"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, April 30, 2018

Theodore the Studite on Icons

It's been almost 40 years since St. Vladimir's Seminary Press published a translation of St. Theodore the Studite's On the Holy Icons. Apart from that, the only other work came out in 2015: another translation of his Writings on Iconoclasm.

But what we have not had until now has been a wide-ranging historical context in which to consider him and this work of his. That lacuna will be remedied in July with the publication of St Theodore the Studite's Defence of the Icons:Theology and Philosophy in Ninth-Century Byzantium by Torstein Theodor Tollefsen (Oxford UP, 2018), 208pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:

St Theodore the Studite's Defence of the Icons provides an investigation of the icon-theology of St Theodore the Studite, mainly as it is presented in his three refutations of the iconoclasts, the Antirrhetici tres adversus iconomachos. Torstein Theodor Tollefsen explores Theodore's 'philosophy of images', namely his doctrine of images and his arguments that justify the legitimacy of images in general and of Christ in particular. Tollefsen offers a historical, theological, and philosophical exploration of Theodore's doctrine of images and his arguments justifying the legitimacy of images and of Christ. In addition to the main elements of Theodore's defence of the icon, like the Christological issue, the relation between image and prototype, the question of veneration, his explanation of why we may say of an image that 'this is Christ', and his innovative thinking on the representative character of the icon, the book has an introduction that places Theodore in the history of Byzantine philosophy: He has some knowledge of traditional logical topics and is able to utilize argumentative forms in countering his iconoclast opponents. The volume also provides an appendix which shows that the making of images is somehow natural given the character of Christianity as a religion.

Friday, April 27, 2018


Having written for several of them now, I always pay attention when Oxford University Press tells me of a forthcoming new volume in its various series of handbooks. In August of this year we shall be treated to one such that I'm greatly looking forward to reading: The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology, ed. Paul Avis (OUP, 2018), 712pp.

About this hefty collection, in which, as you'll see below, there are significant Orthodox contributions, the publisher tells us:

The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology is a unique scholarly resource for the study of the Christian Church as we find it in the Bible, in history and today. As the scholarly study of how we understand the Christian Church's identity and mission, ecclesiology is at the centre of today's theological research, reflection, and debate. Ecclesiology is the theological driver of the ecumenical movement. The main focus of the intense ecumenical engagement and dialogue of the past half-century has been ecclesiological and this is the area where the most intractable differences remain to be tackled Ecclesiology investigates the Church's manifold self-understanding in relation to a number of areas: the origins, structures, authority, doctrine, ministry, sacraments, unity, diversity, and mission of the Church, including its relation to the state and to society and culture. The sources of ecclesiological reflection are the Bible (interpreted in the light of scholarly research), Church history and the wealth of the Christian theological tradition, together with the information and insights that emerge from other relevant academic disciplines. This Handbook considers the biblical resources, historical development, and contemporary initiatives in ecclesiology. It offers invaluable and comprehensive guide to understanding the Church.
The table of contents:

1. Introduction to Ecclesiology, Paul Avis
Part I: Biblical Foundations
2. The Ecclesiology of Israel's Scriptures, R. W. L. Moberly
3. The Church in the Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, Loveday Alexander
4. The Johannine vision of the Church, Andrew T. Lincoln
5. The Shape of the Pauline Churches, Edward Adams
6. The Church in the General Epistles, Gerald O'Collins, SJ
Part II: Resources from the Tradition
7. Early Ecclesiology in the West, Mark Edwards
8. The Eastern Orthodox Tradition, Andrew Louth
9. Medieval Ecclesiology and the Conciliar Movement, Norman Tanner, SJ
10. The Church in the Magisterial Reformers, Dorothea Wendebourg
11. Anglican Ecclesiology, Paul Avis
12. Roman Catholic Ecclesiology from the Council of Trent to Vatican II and Beyond, Ormond Rush
13. Baptist Concepts of the Church and their Antecedents, Paul S. Fiddes
14. Methodism and the Church, David M. Chapman
15. Pentecostal Ecclesiologies, Amos Yong
Part III: Major Modern Ecclesiologists
16. Karl Barth, Kimlyn J. Bender
17. Yves Congar, Gabriel Flynn
18. Henri de Lubac, Gabriel Flynn
19. Karl Rahner, Richard Lennan
20. Joseph Ratzinger, Theodor Dieter
21. John Zizioulas, Paul McPartlan
22. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Friedericke Nussel
23. Rowan Williams, Mike Higton
Part IV: Contemporary Movements in Ecclesiology
24. Feminist Critiques, Visions, and Models of the Church, Elaine Graham
5. Social Science and Ideological Critiques of Ecclesiology, Neil Ormerod
26. Liberationist Ecclesiologies with Special Reference to Latin America, Michelle A. Gonzalez
27. Asian Ecclesiologies, Simon Chan
27. African Ecclesiologies, Stan Chu Ilo

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Tradition and Transformation in Christian Iconography

This August will see the advent of a book by a scholar whose previous work on iconography, Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetics of the Christian Image, remains one of the most intellectually challenging and wide-ranging studies to appear in decades.

If C.A. Tsakiridou's forthcoming book Tradition and Transformation in Christian Art: the Transcultural Icon (Routledge, 2018), is as good as her previous one, then we shall be fortunate indeed. I am very much looking forward to this and will have more to say after I see the book in print.

