"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).

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Origen on Evil

As I have noted on here for five years now, the making of books about Origen shows no sign of letting up. This at once brilliant, controverted, and likely maltreated Alexandrian father, dead nearly 1800 years, continues to exert influence on the Church both East and West. A recent reprint of a book originally published in 2012 helps us understand Origen's theodicy: Mark S.M. Scott, Journey Back to God: Origen on the Problem of Evil (Oxford UP, 2015), 252pp.

About this book the publisher tells us

Journey Back to God explores Origen of Alexandria's creative, complex, and controversial treatment of the problem of evil. It argues that his layered cosmology functions as a theodicy that deciphers deeper meaning beneath cosmic disparity. Origen asks: why does God create a world where some suffer more than others? On the surface, the unfair arrangement of the world defies theological coherence. In order to defend divine justice against the charge of cosmic mismanagement, Origen develops a theological cosmology that explains the ontological status and origin of evil as well as its cosmic implications. Origen's theodicy hinges on the journey of the soul back to God. Its themes correlate with the soul's creation, fall and descent into materiality, gradual purification, and eventual divinization. The world, for Origen, functions as a school and hospital for the soul where it undergoes the necessary education and purgation. Origen carefully calibrates his cosmology and theology. He portrays God as a compassionate and judicious teacher, physician, and father who employs suffering for our amelioration.
Journey Back to God frames the systematic study of Origen's theodicy within a broader theory of theodicy as navigation, which signifies the dynamic process whereby we impute meaning to suffering. It unites the logical and spiritual facets of his theodicy, and situates it in its third-century historical, theological, and philosophical context, correcting the distortions that continue to plague Origen scholarship. Furthermore, the study clarifies his ambiguous position on universalism within the context of his eschatology. Finally, it assesses the cogency and contemporary relevance of Origen's theodicy, highlighting the problems and prospects of his bold, constructive, and optimistic vision.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

LOGOS: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Fall 2015

I am delighted to be putting the finishing touches on the upcoming fall issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, the oldest academic revue of its kind in North America whose editor I am. We have two interesting articles, several shorter essays, and a nice array of book reviews and notices.


The lead article is especially fascinating: it treats relations between Orthodox and Greek Catholic clergy in Soviet Ukraine, showing the messiness and complexity of those relations after the forced pseudo-sobor of 1946. Some UGCC clergy wanted to regard others who went over to Russian Orthodoxy as "Judases" while others had a much more sympathetic view and co-operated with them unofficially at the parish level. Entitled "After 'Reunion': Soviet Power and the 'Reunited' and 'Non-Reunited' Greek Catholic Clergy in Eastern Galicia (1950s-1960s)," the article is written by Kateryna Budz, a doctoral candidate in history at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (Kyiv, Ukraine) and, until the end of this month, holder of a scholarship at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. She draws on original archival research in a variety of repositories in Ukraine to see what official records among Soviet state agencies reveal as well as ecclesial bodies and their own archives. Some figures in this story are well known--e.g., Josyf Slipyj--but others have not received much scholarly attention until now. 

The second article by Timothy Wilkinson treats the phenomenon of Christians appropriating Jewish traditions as seen in the popularity of celebrating a "seder" supper in many Protestant traditions over the last two decades.Entitled "The Contemporary Protestant Seder: An Orthodox Critique," the article reviews the rise of seder suppers and what they say about a late-modern Christian understanding of church and Jewish history, Jewish-Christian relations ancient and modern, and contemporary Western liturgical theology, which is critiqued gently in light of such Orthodox figures at Alexander Schmemann.


In the Notes/Essays/Lectures section, we feature three pieces. The first is an up-to-the-moment report from Andriy Chirovsky on the recent patriarchal sobor and synod of bishops, both held in and for the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church in Ivano-Frankivsk this August. 

The second is a short excerpt from my lecture at OTSA at Fordham this past June in which I treat the questions of memory and "forgetting" in Orthodox-Catholic relations, focusing on the upcoming 70th anniversary in 2016 of the pseudo-sobor of Lviv which saw the Stalin-approved destruction of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church with the collusion of the Russian Orthodox Church.This is a

Finally, Augustine Casiday, author of the invaluable landmark work Reconstructing the Theology of Evagrius Ponticus: Beyond Heresy (whom I interviewed about this very book here) has a fascinating and learned essay treating the uses and abuses of Evagrius' famous definition of theology and a theologian from his treatise On Prayer. This maxim, which I have myself quoted regularly, and which seems to be a staple of contemporary Eastern spiritual and apologetical literature, is often used as little more than a thinly disguised sneer at intellectual work--as a cloak for anti-intellectual obscurantism in other words. Casiday's treatment of what Evagrius really meant is important and not to be missed. 

Book Reviews: 

Finally, in this section we have reviews by the Orthodox scholar Will Cohen of Maximos Vgenopoulos' important study (which I read in draft form before publication), Primacy in the Church from Vatican I to Vatican II: An Orthodox Perspective.

