"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, July 31, 2017


This summer, I am receiving the new chapters I commissioned for my collection, Married Catholic Priests. While focusing strongly on Eastern Catholic history and experience, it also includes chapters by and about married Catholic clergy in the ordinariates created in 2009 for Anglicans entering the Church; and several chapters also from married Orthodox clergy, whose own experiences shed welcome light on Anglican and Eastern Catholic ones. And between now and, I hope, the early fall, I shall have all the revisions requested by the reviewers complete and be ready to send the thing back to the Press for the final stages.

As editor of that collection, I'm greatly looking forward to reading a unique contribution to the discussion in the form of Priestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood.

About this book the publisher tells us
Father Greg Lockwood is unlike any Catholic priest you have ever met—a man who lounges in boxer shorts, loves action movies, and whose constant jamming on the guitar reverberates “like a whole band dying in a plane crash in 1972.” His daughter is an irreverent poet who long ago left the Church’s country. When an unexpected crisis leads her and her husband to move back into her parents’ rectory, their two worlds collide.
In Priestdaddy, Lockwood interweaves emblematic moments from her childhood and adolescence—from an ill-fated family hunting trip and an abortion clinic sit-in where her father was arrested to her involvement in a cultlike Catholic youth group—with scenes that chronicle the eight-month adventure she and her husband had in her parents’ household after a decade of living on their own. Lockwood details her education of a seminarian who is also living at the rectory, tries to explain Catholicism to her husband, who is mystified by its bloodthirstiness and arcane laws, and encounters a mysterious substance on a hotel bed with her mother.
Lockwood pivots from the raunchy to the sublime, from the comic to the deeply serious, exploring issues of belief, belonging, and personhood. Priestdaddy is an entertaining, unforgettable portrait of a deeply odd religious upbringing, and how one balances a hard-won identity with the weight of family and tradition.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Secrets of the Soul and Body Politic

Peter Tyler's densely argued The Pursuit of the Soul: Psychoanalysis, Soul-making and the Christian Tradition, published last year, is, alone of the recent attempts at a Christian re-engagement with psychoanalytic thought discussed on here, the most intellectually sophisticated and serious. He draws on the patristic tradition, including Origen and Augustine, to look at the conceptualization of the "soul" in classical Christian spiritual traditions as well as modern psychoanalysis.

About this latter he makes a convincing case that those who supervised the "Englishing" of Freud, that first generation of such as Ernest Jones and James Strachey, zealously concerned to protect Freud and his tradition from charges of being "unscientific," and equally zealous to differentiate themselves from "spiritual healers" and other charlatans and quacks, coined a series of neologisms in English purposefully to get away from any language of the "soul" and to sound more "scientific."

That theme of the soul also comes up in a very good history I've just finished by Eli Zaretsky: Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis. Published in 2005 by an author whose earlier work, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, clearly informs the later work, Secrets of the Soul is the very model of the sort of careful cultural analysis that someone like Rod Dreher should have done if his new book (which I discussed here at length) were to be regarded as remotely intellectually serious. Zaretsky follows a similar narrative arc as Dreher, both tracing the rise and then gradual decline of a given tradition--Christianity in the West for Dreher, and the psychoanalytic tradition for Zaretsky--but what distinguishes Zaretsky is his careful and very detailed scholarship co-relating the socioeconomic conditions that facilitated first that rise and then more clearly still the gradual decline of psychoanalysis. Socioeconomic changes are not entirely responsible, but together with intellectual debates and other factors, they play a crucial role. Christians who wish to be taken seriously in staking out claims of decline cannot be taken seriously until and unless they also attend to socioeconomic changes in as careful and discerning a manner as Zaretsky has done.

Zaretsky's book would make a good companion for two works by George Makari: his Revolution in Mind: the Creation of Psychoanalysiswhich I reviewed in some detail here; and then his more recent Soul Machine: the Invention of the Modern Mind.