About this 240-page study, the publisher tells us this:

 Tradition and Transformation in Christian Art approaches tradition and transculturality in religious art from an Orthodox perspective that defines tradition as a dynamic field of exchanges and synergies between iconographic types and their variants. Relying on a new ontology of iconographic types, it explores one of the most significant ascetical and eschatological Christian images, the King of Glory (Man of Sorrows). This icon of the dead-living Christ originated in Byzantium, migrated west, and was promoted in the New World by Franciscan and Dominican missions. Themes include tensions between Byzantine and Latin spiritualities of penance and salvation, the participation of the body and gender in deification, and the theological plasticity of the Christian imaginary. Primitivist tendencies in Christian eschatology and modernism place avant-garde interest in New Mexican santos and Greek icons in tradition.

Monday, April 23, 2018

God, Sex, and the Desiring Self's Repetitive Liturgics

The recent news that the venerable Norris-Hulse professorship of divinity in the University of Cambridge is passing from Sarah Coakley to Catherine Pickstock is as good an occasion as any to draw attention to some of the works of both of these extraordinarily luminous women, and to record some longer and long-overdue thoughts about Coakley's God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity' (Cambridge UP, 2013).

In 1997 Pickstock's doctoral dissertation was published as After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. It rightly attracted a good deal of attention, both for its own rather stunning argumentation but also because its author was involved with John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy crowd, even to the point of the two of them editing a book Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology. I devoured both books within weeks of publication, and contacted both Pickstock and Milbank (during his brief stint at the University of Virginia) about doctoral work with them.

That RO movement attracts far less attention today than it did twenty, and even ten, years ago. But Pickstock's After Writing nonetheless was, and remains, the most far-reaching and intellectually sophisticated critical analysis of the problems of liturgical reform at and after Vatican II. I have always maintained that her central point, about the abolition of structural repetition (treated also in a different fashion in a later book: Repetition and Identity) based on a suspect modern notion of linear time is the most damning criticism made against the reforms in the Latin Church which influenced, in turn, similar reforms in Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and elsewhere. I have yet to see anyone address this criticism in any serious way. To my mind this attempt at abolishing repetition is the greatest weakness of Western liturgics, as I argued at length elsewhere more than fifteen years ago now.

Let me turn now to Coakley, who did me the honour last July of being respondent to my paper at a conference at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota on reception history. She was as gracious an interlocutor as she is learned and it was a delight to converse with her.

This book of hers, God, Sexuality, and the Self, is the first of a projected four-volume systematics. Eastern Christians who might at this point be getting ready to pounce with objections to this method ("systematics" is not Eastern!) or to its author (she's Anglican! and she claims to be a priest!! who's influenced by feminism!!!) need to sit down and be quiet. She's grappling with questions that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches are grappling with in the same cultural context. And she's doing so in a way and via a method perfectly orthodox: by looking to see what the Fathers especially have to say, and how they can point us forward beyond the impasse of capitulating to the culture on all matters sexual, on the one hand, or merely repeating traditionalist slogans on the other while hoping these questions somehow go away.

She lays out in the introduction some of her major interlocutors: of the ancients, Plato, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Augustine, and Ps-Dionysius (about whom see this co-edited work of Coakley); of the moderns, she begins with Freud and the question of desire, arguing that "desire is more fundamental than 'sex'" (10). For God (unlike for us), desire indicates no lack, but instead is the "longing love" God has for His creation to flourish in the fullness of life within the Godhead. It is this treatment of desire that is, to my mind, the most central and compelling part of her book.

At the outset Coakley is positioning herself by noting that desire for God is ultimately what is missing in contemporary "secular" discussions about sexual desire, sexual orientation, and sexual differentiation ("gender"). What Christianity, especially that informed by both Platonic and patristic sources, brings to the discussion, as she has argued in another book, is an emphasis on asceticism which, together with prayer "too deep for words" allows us to purify that desire and to be purified of any illusions we may have about God. Indeed, this focus on prayer is a central and distinctive feature of Coakley's work as she pushes back, rightly, against the tendency to treat theology purely as an intellectual endeavor: "theology in its proper sense is always in via as practitional" (45).

This emphasis on practice is not a means of escape either from hard metaphysical thinking, or the perhaps even harder task of working against injustice in the world. It is only in prayer and especially silence that we can hear the voices of those who are suffering and are marginalized--voices which, Coakley says, are often drowned out by our own high-minded calls to alleviate that suffering without first allowing the sufferers themselves to speak in their own terms.

As she continues to circle closer into her focus on desire, Coakley argues that "desire is also more fundamental than gender, and that the key to the secular riddle of gender can lie only in its connection to the doctrine of the trinitarian God" (52), a point I am very glad to hear someone else making. I attempted to make it several years ago in debates about same-sex relations in a theological context, saying that ultimately arguments from "authority" or "tradition" cut very little ice today even with people inside the Church; the only serious argument must centre on the nature of the triune God.

Coakley here introduces--with promise of more to come--her very sensitive and careful discussion of the 'threeness' of God and the 'twoness' of human gender, saying that hers "is a theory about gender's mysterious and plastic openness to divine transfiguration" (58). All the Christians currently freaking out about "transgenderism" would do well to think on Coakley for a while and the tradition she draws on. Any time you posit that the human person, divided into male and female, is created in the image of the undivided and sexless Trinity you are going to have very serious and difficult questions about the meaning of sexual differentiation vis-à-vis the Trinity.

