"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).

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

On the Life of Vladimir Lossky

I have elsewhere described the English Dominican Aidan Nichols as the most perceptive and sympathetic Roman Catholic theologian live today writing about the Christian East, as he has been doing for decades now. One of his earliest such studies, published by Cambridge in 1989, remains in print today as Theology in the Russian Diaspora: Church, Fathers, Eucharist in Nikolai Afanas'ev (1893-1966).

His 1990 book (updated and much improved in 2010, as noted here), Rome and the Eastern Churches is perhaps the most sober look at ecumenical relations, including the plight of Eastern Catholics in-between Roman Catholics and Orthodox. I demurred slightly from his conclusions about the "eschatological" nature of Orthodox-Catholic unity which I thought perhaps overly pessimistic, but perhaps not given where things stand today, not least with the Russians.

His recent biography of Adrian Fortescue, whom I discussed here, offers tantalizing glimpses into the rapier-witted scholar, whose droll and acerbic correspondence I really hope to see some day published in full.

His 1993 book, Byzantine Gospel, was the first in a very long series of books at the end of the last century and start of the present one to focus on Maximus the Confessor, about whom much has been published, as I have noted on here many times.

His 2005 book, Wisdom from Above: A Primer in the Theology of Father Sergei Bulgakov, bore a preface from another leading English scholar of Russian Orthodoxy, Rowan Williams.

Along the way he has also written books about iconography, liturgy, beauty, and aesthetics; and covered all those topics, and much else besides, in his 1999 book Christendom Awake, which calls for Orthodox-Catholic unity so that the former may help the latter by reintroducing to the weakened Western Church a more robust sense of monasticism, asceticism, and liturgical mysticism, inter alia.

As if the foregoing were not enough, he has also written a number of studies of the lives of such giants as Chesterton, Aquinas, and others, including Bulgakov, as noted above.

Now he has turned his attention to another outsized figure of Russian Orthodoxy in the 20th century, Vladimir Lossky, on whom Nichols has focused his latest book: Mystical Theologian: The Work of Vladimir Lossky (Gracewing, 2017).

Given the prolific prominence and astute judgments of the author, and given the equal but different prominence of the subject, Lossky, this is a book to which attention must be paid.

About this book we are told:
Vladimir Nikolaevich Lossky, born in 1903, was not only seminal in the development of Orthodox theology in its Diaspora after the Russian Revolution, and a major figure in twentieth-century European theological history, but also one of those whose work can inspire a serious Christian life. This book is not so much preoccupied by 'placing' Lossky within the world of patristic scholarship or the history of Russian religious thought, but rather, on Lossky's substantive spiritual teaching - and, accordingly, that of the teachers, especially ancient and mediaeval, he commended. Its principal intention is of communicating this teaching.
The title echoes Lossky's own in his best known book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, a work choc-A-bloc with doctrinal reflection. However it concentrates perhaps more on his final, posthumously published, lecture course, Theologie dogmatique. Born in Wilhelmine Germany, brought up in Tsarist Russia, educated at universities in St Petersburg, Prague and Paris, deeply influenced by early study of the writings of the mediaeval Latin West, and living and working in France, Vladimir Lossky was ideally placed to provide a link between Orthodoxy and the Christian West. To go deep into Lossky, cordial concern for the spiritual and intellectual concern for the propositional must walk hand in hand. The consequent initiation into the depths of divine revelation Lossky can supply will be likely to profit in both heart and mind anyone who hears his message and seeks in coherent fashion to put it into effect.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Ascetic Psychology and Physical Practices for Lent

Just in time as we all enter the ascetical contest of the Great Fast this year is a recent collection in an on-going series from Peeters: D.T. Bradshaw, ed., The Spiritual Tradition in Eastern Christianity: Ascetic Psychology, Mystical Experience, and Physical Practices

A very detailed PDF, giving the table of contents, is here.

