"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, May 30, 2018

Marxism and Psychoanalysis (I)

Before the month of May--the month of the birth of both Freud (whose usefulness to Christianity I've argued elsewhere), and Marx--passes, let me return to a book I mentioned on here some time ago: David Pavón-Cuéllar's Marxism and Psychoanalysis: In or Against Psychology (Routledge, 2017), 242pp. It is a sharply worded and polemically argued book published late last year. Why this book, and why now? I cannot speak for the author, of course, but if ever we needed irrefutable evidence for the central thesis of this bookwe have it in the rise of Jordan Peterson, about whose execrable tract I wrote at length here.

That thesis is one I have long suspected myself: viz., that too much of contemporary academic psychology, especially in North America, is uninterested in human nature except insofar as it can be turned into a handmaid to advanced capitalism. As Ian Parker (about whom more below) notes in the foreword, "this is a book that meticulously documents how and why psychology is the enemy of both psychoanalysis and Marxism" (x).

This notion of enmity confirms what I have long suspected and seen with my own eyes: academic psychology seems to be populated by, and to produce, nothing more than compliant, well-adjusted but badly formed and intellectually shallow members of the upper-middle class: as Pavon-Cuellar will argue later in the book, "psychology is so powerful among the privileged that it makes them forget the economy" (77). Anyone who has been forced to sit through a workplace seminar on "mindfulness" will immediately recognize this as true. If further proof is needed, then once again look to Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist of dangerously shallow learning (as another clinician and colleague of his makes painfully clear here) who is not at all unrepresentative of others in his guild. His book, as my above-linked review tried to make clear, totally ignores economic factors--indeed, scorns the very introduction of them as a distraction to his mythologizing about the libido dominandi of lobsters.

Even as a mere sophomore in psychology a quarter-century ago now in Canada I was shocked by trying to enter into conversations with my professors thinking they would of course have had basic formation in philosophy, history, literature, theology and much else. They had none. Nothing in my experience since then has led me to alter this view.

Seared into my memory is a conversation with my professor in child developmental psychology for whom I wrote a paper analyzing the then-new reports on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Canada. I titled it "Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me" and footnoted that line to, of course, Mark 10:13. In bright red pen, she circled this and scrawled, deadly earnest: "Who is Mark?" When, discussing the paper with her, I explained it was the name of the gospel writer in, you know, this thing called the Bible she appeared scarcely to have heard of it.

Not long after, in reading Robert Coles' biography, Anna Freud: the Dream of Psychoanalysis, I came across and have since often quoted the distinction that she makes in there and he quotes approvingly: between technicians and healers. Most of my psychology professors were technicians, adept in describing the patterns and apparent thought processes of, e.g., bees; in testing the workings of a sparrow's memory; or breaking down in painful detail the multivariate regression analysis of a study of rats on crack. But they couldn't have cared less about individual human beings, never mind wider cultural questions like economic justice, which would have rocked the boat and threatened their funding lines. So one must look elsewhere than today's "conformist psychology" (Jacoby) to find people who see the revolutionary potential in Freud and the tradition he bequeathed to us.

One such person, from within contemporary British psychology, who sees the revolutionary potential and criticizes the conformism, is Ian Parker, author of the foreword to Pavon-Cueller, and author of his own many works, including Revolution in Psychology: from Alienation to Emancipation. I am part-way through this book, and finding deeply edifying. I will say more about it another time, but for now can tell you it's a very worthwhile book.

He also has a brand new book just out, which I have ordered: Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory.

To be fair, Freud himself was far from a revolutionary or a Marxist in many ways. While having achieved a relatively secure life as a member of the professional classes (he trained as a neurologist), he was nonetheless aware of the revolutionary potential of some of his ideas (recall, e.g., his famed comment to Jung as they are getting off the boat in 1909 in Freud's first and only trip to America: "They don't realize that we are bringing them the plague"!) but he was loathe to see the world rocked more than it had been during and after the Great War. He avoided political commentary and engagement as far as possible, which I find very understandable given that he was aware of the precarious place Jews occupied, especially in inter-war Mitteleuropa. Those who worked out some of the political implications of his thought have done so relatively recently--e.g., Eli Zaretsky, the late Paul Roazen, and perhaps most masterfully, as I showed on here, Todd McGowan.

Sure enough, psychoanalysis took hold in America, but it was, within short order and allowing for a few exceptions such as  Otto Fenichel, a psychoanalysis willingly defanged, domesticated, professionalized, medicalized by its own members; perhaps even worse, it was further largely captured by the rise of American ego psychology, which of course was embedded in the categories and patterns of capitalism. Along the way a few questions were raised about this--by, e.g., Erich Fromm, who saw connections between Marx and Freud--but such voices always remained a minority even during the heyday of psychoanalysis, which has now been over for thirty years, perhaps longer.

Why, then, return to such a tradition and such figures as Marx and Freud, whom Peterson and others gleefully conflate as the source of all evils in the past century? I think there is value in doing so not just to illuminate the conformism of psychology, but more especially because both Marxism and psychoanalysis alike remain powerful critics of conformism and idolatry within Christianity--to say nothing of the wider culture. To Pavon-Cuellar's book, then.

