"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, February 7, 2014

Oliver Herbel on Turning to Tradition

Last week I posted a review of Fr. Oliver's splendid new book. I had previously sent him some questions for an interview, and here are his replies. 

AD: When we last talked on here, it was about your book on Serapion of Thmuis. How, in the last two years, have you moved from ancient Egyptian patristics to Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church? Was this a planned development or an unexpected move? What, if anything, links the progress from the first book to the second?

OH: I admit that is a jump!  Would it surprise you to know I published an article on Anselm and one on Bonaventure during the interim (in addition to articles on American Orthodoxy)?  The move was both planned and unplanned.  Dr. Lois Malcolm at Luther Seminary told our systematics class (and presumably she tells each class this) that it is wise and helpful to have two periods of church history from which to draw when developing one’s theology.  That stuck with me and so I have always felt it to be important to have a handle on some geographical and temporal location in the early church together with a later period.  I privately decided to one-up Lois’ class challenge and committed to finding three periods, to triangulate my theology. It’s been a slow go to develop the third (Byzantine theology of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, which is slowly coming to the fore and lies behind the Anselm and Bonaventure articles and guides a current project in collaboration with Brian Matz of Carroll College on the filioque dispute of the ninth century—may we see that through!). 

In my case, I wanted to be grounded in patristic thought and at St. Vladimir’s, I encountered Sarapion, who intrigued me, as he was a desert father, but also clearly an astute, philosophical intellectual.  I also admitted that I had sympathy for him as a little known saint—there’s something about a “dark horse.”  Anyhow, when I went to SLU, I fully intended to write a dissertation on Sarapion.  About a year-and-a-half into my studies, though, I found American historical theology to be not only the second area in which to ground my theology, but the area that interested me more.  I didn’t expect that.  So, finding a second, modern period was planned (because of that class at Luther) but finding it to be “American” and finding that to be more interesting to me than fourth century Egypt was unplanned.  Up to that time, I had a relatively generic view of Orthodox history in America.  As I researched and wrote my paper-turned-article on Nicholas Bjerring, the first convert priest in 1870, however, I realized just how much Orthodox overlapped with theological movements in America.  I also realized that many of the generalizations of that generic history needed to be questioned.  It was all downhill after that.  By that time, I had done so much translation work on Sarapion (with encouragement from Fr. McLeod) that I decided to finish that up and complete a manuscript, which I did.  It took a little while for it to go through the publication process, but it did.  So, I published a book on what would have become a dissertation and then completed a dissertation and have now published that book. 

I should note that Cornelia Horn gave as good a pitch as any to get me to re-prioritize my areas of research, and I’m thankful for working with her as well, but American Orthodoxy is too fascinating to me.  There is also the fact that Fr. John Erickson, who was on my dissertation committee, and my advisor, Michael McClymond, have an interest in American Christianity that is contagious.

So, in the last few years I have found myself writing articles on American Orthodoxy and completing this book.  I’m quite thankful to be where I’m at in terms of research and publications.

AD: In your introduction you use several striking and revealing terms such as "ecclesiastical restorationism" Could you elaborate a bit on that term for us?

OH: Sure.  By using the phrase ecclesiastical restorationism, I meant to highlight two things.  First, that what is going on here is something more than merely switching denominations on the one hand (say, going from Lutheranism to Presbyterianism).  The converts were doing more than denominational hopping.  They were operating within a restoration paradigm, seeking to restore, or reconstitute, something. 
The second (and most important) thing I hope this phrase highlights is that the converts in question were not simply looking for a past historical standard but a past historical ecclesiastical standard—a past church that set Christian norms.  This is why tradition was such a concern.  They were concerned not merely with a tradition of ideas, but a tradition of a kind of religious existence.  In fairness, of course, any restorationist Christian movement will seek to reestablish the early church but in the case of these converts, it went beyond that, with them looking for a “church” that could be found to have existed early on and to have set the standards to which, they believed, we are all to adhere.  That is to say, “church” was not a secondary or derivative concern, but a primary one.

