is a prolific and award-winning author recognized as such all over the globe:
John O’Malley’s specialty is the religious culture of early modern Europe, especially Italy. He has received best-book prizes from the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Society, the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, and from the Alpha Sigma Nu franternity. His best known books are The First Jesuits (Harvard University Press, 1993), which has been translated into ten languages, and What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard, 2008). He has edited or co-edited a number of volumes....

John O’Malley has lectured widely in North America and Europe to both professional and general audiences. He has held a number of fellowships, from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and other academic organizations. He is past president of the Renaissance Society of America and of the American Catholic Historical Association. In 1995 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1997 to the American Philosophical Society, and in 2001 to the Accademia di san Carlo, Ambrosian Library, Milan, Italy. He holds the Johannes Quasten Medal from The Catholic University of America for distinguished achievement in Religious Studies, and he holds a number of honorary degrees. In 2002 he received the lifetime achievement award from the Society for Italian Historical Studies and in 2005 the corresponding award from the Renaissance Society of America. He is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Society of Jesus.
O'Malley is the author of several books, but will be in town in part to talk about his two most recent, both devoted to landmark councils of the Western Church, both of which have anniversaries this year: Trent: What Happened at the Council, which concluded 450 years ago this year; and of course What Happened at Vatican II, from 1962-65. Both of those councils had, of course, huge and dramatic consequences not only for the Catholic Church, but especially her relations with the Christian East. In the aftermath of Trent, and the creation of O'Malley's own Jesuit order, the Catholic Church rebounded in Eastern Europe and began, through a long, complicated process--best recounted in Boris Gudziak's splendid book, discussed here--what some Orthodox Christians see as improper incursions into what we today call Ukraine and Russia--and further East, also, creating problems for Orthodox Christians in places such as India and Ethiopia. If Trent seems--in the eyes of some--to have begun the dolorous process and period of "uniatism," creating such problems between East and West, particularly in areas under Hapsburg domination such as Galicia, then Vatican II undeniably and dramatically began to repair those relations and to allow East and West to begin the "dialogue of love" that has drawn both closer together.

Equally one can see a similar progression in Jesuit history and historiography, as O'Malley's celebrated confrere, Robert Taft, has noted: early Jesuits writing on and about Eastern Christianity tended to do so tendentiously with the prejudices of a high Tridentine triumphalism and aggressive apologetics (and often aggressive politics--which everyone in that period undertook: Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox powers all over Europe); but later Jesuits, including those like Taft, O'Malley, Juan Mateos, Michael Fahey, Samir Khalil Samir, and others in our time (especially those associated with the Pontifical Oriental Institute) have been utterly invaluable in narrating objectively and fairly Eastern Christian history, Catholic-Orthodox history and relations, Orthodox-Muslim relations, and much else besides. Some might chafe at having Orthodox history told by Catholics, but show me where the comparable Orthodox scholars are. In point of fact, if it is genuine history and not what Taft calls "confessional propaganda," then the ecclesial affiliation of the historian should matter very little if at all. And that is what these Jesuits--and others--are especially good at: telling history without regard for whose ox gets gored, or whose cause promoted. (For this reason, someone like Robert Taft was given the rare distinction of double-pectoral insignia by no less a figure than the Ecumenical Patriarch himself, who recognized that Taft had done work of signal service to liturgiology and Orthodoxy more widely. Many Orthodox themselves, when Taft was still teaching in Rome, went to him to do their doctorates because they knew he was the world's specialist on Byzantine liturgical history.)

For this reason also, however, some have cast suspicions on O'Malley for not promoting robustly enough the currently favored interpretations about Vatican II (Trent seems sufficiently distant and obscure that nobody cares much about it anymore). Though it makes me nearly comatose whenever I hear this debate starting up again, Catholics have for years been banging on about a "hermeneutics of continuity" vs. a "hermeneutics of rupture" in understanding Vatican II. As I noted here, in discussing Congar's history of ecclesiology and his diaries of Vatican II, it seems to me highly problematic that apologists for Vatican II want to insist that everything done by the council and in its aftermath was good and in impeccable continuity with previous practice and teaching, and no suspicion about the council can ever be raised. What a lot of nonsense that is. Though one needn't subscribe to the views of such as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), a group I find risible and repellent on most matters, one can nonetheless sympathize with their difficulty in reconciling what the council taught with what previous popes, for example, taught on certain questions not least because earlier papal (and even conciliar) teaching and practice was, in some instances, explicitly abandoned at Vatican II or otherwise greatly changed. 

One can, moreover, join with them in recognizing that not everything to come out of Vatican II succeeded. This is not and need not be a "controversial" position but an entirely human recognition of the vicissitudes of history and the complexities of any human gathering. Anybody who knows anything about any council of the Church--local, regional, or ecumenical; Eastern or Western--knows that some councils succeed, some fail (e.g., Ferrara-Florence), and most only succeed partially (Nicaea I was partially successful in dealing with Arianism, but Constantinople I was also required to deal with the heresy). Even the current pope has admitted that not all councils are successful, and that parts of Vatican II could not be counted an unmitigated success. Why can we not be honest about this? Why do apologists continue with their ham-fisted insistence that Vatican II really changed nothing that went before when it's manifestly obvious that it did? While major dogma (a category many people are likely unable to differentiate sufficiently from lesser matters, thus leading to the impression on the part of some Catholics that Vatican II basically created an entirely new Church--new Mass, new married diaconate, new liturgical rites and languages, etc.) may have been untouched, many other important matters did in fact change, and for the better--the Catholic Church's relationship with Israel, Islam, and the Christian East being the three greatest of those highly welcome changes, alongside new understandings of human rights, including religious freedom and Church-state relations.

Part of the answer to this question about why we cannot honestly admit to certain changes lies, I think, in what John Allen discusses so insightfully in his book All the Pope's Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks. There Allen notes how much of Vatican thinking is governed by Italian cultural codes in which la bella figura must be maintained at all times in the face of any change, good or bad. The important thing is to look lovely and undisturbed. One mustn't startle the horses. (As the fictional Prime Minister Jim Hacker puts it in the hilarious British comedy Yes, Prime Minister, when he's asked to appoint a bishop in the Church of England, the Church "mustn't look political" even when it is.)

