"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, September 16, 2013

Augustine Casiday on Worlds within Orthodox Worlds

Late last year I commented in some detail here on a most impressive new collection I had just received: Augustine Casiday, The Orthodox Christian World (Routledge, 2012), 608pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Over the last century unprecedented numbers of Christians from traditionally Orthodox societies migrated around the world. Once seen as an ‘oriental’ or ‘eastern’ phenomenon, Orthodox Christianity is now much more widely dispersed, and in many parts of the modern world one need not go far to find an Orthodox community at worship. This collection offers a compelling overview of the Orthodox world, covering the main regional traditions of Orthodox Christianity and the ways in which they have become global. The contributors are drawn from the Orthodox community worldwide and explore a rich selection of key figures and themes. The book provides an innovative and illuminating approach to the subject, ideal for students and scholars alike.
At last I've been able to interview the author about this excellent and fascinating collection he has published--a book that truly does deserve a place in every serious institutional and personal library with an interest in Eastern Christianity. Unlike other collections, this one, as we shall see, takes a unique and much more expansive approach, and that is greatly to be welcomed.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background:

AC: I am a native of Alabama and an alumnus of the University of Alabama and a Bama fan (more by default than by conviction: I studied there during pretty lean years for football and that’s been difficult to forgive). I had a major in Psychology (BS) and a double major in Classics and Philosophy (BA). For graduate work, I went to Washington University in St Louis where I earned my MA in Classical Philology. In 1999, I began my doctoral research – on John Cassian’s theology – at Durham University under the supervision of Prof. (now Fr.) Andrew Louth. After completing it, I took up a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, where I catalogued the literary sources available to St Aldhelm of Malmesbury as evident from his De virginitate, prosa. It wasn’t glamorous work, but one outcome was a discovery that enables us to push back the date that the Passio s. Thomae was circulating in the British Isles by about 200 years. And in any case it was very satisfying to put my Latin to good use. In fact, Latin is the golden thread through my education. I started studying it when I was 13 years old and after about a quarter of a century and exposure to roughly a dozen more languages (to varying degrees) Latin never ceases to impress me for its lucidity, expressiveness, subtlety, and beauty. But I am digressing. 

After the fellowship in Cambridge, I returned to Durham and secured a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship that enabled me to return to the writings of the Desert Fathers. I wrote a monograph on John Cassian’s contemporary, Evagrius Ponticus, which Cambridge University Press has just published. In 2006, I took up a lectureship in historical theology in the University of Wales, Lampeter, as it was called at the time. The past three years have been tumultuous for higher education in Wales and that university was merged, with far-reaching consequences for its provision of theology. In September 2013, I became Lecturer in Greek at Cardiff University, though I am still living in Lampeter. 

When I am home, I worship at Three Holy Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church, in the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. It is a small, friendly parish. Considering how rare Orthodox communities are in Wales, we may very well be unique for the amount of Welsh in the liturgy, though I have to admit I don’t know how things are at the Greek parish in Cardiff. 

AD: What led you to work on The Orthodox Christian World in particular? 

When I arrived in Cambridge in 2002, Marcus Plested invited me to join him editing a brief encyclopaedia on Orthodox Christianity for Routledge Press. Those plans were overtaken by internal changes at Routledge and, as a result, the Press cancelled that project. Some months later, I was contacted by the editor for Routledge Worlds. She knew about the proposed book and thought something like it might be suitable for her series. So she approached me. After lots of fruitful conversations, and more than a little guidance as to what books in that series should be like, I worked up a proposal. The core of that proposal was my decision to treat ecclesiology as one theme among many – something that one of the readers of the proposal found pretty outrageous. Happily, my editor allowed herself to be persuaded by my counter-argument, which was in essence very simple: She’d asked me to edit a book about the Orthodox Christian WORLD, not the Orthodox Christian Church or better the Orthodox Christian Churches. The implications of that shift in emphasis were far-reaching. For instance, chapters in the first part of the book (‘Orthodox Christianity around the world’) have a formulaic title: the Greek tradition, the Russian tradition, the Coptic tradition, the Syriac tradition. That was no accident. I wanted the contributors to be able to account for their subjects without having to adhere to an arbitrary normative pattern and without having to wreath their chapters in apologies if ever they introduced anything not strictly reducible to the Church as such. What’s more, I wanted to be clear to the readers that Orthodox Christianity in itself is more than its Byzantine heritage. That message is, I hope, plain and intelligible in the editor’s introduction. 