One thing that comes up in all these works is the painstaking efforts Freud took to stay out of secular politics in both Austria and Germany. This was clearly done for purposes of preservation and protection, especially after 1933. Given the treatment handed out to Freud and his daughter Anna at the hands of the Gestapo in 1938, and the treatment more broadly during the war of Jews (all of Freud's sisters were killed in Nazi death camps), such anxiety to avoid politics makes a great deal of sense. Freud was in fact eventually, and with great reluctance, forced finally to flee Bergasse 19 in Vienna for London, where he died in 1939; the tale of this flight is well told in David Cohen's surprisingly well-done and riveting Escape of Sigmund Freud.

Freud also repeatedly insisted that psychoanalysis as such not enter into political debates about various topics, especially during and after the Bolshevik revolution. The early Bolsheviks saw some use for psychoanalysis, but it was later denounced and banned in Russia for its bourgeois-capitalist and Jewish backgrounds. Nevertheless, Freud lives on today in part not for his clinical work, but precisely for the political application of his clinical insights, a point made in depth and detail in Zaretsky's newest book, released just this month, Political Freud: A History.

About this new book the publisher tells us:
In this masterful history, Eli Zaretsky reveals the power of Freudian thought to illuminate the great political conflicts of the twentieth century. Developing an original concept of "political Freudianism," he shows how twentieth-century radicals, activists, and intellectuals used psychoanalytic ideas to probe consumer capitalism, racial violence, anti-Semitism, and patriarchy. He also underscores the continuing influence and critical potential of those ideas in the transformed landscape of the present. Zaretsky's conception of political Freudianism unites the two overarching themes of the last century―totalitarianism and consumerism―in a single framework. He finds that theories of mass psychology and the unconscious were central to the study of fascism and the Holocaust; to African American radical thought, particularly the struggle to overcome the legacy of slavery; to the rebellions of the 1960s; and to the feminism and gay liberation movements of the 1970s. Nor did the influence of political Freud end when the era of Freud bashing began. Rather, Zaretsky proves that political Freudianism is alive today in cultural studies, the study of memory, theories of trauma, postcolonial thought, film, media and computer studies, evolutionary theory and even economics.
In this light, Political Freud clearly picks up where Zaretsky ends Secrets of the Soul: noting that while its clinical status continues to decline, psychoanalysis is far from dead as a cultural hermeneutic. As Zaretsky notes in his epilogue, by the time we arrive at about 1980, psychoanalysis "divided into two divergent projects: a quasi-medical therapeutic practice aimed at treating mental and emotional disorders, and a set of new approaches to the study of culture." If the former project seems increasingly eclipsed by psychopharmacology and other therapeutic traditions (the efficacy of which is not, as noted here, always so great), the latter remains vibrant and valuable.

But what, in the end, remains valuable in the psychoanalytic tradition? This is a question I am continuing to think about in preparation for a lecture I've been asked to give in Iowa in late September of this year which marks two significant anniversaries in the Freudian canon: 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Freud's most popular and widely translated work, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.

It also marks the 90th anniversary of perhaps Freud's weakest but nonetheless one of his most controversial works, Future of an Illusion. This latter work purported to explain the origins and purposes of monotheistic religions certainly (and perhaps even all "religions" if such a thing can be defined at all); but it is not a good book, and it rather unnecessarily drew down upon itself a great deal of ire and opposition from Christians who were thereby handed an over-easy excuse for refusing to see what was valuable in Freud. (Having recently re-read Future of an Illusion, I must say, with all due respect to the great master, how much Terry Eagleton's opening line, reviewing Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, also applies to this book: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.")

But one badly considered book (especially in so vast a Freudian, to say nothing of wider psychoanalytic, canon) must not be allowed to detract us from seeing what remains valuable in psychoanalytic thought. Here Zaretsky's Secrets of the Soul offers us a useful list of "a set of understandings that we need to protect," including:
  • the reality of the individual's inner and unconscious life, part of which is not just hidden but repressed;
  • that such individuals exist not in the abstract but as "concrete, particular, and contingent";
  • relations with others, especially loved ones, are shaped by that unconscious life;
  • "psychologically, being a man or being a woman is the outcome of an idiosyncratic and precarious process, and that no one is simply one sex or the other" (a point I discussed at some length recently);
  • an "irreducible gap" between the individual's psychic life and "the cultural, social, and political world";
  • and finally that "society and politics are driven not just by conscious interests and perceived necessities but also by unconscious motivations, anxieties, and half-spoken memories, and that even great nations can suffer traumas, change course abruptly, and regress."

