"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 29, 2017

Incorruptible Jesus

Every Ascensiontide, the question arises: where is Jesus' body? If in heaven, as one is inclined to answer with irritated alacrity, how is that possible given what is claimed about the nature of heaven? Is this, in fact, a question that admits of so ready an answer as we may wish to supply with indecent haste? Or is it a question to which we cannot come to a final answer with total certainty now?

In any event, such questions are not new, and not uncontroversial, as a recent publication reminds us: Yonatan Moss, Incorruptible BodiesChristology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity (U Cal Press, 2016), 264pp.

About this book we are told:
In the early sixth-century eastern Roman empire, anti-Chalcedonian leaders Severus of Antioch and Julian of Halicarnassus debated the nature of Jesus's body: Was it corruptible prior to its resurrection from the dead? Viewing the controversy in light of late antiquity’s multiple images of the ‘body of Christ,’ Yonatan Moss reveals the underlying political, ritual, and cultural stakes and the long-lasting effects of this fateful theological debate. Incorruptible Bodies combines sophisticated historical methods with philological rigor and theological precision, bringing to light an important chapter in the history of Christianity.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

We Have Here No Lasting City.....or Church (I)

I'm about half-way through Cyril Hovorun's welcome new book, Scaffolds of the Church: Towards Poststructural Ecclesiology (Cascade, 2017), 276pp. I will post more thoughts when I have finished it. It shows vast reading and reflection, but all of it is worn lightly. The author suggests but never bludgeons.

For now I can say that it is a fascinating book that sheds a great deal of important historical light on the changing nature of ecclesial structures, showing up all their pretenses to permanence (usually disguised by a lot of gas about the Church's "divine nature") and instead asking anew the question: what is this structure for? And if it has ceased to serve that purpose, can we change the structure so that it will again serve the purpose for which it was designed?

While coming from, and primarily directed at, the structures of the Christian East, the book cannot, of course, fail to deal with comparable situations in the West with the development of the papacy and the mono-episcopacy and all the questions about primacy thereby entailed.

This new book clearly continues work begun in his earlier book, Meta-Ecclesiology: Chronicles on Church Awareness about which I interviewed him here.

Both books, I have no hesitation in saying, deserve a place in every course on ecclesiology. Both books offer much to those interested not just in ecclesiology but also church history as well as the sociology of institutions.

I'm told that I may be seeing Fr. Cyril at a conference we are both likely attending next month in Bergamo (having met up almost a year ago now in Vienna at another conference). If so, I shall see about interviewing him about this new book also.


Friday, May 19, 2017

The Icon Hunter

I watched the movie Monuments Men some time back, and thoughts of it came to mind in hearing of this new book by the Tasoula Hadjitofi, The Icon Hunter: A Refugee's Quest to Reclaim Her Nation's Stolen Heritage by Tasoula Georgiou Hadjitofi (Pegasus Books, 2017), 400pp. The author is a Cypriot, and I have fond memories of visiting Cyprus in the fall of 1993 to see some of its monasteries.

About this book the publisher tells us:

In this powerful memoir, Tasoula Hadjitofi reveals her perilous journey orchestrating “The Munich Case”―one of the largest European art trafficking stings since WWII. With the Bavarian police in place, the Cypriots on their way, seventy under-cover agents bust into the Munich apartment of a notorious Turkish smuggler suspected of holding looted antiquities. Tasoula places everything on the line to repatriate her country’s sacred treasures, unaware that treachery lies in the shadow of her success.
The Icon Hunter is a story torn from the pages of Tasoula's life as she and her Greek Cypriot family lose everything during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Hundreds of ancient Cypriot churches are destroyed, their contents looted and all signs of her Greek Cypriot culture erased as if it never existed. As a refugee, she wants justice. And then fate intervenes in the form of an archbishop and a dubious art dealer in search of redemption.
Even as unspeakable personal tragedy strikes, she never gives up her search knowing the special place these antiquities hold in the hearts of Orthodox Christians. These icons are not just masterpieces―they are artistic manifestations of faith and a gate-way to the divine.
Using family and faith as her touchstones, Tasoula takes on these “merchants of God” as she navigates the underworld of art trafficking. Tasoula believes this to be her calling, and the Archbishop of Cyprus entrusts her―an ordinary woman, wife, and mother―with the mission. In order to succeed, however, she must place her trust in an art dealer known for his double-dealing.
Inspiring and empowering, The Icon Hunter is a gripping story by a remarkable woman that will captivate readers long after the final page.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The New Testament in Byzantium

Derek Krueger, some of whose previous books I have noted on here, has recently co-edited a noteworthy collection of interest not just to scholars of Byzantium and the New Testament, but also to lectionary and liturgical scholars: Id., and Robert S. Nelson, eds., The New Testament in Byzantium (Dumbarton Oaks, 2016), 336pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The New Testament lay at the center of Byzantine Christian thought and practice. But codices and rolls were neither the sole way―nor most important way―the Byzantines understood the New Testament. Lectionaries apportioned much of its contents over the course of the liturgical calendar; its narratives structured the experience of liturgical time and shaped the nature of Christian preaching, throughout Byzantine history. A successor to The Old Testament in Byzantium (2010), this book asks: What was the New Testament for Byzantine Christians? What of it was known, how, when, where, and by whom? How was this knowledge mediated through text, image, and rite? What was the place of these sacred texts in Byzantine arts, letters, and thought?
Authors draw upon the current state of textual scholarship and explore aspects of the New Testament, particularly as it was read, heard, imaged, and imagined in lectionaries, hymns, homilies, saints’ lives, and as it was illustrated in miniatures and monuments. Framing theological inquiry, ecclesiastical controversy, and political thought, the contributions here help develop our understanding of the New Testament and its varied reception over the long history of Byzantium.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Michael Plekon on the Sacramentality of the World

It has always been a pleasure to interview Michael Plekon over the years about his many books. Less than a year ago we were talking about his then-new book, Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. In addition to books he has authored, he has also edited and translated a number of them, as I have noted on here over the years.