The publisher tells us The Spiritual Tradition in Eastern Christianity:
is a comprehensive survey of the means, goals, and motivations of the ascetic life as represented in texts spanning the fourth and the nineteenth century. Contemporary examples are also included. The main themes are the dynamics of the soul, the disabling effects of the passions, mental and physical ascetism, the desirable condition of dispassion, and the experience of deification. A variety of topics are addressed, including hesychast prayer, religious weeping, the spiritual senses, dream interpretation, luminous visions, the holy 'fool', ascetic demonology, and pain in ascetic practice. Typical ascetic and mystical experiences are interpreted from the psychological and the neuroscientific perspective. Comparative analyses based on Sufism, Vedantic mysticism, and especially early Buddhist psychology highlight distinctive features of the Christian ascetic life. Major figures such as Evagrius Ponticus, Maximos the Confessor, Isaac the Syrian, and Symeon the New Theologian receive extensive individual consideration.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Theology as a Way of Life

Last fall, in teaching a course on sacraments, I had my students read, inter alia, Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, one chapter of which argues that the very study of theology itself can be a sacramental practice if undertaken properly, that is, if undertaken as more than a mere academic exercise.

Boersma's book came back to mind in reading of a recent release that furthers the same theme: The Practice of the Presence of God: Theology as a Way of Life, eds. Martin Laird, Sheelah Trefle Hidden (Routledge, 2016),168 pp. This book features such senior scholars of the Christian East as Sebastian Brock and Andrew Louth, along with others familiar with the East such as Rowan Williams.

About this book we are told:
Exploring the unity of the practice of prayer and the practice of theology, this book draws together insights from world-class theologians including Rowan Williams, Andrew Louth, Frances Young, Luigi Gioia, Margaret R. Miles, Enzo Bianchi, Sebastian Brock, and Nicholaï Sakharov. Offering glimpses of the prayer-life and witness that undergirds theological endeavour, some authors approach the topic in a deeply personal way while others express the unity of prayer and the theologian in a traditionally scholarly manner. No matter what the denomination of the Christian theologian - Greek or Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist - authors demonstrate that the discipline of theology cannot properly be practiced apart from the prayer life of the theologian. The prayer of the theologian shapes her or his approach to theology. Whether it be preaching, teaching, writing or research, the deep soundings of prayer informs and embraces all.
We are also given the table of contents:

Introduction:Oracles, Prophets, and Dwellers in Silence James Alison

Part 1. Foundational Soundings
1 Theology as a Way of Life Rowan Williams
2 Undergoing Something from Nothing Brian D. Robinette
3 The Trinity as our Ascetic Programme Nicholaï Sakharov

Part 2. Personal Accounts of a Theological Life
4 Ecumenical Confessions of an Unconventional Protestant Frances Young
5 Augustine on Practicing the Presence of God Margaret R. Miles

Part 3. Theological and Liturgical Retrievals
6 The Liturgy, Icons and the Prayer of the Heart Andrew Louth
7 To Feel so as to Understand: Hadewijch of Brabant and the Legacy of St. Anselm Rachel Smith
8 Etching the Ineffable in Words: The Return of Contemplation to Theology Martin Laird
9 The Guidance of St. Ephrem: a Vision to Live by Sebastian Brock
10 The Threat of Death as a Test for Theological Authenticity Luigi Gioia

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Iconoclasms Past and Present

Though Byzantine Christians may be forgiven for thinking they have a monopoly on the concept of iconoclasm, in fact the destruction of images is ecumenical in the worst sort of way: it may be found throughout the whole inhabited world, almost invariably connected to a major political change, as James Noyes has convincingly argued. We have, accordingly, been seeing a number of books over the last several years devoted to exploring iconoclasm more widely, within and beyond its Byzantine expressions.

Another such book--first published in 2014--has recently been released in a Kindle version: Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity, eds. Kristine Kolrud and Marina Prusac (Routledge, 2016).