Questions of transgenderism and sexuality invite contributions from sociology, psychology, gender studies, and other fields, and Coakley's book is especially helpful in laying out nine guidelines (pp.88-92) for such conversations as part of her project of théologie totale. The graciousness with which she engages these questions, and the honesty of her work, comes throughout the book, and is summed up again at the very end, where she notes that "the contemplative is the one who is forced to acknowledge the 'messy entanglement' of sexual desire and the desire for God" (340). Contemplation, with asceticism, also re-orders the passions, changes and purifies our desire for God, offers a safeguard against illusions and idols: "the hermeneutics of suspicion never comes to an end" (343). 

For these and many other insights in this densely argued, but carefully and clearly written, work, let all the people say: Deo gratias. And let us keep watch for the next volumes in her work.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Christos Yannaras

There are certain names, by the force of their prose and the number of their books, which cannot be overlooked today, and Christos Yannaras is certainly in that category. I have used his books in classes for more than a decade now, and read some others. In the former category I have regularly assigned his Freedom of Morality.

That book seems emblematic of Yannaras in some ways--blustery and sprawling, desperately in need of an editor, prone to wild exaggerations and polemical tangents (especially about tiresome Orthodox bugbears such as "scholasticism" and "pietism"), and not a little bit idealistic. Still it contains some crucial insights well worth thinking about in depth.

It is a facile temptation, devoutly to be avoided, to write Yannaras off as one more anti-Western Orthodox crank, of whom there seem to be not a few today. But Yannaras can indulge in those kinds of polemics (perhaps nowhere at greater length than in Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age) and still be worth your time because--unlike almost all other anti-Western Orthodox--he regularly turns the criticism back on Orthodoxy itself in welcome ways, as he does in this book in particular. This capacity for self-criticism, as I noted here, became obvious and welcome in 2011 when he gave a commencement address at Holy Cross in Brookline denouncing Orthodox zealots with their individualism, their idolization, their fundamentalism, and their fanaticism masquerading as Orthodox but in fact deeply modern and deeply Western.

Among his other books which I have read, and in some cases reviewed elsewhere, I'd draw attention to The Enigma of Evil. I'm not entirely convinced by its arguments, but again it raises some good questions (in between the usual shots at the West).

And I am just about to begin reading his Against Religion: the Alienation of the Ecclesial Event. It promises to be of interest in my own current work on Freud and theology, some of it discussed here where Yannaras's ideas on psychoanalysis (especially its Lacanian variant) were also noted and welcomed. In his essay on Lacan, Yannaras is a model of open learning, of "despoiling the Egyptians" that the Fathers so often practiced and recommended--but which few on-line apologists today seem to do.

There are many other books that could be mentioned, but the point of this entry is to draw your attention to a new book, and a forthcoming one later this year.

The new book is Metaphysics as a Personal Adventure, trans. Norman Russell (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2017), 212pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Christos Yannaras is a philosopher, theologian, and political thinker widely regarded as one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of the twentieth century. He sees theology along with philosophy not as an academic enterprise, but as a serious approach to reality in all the dimensions vital to life today. A controversial figure, he castigates much of what passes for Christianity in the East as well as in the West, calling it a religionization of faith. In this book he responds to searching questions concerning his work, setting his thinking as a whole in an integrated vision of knowledge, truth, relationship, and salvation.
And then, set for release in August of this year is a forthcoming study: Christos Yannaras: Philosophy, Theology, Culture By Andreas Andreopoulos (Routledge, 2018), 243pp.

About this forthcoming work Routledge tells us the following:
Christos Yannaras is one of the most significant Orthodox theologians of recent times. His work engages not only with issues of philosophy and theology, but also takes in wider questions of culture and politics. With contributions from established and new scholars this collection considers the four main strands of Yannaras’ work - philosophy, theology, ethics and culture - and reflects on the ways in which Yannaras has engaged and influenced thought across these fields. Christos Yannaras provides a foreword.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

North African and West Asian Christianity (I)

The University of Edinburgh Press sent me a copy of a hefty and impressive new collection slated for publication this summer: Christianity in North Africa and West Asia, eds. Kenneth R. Ross, Mariz Tadros, and  Todd M. Johnson (UEP, 2018), 576pp. As I make my way through it, I'll post some more thoughts. As you'll see below, Chalcedonian, Oriental, Arabic, Coptic and other Eastern Christian groups are well represented.

The publisher's rather short and vague blurb doesn't do justice to the riches contained here:
This comprehensive reference volume covers every country in North Africa and West Asia, offering reliable demographic information and original interpretative essays by indigenous scholars and practitioners. It maps patterns of growth and decline, assesses major traditions and movements, analyses key themes and examines current trends.
But the table of contents gives us more details:

A Demographic Profile of Christianity in North Africa and West Asia, Gina A. Zurlo
Christianity in North Africa and West Asia, Mariz Tadros

Morocco and Western Sahara, Jack Wald
Algeria and Tunisia, Katia Boissevain
Libya, Akram HabibSudan, John Eibner 
Egypt, Samuel Tadros
Cyprus, Anastasia Yiangou
Turkey, Hratch Tchilingirian and Ed Alden
Syria, Razek Siriani
Lebanon, Charles Chartouni
Israel, David NeuhausPalestine, Bernard Sabella
Jordan, Paulo Maggiolini and Iyad TwalIraq, Herman Teule
The Gulf: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Hrayr Jebejian
Armenia, Hratch Tchilingirian
Georgia and Azerbaijan, Silvia Serrano 

Major Christian Traditions
Anglicans, Yazid Said
Independents, Duane Alex Miller
Eastern Orthodox, George Tamer
Oriental Orthodox, Aho Shemunkasho
Protestants, Mitri Raheb
Catholics, Anthony O’Mahony
Evangelicals, Wafik Wahba
Pentecostals/Charismatics, Eric Newberg