Friday, July 21, 2017

Theologies of Retrieval

Last week, when I was at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota at a fantastic conference, discussed here, I met the editor of a forthcoming collection of great interest: Theologies of Retrieval: An Exploration and Appraisal, Darren Sarisky, ed. (T&T Clark, 2017), 368pp.

About this collection, which features an impressive array of some of the most prominent names in theology today--East and West--the publisher tells us the following:

One of the most significant trends in academic theology today, which cuts across thinking from Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox points of view, is the growing interest in theologies of retrieval. Theology of retrieval is a mode of thinking that puts a special stress on giving classic theological texts a close reading, with a view toward using the resources that they provide to understand and address contemporary theological issues.

This volume offers an understanding of what theologies of retrieval are, what their rationale is, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. The contributors to this volume are all well established theologians, who answer important questions that existing work raises, expand on suggestions that have not already been developed fully, summarize ideas in order to highlight themes that are relevant to the topics of this volume, and air new critiques that should spur further debate.

We are also given the table of contents:

Introduction, Darren Sarisky (University of Oxford, UK)

I. Genealogies of Modernity: The Role of Intellectual-Historical Judgments

1. 'There's Always One Day Which Isn't The Same As The Day Before': Christianity and History in the Writings of Charles Péguy, John Milbank (University of Nottingham, UK)
2. The Past Matters Theologically: Thinking Tradition, Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University, USA)

II. Different Inflections to Retrieval: Confessional Approaches

3. Orthodoxy, Andrew Louth (Durham University, UK)
4. Reformed Retrieval, Michael Allen (Reformed Theological Seminary, USA)
5. "Only what is rooted is living" A Roman Catholic Theology of Ressourcement, Jennifer Newsome Martin (University of Notre Dame, USA)

III. Twentieth-Century Figures

6. Georges Florovsky, Paul Gavrilyuk (University of St. Thomas, USA)
7. Karl Barth, Kenneth Oakes (University of Notre Dame, USA)
8. Henri de Lubac, David Grumett (University of Edinburgh, UK)

IV. Theological Sources

9. Scripture: Three Modes of Retrieval, Michael Legaspi (Penn State University, USA)
10. Tradition I: Tradition in Congar, de Lubac and Blondel, Gabriel Flynn (Dublin City University, Ireland)
11. Tradition II: Thinking With Historical Texts - Reflections on Theologies of Retrieval, Darren Sarisky (University of Oxford, UK)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cyril Hovorun on the Church's Scaffolds

At the end of May I noted some initial thoughts on Fr Cyril Hovorun's new book, Scaffolds of the Church, which I was then half-way through reading. I have since not only finished the book, but publicly recommended it in two very different contexts, including to a class of Catholic teachers from the local Latin diocese who were taking a summer course with me in ecclesiology. As I said to them, if you buy and read no other book in ecclesiology this year, let it be this one. It is very much worth your while.

I will finish that review later this week, but in the meantime, I wanted to let you hear from the author himself, and so I e-mailed some questions to Fr. Cyril. Here are this thoughts.

AD: Tell us about the background to Scaffolds of the Church.

CH: My motivation to write this book was to give answers to the questions, which I asked myself at different administrative positions at the Moscow Patriarchate, and in the frame of various ecumenical dialogues, where I participated on behalf of my church. During my numerous journeys through the Eastern Christian oecumene, I observed many fascinating and sometimes strange phenomena in theology and church life. I did not find a satisfactory explanation for these phenomena in the existing literature. So I decided to explain them myself and to give them a theological sense, when there is a theological sense, of course. Even when I did not see any theological sense in what I observed in the Christian East, I tried to give a theological explanation why this sense is missing in the real life of the church.