About this book we are told:
The phenomenon of iconoclasm, expressed through hostile actions towards images, has occurred in many different cultures throughout history. The destruction and mutilation of images is often motivated by a blend of political and religious ideas and beliefs, and the distinction between various kinds of ’iconoclasms’ is not absolute. In order to explore further the long and varied history of iconoclasm the contributors to this volume consider iconoclastic reactions to various types of objects, both in the very recent and distant past. The majority focus on historical periods but also on history as a backdrop for image troubles of our own day. Development over time is a central question in the volume, and cross-cultural influences are also taken into consideration. This broad approach provides a useful comparative perspective both on earlier controversies over images and relevant issues today. In the multimedia era increased awareness of the possible consequences of the use of images is of utmost importance. ’Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity’ approaches some of the problems related to the display of particular kinds of images in conflicted societies and the power to decide on the use of visual means of expression. It provides a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of the phenomenon of iconoclasm. Of interest to a wide group of scholars the contributors draw upon various sources and disciplines, including art history, cultural history, religion and archaeology, as well as making use of recent research from within social and political sciences and contemporary events. Whilst the texts are addressed primarily to those researching the Western world, the volume contains material which will also be of interest to students of the Middle East.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Liturgy of Death

Two years ago this month I was invited to the Wilken Colloquium at Baylor University, where I gave a lecture on contemporary eschatological heresies in light of Byzantine liturgical tradition. I have, before and since, remained very interested in how our culture treats death, and how Christians should respond to that, noting over the years some of the problems with contemporary funeral practices and the strange, curious new practices that are supplanting some older ones.

It was, then, with great interest that I received notice from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press of a new publication of recently discovered lectures by the great Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann, on whom I have often commented on here over the years: The Liturgy of Death (SVS Press, 2017), 234pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In these previously unpublished talks, Fr Alexander Schmemann critiques contemporary culture s distorted understanding of death. He then examines the Church s rites for burial and her prayers for the dead. Though they are often misunderstood, at the heart of the services Fr Alexander finds the paschal proclamation: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
For the Orthodox Church, the time has arrived not to reform the liturgy of death, nor to modernize it (God forbid!), but simply to rediscover it. To rediscover it in its truth and glory means in its connection with the faith of the Church, with the meaning for the dead, for us, for the whole world and the entire creation of Christ s deathless death, and in connection with baptism and Eucharist, with Lent and Pascha, with the whole life of the Church and each one of us, her members. This rediscovery is needed first of all by the Church, but also by our secular culture, for which, whether we know it or not, we are responsible. How are we to rediscover it?
Introduction by Alexis Vinogradov
Chapter 1 The Development of Christian Funeral Rites
Chapter 2 The Funeral Rites and Practices
Chapter 3 Prayers for the Dead
Chapter 4 The Liturgy of Death and Contemporary Culture
The Order for the Burial of the Dead

Monday, February 13, 2017

Orthodoxy and Islam in Greece

We are fortunate to be living in so fruitful an era when study of the many and messy encounters between Eastern Christians and Muslims continue to produced by scholars around the world focusing on different periods and places. To released in May is a new study by Greek author, Nikolaos-Nikodemos Anagnostopoulos: Orthodoxy and Islam: Theology and Muslim-Christian Relations in Modern Greece and Turkey (Routledge, 2017), 240 pages.

About this collection the publisher tells us:

Church History reveals that Christianity has its roots in Palestine during the first century and was spread throughout the Mediterranean countries by the Apostles. However, despite sharing the same ancestry, Muslims and Christians have been living in a challenging symbiotic co-existence for more than fourteen centuries in many parts of South-Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
This book analyses contemporary Christian-Muslim relations in the traditional lands of Orthodoxy and Islam. In particular, it examines the development of Eastern Orthodox ecclesiological thinking on Muslim-Christian relations and religious minorities in the context of modern Greece and Turkey. Greece, where the prevailing religion is Eastern Orthodoxy, accommodates an official recognised Muslim minority based in Western Thrace as well as other Muslim populations located at major Greek urban centres and the islands of the Aegean Sea. On the other hand, Turkey, where the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is based, is a Muslim country which accommodates within its borders an official recognised Greek Orthodox Minority.The book then suggests ways in which to overcome the difficulties that Muslim and Christian communities are still facing with the Turkish and Greek States.Finally, it proposes that the positive aspects of the coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Western Thrace and Istanbul might constitute an original model that should be adopted in other EU and Middle East countries, where challenges and obstacles between Muslim and Christian communities still persist.
This book offers a distinct and useful contribution to the ever popular subject of Christian-Muslim relations, especially in South-East Europe and the Middle East. It will be a key resource for students and scholars of Religious Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.
We are also given the table of contents:

 1. Introduction 2. Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople 3. The Development of the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church 4. Modern Historical Context of the States of Greece and Turkey as it Relates to the Minority Question 5. Methodology 6. Conclusion, Appendix 1 & 2

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Nearly five years ago now when the hardcover version was released, I drew attention to The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism edited by Julia Lamm. This month, Wiley has released a much more affordable paperback version of the collection, which contains contributions from a number of noted Orthodox authors, including Bogdan Bucur, Augustine Casiday, George Demacopoulos, and Paul Gavrilyuk; and a number of chapters on Eastern periods or areas, including the Syriac tradition.

This collection, the publisher tells us,
brings together a team of leading international scholars to explore the origins, evolution, and contemporary debates relating to Christian mystics, texts, and the movements they inspired.
  • Provides a comprehensive and engaging account of Christian mysticism, from its origins right up to the present day
  • Draws on the best of current scholarship by bringing together a collection of newly-commissioned readings by leading scholars
  • Considers examples of mysticism in both Eastern and Western Christianity
  • Offers a brilliant synthesis of the key figures and historical periods of mysticism; its core themes, such as heresy, gender, or aesthetics; and its theoretical considerations, including theological, literary, social scientific, and philosophical approaches
  • Features chapters on current debates such as neuroscience and mystical experience, and inter-religious dialogue

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Riddle of Rasputin

I've read my share of books and articles about Rasputin over the years, and confess that I am no further ahead in understanding much of the man and the events he shaped. If nothing else, his life is a useful illustration and reminder of how often history functions as a cipher, and how unreliable it can be save for its reliably contradictory claims ostensibly about the same person and events. Those who think that "eyewitnesses" to people and events in history are always to be trusted have not read their Elizabeth Loftus closely or often enough.

This article gives a good foretaste of a new book by Douglas Smith, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 848pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
On the centenary of the death of Rasputin comes a definitive biography that will dramatically change our understanding of this fascinating figure
A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. Numerous biographies, novels, and films recount his mysterious rise to power as Nicholas and Alexandra's confidant and the guardian of the sickly heir to the Russian throne. His debauchery and sinister political influence are the stuff of legend, and the downfall of the Romanov dynasty was laid at his feet.
But as the prizewinning historian Douglas Smith shows, the true story of Rasputin's life and death has remained shrouded in myth. A major new work that combines probing scholarship and powerful storytelling, Rasputin separates fact from fiction to reveal the real life of one of history's most alluring figures. Drawing on a wealth of forgotten documents from archives in seven countries, Smith presents Rasputin in all his complexity--man of God, voice of peace, loyal subject, adulterer, drunkard. Rasputin is not just a definitive biography of an extraordinary and legendary man but a fascinating portrait of the twilight of imperial Russia as it lurched toward catastrophe.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A.E. Siecienski on the Papacy and the Orthodox

It is a great delight to see in print a book whose mss I reviewed for the publisher, Oxford University Press: A.E. Siecienski, The Papacy and the Orthodox: Sources and History of a Debate (2017), 528pp. This is a grand history told with great cogency and insight. The author manages to cover a vast terrain without ever losing control of the overall focus. It truly is a book that belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in papal history, ecumenism, intellectual history and debate, and Orthodox-Catholic relations.

When I was, more than a decade ago now, working on my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, I made a deliberate decision to concentrate only on the 20th and 21st centuries, knowing the history of earlier discussions and debates would have to await another book. In Siecienski's new tome, we have not waited in vain: our patience is richly rewarded.

As I did for his previous book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, so for this one about the papacy I sent him some questions for an interview. Here are his thoughts.