O'Malley has himself told the history of the popes in another recent book, which I reviewed elsewhere: A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present. This is a very solid, reliable, even-handed telling of the history of the longest continual office of governance in the Western world and its colorful incumbents. It is difficult to compress 2000 years of history into one book, but O'Malley has managed that in a way that is both erudite and accessible. About this book the publisher tells us: 
A History of the Popes tells the story of the oldest living institution in the Western world—the papacy. From its origins in Saint Peter, Jesus' chief disciple, through Pope Benedict XVI today, the popes have been key players in virtually all of the great dramas of the western world in the last two thousand years. Acclaimed church historian John W. O'Malley's engaging narrative examines the 265 individuals who have claimed to be Peter's successors. Rather than describe each pope one by one, the book focuses on the popes that shaped pivotal moments in both church and world history. The author does not shy away from controversies in the church, and includes legends like Pope Joan and a comprehensive list of popes and antipopes to help readers get a full picture of the papacy. This simultaneously reverent yet critical book will appeal to readers interested in both religion and history as it chronicles the saints and sinners who have led the Roman Catholic Church over the past 2000 years.

The Scandalous Paul

Recently released is a new study from the prolific Greek Orthodox Archimandrite Vassilios Bakoyannis: Paul: The Great Scandal (Convivium Press, 2012), 160pp.

About this book we are told:
One of the most incredible events to take place in the Church was the conversion of the Apostle Paul, the former Christian persecutor who became Christ s chief Apostle. Paul: The Great Scandal looks at the life and teachings of the holy Apostle, the lamb that tamed the lion, and presents colorful events and details about his life that captivate the reader into full admiration for his great power and tremendous victories, all in the name of Christ. The author highlights some unknown and important facts about this phenomenal man that bring both enjoyable reading and a significant message to the contemporary world.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Sunset of European Empires

Hard though it may be to believe, we are fast coming on the centenary of the outbreak of what would come to be known as World War I, an event that, arguably, was the most consequential of the twentieth century and the most unnecessary.  In its aftermath, the map of Europe would be dramatically redrawn as the Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg empires all collapsed. (The British Empire would take a little longer, and a Second World War, before it was dismantled, a story told in a book I just finished: Richard Toye, Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made.) The dissolution of those empires would have dramatic consequences for many Eastern Christians, especially in Armenia, Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. Boundaries would be drawn and re-drawn, new countries created, and old countries resurrected at, and in the aftermath, of the Paris Peace Conference, a story magnificently told in Margaret MacMillan's hugely interesting and entertaining Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.

The collapse of most of Europe's empires after 1918 is told in a forthcoming book: Omer Bartov and Eric Weitz, eds., Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands (Indiana U Press, 2013), 544pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Shatterzone of Empires is a comprehensive analysis of interethnic relations, coexistence, and violence in Europe's eastern borderlands over the past two centuries. In this vast territory, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea, four major empires with ethnically and religiously diverse populations encountered each other along often changing and contested borders. Examining this geographically widespread, multicultural region at several levels--local, national, transnational, and empire--and through multiple approaches--social, cultural, political, and economic--this volume offers informed and dispassionate analyses of how the many populations of these borderlands managed to coexist in a previous era and how and why the areas eventually descended into violence. An understanding of this specific region will help readers grasp the preconditions of interethnic coexistence and the causes of ethnic violence and war in many of the world's other borderlands both past and present.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology

First published in hardback in 2009, and just this month released in paperback, is a welcome study from Hans Boersma, whom I previously interviewed about his other recent book on sacramental theology: Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford UP, 2013).

About this book we are told:
In the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council, the movement of nouvelle théologie caused great controversy in the Catholic Church and remains a subject of vigorous scholarly debate today. In Nouvelle théologie and Sacramental Ontology Hans Boersma argues that a return to mystery was the movement's deepest motivation.

Countering the modern intellectualism of the neo-Thomist establishment, the nouvelle theologians were convinced that a ressourcement of the Church Fathers and of medieval theology would point the way to a sacramental reintegration of nature and the supernatural. In the context of the loss suffered by both Catholics and Protestants in the de-sacramentalizing of modernity, Boersma shows how the sacramental ontology of nouvelle théologie offers a solid entry-point into ecumenical dialogue.

The volume begins by setting the historical context for nouvelle théologie with discussions of the influence of significant theologians and philosophers like Möhler, Blondel, Maréchal, and Rousselot. The exposition then moves to the writings of key thinkers of the ressourcement movement including de Lubac, Bouillard, Balthasar, Chenu, Daniélou, Charlier, and Congar. Boersma analyses the most characteristic elements of the movement: its reintegration of nature and the supernatural, its reintroduction of the spiritual interpretation of Scripture, its approach to Tradition as organically developing in history, and its communion ecclesiology that regarded the Church as sacrament of Christ. In each of these areas, Boersma demonstrates how the nouvelle theologians advocated a return to mystery by means of a sacramental ontology.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The So-Called Synod of Bishops

One of the surprise moves made by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council was his (ironic) motu proprio that created the so-called synod of bishops. If you read my book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity you will see that it's not a real synod at all insofar as it is a purely advisory body with no legislative authority, which is the defining hallmark of a synod properly so called. As a result, some figures such as Maxim Hermaniuk rather archly dismissed the synod as nothing more than "international study days for the Catholic bishops."

These gatherings tend to be highly regulated, very tightly scripted affairs with little room for freewheeling debate and discussion, let alone actual decision-making. The pope can ignore them entirely, though he usually pays them some selective attention. Still, they are but the palest imitations of real synods, which is a great, and wholly unnecessary, pity--not least because there is no reason, theological or historical, to prevent real synods from functioning in the Church of Rome as happened until at least the twelfth century (a history I recount in detail in my book). Nothing in synodal practice threatens 'papal primacy' but only strengthens it.

The problem with the synod, apart from its unilateral if well-intentioned creation, was aptly described by Yves Congar. His wonderful diaries record in several places his thought that the problem with Pope Paul VI was that Paul's gestures, often dramatic and incredibly gracious and humble though they could be, were totally mismatched to any coherent ecclesiological vision, and as a result the gestures fulgurated strikingly and then faded to nothing as the conservative, stultified, unhistoric, Rome-centric ecclesiological status quo reasserted itself. 

Set for release late this year is a new book that proposes to examine the whole history and functioning of the "synod": Ignatius Aniekanabasi Edet, Ideal and Reality of the Synod of Bishops (T&T Clark, 2013), 272pp.