AD: You speak of the role of theology in conversion. Is there one consistent role for theology? At risk of generalization, could one inquire as to whether theology plays a major role positively--coming to embrace Orthodox theology for its own sake as the fullness of truth--or is the role of theology largely "negative" for converts insofar as Orthodoxy represents what my former tradition is not (liberal, pro-gay, etc)? Or perhaps it's a mixture of both?
OH: This is an interesting question.  When I began looking at theology as a factor, I had primarily the work of Lewis Rambo and Amy Slagle in mind.  For Rambo (and for Scot McKnight who has adopted Rambo’s system), theology sets patterns of behavior.  I didn’t think that was really the primary role of theology in these conversion narratives, at least not initially.  Additionally, Slagle’s study had noted theological factors but it wasn’t her task to assess them.  I decided to investigate what theological conclusions were driving  the conversion process and whether those conclusions fit within any larger trend(s) within American Christianity.  Interestingly, what I found could be argued to have brought me back full circle, inasmuch as three of the four converts studied pioneered theological norms for intra-Christian conversion to Orthodoxy.  That is to say, they promoted their way of looking at things and it guided many into the Orthodox Church. 
I say all this by way of preface, because what I found was that theology was, indeed, a “mix.”  It could operate both positively or negatively, in the ways you describe.  I think the primary way in which it functioned as “positive” was that the converts were making legitimate conclusions to the best of their ability.  If we deny that, then I think we end up down-playing what was motivating them at their core.  That said, this positive use was very much wedded to a negative use at times.  You see that in Toth with his polemics, which could be quite vehement.  You see this in Morgan and Berry on the issue of race and in Berry’s case in seeking something that isn’t too tied to “this world.”  You see it in Gillquist in his disgust with “parachurch.”  Others within the EOC who converted with Gillquist and are mentioned likewise had some negative motivations.  These negative motivations were important, but the motivations in and of themselves did not create the conclusions, for the converts could have chosen any other number of possible solutions than Orthodox Christianity.

AD: Your chapter on Alexis Toth also discusses Josaphat Kuntsevych, and it has long been a question of mine as to how each side should regard the other's saints, especially as one works towards unity. To put it crudely, one church's heretic is another church's hero. Toth, of course, was a former Eastern Catholic who became Orthodox and was canonized by the OCA while Kuntsevych went the opposite route, ending up a canonized martyr in the Ukrainian and Roman Catholic Churches. What are your thoughts on these competing martyrologies? How should we regard them today--as embarrassing emblems of nasty practices from the past we think we would never do again today? Or should their holiness be considered primarily on its own more individual and personal terms without regard to the ecclesial politics? (This issue came up in the Byzantine-Oriental dialogues where both liturgical traditions have canonized saints and anathematized heretics that are the direct opposite of each other, and neither side seems to know what to do about that since they do not want to simply abandon liturgical texts that have been prayed for centuries.)

OH: Oh, wow.  This is a tough one and one I will admit not having thought about nearly as much as I probably should, even though I first encountered this in a real way at seminary, when Dr. Bouteneff asked us the same question in a class looking at Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox relations.  So, I can only tell you where I’m at currently, which may not be my mature thought as I give this more time. 

I would say that what makes this question seem difficult is our sinful desire to hold grudges and identify with an imagined past.  It seems to be easy to identify with our own church brothers and sisters who were wronged in the past and then to retain the accusation of abuse against the contemporary expression of the opposing religious body.  One might claim this is a “sacramental” aspect to “church.”  This could be especially so in the case of Orthodox and Catholics.  Something like:  “My church is the body of Christ and therefore I am mystically present with the past abused persons when I go to liturgy/mass and therefore those past abuses are still meaningful and real.”  At other times, it’s much less profound and is simply a way of attacking the church you do not belong to simply because it doesn’t agree with your church.

However it is expressed, it seems to me that what is needed a reconfiguration based on the fact that the Church is, indeed, the Body of Christ.  If I believe my church is the Church (or at least part of it) then I should see the past martyrs as being able to exist at a level in which they can say “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  This perspective should then be combined with humility, such that we no longer think it pertains to us to continue the violence (even if by way of rhetoric).  If these are combined, we can then become open to the fact that each church has canonized people who helped people against abuse from the other side.  That is, we will realize our side sinned too.  Our side also helped create tensions and violence. 

So, to return to your examples: a faithful Roman Catholic should be able to say that Toth was right to oppose the prejudice he encountered from Western Catholics and a faithful Orthodox Christian should be able to say Josef Kuntsevych’s murder was wrong, as were the subsequent exaggerations later told to “justify” his murder.  At the same time, each side should hope that in a reunited church, a former Roman Catholic could say Toth’s faith is now dogmatically acceptable (even if he himself was mistaken at times) and a former Eastern Orthodox could say Kuntsevych’s faith is dogmatically acceptable (even if he was mistaken at times).  Their faiths would be seen as reunited.  So, in that context, I really don’t see the problem for canonizing both men.  In fact, I think reunion would require that both remain canonized.  For a real, lasting peace never ignores the difficulties, but reconciles them.