Key Themes
Faith and Culture, Elizabeth Monier
Worship and Spirituality, Rima Nasrallah
Theology, George Sabra
Social and Political Context, Mark Farha
Mission and Evangelism, Heather Sharkey
Gender, Donna Rizk
Religious Freedom, Ewelina Ochab
Inter-religious Relations, Najib George Awad
Monastic Movements and Spirituality, Anna Poujeau
Ecclesiology, Gabriel Hachem
Christian Media, Sara Afshari
Displaced Populations, Kristian Girling

The Future of Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa, Mariz Tadros

Christianity by Country
Methodology and Sources of Christian and Religious Affiliation, Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Russian Orthodoxy and Russian Islam

In my courses on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam, we look at Russia, both because it is fascinating in itself (not least as the largest Orthodox country in the world), but also because the picture is of course very different from the Middle East and elsewhere, and rather complicates facile narratives of one type or another about Islam today.

Next month we will have the release of a new scholarly collection that looks very interesting: Russia's Islam and Orthodoxy beyond the InstitutionsLanguages of Conversion, Competition and Convergence, eds. Alfrid K. Bustanov and Michael Kemper (Routledge, 2018), 120 pp.

About this book the publisher gives us the following blurb and table of contents:
Islam and the Orthodox Church in contemporary Russia are usually studied in isolation from each other, and each in relation to the Kremlin; the latter demands the development of a home-grown and patriotic ‘religious traditionalism, as a bulwark against subversive ‘non-traditional’ imports. This volume breaks new ground by focusing on charismatic missionaries from both religions who bypass the hierarchies of their respective faith organizations and challenge the ‘traditionalism’ paradigm from within Russia's many religious traditions, and who give new meanings to the well-known catchwords of Russia's identity discourse.
The Moscow priest Daniil Sysoev confronted the Russian Orthodox Church with ‘Uranopolitism’, a spiritual vision that defies patriotism and nationalism; the media-savvy Geidar Dzhemal projected an ‘Islamic Eurasianism’ and a world revolution for which Russia's Muslims would provide the vanguard; and the Islamic terrorist Said Buriatskii found respect among left- and right-wing Russians through his Islamic adaptation of Lev Gumilev's ‘passionarity’ paradigm. On the other side, Russian experts and journalists who propagate the official paradigm of Russia's ‘traditional Islam’ argue from either Orthodox or secularist perspectives, and fail to give content to the concept. This allows even moderate Salafis to argue that their creed is Russia's real ‘traditionalist’ Islam. This book was originally published as a special issue of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

1. Russia’s Islam and Orthodoxy beyond the Institutions: Languages of Conversion, Competition and Convergence Alfrid K. Bustanov and Michael Kemper

2. Nationalism and Religion in the Discourse of Russia’s ‘Critical Experts of Islam’ Kristina Kovalskaya

3. Daniil Sysoev: Mission and Martyrdom Gulnaz Sibgatullina

4. The Language of Moderate Salafism in Eastern Tatarstan Alfrid K. Bustanov

5. Jihad as Passionarity: Said Buriatskii and Lev Gumilev Danis Garaev

6. Between Salafism and Eurasianism: Geidar Dzhemal and the Global Islamic Revolution in Russia Gulnaz Sibgatullina and Michael Kemper

Monday, April 16, 2018

Capitalistic Colonizing of the Christian Mind

Patrick Deneen's new book has been attracting a lot of attention as have other authors in the past few years who cheer the rise of an anti-liberal movement and speculate on what might replace it. But the problems with such exercises are very serious indeed. Alasdair MacIntyre himself is perhaps aware of those problems more than just about anybody else, and because of that is extremely reluctant blithely to prescribe solutions even after thinking about these issues for more than half a century. But the great man's reticence has not at all stopped those rushing to bury modern liberalism with puerile glee (e.g., some pamphleteer called Rod Dreher) even as they have not the slightest interest in the hard work of coming up with answers as to what we do in the chaotic aftermath--never mind in the much longer term. This essay disabuses such people of their apocalypticism on the cheap, and is worth your time, not least for insights such as this: "Liberal capitalism concludes with a march of destruction through the human psyche itself."

The author's point is born out by several recent and important books, some previously noted on here under the suspect category of "spirituality," which, as I have remarked elsewhere, doesn't exist until and unless you have a market economy interested in such a thing, at which point it becomes just another commodity.

Other books showing the colonizing of the mind by capitalism must include the deeply rewarding work of Todd McGowan, whom I discussed here in detail. He is also the author of Capitalism and Desire: the Psychic Cost of Free Markets, which I have ordered and hope to begin reading as soon as the semester is over. 

Bruce Rogers-Vaughn's Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, published in late 2016, is a very useful attempt to look at the problems of capitalism through the seasoned eyes of a minister and therapist steeped in pastoral theology and aware of the practical and psychological issues among the people he works with and their very real and increasing suffering.

J. Carrette and R. King are the authors of Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion which is useful in showing how popular appeals to "Buddhism" and "mindfulness" have been little more than capitalist projects in disguise.

Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power  by Byung-Chul Han was released last Christmas, and is on my list to read, as is the forthcoming book by Benjamin Fong, Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism.