The author, a professor of psychology at the Unisersidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo in Morelia, Mexico, begins by asserting that almost all schools of modern psychology "shroud precisely that which Marxism and psychoanalysis strive to uncover" (6). This shrouding is motivated in part by an abstract idealism which seeks to avoid facing the "concrete material totality" of the body in the world today, especially the body of the worker in the economic conditions of the world today (13).

In his second chapter, Pavon-Cuellar argues that there is an important continuity between Freud and Marx even as they would of course have openly disagreed with one another on certain matters: "both will always be authentic materialists" (36). Both, moreover, recognize the lingering power of history, especially traumatic history, and know that it cannot simply be set aside. But both also assert that we are not prisoners of that past but can begin to liberate ourselves from it if we are willing to stand up and stand apart from that history. Thus both Freud and Marx are anti-conformists.

From here the book reviews various schools of psychology and psychoanalysis, noting that Lacan is the most anti-psychology of all psychoanalytic schools today. It then looks at Marxist psychologies before attempting to reconstruct a critical-practical meta-psychology, as we shall see.


Georgian Church Music

I don't know about you, but my library is rather thin on works devoted to Georgian and related musical traditions. Those interested in such histories will be sure to snatch up copies of Svetlana Kujumdzieva's new book, The Hymnographic Book of Tropologion: Sources, Liturgy and Chant Repertory (Routledge, 2017), 194pp.

About this book we are told:
The Tropologion is considered the earliest known extant chant book from the early Christian world which was in use until the twelfth century. The study of this book is still in its infancy. It has generally been believed that the book has survived in Georgian translation under the name ‘ladgari’ but similar books have been discovered in Greek, Syriac and Armenian. All the copies clearly show that the spread and the use of the book were much greater than we had previously assumed and the Georgian ladgari is only one of its many versions.
The study of these issues unquestionably confirms the earliest stage of the compilation of the book, in Jerusalem or its environs, and shows its uninterrupted development from Jerusalem to the Stoudios monastery, the most important monastery of Constantinople. Over time many new pieces and new authors were added to the Tropologion. It is almost certain that it was the Stoudios school of poet-composers that divided the content of the Tropologion and compiled separate collections of books, each one containing a major liturgical cycle. In the beginning all of the volumes kept the old title but in the tenth century the copies of the book were renamed, probably according to the liturgical repertory included, and by the thirteenth century the title ‘Tropologion’ is no longer found in the Greek sources as it became superfluous, and fell out of use.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Between Christ and Caliph

As I have often noted on here over the years, the legal status of minority Christians under Islam is both governed by certain well-known codes in most places, but also subject to a great deal of local interpretation, application, and general variation, leading some Ottomanists to say that this entire legal history is one of endless "local exceptions."

A new book examines this complicated status by focusing on the particular and often difficult question of marriage, especially for Syriac Christians: Lev. E. Weitz, Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) Lev E. Weitz 328 pages

About this book the publisher tells us:
In the conventional historical narrative, the medieval Middle East was composed of autonomous religious traditions, each with distinct doctrines, rituals, and institutions. Outside the world of theology, however, and beyond the walls of the mosque or the church, the multireligious social order of the medieval Islamic empire was complex and dynamic. Peoples of different faiths—Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Jews, and others—interacted with each other in city streets, marketplaces, and even shared households, all under the rule of the Islamic caliphate. Laypeople of different confessions marked their religious belonging through fluctuating, sometimes overlapping, social norms and practices.
In Between Christ and Caliph, Lev E. Weitz examines the multiconfessional society of early Islam through the lens of shifting marital practices of Syriac Christian communities. In response to the growth of Islamic law and governance in the seventh through tenth centuries, Syriac Christian bishops created new laws to regulate marriage, inheritance, and family life. The bishops banned polygamy, required that Christian marriages be blessed by priests, and restricted marriage between cousins, seeking ultimately to distinguish Christian social patterns from those of Muslims and Jews. Through meticulous research into rarely consulted Syriac and Arabic sources, Weitz traces the ways in which Syriac Christians strove to identify themselves as a community apart while still maintaining a place in the Islamic social order. By binding household life to religious identity, Syriac Christians developed the social distinctions between religious communities that came to define the medieval Islamic Middle East. Ultimately, Between Christ and Caliph argues that interreligious negotiations such as these lie at the heart of the history of the medieval Islamic empire.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Justice and Redress in Romania

For two years and more now, here and elsewhere, I have been examining questions of historical memory and reconciliation in a variety of contexts using a variety of methods. In this I've returned to some themes that have long interested me in my ecumenical involvements over the last twenty-five years.

A recent publication, from two of the leading scholars of contemporary Romania, explores these questions anew: Justice, Memory and Redress in Romania: New Insights, eds. Lavinia Stan, Lucian Turcescu (Cambridge Scholars, 2017), 360pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Are there any lessons Romania can teach transitional justice scholars and practitioners? This book argues that important insights emerge when analyzing a country with a moderate record of coming to terms with its communist past. Taking a broad definition of transitional justice as their starting point, contributors provide fresh assessments of the history commission, court trials, public identifications of former communist perpetrators, commemorations, and unofficial artistic projects that seek to address and redress the legacies of communist human rights violations. Theoretical and practical questions regarding the continuity of state agencies, the sequencing of initiatives, their advantages and limitations, the reasons why some reckoning programs are enacted and others are not, and these measures’ efficacy in promoting truth and justice are answered throughout the volume. Contributors include seasoned scholars from Romania, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and current and former leaders of key Romanian transitional justice institutions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Complexities of Monotheism

Often my students, including many self-identified Christian ones, have to admit, at least grudgingly, that they do not really understand Trinitarian theology and therefore find certain Islamic criticisms of the same to be unduly compelling--invariably based on a superficial reading of both. These are not, of course, new issues; but a new book, released last week, is giving them fresh and welcome attention:  Monotheism and Its Complexities: Christian and Muslim Perspectives, eds. Lucinda Mosher and David Marshall (Georgetown University Press, 2018), 208pp.

