"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).

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights

The Orthodox scholar George Demacopoulos (some of whose publications I have noted on here over the years, and whom I interviewed about his book Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome) recently announced on Facebook that the "Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University has won a $250,000 grant from Leadership 100 to conduct a five-year scholarly study of the compatibility of Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights."

These are topics that George and his colleague Aristotle Papanikolaou have circled around for some time in some of their individual publications as well as co-edited collections from the excellent conferences they organize and host on a regular basis. See, e.g., Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine as well as the earlier and invaluable collection Orthodox Constructions of the West, which I discussed in detail starting here 

The news of this grant is welcome in a time when it has become increasingly fashionable to denounce the horrors of, and call for the total replacement of, modern liberalism, including its notions of human rights. Twenty years ago, in writing a thesis on Alasdair MacIntyre, I became very sympathetic to his splenetic dismissals of rights language, belief in which, he said, is at one with belief in witches and unicorns. Even more, of course, did MacIntyre set his face against the entire liberal project as having failed to do what it promised and instead having illicitly smuggled in (a favourite MacIntyre verb) a lot of premises and practices extraneous to it. I followed him very closely in thinking this, and still do to some extent.

I wrote at a time when the Radical Orthodoxy movement was going strong, and in fact I made inquiries with both John Milbank (when he was briefly at the University of Virginia) and Catherine Pickstock at Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge, about writing a dissertation on medieval voluntarist corruptions of authority, with the idea of building upon MacIntyre's claim that modern emotivism rests upon the obliteration of any coherent distinction between power and authority, and upon Radical Orthodoxy's claim (increasingly challenged) that the real bogeyman here is Scotus.

More recently, however, as a student of MacIntyre, I have followed him in tempering some of the criticisms of the liberal project precisely insofar as he has admitted to not knowing how to replace it, and has admitted to being aware of the acute problems that any such "replacement" would have to grapple with. Thus in his essay "Toleration and the Goods of Conflict," published in the 2006 collection Ethics and Politics, he said those calling for new forms of community after liberalism, or built on the ashes of liberalism, have yet adequately to engage in "rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.” Would that more recent authors had such humility and restraint.

Such restraint has not always been in plenteous supply among critics of liberalism, including Milbank and Pickstock who, as Eugene McCarraher noted in this splendid series of interviews, sometimes turned theology into a "blood sport" and treat “'modernity' and 'liberalism'...as though they were the spawn of Satan."

Such curdled denunciations are by no means limited to Western Christians. Eastern Christians, especially in the post-Soviet period and space, have often been even more reactionary in this regard, denouncing human rights and much else besides as threats to "holy Russia" and other places that do not exist.

More recently, however, some scholars have begun to reconsider matters, arguing that Orthodoxy is not necessarily hostile to rights language no matter how much certain of her apologists would like for this to be so. Thus we had the collection Orthodoxy Christianity and Human Rights published in 2012 under the editorship of A.Brüning and E. van der Zweerde.

In 2013, we saw the publication of The Russian Church and Human Rights by Kristina Stoeckl, whom I interviewed here about this important book.

This year--this month, in fact--we were promised another collection, Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe: A Dialogue between Theological Paradigms and Socio-Legal Pragmatics, but publication seems to have been delayed.

And soon, it would seem, thanks to Fordham's funding, we will have further treatments of these complex issues, which can only be welcomed.

Monday, February 26, 2018

On Fasting from Noise or Against Asceticism and Spirituality (II)

When we were last met to discuss Maggie Ross's wonderfully cool diagnosis of much that ails us, Silence: A User's Guide, I sketched out some of the background influences and concerns to this book, and to my reading of it. I also noted one or two places in the first part of the book where we get some hints of what is to come as we move now into the third chapter, "The Language of Silence," where Ross really lets fly, inveighing against many common, but even more commonly misunderstood and misapplied terms, concepts, and practices.

This entire third chapter, as I commented previously, really could bear the title "Glossary of Nonsense Terms Fatuously Flung About by Careless Christians." In the book it functions very much as an excursus between the background she lays out in chs.1-2, and the objections to silence in the rest of the book. I will only give you a taste, but the entire chapter is very much worth your time.

One of the biggest misunderstandings--as I have long thought myself--comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of "experience," which Ross says is "perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list." Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today's usage, running totally contrary to "ancient, patristic, and medieval" wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word--and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed--because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

Mystical/Mystic/Mysticism: All these terms "have become useless and misleading" and function to justify "weirdness," "exoticism," "voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography" (90). See below for more on the problems with "mysticism."

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called "spirituality" exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as "spiritual directors" everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted "spiritual directors" lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross's denunciation of "spiritual direction, so-called" as having "little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control." As she continues, "modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the 'directee' become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined 'spiritual life' instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other."

After this swamp-clearing excursus, the rest of the book is a more extended critical analysis of how to practice silence and of the obstacles towards doing so. She begins chapter 4 by briefly surveying how few modern thinkers are interested in silence because they operate under a Cartesian method. Of the few who, she says, escape this influence to some extent, she cites the Canadians Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan; and the Greek Orthodox scholar John Panteleimon Manoussakis, whom I interviewed here.

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross's critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty "cures" approved by modern "therapists" and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over "unknowing" that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word "experience and other anachronisms" the effect of which is to "have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears." Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we "experience" (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.

Later on she also decries the elimination of "behold" and cognates from modern biblical translations. This term, she says, is "arguably the most important word in the Bible..., which occurs more than 1300 times in the Hebrew and Greek" (179).