AD: For readers new to your work, tell us about your background

I am a native of New Jersey, and received my BA in theology and government from Georgetown University in 1990. After graduation I attended St. Mary’s Seminary and University, where I received a STB and MDiv in 1995.  After several years teaching at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA I studied at Fordham University, earning my PhD in historical theology in 2005.  I worked for 2 years at Misericordia University and have been teaching theology and Byzantine history at Stockton University in New Jersey since 2008.

I am married with two children, ages eleven and nine.

Religiously I am usually reluctant to talk about my background because once people find out where you go to church they immediately begin to suspect biases.  For example, when I tell people that I was raised Roman Catholic, but that I am now Orthodox, many immediately assume that I must have an axe to grind against the RC Church.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  And while I suppose some will inevitably say, “Ah, he’s Orthodox, that’s why he believes X or denies Y,” the hope is that most will see my real effort to examine all the material objectively.

AD: What led you from your previous book on the filioque to The Papacy and the Orthodox: Sources and History of a Debate?

At first I had actually planned something bigger — a book that would deal with all the other issues (aside from the filioque) that have divided East and West.  However, I soon realized that there was so much out there on the primacy of Rome — primary sources and secondary studies, histories and theological works (like your own) — that the papacy demanded its own book.  The hope was to try and put all that information together into a coherent whole so that it could be more easily understood, even by the non-specialist.

AD: It’s often the case that both Catholics and Orthodox think that “history” somehow “proves” their position on any given topic to be right. But history, like Scripture, is not one giant proof-text, and handling historical texts requires a great deal of judicious insight. Give us a sense of how you approach Christian history and why. 

History is fluid, and the problem with most debates between Catholics and Orthodox is that there is a failure to appreciate that.  There is usually a desire to “pick a century” or “pick a moment” that allegedly captures the view of the undivided church, forgetting completely that the papacy was (and still is) always in the process of developing, just as the Eastern response to it was.  Of course the other problem, and Catholics and Orthodox are equally guilty here, is the desire to read the present into the past and interpret 4th-9th century statements using a 21st century understanding of what you think the papacy should be.  For example, if I believe that the pope has universal jurisdiction as defined by Vatican I, then I am probably tempted to read Maximus the Confessor’s statements on the place of Rome as upholding that view.

AD: Attempting to “prove” or “disprove” Peter’s primacy on the basis of scriptural and patristic texts has often been done—badly—by Catholic and Orthodox apologists alike. In leaving aside apologetical and polemical methods, your historical scholarship examines Peter in the Scriptures and Fathers serenely and fairly. In doing so, did you find points of convergence or consensus? Did you find any surprises about Peter and his role along the way? 

I think here is where you see the biggest progress in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue thus far.  Over the last seventy or so years biblical scholars, historians, and theologians on both sides of the East-West divide have begun to look at the sources of the debate in a new way.  Oh sure, you can go online and still find hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of blogs and forums where people still throw around the prooftexts in order to demonstrate the truth of the Catholic or Orthodox position.  Yet I think that among scholars an objective reading of the evidence has led to a far greater degree of consensus, causing both sides to question the older (and far more polemical) reading.

So take Peter for example.  Today there are few Catholic scholars who would maintain that Peter either founded the church of Rome or ever served as its bishop (as we would understand that term).  At the same time, most Orthodox scholars, with some important exceptions, now accept that Matthew 16:18 does actually intend to call Peter himself “the rock” upon which the Church is built.  These are not insignificant developments.

However, for me the biggest insight into Peter concerned how the fathers dealt with him.  Obviously there is the long-standing debate about who or what the fathers believed “the rock” to be in Matthew 16:18, and I do deal with that.  Yet the truth is that this question was not the fathers’ biggest concern.  They far more often dealt with Peter as a figure of the Church — the shepherding, forgiving, Christ-loving Church who itself was in constant need of forgiveness and grace.  Sadly all the debates about “the rock” made people forget that.

AD: You give some fascinating glimpses into such controverted Western councils as Constance (which I discuss here) and various attempts to draw the “Greeks” to support either the new pope or the “conciliarists.” Tell us a bit more about those machinations. 