About this collection we are told:
Conventional wisdom would have it that believing in one God is straightforward; that Muslims are expert at monotheism, but that Christians complicate it, weaken it, or perhaps even abandon it altogether by speaking of the Trinity. In this book, Muslim and Christian scholars challenge that opinion. Examining together scripture texts and theological reflections from both traditions, they show that the oneness of God is taken as axiomatic in both, and also that affirming God's unity has raised complex theological questions for both. The two faiths are not identical, but what divides them is not the number of gods they believe in.
The latest volume of proceedings of The Building Bridges Seminar ― a gathering of scholar-practitioners of Islam and Christianity that meets annually for the purpose of deep study of scripture and other texts carefully selected for their pertinence to the year's chosen theme ― this book begins with a retrospective on the seminar's first fifteen years and concludes with an account of deliberations and discussions among participants, thereby providing insight into the model of vigorous and respectful dialogue that characterizes this initiative.
Contributors include Richard Bauckham, Sidney Griffith, Christoph Schwöbel, Janet Soskice, Asma Afsaruddin, Maria Dakake, Martin Nguyen, and Sajjad Rizvi. To encourage further dialogical study, the volume includes those scripture passages and other texts on which their essays comment. A unique resource for scholars, students, and professors of Christianity and Islam.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Maximus the Confessor on Scripture's Difficulties

As I have often noted on here, there are several figures around whom explosions of new publications have been found in the last two decades, and St Maximus the Confessor is certainly one of them.

Along comes a new book that Christopher Keller kindly drew to my attention, published in the longstanding and prestigious Fathers of the Church series from Catholic University of America Press: On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, trans. Fr. Maximos Constans (2018), 592pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Maximos the Confessor (ca. 580-662) is now widely recognized as one of the greatest theological thinkers, not simply in the entire canon of Greek patristic literature, but in the Christian tradition as a whole. A peripatetic monk and prolific writer, his penetrating theological vision found expression in an unparalleled synthesis of biblical exegesis, ascetic spirituality, patristic theology, and Greek philosophy, which is as remarkable for its conceptual sophistication as for its labyrinthine style of composition. On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture, presented here for the first time in a complete English translation (including the 465 scholia), contains Maximos's virtuosic theological interpretations of sixty-five difficult passages from the Old and New Testaments. Because of its great length, along with its linguistic and conceptual difficulty, the work as a whole has been largely neglected. Yet alongside the Ambigua to John, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios deserves to be ranked as the Confessor's greatest work and one of the most important patristic treatises on the interpretation of Scripture, combining the interconnected traditions of monastic devotion to the Bible, the biblical exegesis of Origen, the sophisticated symbolic theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, and the rich spiritual anthropology of Greek Christian asceticism inspired by the Cappadocian Fathers.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Papal Power

I have of course had a long-standing interest in the question of papal power, having written a book about it in light of Orthodox ecclesiology and ecumenism.

Not long ago I gave extended discussion to these themes in the context of Steven Ogden's book The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom.

And this interest is not mine alone, as my interview last year with Cyril Hovorun about his fascinating and important new book, The Structures of the Church, also shows. 

So I rather expected to be able to think further about these vital and perpetually controverted issues when the publisher sent me a copy of Paul Collins' new book, Absolute Power: How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World (Public Affairs, 2018), 384pp. The author is an ex-priest in Australia. 

Whatever this book is, it is not a serious work of ecclesiology or anything else--"high journalism" perhaps, but not theology, still less any kind of sophisticated analysis. It's not badly written, but its tendentiousness is relentless. It never treats the question of power in any serious way; indeed the theme gets lost until the last 3-4 pages when a few comments are hastily cobbled together, saying nothing that others have not said for decades. 

Thus the book really is is just another history of the papacy, recreated in the image and likeness of a particular type of Catholic of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. You won't be led terribly astray from the standard narrative, though if you want something with far more sober and sophisticated scholarly analysis then I see no reason here to deviate from my long-standing belief that Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners is the best one-volume history of the papacy.

As a story of the papacy, Collins's book is entirely standard and wholly unoriginal for this genre: the papacy is one long continuous power-grab by self-aggrandizing men. In the modern period, all the predictable villains come out--expecially the Piuses (IX-XII), and John Paul II--until, of course, the magical hero Francis emerges, at which point the book supplies its own Greek chorus, half of which offers adulation and hymn-singing to and about this man while the other half is chanting psalms of imprecation against his enemies, among whom are to be found any critics of Amoris Laetitia (or really anything else besides):
 "What is really happening here is a battle for the heart and soul of Catholicism. The sheer decency and openness of  Francis have restored the fortunes and reputation of the papacy in the wider world after the overbearing John Paul and the maladroit Benedict" (302).

