"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).

Monday, May 30, 2016

The City with Five Names

Lviv/Lwow/Lemberg/Leopolis/Lvov is the major city in Western Ukraine of which I have the fondest memories from my time there in the summer of 2001. It is a fascinating combination of Habsburg influence (see, e.g., the opera house) smack in the middle of what was, 15 years ago, still incredibly underdeveloped and impoverished areas both in the city and especially in the countryside whose sorry state--thanks to Soviet influence--reminded me of nothing so much as 19th century rural America bereft of all the modern amenities we take for granted today. The city has long been a crossroads, and given changing borders in the past century alone, has been part of Austrian Galicia, Poland, the USSR, and since 1991 a free and independent Ukraine.

As I am getting read to go to a conference in June on the pseudo-synod of Lviv of 1946, the city has again much been on my mind.

Two recent books look at the competing influences on this city, which has long been the strong-hold of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, and a place of encounter between Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox--to say nothing of Latin Catholics, Jews, and others: Tarik Cyril Amar, The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists (Cornell University Press, 2015), 368pp.
About this book the publisher tells us:
In The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv, Tarik Cyril Amar reveals the local and transnational forces behind the twentieth-century transformation of one of East Central Europe's most important multiethnic borderland cities into a Soviet and Ukrainian urban center. Today, Lviv is the modern metropole of the western part of independent Ukraine and a center and symbol of Ukrainian national identity as well as nationalism. Over the last three centuries it has also been part of the Habsburg Empire, interwar Poland, a World War I Russian occupation regime, the Nazi Generalgouvernement, and, until 1991, the Soviet Union.
Lviv's twentieth-century history was marked by great violence, massive population changes, and fundamental transformation. Under Habsburg and Polish rule up to World War II, Lviv was a predominantly Polish city as well as one of the major centers of European Jewish life. Immediately after World War II, Lviv underwent rapid Soviet modernization, bringing further extensive change. Over the postwar period, the city became preponderantly Ukrainian—ethnically, linguistically, and in terms of its residents’ self-perception. Against this background, Amar explains a striking paradox: Soviet rule, which came to Lviv in its most ruthless Stalinist shape and lasted for half a century, left behind the most Ukrainian version of the city in history. In reconstructing this dramatic and profound change, Amar also illuminates the historical background to present-day identities and tensions within Ukraine.
A second book, also released late last year, takes a similar approach: Christoph Mick,  Lemberg, Lwów, L'viv, 1914-1947: Violence and Ethnicity in a Contested City (Purdue U Press, 2015), 480pp.

About this book we are told:
Known as Lemberg in German and Lwów in Polish, the city of L’viv in modern Ukraine was in the crosshairs of imperial and national aspirations for much of the twentieth century. This book tells the compelling story of how its inhabitants (Roman Catholic Poles, Greek Catholic Ukrainians, and Jews) reacted to the sweeping political changes during and after World Wars I and II. The Eastern Front shifted back and forth, and the city changed hands seven times. At the end of each war, L'viv found itself in the hands of a different state. While serious tensions had existed among Poles, Ukrainians/Ruthenians, and Jews in the city, before 1914 eruptions of violence were still infrequent. The changes of political control over the city during World War I led to increased intergroup frictions, new power relations, and episodes of shocking violence, particularly against Jews. The city’s incorporation into the independent Polish Republic in November 1918 after a brief period of Ukrainian rule sparked intensified conflict. Ukrainians faced discrimination and political repression under the new government, and Ukrainian nationalists attacked the Polish state. In the 1930s, anti-Semitism increased sharply. During World War II, the city experienced first Soviet rule, then Nazi occupation, and finally Soviet conquest. The Nazis deported and murdered nearly all of the city’s large Jewish population, and at the end of the war the Soviet forces expelled the city’s Polish inhabitants. Based on archival research conducted in L’viv, Kiev, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow, as well as an array of contemporary printed sources and scholarly studies, this book examines how the inhabitants of the city reacted to the changes in political control, and how ethnic and national ideologies shaped their dealings with each other. 
For those who want a wider context for understanding the city of Lviv and its regional place and significance, including its central place in Galicia, now is the time to bring to your attention again a book that has been out for more than a decade, but is still a wonderful and fascinating read: Christopher Hann and Paul Robert Magocsi, eds., Galicia: A Multicultured land.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Mind of Christ and a Psychoanalytic Mind (V)

I am about half-way through this fascinating and learned book by the British scholar Peter Tyler, The Pursuit of the Soul: Psychoanalysis, Soul-making and the Christian Tradition. We've seen, as I have been noting on here in this series, an uptick in books re-engaging both theology and psychoanalytic thought recently, not all of them very good. But this book is very good, and those in the Christian East must not be put off by the author's modesty about not engaging the Christian East as much as he would like, for there is plenty in this book that engages the thought of both Origen and Evagrius, including the latter's well-known discussion about the logismoi.