The conciliarist debate is fascinating because in many ways the Western conciliarists were saying exactly what the East had been arguing for centuries.  It almost seems like a “no brainer” that given the choice between Pope Eugene IV and the conciliarist bishops gathered at Basel, the Byzantines would choose the latter.

And yet they don’t.  It doesn’t make sense.  The fact that the Holy Roman Emperor switched sides probably had something to do with it, but I think Gill is correct in saying that the East had been dealing with popes for centuries, and recognized him as chief bishop of the West.  An ecumenical council needed representatives from all five patriarchates, including Rome, and if Basel couldn’t provide that, then it was off to Ferrara.

AD: In treating Florence, you quote Bessarion who said Orthodox views of the papacy were “more an expression of oriental politeness than inner conviction.” Given that, were Catholics then and now (following Gill’s “optimistic” assessment of Florence: p.380 in fn. 63) too sanguine about the chances for Florentine success? How else to explain how things unraveled so quickly after the delegation returned to Constantinople in February 1440? 

There is a part of me that would like to think that Florence could have worked.  As I said in the filioque book, even at Florence Maximus offered a theology that could have worked if only both sides could have read his work as something other than a prooftext.

However the reality is that even if that was possible (which it wasn’t) the Greeks had arrived at precisely the wrong moment in history.  Eugene IV had just beaten the conciliarists, a group who, more or less, shared the Greeks’ own vision of the Church, and the pope was not about to surrender his victory so easily.  This explains why the Greeks’ rejection was inevitable — they had agreed to his vision of the Church, not their own.

AD: You end your epilogue, and so your book, rather soberly by noting that Orthodox-Catholic unity is not likely to come soon, in part because of an “anti-Roman affect” in certain parts of Orthodoxy. Much of that affect, it seems to me, while drawing on older polemics, is a post-Soviet phenomenon. Do you have any thoughts on why it seems that some Orthodox have become so reactionary over the last quarter-century when it comes to relations with Catholicism in general and the papacy in particular? 

It is sad that the ecumenical progress that has taken place among scholars and many Orthodox hierarchs has not penetrated beyond Western Europe.  I honestly don’t know why. Is it an internal thing related to the tension between Moscow and Constantinople — i.e., does Moscow want to be seen as “holding the line” while Constantinople is more open?  I don’t know the reasons, but the anti-Roman affect is real.  Too often Orthodox in the West are tempted to forget, in our atmosphere of ecumenical goodwill, that we are the minority.  If ever there is to be real progress toward the restoration of communion, a way must be found to bring the majority with us, and frankly they haven’t expressed much of an interest.  The recent Great and Holy Council proved that.

AD: Sum up what your hopes are for the book, and who especially should read it. 

Well, from a purely selfish perspective I think everyone should read it!  But the more realistic part of me merely hopes that the book can be of use to lots of people.  For example, scholars working on a certain historical period may find in the book a resource for understand the larger context.  Theologians and ecumenists may find a place to understand what has been before trying to decide what can come next.  However, my real hope is that anyone, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, who wants to discover how this debate got started and where things are now will find a really interesting story, told without prejudice or polemical intent.

AD: Having finished now two grand histories of the major East-West debates about the filioque and the papacy, what’s your next project? 

As I said before, this book was originally undertaken as part of a larger project to deal with “the other issues” that divide East and West.  Once I decided to deal with the papacy in a separate book, it meant that I had to put aside the other three issues I hoped to deal with — purgatory, azymes, and beards.  I have already begun the research, and I plan to begin writing soon.  We’ll see how it goes.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Beauty Will Save the World (but can we assess it?)

The Lilly Endowment together with the Forum for Theological Exploration last week organized an utterly superlative conference in Indianapolis that brought together representatives of the 92 colleges and universities across the United States who were awarded grants from Lilly at the end of 2015. I have been to many conferences over the years, but rare is the one where everything worked so well, where all the sessions were enormously valuable, and where the entire atmosphere was one of gracious conviviality. It was thoroughly edifying.

