"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).

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Vatican Diaries

Some authors have all the luck of timing on their side, and John Thavis, whose new book has just been released last week, would seem to be one of those: The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church (Viking, 2013), 336pp. Thavis, unlike most people who open their mouths about the Vatican, is a serious and intelligent Catholic journalist whom I've been reading for years.

About this book we are told:
A revealing, timely look at the reign of Pope Benedict, the conclave, the papal election process by the cardinals, and the history of one of the world’s oldest and most mysterious institutions

For more than twenty-five years John Thavis held one of the most fascinating journalistic jobs in the world: reporting on the inner workings of the Vatican. His daily exposure to the power, politics, and personalities in the seat of Roman Catholicism gave him a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective on an institution that is far less monolithic and unified than it first appears. Thavis reveals Vatican City as a place where Curia cardinals fight private wars, scandals threaten to undermine papal authority, and reverence for the past is continually upended by the practical considerations of modern life.

Thavis takes readers from a bell tower high above St. Peter’s to the depths of the basilica and the saint’s burial place, from the politicking surrounding the election of a new pope and the ever-growing sexual abuse scandals around the world to controversies about the Vatican’s stand on contraception, and more.

Perceptive, sharply written, and witty, The Vatican Diaries will appeal not only to Catholics (lapsed as well as devout) but to any readers interested in international diplomacy and the role of religion in an increasingly secularized world.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Religion in the Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin

I recall clearly that when I began my undergraduate education in the 1990s, many academics in the humanities, especially English and psychology departments, were talking extensively about the hermeneutic potential of Mikhail Bakhtin. I read a bit of him in a fascinating course on psychoanalysis and literature in which we read some Russian writers, including Anton Chekhov, whose powerful and poignant short stories I have never forgotten. Since the 90s I have not heard Bakhtin discussed so much, and even when he was, I do not recall a great deal of attention being paid to his Russian Orthodox context. Along comes a new study of his thought that might reverse that: Hilary Bagshaw, Religion in the Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin: Reason and Faith (Ashgate, 2013), 176pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

This book examines the significance of religion in the work of the twentieth century philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, Exploring Bakhtin's contribution to debates on methodology in the study of religion, this book argues that his use of religious terminology is derived from his source material in philosophy of religion and not from his confessional commitment to Russian Orthodox Christianity. Critiquing Gavin Flood's important work Beyond Phenomenology, Hilary Bagshaw explains how Bakhtin's work on 'outsideness' presents invaluable insights for scholars of religion, particularly pertinent to the contemporary insider/outsider debate.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Icons and Persons in Time and Eternity

As I have had many occasions to note previously, we continue to see new books about icons constantly emerging from a variety of presses, reflecting a widespread interest in them on the part of Christians of all traditions, Eastern and Western. At the end of this month a new scholary study is set to emerge: Cornelia A. Tsakiridou, Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetics of the Christian Image (Ashgate, 2013), 378pp. + 8 colour + 40 b/w illustrations.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity presents a critical, interdisciplinary examination of contemporary theological and philosophical studies of the Christian image and redefines this within the Orthodox tradition by exploring the ontological and aesthetic implications of Orthodox ascetic and mystical theology. It finds Modernist interest in the aesthetic peculiarity of icons significant, and essential for re-evaluating their relationship to non-representational art.Drawing on classical Greek art criticism, Byzantine ekphraseis and hymnography, and the theologies of St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas, the author argues that the ancient Greek concept of enargeia best conveys the expression of theophany and theosis in art. The qualities that define enargeia - inherent liveliness, expressive autonomy and self-subsisting form - are identified in exemplary Greek and Russian icons and considered in the context of the hesychastic theology that lies at the heart of Orthodox Christianity.An Orthodox aesthetics is thus outlined that recognizes the transcendent being of art and is open to dialogue with diverse pictorial and iconographic traditions. An examination of Ch'an (Zen) art theory and a comparison of icons with paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Marc Chagall, and by Japanese artists influenced by Zen Buddhism, reveal intriguing points of convergence and difference. The reader will find in these pages reasons to reconcile Modernism with the Christian image and Orthodox tradition with creative form in art.
The publisher also gives us the table of contents:
Preface; Part I Preliminaries: The need to redefine the Christian image; The exemplary work of art; Enargeia and key concepts.
Part II Theology and Art: The Orthodox icon and modernism; The new iconoclasm; Theological fallacies; Jacques Maritain’s dialogue with modernism.
Part III Orthodox Iconology: Asceticism and iconoclasm; The mystical lives of beings in St Maximus the Confessor; The image in St John Damascene; The living image in Byzantine experience.
Part IV Theophany and Art: Human and divine luminaries; The theophanic icon; Theophany and modernism; Enargeia and transcendence in Zen art; Epilogue; Bibliography; Index.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Orthodox Liturgy

I was recently sent a new book, rather short and accessible, written by Vassilios Papavassiliou: Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider's Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Paraclete Press, 2012), 196pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Orthodox Liturgy is not just an act of worship, but a potentially life-changing journey. Fr. Papavassiliou takes you through this journey with clarity and passion, exploring the Liturgy as a reflection of heavenly worship, and an invitation to enter the Kingdom of God. The hymns, prayers, creed and actions of the Liturgy are explained, covering subjects such as Communion, Trinity, baptism, sainthood, Resurrection, and much more. The book includes a map to guide you on your journey and 20 illustrations.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lunatics, Heretics, and Mystics: Is There a Difference?

