"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, June 26, 2015

Islamic-Byzantine Frontier

I gave a lecture a few weeks ago on the history of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East, and noted that those of us who are scholars far from the region are in the happy position (unlike, sadly, many of the Christians themselves in the region) of having an abundance of scholarly resources continuing to pour forth on the topic. Released earlier this year is one more title to add to a growing list: A. Asa Eger, The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier: Interaction and Exchange Among Muslim and Christian Communities (I.B. Tauris, 2015).

About this book we are told:
The retreat of the Byzantine Army from Syria in around 650 CE, in advance of the approaching Arab armies, is one that has resounded emphatically in the works of both Islamic and Christian writers, and created an enduring motif: that of the Islamic-Byzantine frontier. For centuries, Byzantine and Islamic scholars have evocatively sketched a contested border: the annual raids between the two, the line of fortified fortresses defending Islamic lands, the no-man's land in between and the birth of jihad. In their early representations of a Muslim-Christian encounter, accounts of the Islamic-Byzantine frontier are charged with significance for a future 'clash of civilizations' that often envisions a polarised world. A. Asa Eger examines the two aspects of this frontier: its ideological and physical ones. By uniting an exploration of both the real and material frontier and its more ideological military and religious implications, he offers a more complex vision of this dividing line than has been traditionally disseminated. With analysis grounded in archaeological evidence as well the relevant historical and religious texts, Eger brings together a nuanced exploration of this vital element of medieval history.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Bishop of Rome in Antiquity

As I mentioned earlier this month, in drawing attention to George Demacopoulos's forthcoming book on Gregory the Great, scholarship for the last decade and more, especially scholarship committed to overcoming the East-West divide, has been looking at various popes and leaders of the first millennium to see what we may need to re-learn from them today. In the various recent studies I have read, including Susan Wessell's splendid Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome, both East and West have been discovering surprising things not only about the papacy and each other, but also about their own particular traditions in this process. A book released at the end of May promises to continue that process: Geoffrey D. Dunn, ed., The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2015), 270pp.

About this book (which contains an essay from the aforementioned Demacopoulos), the publisher tells us:
At various times over the past millennium bishops of Rome have claimed a universal primacy of jurisdiction over all Christians and a superiority over civil authority. Reactions to these claims have shaped the modern world profoundly. Did the Roman bishop make such claims in the millennium prior to that? The essays in this volume from international experts in the field examine the bishop of Rome in late antiquity from the time of Constantine at the start of the fourth century to the death of Gregory the Great at the beginning of the seventh. These were important centuries as Christianity underwent enormous transformation in a time of change. The essays concentrate on how the holders of the office perceived and exercised their episcopal responsibilities and prerogatives within the city or in relation to both civic administration and other churches in other areas, particularly as revealed through the surviving correspondence. With several of the contributors examining the same evidence from different perspectives, this volume canvasses a wide range of opinions about the nature of papal power in the world of late antiquity.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Pope Gregory the Great

As I have noted before, much of the last two decades of ecumenical dialogue between East and West has turned its focus to the first millennium, looking for people and models of unity that can potentially guide the way forward today. But that scholarship has unearthed some surprises that discomfit both East and West, making it clear that any romanticized appeal to the first millennium as a golden time of unity is bound to be revealed for the nonsense that it is.

Among those who have been looking at prominent figures of the papacy in the first millennium is the Orthodox scholar George Demacopoulos, translator of The Book of Pastoral Rule: St. Gregory the Great in the Popular Patristics Series of St. Vladimir's Seminary Press and author more recently of The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity which is a fascinating study I have reviewed elsewhere at length. 

In October he will be out with a new study I look forward to reading: Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 to 604) is one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity. His theological works framed medieval Christian attitudes toward mysticism, exegesis, and the role of the saints in the life of the church. The scale of Gregory's administrative activity in both the ecclesial and civic affairs of Rome also helped to make possible the formation of the medieval papacy. Gregory disciplined malcontent clerics, negotiated with barbarian rulers, and oversaw the administration of massive estates that employed thousands of workers. Scholars have often been perplexed by the two sides of Gregory—the monkish theologian and the calculating administrator.