AD: When we last spoke on here, it was about your book Meta-Ecclesiology. What links these two books?

CH: There is an intrinsic link between the two books. Actually, in the beginning they were supposed to constitute a single book. However, the manuscript I produced was too long for any publisher. Publishers suggested I cut it into two works. So I redrafted the manuscript to make two different books. They are indeed different, even though they deal with the same phenomenon of the church.

The approach of the first book, Meta-ecclesiology, is epistemological. I consider the church as a stream of consciousness, or as self-awareness of the church as church. I explore the church through various metaphors and ecclesiological theories, and in the end I apply to the church the epistemological methods of phenomenology and analytic philosophy.

By contrast, Scaffolds has a different approach to the church: through structuralism and poststructuralism. This approach is more analytic and relies on the traditional theological patterns of Aristotelian-Porphyrian logic. Unlike God and Incarnation, the church in the classical theological period was not described in the terms of nature, hypostasis, accidents, etc. I try to fill in this lacuna and to present the church through the juxtaposition, and sometimes counterposition, of its nature and structures.

AD: One of the main arguments you make is that sometimes ecclesial structures can act against the nature of the Church. Tell us a bit more about that, and give us an example.

In my earlier book, Meta-ecclesiology, I identified a chasm between the church as we believe in it, and the church we observe in our everyday life. The differentiation between the nature and structures of the church helps explain why this chasm exists. Indeed, what we believe about the church, that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, belongs to its nature. What we criticize in the church--in most cases--goes to its structures. The structures have been developed in the course of the history of the church to serve its mission. However, when the structures demand that the church serves them instead of serving the church, they deviate from their original rationale. Let us take, for instance, community, which I consider as church’s hypostasis, and hierarchy. Hierarchy was introduced to the church for the sake of the well-being of communities. When hierarchy makes communities an instrument of its own well-being, it goes against the nature of the church and betrays its own purpose.

AD: Alasdair MacIntyre's latest book, noted here, talks about how deeply hidden structures in neoliberal capitalist societies are so that we often don't even think to question them. In that light, I'm wondering if, like a lot of political structures, ecclesial structures do their work invisibly, and thus, when they act against the nature of the Church, we don't see them clearly enough to question them?

CH: I agree with this insight. In my book, I try to disclose some structures of the church, which mimic its nature. A number of Orthodox and other theologians identify the structures of the church with the church proper. We can call their approach ontotheology - the word coined by Kant and then used by Heidegger and Derrida. When I talk about ontotheology, I mean something different. I mean sacralisation of those services in the church, whose origin is profane, not divine. Their provenance is from the Greco-Roman world, not from the gospel. Hierarchy and primacy are some of these services.

AD: You argue in several places that hierarchy is useful in the Church but not necessary. Tell us a bit more about that.

CH: Hierarchy is useful, but not necessary as any instrument that the church has adopted in the course of its history. As with any such instrument, hierarchy is vulnerable to abuses, and indeed it often abuses the church and contradicts the church's nature.

In my book, I have scrutinized two sources from which hierarchy was borrowed to the church. These sources are not divine, but quite profane: Roman political culture and Neoplatonism. Even the word “hierarchy” is Neoplatonic and was introduced to the Christian theological lexicon in the 5th century. That hierarchy is not divine, however, does not mean it should be rejected altogether, as an alien element. It should be used in the church, and when necessary, repaired and restored to its original function.

The final chapter of the book is “From structuralism to poststructuralism and beyond.” The “beyond” is very important here. It means that my task is not just to deconstruct the ecclesial structures, something that structuralism and especially poststructuralism would do, but to suggest a way of re-construction of these structures - in accordance with their original meaning and with the nature of the church, which they are supposed to serve.

AD: Notions of autocephaly and canonical territory, so often invoked especially in Russian and Ukrainian contexts, are, you say, not really ecclesiological but nationalist in nature. Tell us a bit more about that.