Lots of churchmen, she says, have been quite content to eliminate ideas of beholding and the silence which it requires, in part because both are suspect and hard to control. Of those very few not guilty of this, Ross cites some of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, including our old friend Evagrius, whom I have often cited on here and whom I taught to my students last semester. According to Ross, the writings of Evagrius "speak to human beings in every age....His advice is just as applicable today in an urban culture."

In the final part of the book Ross presents something of an apologia for the fruits of silence, noting that there is a reciprocal relationship: the more one enters into the silence of the deep mind, the more mind is released from tightly held ideas and hostile emotions, especially avarice, anger, and judgment. Instead of these, one emerges more compassionate, detached, and willing to forgive. At the same time, she notes, one's powers of discernment are heightened as silence encourages a ruthless honesty.

For those worried about the "political" implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed "me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell" Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are "green" in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of "custody of the ears." Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User's Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fr. Paul Tarazi on Scripture, Theology, and Mysticism: An Interview

Last week I gave you a taste of what was in store if you buy a copy of Fr. Paul Tarazi's new wonderfully refreshing and provocative new book The Rise of Scripture.

I was put in touch with him by my friend Fr Bill Mills, whom I have often interviewed on here over the years. I sent Fr. Paul some questions, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background.

Fr. PNT: The Tarazi family is a traditional Rum Orthodox family from the city of Gaza, Palestine. A copy of the family tree goes back to our forefather David, who “was in Gaza in 1755.” My mother was from a traditional Rum Orthodox family in Nablus, Palestine. My father was born in Gaza but established himself in Jaffa where I was born in 1943. In 1948, the household left for Cairo, Egypt, where we stayed one year and in 1949 we relocated to Beirut, Lebanon. There I did my primary and secondary studies at the Christian La Sallian Brothers School where I, as with many of my colleagues, was influenced by the teaching of “Brother Paul” who was practically unique. In a pre-Vatican II era we never heard him using the phrases “the (Catholic) church” or “the magisterium.” He simply referred to “le Christ” and taught us the gospel parables and the letters of Paul. When I learned of the Orthodox Youth Movement of the Orthodox Church of Antioch in Beirut, he urged me to join. There I received and taught others a thorough knowledge of the Orthodox faith centered on scripture.

Upon graduating from high school in 1960, I enrolled in the School of Medicine at the Jesuit St. Joseph University of Beirut, where I completed five out of the seven required years for the MD diploma before I decided to study theology in Bucharest, Romania, starting in the fall of 1965. In 1970, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch launched the St. John of Damascus School of Theology at Balamand in North Lebanon, just south of Tripoli. I was summoned to start teaching there after the completion of my first year of doctoral studies and did so while completing those studies. I earned my Th.D. in Scripture in December 1975. At Balamand I taught Old and New Testaments, Hebrew, and Greek. In 1976, the School of Theology closed sine die, and I was offered the position of Lecturer of Old Testament at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. I accepted and taught there since then and until my retirement in 2014 as Professor of Old Testament, teaching both Old and New Testament, Hebrew, Greek, and intermittently teaching Homiletics and Arabic.

I was ordained to the priesthood in October 1976 upon my arrival in the USA. Between 1980 and 1996 I was Visiting Professor of Scripture at Balamand where I gave intensive courses twice a year. Between 1994 and 2004 I was Associate Professor of Scripture at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA.

AD: You've written a considerable number of other books. What led you to write this one, and are there connections with your other books?

Fr. PNT: Over the years I wrote an Old Testament Introduction trilogy and a New Testament Introduction tetralogy, as well as many commentaries on books of the Old and New Testament. I produced an audio commentary of 175 hours on all the biblical books. This prepared me to produce my latest book, The Rise of Scripture, which was conceived and based on scholarly research, yet written for the general readership. This goes along the lines of my commentaries where I use transliteration to invite my readership to deal directly with the “original” biblical text.

However, the uniqueness of The Rise of Scripture lies in that it is the fruit of 60 years of “labor” with the original text, which “labor” gave birth to a completely novel view of the origin of scripture, a view that runs on a different path than contemporary “scholarly consensus” as well as that of classical theology. The book is a more “solid” version of the audio version, which I presented to two audiences of former students in the summer and fall of 2015. The Rise of Scripture is rooted in my earlier work in that I refer to them profusely in this book, and draw the ultimate conclusion from decades of study. A branching off the book was lately conceived as a podcast series entitled “Tarazi Tuesdays” where I discuss in more detail issues dealt with in the book itself. One can access this podcast at this link.

AD: Nicolae Roddy (editor of this three-part Festschrift for Fr Paul Tarazi), in his foreword, notes that getting students to read Scripture today is difficult on account of our culture's emphasis on autonomous individualism and consumerism. Is that also your experience? Any suggestions to those of us also trying to teach Scripture in this context?

Professor Roddy accurately reflected my stand since he knows me personally and is familiar with my work. His assessment renders accurately my sentiment. What makes teaching Scripture so difficult for Roddy and for me is not so much the contemporary cultural background and its assumptions; rather it is the rampant fake scriptural scholarship to which the students readily appeal as being reflective of scripture itself. Biblical scholars want us to believe or, rather, take for granted that scholarly, theological, and confessional tenets accurately reflect what scripture is saying. The same is done with so-called incontrovertible archeological discoveries. Notice how more often than not a statement by a scholar is taken as “scripture,” that is, what so and so said or so and so wrote. Such an approach becomes ludicrous in view of the Pauline “as it is written” that refers exclusively to scripture itself. Paul’s writings were scripturalized through apostolic (Petrine) authority—not through a gathering of humans as the ecumenical councils were, let alone through the words of intellectual giants, like Origen and Athanasius, and their followers, the Cappadocians: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote (egrapsen) to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (graphas)” (2 Pet 3:15-16).