I have already sent questions to the author for a blog interview, to which he has kindly agreed. So we can look forward to hearing from Tyler directly in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, for anyone with interests in how the language, concept, and interpretation of "the soul" has fared not just in patristic but also modern psychology--especially Freud and Adler--and not just theology but also philosophy, there is much good food in this book to chew on.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Orthodox Monasticism

The invaluable specialized publisher Gorgias Press just sent me their newest catalogue, and among the many riches in there we find a book due out later this month, edited by the prolific John McGuckin, whom I've interviewed on here in the past: Orthodox Monasticism Past and Present (Gorgias Press, 2016), 600pp.

While the price tag is steep, this is in fact a very hefty collection edited by a leading scholar. The publisher further tells us:
This collection of scholarly essays on Eastern Orthodox ascetic life derived from an international conference on the theme held in 2013. The book reviews Orthodox monastic praxis and theoria from a variety of ancient and modern standpoints. It brings together cutting-edge studies of history and patristic interpretation, with psychological and spiritual reflection from engaged experts writing out of years of lived experience. This is a study which is surely destined to become a classic in its field.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Uncommon Prayer

I am very delighted to report that my good friend Michael Plekon's next book is due out in September from the University of Notre Dame Press: Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. I have several times interviewed him on here about the book, and look forward to doing so later this year once it's in print.

In the meantime, the publisher tells us that in this book
Michael Plekon wants to change our minds on what constitutes prayer. In doing so, he makes a theological claim that commonplace aspects of the Christian life are best understood as prayer, whereby encouraging us to see that everyday life carries religious import; prayer and the religious life are not restricted to special places and times, but are open to all believers at all times.
Further, we are told:
Plekon examines the works of diverse authors, including many who have challenged the status quo of institutional churches. He asks us to listen to what poets, writers, activists, and others tell us about how they pray at work and at home, with colleagues, family, and friends, in all the experiences of life, from joy to suffering, sadness to hope. Among them are Sarah Coakley, Rowan Williams, Heather Havrilesky, Sara Miles, Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver, Christian Wiman, Mary Karr, Barbara Brown Taylor, Dorothy Day, Maria Skobtsova, Paul Evdokimov, Seraphim of Sarov, and Richard Rohr. Plekon argues that prayer encompasses a much wider variety of activity than formal and liturgical prayers and that, by recognizing such aspects of prayer, the believer is made more receptive to transformative aspects of prayerful attitudes.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Seven Ecumenical Councils

We are of course fast coming up to the much-promised and much-delayed great and holy council of the Orthodox Churches, set to meet in Crete next month during the Pentecost octave. How fitting, then, that Gorgias Press--on whose singular, manifold, and utterly invaluable contributions to Eastern Christian (especially Syriac) scholarship I have had many happy occasions to comment--should be bringing out a collection devoted to a review of past councils in anticipation of the present one:

Sergey Trostyanskiy, ed., Seven Icons of Christ: an Introduction to the Oikumenical Councils (Gorgias Press, 2016), 426pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us:
The Mystery of Christ has been a major focus, and a source of contention, for Christian theological discourse since the very beginning. It remains so even to this day. The very notion of mystery directs our thoughts to that which lies just beyond the range of discourse. Indeed, the truth of Christian faith consists in the confession that the mystery of Christ cannot be exhausted by processes of discursive reasoning. Even so, discursive reason facilitates the ascent to faith in the Incarnate Christ. In other words, discourse relates to faith as an icon to its paradigm. The chief thesis of this book is that the Seven Great Councils represent such integral discursive icons of high intellectual and historical moment in Christian thought. Such events, therefore, stand as milestones in the Christian epistemic assent to the mystery of God the Word Incarnate.
The critical essays in this book, prepared by advanced scholars of the Early Church, set out an exposition of the proceedings of the Seven Oikocumenical Councils; a review of the chief works of the major protagonists associated with the councils; the immediate intellectual aftermath; as well as a considered reflection or commentary on the theological ekthesis (theological profession) of each council. The end result is a book whose critical value should make it required reading by specialists, but also will allow it to serve as a solid and scholarly introduction to the subject for both undergraduate and graduate level students.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Philosophy of Liturgy