Sandro Magister, always worth reading about matters ecclesial and Catholic, has a round-up of some things lunatics are saying about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. (One can only imagine what Yves Congar would say about these types! He had scathing comments about them in his own day as recorded in his diaries.)

The prize has to belong to Enrico Maria Radaelli who attempts to claim with a straight face that papal resignation “is not permitted metaphysically and mystically, because in metaphysics it is bound up with the kernel of being...and in mysticism is bound up with the kernel of the mystical Body which is the Church, through which the office of vicar...places the being of the elect on an ontological plane substantially different...: on the metaphysically and spiritually highest plane of Vicar of Christ.” That has to be about as neat a definition of contemporary papolatry as we are likely to find, though I'm keeping the contest open for a while yet because doubtless there are bound to be other contenders. It is also, I maintain, a thinly veiled heresy of the old school: a species of ecclesiological monophysitism. Ecclesiology, as has often been remarked, tends to ricochet between Arianism on the one hand (i.e., an overemphasis on the exclusively human nature of the Church) and monophysitism (i.e., an overemphasis on the exclusively divine nature of the Church).

When discussing the pope, we have, as two recent and splendid histories make clear--Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale Nota Bene) and John O'Malley's A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present (both of which are, one may say, perfectly "Chalcedonian" in maintaining a sober "dyophysite" view of the papacy and Church as both divine and human), suffered for a little over a century now under an increasingly "sacralized" notion of the popes and their office which tends towards precisely this monophysite notion: the humanity of the pope is severely downplayed, and his status as some kind of demiurge is exalted. This began at Vatican I, whose absurdly misunderstood doctrine of infallibility can and should be "re-received" (as Walter Kasper argued in That They May All Be One: The Call to Unity Today and other places), though in a very different form today--something I suggest at the end of my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

Thankfully since Pope Paul VI (1963-78), and certainly under John Paul II in some ways--though in others, perhaps unwittingly, he certainly reinforced it--this sacralized notion of the pope (replete with tiarra, sedia gestatoria, use of the royal "we," and other nonsense) was increasingly set aside, and it has now definitely changed with Benedict's resignation, a gesture that, perhaps more than anything else he has done, will deal this notion the death-blow it deserves. As I have asked many Catholics over the last week: if all other bishops in the world are required to retire at 75, why should the bishop of Rome be any different? There is no coherent theological case to be made for treating him differently, and so we are treated, as above, to "metaphysical" and "mystical" emoting that is both dangerous and risible. Radaelli and too many Catholics have spent the last 10 days reacting to the papal retirement with mawkish mewling as though they were helpless kittens whose mother had just been flattened by a truck on the highway. This de trop devastation seems to be one of the lamentable features of our time--as witnessed, e.g., with the faux hysterics of millions in the streets in 1997 at the death of that erstwhile princess of Wales (what was her name?). To all such ululaters, I reply, as the famously taciturn Clement Attlee did in a one-line letter to the endlessly agitated Harold Lasky: "a period of silence from you would be most welcome."

Patristic Exegesis

In a recent collection of articles, Frances Young explores numerous patristic, especially Greek, sources treating exegetical issues: Exegesis and Theology in Early Christianity (Ashgate Variorum Collected Studies, 2012),330pp.

About this book we are told:
This collection of articles first brings together a number of working papers which were significant in the development of Frances Young's understanding of patristic exegesis, studies not included in her ground-breaking book, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (1997), though paving the way for that work. Then comes a selection of papers on theology, church order and methodology, the whole collection constantly returning to themes such as the fundamental connection between theology and exegesis, the significant role of reflection on language, metaphor and symbol, and the creative interaction of early Christianity with its cultural and intellectual environment. These studies demonstrate the author's scholarly approach to patristic material, whereby careful attention is paid to actual texts from the past; but they also reveal the groundwork for her own theological explorations in the very different intellectual environment of the present.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Ways of Pilgrims in 2013

I am teaching a new (to me) course this semester on prayer and worship, and took a bit of a chance with it in both focus and texts. But it seems to have paid off rather handsomely. We have just finished reading Gleb Pokrovsky's translation of The Way of a Pilgrim: The Jesus Prayer Journey— Annotated and Explained (Skylight, 2001), 138pp.

There are, of course, numerous other translations extant of this classic work, but the Pokrovsky edition works for undergraduates in part because of the helpful annotations on the facing page which explain unusual terms, geographical and biblical references, and other recondite matters.This text is short, simple, and very accessible. Nevertheless, I was not sure what they (i.e., students who, with one exception, have never even heard of Eastern Christianity before, and who generally hail from relatively conservative WASP families with little experience of the world beyond the Mid-West) would make of the story, but we have had numerous really excellent discussions in class about it, and the simple faith and resolute purpose of the pilgrim have been deeply impressive to many more students than I would have expected. They admire his determination and his sincere and humble search without pretenses--travelling around praying, reading Scripture, and talking to people about the search for God, especially in the face of great suffering and loss.