Daniel Galadza of the University of Vienna reviews the hefty scholarly collection Languages and Cultures of Eastern Christianity: Georgian, one of the latest installment in this invaluable series of books from Ashgate to which I have drawn attention on here before.

Michael Plekon reviews a new French-language publication of autobiographical "notes" from Sergius Bulgakov. 

And finally we have two review essays: the first by the Orthodox priest-historian D. Oliver Herbel (whom I interviewed here about his recent outstanding book) looks at two books both published recently and both treating the question of Orthodox identity: Orthodox Identities in Western Europe: Migration, Settlement and Innovation and Eastern Orthodox Encounters of Identity and Otherness: Values, Self-Reflection, Dialogue.

The second review essay is mine, reviewing two recent treatments of papal primacy and Orthodox-Catholic searches for unity: the first is from the Orthodox philosopher and Greek priest, John P. Mannoussakis, whom I interviewed here about the book, For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West.

The second is by the Roman Catholic theologian Paul McPartlan,A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist, and Church Unity. Both are short but valuable contributions from scholars noted for their clarity of argument and their charity in engaging those they disagree with. 

All told then, given this cornucopia of riches, what keeps you from subscribing today

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance

It's hard to believe it was a full year ago since I was in Brookline for the annual meeting of the Orthodox Theological Society of America, where I was an invited panelist and respondent to Paul Gavrilyuk's excellent book, Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance. (I posted my response here.)

Now we are told that in December, a more affordable paperback version of the book is to be published so you really do have no excuse for not getting a copy!

This is a major study of the man widely regarded as the most influential Russian theologian of the 20th century. It raises acute issues not only about Florovsky but about many other matters--historiography, Russian culture, Orthodox identity and engagement with both Western and "Eurasian" culture, etc.

As the publisher told us about this book when it first appeared:
Georges Florovsky is the mastermind of a "return to the Church Fathers" in twentieth-century Orthodox theology. His theological vision--the neopatristic synthesis--became the main paradigm of Orthodox theology and the golden standard of Eastern Orthodox identity in the West. Focusing on Florovsky's European period (1920-1948), this study analyzes how Florovsky's evolving interpretation of Russian religious thought, particularly Vladimir Solovyov and Sergius Bulgakov, informed his approach to patristic sources. Paul Gavrilyuk offers a new reading of Florovsky's neopatristic theology, by closely considering its ontological, epistemological, and ecclesiological foundations.
It is common to contrast Florovsky's neopatristic theology with the "modernist" religious philosophies of Pavel Florensky, Sergius Bulgakov, and other representatives of the Russian Religious Renaissance. Gavrilyuk argues that the standard narrative of twentieth-century Orthodox theology, based on this polarization, must be reconsidered. The author demonstrates Florovsky's critical appropriation of the main themes of the Russian Religious Renaissance, including theological antinomies, the meaning of history, and the nature of personhood. The distinctive features of Florovsky's neopatristic theology--Christological focus, "ecclesial experience," personalism, and "Christian Hellenism"--are best understood against the background of the main problematic of the Renaissance. Specifically, it is shown that Bulgakov's sophiology provided a polemical subtext for Florovsky's theology of creation. It is argued that the use of the patristic norm in application to modern Russian theology represents Florovsky's theological signature.
Drawing on unpublished archival material and correspondence, this study sheds new light on such aspects of Florovsky's career as his family background, his participation in the Eurasian movement, his dissertation on Alexander Herzen, his lectures on Vladimir Solovyov, and his involvement in Bulgakov's Brotherhood of St Sophia.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Wisdom of the Desert in our Time

I was delighted recently to receive in the mail from St. Vladimir Seminary Press a new book that I said more than ten years ago needed to be written. In the early part of the last decade I was taking a graduate class on the Desert Fathers/Mothers, and trying to see connections between the "psychology" of such monastics as Evagrius and the world of the twenty-first century, especially in the aftermath of Freud. I was greatly attracted to the vision of "interiorized monasticism" that Paul Evdokimov touched upon in his lovely and lyrical (but not unproblematical) book The Sacrament of Love, but found that vision underdeveloped and not adequately "translated" and thus made accessible to non-scholars today.

Now, however, we happily have a very useful and edifying attempt to link the wisdom of desert monasticism to the world of our own day in a way that does not require all of us to flee to real deserts or try to climb atop a stylus somewhere. That book is  A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World (SVS Press, 2015; 201pp.) by Daniel Opperwall, whom I asked for an interview. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background

DO: I was born and raised in suburban Detroit. I was baptized Presbyterian as a baby, but my family stopped going to church at all when I was about six. I got a really excellent education that left me interested in philosophy and literature. As most teenagers interested in that kind of thing, I decided to be an atheist for a time. In my early twenties, though, as I kept on reading, atheism became more and more absurd to me, and Jesus Christ became more and more compelling. But a lot of the Christianity I knew still seemed off. Then I encountered Orthodoxy, and everything connected. So, I converted.

AD: What led to the writing of this book, A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World, in particular?