About this book we are told:
The Second Vatican Council envisaged a more prominent role of the synod of bishops in the Catholic church. However, the idea of the fathers of the council never came to full fruition. In this survey, Edet discusses why the reality does not meet the expectations of many of the fathers at Vatican II in terms of collegiality, communion and trinitarian theology. Edet emphasizes that this failure has implications for the church's life and mission. The concentration of decisive authority in the pope and his curia largely undermines the significance of the conciliar teaching on collegiality-dialogue and participation in the exercise of authority in the church. Edet offers an explanatory comparative investigation and evaluation of the Roman Catholic synod of bishops in relation to similar institutions in the Eastern Catholic and Anglican churches, as well as to the reflections on collegiality and synodality in some of the ecumenical dialogues.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Ecumenical Patriarch Ecumenically Analyzed

Set for release in late May is a collection of essays from non-Orthodox Christians looking at the impact of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew* on relations between Orthodoxy and both Protestant and Catholic traditions: William Rusch, ed., The Witness of Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch (Eerdmans, May 2013), 160pp.

About this book we are told:
In this volume several theologians from different Christian traditions examine how Bartholomew I as Ecumenical Patriarch has influenced the contemporary European scene, the various dialogues between Orthodox churches and Reformed and Roman Catholic churches, the ongoing work of the World Council of Churches, and the modern ecumenical movement.

These essays, largely from non-Orthodox authors, paint a portrait of the Ecumenical Patriarch that has been often overlooked in Western circles — as a deeply Orthodox leader who wishes to relate Orthodoxy to the modern world and to have it make its contribution to the unity of Christians. 

*A minor point of protocol: It is absurd that everyone insists on referring to him as "Bartholomew I," i.e., 'the first' even though that is never done until there is a second. E.g., in 1978, Albino Luciani, upon his election as bishop of Rome, was simply and rightly styled "Pope John Paul" and only after his death, and his successor took that same name, could he logically and correctly be called "Pope John Paul I."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Philosopher Converts

As I noted recently, and have done so repeatedly on here, many Christians today migrate across traditions. In the last quarter-century, numerous Western Christians have found themselves becoming Orthodox. A new collection looks at the stories of those who are academic philosophers who embraced Orthodoxy: Rico Vitz, Chad Hatfield, eds., Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith (SVS Press, 2012), 369pp.

About this book we are told:

The Orthodox Church is one of the largest religious groups in the world. Yet, it remains an enigma in the West, especially among those who mistake it either for a Greek version of Roman Catholicism or for an exotic mixture of Christianity and eastern religion. Many, however, are coming to recognize the Orthodox Church for what it is: a worldwide community of Christian disciples that has been faithful to the apostolic command, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by our epistle (2 Thess 2.15). Consequently, growing numbers of people are finding their true home in the Church that has continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2.42).

Among these converts are dozens of contemporary philosophers. Some are accomplished, world-renowned, senior scholars. Others are junior scholars in the earliest stages of their careers. As a group, they belong neither to any particular philosophical school nor to any particular Orthodox jurisdiction. What they have in common is a desire to enter deeply into an authentic and loving communion with the Living God, with God s people, and ultimately with all of God s creation.

Turning East is a collection of autobiographical essays in which sixteen of these philosophers describe their personal journeys to the Orthodox Church, explain their reasons for becoming Orthodox Christians, and offer a sense of how their conversions have changed their lives.
Contributors include such well known figures as H. Tristram Engelhardt, easily one of the most provocative bioethicists writing today, as I noted here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Christian Historiography in India

Christianity in India continues to fascinate as a place where various Western Christians live alongside a very substantial population of Eastern Christians who have, as I have noted before, some of the most most colourful if understudied practices. Indian Christianity is now coming in for increasing study in new works such as John C.B. Webster, Historiography of Christianity in India (Oxford University Press, 2012), 272pp.
About this book we are told that it

        • Provides a comprehensive overview of history of Christianity in India
        • Deals with contemporary topics like religious conversion and Dalits
        • Adopts the approach of 'New Perspectives' of Church History Association of India
Moving beyond the missionary perspective, this book adopts a historian's approach to the documentation of Christianity in the region. Webster's first-hand knowledge of social dynamics of the region as well as familiarity with sources form the basis of this socio-cultural history of the Christians in India. Wide in its scope, his narrative reaches back to the early days of the Europeans in India, as well as strides forward in meeting the challenges of modern India like religious conversion and identity of Indian Christians. From tracking down the elusive Ditt in Indian Christian history to the understanding of Christianity through the perspectives of subalterns like women and Dalits, this book furthers a case for the interpretation of Indian social history through Christian history of the region.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Search for Unity Continues

I was recently asked to review a new collection of essays for the journal Reviews in Religion and Theology. I cannot reprint that review here, but suffice it for me to say this is an important collection that belongs on every bibliography of Christian, and particularly ecumenical, history of the twentieth century: John Radano, ed., Celebrating a Century of Ecumenism: Exploring the Achievements of International Dialogue (Eerdmans, 2012), 356pp.

I mention this now in late January, which, for over a century, has been celebrated as a week of special prayer, between January 18 and 25th, for the unity of all Christians. (The history of this week of prayer, the so-called unity octave, is recounted in part in Catherine Clifford, ed., A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity.) The strides we have made in the last century are very considerable indeed, but we have not yet achieved the longed-for goal of full Christian unity. The prayer and work can and must continue.

Our conception of what "full Christian unity" would look like has changed over the century. Many, if not most, of the early models envisaged a complete, structured, "institutional" unity of one hierarchy, a model that is now largely abandoned. Such a model was often bound up with assumptions that the way to achieve such a unified structure was through an "ecumenism of return" in which the wayward "heretics" or "schismatics" returned to whatever the "mother-Church" was thought to be (Rome, Constantinople, etc.). Today we realize not only is such a model not very possible, but in some very important respects it is not even desirable. Instead, many today, especially in the context of East-West or Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism, have, rightly, recovered the model of "full communion," which model seems to have obtained in most of the early Church. In this model, there is no "ecumenism of return" because no one party unilaterally, let alone contumaciously, walked away from the other. Rather, both parties, through an enormously complex historical process, grew estranged from one another and the communion that obtained for most of the first millennium (not without problems and occasional breaks) was increasingly lost.

We conventionally date the East-West estrangement to 1054, though that is more a heuristic than anything. It is not as though there was some magical expiration date on unity that came due in July 1054 after which all unity vanished. Those who know the history know several things, not least that it is highly likely, canonically speaking, that Cardinal Humbert's actions lacked "validity" because the pope in whose name he was acting had died already. In addition, his actions, and the corresponding actions of Patriarch Michael Cerularius, were thought only to pertain to each other and their delegations: they were never intended to be church-dividing in the way we often assume. (Even if they were, the mutual lifting of those excommunications in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras should have taken care of this problem. De iure it is arguable that they did, but de facto they manifestly did not, alas.) In proof of this, there is ample evidence of Catholics and Orthodox continuing to share the Eucharist as late as the seventeenth century in some parts of Greece, and well into the twentieth century in the former USSR, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere.