Just listen to how terminology—“the Lutheran take on scripture,” “the Orthodox approach to scripture,” “the Calvinist understanding of scripture”—has become the authoritative “hermeneutical key” to the entire scripture. It is contemporary scholarship that fell prey to individualism and consumerism when it devised “the reader response exegesis.” Even worse is “the reception history criticism (hermeneutics),” which opened the floodgates for every individual to consider one’s take on scripture at any given moment and equate it to what scripture is “actually” saying. As was made clear for the ages in Matthew 23 the onus of responsibility falls on us the “theologians” and not on the flock.

The solution, then, is for us to teach exclusively the scriptural text and refer our students eager to learn “more (stuff)” to satisfy their curiosity and ego with textbooks of patristics, church history, history of the interpretation of scripture, church architecture, and the like, although these “subjects” should not be part of the curriculum itself. Otherwise, scripture will remain what we have turned it into: one of the “subjects” learned or dealt with at theological schools. It is no wonder that church tradition fantasized with bestowing the higher honor of “theologian” to the fourth evangelist, leaving the other three with the lesser honor of simply “evangelist”! The noun “evangelist” is scriptural (Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5), whereas, the noun “theologian” is nowhere to be found in that literature.

AD: You end your second chapter, "The Language of the Old Testament," by saying that "in Scripture it is the Semitic language that has the upper hand, a premise that classical theology across the board has a hard time accepting" (79). Tell us more what you meant by that. Would you say that's true even of the Syriac theological tradition?

My statement you are referring to should be taken in conjunction with my entire argument. Classical theology is basically Greek. That language—which was subdued in scripture and relegated to secondary status (see especially the Prologue to Sirach)—became at the hand of the Greco-Roman Christian intelligentsia the referential language, proof thereof being seen in the treatment of the Septuagint as scripture per se.

This is evident on two levels. On the one hand, Greek was the official language of the first three ecumenical councils endorsed by all major Christian traditions, including the Syriac. On the other hand, and more importantly, the “Founding Fathers” of the Syriac theological tradition engaged the pre-Chalcedonian controversy by writing in Greek. At any rate, even the major Syriac Fathers who wrote in Syriac were post-Nicean and thus—as my Finnish colleague Dr. Merja Merras, herself a Syriac Patristic scholar, said—were already under the spell of Nicea’s teaching rooted in homoousios, an essentially “Greek” term as is evidenced in the Armenian Nicean Creed that, by the confession of the Armenians themselves, hardly renders the meaning of homoousios. Let me, an Arab by upbringing, point out that even Semitic Arabic cannot render the play on ’adam and ’adamah which is essentially not found except in the scriptural language that, as I argued, is based on Aramaic, yet hardly equal to Aramaic, the parent of Syriac. The scriptural language was made/build up by the scriptural authors themselves on the matrix of Aramaic, as is clear from the Book of Daniel.

AD: Much of the first several chapters of your book speaks of "shepherdism" as the backdrop for the entire scriptural story" (133). Explain that term a bit more for us if you would.

By shepherdism I mean the total way of life as witnessed specifically by a Syrian Desert shepherd. Unlike city-centered socio-polity, shepherdism is anchored in a full symbiosis between human, animal (specifically Syrian Desert sheep), and vegetation, which fits perfectly the description of what the scriptural God intended for the scriptural ’adam “on the ground (’adamah)”: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food’” (Gen 1:29-30). Furthermore, this is precisely, we are told, what the same God found to be “good” (v.30), actually “very good” (v.31). The sheep are an integral part of the shepherd’s “family,” as is evident in Nathan’s parable to David: “the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him” (2 Sam 12:3). In shepherdism the human does not kill at will the sheep of his flock, which he relies on for food and wool for himself and for members of his immediate family. Even the sheep are not allowed to dilapidate at will the common source of food (Ezek 34:17-22).

Actually shepherdism “defines” the scriptural “divine” in that the scriptural God resides and meets his people in a “tent (of testimony)” to the extent that it is as shepherd leading his flock that he sits upon the cherubim (Ps 80:1). Thus, whereas the anti-kingly scripture says that it is the shepherd who “rules” (malak, acts as a king), classical theology turns the matter on its head by saying that it is the essentially “eternal” one seated on his celestial throne that condescends to show himself as shepherd! Put otherwise, whereas the “reality” in scripture is the shepherd of whom the ruler is a reflection; in classical theology the “reality” is a Platonic ethereal presupposition of which the shepherd is just a figure of speech. How can that be when the scriptural Lord God already in Genesis 3:8 walks (mithallek) as a shepherd does in the Syrian wilderness in order to judge the man (ha’adam), as he does the deities as though they were mere ’adam in Psalm 82:8, just a couple of psalms after we are told that, as shepherd, he sits on his throne of justice (80:1)?

AD: Am I wrong in detecting a clear, underlying goal of your book as being the drawing out of many, intimate, but often overlooked connections between Old and New Testaments? Thus, e.g., you speak of "Paul as Moses" (ch.18) and look to Joshua in ch. 19 as a central "literary protagonist" to the Pauline "corpus [which] corresponds to the prophetic literature" (p.383). My students often struggle to see any connections between the Testaments, as I know many Christians in general do. How is it that the modern Church struggles with this in a way that many of the Fathers, e.g., did not?