CH: These notions were adopted by the church from the political culture very early, even before nationalism was invented in early modern Europe. "Canonical territory" brought about a transition from the original meaning of the church as particular to the local church. The earliest structures of the church were measured by communities. After the Roman empire embraced Christianity, they became measured by territories. The territorial principle of administration was appropriated by the church as a principle of canonical territory.

AD: You speak (p.127) about reinventing notions of autocephaly. Can you give us some indication of what you mean by that?

CH: The evolution of autocephaly was more complicated than the evolution of other ecclesial structures. It was invented in the Late Antiquity as an instrument that helped the church to resist its assimilation in the Roman state. It was countercultural, as it were. In the Middle Ages, from a counter-political phenomenon it turned to a means of further politicisation of the church. Autocephaly became an instrument of transitio imperii for the medieval Balkan and Moscovite states. In the nineteenth century, it was adjusted to the national awakening of the Orthodox peoples and facilitated their emancipation from the empires of that time. In our days, it is an instrument of decolonization for the states that emerged from the Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine. This, I believe, is the latest version of autocephaly.

AD: In calling for its reinvention here, as in other places, you very commendably note the importance not of just dismantling structures or dismissing them, but of seeing their worth and revising them where necessary and possible, noting that there is no once and forever solution. From this, and from your book as a whole, I gather a clear sense that the Church and her structures really needs to be a lot more "portable" or "flexible" in many ways, a "field hospital" (to use Pope Francis's well-known image) that has some stability and structure but is not necessarily a permanent and fixed feature of the landscape. Is that a fair read?

CH: I think you have grasped the main idea of the book very well. I argue that to prevent the ecclesial structures from turning to simulacra, they need to be kept open. To remain useful, and not harmful, for the church, they have to be permanently readjusted, always with their original meaning as blueprint. I think the famous “ecclesia semper reformanda” should apply not so much to the church per se as to its structures.

AD: You and I seem to meet about once a year at ecumenical conferences--June 2016 in Vienna, June 2017 in San Felice del Benaco. From those conferences, your other travels, and your new position at the Huffington Ecumenical Institute, do you have an overall or global sense of where the search for Orthodox-Catholic unity is today?

CH: I have participated in many official and unofficial dialogues, and had many chances to see their power and limitations. I concluded that the most important issue on the plate of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is primacy. In my ecclesiological books, I always try to tackle this issue, and thus to contribute to the dialogues. I believe that equally, if not more, important for the Orthodox-Catholic rapprochement are all sorts of relations and networking between the two churches on all levels. I argue in my books that the nature of the church is relational. Therefore, the more there will be different relations between us, the closer we will get to sharing in the same nature of the church. I consider my new role at the Huffington Ecumenical Institute in fostering these relations.

AD: Having finished Scaffolds of the Church, what are you working on now?

CH: I am finishing a new manuscript for the Fortress Press. Its tentative title is “Unorthodox Orthodoxies.” This book will continue my previous ecclesiological studies. This time, I will consider some particular cases, when the idea of the church, and Christianity in general, get distorted in the Orthodox world. I will study the issue of nationalism, collaboration of the churches with the totalitarian regimes, their participation in modern culture wars and obsession with ideologies. I will pay a special attention to the issue of antisemitism among the Orthodox, and will argue that it is close to the classical Christological heresies.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Other Welsh Wizard

On a lark I picked up a copy of Brenda Maddox's Freud's Wizard: Ernest Jones and the Transformation of Psychoanalysis (De Capo, 2008), 372pp. at Hyde Brothers, a wonderful used book store here in Ft. Wayne. Neither the book nor my comments have anything to do with Eastern Christianity directly but it arises out of my ongoing interest in seeing what use psychoanalytic thought still offers us today 100 years after Freud's most popular work, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis were completed, and 90 years after his rather silly but nonetheless influential Future of an Illusion was published. That latter work was, of course, his broadside against religious belief, which is held to be nothing more then a species of wish-fulfillment and an illusory wish for a powerful father-figure to protect us from the vagaries and violence of a nature thought by Freud to be terrifyingly red in tooth and claw. I will have more to say about both in public lectures I've been asked to give later this year.