DO: There is a big trend in the Orthodox Church of people getting interested in patristic literature and monastic spirituality. But people often struggle when they are reading this stuff--they worry that maybe it's impossible to seek salvation without becoming a monk or a nun. It seemed to me that the problem comes when we fail to assess the core teachings being shared in this kind of literature so as to appropriately translate them into our real lives. How do I seek detachment while owning a car? How do I seek chastity if I am married and thus have sex? We cannot just try to do what ancient monks did--our lives don't permit that. So, we have to seek the same holiness as they did, but through our own lives as we really live them (not, that is, in spite of those lives). I decided to look at John Cassian's Conferences to see how that might be possible. Layman is what came out.

AD: Some might be puzzled by the seeming paradox in your sub-title: monastic wisdom for a life in the world. Don’t we all assume that monks are supposed to be world-fleeing and world-denying?

Well, for one thing, the notion that there is a great chasm between monastics and the rest of the world is far less true than we sometimes imagine, and it was, if anything, even less true in the ancient world. The ancient monks, even hermits, were constantly receiving news and visits--they were very engaged. So, one thing that became important in Layman was simply bringing forward what St John already says about worldly life--he knew a lot about it. 

But still, there is a difference here. The ancient hermits were trying to get away from the world as much as they could. Yet, they came to tremendous wisdom about God and human beings--wisdom that applies to everyone no matter what their situation. Layman is precisely about getting at that insight--that wisdom--and developing a theory of how to bring it back into our lives in the world. I hope that task seems a bit less paradoxical in light of the book, and I hope this is far from the last word we see on it.

AD: Your Athonite interlocutor, quoted in your preface, notes that a “monastery” is simply a place where people help one another unto salvation—just as a family does together. But why do you think that many people either fail to realize that, or otherwise assume that a family is a “lesser” calling?

I think it is a natural mistake to see monastics as special. There are far fewer of them then us, and nobody is born a monk or nun. We also tend to mistakenly equate Church-related things for the work of being Christian. So, since monastics spend far more time in church, we think of them as somehow more Christian. If we are only Christian in church, though, then there is no hope for anyone. And, honestly, the Church could do a much better job of disavowing people of these ideas. We have far too little material on married saints, for example--and what we have often involves couples living in celibacy so that they are basically just monastics again! The priest I met on Mt Athos knew far too much about real monastic life to fall into these traps, but for us lay people monks and nuns often remain mystical super-humans. We have to stop thinking like that.

AD: You note that Orthodox today do not want for practical books on fasting, praying the Jesus prayer at work, moral isues, or generally leading a life in the world; but that of those many books, few focus on what the “essential spiritual character and purpose” of a lay life is. Tell us how you understand that character and purpose.

The driving realization of Layman is that we, as lay people, have to be seeking our salvation through our lives in the world, not just in those moments of prayer or going to church. We have to be growing closer to Christ when mowing the lawn, cooking dinner, going to work, going to the bank. If we can't find ways to do that, then there really is no hope for us. Our purpose is nothing short of theosis in Christ--that is God's purpose for all people. But we are being asked to seek that in the world most of the time rather than through obviously religious things--that is the challenging character of our spirituality.

AD: You also note that we do not want for books, especially recent translations, of wisdom from desert fathers and mothers, but we do want for books translating that wisdom into an idiom for our own day. Why have we waited so long for a book such as yours? What has prevented others from undertaking such efforts as yours?

When it comes to the English-speaking Church, I think our writers and scholars have just had other priorities so far. I don't blame them for that. It was not long ago that we had virtually no books in English about Orthodox theology, church history, liturgics. We got some of those, so then we started working on translations of our classic writings, and that work has borne fruit only in the last few years. Now that we have our feet on the ground with those more essential things, we can start getting into the nuanced conversations about the shape of Orthodox life in the modern West.

AD: As you combed through the vast literature on desert wisdom, you came to focus in particular on John Cassian: The Conferences. Tell us, first, how you came to focus on him rather than other desert fathers and mothers.

The Conferences maintain a beautiful balance between accessibility and depth. A collection like the The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, for instance, would be hard to write about since it is all short snippets without many sustained themes or discussions. Conversely, the Philokalia is utterly vast, and often almost esoteric. The Conferences falls right in between so that there is enough to dig into for a book like this, but it remains approachable for those without lots of theological training. It also appealed to me because it bridges the East/West divide that we too often set up in thinking about Orthodox history. The Conferences is part of the full Orthodox heritage--east and west.

AD: Next, if you would, tell us a bit about the man and those Conferences.