You are on the mark, so long as one looks at the interconnections between the two Testaments as “literary.” In my eyes, for the New Testament to be scripture, it has to be cast in the same mold as the original scripture, the Old Testament. Here again I refer my readers to 2 Peter 3:15-16 in my answer to your third question. Today’s students cannot ignore modern scholarship that, far and wide, has shown the inadequacy of historicizing the scriptural data, which is essentially literary and thus mashal-ic as is evident from Ezekiel who was dubbed as memashshel meshalim (parabler of parables; Ezek 21:5; see also Hos 12:10).

The Fathers who did not have to struggle with the issue were able to do so simply because they eschewed the reality of the matter. Their interest was a Jesus of whom the Old Testament spoke not so much as a coming one, but rather as someone who existed in eternity and thus before the Old Testament. In other words, their solution was a fake solution anchored in Platonic “realism.” Even more, their premise is rooted in the fact that they were Hellenized minds that subscribed to the superiority of Greek over “barbarian.” Since they were well aware that the Greek Septuagint was a translation of an original Semitic text, they upheld that superiority—or at least the equality between Greek and Semite—by putting the Old Testament on par with Greek philosophy: the latter was a propaedeutic for the Greeks unto Christ just as the Old Testament was for the Jews. In other words, the Old Testament was not necessary for one to accept Christ (Paul would have rolled in his grave!). Justin the Philosopher launched the view that the human being had a spark of the divine in him, a view that found its culmination in Maximus the Confessor and his “natural theology”: scriptural “revelation” is ultimately unnecessary. A serious contemporary student of scripture cannot possibly subscribe to the patristic theory that the one who was on the mountain speaking to Moses is none but the eternal logos, i.e., Christ himself!

AD: Your ch.24, "Scripture vs. Theology," contains some absolutely scathing comments one might more readily expect from a Protestant apologist than an Orthodox priest-scholar. E.g., "theology, which is the lingo of every Christian group, whether church or denomination, is by definition a 'perversion'...of God's gospel teaching found in the Old Testament writings propounded by God's apostle Paul...in his writings" (421). And later in that chapter (pp.422-29) you spend a good bit of time denouncing (I do not think the word too strong) the introduction of philosophical and other technical language (Trinity, ousia, physis, homoousios) as "non-Scriptural."  The sum of these developments, you say, is that "historical theology, in all denominations, Christian as well as Jewish, supplanted scripture with its own comments intended to sacralize tradition and thus give it a binding value equal to that of scripture" (432). I'm wondering if you want to elaborate more on this, not least in indicating what, if anything, you think can be done to move the churches beyond (or back behind, if that were possible) this language to see God as He reveals Himself in Scripture.

PDT: Let me begin by inviting my readers to consider how much of the theological debate between denominations revolves around our different understandings of concepts introduced by us. Take, for instance, the “fine” lines between Lutheranism and Calvinism—not to mention the other trends issued from the Reformation—regarding not only classical fabricated lingo, but even concerning an assumedly solid scriptural notion or concept: faith. This term whose original meaning in both Hebrew and Greek is “trust” has suddenly been taken as equivalent to “belief.” In other words, a behavioral matter was transformed into an intellectual subject. I am not saying that this misunderstanding started with the Reformation. To the contrary, the Reformation, which was hailed as liberation from traditional Christian thought, became actually enslaved to a phenomenon that goes back to the ancient “creeds” or “creedal formulations” that split rather than united the one church of God. The saga continued in the Reformation churches that came up with their multitude of “confessions of faith” to which the believer is supposed to “subscribe.”

All our theological debates are carbon copies—or at least sub-tunes—to the debate between Samuel and Israel in 1 Samuel 8. Israel subscribed to the understanding of “king” à la nations, whereas Samuel was offering Israel a king who is essentially a shepherd—an oxymoron among the nations. But the theologians are “Greek” by definition. Witness is that the Renaissance, the Janus face of the Reformation, reintroduced Plato and Aristotle on the scene of the natio Christiana. So all theological effort boils down to “going back” to something that is considered by its proponents to be the “pristine” and “unadulterated” truth of the matter. Against 1 Samuel 8 we de facto advocate that every stage at which our community is at today is “faithful” to the original message.

At heart we are British in that these viewed and still view Great Britain as the “goal” and “culmination” of all preceding civilizations. One can easily see how this state of mind pervades the United States. While we are enslaved to progress, scripture is inviting us to “regress’ to a higher standard of life where human, animal, and vegetation share the same “one” world, a movement clearly reflected in the flood story. When and only when the teachers at our schools endorse this, will they be able to move the churches beyond (or back behind, if that were possible) this dilemma and revert to the “literally” and “literarily” scriptural God. Otherwise, we shall continue on our path of self-justification, the self-righteousness condemned by scripture, assuming the correctness of the delusion that “progress is by definition tantamount to improvement.”

AD: It's clear by the end of ch.24 (and scattered references passim) that you have no truck with "mysticism." I confess that I don't either, and have been writing right now an English Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross (Silence: A User's Guide) who shares much of your criticism of "mysticism." Tell us, briefly, what the problem is with the usual notions of "mysticism," especially in the Eastern Churches.

The heart of the problem lies in the unproven and unprovable assumption that there exists somewhere on its own a “world” of the divine, the numinous, with which one connects directly with one’s spirit or soul or being. Furthermore, the possibility of such intercourse is due to the fact that the spirit or soul or being are somehow of the same nature or essence as the (eternal) divine. These assumptions do not correspond in any way with the scriptural premise.