And today? Today officially most Orthodox Churches will refuse to share the Eucharist with Catholics, while Catholics are in fact permitted to share the sacraments with those Orthodox who request them. But officially neither side will condone a full eucharistic celebration with priests, let alone bishops, together. Both sides, in other words, maintain that we are not yet ready for that--that some kind of doctrinal agreement must take place first in which lingering issues are resolved. I am of course deeply aware of what the last and greatest of those issues is said to be, and I treat the papacy extensively in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

But since finishing the book, I am increasingly inclined to think two things. First, the idea that we have to have some kind of perfect doctrinal accord, a complete unity of dogmatic understanding, is to hold ourselves to an artificial, unhistorical, and wholly unnecessary standard. Nobody in the first millennium, and arguably for much of the second, would have thought such a standard necessary beyond, say, reciting the Nicene Creed together. If Orthodox and Catholic bishops can do that--and they can--then what else is necessary?

Now, to be sure, we need--and I argue this in more detail than anyone else has--some kind of modus operandi allowing Eastern and Western bishops to work together in full communion together with their brother, the bishop and pope of Rome. I still think my proposal could and would work, and I am gratified that in all the serious reviews to date, nobody has shown me otherwise or come up with a plausible alternative proposal.

The second thing on which I have changed my mind is precisely the question of the Eucharist. I used to hold to the so-called traditional position of most Catholics and Orthodox today that we cannot celebrate the Eucharist until every point of doctrinal disagreement is resolved. I no longer believe that, and in every instance of the half-dozen or so authors who have changed my mind on this question, they have all been Orthodox:
I stress this because I know that for some Orthodox anybody advocating eucharistic sharing is automatically dismissed as some kind of "ecumaniac" or Roman stooge who is living in a dream-world c. 1968. Anyone pressing for greater Orthodox-Catholic unity is summarily convicted of the "pan-heresy of ecumenism," a phrase both amusing and increasingly tiresome. For that phrase presupposes that those pushing for Christian unity are doing so with only one method, and only one purpose: the watering down, if not outright elimination of, major doctrinal truths so that we are left with only one commandment: "Be nice to each other and believe whatever you want." Nobody--nobody--is actually advocating that. Certainly no responsible theologian or hierarch, in Orthodoxy or Catholicism, is advocating that. If they were, then we would have achieved unity a long time ago, for such a method would have made unity an overnight accomplishment instead of the long, arduous, painstaking process it is. It is painstaking precisely because nobody can or will simply dismiss or dilute doctrine. The people who think this are guilty of a great slander against the bishops and theologians involved in ecumenical dialogue and are rightly dismissed as cranks to whom no attention should be paid. If we achieve nothing else between this unity octave 2013 and next year's, let it at least be the complete abandonment of this fatuous notion of ecumenism as a "pan-heresy."

But let's not aim so low. I think all Catholics and Orthodox who care about this--and who cannot?--should spend the rest of the year challenging their fellow communicants to work harder for East-West unity. And one way to do that would be through the inspiration, and perhaps even intercession, of Lev Gillet. Gillet was a fascinating figure who moved from French Roman Catholicism to Greek Catholicism (in the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, whose primate, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, he saw as being his spiritual father even after Gillet became Orthodox), to Eastern Orthodoxy, all the while blurring the sacramental-spiritual-ecclesial boundaries along the way. That is what is needed today: to blur those artificial and wholly sinful boundaries we have erected until such time as they disappear entirely. And what better way to do it than through that medicine of immortality which heals all wounds, the Eucharist?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Evil of Moneylending

Just released late last year is a book that manages to be both 'ancient and ever new,' that is, to draw on ancient sources still relevant today in our ongoing discussion about fiscal issues and policies in  the world's economies: Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen, They Who Give from Evil: The Response of the Eastern Church to Moneylending in the Early Christian Era (Pickwick, 2012), 207pp. I asked the author, who teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, for an interview and here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background.

BLI: Well let me begin by saying “thank you” to you for this opportunity to answer some questions about myself and my work. I was born and raised in western Washington State, on the Puget Sound. I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in English and Education, and taught English in the public school system in Oregon state for a few years. Though I enjoyed my job and knew that I was called to the vocation of teaching, still I desired to study the early history and theology of the Christian church. I took a leave from teaching and returned to school; I completed my Master’s degree in theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, and then my PhD at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. After I graduated I returned to teaching, but not to the junior high classroom. I returned to the Pacific Northwest, where I teach as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University.

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

BLI: This began as a dissertation. I was directed towards this topic by my Doctor-Father, T. Allan Smith at the Faculty of Theology (St. Michael’s). Many dissertations emerge from places of deep passion for students; this was not my situation. That said, I found myself quite wooed by the topic of usury and by those about whom I was writing; quite quickly, their concerns became mine. I cannot help but think that this had something to do with the fact that I did not grow up with wealth and as a graduate student I was deeply in debt.

After I completed the dissertation I assumed that I would put this away and move on, but people were interested, and so I kept working on it. From the dissertation I produced an article for the Journal of Early Christian Studies, a chapter for the book Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics: Issues and Challenges for Twenty-First-Century Christian Social Thought (Catholic University of America Press, 2011) and another chapter for a forthcoming compendium on the social justice theologies of the patristic authors. While these projects seemed to close the chapter on this topic for me, enough people encouraged me to revisit the dissertation and revise it for publication as a monograph. I found myself rewriting large sections in light of what I have learned since 2004, and so I am ultimately glad that I revised the work for those who are interested in the social justice theologies of early Christian authors.

AD: Your title already "telegraphs" a rather stark view of many early Christian leaders about money-lending. In what did the evil consist? 

BLI: The evil for patristics lies in the deception of the one who lends, and this is an attitude that has quite ancient roots. The one who lends operates under the pretext of helping someone in need; while it appears as if the lender is offering assistance, in fact they are setting up a condition of debt from which it is often unlikely that the impoverished individual will successfully emerge. I compare this in my book to a usurer throwing an anvil rather than a rope to a person who is drowning. That said, the one who borrows is not off the hook, and individuals are cautioned—especially in the works of Basil and Gregory—to refrain from borrowing money for an extravagant lifestyle. In such cases, they are not innocent.