There are not, as far as I know, many philosophers who look at liturgy through their own discipline. Among recent works that attempt something like this, there is of course the invaluable and provocative study of Catherine Pickstock of Cambridge, who re-reads Latin liturgy through Platonic and later philosophy in her tour de force, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy and then her more recent work, which engages Kierkegaard (and others) on related but broader questions: Repetition and Identity

When After Writing came out in 1997, I wrote to Pickstock (whom I also asked to be my thesis director for the Cambridge Ph.D.) to ask if she had given any thought to developing or applying her thesis (which argues for the centrality of repetition in liturgy, and laments the elimination of "useless repetitions"--as the fatuous fathers of Vatican II idiotically phrased it--to Latin liturgy) in a Byzantine or other Eastern Christian context. She responded that she had not, but could readily see how her work would fit with such an application, which I then went on to develop in an article I published in 2002.

Now, it seems, we have a full-blown philosophical analysis of Eastern Christian liturgy:  Terence Cuneo Ritualized Faith: Essays on the Philosophy of Liturgy (Oxford UP, 2016), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Central to the lives of the religiously committed are not simply religious convictions but also religious practices. The religiously committed, for example, regularly assemble to engage in religious rites, including corporate liturgical worship. Although the participation in liturgy is central to the religious lives of many, few philosophers have given it attention. In this collection of essays, Terence Cuneo turns his attention to liturgy, contending that the topic proves itself to be philosophically rich and rewarding. Taking the liturgical practices of Eastern Christianity as its focal point, Ritualized Faith examines issues such as what the ethical importance of ritualized religious activities might be, what it is to immerse oneself in such activities, and what the significance of liturgical singing and iconography are. In doing so, Cuneo makes sense of these liturgical practices and indicates why they deserve a place in the religiously committed life.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Mind of Christ and a Psychoanalytic Mind (III)

As part of an on-going series on Christianity and psychoanalysis, I turn next to a recent collection edited by Earl Bland and Brad Strawn, Christianity and Psychoanalysis: a New Conversation. After more than a century of psychoanalytic thought and practice, and after endless, and frequently incorrect or at least exaggerated, portrayals of Freudian hostility to "religion" (cf. my comments on reading the Freud-Pfister correspondence), there seems to have developed in the last decade or two a willingness on both sides to offer fresh re-consideration of faith in psychoanalysis and faith in God. That is to be welcomed, and this book purports to continue such re-considerations, especially among evangelical Christians--though, curiously, one article, with the very promising title of "Ecumenical Spirituality, Catholic Theology, and Object Relations Theory" shows no serious engagement with Catholic theology at all, the author being herself a peripatetic Protestant who seems slyly to suggest that her having once attended a Catholic church (in which her parents had her baptized) is sufficient to qualify her to write about these matters. The article is a disappointment.

So, alas, is the rest of the book. It is of course well known to me, as an editor of scholarly collections and scholarly journals, that collections of articles often make for wildly uneven reading. The best parts of the book--that is, those having some substantial engagement of worthy matters, and written in the best style--are the introduction and conclusion by the editors. That, as I well know, is often the way with such collections, for only those parts are under an editor's direct control. Between one's own beginning and ending of a book one must contend with many other writers of uneven skill and reliability. There is only so much editing one can do to bad writers without turning their entire contribution into a "typewriter job" (Midge Decter) which is more yours than theirs. (Editors must, at some point, possess and exercise a degree of askesis in which they mortify their very understandable urge to completely re-write someone else's article to make it what the editor would have written himself.)