And now we have another one, just released in March: The World as Sacrament: An Ecumenical Path toward a Worldly Spirituality (Liturgical Press, 2017), 272pp. As in the past, I sent him some questions for an interview, and here are his thoughts.

AD: It's been less than a year since we last spoke on here about your award-winning book, Uncommon Prayer. Are there any connections between that book and The World as Sacrament?

MP: Yes, as I look back over what I have written, the threads and connections are clear to me, maybe more in hindsight. Both Uncommon Prayer and The World as Sacrament try to get us out of church buildings, out of the rites we revere, even out of the liturgical texts and scriptures and into the world of God’s creation and redemption. It is not at all a slight to the specifically religious contexts of prayer and of the spiritual life but a quest for these—as the scriptures and rites themselves intend—in the everyday lives we all know. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it in the title of her fine book, it’s a search for “an altar in the world.”

As I look back further, this was also the intent in looking at less than obvious “hidden” forms of holiness, also in the effort, as Dorothy Day said, to see “saints as they really are.” For me, the attempt to refocus ourselves on the ordinary, this-worldly life is to very much follow the lead of the New Testament: farmers, fishermen, shepherds, bakers, and tax collectors, along with cooks and weavers are where the treasures of the kingdom of heaven are found.

AD: As you know, the language of "the world" and "ecumenical" from your subtitle are red flags to some today in the Church, especially the Christian East. Were you at all concerned about that?

But both “world” and oikumene have solid histories in the Christian legacy. Even the anti-materialism of some strains of ascetic and philosophical thought cannot suffocate the world, and I mean the public world of work, politics, family, and friendships. In the Hebrew Bible and later in the NT, we are urged to welcome the stranger, to respect the one who is different—Samaritan, the immigrant, those in need, widows, orphans, the sick and imprisoned, the poor. We even are instructed to love the enemy.

The current disdain for others who confess Jesus as Lord but who are not within our ecclesial orbit, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or evangelical, needs to be seriously challenged. I for one am appalled by fellow Christians who can only describe other Christians as “heretics” or “schismatics.” Besides, there is a great deal of evidence that great writers and saints, like Basil the Great, urged the “orthodox” to reach out and re-establish communion with the separated. Disunity was for him the greater scandal and sin. So I am glad to include in this new volume Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant writers, just as I included writers of no particular denomination or church home in Uncommon Prayer. What they all share is a love for God and deep longing to live according to God’s grace. Marilynne Robinson is especially powerful in bringing the parables of Jesus to life again in the small Iowa town of Gilead, in her trilogy of books about two clergy families in that hamlet.

AD: And yet, this language is not your own: you explicitly draw on "The World as Sacrament," an essay by one of the most beloved and widely respected Orthodox thinkers of the last century, Alexander Schmemann, published nearly 40 years ago now. Who are some of the other important Orthodox thinkers who feature in this book? 

MP: I think those I chose are only a small selection of wonderful figures. To most readers, they will not be familiar but it was the suggestion of Hans Christofferson, director at Liturgical Press, to listen to an ecumenical array of writers, allowing readers to learn about some who would be new. Thus I chose Lev Gillet, the Benedictine priest-monk who out of love for the Eastern Church moved first to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Studite monastery, and who later was received into the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Evlogy of the Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Under his pen-name, “A monk of the Eastern Church,” he was widely read particularly in France, Great Britain and Lebanon back in the 50s and 60s. He was chaplain at Mother Maria Skobtsova’s hostel on rue de Lourmel in Paris, then later at St. Basil’s House in London, and a widely traveled retreat master, spiritual counselor, and street pastor.

I also included Mother Maria Skobtsova, canonized with her companions in 2004, for her efforts to save the targets of Nazi annihilation: Jews and Communists, members of the Resistance, and others.

Another modern martyr I picked was Father Alexander Men, probably the most well known TV religious personality in post-Soviet Russia. He became a victim of the religious right for his ecumenical openness and openness to the West.

To many a brilliant scholar but diminutive personality, Nicholas Afanasiev, the noted NT and canon law specialist, was another choice. His insistence on the original non-hierarchical but conciliar and eucharistic shape of the church makes him an especially important voice today. Vatican II listened to him!

Two other close friends of Fr. Lev Gillet, lay theologians Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Paul Evdokimov, were the other Orthodox figures I selected. Elisabeth concerned herself with the status of women in the church, this part of a deeper concern for the life of holiness in every nook and cranny of everyday existence. Similarly, Evdokimov focused on marriage as the sacrament of love as well as the “interior monasticism,” his way of arguing that holiness was universal, all of us called to be saints. From Dostoevesky and existentialist literature he emphasized the path to God as one through all the beauty and mess of life in modern society.

AD: And the West? You draw on Catholic and Protestant figures as well. What are some of the things that unite some of these diverse figures in your view? 

MP: Whether we talk of renowned figures such as Thomas Merton or Marilynne Robinson, Richard Rohr or Joan Chittister, Kathleen Norris or Barbara Brown Taylor, all have become spiritual teachers because of their honesty and, I think, their realism in talking of the life with God. No convenient, trendy pieties from these writers! And they do not shy away from what is messy and painful in life. The life with God very much includes suffering and emptiness. What is more, they see the stage of everyday life as where God encounters us, and remains with us.

AD: One of those figures from the modern West is Thomas Merton. A student of mine this semester has been reading him for the first time and finding a great deal of wisdom before some of my student's friends tried to warn him off Merton, saying he was "unsound." Give us your sense of why Merton remains such an important figure nearly 50 years after his death.