Though some in the academy have not caught on to the fact yet, today's students have radically different interests from those of the last two or three generations, a point documented with wonderful and lavish detail in an invaluable book from Barbara Walvoord: Teaching and Learning in College Introductory Religion Courses (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).

In this superlative survey of tens of thousands of students and faculty across the country, Walvoord uncovers the reality that today's students are not seeking to "deconstruct" some religious tradition or to pour on the "acids of modernity" or read everything through a "hermeneutic of suspicion." They are not interested in being taught to be suspicious or "critical" thinkers because they don't have anything truly substantial to criticize or deconstruct in the first place, having been bereft of coherent traditions because of their 60s-era parents. Unlike their parents with their tedious self-preoccupation and endless social agitation, students today are often confused, incoherent, but nonetheless sincerely open to asking very different questions and coming to very different conclusions than their parents. While not necessarily invested in or impressed by religious institutions, they are deeply impressed by people who themselves lead lives of religious discipline. Moreover, they are, in my experience, vastly more pro-life than just about any other comparable group, but at the same time gay marriage is a non-issue to them. (If anything unites such seemingly disparate positions, it is probably the notion of "rights": babies have the right to life, and gays have the right to be left alone to do what they want.)

Along with reading The Way of a Pilgrim, I also decided we would watch the 2006 Russian film Ostrov (The Island), and here again I was unsure what to expect--perhaps they would be bored, perhaps thinking this was too much film noir, or perhaps they would not find the humour in it. But they found Fr. Anatoly to be indeed a funny holy fool whose life interested them and raised profound questions.

I think, then, that there is something to be said for talking about prayer indirectly, and for understanding a life of prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage narratively rather than directly didactically--a point I learned in part many years ago in one of the first of many books by Stanley Hauerwas that I read with great profit: A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. In other words, The Way of a Pilgrim is a more engaging and less threatening introduction than, say, Dummie's Guide to Prayer or, say, 101 Tips to an Incredible, Mind-Blowing Prayer Experience!!!!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The YMCA and Russia

Matthew Lee Miller, an historian at Northwestern College in Minnesota whom I've met briefly at ASEC conferences in the last few years, has a new book out that Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies is having expertly reviewed by Michael Plekon: The American YMCA and Russian Culture: The Preservation and Expansion of Orthodox Christianity, 1900-1940 (Lexington, 2012), 300pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In The American YMCA and Russian Culture, Matthew Lee Miller explores the impact of the philanthropic activities of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) on Russians during the late imperial and early Soviet periods. The YMCA, the largest American service organization, initiated its intense engagement with Russians in 1900. During the First World War, the Association organized assistance for prisoners of war, and after the emigration of many Russians to central and western Europe, founded the YMCA Press and supported the St. Sergius Theological Academy in Paris. Miller demonstrates that the YMCA contributed to the preservation, expansion, and enrichment of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It therefore played a major role in preserving an important part of pre-revolutionary Russian culture in Western Europe during the Soviet period until the repatriation of this culture following the collapse of the USSR. The research is based on the YMCA’s archival records, Moscow and Paris archives, and memoirs of both Russian and American participants. This is the first comprehensive discussion of an extraordinary period of interaction between American and Russian cultures. It also presents a rare example of fruitful interconfessional cooperation by Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Post-Soviet Orthodoxy

Among scholars of "religion" today, Russia occupies a place of central fascination, and we have seen a number of recent books devoted to religious practices and beliefs in the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods. A recent release from Routledge continues this exploration: Katja Richters, The Post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church: Politics, Culture and Greater Russia (Routledge, 2012), 224pp.

 About this book the publisher tells us:
In recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a more prominent part of post-Soviet Russia. A number of assumptions exist regarding the Church’s relationship with the Russian state: that the Church has always been dominated by Russia’s secular elites; that the clerics have not sufficiently fought this domination and occasionally failed to act in the Church’s best interest; and that the Church was turned into a Soviet institution during the twentieth century. This book challenges these assumptions. It demonstrates that church-state relations in post-communist Russia can be seen in a much more differentiated way, and that the church is not subservient, very much having its own agenda, yet at the same time sharing the state’s, and Russian society’s, Russian nationalist vision.
The book analyses the Russian Orthodox Church’s political culture, focusing on the Putin and Medvedev eras from 2000. It examines the upper echelons of the Moscow Patriarchate in relation to the governing elite and to Russian public opinion, explores the role of the church in the formation of state religious policy, and the church’s role within the Russian military, and discusses how the Moscow Patriarchate is asserting itself in former Russian republics outside Russia, especially in Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus. It concludes by re-emphasising that, although the church often mirrors the Kremlin’s political preferences, it most definitely acts independently.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire 2013

As we approach the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, we concomitantly approach the final dissolution of the Ottoman Empire as well, a period fraught with dangers for some Christians, the Armenians especially as they became in places the scapegoats for declining Ottoman fortunes, and paid, as we know, an horrific price in the genocide of 1915. A book just released promises to look at the fate of Orthodox Christians in this final period:  Ayse Ozil, Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Empire (Routledge, 2012),208pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

This book examines the position of Greek Orthodox Christians within the administrative, social and economic structures of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The author engages in a rarely undertaken comparative analysis of Ottoman, Greek and European archival sources to understand the ties among Christians within the administrative, social and economic structures of the imperial and Orthodox Christian worlds. As a local study based on the hitherto under-explored provincial region of Hüdavendigar in the heartlands of the empire, it questions the commonplace assumptions about the meaning of ethno-religious community in a Middle Eastern imperial framework.

