"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).

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In Honour of Thomas Hopko

The news has been circulating for more than a week that the Orthodox presbyter and theologian Thomas Hopko is in his last days. I met him briefly once in 2008 at the Sheptytsky Institute's "Study Days" that summer. It was there, I think, that I first heard his "55 Maxims of the Christian Life." It was there that I came to admire him as a plain-spoken, pull-no-punches type of man who clearly had no patience for obfuscation and nonsense. He was faithful to Orthodoxy and in doing so was unwilling to trim his sails because of political pressure to "make nice" to others. Those traits were on display in his book Speaking The Truth In Love: Education, Mission, And Witness In Contemporary Orthodoxy.

I have not always agreed with Hopko, as I note in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity. There I noted that on at least one occasion his spare style and restrained rhetoric seem to have been abandoned in favor of an absurdly inflationary list of things he wanted changed in the Roman Catholic Church. In his talk "Roman Presidency and Christian Unity in our Time," Hopko went on at length about dozens of issues that nobody else on the Orthodox side was writing or worrying about--nobody, that is, who was as intellectually serious as Hopko otherwise is. Moreover, as I argued, Hopko attributed--with enormous irony!--a massive power to the pope that (a) the pope has never had and today does not have; and (b) that the Orthodox would be the first to object to his having in the first place! I wrote off the paper as rather a fluke, and of the more than twenty Orthodox thinkers I reviewed in my book, demonstrated just how sui generis Hopko's list was. We all have bad days and bad ideas sometimes make it into print. This list did not affect my view that Hopko remains a serious and sober thinker.

But Hopko has produced other important books. Friends at Christmas several years ago gave Christ in the Old Testament: Prophecy Illustrated to my sons, and it is a charming and beautifully illustrated book thanks to the artistic talents of Niko Chocheli. 

Several years ago now when I was trying to write a book on the importance of a clearly defined theology of sexual differentiation--the real issue underlying the push for the ordination of women and the recognition of same-sex "marriage"--I found Hopko's edited collection Women and the Priesthood very prescient in his claim that
The question of women and the priesthood is but one important instance of what I perceive to be the most critical issue of our time: the issue of the meaning and purpose of the fact that human nature exists in two consubstantial forms: male and female. This is a new issue for Christians; it has not been treated properly in the past. But it cannot be avoided today.
Hopko went on to quote an even stronger formulation from (of all people) Luce Irigaray, who wrote that “Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age. … Sexual difference is probably the issue of our time which could be our ‘salvation’ if we thought it through." Such "thinking through" still awaits us, and I hope to finish an article on it perhaps late this summer.

Hopko, in a more focused treatment, returned to some of these issues in his short book Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections.

As he prepares to "shuffle off this mortal coil" and stand before the "awesome tribunal of Christ," we can pray that because of these books and the rest of his life's work, he will hear the "Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord" that we all long to hear on that day. 

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