St John is something of a mystery in a lot of ways. We can say just a few things with certainty. He spent a lot of time in several monasteries in Egypt, and travelled among the desert hermits there (whose teachings he records in the Conferences). At some point he went to Gaul (modern France) to set up several monasteries near Marseilles. That is around the time that he wrote the Conferences. We are not sure if he grew up speaking Latin or Greek, but he seems to have known both very well by the time he started writing (the Conferences are originally in Latin). St John can be a very beautiful, and remarkably honest writer. In the Conferences, he records accounts of what several desert hermits said to him and his friend Germanus as they went through the desert. He often records the questions that Germanus asks, and many of them can be challenging, critical, flippant, even slightly annoyed and funny. Sometimes St John will even express uncertainty about a teaching or situation--he does not try to make everything seem clear-cut. Because of all that, when reading the Conferences one really gets the feeling of sitting at the feet of the elders, talking back and forth with them. They feel like human beings, not impossible spiritual super-heroes. It's a beautiful way of recording all this ancient wisdom, and that is a big part of why the Conferences became some of the most influential texts in the development of Christian monasticism.

AD: Sum up what your hopes or goals for A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World are, and who in particular should read it.

My main hope is to start a conversation that lets us put lay spirituality into better focus. I'm not trying to transform the spiritual lives of lay people, or give them a different role in the Church, or anything like that; I want us to better understand the role that we lay people already play--the spiritual lives we are already living--and therefore try to strengthen them. So, to that end, I think basically any serious Orthodox lay person, and probably a good number of Catholics, would benefit from giving it a read. Other Christians might get a lot of food for thought as well, though the monastic tradition might seem a little more unusual to many Protestants and others.

AD: Having finished A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World, what are you at work on now? Other books in the works, or other research?

At the moment I have been thinking a lot about the Council of Chalcedon, in fact. I've just finished presenting at a conference on healing the Chalcedonian schism, and I will be teaching a course on the subject as well in January. So, that's a change of pace--back into heavy historical theology.

I haven't settled on a next book, but I am thinking very seriously about writing one on the Rule of St Benedict that would be in a similar vein to A Layman in the Desert. I'd like to explore how the Rule can be conceptually translated to help inform life in a family home rather than a monastery. My spiritual father is a Benedictine monk (yes there are Orthodox Benedictine monks!), and St Benedict drew a lot from St John Cassian, so it would be a natural next step.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Crimean War and Orthodox Churches

As I've noted on here many times before, military history has long fascinated me, including the oft-overlooked but deeply significant Crimean War. Orlando Figes book on that war was noted here. I have picked it up again several times over the last few years, and always find it a fascinating read. He does not ignore the role of the Orthodox Church, especially in Russia, which is refreshing to see even if it does not occupy central place in his narrative.

A new book will, however, look squarely at the role of the Orthodox Church in that 19th-century conflict: Jack Fairey, The Great Powers and Orthodox Christendom: The Crisis Over the Eastern Church in the Era of the Crimean War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 304pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
During the mid-19th century, the Orthodox Christians of the Middle East found themselves at the centre of a bitter struggle for control between five empires – Russia, Britain, France, Austria, and the Ottoman government itself. This book traces the history of the international crisis over Orthodox Christendom from its origins in the 1820s-1830s to its partial resolution in the 1860s. It explains how and why the temporal powers exercised by the Orthodox Church led to an escalating series of diplomatic confrontations that reached their acme in the 1850s with the outbreak of the Crimean War and a concerted campaign by the Great Powers to secularize and laicize the non-Muslim communities of the Ottoman Empire.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Secular Archives, Sacred Realities

If I had endless money and endless time, I would spend both in any number of archives--Vatican, Ottoman, Churchill, and many others--ferreting out some of the golden eggs of insight, scandal, or amusement they doubtless still withhold from us, or being amazed at the lacuna in their holdings. To anyone who has ever done archival research, the idea that they are simple, innocent, objective, comprehensive repositories--mere bank vaults for everything every written on a topic--is of course nonsense. What makes it into the archives is as important a question as what does not. Who determines the nature of the collection determines in significant part the history that gets written on the basis of those archives.

Published this summer is a book that looks fascinating because of the complex intersection of religious history in the hands of official atheists:

Sonja Luehrmann,  Religion in Secular Archives: Soviet Atheism and Historical Knowledge (Oxford UP, 2015), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
What can atheists tell us about religious life? Russian archives contain a wealth of information on religiosity during the Soviet era, but most of it is written from the hostile perspective of officials and scholars charged with promoting atheism. Based on archival research in locations as diverse as the multi-religious Volga region, Moscow, and Texas, Sonja Luehrmann argues that we can learn a great deal about Soviet religiosity when we focus not just on what documents say but also on what they did. Especially during the post-war decades (1950s-1970s), the puzzle of religious persistence under socialism challenged atheists to develop new approaches to studying and theorizing religion while also trying to control it. Taking into account the logic of filing systems as well as the content of documents, the book shows how documentary action made religious believers firmly a part of Soviet society while simultaneously casting them as ideologically alien. When juxtaposed with oral, printed, and samizdat sources, the records of institutions such as the Council of Religious Affairs and the Communist Party take on a dialogical quality. In distanced and carefully circumscribed form, they preserve traces of encounters with religious believers. By contrast, collections compiled by western supporters during the Cold War sometimes lack this ideological friction, recruiting Soviet believers into a deceptively simple binary of religion versus communism. Through careful readings and comparisons of different documentary genres and depositories, this book opens up a difficult set of sources to students of religion and secularism.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Crucify Him!