In scripture the nephesh is the breathing, and thus a mere sign that someone is living, and has nothing to do with the Platonic and theological “soul.” It is of the realm of the “flesh” (basar), animalic as well as human. Even the ruach—which is essentially divine (the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit; Is 31:3a)—when applied to the human being, is no different than the ruach of an animal: “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Eccl 3:21) The reason, as I explained in my book, is that the scriptural God is intentionally “inexistent,” is not egregious, does not “stand out,” cannot be pointed to as a statue. So, from the scriptural perspective, a divine world is a projection of the human mind “in the image” of that mind, in order to deify oneself rather than glorify God. In other words, mysticism is a self-serving creation of man. What makes it worse is that it reflects arrogance toward the “lesser” human beings. See for instance how Origen and the Fathers after him divided humanity into three classes: the fleshly, the soul-ly, and the spiritual. Only the latter can accede to theosis. This is the epitome of arrogance in the eyes of the scriptural God who uttered the words of Isaiah 2.

AD: Give us a sense of your hoped-for audience--who should read this book, The Rise of Scripture, and why?

My intended audience has always been the people at large—regardless of their “beliefs”—because of my conviction that the so-called scholarly community is self-serving, if not self-aggrandizing. “Scholars” fell under the prophetic indictment because there is no need for them in scripture. God on the Holy Mount spoke directly to the entire people. The duty of the “medium” was to communicate God’s words verbatim as Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel did, and not to comment on them. The scriptural God does not need a Hermes, let alone hermeneutics. My so-called commentaries and studies are basically an explanation of the original vocabulary to my audience in order to have them hear scripture with the “ears” of the original addressees. Once this is done, the contemporary hearers will hear God’s words which summon them to do (obey) those words (Deut passim), and not cogitate on them. My profuse use of transliteration aims at circumventing the–by definition--imperfect translations and at inviting my readers to “visually” hear the original. In this sense, my hope for the audience is that they make the effort to absorb the original text if they truly want to be free and decide for themselves, and not be mesmerized by a guru. However, the “general” audience is not to be equated with a “passive” or “lazy” audience, because whether they are aware of it or not they will be judged on whether they will have done God’s words (Mt 25:34-46). My hoped-for audience is a mindful audience that will have to digest what I shall have chewed for own sake!

AD: Having finished The Rise of Scripture, what projects are you at work on now?

Considering that this work represents the summation of my engagement with the scriptural text since the age of thirteen, I should like to concentrate, besides my podcast series that is planned to run indefinitely, on prodding and helping former students to write on scriptural matters. And, out of obedience to (some of) them, I am planning to finish my work on the Pauline corpus by writing a commentary on Ephesians and on 2 Thessalonians. All the notes are ready, and I should be able to finish it by the end of the year and see it published in 2019. If the good Lord grants more years with enough energy, then I should like to produce a one-volume commentary on Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Unconscious Incarnations

With a title like Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives on the Body (Routledge, 2018), 170pp., and an editor and contributor like the Orthodox priest-scholar John Panteleimon Manoussakis (whom I interviewed here about his delightful book For the Unity of All), you'd better believe I'm looking forward to the publication in April of this book!

About this book the publisher tells us:
Unconscious Incarnations considers the status of the body in psychoanalytic theory and practice, bringing Freud and Lacan into conversation with continental philosophy to explore the heterogeneity of embodied life. By doing so, the body is no longer merely an object of scientific inquiry but also a lived body, a source of excessive intuition and affectivity, and a raw animality distinct from mere materiality.
The contributors to this volume consist of philosophers, psychoanalytic scholars, and practitioners whose interdisciplinary explorations reformulate traditional psychoanalytic concepts such as trauma, healing, desire, subjectivity, and the unconscious. Collectively, they build toward the conclusion that phenomenologies of embodiment move psychoanalytic theory and practice away from representationalist models and toward an incarnational approach to psychic life. Under such a carnal horizon, trauma manifests as wounds and scars, therapy as touch, subjectivity as bodily boundedness, and the unconscious ‘real’ as an excessive remainder of flesh.
Unconscious Incarnations signal events where the unsignifiable appears among signifiers, the invisible within the visible, and absence within presence. In sum: where the flesh becomes word and the word retains its flesh.
Unconscious Incarnations seeks to evoke this incarnational approach in order to break through tacit taboos toward the body in psychology and psychoanalysis. This interdisciplinary work will appeal greatly to psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists as well as philosophy scholars and clinical psychologists.

Monday, February 19, 2018

God's Poverty....and Ours

I noted here how I came to read Herbert McCabe, and some of the connections I spied in some of his writings to our father among the saints, Sigmund of Vienna.

Now in this Lenten season, when our focus should be less on our efforts towards fasting and other sometimes suspect "ascetical" works, and more on serving others, the poor above all, I want to draw your attention to a short but compelling sermon in McCabe's God, Christ, and Us.

By the end of my first year teaching here in Indiana, I heard loud and clear from my Catholic students that they had had the what drilled into them rather well by twelve years of Catholic schooling, but nobody had ever explained to them the who. So ever after one of the challenges I set for every class I teach, at least if it bears a THEO prefix, is to help students to understand not just a teaching or even its underlying logic, history, or rationale; but to see how and where God is, how and where, sometimes obscurely or partially, a given "doctrine" points beyond itself, reveals more than itself by revealing God. We are commanded to shun murder and adultery not merely because it makes for more felicitous social relations; we shun them because it is not God's nature to kill or betray those whom he loves.

In this case, then, to the Lenten question of "Why should we help the poor" we must reply not just by way of moral exhortation ("Scripture commands you so to do"), or psychological appeal ("How can we not feel compassion for their plight?"). Scripture, as the venerable scholar Raymond Collins has made clear in a recent study, Wealth, Wages, and the Wealthy: New Testament Insight for Preachers and Teachers, does demand that we help, and does issue dozens of dire warnings about wealth, but why? Is God just the biggest social justice warrior (to use today's infelicitous argot) of all?