George E. Demacopoulos's study is the first to advance the argument that there is a clear connection between the pontiff's thought and his actions. By exploring unique aspects of Gregory's ascetic theology, wherein the summit of Christian perfection is viewed in terms of service to others, Demacopoulos argues that the very aspects of Gregory's theology that made him distinctive were precisely the factors that structured his responses to the practical crises of his day. With a comprehensive understanding of Christian history that resists the customary bifurcation between Christian East and Christian West, Demacopoulos situates Gregory within the broader movements of Christianity and the Roman world that characterize the shift from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. This fresh reading of Gregory's extensive theological and practical works underscores the novelty and nuance of Gregory as thinker and bishop.
This original and eminently readable interpretation will be required reading for students and scholars of Gregory and sixth-century Christianity, historians of late antiquity, medievalists, ecclesiastical historians, and theologians.
Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome has the potential to be the most important intellectual biography of Pope Gregory I to appear since the publication in 1988 of Carole Straw’s landmark study, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. Demacopoulos proposes a new interpretive paradigm by insisting that the ‘problem of the two Gregories’ is not really a problem at all: Gregory’s ascetic and pastoral theology, he argues, informs and structures his administrative practices. This important insight will have significant impact on future research." — Kristina Sessa, Ohio State University.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Endless Russian Revolutions

I have heard it said since at least 2001 that revolutionary, ideological, and imperial ambitions in Russia are never dead. The Revolution may have been nearly a century ago, and the collapse of the poisoned fruit of that revolution nearly a quarter-century ago now, but the hopes of re-founding an empire are eternal. If anyone doubts this, simply look at the annexation of Crimea, the gratuitous and aggressive war against Ukraine, and the other recent machinations of the Putin regime.

A recent history also advances this theme. Written by the colorful and sometimes controversial Orlando Figes (whose book The Crimean War: A History, as I noted several years ago, is just splendid), Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History (Metropolitan Books, 2014, 336pp.) is, as the publisher tells us:

an original reading of the Russian Revolution, examining it not as a single event but as a hundred-year cycle of violence in pursuit of utopian dreams
In this elegant and incisive account, Orlando Figes offers an illuminating new perspective on the Russian Revolution. While other historians have focused their examinations on the cataclysmic years immediately before and after 1917, Figes shows how the revolution, while it changed in form and character, nevertheless retained the same idealistic goals throughout, from its origins in the famine crisis of 1891 until its end with the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991.

Figes traces three generational phases: Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who set the pattern of destruction and renewal until their demise in the terror of the 1930s; the Stalinist generation, promoted from the lower classes, who created the lasting structures of the Soviet regime and consolidated its legitimacy through victory in war; and the generation of 1956, shaped by the revelations of Stalin’s crimes and committed to “making the Revolution work” to remedy economic decline and mass disaffection. Until the very end of the Soviet system, its leaders believed they were carrying out the revolution Lenin had begun.
With the authority and distinctive style that have marked his magisterial histories, Figes delivers an accessible and paradigm-shifting reconsideration of one of the defining events of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Pope Francis and Ecology: Late to the Party?

Far be it from me to try to steal some of the thunder of Pope Francis, but he has plenty of thunder to spare and is generous enough not to begrudge such efforts. I will therefore venture to suggest, amidst the increasing media hoopla over his encyclical on ecology--to be released tomorrow--that what he says is almost certainly going to be far from revolutionary or even very original in some respects. (This is as it should be for, as Fr. John Hunwicke rightly and repeatedly says, the job of the pope is to be a remora or a breakwater against innovation.) By that I mean that other Christian leaders, pre-eminent among them the Ecumenical ("Green") Patriarch Bartholomew, have been writing on ecological themes for decades, a fact that seems to have been acknowledged by the pope in having Met. John Zizioulas be one of the people involved with the official presentation of the encyclical on Thursday--and a fact, moreover, acknowledged in the text if the leaked draft's footnotes are anything to go by. Though one should not expect the dim and highly selective cheerleaders in the media to know this history of Eastern Christian theologizing about ecology, I drew attention to such Eastern Christian publications most recently in 2015. For earlier publications, see here but also here in 2014, and in 2011 here. (None of this, nota bene, is to gainsay what the pope will say, which deserves careful and respectful attention.)

In addition, for those seeking practical advice, His All-Holiness Bartholomew has written a preface to Greening the Orthodox Parish: A Handbook for Christian Ecological Practice.

Other Orthodox scholars have written on the topic, including Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (SVS Press, 2009), 266pp.

The Orthodox scholar John Chryssavgiss has also edited a hefty collection, Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation (Fordham University Press, 2013), 508pp.