AD: You open with a chapter on Basil and Gregory of Nyssa and most of your focus is on them. What led you to them in particular? 

Well they are exceptional because they are the only two Greek patristic theologians to write sermons dedicated solely to this topic. Other writings on usury were simply tangential portions embedded in writings that had other intentions. In the Latin west there is Ambrose, but his sermon on this topic draws directly from Basil. So I was interested first in the scarcity of the topic, then on the fact that these two brothers—from affluent families, no less—are both writing on usury, and they are the only ones devoting concentrated attention to it. Then I was intrigued by secondary scholarship that seemed to dismiss Gregory’s contribution though my interpretation was that Gregory had something unique to offer. My desire to go forward with this project was supported by the patristic scholar Paul Fedwick, who felt that it was a good time to reassess the value of these sermons, most especially that of Gregory.
Basil the Great

AD: Are there other patristic sources, in addition to Basil and Gregory, who are important for or influential upon the questions of moneylending?  

It is worth pointing out that patristic theologians of both the Eastern and Western realms of the Empire were in agreement on the subject of usurious lending; though legal, usury was understood as contrary to divine law, and therefore any interest at all was condemned. This does not mean that the patristics did not recognize that lending did take place; it just meant that they did not agree that it should. In the Eastern Empire, Clement of Alexandria relies on biblical precedent in the Hebrew Scriptures for his statements in the Stromata against usurious practices, and Cyril of Jerusalem lists usury in his On the Ten Points of Doctrine within a list of sins that includes tavern-hunting, necromancy and witchcraft! Gregory of Nazianzus also condemned the practice in his poignant Oration 16. John Chrysostom is probably the most important and condemning of the practice; apart from our brothers Basil and Gregory, he has the most to say about moneylending and wealth in general. Many of Chrysostom’s homilies argue that the only investment worth making is in heaven; therefore one should give to the poor as Christ and earn interest for themselves in heaven, not on earth. Of the Latin fathers, perhaps the most important is Ambrose’ De Tobia; though his text lifts whole sections from Basil’s sermon, nevertheless his contribution is both important and provocative. It is worth noting also that the patristic theologians East and West inherited their attitudes from philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria, Plutarch, Aristotle and Plato. In this way, the Christian authors stand in a tradition of great thinkers on this topic.

AD:  Some Christians today would say that these early strictures about interest, usury, and related notions are no longer applicable because the economies of our time--at least in most of Europe, North America, and Australasia--are so vastly different. What are your thoughts on that?  

Yes, I hear this often. But while our economic systems and structures for handling finance have radically changed, people have not. We continue to have problems associated with greed and abundance, and we continue to fail to solve the problem of scarcity. A great example of this is that in late November—just after the holiday in the United States devoted to domestic arts—I read in the news that between thirty to fifty percent of food is wasted globally due to problems with storage, rigid adherence to expiry dates on packages and a need for fruits and vegetables to match an aesthetic criterion that is unreasonable. It takes no technology to fix this problem; it takes only a willingness to be morally responsible to the needs of the people and the planet. One might choose to purchase and eat food that is not perfect, or to not buy foods in bulk if they may go to waste. Or, if something might go to waste one could quickly share it with someone who might need it. These are three simple solutions, and this same type of thinking is found in the writings of Basil and Gregory. For example Basil (drawing on the works of Plutarch and from Proverbs), encourages those in need to avoid borrowing if they can, and to look first to their own resources first before enslaving themselves to money-lenders. He writes “Do you have metal plates, clothing, beasts of burden, utensils of every kind? Sell them; permit all things to go except your liberty.” This is as good a suggestion today as it was then, so while the systems are different, I think that the solutions are still appropriate. I do think that these early strictures about interest and usury are as applicable today as they were in the fourth century.

AD: The end of your first chapter references the subprime lending and mortgage crisis that sent much of the world into economic tumult in the last five years. Were they alive today, what advice would the Cappadocian brothers give to these problems?

I think that Basil would not have soothing words to say to those who tried to live beyond their means and borrowed too much, but I also think that he would take banks to task for holding out the promise of low interest to people who are not able to understand fully what financial deal they are making. I think that we can turn to John Chrysostom for the most extreme response to the evil of the type of lending that has been so disastrous for our country, for he equates a moneylender in his Homily Five on Matthew with a murderer: “under the cloak of kindness he digs the pitfall deeper, by the act of help burdening a man’s poverty, and in the act of stretching out the hand thrusting him down, and when receiving him as in harbor, involving him in shipwreck, as on a rock, or shoal, or reef.” Elsewhere Basil agrees with this sentiment, that one who has it in their good to do power but instead does evil is equated with a murderer, and Gregory refers to a usurer as a “murderous physician” who kills rather than heals. This is not an image of their own making, for the Hebrew Scriptures equate financial sins with murder, and Psalm 15—the Psalm on which Basil and Gregory focus their sermons—notes that the usurer will not be counted among those who will dwell on the Lord’s “holy hill.” Even Cato the Elder when asked “What do you think of lending at usury?” replied, “What do you think of killing a man?” So, what do I think of those who lent to those who did not have the capacity to pay their mortgages? Well, what do you think of killing someone?

AD: You note (p.109) that no Father was as adamant as John Chrysostom in his denunciations of affluence and usury. What are the problems he sees? Is his thinking broadly representative of the other sources you look at? 

I would agree that he is broadly representative of the sources, not only in his theology but also in his method. Like the other Fathers whom I highlight in the text, Chrysostom includes usury in homilies devoted to other subjects, but the financial concerns are brought into the discussion as part of something larger. As well, with respect to the problems that he sees regarding unjust financial transactions, Chrysostom is largely concerned with the direction of people’s investments. In other words, they are investing in transitory, material things rather than in that which is divine, or Heaven. Of course this seems odd to many who do not come from an Orthodox or Catholic background with a tradition of the Fathers; how can one invest in Heaven? To understand what this means for the Fathers, one has to understand something of their anthropology and theology. If God is accessible through God’s uncreated energies, then investing in Heaven is possible in the “here and now” because when one aids someone in need, then one is responding to God. This is a concept that all of the Greek Fathers seem to share, but it does seem that for Chrysostom it is a theme to which he returns many times. Gregory of Nyssa also promotes this same way of thinking about giving as “investing in heaven,” going so far as to call God a debtor to us! But of course what he means by that is that God, who gives from God’s abundance, is the model for giving.