This collection is written by and directed towards evangelical Christians. The intellectual impoverishments of evangelical Christianity are many, and have been much commented upon by others, so I will not retail those here. (Flannery O'Connor once memorably wrote that the besetting sin of a Catholic is snobbery, and I confess to having a hard time keeping mine in check when confronted with evangelicalism.) But they do bedevil this book in many ways. Given on-going and ever-deepening evangelical interest in patristics and the wider Christian tradition, the lack of engagement with those traditions by the authors in this book makes the sum of their efforts rather arid. A little more engagement with, inter alia, such Fathers as Evagrius, could make any "new conversation" between Christianity and psychoanalysis much deeper and richer.

The same could be said for renewals in Trinitarian theology and especially theological anthropology. But one cannot review a book that was not written, nor fault writers for not writing the book that reviewers think they should have written. One must, rather, review the book that was written. So let me do that here, briefly showing the better parts.

The editors rightly note in the first chapter that "psychoanalysis, in the right context, can be used as a primary tool for psychological and spiritual formation" (29). That remains, however, a desideratum, surely, for the people and places where this happens are, it seems to me, vanishingly few. Many seminaries in the Catholic world have psychologists either on call or on the faculty, but I know of almost none who are practicing psychoanalysts. One searches in vain on such sites as Catholictherapists.com for full-fledged analysts, which is a pity because, as I noted earlier this year, there is an expanding body of evidence showing the superiority of analysis to other therapeutic methods in some crucial areas.

In their conclusion, the editors seem to set out some future lines of inquiry, all of which have the welcome and happy effect of refusing to hew to the strict "orthodoxies" of some in the (especially American) psychoanalytic community, which has long been recognized as at odds with Freud in some ways, including his openness to lay analysis (that is, to analysts who were not medically trained, as indeed Freud's own daughter Anna was not). More recently, there have been debates about analytic technique, and the editors commendably show themselves flexible and willing to consider that "the external trappings, such as the use of a couch or number of sessions per week" need not unduly define nor too narrowly restrict what constitutes psychoanalysis. Short-term, once-a-week encounters in the consulting room can indeed be psychoanalysis, just as sessions over the phone or Skype are now increasingly being used by psychoanalysts.

Their concluding words are very much worth pondering, and set forth a gracious and open vision of engagement: "Psychoanalytic treatment is a participation in 'God's ongoing work of caring,'...involving love as a fundamental way of knowing" (259). Moreover, "for the Christian in psychoanalytic treatment, something much deeper is occurring. Both therapist and patient are participating eschatologically in the redemptive and reconciling work of Christ" (262). I very much wished for much more robustly developed reflection along these lines in this book, and hope that perhaps the editors, singly or together, might in the future expand these trajectories of thought into a more deeply challenging work, perhaps without the ballast of other contributors weighing down their commendable, necessary, and welcome labors.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Smiting the Saracens

As I noted earlier in the month, CUA Press continues to enrich the world of patristics scholarship with their regular offerings in the Fathers of the Church series, including this one set for release in June: Peter the Venerable, Writings Against the Saracens, trans. Irven M Resnick (CUA Press, 2016), 192pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Robert of Arbrissel (d. 1117) once named Cluny among the chief holy places of Christendom―just after Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Rome. When Peter the Venerable (d. 1156) became the ninth abbot of Cluny in 1122, Cluny had thousands of monks in the mother abbey and her daughter cells, along with hundreds of affiliated houses and dependencies in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Holy Land. As a fierce advocate for Cluny against its detractors (which included the redoubtable Bernard of Clairvaux), Peter defended his Order at the same time that he reformed its customs.
Peter the Venerable's extensive literary legacy includes poems, a large epistolary collection, and polemical treatises. The first of his four major polemics targeted a Christian heresy, the Petrobrussians (Against the Petrobrusians); the rest took aim at Jews and Saracens. Catholic University of America Press has published his Against the Inveterate Obduracy of the Jews. This present volume will make available in their entirety Peter the Venerable's twin polemics against Islam―A Summary of the entire heresy of the Saracens and Against the sect of the Saracens―as well as related correspondence. These works resulted from a sustained engagement with Islam begun during Peter's journey to Spain in 1142–43. There the abbot commissioned a translation of sources from the Arabic, the so-called Toledan Collection, that include the Letter of a Saracen with a Christian Response (from the Apology of [Ps.] Al-Kindi); Fables of the Saracens (a potpourri of Islamic hadith traditions); and Robert of Ketton's first Latin translation of the whole of the Qur'an. Thanks to Peter's efforts, from the second half of the twelfth century Christians could acquire a far better understanding of the teachings of Islam, and Peter may rightly be viewed as the initiator of Islamic studies in the West.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: a Brief Note on Donald Spence

I have been offering some ad hoc comments on here as I make my way through a number of new and other books that are helping me to think through what is going on when people continue ritualistically to invoke certain historical memories the details of which are either legitimately in dispute or even wholly and demonstrably disproven. Here I think, e.g., of groups such as ISIS and their absolutely endless and manifestly absurd invocations of "the Crusades."