Friday, May 18, 2018

Deification Then and Now

As I have had many occasions to note over the last 15 years, deification/divinization/theosis has become hugely popular with many Western authors "rediscovering" it, or otherwise acting as though this is some new thing--new, that is, once it has been stripped of its supposedly suspicious "Eastern" understandings. Protestant and Catholic authors alike have been in on this for some time now, as many books and collections noted on here will make abundantly clear.

This high level of interest shows no signs of declining soon based on books published in the last year or so, and another collection to be released next month: Mystical Doctrines of Deification; Case Studies in the Christian Tradition, eds. John Arblaster, Rob Faesen (Routledge, 2018), 230 pages.

About this collection the publisher tells us this:
The notion of the deification of the human person (theosis, theopoièsis, deificatio) was one of the most fundamental themes of Christian theology in its first centuries, especially in the Greek world. It is often assumed that this theme was exclusively developed in Eastern theology after the patristic period, and thus its presence in the theology of the Latin West is generally overlooked. The aim of this collection is to explore some Patristic articulations of the doctrine in both the East and West, but also to highlight its enduring presence in the Western tradition and its relevance for contemporary thought.
The collection thus brings together a number of capita selecta that focus on the development of theosis through the ages until the Early Modern Period. It is unique, not only in emphasising the role of theosis in the West, but also in bringing to the fore a number of little-known authors and texts, and analysing their theology from a variety of fresh perspectives. Thus, mystical theology in the West is shown to have profound connections with similar concerns in the East and with the common patristic sources. By tying these traditions together, this volume brings new insight to one of mysticism’s key concerns. As such, it will be of significant interest to scholars of religious studies, mysticism, theology and the history of religion.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Visible God of our Fathers

To do anything in patristics today is to come across the name of the Jesuit scholar Brian Daley, whom I have met at least twice, always finding him to be a very gracious and unassuming man. His scholarship has been widely respected for years now, and recognized, inter alia, by the Ratzinger Prize several years ago. His scholarship has also been valuable in advancing the cause of Orthodox-Catholic unity, which he has served faithfully for many years now in the official North American dialogue.

He has a new book out: God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered (Oxford UP, 2018), 317pp. The book is based in part on lectures Daley gave in 2002 at the Jesuit Campion Hall in Oxford on the occasion of the Martin d'Arcy Memorial Lectures. (D'Arcy was himself a Jesuit who instructed and received Evelyn Waugh into the Church.)

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered considers the early development and reception of what is today the most widely professed Christian conception of Christ. The development of this doctrine admits of wide variations in expression and understanding, varying emphases in interpretation that are as striking in authors of the first millennium as they are among modern writers. The seven early ecumenical councils and their dogmatic formulations are crucial way-stations in defining the shape of this study. Brian E. Daley argues that the scope of previous enquiries, which focused on the declaration of the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 that Christ was one Person in two natures, the Divine of the same substance as the Father, and the human of the same substance as us, now seems excessively narrow and distorts our understanding. Daley sets aside the Chalcedonian formula and instead considers what some major Church Fathers--from Irenaeus to John Damascene--say about the person of Christ.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The End of the Endless Great War

Almost five years ago now, I noted that we were gearing up for the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, which was already in 2013 occasioning a steady publication of new books, which only accelerated in the following year. For general histories, see the link at the top. For a specifically theological analysis of the war, I noted here Philip Jenkins' surprising, almost shocking, book on the war as a holy war.

And now, as this interesting photo array at The Atlantic reminds me, we are coming upon the centenary of the end of the war. 

The war may have ended nearly a century ago now, but as the always-fascinating Cambridge historian David Reynolds has shown, that war has had very long shadows. Eastern Christians are aware of that only too well, living in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its genocides against Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians.

As we come to the centenary of the end of the war, and then to the abysmal legacy of the peace conference afterwards, I draw your attention once more to a splendid book by the Anglo-Canadian historian (and great grand-daughter of David Lloyd George) Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. 

This book tells a complicated story with great insight and panache. She allows the major characters--especially Clemenceau, George, and Wilson--to come alive alongside an equally fascinating set of other leaders in Paris--e.g., the Greek prime minister Venizelos, various minor Romanian royals, and others. And the sarcastic comments made by Clemenceau against George and Wilson are revealing and hilarious in about equal measure--and far from undeserved. It is a fascinating history sure to delight.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Old Believers in Imperial Russia

In 2008, Roy Robson published Old Believers in Modern Russia. This was followed, in 2011, by R.O. Crummey's Old Believers in a Changing World. Crummey had, in 1970, published another work looking at the role of apocalyptic in the life of the Old Believers.  

Now, in 2018, we have what appears to be a fresh take written by Peter De Simone and set to appear this July: The Old Believers in Imperial Russia: Oppression, Opportunism and Religious Identity in Tsarist Moscow (I.B. Tauris, 2018), 272pp.