 AD: How do you, and the Fathers, understand the problem of moneylending in directly theological terms? That is, usury is condemned (presumably) not just because of socioeconomic problems it creates for people, but also because such practices do not reflect who God is. What images of God, what descriptions of His nature, emerge from the Christian tradition's treatment of usury? 

BLI: All of the Fathers on whom I write are approaching their topic through the lens of asceticism and monasticism. In other words, they are individuals who have intentionally divested themselves of unnecessary wealth and they live among a community that supports that ideal. Of course, we have to recognize that they lived during an age when ecclesiastical leaders were expected to be connected to monastic communities and being an “ascetic” had become rather part of the job description of the professional religious. Further, they had communities that supported them spiritually, emotionally and materially, so to divest oneself of wealth while still be provided for is hardly the same thing as divesting oneself of wealth and not knowing a single soul in the city. As well, these were all individuals who were classically educated, and so their image of God is very much shaped by that education. Their theology has an impact on their understanding of economic practices as each moment, each financial interaction, becomes for them—and for us as well—an opportunity to meet God in the poor. However, this also means that something of God’s nature (the divine energies) cannot be approached or known as long as human nature is dressed in the garments of sin and stained by avarice. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Sermon 5, Forgive us our Debts, writes that an evil response by the wealthy to the poor distorts the inherent goodness of creation. This is ultimately, for Gregory, tied up in his Christology, for a proper understanding of shared human nature on the part of the giver will move both the giver and the receiver towards an original state of purity. In this way, acts of benevolence and goodness clarify the divine image that both parties are capable of demonstrating. “For as you practice goodness,” he writes, “you are clothed in Christ and as you become like Christ you become like God.”

AD: Sum up for us what you hope to accomplish with this book, and then tell us what you are working on now.  

First, I hoped that this book might provide a helpful history of the development of lending in the Greek, Roman and Hebrew cultures. Many times books on economic history are pretty formidable, and so I attempted to write a history that would be accessible to those with more than a passing interest but yet not necessarily students of ancient economies or legal systems. Second, I felt strongly that Gregory of Nyssa did not receive due treatment in secondary materials that analyzed his work; it felt too often that his sermon was treated as a mere copy of Basil’s, when in fact it was Ambrose who lifted who passages out of Basil’s sermon! I think that many times Gregory’s writings on similar topics of Basil’s were his way of saying “I have something to contribute as well,” and that is an attitude that we should model. I think it would have been challenging to have been the sibling of Basil, and even though Gregory has in no way suffered with respect to academic treatment of his theology, still, with respect to this one sermon I felt that it warranted—and that he deserved—a closer look.

What I am working on now is something quite different. I am completing for Ashgate a manuscript on the writing of John Moschos, a late sixth, early seventh century monk who composed a document known as the Pratum Spirituale, or The Spiritual Meadow. Along with his companion Sophronios, Moschos traveled around Palestine and Sinai and collected what we call “beneficial tales,” very brief stories most often focused on monastic life. Moschos is an enigmatic figure, and my manuscript seeks to uncover through close analysis of select tales in his text what we might be able to learn of the social history of the early Byzantine monks and lay people at a turning point in the history of the Eastern Empire. Now this seems like a project that is unrelated, but it is actually the topic of finances that led me back to Moschos’ Pratum. Years ago I realized that many of the tales dealt with—in some way—problems of scarcity, greed and financial suffering. So when it was time to embark on a new scholarship project I found my way into the text through, once again, the theme of social justice.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Honoring Paul Tarazi

The Orthodox biblical scholar Paul Tarazi  is the author or editor of many works, including, recently, The Chrysostom Bible - Ezekiel: A Commentary (2012); Matthew and The Canon (2009); Land and Covenant (2009); The Chrysostom Bible - Genesis: A Commentary (2009); and an early work, Old Testament: An Introduction (1991). He has also written other commentaries for the Chrysostom Bible series.

Tarazi has recently been honoured with a Festschrift in Honor of Professor Paul Nadim Tarazi: Studies in the Old Testament (Bible in the Christian Orthodox Tradition) under the editorship of Nocolae Roddy and Vahan S. Hovhanessian (Peter Lang, forthcoming, 2013), 188pp.

About this book we are told:
The Festschrift in Honor of Professor Paul Nadim Tarazi includes a collection of articles discussing the latest scholarly findings in the field of the Old Testament studies. Scholars from around the world conducting research in the Old Testament text, theology, canon, interpretation, and criticism have contributed their recent findings in the fields of their research and teaching to this volume.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ethiopian Ecclesiology

A colleague recently asked me for sources on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and I expressed my frustration that studies, at least in English, continue to be few and to emerge rather slowly. One I just discovered was published in 2010 and has at least some bearing on both ecclesiology and ecumenism: Nequisse Andre Dominic,The Fetha Nagast and its Ecclesiology (Peter Lang, 2010), 263pp.

About this book we are told:

In the field of comparative legal history, Ethiopia is still an unknown country. One of its treasures is the Fetha Nagast, a book of law which had a great influence in the history of Ethiopia and still has great consideration in the society, with its richness in Biblical and Christian principles. This book presents for the first time an ecclesiological and missiological reflection on the Fetha Nagast. The first part of the work is focused on the origin, structure and content of this book of law. In the second part, the author presents the ecclesiology of the Fetha Nagast and its implications and prospectives in Ethiopian Catholic Church. Other aspects studied are brotherhood ecclesiology, the role of the Holy Spirit in the past and present and the notion of Church in the Fetha Nagast, as well as the history of Christianity in Ethiopia.
We are also given the table of contents:
Contents: The «Fetha Nagast» - The structure and the content of «Fetha Nagast» - The Ecclesiology of «Fetha Nagast» - Assessment of the Ecclesiological elements of Vatican II with «Fetha Nagast» and today in Ethiopian Catholic Church - The Ecclesiological/Missiological implications based on the root of the past and the present towards the future of Ethiopian Catholic Church.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Arab Christians and Their Not So Springly Plight

Just before Christmas a book was published that looks to be enormously timely given events in the Arab world over the last two years. It treats one of the least-known religious groups, viz., Arab Christians: Najib George Awad, And Freedom Became a Public-Square: Political, Sociological and Religious Overviews on the Arab Christians and the Arabic Spring (Lit Verlag, 2012), 280pp.