One such book that has proven of some limited use has been out for a while, but I only had a chance to read it this spring: Donald P. Spence, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis (W.W. Norton, 1982).

Freud, Spence notes, was a master synthesizer, who took disparate parts of a patient's life and wove them into a compelling narrative whole via his celebrated case histories, which have "masterful control of style and content" (22). Indeed, Freud as stylist has long been commented upon, and in English his style was even said by some to have been improved by James Strachey's translations and editing of the official authorized English opera omnia. 

The problem with Freud, which can also bedevil other analysts and indeed those writing the history of controverted traumatic events--e.g., the Fourth Crusade--is that the impulse to control the narrative, to write it into a tidy or polished whole, especially for the benefit of others, can itself be distorting: "Both analyst and patient may collude in an attempt to prematurely streamline a chaotic life" (23) and this danger must be guarded against. It is not easy to resist such an impulse towards premature streamlining or tidying up because, as Spence recognizes, psychoanalysts (and also historians some of the time) are in a situation of conflict as writers of the "final" narrative, as it were, but also as keepers of the messier clinical (or other) records and archives. That conflict can become extremely acute if an analysis, or a cultural history (especially in the hands of apologists or ideological commentators whose consciences do not scruple over facts), ends up splitting off into two parts: a narrative truth within the context of the consulting room (or national or ecclesial "mythology," say), and then the historical truth or record so far as it may be fairly known and demonstrated.

Spence notes, and seems almost to condone at least in certain clinical settings, the splitting off of the two: the relationship of narrative truth to actual events of the past "may be of far less significance than creating a coherent and consistent account of a particular set of events" (28). In other words, sometimes the story an analysand tells the analyst may be only very loosely connected to the historical record, so far as it may be known, but that story may be helpful in allowing the analysand to come to some kind of coherence and perhaps even healing. Still, this does seem to invite rather troubling implications, which have been detailed by Jeffrey Prager in his fascinating and valuable study, Presenting the Past: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering.

Spence notes something else that is not often understood, at least in more "popular" attempts at portraying psychoanalysis: there is no such thing as fully "free association," and that is a good thing. For free association is not, and cannot be, like the passenger on the train describing everything seen out the window to a blind analyst. If this were so, it would be just a word salad--barely coherent, if at all. Thus the urge in both patient and analyst, in various forms and times, is to supply missing information to make a coherent whole--to move from writer to editor, as it were. That is inevitable, but it must be undertaken with great caution because of the aforementioned risk of introducing fresh distortions, tendentious deletions, or other problems. These are important cautions not only for clinicians, but also for historians and Christians telling our often dolorous, and sometimes traumatic, stories of past conflicts with and division from each other.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Essential Orthodox Texts

As I noted only last week in my interview with Amir Azarvan, we live in a time when, happily, introductions to Eastern Christianity are appearing in greater numbers and more diverse forms. Later this month, another such collection is set to appear: Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Essential Texts (Yale UP, May 2016, 488pp).

The book is edited by Bryn Geffert and Theofanis Stavrou. Geffert's earlier book, Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans: Diplomacy, Theology, and the Politics of Interwar Ecumenism is, as I noted here, a deeply fascinating and well written study. Stavrou is an historian and author, inter alia, of such works as Russian Travelers to the Christian East from the 12th to the 20th Century.
About this newest book, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Essential Textsthe publisher tells us:
Two leading academic scholars offer the first comprehensive source reader on the Eastern Orthodox church for the English-speaking world. Designed specifically for students and accessible to readers with little or no previous knowledge of theology or religious history, this essential, one-of-a-kind work frames, explores, and interprets Eastern Orthodoxy through the use of primary sources and documents. Lively introductions and short narratives that touch on anthropology, art, law, literature, music, politics, women’s studies, and a host of other areas are woven together to provide a coherent and fascinating history of the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Can a Blind Man Read Genesis?