MP: It’s sad that for such a recognized and substantial figure like Merton, disagreement with his stances on civil rights and war and the inability to accept his criticism of the church result in a verdict like “unsound,” a judgment he is not “authentically Catholic.” But then, consider the list of others who would deserve similar rejection: Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, Oscar Romero, Gustavo Gutiérrez, yes, and Papa Francesco himself, since he has been personally responsible for the rehabilitation of many. He mentioned Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton along with Abraham Lincoln as important American spiritual leaders when he addressed Congress a few years ago. You don’t need me to remind you that the “culture wars” conflict has found its way not only into debate on social issues but into liturgy and spirituality.

AD: Your introduction speaks of men and women "looking for God in everyday experience." And at the same time your epilogue notes the attractiveness to some of an "extreme world-denying vision" (p.250-51). This seems to be a difficult tension to negotiate--to be in the world but not of it. How do the figures in your book help negotiate this tension? 

MP: These two poles are there all the way through the history of the Christian tradition. Diarmaid MacCulloch documented that in his wonderful Christianity, The First 3000 Years not long ago. I think the experience of early Christians is telling, and this is the case whether one looks at the desert mothers and fathers or even the members of early communities. Their cultural roots, both in Judaism and in Hellenism, gave them respect for the need to stand against the culture, society, the empire even, while at the same time being active participants in the life of the community. As I see it, the real distortion comes when we are told that everything here in this world and life is merely a training ground, only distractions, with the afterlife, the other world, being our destiny, being what really counts. Nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, in either the Hebrew Bible or the NT can you find this vision!

Amy-Jill Levine, the Orthodox Jew who is a NT specialist at Vanderbilt, has emphasized this in many books, especially Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.  And this is why the NT is full of women baking, farmers plowing and seeding fields, others out fishing, craftspeople and tax collectors and teachers plying their trades in so many parables and metaphors. Jesus goes apart to commune with his Father but what he leaves his disciples is the everyday work of mercy, grace put into practice. If we really believe in the Incarnation, then our faith, our spiritual lives, are not like a spaceship evacuation to a better life on another planet. Detachment and distancing from what we do not like or agree with, as in Dreher’s “Benedict option,” is really not an option for followers of Jesus. Benedict of Norcia would agree, I am quite sure.

AD: Is it just my own take, or does it seem today that more and more people in the Church seem to think we have to go searching for God in an exotic monastery and not, say, in cleaning up after Grandma's colostomy bag broke, or going about my workaday routine? Do we disdain the quotidian and thus fail to see God at His most "mundane" as it were?

MP: Having some experience in monastic life—with the Carmelites—the motto of the friar orders rings true for me: contemplata aliis tradere. We are to share the gifts we receive in prayer and contemplation with others. We are to spread the mercy and the grace. It is attractive to retreat to a quiet monastic guest house, follow the prayer of the hours with the monastics, eat in silence in the refectory, stroll the grounds, smell the incense. But let me tell you, this is a selective experience, one which we control and which spares us sponge bathing an elderly monk or nun, battling a sink of greasy pots and pans—vessels which, it must be noted, Benedict said were as holy as the chalice and paten on the altar.

AD: Both your prologue and epilogue work in autobiographical perspectives, and being a great lover of biographical studies as well as memoirs and diaries, I naturally read these first. I'm especially taken by your epilogue, "Learning to be a Pastor." May and June are often traditionally ordination months, and so I'm wondering, after decades in pastoral ministry, first in the Lutheran and now the Orthodox Church, what would you tell upcoming ordinands to expect as they set out on pastoral ministry?

MP: I follow, in various venues, ongoing reporting on seminaries and the training of future pastors and then what happens to people newly ordained. After five years, three out of five new pastors have left parish ministry, or never entered it, choosing specialized ministries in chaplaincy, counseling, teaching. Many of the reflections in The Church Has Left the Building express the challenges, both the hope and frustrations, pastors experience today in parishes. There is no doubt—and the leaders of church bodies have to get real about it—that the model of parish life and thus of pastoral ministry that we’ve pursued for over a thousand years is gone. Only a few exceptions--urban parishes with substantial endowments, and some fascinating experiments in reinvention and redefinition--show vitality. I don’t mean to sound arrogant here. I have spent almost 35 years as a pastor in fairly ordinary parishes, all of which are challenged and shrinking because of demographic changes that have nothing whatsoever to do with belief. Any pastor who thinks that simply doing what he/she has done for the last millennium or more is in delusion. Reading the NT would be a first therapy.

Some find a resistance and detachment on the part of Eastern Church clergy attractive, a negation of nasty secular, corrupt culture and society and adherence to paradisic liturgy: you know, all those icons glowing from the candles, the smoke of the incense, the “mystical” chant. Some even think if the chant were in languages one could not understand, it’s all the better. Close the holy doors, pull the curtain, lose yourself in the other-worldly. Well I know what Papa Francesco, whose Vatican basilicas are pretty smokey and bedecked with frescoes, would say. I also know what some of my beloved teacher and writers like Gillet, Evdokimov, Afansiev, Schmemann, Skobtsova--all faithful members of the Eastern Church-- would say. Afanasiev in particular said the tinkle of the bells on the bishop’s sakkos, the eagle rugs thrown on the floor for him to stand upon, the endless chants that he should live forever (or at least for "many years"): these are what remains of the Byzantine Empire and its court, imperial props that John Chrysostom and Basil the Great knew nothing of, and which are the most "this-worldly" conceivable!

Mother Maria said the people gathered for the Eucharist and also in line to get a bowl of soup and chunk of bread are the “living icons” just as much as those on the walls and screen incensed by the deacon in the services. Schmemann celebrated the conciliar shape of the church which has, as his teacher Afanasiev said, place for all, from bishop to small child. But he also called the obsession with ecclesiastical headwear and clothes a “vaudeville of klobuks,” a circus of obsession with trappings. And Paul Evdokimov’s son, Fr. Michel, an emeritus professor and pastor, once told me as we put our cassocks on, “This riassa can be worn too much and badly, and do much wrong,” though that was hardly the purpose of it. So if I were to say anything to newly ordained people, I would say bless me, pray for me, be merciful, be merciful, and be merciful some more. Listen to the people. Listen to the your neighborhood. Listen to the world of work and play going on around you everyday. Maybe you should be, like the apostles, a “worker pastor” with a “day job” like them and countless other pastors for centuries.