About the former book the publisher tells us this:
Byung-Chul Han, a star of German philosophy, continues his passionate critique of neoliberalism, trenchantly describing a regime of technological domination that, in contrast to Foucault’s biopower, has discovered the productive force of the psyche. In the course of discussing all the facets of neoliberal psychopolitics fueling our contemporary crisis of freedom, Han elaborates an analytical framework that provides an original theory of Big Data and a lucid phenomenology of emotion. But this provocative essay proposes counter models too, presenting a wealth of ideas and surprising alternatives at every turn.
And about the latter we are told the following by the publisher:

The first philosophers of the Frankfurt School famously turned to the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud to supplement their Marxist analyses of ideological subjectification. Since the collapse of their proposed "marriage of Marx and Freud," psychology and social theory have grown apart to the impoverishment of both. Returning to this union, Benjamin Y. Fong reconstructs the psychoanalytic "foundation stone" of critical theory in an effort to once again think together the possibility of psychic and social transformation.
Drawing on the work of Hans Loewald and Jacques Lacan, Fong complicates the famous antagonism between Eros and the death drive in reference to a third term: the woefully undertheorized drive to mastery. Rejuvenating Freudian metapsychology through the lens of this pivotal concept, he then provides fresh perspective on Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse's critiques of psychic life under the influence of modern cultural and technological change. The result is a novel vision of critical theory that rearticulates the nature of subjection in late capitalism and renews an old project of resistance.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Christian Intentional Communities

Amidst the myriad of flaws and lacunae (enumerated here) in Rod Dreher's little book, none is more fatal than its romanticization of local community. As I noted in 2015, I have some personal experience, over more than a decade, of a variety of forms of Christian intentional communities in several places and the many difficulties they experience, especially when it comes to open, honest, charitable acknowledgement, let alone resolution, of internal conflicts. They can, to be sure, offer wonderful gifts, as I experienced from my community after I very nearly died in 1996 when I was hit by a bus in Ottawa while riding my bike. It took me nearly a year to recover--three months in hospital, and six months learning to walk again--and during that time I had wonderful support from my community. But I also saw first-hand, there and in other communities, how Christians are tempted to ignore serious problems, thereby making them much worse.

We have not had, until now, a lot of research into Christian intentional communities. But a new book looks sure to begin the overdue process of filling in some gaps about how such communities are structured and function: Religious Vitality in Christian Intentional Communities: A Comparative Ethnographic Study by Mark Killian (Lexington Books, 2017), 226pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Through ethnographic research, Killian examines vitality in Philadelphia and Berea, two Christian Intentional Communities whose participants live in close proximity with one another to achieve religious values. Pulling from Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration, Killian argues that the vitality of both communities cannot be reduced to deterministic structural, individual, or organizational causes. Rather, vitality in these communities is affected by all of these causes in relationship to one another. In other words, it’s not that each explanation “matters” (e.g., social structures matter, organizational behaviors matter, individual religious choices matter), but that these explanations matter to each other (e.g., social structures matter to individual choices, individual choices matter to organizational behaviors, and social structures matter to organizational choices, etc.). To make this argument, Killian develops the idea of the vitality nexus—the interconnected relationship between the various explanations of religious vitality.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Daily Holiness and Ordinary Saints

The newly released exhortation from Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate, almost from its opening lines put me immediately in mind of the themes that my friend, the Orthodox scholar Michael Plekon, has so often pursued in many of his recent books. He recently retired after teaching for more than forty years at the City University of New York; but he never told me he was going to use his spare time to take up ghost writing for the pope! The parallels are, as our father among the saints Sigmund of Vienna might say, uncanny.

See, in particular, Plekon's Saints as They Really Are, about which I interviewed him here.

And Hidden Holiness also anticipates in striking ways many of these new papal themes.

Michael's most recent book, The World as Sacrament: an Ecumenical Path toward a Worldly Spirituality, was released just over a year ago, and I interviewed him about that book here.

In the fall of 2016 he published Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. My interview with him about this book is here.

He is also the author and editor of other books, any one of which will be worth your time and repay re-reading over the years. And he has been feted in this Festschrift, noted here

I may post further thoughts on this new papal document next week. I see (e.g. paragraph 96: "Holiness, then, is not about swooning in mystic rapture") already some other striking parallels to Maggie Ross, whom I discussed at length here and here. I'm sure there will be others.

Monday, April 9, 2018

David Fagerberg on Alexander Schmemann's Liturgical Theology

I have previously discussed on here several of David Fagerberg's splendid books, and I have often used them in classes, especially Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology, and recommended them to students, including On Liturgical Asceticism

Additionally, I have often discussed on here the works of Alexander Schmemann (see, inter alia, my interview here with Bill Mills about his book on Schmemann), who remains such a welcome voice within Orthodoxy today and well beyond it also.

So it is a double delight, then, to have a book about Schmemann authored by fagerberg. I am always interested to hear when David has published something new, as he recently has: Liturgy Outside Liturgy: the Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. His publisher sent me a copy of and I in turn sent to him some questions for an interview. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background.

DF: It is now three decades since I arrived at Yale and asked Fr. Aidan Kavanagh to do a directed readings with me. He agreed on the stipulation that we would read everything we could lay our hands on by Schmemann, because he was in the midst of the lectures that would become his book On Liturgical Theology. That was my introduction to Schmemann, who died a year later in 1983 before I ever had the chance to meet him in person.

I sometimes say that my subsequent PhD work was trying to get the number of the bus that hit me. My understanding of liturgical theology changed completely. I had been ordained a pastor in the Lutheran Church (ELCA), and done a Masters at St. John’s in Collegeville, intending to raid the Benedictine pantry for some liturgical geegaws to import. But I wrote myself into Catholicism in chapter 5 of my dissertation (the sort of existential effect not usually expected of dissertations). I taught for 12 years at a Lutheran undergraduate college in Minnesota (Concordia), and was two years at the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein when an invitation to join the faculty at Notre Dame came, and I have been here now 15 years.