AD: I'm struck by the very different ways in with Catholic and Orthodox immigrants in the last century adjusted to the American context. Archbishop Ireland seems to be a paragon of the Catholic attempt to prove, as strenuously as possible, that Catholics were just like Americans--they spoke English, they were patriotic, they worked hard, they tried to blend in; but Orthodox seem more content to have retained indigenous languages and practices and more comfortable, perhaps, appearing as "exotic." And yet, the main burden of your book is in showing just how very much Orthodox did strive to become American through, as you aptly put it, the very American "anti-traditional tradition." Tell us a bit more about what you mean by that phrase.

OH: Yes, well, that gets at the central irony running through this book.  Here you have this faith that many Americans would still categorize as “exotic,” that has received many converts who have operated according to a very American pattern, and on the basis of that American pattern have, in turn, sought to evangelize other Americans.  That American pattern is one of anti-tradition (which could be called an anti-traditional tradition).  America has a long history of religious mavericks who emphasize a part of their previously received tradition in order to create something new.  This has led to an increasingly diversified and complex religious scene.  Restorationist movements embody this anti-traditional tradition by emphasizing aspects of what they had received in order to recreate what had once allegedly existed prior to that tradition that was given to them.  So, it is “anti-tradition” in trying to by-pass the received tradition but a “tradition” nonetheless by virtue of being an ongoing way of doing religion in America.  One restoration bequeaths another.  What has happened in the case of many American Orthodox converts, especially those I examined in my study, was that their very desire to find tradition was undertaken in a manner that represented the anti-tradition tradition. 
What is more, these converts then used this approach to lead and/or attract other converts.  This is important to note because some have taken such actions by new converts as simply perpetuating Orthodoxy’s “defensiveness” in the face of American culture when, in fact, it is evidence of engaging American pluralism.  One sees this in the case of Gillquist, for instance when he went on to encourage other Christians to join the Orthodox Church by arguing the Orthodox Church exists not merely as a non-denominational church but as a pre-denominational church.  It also becomes a way of trying to present the Orthodox Church to America in a way that Americans could appreciate it.
AD: In your discussion about the reception of many former Evangelical Orthodox into the Antiochian Archdiocese, it occurred to me that in some clear ways Met. Philip is precisely an embodiment of your 'anti-traditional tradition," yes? I'm thinking here of his handling of the Joseph Allen affair as well as his performing a "mass" ordination for the EO clergy in one liturgy. Is that a fair assessment of him?

OH:  Hmmm.  Interesting that you should ask this.  Not long after the book came out, a colleague and friend emailed me and wrote that Metropolitan Philip came off looking more like a lone ranger than this friend had previously thought.  I should point out that Metropolitan Philip was not a focus of my study.  He did, however, play significant roles in the conversions of Gillquist and the most of the former Evangelical Orthodox Church and so he appeared with some frequency in the last two chapters of this work.  He was connected to controversial decisions that affected that group of converts, including that of their ordinations and the remarriage of Fr. Joseph Allen, which you mention.  And, to be fair, he performed other actions surrounding those decisions that were (and are) controversial in themselves and this doesn’t even touch on Ben Lomond and fallout from that.  So, I can see how one might wonder if Metropolitan Philip doesn’t represent the anti-traditional tradition, but I would argue he does not fit the anti-traditional tradition as I set it out in my narrative.  Whatever one might think of his actions at times, he has not, from the sources I consulted, sought to recover and reestablish a previous norm.  He may be a religious maverick, but he did not exhibit the intention to reestablish a previous norm by establishing a new church or some larger church reform.  Indeed, the only common denominator I saw was himself.  I suppose if one were to broaden anti-traditional tradition far enough, he would fit, but then the phrase would merely be a synonym for a religious maverick of any kind whereas I wanted to highlight the founding of new denominations, religions, or reform efforts.  Perhaps someday someone will study his legacy, for all its complexities.  When that day arrives, I would encourage that scholar to consult the sources I did in addition to other sources that are relevant and to seek to be as unpartisan as possible, allowing the sources to speak for themselves.