AD: You've seen many changes in your pastoral life, some of them discussed in another of your recent books, The Church Has Left the Building. Any prognostications about what changes are still to come in the life of parishes today in North America? 

MP: Ah, every wonderful question you ask leads to another. Funny you should ask about changes in parish life, for I have started work on a book I am tentatively calling Community as Church. By this I mean that I am looking for people outside the institutional churches looking for fellowship, sharing, meaning, God. I have met a couple whose potluck get-togethers are not just 30-somethings commiserating about drooling infants and exhausting toddlers and constant pressure at work but also in the exchange, discovering communion with each other, things to live for, support on the way.

As well, however, I have come across pastors trying new, different things. Right in my own backyard in the Hudson Valley, for example, a UMC pastor and friend, Wongee Joh, leads a cooperative of four parishes seeking to find new ways of being church in the future. All these were small-town congregations but now because cars have made the towns mere minutes away from each other, the duplication of Methodist parishes is redundant. The annual NY Conference—what we would call a diocese—is urging the parishes to find ways to pray and work together and use the resources they still have wisely. But for many, the heartbreak of no longer having Sunday services where Grandpa and Grandma once sang and prayed looms large.

Another friend, Presbyterian pastor David Frost, himself a PK, was asked by members of his dad’s former parish, an historic, 200+ year-old congregation, to try to keep it going, maybe revive it. The regional body, the presbytery, agreed, even accepting that this parish could not be expected to behave as ordinary ones do. They would share with the larger church financially as they were able, but also not be bailed out by them. Almost ten years later, miraculously, as David says, there still is a community, praying together on Sundays, staffing a thrift shop and food pantry, even being home to street folk from the village of Patterson NY.

One more example. A former parishioner from the first parish I served, also a former student in the diaconal training course we sponsored over 20 years ago, is now pastor of an old Swedish Lutheran parish, Gustavus Adolphus (GA), on 22nd Street in Manhattan, literally on the campus of my school Baruch Colllege-CUNY. The parish was about to close when he arrived, after a too-long pastorate of almost 50 years. Miraculously, as Chris Mietlowski also describes it, GA has become a “destination” parish. I was amazed when he told me that only he and his wife live in the neighborhood, in the rectory next door. All those who have come to the parish are from elsewhere, from all the boroughs, even a few from across the river in NJ. They come because of the liturgy, the preaching, his pastoral leadership and care, but as he notes, mostly because they find God and community with each other and then turn this into neighborhood outreach: early childhood education, food pantry, but also importantly, doing the works of mercy in their own neighborhoods and homes and jobs elsewhere! Yes, there is much to be concerned about as parish numbers shrink, and deaneries and dioceses decrease. Not a week goes by that I do not see and collect an article on a parish reinventing itself, a parish dying, closing only to rise again in a new congregational start in the same location. The church will remain, but not as we’ve known it.

AD: Your epilogue took me back to some part-time work I did in a nursing home in Ottawa in the 1990s as a volunteer in the pastoral care department where I learned, as you so winsomely describe, that some of the shut-ins you visited were unexpectedly "absolute gifts of grace to me." Isn't that one of the hidden paradoxes of such "work"--that far from being a tedious chore in which you minister to someone, they often end up ministering to you, offering you unexpected gifts?

MP: I get the sense, especially for the last few years now, that we are more the recipients of mercy and grace than we could imagine or hope for. Maybe it’s one of the many experiences of “aging” for me. Whether in my home parish or in others I visit when away, I am struck by how much more we are given within the community of faith, no matter how little or great our levels of contribution may be. Behind both Uncommon Prayer and The World as Sacrament is a realization many great spiritual teachers have had, from the first centuries on down. Weeding the garden, putting together a meal, cleaning up—all these seemingly mundane, meaningless tasks are opening to communion with God and with each other.

The prayers in our prayer/liturgy books are beautiful. Those that come in work, in happiness, in love, in being forgiven, are powerful prayers as well. This we hear from lots of voices. I hear it almost weekly from Papa Francesco. But as I worked through Kate Hennessey’s riveting memoir of her grandmother, Dorothy Day and Dorothy’s only child, Tama, Kate’s mom, I heard the gifts of mercy and grace given over and over again in the lives of those women. And, as I have said, I have heard it and tried to communicate it from Mary Oliver, Mary Karr, Barbara Brown Taylor, Merton and Rohr and Schmemann and Skobtsova and so many others.

AD: The prologue and epilogue build on some autobiographical material in other books. Now that you are about to retire from CUNY, can we expect a full-blown set of memoirs? If not, what might you be working on instead--any future projects we should keep an eye out for? 

MP: Years ago, my very brilliant and even more outspoken daughter Hannah tore into me for not telling my story in a chapter in Saints As They Really Are, about my years in the Carmelites. “You keep talking about other people, describing things like a professor, objectively, in the third person. This is about YOU, Dad! Where is your heart, your feelings, your voice.” Anyone with daughters will immediately get this. It made for a much better chapter and encouraged me to start putting autobiographical/memoir material in other chapters in my books.

But as master memoirists like Patricia Hampl and Mary Karr say, memoirs read easily but are very difficult to craft. I hear the anti-ecumenical buzz in my own church body. I see with pain no sensitivity to the reality of faith in other communities on the part of younger clergy—they’re all “heretics.” I think the account of how I was raised in the faith that I did in the prologue explains my ecumenical commitment. I know others have opened and grown from such ecumenical sharing and there is no future for us without it.