Offering a deeper and more nuanced investigation of Ottoman Christians by connecting Ottoman and Greek history, which are often treated in isolation from one another in a way that downplays their mutual influence, this work sheds new light on communal existence.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Secularism and Religion in Russia and Ukraine

Scott Kenworthy, author of the splendid history of Trinity-Sergius Lavra which I discussed here, just alerted me that he has a chapter in a new book edited by Catherine Wanner that is supposed to be released later this month: State Secularism and Lived Religion in Soviet Russia and Ukraine (Oxford UP, 2013 [paperback]), 304pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
State Secularism and Lived Religion in Soviet Russia and Ukraine is a collection of essays written by a broad cross-section of scholars from around the world that explores the myriad forms religious expression and religious practice took in Soviet society in conjunction with the Soviet government's commitment to secularization. The implementation of secularizing policies invariably shaped the forms of religious expression that emerged in Soviet Russian and Soviet Ukraine. Religious practices across confessional groups over time reflect the waves of intensification and relaxation of repressive practices. During the post-world War II period, which most of the essays in this volume address, repressive tactics shifted from raw coercion and violence to propaganda and agitation as the main means to suppress religious practice and belief in the public sphere. Unlike other studies that have focused on such forms of repression, the authors in this volume consider how some communities and individual believers were able to adapt their practices and beliefs to the social, political, and ideological constraints of Soviet society so as to pursue their beliefs. The volume thus offers a new perspective on Soviet secularization that moves beyond the formation of policies and decrees to consider two additional dimensions. First, the essays engage how governing mandates to suppress religion and promote a secular society were experienced by believers. Second, this approach allows the authors to illustrate the variety of secularizing polices and how they were invariably implemented across regions, over time, and in response to perceptions of local religious practice. By considering the intersection of religious practice and Soviet secularizing policies, this collection expands our understanding of religiosity in the region and illustrates how specific denominations and the believers within them adapted to the conditions set by socialist modernity.
This book reads something like a who's-who, featuring some of the most prominent names in East-Slavic historiography today, many of whom have been featured on here before: 
Introduction - Catherine Wanner
1. Subversive Atheism: Antireligious Campaigns and Religious Revival in Ukraine in the 1920s - Gregory L. Freeze
2. GPU-NKVD Repressions of Zionists: Ukraine, the 1920s - Olga Bertelsen
3. Christianity and Radical Nationalism: Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky and the Bandera Movement - John-Paul Himka
4. The Revival of Monastic Life in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra after World War II - Scott Kenworthy
5. ''They burned the pine, but the place remains all the same'': Pilgrimage in the changing landscape of Soviet Russia - Stella Rock
6. Confession in Modern Russia and Ukraine - Nadieszda Kizenko
7. Time and Space of Suffering: The Soviet Past in the Memoirs and Narratives of Evangelical Christian Baptists - Olena Panych
8. Preaching the Kingdom Message: Jehovah's Witnesses and Soviet Secularisation - Zoe Knox
9. The Revival before the Revival: Popular and Institutionalized Religion in Ukraine on the Eve of the Collapse of Communism - Victor Yelensky

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Just Kill Yourself Already!

As this first week of the Great Fast continues to unfold, we may contemplate the question of what it is Christian askesis--fasting, abstinence, prayer, almsgiving, prostrations and all the rest--is seeking to achieve. Part of the answer to that, of course, is that askesis seeks to train us for theosis, for being (as St. Paul says) so transformed from our selfishiness and sinful attachments that we can say "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Along comes a new book to analyze this process of dying to our selfish attachments: James Kellenberger, Dying to Self and Detachment (Ashgate, 2012), 190pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Exploring the religious categories of dying to self and the religious virtue of detachment, the spiritual essence of dying to self, this book also aims to resolve contemporary issues that relate to detachment. Beginning with an examination of humility in its general notion and as a religious virtue for detachment presupposes, Kellenberger draws on a range of ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary writers that address the main characteristics of detachment, including the work of Meister Eckhart, St. Teresa, and Simone Weil, as well writers as varied as Gregory of Nyssa, Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, Soren Kierkegaard, Andrew Newberg, and Keiji Nishitani. Kellenberg explores the key issues that arise for detachment, including the place of the individual’s will in detachment, the relationship of detachment to desire, to attachment to persons, and to self-love and self-respect, and issues of contemporary secular detachment such as inducement via chemicals. This book heeds the relevance of the religious virtue of detachment for those living in the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Controversy Over the Date of Easter