AD:With my students over more than a decade now, I’ve used your Theologia Prima, and more recently OnLiturgical Asceticism. What connections, if any, do you see between these two and your new book, Liturgy Outside Liturgy

DF: The five lectures that make up this book were delivered in Sweden during January 2017. The first three were given at a conference on Schmemann sponsored by the ecumenical community at Bjarka-Saby, at the invitation of Peter Halldorf. The latter two were given on the campus of the University of Lund to a graduate seminar and a group of laity, at the invitation of Samuel Rubenson, who presides over a theological study center called the Academy of St. John. The invitation said there has been growing interest in the heritage of Schmemann in Sweden, and his writings have been important for this community with members from Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and evangelical traditions.

I therefore approached this as an opportunity to make a fresh survey and summary of Schmemann. It was a chance to try and unpack Schmemann’s frequent insistence that liturgical theology is “the slow and patient bringing together of that which was for too long a time broken and isolated – liturgy, theology, and piety, their reintegration within one fundamental vision.” One might see Theologia Prima as my attempt to reintegrate liturgy and theology, and On Liturgical Asceticism as my attempt to reintegrate liturgy and piety (read: asceticism); this was a chance to delve into why Schmemann felt this was so important. So the lectures let me cast a glance over my previous work.

AD: It will be 35 years this December since Fr Alexander’s death, and yet he seems more widely read today than ever. What do you think is the key to this longstanding interest in his writings?

DF: I remember Robert Taft quipping at a conference on Schmemann held at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary that Schmemann “has a remarkably long shelf life.” It’s true. And as remarkable is the additional fact that Schmemann continues to hold the interest of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. No doubt each audience brings their own expectations to his writings: conservative or liberal, tradition or renewal, sacred high liturgy or connection to the profane world, etc. But I think it is a testimony to Schmemann’s balance and complexity that he can speak to such a varied audience without personal self-contradiction. His writings contain both safeguards against excesses, and a vivifying power for renewal. The only way I can account for this is to suggest that he writes out of a deep personal love of Christ and his Church.

AD: Tell us a bit about how you, and Schmemann, understand the liturgy outside liturgy—what does this mean, and what are the implications for Christians once they walk out the door Sunday mornings?

DF: I am proposing that in addition to looking at liturgy (a perfectly responsible scholarly thing to do) it is also important to look through liturgy – through it at life, spirituality, faith, theological understanding, providence, asceticism, justice in society, and so forth.

When Schmemann gave his 1963 keynote lecture that spoke of liturgy existing For the Life of the World, he was aware of liturgical scholarship, but that was of secondary concern to him. He repudiated the view of other liturgical scholars who interpreted him as the sort of person who wanted to “prepare grounds for a liturgical reform that would restore the ‘essence’ of the liturgy” and relegate accessories to their place. He patiently explains that this is not his concept of liturgical theology at all. Rather, he seeks to show how the fruit of our new life in Christ is grounded in the Church’s leitourgia. So my idea is that liturgy gives birth to something beyond itself.

AD: Your introduction notes that your first reading of Schmemann, for your doctorate, was focused in one way, but for this book you had a chance to widen the focus to other writings. Which ones in particular, and why?

DF: It was a risk to return to an author who was so important to me over three decades ago – will I find him passé? Will my interests have moved on?

I am happy to report that Schmemann was as stimulating and fruitful a tutor as he ever was. For my doctoral study I zeroed in on articles where he defined liturgical theology, and explore the relationship between liturgy and theology. For these lectures I tried to speak to the liturgical question by staying in Schmemann’s voice, but gathering material from a much broader range of essays he wrote, in which I had not yet read. With the benefit of digitalized journals now, I downloaded about seventy essays, of all sorts of genres: reports to the holy Synod of bishops concerning OCA concerns, history of Byzantium, memoria to deceased Orthodox theologians, the Western rite in Orthodoxy, secularism. Three might be singled out from 1964, which were a sequential series in the St. Vladimir’s Quarterly, and bore the common main title “Problems of Orthodoxy in America,” but three subtitles: The Canonical Problem, The Liturgical Problem, The Spiritual Problem.

AD: You begin with Schmemann’s famous “negations” of what liturgical theology is not—not a theology of worship, and not a “reduction of theology to liturgy.” What, then, is it in both his eyes and yours? 

I had begun graduate school as a systematic theologian, intent on finding some topic on worship, or sacraments, or prayer to make the object of my study. That was my understanding of what “liturgical theology” was. The academy had taught me that the best way to investigate something is to dissect it, and to do so, of course, one must kill the object of investigation, pin it open on the board, and look inside.

Kavanagh and Schmemann suggested I might learn more if I watched the liturgy in motion. And as it moved, it would throw off theology, like a grinding wheel throws off sparks. The question Schmemann asked--which leads people to describe him as having started a revolution in liturgical studies--was whether liturgy is an object of theology, or the source of theological thinking? What if liturgy is not just the pious straw of simple believers that awaits an academic Rumpelstiltskin to spin it into real theological gold (Western scholasticism)? What if instead we follow the Church fathers’ approach? “Just as they do not theologize about the Church, the Fathers do not theologize about the liturgy. Liturgy as the life, as the ‘sacrament’ of the Church is not the ‘object’ but the source of their theology because it is the epiphany of the Truth, of that fullness from which the ‘mouth speaks.’”