And, thanks to the invaluable help of Fr Vrej Nersessian in his (former) capacity in the British Library, it is also communicated by the image of St Luke on the book’s cover. Above and beyond the challenge and joy of thinking about Orthodox Christianity as broadly as I possibly could, the foundational work I did in planning the book was meaningful to me because (as well as being an academic) I am a parent and as such I feel an acute sense of responsibility to my children – who like me are Orthodox Christians and like me are culturally Western – to help them understand that being an Orthodox Christian does not necessarily mean being alienated from life in Wales, or England, or America. In other words, we aren’t obliged to pretend that we are Byzantines. 

AD: As you know, the past few years have seen an explosion in books about Orthodoxy, including, not last, major volumes from Wiley-Blackwell--a dictionary, and more recently an encyclopedia on Orthodoxy. What do you think explains such an increase in interest, especially from major academic publishers? 

To judge from the directions my editor gave me, the presses are aware that if they publish a book on Eastern Christianity then it will find a big market in North America. The greater the likelihood a book might become required reading for a course in a North American university, the more the publishers like it. (Just how that impacts upon the way a book is priced is a question that I’d very much like to have answered myself, but that’s a separate matter.) What drives the demand? I expect there are more answers to that question than there are readers of these books. But I’m confident that I can identify one factor: Orthodoxy has all the appeal of an exotic religion, with the enormously important factor more exotic religions lack – it is centrally about Jesus Christ. There’s a comparison to be made with St Augustine’s initial attraction to philosophy, which was checked by his realization that “that the name of Christ was not in it” (Conf. 3.4.8). What’s more, our ability to travel and to communicate rapidly over vast distances, together with patterns of migration across the planet, mean that Orthodox Christianity is visible in places where it doesn’t quite fit in with the local culture. Certainly in my own life, and I suspect for other people, too, the encounter with a church that is so unfamiliar elicits a strong desire to know more about it.

AD: To a reader coming fresh to Orthodoxy and picking up your book as well as John McGuckin's Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, what would you say differentiates your volume from his? 

The major difference is in the format. The Orthodox Christian World consists in essays that are on the whole much lengthier than the entries in Fr McGuckin’s Encyclopedia. His book has really precise treatments of a range of topics and, along with them, clusters of bibliographies. Coverage in his book is much more straightforward than it is in mine. But what my book lacks in straightforward coverage it makes up for in its longer, more discursive sections, which I think have great potential to inspire further thinking.

AD: Your introduction sounds several very commendable notes about not discriminating on the basis of Chalcedon, not taking refuge in some romanticized past, and not treating Orthodoxy as monolithic. In light of all those things, I'm wondering if it's possible to speak of scholarship on the Christian East as entering a new, perhaps third phase, a phase that is more balanced and above all self-critical? It seems to me we had books, until roughly the early 20th century, that were few and far between and treated Orthodoxy as exotica seen through Western, often colonial eyes; the second phase has been from the 1960s onwards (with Kallistos Ware's landmark The Orthodox Church), offering introductions by Orthodox themselves. Can one say that your book is in the vanguard of new developments in scholarship? 

I would certainly welcome developments along those lines! What will, I hope, drive it forward is a careful and serious interest in theology as such. Let me explain why I think profounder attention to theology matters. Your thematization of books about the Christian East is accurate. The second phase as you describe it – the internal perspective – challenges the imposition of extrinsic categories that characterizes the first phase. There is, however, a danger posed by resting content with internal perspectives, which I’ll borrow an expression from an anecdote an old friend told me and call the ‘Come and See’ problem. If insiders’ reports about Orthodox Christianity are the final word, then the standards for communicating about Orthodoxy shift. The conversation becomes enclosed and, not incidentally, within that conversation the inscrutables proliferate: experience, perspective, mystery all come to the fore – old terms but bearing new significance. Those terms don’t simply refer to the vantage from within Orthodoxy and how things seem from that vantage. 