About this book we are told:
"Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth."
So spoke Russian monk Hegumen Filofei of Pskov in 1510, proclaiming Muscovite Russia as heirs to the legacy of the Roman Empire following the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. The so-called "Third Rome Doctrine" spurred the creation of the Russian Orthodox Church, although just a century later a further schism occurred, with the Old Believers (or "Old Ritualists") challenging Patriarch Nikon's liturgical and ritualistic reforms and laying their own claim to the mantle of Roman legacy.
While scholars have commonly painted the subsequent history of the Old Believers as one of survival in the face of persistent persecution at the hands of both tsarist and church authorities, Peter De Simone here offers a more nuanced picture. Based on research into extensive, yet mostly unknown, archival materials in Moscow, he shows the Old Believers as versatile and opportunistic, and demonstrates that they actively engaged with, and even challenged, the very notion of the spiritual and ideological place of Moscow in Imperial Russia.
Ranging in scope from Peter the Great to Lenin, this book is essential for all scholars of Russian and Orthodox Church history.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Desire Giveth and Desire Taketh Away

I once had a professor, whose lovely temperament I knew to be immune to be temptations to sadism, nonetheless try to get me to read Lonergan. And then when I got hired at the University of Saint Francis, my predecessor as departmental chairman, David Fleischacker, was another Lonerganian who suggested we read Method in Theology together. At no point have I ever been able to see what the attraction of Lonergan is: having to read him feels like a forced march through a sweltering and tangled jungle. As I've long thought, for a Canadian he writes like a Teuton--prolix, leaden, and lethal. Those who are into Lonergan seem to be all in; and for the rest of us, his attractions remain recondite. But that could be just me.

Nevertheless, I am genuinely looking forward to reading a new book that draws on Lonergan to treat a topic I am increasingly preoccupied with, viz., desire (as I've noted in talking about Freud, and more recently Sarah Coakley's work). The new work is Randall S. Rosenberg's, The Givenness of Desire: Concrete Subjectivity and the Natural Desire to See God (University of Toronto Press, 2018), 288pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
In The Givenness of Desire, Randall S. Rosenberg examines the human desire for God through the lens of Lonergan’s "concrete subjectivity." Rosenberg engages and integrates two major scholarly developments: the tension between Neo-Thomists and scholars of Henri de Lubac over our natural desire to see God and the theological appropriation of the mimetic theory of René Girard, with an emphasis on the saints as models of desire. With Lonergan as an integrating thread, the author engages a variety of thinkers, including Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean-Luc Marion, René Girard, James Alison, Lawrence Feingold, and John Milbank, among others. The theme of concrete subjectivity helps to resist the tendency of equating too easily the natural desire for being with the natural desire for God without at the same time acknowledging the widespread distortion of desire found in the consumer culture that infects contemporary life. The Givenness of Desire investigates our paradoxical desire for God that is rooted in both the natural and supernatural.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Byzantine Concepts of Personhood and Individuality

It has been said for a while now that the major theological questions of our time will be anthropological in nature. Much of the career and writings of John Zizioulas have been devoted to trying to address such questions, but now a new generation of younger scholars is arising to meet some of the same challenges. Collected into a book just released are a number of those scholarly writings: Personhood in the Byzantine Christian Tradition: Early, Medieval, and Modern Perspectives, eds. Alexis Torrance, Symeon Paschalidis (Routledge, 2018), 248 pages

About this collection the publisher tells us:
Bringing together international scholars from across a range of linked disciplines (theology, history, Byzantine studies and philosophy) to examine the concept of the person in the Greek Christian East, Personhood in the Byzantine Christian Tradition stretches in its scope from the New Testament to contemporary debates surrounding personhood in Eastern Orthodoxy. Contributions explore various dimensions of the issue in specific historical contexts that have not hitherto received the scholarly attention they deserve. The volume thus brings forward an important debate over the roots of contemporary notions of personhood and will provide a key stimulus to further work in this area.
Earlier this year, a paperback edition of another book edited by Torrance and Johannes Zachhuber was released: Individuality in Late Antiquity (Routledge, 2018), 204pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Late antiquity is increasingly recognised as a period of important cultural transformation. One of its crucial aspects is the emergence of a new awareness of human individuality. In this book an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars documents and analyses this development. Authors assess the influence of seminal thinkers, including the Gnostics, Plotinus, and Augustine, but also of cultural and religious practices such as astrology and monasticism, as well as, more generally, the role played by intellectual disciplines such as grammar and Christian theology. Broad in both theme and scope, the volume serves as a comprehensive introduction to late antique understandings of human individuality.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Meaning and Melancholia

Christopher Bollas is a prolific writer and one of the most important psychoanalytic theorists alive today. I have previously mentioned a number of his books, and recently received and read his newest: Meaning and Melancholia: Life in an Age of Bewilderment (Routledge, 2018), 174pp. I had high hopes for this book, but they were only partially met.

The title, of course, instantly calls to mind one of Freud's wartime essays, "Mourning and Melancholia" (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV: 237-258). (This Penguin edition gives you that essay and a number of related works.)
I have been thinking about that essay and drawing on its important insights for some time in a number of lectures I gave on the underlying psychology of ISIS propaganda about Eastern Christianity and the Crusades.