AD: Your work shows, as you sum up at the end (p.156) that many converts "prioritized an earlier expression of Christianity and have identified the Orthodox Churches as continuations of that earlier church." This gets at something I've been thinking about more and more over the past year--and have discussed in my reviews of the new collection, Orthodox Constructions of the West: how many Eastern Christians (and in a different direction, but with similar methods, many "traditionalist" Roman Catholics also) appropriate history. I've heard it said that few of us read history on its own terms. Instead we "plunder it for present political purposes." Do you think that's generally true?
OH: That’s a great question because suspect there will be Orthodox who are not yet prepared to allow the historical evidence to be what it is but will believe that somehow I must have slanted it so that things did not look as neat and tidy (and triumphalistic) as might be found in books such as Orthodox America, 1794-1776 or Becoming Orthodox. What I would counter with is that we need to distinguish between plundering for our own purposes and investigating to address current concerns.  One can cherry pick any period of history to “prove” nearly anything but that is different from saying, “here is a topic that is important to us today—what is its history, its back story and what can we learn from this”?

AD: Following this, have you set out, or have other especially Orthodox historians set out, any basic hermeneutical and historiographical guidelines on reading and writing about church history? It's often seemed to me that some guidelines or ground-rules like that would be useful in trying to talk about (and defuse the tensions surrounding) controverted issues like, say, the Fourth Crusade or the Union of Brest and similar issues.

OH:  You’re determined to turn this interview into a book project of its own!  I actually think that what is eventually needed is an Orthodox philosophy/theology of history.  I actually have that as a long range goal, sometime later in my career.  I’m not even close to that yet, but I suppose there are a few things I could say.  I have outlined what I think historical theology means (see attached PDF).  I think the most important element is the ascetic—the effort to remain dispassionate as one researches and studies.  This is not easy, for any number of reasons.  One might already have a predetermined outcome one wants.  For instance, I suspect this happens at times when we want to canonize a particular person or particular kind of person.  One might also be cherry picking in order to defend a particular point of view.  This is an extreme version of the predetermined outcome.  Alternatively, one might simply be too colored by one’s political or ecclesiastical allegiance.  Here, the historian may be looking at all the evidence but the way in which it is weighed might seem questionable.  We all have perspective and that shouldn’t be denied but I think the biggest lesson we need to learn is to go into historical inquiry as an act of disciplining the soul and achieving dispassion.  It may be a never ending goal, but must be our goal nonetheless, especially those of us who would ground dispassion in theosis, which comes through Christ. 

AD: Sum up your hopes for this book:

OH: I have several hopes for this book.  First, I hope it provides scholars a way to assess many Orthodox conversions, if not the majority of them.  As a by-product, I think my thesis could be applied to analogous situations within the church, as you suggested by asking about Metropolitan Philip.  It didn’t work in his case, but maybe it could still apply in others.  Second, I hope this provides scholars, Orthodox clergy, and Orthodox laity with a more realistic view of some important converts and convert movements.  Orthodox have developed a fair amount of mythology surrounding Orthodox converts, a mythology that has often been wedded to triumphalism (talk about a lack of dispassion!).  This work clearly breaks through that and in that way, I hope it can serve as an example of the kind of historical inquiry Orthodoxy in America needs (whether internally, from Orthodox such as myself, or externally).

AD: What projects do you have on the go now? What will the next book likely be?

OH: In  true fashion for one who could simultaneously work on Sarapion and American Orthodox converts, I have three projects in progress. 

First, I am collaborating with my friend and colleague Brian Matz on translations of texts from the ninth century filioque dispute.  We hope to have a manuscript that we could submit a year from now.  Ed Sciecienski mentioned our work in his book, but Brian and I got distracted by our other projects, so it will be nice to return to this and publish it. 

Second, I am also working on a project that develops a virtue ethic from iconography.  This work is intended not simply as an academic piece, but as something that will be easily accessible to clergy and interested laity.  I am not sure how soon I will have something to a publisher with this project.  It will depend on what this spring and summer bring. 

A third project I am working on is more in-depth than the first two.  It builds from my convert book, taking up the idea of engaging American pluralism.  This project will be an exploration of American Orthodox engagement with religious freedom.  I believe this is a much needed area of exploration and in the conclusion I will directly engage some Orthodox political theology, and argue for an Orthodox-informed “Christian secularism.”  So, if I hope the first two will be to publishers within a year or so, this one will likely take a couple of years just to get into (rough) manuscript form.  This one might take a little while but I hope it will be worth it.

1 comment:

  1. "...it has long been a question of mine as to how each side should regard the other's saints, especially as one works towards unity." There's a good, if somewhat breezy, article by Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash) about the Chalcedonian/non-Chalcedonian dimensions of this: "Byzantine Hymns of Hate", in Byzantine Orthodoxies: Papers from the Thirty-sixth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Durham, 23-25 March 2002, edited by Andrew Louth and Augustine Casiday.


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