Perhaps we can understand why God wants us to help the poor, for we presume that God must be compassionate; but why does He also have to bore on with His condemnations of the wealthy (Matt. 13:22; 19:16ff; Mark 10:23; Luke 16:19ff; etc.)? Why can't God just let us enjoy our wealth and possessions? Even if we recognize the often subtle ways in which possessions and wealth corrupt us, surely that's a risk worth running?

McCabe is helpful here in showing us that, as with all sound teaching, the Christian teaching on poverty and its beatitude, and the Christian condemnation of wealth and possessions, are so because both are an icon of God. In this short reflection, "Poverty and God," McCabe begins by claiming that "the movement from riches to poverty, from having to not having, can be a movement not only to being more human but to being divine." Why is that? It is so because God is poor and has no possessions: "We cannot speak literally of the riches of God. But I think we can speak literally of the poverty of God....He is literally poor because he simply and literally has no possessions. He takes nothing for his own use."

As McCabe continues, "God's creative act is an act of God's poverty, for God gains nothing by it. God makes without becoming richer." To which I would add: God makes and gives without becoming poorer, either. In reflecting on this, my mind freely associated to McCabe's other chapters on prayer, and the rather freeing realization came that, as McCabe counsels, in praying for very real and practical things, we should feel no guilt as though we are somehow depriving God of something, or short-changing others if He gives it to us first. God, in other words, is not sitting on a gigantic but finite bank account from which our prayers function as so many withdrawals, depleting His capital. If that were so, would He have counseled us to pray for our daily bread--rather than asking for bread once in a while or once in a lifetime?

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Problems with Orthodox Mysticism

I've just received The Rise of Scripture, and sent to its author, the long-time Orthodox biblical scholar Paul Nadimi Tarazi, some questions for an interview I'll be glad to run as soon as he gets back to me. Tarazi has written many books about the Bible, as you can see here. This one takes a more comprehensive and far-reaching approach than some of his more tightly tailored commentaries.

The Rise of Scripture is a wide-ranging book that does not pull its punches in places, and I'm looking forward to having the author unpack his thoughts about many things, including his clear disdain for "mysticism," a problematic notion, you will have noted, I've been exploring on here with the help of Maggie Ross's fine book, Silence: A User's Guide, to which I shall be returning presently

"Mysticism" is one of those things one endlessly hears about from apologists for the East, perhaps most famously in that dreary book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Lossky that at one point it seems everyone was required to read--before, that is, the explosion in Eastern Christian scholarship of the last three decades, which has had the welcome effect, inter alia, of dethroning Lossky.

Just to give you a taste, with more to come: Tarazi repeatedly decries the "perversion" that theology--East and West, Jewish and Christian--has wrought to the scripturally revealed God, introducing terminology that is not just unhelpful but unscriptural (ousia, physis, etc). Worse, we go from theology to "mysticism," about which Tarazi inveighs thus:
As for us Orthodox, we shall continue to approach scripture from the sacred theology of the 'tradition of man' established by our church fathers, and the closer to our own times the 'father' is, the more authoritative he is.....It is no wonder that Orthodox seminary students take a short cut by reading as authoritative Vladimir Lossky's twentieth-century The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church and live in the mystical clouds of their imaginations instead of listening repeatedly until the end of days--and teaching others to do (Mt 5:17-20)--to the words of the scroll written by the hand of the One who alone speaks out of his scriptural, not mystical, cloud (Ezek 1-2). 
Lest any Eastern apologist still try to insist that our mysticism is somehow different, unique, true, and untainted by that so-called pan-heresy of ecumemism, Tarazi says this ignores "my repeated insistence that mysticism is a (fourth monotheistic) religion of its own besides Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the proof thereof being that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics speak the exact same language, and even refer to, if not even quote, one another" (437).

I've asked him to comment further in our interview on this and other wonderfully bracing arguments in his The Rise of Scripture. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ethiopian Orthodox Feasting and Hospitality

Though a period of fasting is now upon the Church, it is never a bad time to think of feasting. Indeed, fasting often enough, of course, heightens our thoughts about feasting ("Lent" being, of course, an old and untranslatable Indo-Norse word for "agonizing period of endless fantasizing about bacon and beer"), and a new book will reward and edify those thoughts further still, adding to a growing scholarly understanding in English at least of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition: The Stranger at the Feast: Prohibition and Mediation in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community by Tom Boylston (University of California Press, 2018), 194pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Stranger at the Feast is a path-breaking ethnographic study of one of the world’s oldest and least-understood religious traditions. Based on long-term ethnographic research on the Zege peninsula in northern Ethiopia, the author tells the story of how people have understood large-scale religious change by following local transformations in hospitality, ritual prohibition, and feeding practices. Ethiopia has undergone radical upheaval in the transition from the imperial era of Haile Selassie to the modern secular state, but the secularization of the state has been met with the widespread revival of popular religious practice. For Orthodox Christians in Zege, everything that matters about religion comes back to how one eats and fasts with others. Boylston shows how practices of feeding and avoidance have remained central even as their meaning and purpose has dramatically changed: from a means of marking class distinctions within Orthodox society, to a marker of the difference between Orthodox Christians and other religions within the contemporary Ethiopian state.

Monday, February 12, 2018

On Fasting from Noise or Against Asceticism and Spirituality (I)

The paschal calculations are only out by a week this year (see here for some further thoughts on this absurd problem), so today begins Great Lent on the Gregorian Calendar, and next week it begins on the Julian.