I have said plenty about what I was given and how much I learned years ago, as a young pastor. If what I saw and was gifted with can encourage a reader, then I have kept the giving going and alive.

Monday, May 8, 2017

On the Once and Future Melkite Church

With the news of the resignation of the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham comes, no doubt all too briefly, a return to focusing on Arab Christianity, and the Christians of the Middle East more generally. But for those wanting to focus even more particularly on the Melkite Church herself, it is passing strange to me how few scholarly books we have for doing so in English. If someone is aware of significant studies I have missed, or is aware of some that are being prepared even now, I should be most grateful if s/he would let me know so that I can draw attention to such books.

There are, however, books that treat the wider context of Arab Christianity, many of which I have noted on here over the years, including one, The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700 - 1700: An Anthology of Sourceswhose editors I interviewed here. One of those editors, Sam Noble, has gone on, with Constantine Panchenko, to co-edit a second valuable work, Arab Orthodox Christians Under the Ottomans 1516–1831.

I heard His Beatitude give a lecture at the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa in the early part of the last decade, and he discombobulated some in the audience when he said to us something similar to what he says in this article: “Our simple existence ruins the equations whereby Arabs can’t be other than Moslems, and Christians but be westerners.” He was, on that occasion and many times since, inclined to use the phrase "the Church of Islam," which, admittedly, could perhaps be explicated with greater detail sometimes. But I always assumed that he had something in mind along the lines of what Sidney Griffith describes in his invaluable book, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam.

That book, for all its merits, first appeared now a decade ago in hardback, and was a work of history; it did not really attend to current Melkite realities, especially from 2011 onward.

Griffiths' more recent study, The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the 'People of the Book' in the Language of Islam, is not of course especially focused on the Melkite Church, but it is useful also if only in dispelling the depressingly common assumption I encounter in my classes every semester that (as His Beatitude noted) all Arabs can only but be Muslims.

If wide-ranging general studies of the Melkite Church are few, there are at least some in-depth studies of some of her illustrious figures from the recent past, including perhaps the most notable among them, Louis Massignon, about whom I have read a number of interesting articles over the years, and presided over publishing several of them as editor of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. 

One such article was by Christian Krokus, author of a just-released study that looks to be among the most important and comprehensive: The Theology of Louis Massignon: Islam, Christ, and the Church (Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 272pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Anticipating the vision of Nostra Aetate, Louis Massignon (1883-1962) imagined and worked toward a revolution in the relationship between Muslims and Christians, from one poisoned by fear and rivalry to one rooted in mutual understanding and fraternal correction. His lifelong study of the Qur'an, Muhammad, Arabic, Sufism, and the Muslim mystic and martyr al-Hallâj (858-922), who was executed by crucifixion for having publicly claimed union with God, grounded Massignon's conviction that there was a Christological nexus between the two religions. His founding of the Badaliya sodality with Mary Kahil (1889-1979) sought to bring Christians and Muslims together in prayer and substitutive love, and his writings and personal contacts helped to form the views of the men who would eventually draft the statements on Muslims at the Second Vatican Council. For all those reasons and more Massignon has been called "the single most influential figure [in the 20th century] in regard to the Church's relationship with Islam," and his approach has only become more important in the decades since his passing.
In The Theology of Louis Massignon, author Christian Krokus argues that Massignon's achievements in Christian-Muslim understanding, his activism on behalf of Muslim immigrants, refugees, and Middle Eastern Christians, as well as his developing understanding of Islam must be understood in the light of his Catholic convictions in relation to God, Christ, and the Church. With ample references to primary works, many translated into English for the first time, Krokus offers a comprehensive account of the main points of Massignon's religious thought that will prove essential to theologians and historians working on questions of Christian-Muslim dialogue, comparative theology, and religious pluralism. As global tensions between Christians and Muslims rise, the learned, religious, and humanizing vision of Louis Massignon is urgently needed.
Massignon, in fact, comes in for sustained attention in another book published only this year: Dorothy Buck, Louis Massignon: A Pioneer of Interfaith Dialogue (Blue Dome Press, 2017), 306pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The root of the word Badaliya in Arabic, means to replace or exchange one thing for another. The French scholar and spiritual seeker, Louis Massignon (1883–1962), interpreted the word as a willingness to put oneself in the place of another, to give one's own life for the sake of someone else. This offering of himself for the well-being of his Muslim brothers and sisters was the inspiration for Massignon's entire life. In 1947, the renowned orientalist, who had regained his Christian faith and identity while on a research expedition in Baghdad, in present day Iraq, established an international prayer association that he named, the Badaliya and for which he remained the organizer until his death in 1962.
The fifteen annual letters and ninety-one monthly convocations of the Badaliya are as much invitations to prayer and a consecration of individual lives as they are a witness to the incarnational spirit active and alive in our contemporary world today. These letters read like a diary that follows the events and conflicts of the time but also, due to the genius of Massignon's mystical reading of history, these precious documents reveal fifteen years of a singular spiritual adventure. Framed by an introduction presenting the context and genesis of the prayer movement and completed with a description of the Badaliya today, this book permits the reader to grasp the fruitfulness of the spirit of the Badaliya. No other text has yet permitted us to so deeply penetrate the heart of the spirituality and the struggles of Louis Massignon, who remains, even today, a master for our time.
Finally, this collection by Jerrold Seigel, Between Cultures: Europe and Its Others in Five Exemplary Lives (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 288pp. This book has the merit not just of a chapter on Massignon, but also one about Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer courageous enough to call his countrymen to account for the Armenian Genocide.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:

Richard Burton. T. E. Lawrence. Louis Massignon. Chinua Achebe. Orhan Pamuk. The remarkable quintet whose stories make up Jerrold Seigel's Between Cultures are all people who, without ever seeking to exit from the ways of life into which they had been born, devoted themselves to exploring a second cultural identity as an intrinsic part of their first. Richard Burton, the British traveler and writer, sought to experience the inner life of Islam by making the pilgrimage to Mecca in the guise of a Muslim in 1853. T. E. Lawrence, famously known as Lawrence of Arabia, recounted his tortuous ties to the Arab uprising against Turkish rule in his celebrated Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Louis Massignon was a great, deeply introspective, and profoundly troubled French Catholic scholar of Islam. Chinua Achebe, the celebrated pioneer of modern African literature, lived and wrote from the intersection of Western culture and traditional African life. Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize-winning novelist, explored the attraction and repulsion between East and West in his native Turkey.
Seigel considers these five individuals not only for the intrinsic interest of their stories but also for the depth and breadth of their writing on the challenges of creating an intercultural identity, enabling him to analyze their experiences via historical, psychological, and critical approaches. Fascinating in and of themselves, these lives between cultures also highlight the realities faced by many in this age of high mobility and ever-greater global connection and raise questions about what it means for human beings to belong to cultures.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Philosophy, Theology, and the Search for Unity: An Interview with John P. Manoussakis (Updated)

I have read Jean Claude Larchet over the years, and used to think him a serious scholar, so it is disappointing that he here engages in such jejune criticisms of John Panteleimon Manoussakis and other Orthodox scholars. So I take the opportunity of re-printing here my interview from March 2015 with Manoussakis about his short but powerful and welcome book.

I was of course greatly interested when a new book crossed my desk bearing the title of  For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West. I was even more interested in seeing that the author is already someone on whom I had commented previously, viz., John Panteleimon Manoussakis, an archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Church and a professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. As I noted earlier, Fr. John's previous essay was a wonderfully bracing blast of cool reason in the often overheated world of East-West dialogue. We have more of that in his short but elegantly written and winsomely argued book bearing a foreword from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. I sent him some questions for an interview, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

I was born in Athens, Greece and finished my primary education there, including a year of theological studies at the Rizareios seminary. In 1994 I received a scholarship to study theology at Hellenic College, the seminary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. I was then already a novice in a monastery. So I embarked on my studies and the next year I was tonsured monk and ordained to the diaconate. I completed my bachelor’s degree and continued my graduate studies at Boston College in classics (MA) and philosophy (MA, Ph.D.). My years at Boston College were of the happier sort—the kind of happiness that one intimates in Aristotle’s description of contemplation in the tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, for example. It was a life immersed in books and stimulating exchanges and discussions with professors and classmates.

I had the good luck to study under Richard Kearney whose profound knowledge of philosophy, literature, and the arts was only rivaled by his generosity and hospitality, both academically and in his personal life. Under less hospitable circumstances one could imagine a work like God after Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic being looked upon with suspicion as crossing the borders between “unadulterated” philosophy and theology. This was never the case at Boston College—on the contrary, I was encouraged to pursue my philosophical interests no matter how far from the philosophical canon they might take me. Such an encouragement was Richard Kearney’s own work (his The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion came out just as I was working as his assistant), Fr. Richardson’s seminars on Heidegger, and Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenological readings of the Church Fathers (Marion was visiting then as the Gadamer chair). The Jesuit community at Boston College provided me with an intellectual home (I recall our endless discussions with Fr. Gary Gurtler for example) that proved equal to the excellent reputation that the Jesuits have as educators, in-forming the whole person (cura personalis). After I completed my doctorate, I was ordained a priest and continued teaching at various positions until I came to Holy Cross.

AD: What led to the writing of this book, For the Unity of All?

As I relate in the Introduction, this book was for me an outstanding debt of sorts, dating back to the theological discussions that I had with my classmates at our junior seminary in Athens. At the time—and I am afraid it might be still the case—there was a deep-rooted fear of all things Latin in the ecclesiastical environment of Greece. It was not unusual to hear teenage students recounting with the seriousness and confidence of a prelate a list of "Latin errors." These were, of course, second-hand positions, received and repeated uncritically (as one might expect) and, more importantly, very useful in solidifying one’s own identity in opposition to the West. A number of my classmates and I began to question these polemical discourses. Some of them, by the way, have moved on to become talented clergyman as, for example, the Grand Archimandrite of the Patriarchal Church at the Ecumenical Patriarchate Fr. Bessarion (we used to joke that his name was given in honor of Cardinal Bessarion who distinguished himself at the Council of Ferrara-Florence).

This interest in ecumenical dialogue, especially with the Catholic Church, was sustained throughout my life and was fostered by a number of occasions and professional engagements. I think that living and working in America—that is, in a country that is, more or less, denominationally neutral—makes it easier to engage in the ecumenical dialogue among Christians and to appreciate the need for such a dialogue. I was thinking recently of the important role that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America played, and continues to play, in this rapprochement: the great Patriarch Athenagoras, who became the man with the courage to open his arms to the Pope at that historic embrace of 1964 in Jerusalem, had previously served as the Archbishop of America. Similarly, Archbishop Iakovos of America and Athenagoras of Thyatira were instrumental to those first meetings that broke the silence of centuries. The affiliation of all these men with the Orthodox Church in America is not accidental. From the vantage point of a religiously homogeneous country (often with a “national Church”), such as the historically Orthodox countries of Russia and the Balkans, it is difficult to recognize in the face of the fellow Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, a brother or sister in Christ, without mistaking it for the face of the enemy. So, I credited the last twenty years of studying and serving as clergyman in the United States as formative of the openness that became the presupposition of writing this book.

For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West is also a book outside the main line of my research and publications, which are focused on philosophy and, in particularly, phenomenology. Yet, the need to write it was irresistible and, therefore, worth the time that I took away from other projects. I felt that I could not move on with these other projects unless I had first “expectorated” as Kierkegaard would say what I had to say in this book. Writing it was for me an affair with a personal urgency.