Catholic University of America Press continues to enrich us all with the on-going publications appearing in their Fathers of the Church series, including this latest work: Didymus the Blind, Commentary on Genesistrans. Robert C. Hill (CUA Press, 2016), 248pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Blind since early childhood, the Egyptian theologian and monk Didymus (ca. 313–398) wielded a masterful knowledge of Scripture, philosophy, and previous biblical interpretation, earning the esteem of his contemporaries Athanasius, Antony of Egypt, Jerome, Rufinus, and Palladius, as well as of the historians Socrates and Theodoret in the decades following his death. He was, however, anathematized by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 because of his utilization and defense of the works of Origen, and this condemnation may be responsible for the loss of many of Didymus's writings. Jerome and Palladius mentioned that Didymus had written commentaries on Old Testament books; these commentaries were assumed to be no longer extant until the discovery in 1941 in Tura, Egypt, of papyri containing commentaries on Genesis, Zechariah, Job, Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms.
Certain features of the Genesis commentary, unfortunately not preserved in its entirety, seem to indicate that it may have been Didymus's earliest work. In addition to his silence regarding his other works, remarks on specific heresies as well as Christological interpretations occur much less frequently here than in his Zechariah commentary (previously published in Fathers of the Church Vol. 111). Moreover, the heavier reliance on Philo and Origen may indicate relative inexperience.
Whereas Didymus specifically names Philo in this commentary, he never identifies Origen as one of his sources even when quoting the latter verbatim. Like Origen, he rejects anthropomorphic interpretations and proceeds to an allegorical approach when the literal meaning repels him. He does not, however, neglect the literal-historical level; see, for example, his examination of the story of the Flood. All three of Origen's levels of interpretation―literal, moral, and allegorical―are mobilized here. This previously untranslated text is crucial for studies of the fourth century and of the monumental influence of Origen.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Amir Azarvan on Re-Introducing Eastern Christianity

As I have noted on here several times, we live in a happy moment when introductions to Eastern Christianity abound in English, from the simple and inexpensive overviews aimed at those with no background, to more detailed scholarly "handbooks," dictionaries, encyclopedias, and "companions."

Even given this emerging array of books, which has helped to begin overcoming the longstanding ignorance of the Christian East, there is still plenty of room for creativity and diverse approaches depending on author and audience alike. Thus I greeted with interest a new collection that does indeed take a singular approach to the genre of introductory texts: Amir Azarvan, ed., Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience (Wipf and Stock, 2016), 210pp.

The book is divided into seven sections, covering such topics as theosis, the communion of saints, the process of salvation, icons, sacraments, the reality of the resurrection, women in the Orthodox Church, and much else besides. I asked the editor, Amir Azarvan, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College, for his thoughts on the book. Here they are.

AD:Tell us about your background

I was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio.  I come from an Iranian-Muslim family. I began calling myself a Christian around the turn of the century, and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2007.

AD: What led you to putting together this collection, Re-Introducing Christianity?

It occurred to me that contemporary critiques of Christianity center mostly on the beliefs of an unrepresentative sample of Christians.  These beliefs often relate to such questions as: How is one saved? How should the Bible be interpreted?  Are the Scriptures a scientific textbook?  Who “goes to” heaven?  Who doesn’t?

Therefore, a growing number of people are drawing conclusions about Christianity from a relatively small (not to mention new) subset of it.  Thus, I wanted to introduce religious skeptics and believers in the West to a more authentic expression of Christianity. Judging by the growth of Eastern Orthodoxy in certain parts of the West--including here in the US--I think many people in our rapidly secularizing society might find this version more appealing.

AD: As you no doubt are aware, we have seen a considerable number of introductions to or handbooks of Orthodoxy in English over the last decade. What led you to produce this one with its unique focus? 

With religious belief on the decline, and Christian faith becoming increasingly de-spiritualized and thus vulnerable to abandonment, I saw the need for a book that addresses a more exhaustive list of religiously significant issues; a book that could guide the reader from atheism or agnosticism to theism, from acceptance of a vague conception of a deity to belief in the specific God of Christianity, and finally, from small “o” to big “o” orthodoxy.  I decided to enlist the help of others as I quickly realized that I was in no position to embark on such an ambitious project alone.

AD: Whom did you have in mind as the audience for this book?