But back to Maddox's book, which was a wonderfully fun book to read and so I want to draw attention to it for those who may be interested, not merely for what it reveals about the politics of the first generation around Freud, but also for some interesting, and often amusing, potted histories of, e.g., the early Canadian medical establishment and the arrival of psychoanalysis to Toronto, and then especially of Wales. He felt that the Welsh were far more open about sex, and far less preoccupied with capitalist pursuits, than either the English or the North Americans.

Jones was Welsh, and while he lived for a time in Canada (in exile, it seems, after charges of sexual harassment began piling up in London) and England, he returned to Wales and kept a house there, and saw that Welsh history could be useful in resisting some of the imperial depredations of the English.

As non-Americans, both he and Freud shared a kind of envious disdain of the newly emerging great power, which in their correspondence they both mocked for its sexual prudery. Jones was very much someone who saw himself as spreading Freud's greatness in North America, and so he arranged the famous 1909 trip for the great man from Vienna to give a series of lectures at Clark University. After this, when safely back in Vienna, Freud did not look fondly on America for its obsession with money, its fast-pace, its food, its attitudes towards sex and drink, writing to Jones: "Yes, America is gigantic. A gigantic mistake"!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Remembering, Repeating, Reconciling, Reuniting, and........Forgetting?

I'm at a conference this week at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, organized in part by Paul Gavrilyuk, whose book on Florovsky I discussed extensively here.

The conference is bringing together Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant scholars on the themes of remembering, reconciling, reuniting, ressourcement, and--as I'm adding in my paper--forgetting also. The respondent to my paper, "Some Salutary Theses on Oubliance," is Sarah Coakley of the University of Cambridge and author, inter alia, of the fascinating God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity'.

It looks to be a fascinating conference and I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and making some new ones.

Among some of those who will be there, my friend Nick Denysenko, whom I have interviewed here, here, and here about some of his books, will be among them.

Will Cohen, whose book on Orthodoxy and Catholicism and the notion of sister churches is a splendid one, was interviewed here; he will also be at the conference. I assigned his book to a graduating student this past semester and he found it invaluable in writing his undergraduate honours thesis.

Edith Humphrey will be there, giving a paper on Orthodox biblical scholarship. I interviewed here here about her book on Scripture and tradition.

The indefatigable and prolific Matthew Levering will be giving a fascinating paper on remembering and eyewitness testimony in the gospels and the fate of the latter in modern biblical scholarship. Discussions of several of his books, and an interview about one of them, may be found starting here.

George Demacopoulos, author of a number of important books on the early papacy and popes, will be there. I interviewed him here about his book on Gregory the Great. He is also editor, with Aristotle Papanikalaou, of the very valuable collection Orthodox Constructions of the West, which I discussed in several parts.

Marcus Plested will also be there. He's the author of the utterly invaluable and fascinating Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, about which he was interviewed here.

Hans Boersma, whose Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry I have used for several years now in classes, will also be there. I interviewed him here about that book.

There are numerous others, not known to me, and mostly Protestants, who will also be there. I have read the papers and they are a fascinating, eclectic lot. I'm quite sure the discussion will be very rewarding indeed.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Crusades, Part MMCCXVIII

The local Catholic radio station, Redeemer Radio, is interviewing me later this morning (tune in at 7am!) about my article last month in the Catholic Herald about ISIS propaganda and Crusades history.

So, for those who are seeking some places to begin in reading Crusades history, I suggest you start here with the works of Jonathan Riley-Smith, arguably the pioneer in contemporary Crusades scholarship until his death last year. Of his many books noted in that review essay, I would, if you pressed me to recommend only one, suggest--because it is both accessible and short, but with enough detail to point you onward to other sources if you wish--his The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, from 2008.

One of Riley-Smith's students, now teaching and well respected in North America, is Thomas Madden, and his book, The Concise History of the Crusadesnoted here, is also a good place to begin, though it does not focus on the contemporary historiographical issues as much as Riley-Smith. Madden also authored this short but useful article.