Like many of Bollas' books, and not unlike the analytic process itself, Meaning and Melancholia is written in a diffuse style loosely stitching together a number of themes under an overarching narrative. As the publisher tells us: 
Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment sees Christopher Bollas apply his creative and innovative psychoanalytic thinking to various contemporary social, cultural and political themes.
This book offers an incisive exploration of powerful trends within, and between, nations in the West over the past two hundred years. The author traces shifts in psychological forces and ‘frames of mind’, that have resulted in a crucial ‘intellectual climate change’. He contends that recent decades have seen rapid and significant transformations in how we define our ‘selves’, as a new emphasis on instant connectedness has come to replace reflectiveness and introspection.
Bollas argues that this trend has culminated in the current rise of psychophobia; a fear of the mind and a rejection of depth psychologies that has paved the way for what he sees as hate based solutions to world problems, such as the victory of Trump in America and Brexit in the United Kingdom. He maintains that, if we are to counter the threat to democracy posed by these changes and refind a more balanced concept of the self within society, we must put psychological insight at the heart of a new kind of analysis of culture and society.
This remarkable, thought-provoking book will appeal to anyone interested in politics, social policy and cultural studies, and in the gaining of insight into the ongoing challenges faced by the Western democracies and the global community.
In this short book, Bollas imitates Freud in some ways insofar as he engages in broad cultural analysis of many themes of our time, especially certain developments in both technology and politics. But this is no mere restating or updating of Freud but instead clearly a book of our time. The impetus for it, he tells us, comes largely from the election of Trump in the US, the rise of Marie Le Pen in France, and the Brexit vote and ongoing discontent in the United Kingdom. But this is not a partisan book that discusses policies so much as it looks at the history of the past century to detect certain underlying psychological themes, including, he begins by claiming, unfinished mourning from the Great War, which introduced a massive splitting into the Western psyche from which it has not recovered.

The book spends more time than I wanted on the causes and effects of current American politics, and not enough time on the changes wrought by technology. But what links the two, Bollas says in a number of ways, is a preference for simplicity, homogeneity, and the deliberate destruction of complexity: "in the age of bewilderment, there was peace to be found in ridding the mind of unwanted complexity" (77). Such eliminations are widespread: today's politics preys on that anti-complexity; today's globalized capitalism demands it; and even today's therapists and psychologists go along with it, offering almost instant ready-made courses of action to "fix" one's life rather than (as a psychoanalyst would) encouraging one to reflect on it at length in all its messiness, perhaps coming later to a new course of action--or perhaps not bothering to do so but instead, as Adam Phillips might say, coming to be content not to know without being thereby frustrated.

When he does focus on technological change--especially what it means to live our life tethered to phones and tablets, and broadcasting bits and pieces of that fragmented, homogenized life on social media--Bollas provides this very apt summary of the problems of social media, as anyone who ever bothers to read the comments on any website about any topic soon realizes: "Aspects of the way we communicate and think in the twenty-first century can be seen as forms of psychic flight from the overwhelming weight of inheriting a world shattered by dumb thoughtlessness."

In the end, Bollas says that the chaos and unmourned losses unleashed by the Great War have fed into an age of bewilderment which is only getting worse, and we have not recognized or admitted this--to our peril:
With the loss of a sense of meaning--the feeling that our lives can make a contribution--mourning has turned into melancholia. When we are melancholic we are angry over the losses we have suffered, and we unconsciously blame that which has apparently left us. We now feel abandoned by the humanist predicates of Western culture and the network of belief systems that seemed to offer a progressive vision of humanity, and we have turned our rage against social efficacy itself (127).

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Robert Murray's Eternally Memorable Syriac Scholarship

John Flannery of Heythrop College in the University of London e-mailed me to let me know of Robert Murray's death. A brief obituary from the Society of Jesus in the United Kingdom is here.

He was one of those pioneering and incredibly talented Jesuit scholars who did so much work to advance our understanding of the Christian East. He was an early pioneer especially of the revival of studies into Syriac Christianity, which now has a number of prominent young scholars, some of the noted and interviewed on here over the years.

Perhaps his best known book, which I have long had on my shelves, is Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition. 

An earlier work, published in 1992 and reprinted more recently by the invaluable Gorgias Press, has language that all those of us involved with the World Council of Churches in the 1990s will immediately recognize:  The Cosmic Covenant: Biblical Themes of Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation. 

His funeral Mass was to have been today in the Jesuit church in Farm Street in London (which I have fond memories of visiting very briefly in 1997). Eternal memory!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Christians and Class Warfare

If you listened, in the aftermath of the Florida school massacre, to that moral cretin heading up the NRA, he fatuously claimed that there was a "God-given" right to bear arms. Even a cursory review of Catholic social teaching, which has reflected in very considerable detail on human rights since 1948, would show that there is no such right theologically understood. And if you listen to the great moral philosopher and intellectual historian Alasdair MacIntyre, you would know from his historical review that the very concept of rights is an entirely human invention dating no earlier than the year 1400. As a result, people like LaPierre resort to uttering rubbish fit only for the splendid riposte of MacIntyre: “there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns” (After Virtue).

One of MacIntyre's great influences was the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe. Indeed, in the acknowledgements to Whose Justice? Which Rationality, the successor book to After Virtue (and part of the so-called trilogy along with Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry), MacIntyre pointedly and rather fulsomely acknowledges how much he owes McCabe more than anyone for the latter's critical responses to After Virtue.

I have previously reflected on some of McCabe's writings on here in conversation with other thinkers who come out of and are shaped by the post-war British left, including Adam Phillips and Christopher Bollas.

But the work of McCabe's that bears on this debate in some ways, and which is perhaps the most challenging thing he wrote, is his 1980 essay "The Class Struggle and Christian Love," reprinted in God Matters.