Chryssavgiss also authored an informative piece here on how the Ecumenical Patriarch came to be know as the "Green Patriarch." And he edited another important collection: In the World, Yet Not of the World: Social and Global Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Pope Francis, moreover, is not the only pope to write on these issues. Environmental issues began appearing, in their modern form, on the papal radar as far back as Paul VI in the 1960s. Much more recently, the unjustly maligned Pope Benedict XVI also addressed them, and a recent collection of his writings on the topic published by Our Sunday Visitor is very helpful here: The Environment.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Asceticism as Cure for Consumerism: An Interview with Fr. Gregory Jensen

With the impending release this week of the papal encyclical on ecology, attention is once again focused on the social outworkings of the Christian gospel. As I noted recently, it has often been said that Orthodoxy has not developed its social teaching as much as the Catholic Church has. This is not a point of triumphalism but rather a recognition that--as with so many other things--most of Orthodoxy until 1991 was living under tyrannical rule, either Islamic or communist, and thus in no position to make these developments.

But as with so many things in Eastern Christianity in the last quarter-century, we are now happily seeing a stream of books emerge each year to fill in some of the gaps. One such book has just been published. Written by the Orthodox priest-scholar Gregory Jensen, The Cure for Consumerism (154pp.) is the second volume in a new series devoted to Orthodox Christian social thought published by the Acton Institute. I asked him for an interview and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

Let’s see, my wife and I have been married for 30 years and I’ve been a priest for 18. These are probably the two most important things I can tell you about myself not just personally but also as a scholar. Everything I do flows out of my experiences as a husband and a priest.

Professionally, academically, I did my undergraduate work in psychology at the University of Dallas. After graduation I stayed on for an MA in theology (and meet my wife—I had a good year!). My thesis was on ethics in psychotherapy, which got me interested in exploring issues of fundamental anthropology in the social sciences.

In 1995 I received my doctorate from Duquesne University’s Institute of Formative Spirituality where I was able study with the late Fr Adrian van Kaam. Both a Catholic priest and a psychologist, van Kaam was instrumental in establishing a critical—but appreciative and collaborative dialogue—between psychology and Christian spirituality.  

Like many other programs in spiritual formation, IFS was an interdisciplinary program in personality theory, religion and pastoral practices. So on the graduate level, my academic background is in moral theology and personality theory. This allowed me to write a dissertation—that still sits accusingly on my shelf waiting to be reworked for publication—exploring phenomenologically the psycho-social structures and dynamics of communion in Orthodox liturgy (you see why it needs to be re-written!). My published work is in Christian spirituality, psychology, and now economics and property rights.

AD: Tell us what led to the writing of this book in particular

The short answer is that Acton asked me to do so. The slightly longer answer is that The Cure for Consumerism is based on a presentation I did at Acton University, the Acton Institute’s “four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society” (see here for more details). I’m doing the presentation again this year (“East Meets West: Consumerism and Asceticism”). It has been well received not only by the sprinkling of Orthodox at AU (all of whom are my friends) but also by Catholics and evangelical Christians. So Acton saw there was some interest in the project beyond just Orthodox Christians.

There needs to be moral limits on human consumption. Unfortunately, we often equate moral limits with merely curtailing consumption. And to be fair, yes sometimes I need to make do with less--but not always. The moral problem of consumerism is not, however, solved by telling people merely to consume less but rather by helping each other consume in ways that are morally better. Learning how to do this is part and parcel of the ascetical life.

I think the book provides Christians and others of good will with a framework to respond to consumerism in a manner that is both anthropologically and economically sound. Evidently the folks at Acton agreed and so they asked me to write the book.

AD: Your book is vol. 2 in the Orthodox Christian Social Thought Series from the Acton Institute. Do you know what has prompted them to start this imprint rather than, say, a more traditional Orthodox publisher?

I’m not sure why Acton took the path they did. You might want to direct that question to Acton. But as a scholar, I prefer to work in an interdisciplinary environment. That was my doctoral program after all. Being able to have conversations about consumerism with other Orthodox Christians is helpful to be sure but insufficient.  Doing research for the book meant talking with Christians in other traditions, pastors, lay business leaders and other professionals as well as with economists (only some of whom are Christians).

While I’d be happy to do so if asked, I’ve never written for a traditional Orthodox publisher so I can’t speak to what that experience would be like. For me at least, I want to get feedback from a broad range of sober scholarly and pastoral voices. Working with Acton helped me do this and further helped me to write a book that, while clearly Orthodox in its sources and themes, can speak to a broader audience. I’m writing as an Orthodox Christian but for men and women of good willing trying to live out their economic lives in a morally good, and even holy, manner.