About this book we are told by the publisher:
From an Arab Christian perspective, this book introduces some of the substantial components and the pivotal ramifications of the latest revolutions in the Arab World, known as "the Arabic Spring." It offers a fresh, timely, and intellectual reading of the promising "Spring" in Syria and in the rest of the "born-again" Arab world. The first part of the book looks at the uprisings in general, while the second part examines Christians in the Arab world and their view of the uprisings, with primary attention to the case of Syria. The third part is an invitation for developing an Arabic contextual religious discourse out of the recent Arabic world's (deeply religious) context and changes. The book will benefit those who would like to have a general idea about what happened, and is still happening, in the Arab world, as well as those who would like to get some insightful and coherent understanding of why, how, and on what presumptions the Arab Christians base their appraisal of, and stances on, the Arabic Spring. (Series: Studies on Oriental Church History / Studien zur Orientalischen Kirchengeschichte - Vol. 46)

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Assyrian Church of the East

Since at least 1994, one of the happy effects of living in an otherwise depressing age has been the progressive rapprochement of Eastern Christians with their Western brethren, i.e., Roman Catholics. Perhaps nowhere has this been more evident than in the growing relations between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, about which a number of fascinating scholarly books have been recently published, making this ancient and often mysterious, and grossly misunderstood, Church more widely accessible and easily understood. In the process, we see clearly that any notion of the Church being 'Nestorian' or 'Monophysite' is simply false. 

Of recent books, two merit special attention: 

Daniel Schwartz, Paideia and Cult: Christian Initiation in Theodore of Mopsuestia (Harvard UP, 2013), 200pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
Paideia and Cult explores the role of Christian education and worship in the complex process of conversion and Christianization. It analyzes the  of Theodore of Mopsuestia as a curriculum designed to train those seeking initiation into the Christian mysteries. Although Theodore gave considerable attention to teaching creedal theology, he sought to go beyond simply communicating information. His catechetical preaching set the teaching of Christian ideas within the context of religious community and ritual participation. In doing so he sought to produce a Christianized view of the world and of the convert’s place in a community of worship. Theodore’s attention to the communal, cognitive, and ritual components of initiation suggest a substantive understanding of religious conversion, yet one that avoids an overemphasis on intellectual and psychological transformation. Throughout this study catechesis emerges as invaluable for comprehending the ability of clergy to initiate new members as Christianity gained increasing prominence within the late Roman world.
In addition, for those seeking deepened understanding of the sacramental theology and practice of the Assyrians, they could do no better than to consult: Bishop Mar Awa Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom (The Sacraments of the Assyrian Church of the East) (CIRED, 2011), ix+398pp.

I have just finished reading this clearly written and enormously useful book in preparation for a chapter I am preparing on 'holy orders' for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Sacraments that Oxford University Press is bringing out next year under the editorship of Matthew Levering and Hans Boersma. Royel's book goes into lavish and fascinating detail about the Assyrian understanding of Raza, their preferred Persian-derived term for what Latins call 'sacraments' and Greeks 'mysteries.' Unlike virtually every other apostolic tradition, East and West, the Assyrians do not count marriage as a sacrament nor anointing of the sick. In their place they have other sacraments--the sign of the cross, among others. Debates have taken place down through the centuries as to how many sacraments there are. Today the consensus seems that the number is eight, and 'priesthood' is the most important because without it none of the other sacraments can be brought about. Their understanding of 'priesthood' has nine ranks, from patriarch-catholicos at the top to reader at the bottom, each corresponding to the nine ranks of the angelic choirs, and each having an 'ordination' attached to it, even, uniquely, for the patriarch-catholicos upon his election, notwithstanding the fact that he is already in episcopal orders. Another unique aspect of this Church is that priests and deacons are free to marry either before or even after ordination, and early synods offered stiff resistance to any imposition of celibacy, even on bishops, who were, until at least the mid-sixth century, themselves married.

About this very useful book the publisher tells us:
Mysteries of the Kingdom is a modern-day treatise on the theology of the Assyrian Church of the East regarding the seven holy sacraments. The title is inspired by the words of our Lord to his disciples: "To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven..." (Matthew 13:11). The sacraments are the visible, material means of God's saving grace, which is itself unseen and immaterial; this he gives to us freely out of his own love and mercy. The theological foundations for the sacraments lay in the fact that the Word of God was Incarnate for our salvation. However, the sacraments become spiritually efficacious and beneficial for our salvation in the power of the Paschal Mystery-the passion, death, burial and triumphant resurrection of Christ Jesus. The faithful must be initiated into the doctrine and theology of the sacraments so that they may know and gain spiritual benefit from those means which God has given us through which he imparts his unseen and uncreated grace. The bases upon which this treatise is written is the Apostolic Tradition of the Holy Church, which exists in both its written (the Sacred Scriptures) and oral forms (the Apostolic and Patristic Teachings).

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Muslim-Christian Relations

Routlege Press continues to be one of the most important and prolific in publishing titles concerning Islam, the Middle East, and Muslim-Christian relations, as I have noted before. They are set to soon release another welcome collection which I greatly look forward to reading: Mona Siddiqui, ed., The Routledge Reader in Christian-Muslim Relations (384pp.).

About this book the publisher tells us:
Interest in Christian-Muslim dialogue has grown considerably in recent years. How Islam and Christianity have approached each other theologically is one of the most absorbing ways of understanding the challenge of interreligious relations or Christian-Muslim polemics. This volume provides an indispensable reading and reference tool, showing how Muslim and Christian scholars have shaped the discourse on the varying interfaces between Christianity and Islam. The Reader contains a substantial introduction and presents a range of scholarly approaches to Christian-Muslim relations. Included are selections of primary polemical material, focusing on critical and appreciative approaches to the Jesus/Muhammad, Bible/Qur’an and God question for Muslims and Christians.
We are also given the contents:
Editor’s Introduction Mona Siddiqui 1. John of Damascus: The Heresy of the IshmaelitesAdelbert Davids and Pim Valkenberg 2. The Islamic Image of Paul and the Origin of the Gospel of Barnabas P.S. van Koningsveld 3. The Christologies of Abu Qurra, Abu Ra’ita and Ammar al-Basri and Muslim Response Mark Beaumont 4. Extracts from Early Muslim Polemic against Christianity: Abu Isa al-Warraq’s ‘Against the Incarnation’ David Thomas 5. Folly to the Hunafa: The Crucifixion in Early Christian-Muslim Controversy Mark N. Swanson 6. Extracts from The Book of Religion and Empire Al-Tabari 7. A Mu‘tazilite Refutation of Christianity and Judaism: Two Fragments from Abd Al-Jabbar’s Al-Mughni Fi Abwab Al-Tawhid Wa-L-Adl Margaretha Heemskerk 8. Muhammad and the Muslims in St. Thomas Aquinas James Waltz 9. Nicholas of Cusa on the Qur’an: A Fifteenth-Century Encounter With Islam Nicholas Rescher 10. Luther’s Knowledge of and Attitude Towards Islam Adam S. Francisco 11. Extracts from The Disintegration of Islam Samuel M. Zwemer 12. Extracts from The Christian Message in a non-Christian World Hendrik Kraemer 13. Towards an Islamic Christology II: The Death of Jesus, Reality or Delusion Mahmoud M. Ayoub 14. Islam and Christianity: Diatribe or Dialogue Isma’il Ragi A. Al Faruqi 15. Mohammad Talbi: ‘For Dialogue Between all Religions' Ronald L. Nettler16. Christianity and World Religions: The Dialogue with Islam as one Model Hans Küng 17. The Quest of the Historical Muhammad F E Peters 18. Jesus and Mary as Poetical Images in Rumi’s Verse Annemarie Schimmel 19. Extracts from The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature Tarif Khalidi 20. The Praiseworthy Amity of Christians Jane Dammen McAuliffe 21. Rachel, Mary, and Fatima Susan Sered 22. ‘No God in Common:’ American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11 Richard Cimino 23. Aw qāla: ‘Li-jārihi’: Some observations on brotherhood or neighborly love in Islamic tradition Oddbjørn Leirvik