This book is aimed at two audiences: religious skeptics and “modern Christians” (the latter category cuts across denominational lines).  

AD: Your introduction notes that you want to focus not on the continuities between traditions, but on Orthodoxy's capacity to meet the "universal desire for lasting happiness." What led you to take such a focus?

Although we’re accumulating more and more stuff, anxiety and depression seem to be on the rise in the West.  We all want to be happy, but the curious thing about the current era is that we appear to be pursuing it in very counter-productive ways. Faith can play an important role in enhancing happiness, and there’s quite a lot of empirical research supporting this claim.

AD: You end your introduction by noting that neither you nor any of the other contributors are writing from a triumphalistic stance, but want to offer an honest and non-adversarial appreciation of Orthodoxy. Isn't such a focus too often missing today, especially in on-line discussions?

Absolutely.  The Internet can bring out the worst in people (it’s called the “online disinhibition effect”).  While many of us are great at speaking the truth, few heed St. Paul’s call to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  Fidelity to one’s faith doesn’t require treating others with contempt, and I’m honestly shocked that this very simple point is lost on so many people.

AD: Each of the chapters is quite short, and written in a "conversational" style. Was that intentional?

I explicitly instructed contributors to keep their chapters “concise and readable”.  It was intended to be a sort of reference book that is accessible to a large audience.

AD: Having finished Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience, what are you on now? What future projects and publications do you have in the works?

I’ve begun working on a book on Islam that draws on political science, Christian theology, and personal experience.  It’s tentatively titled “What the Left and Right Get Wrong about Islam.”  I’ll take it as a sign of success if my book irks Christians on both ends of the spectrum!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Foreign Faiths in Tsarist Russia

I drew attention to the hardcover edition when it appeared two years ago, so it is time to note the appearance of a very affordable paperback version next month of Paul W. Werth's The Tsar's Foreign Faiths: Toleration and the Fate of Religious Freedom in Imperial Russia (Oxford UP, 2016), 304pp.

Part of OUP's Studies in Modern European History series, this book, the publisher tells us, treats
The Russian Empire, which presented itself to its subjects and the world as an Orthodox state, a patron and defender of Eastern Christianity. Yet the tsarist regime also lauded itself for granting religious freedoms to its many heterodox subjects, making 'religious toleration' a core attribute of the state's identity. The Tsar's Foreign Faiths shows that the resulting tensions between the autocracy's commitments to Orthodoxy and its claims to toleration became a defining feature of the empire's religious order.
In this panoramic account, Paul W. Werth explores the scope and character of religious freedom for Russia's diverse non-Orthodox religions, from Lutheranism and Catholicism to Islam and Buddhism. Considering both rhetoric and practice, he examines discourses of religious toleration and the role of confessional institutions in the empire's governance. He reveals the paradoxical status of Russia's heterodox faiths as both established and 'foreign', and explains the dynamics that shaped the fate of newer conceptions of religious liberty after the mid-nineteenth century. If intellectual change and the shifting character of religious life in Russia gradually pushed the regime towards the acceptance of freedom of conscience, then statesmen's nationalist sentiments and their fears of 'politicized' religion impeded this development. Russia's religious order thus remained beset by contradiction on the eve of the Great War. Based on archival research in five countries and a vast scholarly literature, The Tsar's Foreign Faiths represents a major contribution to the history of empire and religion in Russia, and to the study of toleration and religious diversity in Europe.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free

Focused on a crucial set of questions, and with a slew of top-drawer scholars--Robert Louis Wilken, Rémi Brague, John Rist, inter alia--and a chapter by Elizabeth Prodromou devoted to "Orthodox Christian contributions to freedom: historical foundations, contemporary problematics," this forthcoming collection, set for release at the end of May, is surely not to be missed: Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1. Historical Perspectives, eds.Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke (Cambridge UP, 2016), 416pp.