AD: The back blurb of your book notes that in all the railing against “consumerism” on the part of churchmen and moralists, one thing is overlooked: a massive drop in poverty worldwide since 1970. Tell us more about this development.

If you take a slightly longer historical view, the decrease in poverty is more dramatic still. Over the last 200 years, the percentage of people living in poverty has fallen while the population has increased dramatically. The economist Max Roser points out that “In a world without economic growth, an increase in the population would result in less and less income for everyone, and a 7-fold increase would have surely resulted in a world in which everyone is extremely poor. Yet, the exact opposite happened. In a time of unprecedented population growth we managed to lift more and more people out of poverty!” 

It is economic growth that lifts people out of poverty. There is a place for foreign aid, and there’s a place for government assistance, but what people need isn’t just compassion but also work. St John Chrysostom says the hand of compassion is extended because work isn’t available (or in some extreme cases, possible). Human beings are made to work. 

For people to acquire gainful, and dignified, work we have to create wealth. We need to do this not only to pay a just wage but also to expand the opportunities men and women have for education and access to health care--to take only two examples.

Unfortunately, many Christians hold what Jeffrey D. Sachs in an op-ed calls an “anti-market sentiment.” Yes, as he says, “Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone.” We can, and should, argue over the exact mix of public and private expenditures. Whatever the mix, lifting people out of poverty requires “economic growth, and hence a market economy, is vital.”

AD: You begin your book with a story from the Desert Fathers to illustrate the connection between asceticism and economic life, a connection that seems to me often overlooked. Tell us a bit more about how you see that connection.

Consumerism, is not so much a denial of our nature but rather the frustration of our natural desire to experience communion with God, our neighbor, and creation. Asceticism is about forming, reforming, and transforming my consumption so that creation is once again an experience of communion with God and neighbor.

Human beings are by nature consumers and if we weren’t then receiving Holy Communion would be sin. Our Lord says, “take and eat; take and drink.” We are to “taste and see that the Lord is good” and are invited to the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” Again, we are by nature consumers but our consumption must be in harmony with the Divine Will.

But communion is always personal and the ascetical tradition of the Church takes this into account. Yes. there are limits to human consumption (e.g., gluttony, greed, avarice, and sexual immorality of all types are forbidden) but within those limits we have great freedom to form our lives. Ascetical struggle, like the life of communion it serves, is always personal. An ascetical approach to our economic life requires more than a simplistic, and let’s be frank often ideological, call to consume less.  To do so inevitably means that I’m imposing my own ascetical rule on you. So yes, fast, pray, and give alms according to your conscience and circumstances (hence the story of the rich monk and the poor monk with which I begin the book).

AD: You then recount the life of St. Mary of Egypt, by many accounts an “extreme” example of asceticism. How did you see her life as relevant to a book about economics and consumerism? 

Our economic lives, our lives of social involvement, and our spiritual lives are not meant to be separate but to work together in harmony. Communion is also a consonance, a harmony of the different aspects of our life, working together for God’s glory and our own salvation. St Mary of Egypt embodies all of this.

Listening to St Mary’s life every year, I’m often struck by how she didn’t enjoy her sinful life; she takes neither physical pleasure or financial profit. She didn’t prostitute herself for gain but to degrade herself and others. She was, as we hear in the services of the Church, a slave to her passions.

At the very end of her life she is able to free herself by God’s grace from the passions—and I suspect profound sexual traumas of childhood—that enslaved her. Not only does she receive Holy Communion (for only the second time in her life) from Zosimas but also, for friendship’s sake, she has a little taste of the food he brought her. Communion with God, neighbor, and the material world all converge in her and all are the fruit of her ascetical struggle. St Mary makes clear, in very dramatic form, what is true for all of us: that we can live lives that are whole and integrated.

AD: Toward the end of your chapter on Orthodox criticism of the free market, you note that a “systematic treatment” of economic issues from an Orthodox perspective is often elusive, and more “homiletical” than systematic. I’ve often talked to my students about this frustration when it comes to Catholic social teaching, but I present it to them as a feature, not a bug: that is, the OST/CST is designed to be somewhat vague and exhortative so that actual individuals in concrete circumstances can figure out how to implement it in details fitting their contexts. Would you agree?

I would agree that it is a very good thing that both OST and CST avoid making prudential decisions and so avoid imposing solutions without concern for the lives of actual individuals and concrete circumstances. So yes, the homiletic character of both is a feature not a bug. What I was getting at was something more basic: especially in English, there really isn’t much research and writing being done in OST.