For those wanting an introduction to Arab views of the Crusades, which are fascinating and highly counter-intuitive, go here. For more generally Islamic views of the Crusades, go here.

For much more specialized scholarship, follow the links here.

Finally, for those interested in the very challenging and ever-changing historiography of the Crusades, then Giles Constable's article is very valuable indeed.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

On Political and Sexual Epistemological Crises

I have several times previously drawn attention to Adam Phillips, the English literary scholar and psychoanalyst, certainly the most prolific and quite likely also the most interesting analytic writer today. There is, I have suggested, a clear "apophatic" theme and impulse in much of his writing, and that is perhaps nowhere so clear as in one of his early, short books I have just finished: Terrors and Experts (Harvard University Press, 1997), 128pp. I hope to develop this apophatic connection in more detail elsewhere, showing how much in Phillips is very sympathetic to, and thus useful for dialogue with, Eastern Christian spirituality.

It is sometimes a cheap trick to claim that a book or an idea from decades or centuries ago is directly "relevant" in light of the headlines of today. But I would suggest that this book is not so much relevant now as superfluous, but in a good way, that is, as having fulfilled its purpose, albeit belatedly: the very thing it calls for is now to be found in abundance. Thus, with ongoing eruptions of "fake news," the uses and abuses of propaganda of all sorts--whether from Russia, ISIS, or others--and the widespread scorn for, and collapse of the authority of, "experts" (whether in politics, the media, Church, climate change science, and elsewhere), we seem more than ever to live in an age where "experts" are treated with skepticism at best, and scorn at worst.

This is precisely the sort of thing Phillips would seem to encourage: "psychoanalysis...radically revises our versions of competence." Here, as in his many other books, he sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis precisely insofar as it undermines unhealthy (neurotic) certainties and loosens things up, allowing people new thoughts and new freedom, including the freedom to forget about themselves. To the extent that psychoanalysis itself becomes an ideology enforcing various lines of authority and various forms of orthodoxy, it has, Phillips says, lost its usefulness and deserves to be ignored: "Psychoanalysts run the risk of believing that there is a King's English of the psyche and everybody is, or should be, speaking it." Psychoanalysis is, rather, at its best when it ranges itself "against the enemies of ambiguity" and gives free reign to its capacity "to both comfort and unsettle."

We have recently seen several attempts at understanding Western politics and politicians via psychoanalytic categories, including this very interesting article, as well as regular, and by now tedious, discussions of Donald Trump's "vulgarity" and his "id." Regardless of what one thinks of all this, Phillips argues that once one accepts the reality of an unconscious mind, all attempts at certainty and "dignity," at acting authoritatively or expertly or "presidentially," at speaking unequivocally, are perpetually undermined: "the unconscious, at least as Freud described it, is another word for the death of the guru." A guru claims to offer us a solution to a problem he has himself largely invented, and further claims there is only one solution, his, which will solve the problem. But the unconscious, Phillips reminds us by quoting Freud's The Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest, "'speaks more than one dialect'." It is an unruly cacophony, and it mocks all gurus and bourgeois mandarins and prissy etiquette experts with their notions of what constitutes "appropriate tone" or "appearing presidential" rather than "vulgar."

Radically unsettling and undermining notions of competence, expertise, and authority are not things that most of us encourage others to do: "politicians in Western democracies do not get elected on the basis of their capacity for hesitation, or their willingness to sustain contradictory points of view, or their ability to change their minds, or their impassioned support for the opposition's point of view," Phillips notes. That is greatly to be pitied, for as Alasdair MacIntyre has often noted, the greatest need today is precisely the ability radically to put to the question all the claims of Western politicians on behalf of the structures of neoliberal capitalism, which too often largely remain hidden from us, offering us only a chimera of choice between alternatives that are, on closer examination, the same: conservative liberalism, liberal liberalism, or radical liberalism.