In addition, all too often they also absolve the person who uses them from responsibility within the conversation. The burden for understanding shifts from the voice internal to Orthodoxy, who would normally be expected to provide meaningful explanation. Burden shifts onto the audience or readers, with the implicit (perhaps sometimes even explicit) suggestion that passing into Orthodoxy, participating in Orthodox life, and in fact taking up the internal point of view will bring them to understand more. Hence, ‘Come and See’ – an invitation that can bring a premature end to communicating. However hospitable it might seem, that invitation hides a harmful derogation of Christian responsibility to have a ready answer, to spread the good news, to go out into the highways and hedges. Don’t misunderstand me. Participation does open fresh possibilities for understanding. But in all honesty why would someone want to participate? That is the question that needs answering. And my expectation is that the answer needs to be communicated in terms that are theologically comprehensible. I believe theology is key since it enables us to talk intelligibly about God, and Orthodoxy exists principally in its relation to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Theology is not for that reason the totality of Orthodoxy, nor does everything Orthodox need to have a strict theological justification. It is hugely important, though, for all that as a discipline for conversation with and about God.

AD: Having finished this book, and taking stock of the current state of scholarship, which areas in Eastern Christianity still stand in great need of critical study and scrutiny? 

I’m going to answer with a note of specification, hoping that won’t make me seem evasive. Critical research into Eastern Christianity seems to me to be proceeding smoothly on far more fronts than I could hope to survey. But there are several areas where further critical attention from Eastern Christianity will benefit us all. I would start by identifying philosophy of history, Western Christianity (Orthodoxy’s great “Other”), theological literacy, and political discourse. None of these topics is totally ignored right now, of course. And yet in many cases the articles and books that are published on them are pre-critical in significant respects. I am reaching back to the terms of your fifth question when I say there is still a huge amount of Orthodox work that doesn’t seem particularly self-critical. Essays, suggestions, tantalizing hints of the perspective from a different vantage all have their place. I doubt anyone would seriously dispute the value of lucid statements from Orthodox commentators. After a while, though, it becomes impossible to ignore the limitations of “an Orthodox perspective” on X, Y, and Z. In my view, it would be really interesting to see what would happen if there were a moratorium on the use of confessional markers in English-language publications, so that the origins in Eastern Christianity of such publications can enrich them instead of marginalizing them as specimens of identity politics. 

AD: What were some of the criteria by which you selected the figures in part II, "Important Figures in Orthodox Christianity"? Many of the selections make eminent sense and their relevance is obvious, while a few others (e.g., Takla Haymanot) are more recondite, and still others whom one might expect to see (e.g., the Cappadocians, Paisius Velichkovsky or John Zizioulas) are treated in a number of scattered places, but do not have their separate entries. 

In making those decisions, I used a method that evolved gradually. I wanted the contents of this section not to leave any enormous gaps in coverage with respect to chronology and geography. The figures – almost all of them men, but I’ll come back to that point in a moment – were selected in part to illustrate particular moments and places in Orthodox Christianity. It often seems to me that a few eras and regions are privileged (fourth-century Asia Minor, eleventh-century Kyiv, fifteenth-century Constantinople, nineteenth-century Russia….) and the rest is simply presumed to be filled with more of the same. From the inception of my planning, I wanted this book to document the variety and vitality of Orthodoxy, so I couldn’t merely round up the usual suspects. Because I’d committed myself to including non-Byzantine traditions, it was important to include significant figures from those other traditions. 

You mentioned Abuna Takla Haymanot, who has fascinated me since seeing an icon reproduced in, I think, one of those extraordinary publications that Wallis Budge prepared for Lady Meux. Maybe it was an abuse of editorial privilege, but I thought what I had was basically an unmissable opportunity to get an expert to prepare a brief piece about him. So, thanks to Prof. Getatchew’s contribution, readers can take a close look into a transitional period in the history of Christian Ethiopia that complements the survey written by Fr Ranieri and, in the process, learn about a major figure in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Prof. Takahashi’s chapter (‘Barhebraeus’) similarly opens up for detailed consideration a fascinating place and period that many initial presentations of Orthodox Christianity overlook. 