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Conversion Stories

It has become rather common for people, especially in North America, to find themselves--to use Stanley Hauerwas' phrase--"ecclesially homeless." Those who are in that position do not often remain so for long, but instead seek out a new ecclesial home, and not a few of those find their home in Orthodoxy or Catholicism, as I have noted before in reviewing Amy Slagle's excellent book, and in my interview with Mickey Mattox and A.G. Roeber, one of whom became Catholic, the other Orthodox. A recent addition to this genre of "convert" stories was recently published: Robert Plummer et al, eds., Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism (Zondervan, 2012), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Research indicates that on average, Americans change their religious affiliation at least once during their lives. Today, a number of evangelical Christians are converting to Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. Longtime Evangelicals often fail to understand the attraction of these non-Evangelical Christian traditions. Journeys of Faith examines the movement between these traditions from various angles. Four prominent converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Anglicanism describe their new faith traditions and their spiritual journeys into them. Response chapters offer respectful critiques. Contributors include Wilbur Ellsworth (Eastern Orthodoxy), with a response by Craig Blaising; Francis J. Beckwith (Roman Catholicism), with Gregg Allison responding; Chris Castaldo (Evangelicalism) and Brad S. Gregory's Catholic response; and Lyle W. Dorsett (Anglicanism), with a response by Robert A. Peterson. This book will provide readers with first-hand accounts of thoughtful Christians changing religious affiliation or remaining true to the traditions they have always known. Pastors, counselors and students of theology will gain a wealth of insight into current faith migration within the church today.
The first section contains three essays on becoming Orthodox--a pattern followed in subsequent sections on those who become Protestant and Catholic.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Repentance in Late Antiquity

A number of years ago, Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies published a study of sacramental confession in the Christian East and the changes in its practice over the centuries. As I learned in the late 90s, when a grad student working for a professor (whose findings were eventually published as The Sacrament of Reconciliation: An Existential Approach), few sacraments have changed as much over the centuries as confession/reconciliation. Now, next month, a new book will emerge to examine some of those changes in a crucial period: Alexis C. Torrance, Repentance in Late Antiquity: Eastern Asceticism and the Framing of the Christian Life c.400-650 CE (Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs, 2013), 240pp. This book, the publisher tells us:
  • Provides an important re-assessment of the concept of repentance in Christian late antiquity.
  • Gives a fresh perspective on the forming of early Christian identity in terms of repentance.
  • Sets ascetic theology within the context of Scripture and other early church literature.
  • Supplies an interpretative framework by which the diverse meanings of repentance in early Christian texts can be better understood.
  • Furnishes the background for the concept of repentance as it developed in the Orthodox Church.
We are further told:
The call to repentance is central to the message of early Christianity. While this is undeniable, the precise meaning of the concept of repentance for early Christians has rarely been investigated to any great extent, beyond studies of the rise of penitential discipline. In this study, the rich variety of meanings and applications of the concept of repentance are examined, with a particular focus on the writings of several ascetic theologians of the fifth to seventh centuries: SS Mark the Monk, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, and John Climacus. These theologians provide some of the most sustained and detailed elaborations of the concept of repentance in late antiquity. They predominantly see repentance as a positive, comprehensive idea that serves to frame the whole of Christian life, not simply one or more of its parts. While the modern dominant understanding of repentance as a moment of sorrowful regret over past misdeeds, or as equivalent to penitential discipline, is present to a degree, such definitions by no means exhaust the concept for them. The path of repentance is depicted as stretching from an initial about-face completed in baptism, through the living out of the baptismal gift by keeping the Gospel commandments, culminating in the idea of intercessory repentance for others, after the likeness of Christ's innocent suffering for the world. While this overarching role for repentance in Christian life is clearest in ascetic works, these are not explored in isolation, and attention is also paid to the concept of repentance in Scripture, the early church, apocalyptic texts, and canonical material. This not only permits the elaboration of the views of the ascetics in their larger context, but further allows for an overall re-assessment of the often misunderstood, if not overlooked, place of repentance in early Christian theology.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church

If you move in academic circles, you know that "political theology," broadly conceived, has been all the rage for some time now, and shows no sign of letting up. Part of that discussion involves competing understandings of how early Christians related to the Roman Empire--was it unhelpful and unhealthy accommodation to "Constantinianism" as Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and others allege? Was it "symphonia" as Orthodox apologists for Byzantium claim? Was it something else? A new book may shed light on these questions: Susanna Elm, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome (University of California Press, 2012), 558pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This groundbreaking study brings into dialogue for the first time the writings of Julian, the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, and his most outspoken critic, Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, a central figure of Christianity. Susanna Elm compares these two men not to draw out the obvious contrast between the Church and the Emperor's neo-Paganism, but rather to find their common intellectual and social grounding. Her insightful analysis, supplemented by her magisterial command of sources, demonstrates the ways in which both men were part of the same dialectical whole. Elm recasts both Julian and Gregory as men entirely of their times, showing how the Roman Empire in fact provided Christianity with the ideological and social matrix without which its longevity and dynamism would have been inconceivable.
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