"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, December 6, 2013

Orthodox Constructions of the West: II

When we last met, we heard from one of the contributors to the collection Orthodox Constructions of the West on the question of primacy in Orthodox ecclesiology. Let us now proceed back to the beginning of the book and the introduction and opening historical essays, all of which are, alone, worth the price of the book. As I noted in my first comments, this is an invaluable book that deserves the widest possible audience.

The editors provide the introduction, noting that it is not designed to be a comprehensive re-telling of the history of relations between East and West. Nevertheless, they do set forth an expansive and carefully considered narrative which goes some considerable distance toward "clearing the swamp" (Stanley Hauerwas) of received notions. (Many of the shibboleths people repeat in the dolorous narrative of East-West division are manifestly of recent vintage, and many issues we today commonly insist are paramount were of little concern to our forebears.) But more than that, the editors set forth the vision of this volume, and of the conference that preceded it, noting that "the categories of East and West are always fluid, always multiform, and almost always projections of an imagined difference" (2; my emphasis). This emphasis on an imagined difference is a leitmotif in many of the essays that follow.

Robert Taft's essay is vintage Taft. Much of it will, of course, be very familiar to those who read Taft. Parts of this paper, in fact, were used in another paper of his at the Orientale Lumen conference in 2011 when I was on a panel with him and others, including Sr. Vassa Larin of ROCOR; and Met. Kallistos Ware, the retired Greek Orthodox theologian from Oxford. Taft's opening is worth quoting in extenso because it sums up perfectly my own views of, approach towards, and love for the Orthodox Christian East:
I consider the Orthodox Churches the historic apostolic Christianity of the East and sister churches of the Catholic Church;...I recognize and rejoice in the fact that Orthodox peoples remain Orthodox; the Catholic Church should support and collaborate with the Orthodox Churches in every way, foster the most cordial relations with them, earnestly work to restore communion with them, recognize their legitimate interests especially on their home ground, avoid all proselytism among their flocks there or elsewhere, not seek in any way to undercut them, nor rejoice in or exploit their weaknesses, nor fish in their pond, nor seek to convert their faithful to the Catholic Church.
After this, Taft notes that it's important to begin with self-criticism, and so he goes into some detail about how his own Jesuit predecessors badly mangled relations with the Christian East in places such as India, Ethiopia, and Eastern Europe, especially, of course, what is today known as Ukraine. This latter brings to mind the controverted history of "Uniatism," about which Taft is as blunt and detailed here as in the rest of the essay.

Having criticized the Catholic Church in unsparing terms, Taft then lists a number of areas where we are still waiting for more honest self-criticism and -assessment from the Orthodox. By laying out the facts, Taft shows how, e.g., the idea that no Orthodox country ever used the power of the state to compel non-Orthodox to believe is revealed to be without foundation--both in the early Byzantine period (cf. the fate of the Copts or Armenians) and later as under, e.g., the Russian tsars. The idea that the residents of Constantinople in 1204 were as pure and innocent as the driven snow, and thus complete victims of the Fourth Crusade, conveniently overlooks the fact of a pogrom against the Latins in the city organized and murderously carried out by the Greeks in 1182. Orthodox treatment of Greek Catholics in Romania and Ukraine in the immediate post-war period of the 1940s is another area where frank admission is still wanting. The point of this list (and other many examples Taft provides) is not to engage in a tit-for-tat--what Taft memorably in 2011 called the "my hands are cleaner than yours" approach to history; but simply to show that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of our romanticized pasts.

Taft's essay is followed by two others, equally historically impressive in different ways though less widely focused. The historian Tia Kolbaba, author of such important studies (which I had expertly reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies) as Inventing Latin Heretics: Byzantines and the Filioque in the Ninth Century and The Byzantine Lists: ERRORS OF THE LATINS, draws on her historical expertise to treat relations between Byzantines, Armenians, and Latins on the question of whether to use yeast in the eucharistic bread, a controversy she traces to the tenth century. This is a fascinating essay in which she reveals that the common problem of the time was an inability to conceive of difference that was not seen as "heretical," a term which, she notes, still needs further historical elaboration and differentiation  in the Byzantine period.

Kolbaba's essay is followed by "Light from the West: Byzantine Readings of Aquinas" by Marcus Plested, who has, of course, recently published an entire book on Orthodoxy and Aquinas, which I discussed here while interviewing the author here. In the next installment, we'll look at what Plested unearths here, and a few of the other essays that follow. To be continued. 

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