The more I read about the so-called justice system in the United States (the influence of which is spreading around the world in unhelpful ways), the more the problems become evident--problems whose seriousness is only magnified incalculably when the death penalty is on the table. What are Christians of all traditions doing to challenge the state and reform its penal processes in a humane way? Friends who have been involved in prison chaplaincy tell me that the Christian presence in too many penitentiaries in this country is virtually non-existent, which is a great shame on the Church.

Too often it seems we lock people away and forget about them, entrusting them to the tender mercies of the nation-state. That Christians today are willing to give obeisance to an all-powerful state and its organs is a shocking form of borderline idolatry, as William Cavanaugh, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre and others have been arguing for thirty years. A book coming out in November challenges Christian anew in this regard: Mark Lewis Taylor, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Fortress Press, 2015), 320pp.

About this updated version the publisher tells us:
The new edition of Mark Lewis Taylor's award-winning The Executed God is both a searing indictment of the structures of "Lockdown America" and a visionary statement of hope. It is also a call for action to Jesus followers to resist US imperial projects and power. Outlining a "theatrics of state terror," Taylor identifies and analyzes its instruments—mass incarceration, militarized police tactics, surveillance, torture, immigrant repression, and capital punishment—through which a racist and corporatized Lockdown America enforces in the US a global neoliberal economic and political imperialism. Against this, The Executed God proposes a "counter-theatrics to state terror," a declamation of the way of the cross for Jesus followers that unmasks the powers of US state domination and enacts an adversarial politics of resistance, artful dramatic actions, and the building of peoples' movements. These are all intrinsic to a Christian politics of remembrance of the Jesus executed by empire. Heralded in its first edition, this new edition is thoroughly revised, updated, and expanded, offering a demanding rethinking and recreating of what being a Christian is and of how Christianity should dream, hope, mobilize, and act to bring about what Taylor terms "a liberating material spirituality" to unseat the state that kills.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Ethiopian Ezekiel

As the largest Eastern Church on the African continent, as well as the one with arguably the most colourful liturgy and a fascinating if still somewhat nascent iconographical tradition, the Ethiopian Tewahado Church has long fascinated me, and I have often wished I lived close to an actual community so I could attend their liturgy and get to know their people in greater depth.

A recent critical edition helps us see once more the deep roots of Ethiopian Christianity, and its close ties to the Arabic and Syriac traditions: Michael A. Knibb, The Ethiopic Text of the Book of Ezekiel: A Critical Edition (Oxford UP, 2015), 248pp.

About this book we are told:
Ezekiel is one of the few books of the Ethiopic Old Testament of which no critical edition has hitherto existed, and the aim of this work is to fill that gap. It provides a critical edition of the oldest accessible text of the Geez version and is based on a collation of fifteen manuscripts. The Ethiopic version is a daughter version of the Septuagint, and the work sheds light on the character of the original translation and on its subsequent history. The latter included the revision of the translation in the early mediaeval period, which was in part influenced by a Syriac-based Arabic version, and a further revision of the translation based on the Masoretic text.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Problems of Christian Historiography

Over the last several years I have come to think more and more that disputes between Eastern and Western Christians turn as often as not on rival ways of thinking about the past in constructing identities for the present and hopes (or fears) for the future. The uses and abuses of history, as well as the calls for reassessing the past and healing its memories, continue to fascinate me. A recently published book lays bare some of the historiographical issues Christians face when writing about the past:  Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Baylor University Press, 2015), 217pp.

About this book we are told:
Christian faith complicates the task of historical writing. It does so because Christianity is at once deeply historical and profoundly transhistorical. Christian historians taking up the challenge of writing about the past have thus struggled to craft a single, identifiable Christian historiography. Overlapping, and even contradictory, Christian models for thinking and writing about the past abound―from accountings empathetic toward past religious expressions, to history imbued with Christian moral concern, to narratives tracing God's movement through the ages. The nature and shape of Christian historiography have been, and remain, hotly contested.
Christian Historiography serves as a basic introduction to the variety of ways contemporary historians have applied their Christian convictions to historical research and reconstruction. Christian teachers and students developing their own sense of the past will benefit from exploring the variety of Christian historiographical approaches described and evaluated in this volume.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Problems in the Narratives of Arab Conquests

It is something of a commonplace among scholars who study the origins of Islam and its first encounters with Christians that the historical narratives of those conquests are rife with problems--written long after the events in question and in such a triumphalistic and tendentious way as to put sharply into question the reliability of just about anything that is claimed for the Arab "side." A new book revisits these important if controversial questions: Boaz Shoshan, The Arabic Historical Tradition & the Early Islamic Conquests: Folklore, Tribal Lore, Holy War (Routledge, 2015), 206pp.