As noted yesterday, Christians this year are observing Pascha/Easter many weeks apart. This is not, alas, a new controversy or problem, and you would think it would have been solved long ago, but no. A recent book puts this calendric controversy in context: I. Warntjes and D. Ó Cróinín, eds., The Easter Controversy of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Its Manuscripts, Texts, and Tables (Brepols, 2012), XII+366pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
2010 saw the publication of the Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on the Science of Computus in Ireland and Europe, which took place in Galway, 14–16 July, 2006. That first collection, which had the sub-title Computus and its Cultural Context in the Latin West, AD 300–1200, brought together papers by ten of the leading scholars in the field, on subjects ranging from the origins of the Annus Domini to the study of computus in Ireland c. 1100. All those who participated in the Conference were unanimous that a second, follow-up event should be organized, and that duly took place (also in Galway), 18–20 July, 2008. The proceedings of that Conference are published in this current volume.
The topics covered in the 2nd Galway Conference ranged from the general – but vitally important – vocabulary of computus (i.e., the technical terminology developed by computists to describe what they were doing) to the origins of the different systems used to calculate the date of Easter in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. In addition, there was discussion also of the great debates about Easter, epitomized by the famous Synod of Whitby in AD 664, and the role of well-known individuals in the evolution of computistical knowledge (e.g., Anatolius of Laodicea, the African Augustalis, Sulpicius Severus, Victorius of Aquitaine, Cassiodorus, Dionysius Exiguus, Willibrord, the ninth-century Irish scholar-exile, Dicuil, as well as the late-tenth century Abbo of Fleury).
Table of Contents:
Leofranc Holford-Strevens – Church politics and the computus: From Milan to the ends of the earth
Alden Mosshammer – The Computus of 455 and the Laterculus of Augustalis, with an appendix on the fractional method of Agriustia
Daniel Mc Carthy – On the arrival of the Latercus in Ireland
Brigitte Englisch – Ostern zwischen Arianismus und Katholizismus: Zur Komputistik in den Reichen der Westgoten im 6. und 7. Jh.
Luciana Cuppo – Felix of Squillace and the Dionysiac computus I: Bobbio and Northern Italy (MS Ambrosiana H 150 inf.)
Masako Ohashi – The Easter table of Victorius of Aquitaine in Early Medieval England
David A.E. Pelteret – The issue of apostolic authority at the Synod of Whitby
Immo Warntjes – The Computus Cottonianus of AD 689: A computistical formulary written for Willibrord’s Frisian mission
James T. Palmer – Computus after the paschal controversy of AD 740
Werner Bergmann – Dicuils Osterfestalgorithmus im Liber de astronomia
David Howlett – Computus in the works of Victorius of Aquitaine and Abbo of Fleury and Ramsey

Monday, February 11, 2013

On Papal Surprises

I just finished two TV interviews about the papal resignation in which I tried to suggest that this was not a total surprise to those who have read Joseph Ratzinger closely and known him to be a man who, very quietly, nonetheless insists on doing things his way where possible. He has never been one to go with the crowd; he has long been a man who refutes expectations; he has been a man of surprises who has often done things in a unique fashion. He was, e.g., the first prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to continue to publish under his own name and to contribute unofficially to debate and dialogue quite outside his official role as prefect. He was the first prefect to give multiple book-length interviews (e.g., Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium-  An Interview With Peter Seewald; or, more famously, and the book that started this unique "genre," The Ratzinger Report). He was the first, in those interviews and elsewhere, to voice very frank public criticism of the state of the Catholic Church in our time, and even to suggest that his predecessor had allowed himself to be turned into a "superstar," a prospect and status about which Ratzinger was palpably uneasy. He was the first sitting prefect to publish an autobiography in his wonderful 1997 book Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977.

In his memoirs, he makes no secret of his desire to leave Rome for a quiet scholarly retirement, a request his papal predecessor refused on several occasions. Now that he has no boss (except God of course) to constrain him, he has recognized that his energies are failing and his ability to do the job is suffering. So he has made the right decision not only for him but, typically, for the good of the Church which he has always tried to serve.

I think this decision is commendable for those two reasons, and also because it might help in a still desperately needed demythologization of the office, a process to which he himself has tried to contribute over the years. By resigning, is he not sending the message: "Catholic bishops the world over are expected to retire at 75. I am a Catholic bishop like them, and a human being also, not some superstar. So I will retire quietly as so many others do." He made it clear in interviews over the years--and in scholarly writings before that, dating back to the Second Vatican Council--that there was far too much focus on "Rome" and the pope, and that the Catholic Church very much needed some kind of decentralization and even perhaps the creation of regional patriarchates within the Latin Church to assist in her governance. In line with this thinking, he took another surprising step: in 2006 he deleted the title "Patriarch of the West" from the Annuario Pontificio, a surprise that was rather considerable and rather shocking in fact to many. But as I tried to argue in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity,

the decision to delete the title was in fact in line with his previous thinking, and was not a retrenchment or a re-centralization of a re-assertion of papal power. It was, I thought hopefully, part of a long-term plan to begin that decentralization he had written and spoken of, and to begin the creation of regional patriarchates. We could yet see both developments--the Church, after all, moves slowly ("we think in centuries here"). Whether we need those developments is a matter for fair argument. I think we do if unity with Orthodoxy is to be taken seriously--hence my book. And since I also think that there is no greater priority than unity with Orthodoxy, for the health of both, then we need to find ways to make that happen. And in fact the papacy is far more flexible than is often imagined, so we could achieve unity if we had the will to make those changes. To paraphrase Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, the aristocracy hasn't gotten where it is by intransigence but by knowing how to change with the times. The Catholic Church is the same.

As for what types of changes in the papal office itself--read my book. As for what type of pope we should hope to see, stay tuned for more thoughts later.