Always around this time in the past, as here, I have listed some good books, especially Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, and I would not unsay what I have said there. But I am increasingly uneasy about much of this discussion and increasingly given to rethinking the categories of asceticism thanks to a book I mentioned at the beginning of the month in discussing the links between Freudian and Dominican notions of prayer: Maggie Ross, Silence: A User's Guide vol. I.

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of "spirituality." I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in "spirituality" taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, "spirituality" was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious--before I had the language to express it--that "spirituality" was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.

Thus I am increasingly inclined to the view that there is no such thing as spirituality, and that's a very good thing too. Some of this I got more recently from reading Robert Farrar Capon, as well as Schmemann's For the Life of the World. But the first two who really helped me to see this were, of course, John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory and John Bossy's underappreciated but delightful minor classic, Christianity in the West 1400-1700. Ross reinforces this suspicion early on in Silence: A User's Guide by quoting Meister Eckhart: if you think you are doing anything "spiritual" or "special," you're not seeking God!

But my few suspicious and criticisms are anodyne compared to the scathing, cold dissection in the hands of Maggie Ross. Her book seems increasingly to me to be a rare and welcome knife cutting through so much nonsense, some of it positively harmful. We'll start with the first two chapters before getting to the third chapter, which should really be called "A Glossary of Fatuous Terms of Destruction and Illusion Masquerading as Piety." In this third chapter she really takes the gloves off, though she drops a hint in ch. 1 when, e.g., she says that "mysticism (a dog's breakfast of a word that needs to be eliminated from the discussion) is tainted with voyeurism and self-aggrandizement and has become a consumer circus" (25). A little later on she will also scorn all language of having an "experience" of God, noting that "God" may be operative in the experience, but God is not the experience: that would be to hack Him down to our little self-conscious concepts.

The burden of the first two chapters is to sketch out her psychology, as it were, noting the tension between the self-conscious mind, which is always noisy, and the "deep mind," as she calls it. If the former, as she says, "makes us human, then its elision opens the door to...divinity" (1).

Too many of us are scared to open that door for several reasons. First, we may think that the deep mind is a morass of irrational instincts and urges, but, she says, it is itself also thinking. This deep mind, however, cannot be forcibly accessed: to get here you have to find ways to subvert self-consciousness. Perhaps, she says in a few places, the most common technique is to focus on a single word or exhalations until self-consciousness gradually falls away for a time.

However we do it, she makes the claim that putting on the mind of Christ is silence: to put on the mind of Christ is to relinquish projections and imagined stereotypes and to receive a transfigured mind back instead. This is impossible without the "work of silence," as she repeatedly calls it. The mind of Christ, then, is not an inhibited self-conscious mind, but the deep mind that avoids all notions of pious "imitation" because such ideas depend on our own suspect concepts and projections of Christ.

To become transfigured it is necessary to enter into solitude and silence: she notes the desert fathers and mothers (and modern commentators, as I have often noted--e.g., Thomas Merton) said that if you went and sat silently in your cell, your cell will teach you everything. This, she notes later, is surely why Pascal could claim that our unhappiness arises from only one thing: our inability to remain alone and silent in a room.

In reading her so far, I am put in mind of one French and two other British writers whom I read in the 1990s on these themes. The first would be the psychiatrist Anthony Storr's little book Solitude.

The second is the psychoanalyst Nina Coltart, the publication of whose Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1992 was influential for me in deciding to enter full-time psychoanalysis in 1994. Among the many fascinating chapters in that book, I have often returned to her reflections on the silent patient, which she defines as the patient who speaks for less than 10% of the total analysis; and then her own experiences of solitude and meditation as an Anglican who later embraced Buddhism.

In the midst of reading these two, then somehow I discovered Simone Weil and her especially searing insights on solitude. One of these days I must go back to Weil, on whom an explosion of scholarship has developed in the two decades since I last read her.

For Ross, engaging deep silence requires no gimmicks, programs, gurus, or expensive memberships. It costs nothing. That, of course, makes it highly suspect to the powers and principalities of our present age, which can make no profits off it--but, as she shows, suspicion of silence goes back many centuries within a Christian context alone.

There is also another factor at work, one which, as I noted in previous discussions of Christopher Bollas, centres on the fact that many of us today dismiss and disdain any notion of an unconscious life not least because the unconscious, the hidden mind is a thinking mind and we don't want to entertain Freud's insight here about that. How dare our minds go on thinking without our self-conscious approval and, above all, control!

But Ross hastens here to insert a welcome reassurance, especially for those who are worried that--as she noted earlier--the deep mind, the hidden and unconscious mind, is an irrational mass of desires that will lead you astray and deceive you. On the contrary, she says, the silence of the deep mind is perhaps most objective of all insofar as it leads away from self-consciousness and its suspect motives to simply see what is real not just in ourselves but especially in the world around us. In doing the work of silence, we can see, but see differently: deep silence transfigures. We learn to figure things out differently.

And part of what we figure differently is the relationship between what is known and unknown--here echoing what Adam Phillips has written about in several places, as I've noted on here the past two years, and more recently in discussing Christopher Bollas's pivotal idea of the "unthought known."

And yet, in addition to fear of the hidden and unconscious, and to disdain for its simplicity, silence is also scorned by some who abandon the work because they think it should transform them into something unique, a new self--only to discover that it does not. It leads them into communion with the ordinary, and to seeing our life in the daily things.

Moreover, it is feared by some who think it will change them rather too much. But, she says, you have to abandon and change nothing at the outset! The silence will elicit changes organically. This is very much my own recollection of the analytic experience as well: the change comes quite as much as a result of the process itself as of (and perhaps more than) any individual insights developed or traumatic memories analyzed.