AD: You quote Fr Alexander (p16) as noting that too often people are not interested in understanding liturgy, much less theology, because instead they are in search of some mystification—some kind of “’spiritual experience, spiritual food’” provided to those in a “'cultic society’.” How does he recommend Christians begin to overcome this kind of thinking? 

Schmemann loves the liturgy because he loves his Lord. I often begin my semester with an anecdote about the time I was dressed in cap and gown waiting to enter for commencement exercises, and the person behind me, knowing I did liturgical studies, said “you must like this sort of thing.” Yes, I sarcastically thought; this excessive pomp and extravagant formality is the shiny object that attracted me to it. 

Schmemann does not seem to swoon over liturgy, rather liturgy is the Paschal mystery encountering us in the deepest moments of our lives. I suppose he thus disappoints activist liberals because he stands firmly in Church liturgical tradition, and I suppose he disappoints spiritualist conservatives because he is not enraptured by rite. He wrote, “I realize how spiritually tired I am of all this ‘Orthodoxism,’ of all the fuss with Byzantium, Russia, way of life, spirituality, church affairs, piety, of all these rattles. I do not like any one of them, and the more I think about the meaning of Christianity, the more it all seems alien to me. It all literally obscures Christ, pushes Him into the background.” 

AD: You note the importance of antinomy to Schmemann, and for this you draw on Pavel Florensky. Tell us a bit about the connections between the two, and how they help us understand antinomy. 

While I do not find quotations of Florensky in Schmemann, I know he knew about him by his introductory survey to Russian theology. Florensky provides a very valuable way of dealing with contradiction as paradox. He writes in his thesis,
“Life is infinitely fuller than rational definitions and therefore no formula can encompass all the fullness of life. … Antinomicalness does not say, ‘Either the one or the other is not true.’ It also does not say, ‘Neither the one nor the other is true.’ It only says, ‘Both the one and the other are true, but each in its own way.” 
In my earlier works I tried to explain Schmemann’s idea of “cultic antinomy:” the Church uses cultic categories to express something that cult cannot contain. In this book I use the concept to explain how Christians are all the time leaving the world, but all the time remaining in it.

AD: In your section on the consecration of the world (also addressed at greater length in your Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology), you note that liturgy, properly speaking, must have an impact on matter, anthropology, hearts, and history. Tell us a bit more what you mean here and how you see its impact on each. 

Suppose that liturgy puts a light into our eyes by which we can see. Suppose it is the light of Mount Tabor illuminating creation so that its truth, beauty, and goodness glorifies God. And suppose having a theological eye means seeing by this light. If all this is so, then Mrs. Murphy is a theologian not for having attended academic courses to learn scholarly jargon: she is a liturgical theologian for having this charismatic sight by which to see matter, persons, hearts, and history.

This idea, sketched out in my book Consecrating the World, derives from Schmemann’s complex (antinomous) understanding of world. On the one hand, world means rebellion, death, communion with a dying world; “food itself is dead,” Schmemann writes, “it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.” But on the other hand, world is simply “in which and by which we live,” and if we could reestablish the world and its proper relationship to God then we could be said to consecrate the world. This, of course, would require overcoming the passions so that we no longer misuse the world. That’s why liturgy and asceticism are connected. There’s nothing wrong with money, sex, or beer; the problem lies in avarice, lust, and gluttony.

10. Sum up what you were hoping to accomplish in Liturgy Outside Liturgy: the Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and tell us who would benefit from reading it. 

Tradition has said that liturgy has two purposes: the glorification of God and the sanctification of man. I hope to suggest to people that the former is accomplished when the latter occurs. God sanctifies so that we may glorify. When we are given new life, then God is glorified. This means that liturgy has consequence on every aspect of Christian life, and it is not confined to the temple etiquette alone.

Another of my other mentors, Paul Holmer, wrote “It would be odd to say that Christian worship and liturgy are only stimulating or expressive. For worship requires not that one like the liturgy but that one come to abide in God himself.” The Fall was the forfeiture of our liturgical career, but in his grace God redeems and deifies, and liturgy becomes the trysting place for a cosmic and eschatological liturgy. My hope is to explain what Schmemann meant when he said liturgical theology is not academic theology staring at liturgy: liturgical theology is the reunification of liturgy, theology and piety.

AD: Having finished Liturgy Outside Liturgy, what are you at work on now? Any new publishing projects? 

I don’t know what will come to fruition, but there are two subjects intriguing me now. First, current reading of spirituality in Western sources has made me think this should be better connected to liturgy, so I am thinking about Liturgical Mysticism.

Second, if liturgy is as connected to theology as Schmemann suggests, I wonder if one could write a Liturgical Dogmatics. I can express myself in an interior conversation I had with myself in a second and a half. One day I was asked if I could teach the course on liturgical history, and the following shot through my mind: “Liturgical history is an important topic; where shall we begin? I suppose with Abraham, then find ourselves with Moses at the burning Bush, and then Israel’s Kings and prophets. No, wait, probably the Noachic covenant needs to be mentioned. No, actually, liturgical history begins with Adam and Eve’s cosmic priesthood, the forfeiture of their liturgical career, and the long story of salvation history designed to restore man and woman to their liturgical state by making them apprentices to Christ, the premier liturgist, to be led to the heavenly Jerusalem. That would be a liturgical history of man and creation and redemption.” But, of course, my interlocutor was only asking if I could teach a history of the liturgy. It seems to me a parallel move could be made about liturgical anthropology, liturgical cosmology, liturgical ecclesiology, liturgical exegesis, liturgical morality, liturgical Mariology, liturgical eschatology. I wonder.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Dynamics of Diverse Muslim Encounters