AD: “Consumption: Vicious and Virtuous” is the title of your fifth chapter. Tell us more about how you see virtuous consumption, especially as I think many middle-class Christians seem to suffer from at least a little guilt in what they consume, feeling as though they are somehow depriving others of food or shelter or whatever by the very act of consumption. Do too many Christians operate on a zero-sum approach to consumption today?

What we can do--and this is what I mean by “virtuous consumption”--is work to help create opportunities to expand the circle of economic activity to help more people enjoy the benefits of a market economy. For example, if you hire a maid service to clean your house, you are providing work for someone who (typically) has very few skills and who might otherwise be on welfare (or worse). These jobs are low on the economic ladder but they can (and often do) serve as a starting point for people to move up economically. The point here is that economic self-interest and altruism are not inherently opposed. Unfortunately, you may think this if you hold to a zero-sum economic model.

At its most benign, zero-sum economic thinking is neurotic. Somewhat more worryingly for me as a pastor, I think it reflects a lack of gratitude (thanksgiving, eucharistia) to God for the material blessings He has bestowed on us. Feeling guilty only paralyzes us and keeps us from wisely appraising our own economic decisions. Let me explain.

A “zero-sum approach to consumption” says that wealth is only destroyed, never created. The reason is that the total amount of wealth is fixed; and while it can be redistributed, doing so creates winners and losers. Ironically, this is the thinking that leads to consumerism since a zero-sum economic model ultimately say that I have to take from you before you take it from me. Now, in fairness, I may have done exactly that but that makes a thief. If we assume that the whole economic system is zero-sum, well then yes, the middle class are thieves and robbers just like the “1%.” But, even the poorest Americans—who are almost always better off than the poorest Africans or Asians—are also guilty.

This is simply not true. While there is much work to do, even in my lifetime humanity as a whole has become dramatically, unbelievably, better off economically. What we want for ourselves we should also want for others. If it’s wrong for me to be middle class then it is wrong for the poor of Africa or Asia or of inner-city America.

AD: Though you grapple with modern economic issues, your book is shot through with a very healthy dose of the Fathers, and of considerable quotation of, and meditation upon, liturgical texts. This was all, it seems, in service of a larger theological vision of the human person and human community, yes?

While I think the free market and economic development are good things, they aren’t ends in themselves and they aren’t sufficient for all our needs, but they are morally good. At the same time there are moral limits for our economic life just as there are for the rest of life. One of the reasons I like working with Acton is they (and I) aren’t free market fundamentalists or anarcho-capitalists (nor, by the way, are they or I libertarians). They (and I) argue that for the free market to remain free requires not only the rule of law but also the cultivation of the moral virtues. Economic development likewise requires not only technical expertise but moral wisdom. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who defend the free market fail to make this clear.

Understandably scholars and bishops take what are typically secular and materialistic defenses of the free market and economic development at face value and assume that these defenses exhaust the moral and practical justification for the free market. As I see it, a central task of OST is to ask if there isn’t a deeper, moral foundation to a market economy and economic development. Logically, we need to answers these questions before we can criticize specific economic or policy decisions.

AD: You conclude (p. 145) that “consumerism is consumption misdirected.” Tell us a bit more what you mean by that.

I mean here that consumption, being a consumer, is in the service of communion with God, neighbor and the creation. Consumerism, on the other hand, sees consumption as the goal. This means that in consumerism what matters is not wealth creation—which as I said earlier is especially important if we care for the poor—but wealth destruction. It is wholly a negative phenomenon.

AD: Tell us your hopes for this book, The Cure for Consumerism and who in particular will benefit from reading it.

Like the other social sciences, economics develop as a science within the mixed blessing that is the Enlightenment. To put our economic life on a sound anthropological footing means seeing through and beyond the anthropology of the Enlightenment. This in turn means asking what it means to be a person created in the image of God and called to live and work as a member of not just “a” human community but multiple, often overlapping, intersecting and not infrequently diverging human communities. The family and the Church are our twin foundation here but I belong to other communities well. I think the liturgy and the classical spiritual writings (East AND West) can help us understand how these different communities are meant to function and relate to each other.

For example--and I’m not arguing policy here: I’ve heard people say the Church Fathers teach that we have an absolute obligation to help the poor. Fair enough. They then go on to say that therefore any cut in social services or unwillingness to increase the SNAP budget is a violation of Christian charity. While I appreciate the good intention here, I’m not sure this is the case. Even if it is, though, appeals to the Fathers to justify government expenditures fails to take into account some important parts of patristic teaching.