The Bright Sadness of the Great Fast

Today is Pure Monday on the Gregorian paschalion, and Wednesday is Ash Wednesday in the Western Churches. (Pascha, and hence Lent, is, alas, much later this year on the Julian paschalion.) Thus some Eastern Christians, and all Western Christians, are this week beginning their Lenten askesis. For suggested reading on and during this great time, I cannot improve on last year's collection of books, especially Alexander Schmemann's wonderful Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.

In the last decade, I wrote a number of articles published in a variety of journals all devoted to the topic of fasting in the Christian East, a topic which seems to be attracting greater attention among Roman Catholics (whose bishops in England and Wales have recently restored Friday fasting--or, more correctly, abstinence) and among Protestants, as seen in a brand new book: Kent D. Berghuis, Christian Fasting: A Theological Approach (Biblical Studies Press, 2013), 308pp.

About this book we are told:
This published dissertation develops an integrative theology of fasting from an evangelical Christian perspective. The progress of revelation is seen as centering on the work of Jesus Christ in a canonical theology. Two chapters have been devoted to studying the references to fasting in scripture, one each on the Old and New Testaments. This reflection is also done in conversation with the Christian community, both in its historical trajectories as well as contemporary forms. A chapter has been devoted to the extensive discussion of fasting in the patristic era, as well as another chapter that traces the history of fasting practices through monasticism, the Reformation, and into their decline in the modern era. In the fifth chapter of the body of the dissertation, the contemporary reawakening to fasting in Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical traditions is examined. The integrating eschatological motif of the nature of the age that is seen emerging from the larger study of fasting is then stated in a christocentric fashion within the context of the story of God’s redemption. This synthetic theology is applied in the cultural context of evangelical Christianity in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Christian fasting must ultimately be centered on Christ, reflect proper ways of engaging the human body in sanctification, and remember the corporate nature of the believer’s community. It is hoped that this thesis will set fasting in an appropriate, positive theological context, so that its biblical and Christian heritage might be expressed in renewed spiritual expressions.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Notes from the House of the Dead

Eerdmans for some time has been very helpfully and impressively bringing out major works in Russian theology and now literature, often through the services of the translator Boris Jakim. In May of this year, another of Fyodor Dostoevsky's works will be available in English: Notes from the House of the Dead (Eerdmans, May 2013), 344pp.

About this book we are told:
Notes from the House of the Dead, a prison novel based on Dostoevsky's own prison experience, was first published in 1861 and can be considered the incubator of his great later novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The characters and situations that Dostoevsky encountered in prison were so violent and extraordinary that they changed his way of looking at human nature. He himself said that, through the prison, he had been resurrected into a new spiritual condition -- one in which he would write some of the greatest novels ever written.

This totally new translation from Boris Jakim captures Dostoevsky's intensely emotional and philosophical narrative in rich American English.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Russian Religious Dissident for Life

Released just this week is a book about a courageous Christian living out his faith, and bringing together Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic Christians in the former Soviet Union: Koenraad De Wolf, Dissident for Life: Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in Russia (Eerdmans, 2013), 315pp. + 52 photos.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This gripping book tells the largely unknown story of longtime Russian dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov -- from Communist youth to religious dissident, in the Gulag and back again. Ogorodnikov's courage has touched people from every walk of life, including world leaders such as Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.

In the 1970s Ogorodnikov performed a feat without precedent in the Soviet Union: he organized thousands of Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians in an underground group called the Christian Seminar. When the KGB gave him the option to leave the Soviet Union rather than face the Gulag, he firmly declined because he wanted to change "his" Russia from the inside out. His willingness to sacrifice himself and be imprisoned meant leaving behind his wife and newborn child.

Ogorodnikov spent nine years in the Gulag, barely surviving the horrors he encountered there. Despite KGB harassment and persecution after his release, he refused to compromise his convictions and went on to found the first free school in the Soviet Union, the first soup kitchen, and the first private shelter for orphans, among other accomplishments.

Today this man continues to carry on his struggle against government detainments and atrocities, often alone. Readers will be amazed and inspired by Koenraad De Wolf's authoritative account of Ogorodnikov's life and work.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Sex Abuse and God

The Latin bishop of Ft. Wayne died this week, 56 years to the day of his first Mass as a priest. Bishop John D'Arcy, whom I had the honor of bringing to two of my classes over the years, including shortly before last Christmas, and who was to direct our departmental retreat next month, was a very fine bishop (which, alas, one can not always or confidently say about many hierarchs, Catholic and Orthodox) whom I respected greatly, for two reasons: first, he said to me in 2008, in an offhand comment I nonetheless found staggering, that when he was appointed to this diocese in 1985, he explicitly told the nuncio not to ask him to move again because he believed in, and was going to live, the ancient canons about one bishop to one city--that a bishop should be faithful to his diocese for life, as a husband and wife are. I didn't know many bishops who even knew of the existence of these canons, let alone lived them. I was deeply impressed by his humility.

The second reason that D'Arcy was such a rare gift to the Church in our time was his track record in dealing with sexual abuse both in his native Boston and later in northern Indiana. As D'Arcy said to me last year, when he was a priest, and later auxiliary bishop, in Boston, he was nicknamed "D'Arcy the hatchet man" because he spent a good deal of his time rooting out seminarians and priests whose flawed characters made them unsuitable to exercise pastoral ministry.