About this book we are told:
The early Arab conquests pose a considerable challenge to modern-day historians. The earliest historical written tradition emerges only after the second half of the eighth century- over one hundred years removed from the events it contends to describe, and was undoubtedly influenced by the motives and interpretations of its authors. Indeed, when speaking or writing about the past, fact was not the only, nor even the prime, concern of Muslims of old. The Arabic Historic Tradition and the Early Islamic Conquests presents a thorough examination of Arabic narratives on the early Islamic conquests. It uncovers the influence of contemporary ideology, examining recurring fictive motifs and evaluating the reasons behind their use. Folklore and tribal traditions are evident throughout the narratives, which aimed to promote individual, tribal and regional fame through describing military prowess in the battles for the spread of Islam. Common tropes are encountered across the materials, which all serve a central theme; the moral superiority of the Muslims, which destined them to victory in God’s plan. Offering a key to the state of mind and agenda of early Muslim writers, this critical reading of Arabic texts would be of great interest to students and scholars of early Arabic History and Literature, as well as a general resource for Middle Eastern History.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Laymen in Today's Plentiful Deserts

The invaluable St. Vladimir's Seminary Press recently sent me two books, including a book I wish I had had more than a decade ago in grad school when reading the desert fathers and mothers, and lamenting that so many of their riches had remained hidden in the tradition and not brought out to help Eastern Christians of the 21st century. Now such a book appears to have been written: Daniel OpperwallA Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World (SVS Press, 2015), 201pp.

About this book we are told:
Orthodox Christians today have no lack of resources on monastic spirituality. And yet startlingly little has been done to critically engage the monastic tradition and adapt its ancient wisdom for the Orthodox faithful living in today s complex society. A Layman in the Desert aims to bridge this crucial gap.
Working with the Conferences of St John Cassian, Opperwall constructs a kind of relationship handbook that shows us how the desert saints of old can help us build healthy, Christ-centered relationships with our spouses, children, friends, and coworkers.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A 170-Year-Old Bomb That Keeps Exploding

On this day 170 years ago a bomb exploded in England and reverberated across the Christian world: on the rainy cold night of 9 October 1845, John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church. Since then, few figures have exerted such influence on anglophone Christianity in the West from the latter half of the 19th century through to the Second Vatican Council and beyond as Newman has. So vast was his reach that he was confined neither to anglophone nor to Western Christianity, but was the only 19th-century Western theologian to be translated into modern Greek, as the Orthodox scholar George Dion Dragas showed.

Newman is influential and important for many things, including his historical work and his patristic studies (on which see, inter alia, Benjamin King's Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers: Shaping Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century England) which arguably formed an early contribution to the ressourcement movement in the West. Newman is an important figure in helping the West rediscover the Fathers, and thus an early influence on the Orthodox-Catholic move towards unity. He is perhaps best known for his sometimes controverted thesis about the development of doctrine, which some in the East dispute sometimes without having done the work of understanding Newman.

Two or three times this semester I have recommended to students that they must read Newman, and the best place to start is his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which of course details his conversion to some extent. I have long recommended that book to people whom I know incapable--for many reasons--of following the arguments to their conclusion (i.e., of "going over" to Rome), telling them instead simply to read it for the beauty of the prose, of which Newman was the unrivaled master in 19th-century letters. After reading the Apologia, next read Ian Ker's unparalleled study, John Henry Newman: A Biography.

At the end of this month, we will have an impressive collection published that furthers our understanding of how Newman has been received and used in the 125 years since his death: Frederick D. Aquino and Benjamin J. King, eds., Receptions of Newman (Oxford UP, 2015), 264pp.

I am gratified to note Daniel Lattier's contribution to Receptions of Newman. I have followed his work a little bit in the last few years, and in the ninth chapter of this collection, he contributes "The Orthodox Theological Reception of Newman."

About this book we are told:
Over the past two centuries, few Christians have been more influential than John Henry Newman. His leadership of the Oxford Movement shaped the worldwide Anglican Communion and many Roman Catholics hold him as the brains behind reforms of the Second Vatican Council. His life-story has been an inspiration for generations and many commemorated him as a saint even before he officially became the Blessed John Henry Newman in 2010. His writings on theology, philosophy, education, and history continue to be essential texts. Nonetheless, such a prominent thinker and powerful personality also had detractors.
In this volume, scholars from across the disciplines of theology, philosophy, education, and history examine the different ways in which Newman has been interpreted. Some of the essays attempt to rescue Newman from his opponents then and now. Others seek to save him from his rescuers, clearing away misinterpretations so that Newman's works may be encountered afresh. The 11 essays in Receptions of Newmans show why Newman's ideas about religion were so important in the past and continue to inform the present.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Russian and Greek Identities

I've met the author of this book several times at conferences, where his lectures are always both fascinating and entertaining. Much of his earlier research and presentations were indeed precisely on questions of Greek religious and political identity, and the complexities of both that he unearthed were very interesting indeed. Now we have a book-length treatment of relations between two major European Orthodox powers: Russia and the Making of Modern Greek Identity, 1821-1844 (Oxford, 2015), 304pp.