About this book--part of CUP's Law and Christianity series--the publisher tells us:
In Volume 1 of Christianity and Freedom, leading historians uncover the unappreciated role of Christianity in the development of basic human rights and freedoms from antiquity through today. These include radical notions of dignity and equality, religious freedom, liberty of conscience, limited government, consent of the governed, economic liberty, autonomous civil society, and church-state separation, as well as more recent advances in democracy, human rights, and human development. Acknowledging that the record is mixed, scholars document how the seeds of freedom in Christianity antedate and ultimately undermine later Christian justifications and practices of persecution. Drawing from history, political science, and sociology, this volume will become a standard reference work for historians, political scientists, theologians, students, journalists, business leaders, opinion shapers, and policy makers.<br /> me>

Church-State Relations in Finland and Russia

With chapters on two countries with large Orthodox Churches--Russia and Finland--as well as numerous other interesting chapter, this forthcoming collection The Politics and Practice of Religious Diversity: National Contexts, Global Issues edited by Andrew Dawson will enrich every library devoted to the increasingly prevalent, and maddeningly complicated, relationship between "religion" and today's politics.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Politics and Practice of Religious Diversity engages with one of the most characteristic features of modern society. An increasingly prominent and potentially contentious phenomenon, religious diversity is intimately associated with contemporary issues such as migration, human rights, social cohesion, socio-cultural pluralisation, political jurisdiction, globalisation, and reactionary belief systems.
This edited collection of specially-commissioned chapters provides an unrivalled geographical coverage and multidisciplinary treatment of the socio-political processes and institutional practices provoked by, and associated with, religious diversity. Alongside chapters treating religious diversity in the ‘BRIC’ countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, are contributions which discuss Australia, Finland, Mexico, South Africa, the UK, and the United States.
This book provides an accessible, distinctive and timely treatment of a topic which is inextricably linked with modern society’s progressively diverse and global trajectory. Written and structured as an accessible volume for the student reader, this book is of immediate interest to both academics and laypersons working in mainstream and political sociology, sociology of religion, human geography, politics, area studies, migration studies and religious studies.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Freud for Historians, Theologians, and the Rest of Us

In the early 1990s, when I was a psychology student, I read a very great deal of Freud, Jung, Coltart, D.W. Winnicott, and other psychoanalytic thinkers. Along the way I found Freud: A Life for Our Timethe biography by Peter Gay, an outstanding study. It has long been a best-seller, and in my modest estimation deservedly so. Whether you like Freud or not, whether you think him right or wrong, you cannot deny that his influence on the past century has been absolutely massive. As I noted recently, biography is a tricky thing to do well, and with a figure such as Freud, exceptionally easy to do badly, as all too many examples show; but Gay's biography avoids the two obvious traps of biography--viz., hagiography or a hatchet job.

More recently, as I have found myself returning to psychoanalytic thought for several reasons, including some research on the uses and abuses of "memory" by Eastern Christians and Muslims alike, I have been reading a short but lovely study, also by the Yale historian Gay, Freud for Historians. It seems, in some ways, to be part of an historiographical trilogy by Gay as he notes in the introduction, picking up issues he was unable to address in his earlier book-length essays Art and Act: on Causes in History: Manet, Gropius, Mondrian (1976) and Style in History (1974). One of the biggest, and still most controverted, issues among historians, then and since, has been the question of causation. Christian history and Christian historians are by no means exempt from these debates.

Gay gave no little thought to it in the first two books, and then in his 1985 Freud for Historians returned to the question, asking what not just Freud but the later psychoanalytic tradition had to say about the matter of causes, motivations, and other putative explanations of behavior. He begins by noting what a hash most psychohistorians have made of their would-be discipline, and by noting the consequent deepening of already considerable hostile suspicion between historians and psychoanalysts. So Gay has his work cut out for him in this book, about which the publisher tells us:
Is psychoanalysis a legitimate tool for helping us understand the past? Many traditional historians have answered with an emphatic no, greeting the introduction of Freud into historical study with responses ranging from condescending skepticism to outrage. Now Peter Gay, one of America's leading historians, builds an eloquent case for "history informed by psychoanalysis" and offers an impressive rebuttal to the charges of the profession's anti-Freudians. In this book, Gay takes on the opposition's arguments, defending psychoanalysis as a discipline that can enhance social, economic, and literary studies. No mere polemic, Freud for Historians is a thoughtful and detailed contribution to a major intellectual debate.
I will say that Gay does not just call for "style in history" but gives wonderful evidence of it himself: Freud for Historians is an essay of great elegance, and reading it is a delight, showing a master craftsman at work in his prose and a master scholar in his judicious weighing of the evidence. There is much here that Christians, still struggling with suspicion of Freud and the analytic tradition, could learn from.
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