Though D'Arcy didn't want to talk about it, the reason he was sent to be bishop in Ft. Wayne-South Bend, after spending his whole priestly and episcopal ministry in his native Boston, is very widely thought to have been a result of his unwillingness to keep silent over sexually abusive priests. (Phil Lawler's depressing and damning book The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture is one of several sources that documents D'Arcy's courageous, commendable, and sadly rare stance.) D'Arcy put into print a number of letters that strongly suggested to his superior, the disgraced and disgraceful Bernard Cardinal Law, not to sweep the problem of predatory priests like John Geoghan under the carpet or shuffle him to another parish. Law ignored the warnings and, being a power-broker at the time (1985) in the Vatican under a pope who himself did not want to deal with the problem of abuse, seems to have fallen back on the time-tested ploy of promoveatur ut amoveatur. Thus D'Arcy was "promoted" to his own see hundreds of miles away and a few weeks before his mother died, enabling Law to go back to sticking his fingers in his ears and closing his eyes to a problem that would come back to haunt him spectacularly in 2002 and do such massive damage to the Church that it has still not recovered; the credibility of the bishops will take longer still to recover. Would that more of them had followed D'Arcy's example.

While we know that mentally and physically many abuse victims are simply shattered by the experience, what happens spiritually to those abused by priests and other leaders? Released last summer is a book that nobody wishes ever needed writing. It treats precisely this question: Susan Shooter, How Survivors of Abuse Relate to God: The Authentic Spirituality of the Annihilated Soul (Ashgate, 2012), 210pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
Grappling with theological issues raised by abuse, this book argues that the Church should be challenged, and ministered to, by survivors. Paying careful attention to her interviews with Christian women survivors, Shooter finds that through painful experiences of transformation they have surprisingly become potential agents of transformation for others. Shooter brings the survivors' narratives into dialogue with the story of Job and with medieval mystic Marguerite Porete's spirituality of 'annihilation'. Culminating in an engagement with contemporary feminist theology concerning power and powerlessness, there emerges a set of principles for authentic community spirituality which crosses boundaries with God, supports appropriate human boundaries and, crucially, listens attentively. Appealing to Church leaders, students, practitioners and practical theologians, this book offers a creative and ethical theological enquiry as well as some spiritual anchor points for survivors.

The Intolerance of "Tolerance"

How many Christians today have been, figuratively speaking, bludgeoned into silence about various issues--especially those having to do with sexuality--by people appealing to "tolerance"? How many of those same Christians, in discussing, say, marriage, have been condemned with that idiotic neologism of "homophobic"? In his great 1997 essay "The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy," the late priest Richard John Neuhaus put it very acutely: "Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed." With Neuhaus we could say, mutatis mutandis, "Where tolerance is optional, tolerance will sooner or later be proscribed" and, moreover, the effects of such proscription will be--irony of ironies--highly intolerant.

Along comes a new edition of a book from a biblical scholar to examine this: D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Eerdmans, 2013), 196pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Tolerance currently occupies a very high place in Western societies: it is considered gauche, even boorish, to question it. In The Intolerance of Tolerance, however, questioning tolerance -- or, at least, contemporary understandings of tolerance -- is exactly what D. A . Carson does.

Carson traces the subtle but enormous shift in the way we have come to understand tolerance over recent years -- from defending the rights of those who hold different beliefs to affirming all beliefs as equally valid and correct. He looks back at the history of this shift and discusses its implications for culture today, especially its bearing on democracy, discussions about good and evil, and Christian truth claims.

Using real-life examples that will sometimes arouse laughter and sometimes make the blood boil, Carson argues not only that the "new tolerance" is socially dangerous and intellectually debilitating but also that it actually leads to genuine intolerance of all who struggle to hold fast to their beliefs.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Marcus Plested on Orthodoxy and Aquinas

Earlier I reviewed Marcus Plested's splendid new book, Orthodox Readings of Aquinas (Oxford UP, 2012). I've since had a chance to interview the author, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background.

MP: I am an Orthodox layman from London educated at Oxford. I wrote my doctorate on the Macarian writings under the supervision of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Since 2000 I have been at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, latterly as Academic Director.
AD: What led you to write this book in particular?

MP: It was a book I felt had to be written - not only because it was a vastly important subject area that hadn't been tackled before, but also as an attempt to dispel some of the negative and oppositional (i.e. anti-Western) accounts of Orthodoxy that have tended to prevail in recent years. Such accounts, to my mind, are not properly faithful to Orthodox tradition and tend to undermine Orthodox witness in the world today. The fact that so many Orthodox saints and scholars over the centuries have admired and made good critical use of Aquinas warns us that any blanket rejection of him and all he stands for is a relatively recent development within Orthodoxy.

AD: Tell us a little bit about your method of 'reverse perspective' or 'multiple perspectives' and how that helped in writing this book.

MP: As you appreciate, this method came through thinking about the artistic principles of the Orthodox icon. Approaching the Fathers more as one would an icon than as a mere object of enquiry helps us to be more receptive and less hubristic in our approach to the tradition. I have also expanded the principle of multiple perspectives to underpin some of the more unusual things I do in the book - e.g. the presentation of a 'Byzantine Aquinas', or Palamas' sympathies with Latin theology and theological methodology, or the Barlaamite character of Byzantine anti-Thomism. All this, I hope, will encourage many people to look with a rather different perspective on some of the supposed certainties of Orthodox anti-Westernism.