About this book we are told:
The birth of the Greek nation in 1830 was a pivotal event in modern European history and in the history of nation-building in general. As the first internationally recognized state to appear on the map of Europe since the French Revolution, independent Greece provided a model for other national movements to emulate. Throughout the process of nation formation in Greece, the Russian Empire played a critical part. Drawing upon a mass of previously fallow archival material, most notably from Russian embassies and consulates, this volume explores the role of Russia and the potent interaction of religion and politics in the making of modern Greek identity. It deals particularly with the role of Eastern Orthodoxy in the transformation of the collective identity of the Greeks from the Ottoman Orthodox millet into the new Hellenic-Christian imagined community. Lucien J. Frary provides the first comprehensive examination of Russian reactions to the establishment of the autocephalous Greek Church, the earliest of its kind in the Orthodox Balkans, and elucidates Russia's anger and disappointment during the Greek Constitutional Revolution of 1843, the leaders of which were Russophiles. Employing Russian newspapers and "thick journals" of the era, Frary probes responses within Russian reading circles to the reforms and revolutions taking place in the Greek kingdom. More broadly, the volume explores the making of Russian foreign policy during the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55) and provides a distinctively transnational perspective on the formation of modern identity.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Of the Making of Saints

Controversy continues to attend the making of saints in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and this in two ways at least: the requirements and nature of the process, and the ones chosen for official canonization. In both, of course, there are "political" considerations, though such an admission should surprise only the willfully naive.

The processes used in both East and West, in both ancient and modern periods, have varied and continue to vary considerably, though the goal of both remains the same: to offer to the faithful reliable role-models of sanctity whose holiness of life is worthy of imitation.

To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a recent study of the process of canonization in the last twenty years--not since the appearance of Kenneth Woodward's Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, And Why. But that book was confined, obviously, solely to the Catholic Church.

What we have now is a unique comparative study which I am greatly looking forward to reading: Cathy Caridi, Making Martyrs East and West: Canonization in the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015), 224pp.

About this book we are told:
For centuries, Catholics in the Western world and the Orthodox in Russia have venerated certain saints as martyrs. In many cases, both churches recognize as martyrs the same individuals who gave their lives for Jesus Christ. On the surface, it appears that while the external liturgical practices of Catholics and Russian Orthodox may vary, the fundamental theological understanding of what it means to be a martyr, and what it means to canonize a saint, are essentially the same. But are they? In Making Martyrs East and West Caridi examines how the practice of canonization developed in the West and in Russia, focusing on procedural elements that became established requirements for someone to be recognized as a saint and a martyr. She investigates whether the components of the canonization process now regarded as necessary by the Catholic Church are fundamentally equivalent to those of the Russian Orthodox Church, and vice versa, while exploring the possibility that the churches use the same terminology and processes, but in fundamentally different ways that preclude the acceptance of one church’s saints by the other. Caridi examines official church documents and numerous canonization records, collecting and analyzing information from several previously untapped medieval Russian sources. Her highly readable study is the first to focus on the historical documentation on canonization specifically for juridical significance. It will appeal to scholars of religion and church history, as well as ecumenicists, liturgists, canonists, and those interested in East-West ecumenical efforts.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Deeply Corrupting Influences of the French Revolution

In a paper I published this summer in the juried journal Pro Ecclesia, I demonstrated the extent to which the French Revolution has proven to be deeply corrupting of both Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology, especially their conceptions of sovereignty, authority, and autocephaly along with their notions of nationalism and Church-state relations. I maintain an interest in the revolution and in movements associated with it, not least Gallicanism and Ultramontanism. I was therefore struck with interest when, perusing the latest offerings from Princeton University Press, I came across this hefty new tome just published this month and purporting to offer us further insights into the intellectual history and influence of the revolution: Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (Princeton UP, 2015), 888pp.

About this book we are told:
Historians of the French Revolution used to take for granted what was also obvious to its contemporary observers—that the Revolution was shaped by the radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Yet in recent decades, scholars have argued that the Revolution was brought about by social forces, politics, economics, or culture—almost anything but abstract notions like liberty or equality. In Revolutionary Ideas, one of the world’s leading historians of the Enlightenment restores the Revolution’s intellectual history to its rightful central role. Drawing widely on primary sources, Jonathan Israel shows how the Revolution was set in motion by radical eighteenth-century doctrines, how these ideas divided revolutionary leaders into vehemently opposed ideological blocs, and how these clashes drove the turning points of the Revolution.
In this compelling account, the French Revolution stands once again as a culmination of the emancipatory and democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. That it ended in the Terror represented a betrayal of those ideas—not their fulfillment.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (I): Historiographical Problems

We have, for more than two decades, been living in a time of increasingly intense study of the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium. That call for study was, of course, given special impetus by the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, about which I have had a few things to say in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

Recent popes and scholars have sought--following Congar's "grand law of Catholic reform"--to find models from earlier in the Church's history that might be useful today. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it runs the risk of romanticizing the first millennium as a period of unity, when the reality is far messier than that. The further problem is--as the eminent Byzantine historian Robert Taft has often remarked--that "history is instructive but not normative." In other words, even if we find all sorts of attractive or plausible models from the first millennium, that in no way absolves us of the responsibility to decide what is necessary for our own time and context, vastly different in some ways from any earlier period of Church history. We cannot simply say "Well, the Fathers did it, so we must too" and imagine that that solves anything.