AD: As you doubtless know, some people, including in the Church of Greece and atop the Holy Mountain, regard all dialogue with the West as a danger if not a ruse to distract and destroy Orthodoxy (the "pan-heresy of ecumenism"). So tell us how you see the "theological dialogue" mentioned in your subtitle.

I am well aware of the ecumenical phobias and the anti-ecumenism obsession infesting certain corners of the Orthodox world. One could say a lot about them, but very little to them. The dialogue they oppose so vehemently is not the dialogue with other Christian Churches and traditions but rather the dialogue with the Orthodox “ecumenists.” This is an important clarification, I think. The polemics of those “guardians of Orthodoxy” are not directed against western Christians (even if their language seems to suggest so): they are rather aiming at other Orthodox—it is, in short, a civil war going on within the Orthodox Church. Ironically, these very same people who denied any form of dialogue in the name of doctrinal purity are, in effect, cut off from the Orthodox Church, as their fear of becoming “contaminated” by the “pan-heresy of ecumenism” leads them often to extremes, such as refusing to commemorate their bishop or participate in the ecclesial life of their local church. They set up their own “communities”—usually “organized” around on-line sites that feed off and circulate an entirely uncritical delirium, usually coupled with propagation of conspiracy theories. They have therefore to do more with a virtual phenomenon than with a reality. This is expected: orthodoxy for them is not the truth incarnate in the person of Christ, a life lived concretely in Christ’s body, namely, within the Church and in the Eucharist; their “orthodoxy” is merely an ideological position that needs to be defended at all costs and with the same partisan zeal that, by default, remains willfully blind to both life and truth. For me there is no graver heresy than ideology (and every heresy was, historically, an ideology in its own right)—for it constitutes a denial of the incarnation. Every ideological discourse, even when carried in the name of Christianity, is fundamentally un-Christian and anti-Christian.

AD: In his preface, His All-Holiness notes that in the East-West dialogue "differences in methodological...approaches to primacy" still require attention. Tell us how you understand those methodological differences and what your book offers in this regard.

I believe that the Patriarch refers here to the recent attempts to articulate a position on primacy that would be consistent with the ecclesiology and theology of the Orthodox Church. It is important to notice that the Patriarch lists first the methodological and then the theological differences. In the chapter that discusses the issue of primacy in For the Unity of All, I try to show that the perceived theological difference on this topic between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches is rooted, in fact, in a methodological one: that is, that of inconsistency in failing to apply to the third level of the ecclesiological structure the same principles that we follow in determining primacy on the local and eparchial levels. The Orthodox Church has not adequately utilized her theological resources in thinking through the ministry of primacy. This task is being carried on at the moment, both within the Orthodox world and in the joint international commission of the theological dialogue with the Catholic Church. I have documented the progress and the shortcomings of this discussion in my book, so there is no need to repeat them here.

AD: Your chapter on the Theotokos ("Mary's Exception") is a wonderfully cogent, lucid, gracious treatment, clearing the way of difficulties and misunderstandings. But I noted you did not take up the Orthodox objection I have sometimes heard, viz., that there was no need for the West to dogmatize on the conception of the Theotokos as Pope Pius IX famously did in 1854. What are your thoughts on that?

That’s correct—as this objection does not pertain to the matter at hand but rather it questions the necessity of defining Mary’s immaculate status as well as the prerogative of the Pope to do so unilaterally. It is, in fact, more of an objection to the Pope’s role to define and promulgate the doctrine of the Church. However, in the chapter on “Mary’s Exception” I was more interested in the question itself: is Mary without sin? And how are we to understand such a statement in light of the homiletic and liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church? Perhaps the answer to this question would not have been necessary, had it not been often listed as one of the reasons that underline the separation between eastern and western Christianity. But since it has been cited as such in the past, I thought that it deserved to be re-examined under a new light.

AD: I was of course especially interested in your chapter on Petrine Primacy, and I genuinely appreciated your direct but courteous disagreement (fn. 26, p.31) with my proposal (in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity) for a permanent ecumenical synod, which I was modeling more on the "synodos endemousa" of Constantinople than the idea of a permanent ecumenical council which, following Zizioulas (with whom I agree) is indeed an event rather than an institution. Is there value for a permanent or standing synod around the one who exercises the Petrine primacy so that it does not become unilateral or unbalanced--that the papal "monarchism" of the past does not rear its head again?

That’s a good question. I think that the confusion here might be due to a certain equivocity. There are two different bodies that bear the designation of a synod: the synod of one particular Church, assembled around its primus or prōtos, and the ecumenical synod or council. The latter is indeed an event and not an institution and therefore it cannot be a permanent body. The former, however, is an institution and it is characterized by permanence. The difference is the following: the synod of a Church is comprised by hierarchs of that Church alone: a bishop who does not belong to that local Church cannot participate in it. While the ecumenical synod aspires to the maximum representation of all hierarchs of all local Churches (it is for this reason that no synod in the Orthodox Church has been designated as ecumenical after the separation from Rome). One needs to respect the difference of these two bodies, even though they both are synods of bishops. To create a hybrid third synod that would borrow the regularity of the local synod but also be comprised by hierarchs of other local churches, as in the case of an ecumenical council, is, in my view, problematic. Nevertheless, there is a point of cardinal importance implied in your suggestion which is the need to inscribe primacy within synodality (that is, the primus, even “the universal primus,” is always in reference to a synod) and, conversely, every synod (even the ecumenical synod) is headed by a primus. This principle, however, does not necessitate that the synod of the primus on the universal level be also a permanent synod: for whoever this primus is, he is also the primate who presides over the synod of his local church, and that is a permanent body of ecclesial governance. The risk of monarchism would be accentuated were we to grant to one primate the presiding role of two permanent synods at the same time, one of his local Church, the other of the universal Church.