AD: Your first chapter on Aquinas and the Greek East makes mention several times of multiple forms of Thomism depending on period, 'school,' etc. Was it a difficult task trying to sort through all the different expressions of Thomism extant?
MP: Yes.

AD:  Am I correct in thinking that Palamas seems to be coming in for something of a re-consideration lately by Orthodox thinkers who realize he has often been put forth--as you note several times in your book--less for his own merits, and more as a supposed counterpoint to Aquinas, both almost equally 'mythologized'?

MP: There are indeed encouraging signs of a sea-change.

AD: The extent of Thomas' appreciation for the East ('Greeks'), which you detail in your first chapter, was astonishing to me. He really seems much more generous and gracious than I would have expected. Were you also surprised by these findings?

MP: Yes, while I knew of his fascination with Dionysius and admiration for St John of Damascus, I was stunned by the extent of his engagement with patristic, conciliar, and Byzantine sources.

AD: Your next chapter notes a similar openness to the Latin West in Gregory Palamas--more so than in those who come after him or claim to be his followers or interpreters. Was that also surprising to you?
Less so - this is something I knew something of as a graduate student, but even here I found much more than I had anticipated.

AD: Tell us a bit about the role the Kievan Academy plays, especially under Petro Mohyla, in shaping East-Slavic understandings and interpretations of Thomism, scholasticism, and 'the West' generally.
MP: The Kievan school has some claim to being treated as a species of Occidental Orthodoxy - i.e. a consciously Western expression of Orthodox tradition. While not all achievements of that school are equally admirable (or equally Orthodox), this school cannot be written off as a corruption of Orthodoxy.
Petro Mohyla
AD: What changes in modern Orthodoxy such that its perceptions of, and reactions to, 'Thomism' and 'scholasticism' almost seem to suggest an allergic reaction to both, in distinction to the earlier openness and often deep and gracious consideration you so skillfully document?

MP: A very good question. I trace much of this allergic reaction back to the anti-Westernism of the Russian Slavophiles (itself, ironically, conditioned by German Idealism and Romanticism). Aggressive expansionism on the part of both Catholicism and Protestantism in the early modern and modern periods will not have helped matters. But it seems to me that an uncompromising defence of Orthodoxy has no need for a global rejection of the West and all its works. Dositheos of Jerusalem is a fine case in point - a fierce defender of Orthodoxy (known as the 'scourge of the Latins') but deeply sympathetic, in practice, to Latin theology.
AD: Am I right in seeing your book as part of a larger and long-term project (in which you and numerous others seem at work today) of reconsidering Orthodox-Catholic history in order to clear away what we would now regard as baseless misunderstandings that needlessly divide us?
MP: This is a fair comment. It seems to me that if if ecumenism has a future, it is one in which the Churches plunge ever deeper into their respective traditions rather than seeking some sort of artificial commonality. There remains some serious differences between Orthodox and Catholics but there is also a great deal of misunderstanding that can be swept away.
 AD: What projects are you working on currently?

A project on Wisdom in the Church Fathers that has been on hold while I completed the project on Aquinas.
AD: Sum up for us what you hopes or expectations you have for this book

I hope some people will read it!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Anatolian Christians and Muslims in the Twilight of the Ottoman Empire

Just before Christmas I mentioned the impending publication of a book I have since received and been reading: Nicholas Doumanis, Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and its Destruction in Late-Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford UP, 2012). 

This is a completely fascinating work. It is cogently written and smartly overturns a lot of received stereotypes by and about both Muslims and Christians in the area at that time. His approach is neither to romanticize the past nor to demonize it. It is a remarkably open examination of what the sources reveal in all their messiness and complexity. If you have any interest at all in these issues, I heartily recommend this book to you.

Doumanis, through careful research into various archives and other often overlooked sources, has demonstrated the extent to which Muslims and Orthodox Christians in Anatolia, at the end of the Ottoman Empire, lived side-by-side in often amicable and co-operative ways. Often times Muslims and Christians in the same area would attend each other's weddings and communal festivals, pray at each other's shrines, trade with each other, and have very similar general political worldviews conditioned, however, by different religious ones at the same time--people had, in other words, multiple "identities" and these were not always tightly cordoned off but in fact overlapped within the same people and communities, and between communities.

He is at pains to stress the complexity of these relationships, noting that while we have many examples of considerable co-operation and friendship, often motivated by shared economic concerns, there was as well a good deal of often bloody antagonism, especially (as we know) towards Armenians from the 1890s until  the 1915 genocide--during, that is, the most acute years of Ottoman turmoil and collapse when Armenian and other Christians often became scapegoats for the declining imperial fortunes and for their desire for "national" independence, free from the millet system and the rules of dhimmitude--a system, let it be noted, that he says was very restrictive in law, but often very loose in practice and very inconsistently applied. Ottoman governance, he says, has often been viewed as "one of exceptions."

I will have more to say as I finish the book, and I hope also to arrange an interview with the author, who teaches history at the University of New South Wales, Australia.
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