So this process of studying the first millennium remains important but is rather slow-going, primarily because as we study this vast and diverse period in more detail we are constantly confronted with evidence that does not fit anybody's pre-conceived notions.

A new collection further deepens our understanding of the papacy in this period, but further complicates matters also: Geoffrey Dunn, ed., The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2015), 273pp.

About this book 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.
Among the authors who have written chapters in this collection, we find the Orthodox scholar George Demacopolous, author of The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity, which I have elsewhere largely favorably reviewed. Demacopolous contributes a chapter, "Are All Univesalist Politics Local: Pope Gelasius I's International Ambition as a Tonic for Local Humiliation."

The patrologist Bronwen Neil, author, editor, or translator of such works as The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor and Pope Gelasius I, The Letters of Gelasius I (492-496) contributes a chapter, "Crisis in the Letters of Gelasius I: a New Model of Crisis Management."

Glen Thompson's chapter is "The Pax Constantiniana and the Roman Episcopate." Thompson is the translator and editor of the recently published The Correspondence of Julius I.

The book is divided into three sections treating the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. In subsequent entries in this series, I shall have more to say about some of the essays in each.

In his introduction, Dunn, a senior research fellow in the Centre for Early Christian Studies at the Australian Catholic University, notes some of the many challenges posed by studying the papacy in this time period. The question that is often asked is about the power of the pope in this time, and whether Vatican I's notion of "universal jurisdiction" was in fact promoted or discussed seriously in the antique period. Dunn acknowledges up front that answers to that question have varied and continue to vary, and part of the variance is determined by present political purposes as well as the ecclesial situation of a given scholar.

He raises the problem of whether scholars in 2015 can read antique evidence without allowing present considerations to control that reading, and without allowing, moreover, a reading that gives in to the temptation to see individual persons, practices, and texts as part of one grand narrative of historical or doctrinal development--what he calls reading "prochronistically, whereby modern ideas are projected back into the literary evidence" (2). As he goes on to say, "good scholarship should avoid looking at events in one period through the prism of later developments" (3).

There are other issues that bedevil study of this period, including the fact that much of it has not in fact been well studied at all. Apart from some really towering figures such as Leo I and Gregory I, few other popes have been studied in depth, and apart from these two, the correspondence of the rest of them, with rarest of exceptions, remains both untranslated into modern Western languages and often uncollected into Latin critical editions.

Dunn next acknowledges that much of what determined Roman pre-eminence in this period comes from its geopolitical situation as the largest city, the capital city, of the Roman Empire. This, of course, is simply a restatement of the "principle of accommodation" which Francis Dvornik made famous more than fifty years ago in his Byzantium and the Roman Primacy.

To be continued. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Disastrous Jesuit Encounters in Ethiopia

The Jesuit Byzantine historian Robert Taft has noted that his order's attempts to "covert" various countries with substantial Eastern Christian populations, including Ethiopia, were little short of disastrous and left a record of destruction in many ways. See his examination of the collective Jesuit conscience, as it were, in ""The Problem of 'Uniatism' and the 'Healing of Memories': Anamnesis, not Amnesia," Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 41-42 (2000-2001): 155-196, esp. 161-64 for Ethiopia and India.

A forthcoming study of one woman at the centre of the struggle with the Jesuits in Ethiopia will shed further light on this ecumenically dolorous time: The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, trans. and ed. Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner (Princeton UP, 2015), 544pp.

About this book we are told:
This is the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman, and one of the few lives of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century. As such, it provides an exceedingly rare and valuable picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans, especially women, before the modern era. It is also an extraordinary account of a remarkable life--full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph.
The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros (1672) tells the story of an Ethiopian saint who led a successful nonviolent movement to preserve African Christian beliefs in the face of European protocolonialism. When the Jesuits tried to convert the Ethiopians from their ancient form of Christianity, Walatta Petros (1592-1642), a noblewoman and the wife of one of the emperor's counselors, risked her life by leaving her husband, who supported the conversion effort, and leading the struggle against the Jesuits. After her death, her disciples wrote this book, praising her as a friend of women, a devoted reader, a skilled preacher, and a radical leader. One of the earliest stories of African resistance to European influence, this biography also provides a picture of domestic life, including Walatta Petros's celibate life-long relationship with a female companion.
Richly illustrated with dozens of color illustrations from early manuscripts, this groundbreaking volume provides an authoritative and highly readable translation along with an extensive introduction. Other features include a chronology of Walatta Petros's life, maps, a comprehensive glossary, and detailed notes on textual variants.

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