AD: Having just given a lecture on eschatology and the Byzantine East, I was interested in your treatment of it, especially in a Palamite light and in your chapter on Will and Grace--as well as your earlier treatment of it in the Harvard Theological Review, which was a very illuminating article. In my lecture  at Baylor on eschatology I noted a number of historians of American Christianity (especially its Protestant expressions) who said that in the 19th century preachers talked eschatology easily and frequently in Sunday sermons but would rarely if ever have preached on sex whereas today the situation is reversed: nobody talks judgment and hell, but homiletical treatments of sex are not at all uncommon. What are your thoughts on all this?

I am not sure that this is a fair assessment, given the recent revival of eschatology in every theological tradition. Think of the works on eschatology published in the last few years by Pannenberg, Moltmann, Ratzinger, and Zizioulas (to list only some representative names). On the other hand, the fact that sexuality has become a question for theology might not be unrelated to renewed interests in eschatology. One of the most pertinent concerns in every treatment of eschatology is the fate of the human body: its desires and, by implication, the question of human sexuality. A couple of days ago I was invited to give a lecture on marriage in Helsinki. I found it impossible to develop a proper theology of marriage without reference to eschatology and the role that sex plays in our salvation and condemnation.

AD: What challenges do you see remaining in the East-West theological dialogue? Do you realistically anticipate a resolution of the question of primacy any time soon?

Recent events and the kind of language that I hear generated by various Orthodox Churches has made me quite pessimistic with regards to the immediate future of the theological dialogue. In particular with reference to the question of primacy the greatest challenge is the lack of such primacy at the pan-Orthodox level. Yet, it is rather a secular mentality that demands immediate results, results which somehow we can bring about by our own efforts. The gift of Church unity and the road that leads to it does not depend on us—except in the sense of praying and working for it, remaining vigilant and receptive to God’s grace. The unity of our Churches is His gift and His doing. To oppose it is to oppose Him. Certainly, such resistance to God’s call to unity—the unity of all—is possible but it cannot be victorious. I believe, with St. Augustine, that God’s grace is ultimately irresistible and that, no matter how hardened our hearts, one day we will partake from the same bread and the same chalice at the Lord’s altar.

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

I will return to my philosophical work. I am finishing a book on the ethics of time called "The Scandal of the Good." It is conceived as a sequel of sorts to the theological aesthetics presented in my God After Metaphysics. Even though I keep promising myself to refrain from writing anything theological, I am afraid that I will be returning to these theological questions from time to time.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Period

Several times in the past I have on here sung the praises of Gorgias Press in their wide-ranging treatment of many aspects of Eastern Christian history, tradition, and theology, including most especially the interactions between various Eastern Christian and Islamic groups. In their newest catalogue, sent to me just yesterday, we see at long last a study that has been promised for some time newly released: Khalid S. Dinno, Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Period and Beyond: Crisis Then Revival (Gorgias Press, 2017), 526pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Despite the protection afforded to the minorities of the Ottoman Empire through the millet system, Syrian Orthodoxy witnessed weakness and depletion throughout the nineteenth century, caused by significant conversion to Western Christianity, particularly in Syria and in Iraq.
The events following the 1895 violence in southeastern Anatolia became precursors to the genocidal Safyo of 1915, which resulted in the annihilation of nearly half the Syrian Orthodox in Anatolia and brought Syrian Orthodoxy to the verge of extinction. The apathy of the victors of World War I towards the beleaguered survivors contrasted with the welcome the exiled survivors found in the Arab lands to the south, where historical affinity was rekindled.
From the safety of this new environment, Syrian Orthodoxy, led by enlightened individuals, was revitalized, drawing on a venerable Syriac cultural tradition and a patriarchal standing that was characteristically free from social elitism and tribal sectarianism. Utilizing the quest for learning that was widespread in the emerging new nation states, this new leadership, despite meager resources, launched Syrian Orthodoxy on a course of revival and renaissance not witnessed since the days of Bar Hebraeus in the late thirteenth century.
No study, in any language, has covered the history of the Syrian Orthodox Church over the designated period as fully as this current work, which it is hoped will fill a dire gap and break ground in new research. The basis for this study, in addition to published sources, has been approximately 6,000 relevant images that were filtered from a collection of over 24,000 uncatalogued, unedited and unpublished archival documents that were made available to the author.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Towards a Theology of Forgiving and Forgetting (I)

Readers may recall that I spent a good bit of time last summer reflecting on David Rieff's book. His is one of several recent treatments of the power and importance of forgetting--Manuel Cruz being the author of another significant coterminous study reviewed here and some possible applications of it discussed here.

Just before either book appeared, there was a collection of academic articles published under the editorship of Hartmut von Sass and Johannes Zachhuber, Forgiving and Forgetting: Theology and the Margins of Soteriology (Mohr Siebeck, 2015), viii +225pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us:
Forgiveness has traditionally been associated with a duty to remember in order for reconciliation to be possible. Human failure, evil, and atrocities could thus only be forgiven on the basis of a saving memory. Forgetting, by contrast, had to be excluded in the interest of a truthful and genuinely new beginning. Historical experience, it seemed, supported this account. The essays collected in this volume seek to challenge this traditional picture - by elaborating on the notion of forgetting, by reappreciating its constructive or even necessary impact on our lives, by paying heed to the potential obstacles for reconciliation due to an unforgiving remembrance, by clarifying the relationship between remembrance and forgetting, which is not necessarily complementary, and by finding new ways of relating forgiveness to forgetting ultimately leading to the precarious question of whether even God forgets when he forgives. Contributors: Aleida Assmann, Agata Bielik-Robson, Brigitte Boothe, Paul Fiddes, George Pattison, Simon D. Podmore, Hartmut von Sass, Lydia Schumacher, Philipp Stoellger, Bradford Vivian, Johannes Zachhuber.
I will have more to say in the coming days about several of the chapters in this very valuable collection. 
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