For the Fathers, not only do the rich have an obligation to the poor but the poor have their own moral obligation in the economic realm. If the situation allows for it (and in the ancient world, it often didn’t) the poor are to work and support themselves and their family and not become a burden on the Church. They also have an obligation toward the rich. They owe their prayers, their gratitude, and a kind word to the rich. This is something that isn’t (and I don’t think can be) part of a state welfare program.

So those who argue from the Fathers in favor of government spending are picking and choosing just as surely are those who argue that government has NO obligation to care for the poor. Both for reasons of morality and public policy this all needs to be sorted out, and I hope my book can play a small part in doing so. My work is a very modest attempt to help Christians and others of good will navigate the moral challenges of a market economy, especially (though not exclusively) in their personal lives.

AD: Having finished the book, what projects are you at work on now?

Some of the research for the book was also done when I was a Lone Mountain Fellow at the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, MT. PERC is a secular group primarily concerned with researching free market solutions to environmental issues but I found them very supportive of my own theological perspective. I hope to go back there in the near future and work more on property rights in OST. Early monastic literature and the canons of the Church both I think assume what a basic right to property as part of what the Moscow Patriarchate calls the human vocation to labor and right to “the fruits of labour.” The latter includes “the right to own and use property, the right to control and collect income, the right to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church VII.1). But, as my wife says, the future belongs to God.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

John the Damascene

Often considered in the West the last of the Eastern or Greek Fathers, and widely recognized as an early if sharp and polemical critic of Islam, with which he had first-hand knowledge in Syria, John the Damascene continues to fascinate. A Paris-based scholar's several articles on John's life are collected in another volume from the Variorum series by Ashgate. Though not inexpensive, the virtue of these collections is that it brings together in one place articles that may often have escaped attention upon first publication in more recondite academic journals.

Vassa Kontouma, John of Damascus: New Studies on His Life and Works (Ashgate Variorum Collected Studies, 2015), 266pp.
About this book the publisher tells us:
For more than five hundred years the life and work of John of Damascus (c. 655-c.745) have been the subject of a very extensive literature, scholarly and popular, in which it is often difficult to get one's bearings. Through the studies included here (of which 6 appear in a translation into English made specially for this volume), Vassa Kontouma provides a critical review of this literature and attempts to answer several open questions: the author and date of composition of the official Life of John, the philosophical significance of the Dialectica (a study which has its first publication here), the original structure of the Exposition of the Orthodox faith, the identity of ps.-Cyril, the authenticity of the Letter on Great Lent, and questions of Mariology. She also opens new vistas for research along four main lines: the life of John of Damascus and its sources, Neochalcedonian philosophy, systematic theology in Byzantium, and Christian practices under the Umayyads.
For those who want more insight at less cost, a recent Kindle edition, in the Princeton Theological Monograph series, will surely provide that: Charles Twombly, Perichoresis and Personhood: God, Christ, and Salvation in John of Damascus. 

About this new publication we are told:
Perichoresis (mutual indwelling) is a concept used extensively in the so-called Trinitarian revival; and yet no book-length study in English exists probing how the term actually developed in the "classical period" of Christian doctrine and how it was carefully deployed in relation to Christian dogma. Consequently, perichoresis is often used in imprecise and even careless ways.
This path-breaking study aims at placing our understanding of the term on firmer footing, clarifying its actual usage in relation to doctrines of God, Christ, and salvation in the thought of John of Damascus, the eighth-century theologian, monk, and hymn writer who gave it its historically influential application.
Since John summed up a whole theological tradition, this work provides not only an introduction to his theological vision but also to the key themes of Greek patristic thought generally and thereby lays an essential foundation for those who would dig deeper into the present-day usefulness of perichoresis.

"Those who have delved deep in the resources of patristic theology for the sake of theological renewal have long seen the concept of perichoresis as a vein of gold. But few have explored to sufficient degree the term's complexity and versatility. Twombly's book shows us how much potential treasure lies hidden by offering an extended meditation on the most fundamental structures of John Damascene's 'perichoretic theology.' His study is greatly to be welcomed and offers much to any student of early Christian thought."
--Lewis Ayres, Professor of Historical Theology, Durham University, Durham, UK