In such a context, the role of both a moral philosopher such as MacIntyre and an analyst such as Phillips (who both come out of the British left, and know each other's work) is to become, ironically, an "expert on the truths of uncertainty" and to resist the tendency, much in evidence in this country since 9/11, to defer to "experts" in the name of what I think has become the most pernicious American idol today, viz., "security." For part of the problem here is that, at least sometimes, "the expert constructs the terror, and then the terror makes the expert."

If Phillips, here and in other books (especially his Unforbidden Pleasures:Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality, which I reviewed here) offers much that is useful to undermining contemporary politicians and politics, with their bogus claims to certainty and authority, then in the latter parts of Terrors and Experts he offers much to put to the question the politics and ideologies of sexuality, not least in the grotesques of "gender ideology." Too much of what passes for discussion of these issues today is a cheap amalgam of essentialism, romanticism, and nostalgia; too much nonsense is spread about by those unwilling to recognize the legitimate differences between culturally conditioned and contingent gender roles on the one hand, and the sexual differentiation given by the Creator on the other. Here there is plenty of fault to go round: those demanding that nobody be permitted to deviate from preferred pronouns and nomenclature, and those resisting that with equal hostility and certainty. When it comes to sex and gender, most people, it seems, are, as Phillips might put it, themselves both terrors and experts! In a slightly different idiom, found in his book On Balance, when it comes to things we are most passionate about, including our sexual identities, we become unbalanced and instead emerge as intolerant fanatics.

As I have argued elsewhere, Catholic and Orthodox Christians are guilty of making the tradition say what it has not, of pulling the fabric too far to patch holes of their own making, when they attempt to argue that, from the premise "God created us male and female," certain prescriptive conclusions for how men and women are to act and think must inexorably follow. (It's the same slippery and over-hasty procedure used by those who assume that from a few vague buzzwords in Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I, the pope can do whatever he wants in any and all matters. Not so. Not in a month of Sundays.)

This is not to cast doubt on historic Christian teaching about sexual morality, which I support, but only to suggest that much of the contemporary theological debate on these issues is often unconsciously bound up with many other issues, especially those of social class, economic standing, and cultural conditioning, almost all of which go unrecognized. Moreover, it pretends to a certainty that I think few of us have, and then it attempts to enforce that certainty on others. From the Creator's "is" we are over-hasty in trying to draw our own "oughts." What and whom does that really serve well?

Instead of racing to unsustainable and intellectually vacuous "answers" about sexual differentiation, we need to be much more careful here about getting some of the questions right. My friend the Orthodox biblical scholar Edith Humphrey, whom I look forward to seeing next week at a conference in Minnesota, has recently done some of that here in a piece I commend to your attention.

Phillips will be radically unsettling to those who like their sexual roles and regulations highly detailed and prescriptive. Good luck with that. As he repeatedly notes, "there is nothing like sexuality...for making a mockery of our self-knowledge. In our erotic lives, at least, our preferences do not always accord with our standards." Moreover, Phillips rescues Freud's original insight into human bisexuality, and reintroduces Ferenczi's idea of "ambisexuality."

The result of all this is to note that "from a psychoanalytic point of view, nobody can know about sexuality" in part because "we are never one thing or another, but a miscellany. (For how long in any given day is one homosexual or heterosexual, and can you always tell the difference?)" We seek to be one thing and never another, and certainly Christians try to prescribe this, but that, at the very least, is, Phillips suggests, merely an expression of our "wish to be defined [which] is complicit with the wish to be controlled."

Rather than always and everywhere seeking control and certainty, seeking refuge from the terrors of the world and of love (including God's love, perhaps the most terrifying of all, though Phillips does not suggest this) in the shadow of the expert, the healthy mind is one that is free to forget, free not to focus on itself, free to avoid making a "fetish of memory," and free to kick out its own resident "enraged bureaucrat" who is always trying to organize, structure, and control thoughts. In the end, Phillips says that psychoanalysis, theology, politics, and anything else has to resist the descent into what he calls "Cartesianism," that is, into highly and tightly structured systems of thought in which we think we have thought everything there is to be thought, and no new or free thoughts are to be had. Psychoanalysis, like Christianity, works best when it reminds us that "too much definition leaves too much out."
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