The language of "class struggle" is of course more familiar to Eastern, especially Slavic, Christians than to anyone else due to the Russian Revolution. Some, especially Americans, may be inclined smugly to dismiss this language as a relic of losers in the Cold War. But as others have argued very recently, that language cannot be abandoned quite so facilely if one hopes to bring about any real political and economic change.

McCabe was writing when the Cold War was at its height, having been deeply influenced by Marxism, as was his close friend Terry Eagleton, a man of the British Catholic left whose books Why Marx Was Right and The Gatekeeper: A Memoir are rollicking good reads. 

In his essay "The Class Struggle and Christian Love," McCabe begins by stating that "the class struggle is the revolution--not just a means toward it, but the thing itself"(182).  He immediately notes that many, perhaps most, Christians will reject this notion of class struggle as incompatible with the gospel--and in doing so find themselves in bed with those who agree with them, viz., Joseph Stalin, Margaret Thatcher, and the International Marxist Group.

But, later in the essay, McCabe will more stoutly insist that Christian participation in the class struggle is in fact required by the dominical call to love our neighbor, and that such struggle and such love may sometimes be found in "circumstances in which even violence itself--by which I mean killing people--is not only compatible with Christian love but demanded by it" (185). 

Later still, he wants to unpack, just a little bit, what this notion of "class struggle" entails. It is not, he begins, just a variant on English class snobbery; it is not about simple conflict between haves and have-nots; and it is not differences of wealth that cause class conflict, but "class differences that cause differences of wealth" (188).

In mentioning all this, McCabe along the way notes that the gospels say nothing of course about these issues, though they say plenty about the dire perils posed by riches and the neglect of the poor. But the gospels are silent on any notion "that everyone has to have equal shares of wealth" (189). And if we think class conflict is about envious maneuvering to establish total equality with everyone having the same share, we are mistaken. Equally mistaken are we if we think we are not somehow already involved in a struggle, and have been for a very long time. Finally, we delude ourselves if we think there is a position of neutrality somewhere here: those who are neutral, he says, are inevitably on the side of "the class in power" (192). Christians cannot be neutral, he insists, but must fight against the class conflict and war.

What is that conflict and war based upon? Here, McCabe's Marxism is most clearly on display: in capitalism the fundamental divide, and so the fundamental factor in class conflict, is over surplus value created by workers (beyond what they need strictly for subsistence) which is appropriated by capitalists to enrich themselves and extend their own power in defense of their interests against others. The system of capitalism has at its heart an "intrinsic" need for class conflict (190).

There is, then, "human antagonism" at the heart of capitalism (192). That antagonism sometimes breaks out in open shooting wars in which the state goes to battle on behalf of the ruling classes to preserve them in power. Can Christians join in? Can Christians be involved in a class struggle up to and including the use of violence? Or is it the case that this antagonism at the heart of capitalist-driven class conflict means that it will forever be opposed to and by Christianity properly lived and understood?

Is Christianity, in other words, always going to be opposed to capitalism insofar as the former claims against the latter the possibility (however poorly embodied) that conflict can be overcome, that conflict is not inevitable, that we can live together in love? McCabe certainly thinks so: "Christianity is deeply subversive of capitalism precisely because it announces the improbable possibility that men might live together without war; neither by domination nor by antagonism but by unity in love" (193).

Christianity must therefore fight the class war because it is ipso facto fighting capitalism and its antagonism which is most precisely opposed to the universal call to love. But does the Christian fighting that war have to use violence or have the right to do so--or must it be forsworn? McCabe, as is his wont, calmly and carefully considers the arguments of his opponents while advancing his own. And so he picks up the Christian concern that any idea of a class struggle somehow requires violence, which no Christian can support. But does it? Does the idea of a class struggle inevitably mean a violent or armed struggle? McCabe says no: "It is perfectly possible to believe passionately in the importance of the class struggle and to renounce all political violence" (183).

He goes on to argue that there is no incompatibility in working, as a Christian, for the just overthrow of the ruling class while forswearing the killing of that class.

But leave aside such principles: there are much more pragmatic considerations to forswearing killing. McCabe notes that any time you go up against the modern state, it is bound to win. You can recruit a few starry-eyed idealists to your cause--the IRA, say, or ISIS--but the other side will always have more men under arms and better arms, and thus will always defeat you. The ruling class, then, is much better at killing on a much larger scale than any of its opponents can ever hope to do.

Here McCabe quotes General Patton's aphorism that you don't win wars by getting young men to die for your country, but by convincing the other men to die for their country--a neat twist to this having been pulled off by the Americans and British in the Second World War, where the Soviet Union lost far more men than their erstwhile allies, and they all knew it but tried to avoid talking about it. In reading The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James 1932-1943 last year, I came across the suspicion expressed again and again by the Soviet ambassador, Ivan Maisky, along with his boss Molotov, and his boss Stalin, that the refusal of a second front in Europe until mid-1944, while not without certain technical considerations, was also secretly motivated by a desire to bleed Russia white. The British of course denied this at all times, and not totally insincerely, it seems to me; but at the same time we cannot forget that a scant 20 years before the British regarded the Bolsheviks as terrible enemies to be wiped off the earth.