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Imperial-Ecclesial Crises

As Aristotle Papanikolaou's recent book, The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy notes, questions of church and state, which for many in the Western Church seem to have been long-settled, are still live issues in new ways for many in the Christian East after the fall of the Soviet Union. But they were of course live issues around the time of the collapse of other empires, including the West-Roman Empire as a recent book elaborates: Phil Booth, Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 2013), 416pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This book focuses on the attempts of three ascetics—John Moschus, Sophronius of Jerusalem, and Maximus Confessor—to determine the Church’s power and place during a period of profound crisis, as the eastern Roman empire suffered serious reversals in the face of Persian and then Islamic expansion. By asserting visions which reconciled long-standing intellectual tensions between asceticism and Church, these authors established the framework for their subsequent emergence as Constantinople's most vociferous religious critics, their alliance with the Roman popes, and their radical rejection of imperial interference in matters of the faith. Situated within the broader religious currents of the fourth to seventh centuries, this book throws new light on the nature not only of the holy man in late antiquity, but also of the Byzantine Orthodoxy that would emerge in the Middle Ages, and which is still central to the churches of Greece and Eastern Europe.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why Do Earthquakes and Tornados Exist?

I am finally--nearly a year after the editor sent it to me--getting around to reviewing a recent book by Christos Yannaras, The Enigma of Evil, trans. Norman Russell (Holy Cross Press, 2012), 176pp. I cannot reproduce the contents of the review here but will instead just offer a few thoughts. First, the publisher's blurb:
Nature's logic makes no qualitative judgments: earthquakes, disease, fire, and flood destroy human beings just as they also destroy irrational animals - without distinction. Decay, pain, panic, and death constitute the same conditions of existence for both Aristotle and his dog. Why? How is this irrationality compatible - how does it coexist - with the wonderful rationality (the wisdom and beauty) of nature? Why is the only consciousness in the universe, the creative uniqueness of each human being, a provocatively negligible given in nature's mechanistic functionality? And why do hatred, blind cupidity, sadism, and criminality spring from nature - why do they have roots in humanity's biostructure? Can we perhaps bring some logical order, some principles of understanding, to questions concerning the nature of evil? This book attempts to respond to the challenge.
Those who know and have read Yannaras will find here a characteristic style that is not without its frustrations: he seems to dodge and weave around various "positions" and take almost exuberant delight in sketching out certain lines of thought, only to dash them to bits a little later on. If you have patience to see it through to the end, the book tries on multiple definitions and conceptions of evil, and then just as quickly strips most of them off and rubbishes them. You get some clarity in the end, but you have to work at it. "Mercurial" is the word that recurs when I think of his style.

Still, the value in this book, it seems to me, is that it does not confine itself to classic (if sometimes tiresome) questions of e.g., why does God let the little girl die of brain cancer at 3, or how could He have allowed the Holocaust? Yannaras's focus, rather, is on "natural" evil, as he ponders how it is that "nature" seeks to survive while at the same time "nature" also allows for or brings about floods, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and the like.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Medieval Heresies

I inhabit two worlds, both of which have more in common than either would ever admit: the modern academy, and the modern Church. In the former, it is customary on the part of some modern scholars to disdain the whole concept of "heresy" (always in scare-quotes) as nothing more than a nakedly political power-grab in which the "victors" impose certain views ("orthodoxy") on the vanquished. In the latter, one encounters, as I sometimes do, certain self-selecting "traditionalist" Christians--both Catholic and  Orthodox--who profligately toss around the word "heretic" and its cognates for every idea, person, or practice they do not understand or do not find compatible with their own straitened and highly modern concept of orthodoxy. The former assume that heresy does not really exist; the latter raise continual doubts as to whether orthodoxy really exists any more except in small, and ever shrinking, groups--whether "old Mass" groups, "old calendarist" groups, or similar bodies. Neither group, in other words, is disciplined enough when it comes to dealing with heresy and both groups paint with too wide a brush.

Still, for all that, I'd rather have people too concerned with heresy than indifferent to the whole question of truth, which seems to be our lot today if my students are a representative sample. Not a few of them regularly express not just amazement but even a certain degree of disdain for the debates of the ecumenical councils--especially the first four, and the seventh. High-level debates over doctrinal orthodoxy make about as much sense to them as fisticuffs in the grocery store over which brand of margarine is superior: who cares. None of this stuff matters, right? Just go along to get along.