Likewise, the chapter on St Raphael Hawaweeny enriches the book’s presentation (not least thanks to Fr. Herbel’s chapter) of Orthodoxy in North America – and has the further benefit that Bishop Basil, who wrote it, was also directly involved in the canonisation of St Raphael. Another factor that figured into the roster for Part II was my preference against including chapters on persons still living. Perhaps the bias of a classical education is overactive here, but it seems to me that judgments on contemporary figures often age poorly. Consider some of the books that appear about modern theology. Without being too indiscreet, I don’t mind relating that when I discuss them with other academics and friends we sometimes guffaw at the names that have been included: “Surely Professor [INSERT NAME HERE] is more relevant as media phenomenon than as a theologian,” or words to that effect. That isn’t to say that I avoided controversy. Two chapters about near-contemporary figures – Sergii Bulgakov and Matta al-Miskîn – clearly indicate that they were controversial during their lives and remain so now. 

I mentioned the overwhelming preponderance of men in Part II. One reader recommended by name two women that should be included. Without going into detail, the only distinctive feature I could identify in either case was the sex of the person in question. I felt that came uncomfortably close to tokenism. I took two measures to redress these problems. First, I commissioned a thematic chapter on women in Orthodox Christianity. The presence of that chapter allowed the contributor to address a host of issues directly, which seemed to me far preferable to hoping that those issues would somehow be resolved by including a chapter or two that were dedicated to one given Orthodox woman or other. The second was to include chapters written by women, whenever possible. It turns out that was easily possible on several occasions. Even so, my sense that something is very much amiss remains. Can I revisit my answer to your seventh question? I’d like to add another topic that needs more attention: the place, and service, of laity within Orthodox Christianity. 

AD: Yes, the question of the laity does deserve greater attention. I'd note that the former Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury turns to that question in his essay in the just-published Festschrift for Michael Plekon. And someone else in the Festschrift also wrote an article for you: Antoine Arjakovsky's fascinating article in The Orthodox Christian World on the Paris School puts forth the argument that Orthodoxy will not achieve internal reconciliation and unity until it moves from seeing itself as an "institution" instead of a "style of life." That seems to me to capture something of the spirit of your book--yes? If Arjakovsky is right, what challenges does such a transformation pose? Are there some major things in Orthodoxy that would have to change for this to happen?

I hadn’t made that connection myself, but I’m sympathetic to it. And it is entirely in line with a suite of decisions I made about the book following from the decision to emphasize that its subject is the Orthodox Christian world. In the course of answering your questions, though, I keep coming back to the thought that the past doesn’t furnish us with much by way of concrete examples of how intelligent, articulate lay Orthodox Christians should live in pluralist societies. I have loaded as many non-clerical, non-monastic qualifiers into that sentence as it will bear. My sense is that at present Orthodox churches valorise clergy and monks (sometimes nuns) in a way that makes non-clerical, non-monastic Orthodox Christians seem defective. And that has to be wrong. A confident, educated laity would by no means detract from the Church. To the contrary, Orthodox laity must have an incomparably greater role to play in extending Orthodox Christianity into society. 

AD: A couple of common areas not covered in your book are liturgy and iconography. I assume that is because, arguably, these areas more than others have seen enormous coverage in hundreds of books in the last few decades? 

That’s a reasonable assumption. One of the factors that guided my editorial decisions was the intention that the resulting book should not duplicate content readily available elsewhere. It was on that basis that I opted not to commission a chapter on iconography. I also didn’t commission a chapter on monasticism for similar reasons. As for liturgy, a chapter was commissioned – but, as is often the way in projects of this sort, the chapter simply didn’t materialize. It was not the only such chapter. Initial conversations for a chapter on the Bulgarian tradition went very positively, even though in the end that chapter was not forthcoming.

AD: What are you up to now? What projects are underway currently, and where do you hope to focus your energies now? 

Earlier today I responded to questions about my contribution to Peter Bouteneff’s “Foundations” series, which is published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. The title is Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage and it should be available soon. I’ve also frantically been reading books and articles about Zoroastrianism, the origins of Israelite monotheism, and the tragic life of Akhenaten – all by way of preparing for the module “Monotheism from Moses to Freud” that I’m delivering this autumn in Cardiff. Soon, I need to assemble a few applications for grants to support further research. Shortly before November, I will start work in earnest on an intellectual biography of Boethius that I hope to publish in 2017 or thereabout. I’m also research the legends that gave rise to the Life of St Barlaam and Joasaph. In the meantime, I try to keep up as best I can with some trashy television and with a few novels and collections of poetry I’ve been reading lately.

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