One of the several challenges I have each semester in introducing students to the historic and current encounters between Muslims and Eastern Christians is helping them understand that Islam, like Christianity, is not a monolith, and does not speak with one voice. A recently released collection will aid in this task of understanding: Dynamics of Muslim Worlds, ed. E.A. Reisacher (IVP Academic, 2017), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tell us the following:
Christians in the West have many questions about the identity of Islam and Muslim societies. Due in part to misleading media reports and a lack of interreligious dialogue, a majority of Western Christians view Islam as more prone to violence. The perplexity is compounded by news of violent conflicts involving Muslim communities in various parts of the world. Discussions about Muslims in the media often give the impression that Islam is a single, uniform entity. The reality is that global Islam is a complex and diverse phenomenon, not a monolithic one. Unfortunately, what makes the headlines often shapes Christian mission strategies that are overshadowed, if not controlled, by such reports. The challenge for understanding Islam is further complicated by the fact that an already very diverse Islam across the world stage is fluid and dynamic, with changes motivated as much by Islamic agency from within as by forces impinging "from without." Dynamics of Muslim Worlds brings together leading missiologists, theologians, and historians from the 2016 Missiology Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Intercultural Studies to present a nuanced account of contemporary Muslim societies. Edited by Evelyne Reisacher, the contributions to this Missiological Engagements volume explore the changing dynamics of Islam today and how current religious and social climates shape Christian engagement with Muslims. This is a fresh look at a topic of increasing importance in our present global context.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Pope Pius IX and the Emergence of Modernity

In three parts last fall, I discussed at length a fascinating book, T.A. Howard's magnificent study: The Pope and the Professor: Pius IX, Ignaz von Dollinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age (Oxford UP, 2017), 312pp.

That pope, who ruled for so long and in often reactionary and ruinous ways, has come in for sustained controversy recently in the pages of First Things and elsewhere. Now he will be subject to yet more critical examination in a book set for release next month: The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe by David I. Kertzer (Random House, 2018), 512pp.

About this book the publisher, a bit breathlessly, tells us the following:

The Pulitzer-winning author of The Pope and Mussolini takes on a pivotal, untold story: the bloody revolution that spelled the end of the papacy as a political power and signaled the birth of modern Europe.
The longest-reigning pope, Pope Pius IX, also oversaw one of the greatest periods of tumult and transition in Church history. When Pius IX was elected in 1846, the pope was still a king as well as a spiritual leader, and the people of the Papal States sang his praises, hopeful that he would reform the famously corrupt system of "priestly rule" over which his much unloved predecessor, Gregory XVI, had presided. At first, Pius IX tried to please his subjects, replacing priests with laymen in government and even granting the people a constitution. But, as the revolutionary spirit of 1848 swept through Europe, the pope found he could not both please his subjects and defend the rights of the church. The resulting drama--involving a colorful cast of characters, from Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and his rabble-rousing cousin Charles Bonaparte, to Garibaldi, Tocqueville, and Metternich--was one of treachery, double-dealing, and international power politics. By its end, the Papacy--and Europe--was transformed.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Crossan on the Resurrection

I well remember the commotion caused in Chicago in 2012 at the annual AAR/SBL meeting there, when John Dominic Crossan, president that year of the latter organization, spoke appreciatively about learning from the Christian East and its iconography of the resurrection. A lot of people were talking afterwards, asking "What does it mean when the founder of the Jesus Seminar starts re-examining some of his past claims and seems to be veering towards.......Orthodoxy??"

That presidential lecture from 2012 seems to have been re-worked into a book with his wife just released: Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision, by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan (HarperOne, 2018), 224pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In this four-color illustrated journey that is part travelogue and part theological investigation, bestselling author and acclaimed Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan and his wife Sarah painstakingly travel throughout the ancient Eastern church, documenting through text and image a completely different model for understanding Easter’s resurrection story, one that provides promise and hope for us today.
Traveling the world, the Crossans noticed a surprising difference in how the Eastern Church considers Jesus’ resurrection—an event not described in the Bible. At Saint Barbara’s Church in Cairo, they found a painting in which the risen Jesus grasps the hands of other figures around him. Unlike the Western image of a solitary Jesus rising from an empty tomb that he viewed across Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the Crossans saw images of the resurrection depicting a Jesus grasping the hands of figures around him, or lifting Adam and Eve to heaven from Hades or hell, or carrying the old and sick to the afterlife. They discovered that the standard image for the Resurrection in Eastern Christianity is communal and collective, something unique from the solitary depiction of the resurrection in Western Christianity.
Fifteen years in the making, Resurrecting Easter reflects on this divide in how the Western and Eastern churches depict the resurrection and its implications. The Crossans argue that the West has gutted the heart of Christianity’s understanding of the resurrection by rejecting that once-common communal iconography in favor of an individualistic vision. As they examine the ubiquitous Eastern imagery of Jesus freeing Eve from Hades while ascending to heaven, the Crossans suggest that this iconography raises profound questions about Christian morality and forgiveness.
A fundamentally different way of understand the story of Jesus’ rebirth illustrated with 130 images, Resurrecting Easter introduces an inclusive, traditional community-based ideal that offers renewed hope and possibilities for our fractured modern society.
I confess to finding the title tedious in its triumphalistic tone, but I suspect that is a marketing ploy by what is after all a major commercial publisher not known for its restraint when there's lots of money on the line. When I've had a chance to read it, I'll post some further thoughts.
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