How different an approach that modern indifference is to most of Christian history--but also, as a new book makes clear, to Jewish and Islamic history as well: Christine Caldwell Ames, Medieval Heresies: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Cambridge UP, 2015), 368pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Middle Ages were divided in many ways. But one thing they shared in common was the fear that God was offended by wrong belief. Medieval Heresies: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is the first comparative survey of heresy and its response throughout the medieval world. Spanning England to Persia, it examines heresy, error, and religious dissent - and efforts to end them through correction, persuasion, or punishment - among Latin Christians, Greek Christians, Jews, and Muslims. With a lively narrative that begins in the late fourth century and ends in the early sixteenth century, Medieval Heresies is an unprecedented history of how the three great monotheistic religions of the Middle Ages resembled, differed from, and even interrelated with each other in defining heresy and orthodoxy.
The publisher also gives us a the table of contents here: PDF; and a list of the books virtues thus: 
  • The only comparative survey of medieval heresy to consider Islam, Judaism, and Greek Christianity, in addition to Latin-European Christianity
  • Features images and maps from all of the traditions and periods covered in the book, as well as suggestions for further reading, timelines and a full bibliography
  • Outlines and incorporates the major historiographical trends and contested issues
  • Vivid examples and quotations from primary sources break up the text and enliven the narrative

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Given the explosion of scholarship in Eastern Christianity in general, and Orthodoxy in particular, we have for some time, as I've often noted on here, been seeing various dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias, and other "omnium gatherum" types of publication emerge with some regularity, trying to corral a great deal of material into one volume. Set for release next month under the editorial hand of one of the most distinguished Orthodox scholars of our time is Andrew Louth, ed., Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present Day (SPCK Press, 2015), 400pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
A lively and perceptive account of the lives, writings and enduring intellectual legacies of the great Orthodox theologians of the past 250 years. This book explores and explains the enduring influence of some of the world's greatest modern theologians. Starting with the influence of the Philokalia in nineteenth-century Russia, the book moves through the Slavophiles, Solov'ev, Florensky in Russia and then traces the story through the Christian intellectuals exiled from Stalin's Russia - Bulgakov, Berdyaev, Florovsky, Lossky, Lot-Borodine, Skobtsova - and a couple of theologians outside the Russian world: the Romanian Staniloae and the Serbian Popovich, both of whom studied in Paris. Andrew Louth then considers the contributions of the second generation Russians - Evdokimov, Meyendorff, Schmemann - and the theologians of Greece from the sixties onwards - Zizioulas, Yannaras, and others, as well as influential monks and spiritual elders, especially Fr Sophrony of the monastery in Essex and his mentor, St Silouan. The book concludes with an illuminating chapter on Metropolitan Kallistos and the theological vision of the Philokalia.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Orthodoxy and Catholicism in Asian Perspective

More than a decade ago now I wrote several articles on the concept of the "healing of memories," a phrase that Pope John Paul II picked up and began using from the earliest months of his pontificate. As the years of his papacy wore on, he began using that phrase (and variations of it--e.g., "purification of memory") with greater urgency and with greater focus on East-West divisions. The phrase itself is a curious mix of psychology and theology and it's never been entirely clear to me how practicable such an approach is beyond the individual-clinical context: that is to say, I may be able, lying on my analyst's couch, to talk through painful memories of some trauma or other from my childhood ("remembering, repeating, and working through," to use Freud's phrase for the analytic process), and so find some measure of healing of those memories, allowing me to move on with my life. But how do entire churches or whole ecclesial communities do that? To put this in concrete terms, how do Greek Orthodox Christians (inter alia) who still harbor (one knows not how) bad memories of, say, the Fourth Crusade, experience healing of those memories as a Church?

Anyway that is a question to continue to ponder for another time. In the meantime, and along these lines, we have a new book that looks promising and interesting: Ambrose Mong, Purification of Memory: A Study of Orthodox Theologians from a Catholic Perspective (James Clark and Co., 2015), 232pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Among the major Christian denominations, the Orthodox Church is the least known and widely misunderstood. This is more serious in Asia where the Orthodox Church is a minority and is perceived as an exotic branch of Christianity. But in fact, the Eastern Church has been in China since the seventeenth century. The purpose of this work is to acquaint lay people, theological students and seminarians with the teaching of Orthodoxy through a study of important modern Orthodox theologians. Mong argues that in spite of the differences and painful clashes between the Eastern and Western Churches, there is a lot that they share in common. Key topics like ecclesiology, ecumenism, catholicity, traditions and liberation theology are explored in the works of Jaroslav Pelikan, Nicolas Berdyaev, Nicolas Afanasiev, Georges Florovsky, Sergei Bulgakov, John Meyendorff, John Zizioulas and Vladimir Lossky, together with their Catholic counterparts like Joseph Ratzinger, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. This study highlights their striking similarities and suggests, that from an ecumenical point of view, their common heritage and concerns in the world can be a basis for dialogue and the healing of memory.
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