I wrote the grant application for the University of Saint Francis, where I am chairman of the theology-philosophy department, and we were successful in securing a very large grant from Lilly with which, in June of this year, we will be able to run our first annual theology program for high-school students. Its theme is: Beauty will save the world! That, of course, is drawn from Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

While at the conference last week, we were treated to a fantastic lecture by Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, whom I first learned of in the late 1990s from an old friend and roommate at the time, Blair Bertrand. Blair sang her praises very highly then, and it was not at all hard to see why after listening to her last week.

Dean is the author of several books of note, including her most recent, How Youth Ministry Can Change Theological Education -- If We Let It (Eerdmans, 2016), 320pp. Earlier works include Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church as well as The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry.

It is of course the case that Protestants such as Dean are writing for different ecclesial contexts. But what once again became clear to me last week is that the teens she works with in her own United Methodist tradition are all American teens shaped by the same American culture in many ways as are kids in Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox parishes. So it is facile to dismiss the results of her very considerable research and reflection as being of no use to Catholics and Orthodox. The issues we are facing are all very similar--even if our approaches to answering them may rightly differ.

This is precisely the best sort of "receptive ecumenism" and open learning and sharing of gifts that too many today deride too easily. It was, in fact, encouraging and heartening to be in such a large gathering of diverse Christian traditions and be able to utter the word "ecumenical" and have people hear it as a good thing.

It should, I hope, go without saying that I have never (in more than a quarter-century of involvement with local, regional, and global bodies such as the World Council of Churches) once subscribed to the notion or approach of ecumenism as finding the lowest common denominator--as junking problematic practices or watering down difficult truth-claims. Attentive readers of my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy will recognize that the burden of that book was to take both Catholic and Orthodox claims about the papacy serious and, without diminishing either, attempt to find a way forward through the impasse. I think I was rather successful in doing so (certainly the reviews have suggested as much), but it took a lot of hard work. The simple, easy, indolent thing to have done would be to say (as an Eastern Christian to the Catholic Church) "scrap the papacy as conceived"; or (as a Catholic speaking to the Orthodox) "accept it as is."

But there will be time later to speak more of the papacy when I am able to interview A.E. Siecienski about his splendid new book, noted here. For now I simply want to mention two additional books (beyond Dean's latest noted above) that I was given last week and commend them to your interest.

The first is edited by William Placher (coiner of that eminently useful phrase about the "domestication of transcendence" so afflicting so much of Christianity in North America today): Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, published by Eerdmans in 2005. One of the key goals of Lilly-funded theology programs for high-school students is that of vocation or calling--to get young people to see themselves as diversely called, as having a vocation from God not just to such traditional paths as priesthood or monastic life, but called to serve the Church and world in many ways, not least also in the academy. This book is a collection of classical theological texts treating the notion of vocation. While there is a heavy tilt towards Protestant sources, there is also a good selection of patristic sources (the entire first section, and part of the second). In addition, Dostoevsky makes an appearance with an excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov.

The second book is surely of much more limited audience, and I confess that any time the words "assessment" or "evaluation" are uttered in my hearing, I silently curse my torturers for inflicting such undue and harsh mortifications on me in my cell, where I long only for a quiet life of study and writing. Nevertheless, the conference last week revealed that evaluation need not consist entirely of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of one's teeth. It can in fact be not only a useful process but even a revealing and interesting one. For those who are engaged in projects like our summer institute, evaluation can be greatly aided by Kathleen Cahalan's book Projects that Matter: Successful Planning and Evaluation for Religious Organizations (2003).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

God is Sovereign, But His Bishops Are Not

Over at Catholic World Report, revisiting some thoughts about sovereignty, including the influence of Joseph de Maistre who was first discussed in this interview, I look at how the notion is being used and abused today in the Catholic Church.

A good deal has been written about the concept. Perhaps the best place, for those wanting a theologically informed treatment that nonetheless ranges widely over relevant political and philosophical history, is Sovereignty: God, State, and Self by Jean Bethke Elshtain.

See also the more recent collection, Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Concept.

For books on Maistre, follow the link above to the interview I did with two of the leading Maistre scholars today.
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