Silence, Ross argues, leads us out of our very narrow, repetitive, cramped, noisy self-conscious minds into what Weil called the absolute unmixed attention which is prayer. (Cf. Coltart's understanding of the analyst proffering "evenly hovering attention," as Freud called it, and as Coltart saw as a deeply spiritual, almost sacred, practice.) How can this happen?

For Ross, "the only requirement is to observe one's own mind at work, to discover its permutations, to engage, receive, and realize the effects that arise from learning to inhabit deepest silence" (32). From here, it may be useful for some people to try meditation as an entry-level way into silence but it is not the whole thing. It can also dangerously magnify existing beliefs. So context and intent become key.

Sometimes, she notes, the way into silence can be inadvertent and this is often a sign of authenticity. But the most common entry point is through focus on one thing only: e.g., a word. There is most likely not one universal way to do this, but much depends on the individual. The point is to find a way to defeat the self-conscious mind by turning towards liminality, where the self-conscious mind submits its knowledge to the deep mind and receives it back transfigured. In the end, she says, silence can effect such dramatic change that even the way a person looks is changed.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Bp. Seraphim Sigrist on the Tapestries of Life

In this blog's infancy, I hit upon the idea of interviewing authors when talking with Bishop Seraphim Sigrist more than five years ago, when I sent him some questions about his then-new book A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East.

He has a new book out, Tapestry, and I sent him some questions for an interview about it. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background.

Vladyka Seraphim: By way of introducing myself I would say that I studied at St Vladimir's Seminary and then served in the Orthodox Church in Japan for 19 years as teacher, as deacon, and priest in a village church and finally as Bishop of northern Japan. Returning to the United States I have taught at Drew University, and, becoming involved with movements in Russia for Christian renewal, traveled to Russia many times. I live in the lower Hudson Valley and have written five books, including one Japanese translation.

AD: When we spoke on here several years ago now, it was about your book A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East. What, if anything, links that book and your newest one, Tapestry? In other words, give us a bit of chronology and background over the past few years leading up to this newest book.

I am not a prolific writer but Tapestry perhaps fits to a set of three that  begins with Theology of Wonder in 1999 and then as you mention A Life Together in 2010 and now Tapestry. The theologian Antoine Arjakowsky has described the Church as a network of friendships and this is a theme which runs through all my writing and is central in A Life Together. For its part, Tapestry approaches from many angles in its sections perhaps more the theme of the way of knowledge of God for the individual within the Christian community.

AD: You start off by referring to Fr. Alexander Schememann, whose love of poetry is well known, and who reflected in his celebrated Journals that there was more theology in the poetry of an E.E. Cummings than in many theology books as such. Is that your view also? How do you see the relationship between poetry and theology?

It seems that poetry can represent more the intuitive side of life and then there is a way of doing theology which is more careful , could we say, and analytic. But these surely can at least ideally fit together. A scholastic analysis with its back and forth of mind opens into ,the reader may suddenly realize, a sort of dance. The dense expression of Dun Scotus "haecceity" or "thisness," becomes the inscape of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

AD: I heard it said once—I forget by whom—that Christianity has produced two outstanding poets—Dante and Ephraim the Syrian. But you draw on others, including those not necessarily identified as Christian. How do you see those works and authors as part of God’s creation?

Now first of all there are more Christian writers, even in our own time, than is sometimes recognized. We are right to love Chesterton or the Inklings but there are so many others. And beyond these are there not those with gifts of wisdom and spiritual ardor such as Rainer Maria Rilke who did not also have the gift of a clearly defined theology?

AD: Your references and sources range very widely—Cardinal Newman, Clement of Alexandria, the Jungian analyst John Perkins, C.S. Lewis, Fr. Alexander Men, Wittgenstein, and others. Are there any common threads in this very diverse tapestry of characters?

Well I cite those who have inspired and interested me and whose themes resonate to me and which I share. All these whom you mention certainly have a shared quality of being alert and open in their thinking and also a godwardness, an orientation towards God as the end of their thought. You know Josef Pieper in his admirable book about St.Thomas Aquinas The Silence of St.Thomas says that new territory awaiting use by Christians is "of virtually immeasurable scope" including depth psychology, advances in physics and biology and the wisdom traditions of the East. Perhaps I have a little attempted to at least look into the new territories of our time and the time that is coming.

AD: Tell us what your hopes were and are for this book,
Tapestry. Who should read it, and why?

Tapestry is a collection of at first sight quite diverse materials ranging from the personal to the more formal in style and from the straight forward to the possibly somewhat poetic. But the life we have is also like that isn't it? A great diversity of feelings with the warm and the cold, the fast and busy and the slow and meditative, coexisting at once like levels of the sea as Thomas Merton said. The theme then, implicit at every point, is that this whole life in every moment is our knowledge of God. It is the medium through which and in which we encounter the Lord. It is life itself, in all its impermanence and change, which is or is seen to be what in the Eastern Church is called Theosis, or I would like to render it Becoming-as-Divine.

Does not realizing this bring Theosis into focus a little more than when it is held out there as simply a future destiny? Similarly there is the via negativa, the way of negation of all images and there is the positive affirmative theology. But these are not first of all abstractions rather they are grounded in the rhythm of the blood and of life, exhaling and inhaling, the arterial and the veinous blood, the light and shadow of all our moments. Tapestry is a personal expression, which I think will resonate to readers, that in realizing the depth of this life we have, we may live in, or into, eternity's sunrise.

AD: Having finished
Tapestry, what are you at work on next?

Perhaps more than another book just now, I would wish to take to heart the words of Angelus Silesius which are for reader and for writer alike, "Go and yourself become the writing, yourself the essence."
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...