"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).

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!

1 comment:

  1. James Ignatius McAuleyFebruary 4, 2013 at 4:24 PM

    I have to get this book, I suspected as much 20 years ago, but I had no way at that time to prove my speculation. Perhaps at Vatican III we will have a version of the Liturgy of the Hours Office of Readings that includes Gregory Palamas. Of course, then the Society of Paul VI will be formed!


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