And, in fact, much of this is born out later on. As David Reynolds' deeply fascinating book In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War showed, the British premier was certainly aware of the fact that the Russian losses were on a scale never seen or matched in the West, which is why Churchill's chapters on the war in Russia are among the shortest, least attentive, and poorly researched of his entire six-volume memoirs of the war. E.g., lavish attention is given to British battles in North Africa while Stalingrad gets only the barest treatment; Churchill also withheld certain criticisms of Eisenhower as the latter was elected when the former was finishing his last volume in the early 1950s. Seldom has the writing of "history" been so transparently tendentious and subordinate to the political moment.

But back to McCabe. who continues to note that there are other pragmatic but in fact powerful reasons to forswear violence: it takes you away from spending time and energy on the one thing that might dislodge the ruling class from power, that is, exposing its carefully concealed lie that preservation of its power is necessary for the preservation of the peace and prosperity of those further down the social hierarchy. For the moment, McCabe says, Christians doing this are doing the best they can, and are not mistaken in seeing what they see and doing what they do. Conditions are not yet in place for them to be called upon to do more. Capitalism, he says, has not yet reached that stage of crisis where Christians might be called on to undertake violent actions.

And here's where the essay starts to raise difficulties at least for me when he says that "I think...that the pacifist is mistaken in supposing that violence is always incompatible with the Christian demand that we love our neighbor" (185). I suppose my difficulty comes in part from having first read Stanley Hauerwas in the early 1990s when I was beginning to take theology seriously. His repeated arguments in favour of pacifism have never really left me. On this score, see, inter alia, his early The Peaceable Kingdom; see also his memorable essay "The Non-Violent Terrorist: In Defense of Christian Fanaticism" in Sanctify Them in the Truth; and then see some of his more recent works after September 11th, including War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity.

Though I don't know how pacifism works out in practice, it seems to me in theory, that is, in theology, to be true that Christians should forswear violence, for the use of violence seems to me to be a theological mistake in the strict sense: that is, God in Christ has kenotically abandoned the path of violence when, as the gospels make plain, He easily could have summoned legions of angels to destroy His enemies....but did not.

My difficulty with McCabe's claim is lessened, briefly, towards the end of his essay. For he turns to the practical question of how a Christian must fight the class war, and here he issues some strong counsels: "In the first place be meek" because nobody likes a loud-mouthed, ungracious bully-boy advancing a cause; such behavior is counter-productive. Second and further, be "loving, kind, gentle, calm, unprovoked to anger." Real revolutionaries, he says, are all these things and just to that extent "they are extremely dangerous" to the lies and liars of capitalism who view conflict as inevitable, as something one must be well armed against and willing to kill over. In addition, "we should not lose our sense of humour" and become tedious and unpleasant scolds.

But just when you think McCabe might left you off easy, he comes back to say "We still need though to face the question of revolutionary violence" (196). Here he notes with his usual self-critical bluntness that no churchmen have the right to demand nonviolence when "their cathedrals are stuffed with the regimental flags and monuments to colonial wars. The Christian Church, with minor exceptions, has been solidly on the side of violence for centuries" as long as it has supported the status quo and the right class. The Church's opposition to violence begins "only when the poor catch on to violence."

Nevertheless, it is not the case, he concedes, that the Church has always and everywhere been only on the side of violence in promotion of selected interests. The Church has not quite lost total credibility insofar as it has tried to maintain a call for justice, however poorly realized. And that call sometimes requires the use of violence. In doing so, we may not think it terribly loving to kill certain people--the love may not, he says, be very "perspicuous"--but we cannot conclude that such actions, sinful though they are, are totally lacking in love. They are motivated by love for the innocent who are suffering injustice. To that extent, then, we may describe violence not as intrinsically wrong but as at least partially loving.

Here McCabe knows his Christian history in ways that almost all of us today have forgotten. Here I was reminded of something Phillip Jenkins documents in hair-raising detail from just a century ago, and Jonathan-Riley Smith documents for at least ten centuries before that: the Christian tradition, until the aftermath of the First and then Second World Wars, never saw violence as intrinsically wrong and always to be avoided. That perspective, it seems to me, is a purely post-1945 development aided, in part, by popes going to the UN in New York to pound the podium and (ahem) pontificate "War no more!" Until those developments, the Christian tradition for the overwhelming part of its history did not presuppose that violence was ruled out of course with prejudice. Rather, it evaluated the use of violence based on broader moral considerations, including righting injustice and protecting the innocent.Thus it gave us the just war tradition, which tradition McCabe invokes here by saying that "the only just war is the class war, the struggle of the working class against the exploiters. No war is just except insofar as it is part of this struggle" (197).

Having said that, however, he immediately returns to his earlier point to reiterate that "violence can have very little part in the class struggle as such" right now given current conditions (197), not least the overwhelming preponderance of force on the side of the ruling class.

Finally, in his closing paragraphs, McCabe almost anticipates what I said above about it being a theological mistake to condone violence because Christ forswore its use: "we cannot imagine Jesus taking part in such violence; he was wholly and entirely a perspicuous example of what love means; he was and is the presence of the Kingdom itself; we, however, are only on the road towards it" (197).

That road is rooted in the present but already concluded in the future. As a result, we can see with two sets of eyes: the injustice of the present, but its destruction and forgiveness in the future. As a result, Christians cannot hate anybody, even those who exploit the poor or inflict other injustices. The Christian engaged in class warfare can only do so once he understands that "hatred is impossible" and that even one's class enemies are those for whom Christ also died.
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