"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).

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Inventing Gregory Palamas

I just received in the mail Oxford University Press's catalogue of forthcoming works. As always, there are lots of interesting books in the works, but none more so, it seems to me, than this book, not due out for nearly a year, but well worth the wait both because of the author (who is a widely respected translator and author of many books) and especially the timeliness of the topic: Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age by Norman Russell (OUP, 2019).

For those who have followed Orthodox constructions of identity in the West in the last three decades, as well as Orthodox apologetics, the figure of Gregory Palamas looms large, almost always as a cipher and a rock against whom the horrors of (inter alia) Thomism, rationalism, and scholasticism can be dashed to pieces in triumphalist fashion. But that narrative construction, always shaky at best as far as real scholars were concerned, really began to fall apart when Christiaan Kappes (interviewed here) published his book on the Immaculate Conception; and when, a few months later, Marcus Plested published his book on Orthodox Readings of Aquinas. Both showed that Palamas was far from the anti-Western figure he had been made out to be; both showed that he engaged, often quite positively, with Thomism and other Western schools of thought. (For an interview with, engagement of, and lecture by Plested, go here and follow the links.)

To be fair, it is not only Orthodox apologists who got into this act. As Russell's forthcoming book notes, a key figure in Western distortions of Eastern thought, a key figure in Western polemics and triumphalism of an equally repellent variety, is Martin Jugie, who had an obvious hatred of Palamas and did everything he could to poison Western Catholicism against him. As Jaroslav Pelikan once archly said of Jugie, his tragedy was that he knew so much but understood so little.

Jugie and others figure prominently in Russell's forthcoming book, for which the publisher has given us this table of contents:

List of Abbreviations
1. The Orthodox Struggle to Assimilate Palamite Thinking
2. Martin Jugie and the invention of Palamism
3. John Meyendorff's Response to Jugie
4. New Directions since Meyendorff
5. What Does Doctrinal Development Mean?
6. How is a Participatory Understanding of the Divine Mystery to be Attained?
7. What is the Reality of Divine-Human Communion?
8. Could Palamas Become 'the Inheritance of all Christians'?

And this description:
The fourteenth-century Greek hesychast and controversialist, Gregory Palamas, has been so successfully cast as 'the other' in Western theological discourse that it can be difficult to gain a sympathetic hearing for him. In the first part of this book, Norman Russell traces the historical reception of Palamite thought in Orthodoxy and in the West, and investigates how 'Palamism' was constructed in the early twentieth century by both Western and Eastern theologians (principally Martin Jugie and John Meyendorff) for polemical or apologetic purposes. Russell argues that we need to go behind these ideological constructions in order to gain a true perception of the teaching of Gregory Palamas. In his recent survey of Palamite scholarship, Robert Sinkewicz noted that it is now time to raise the larger questions. The second part of the book attempts to do this, following the contours of Palamas' thinking in three areas: his relationship to tradition, his philosophy, and his theology. Russell shows that Palamite thought, when freed of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, has the potential to enrich our understanding of divine-human communion. This study contributes to the changing paradigm of scholarship on Palamas, nudging it towards the point at which Palamite thought can be used fruitfully by contemporary Western and Eastern theologians without the need to subscribe to what has been regarded as 'Palamism'.
When the book is published next year, I will have more to say about it then. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

John Henry Newman

While John Henry Newman is a pivotal figure in 19th-century Western Catholic Christianity, he is unique insofar as he is not confined there or constrained by its categories--as so often happens to Western figures unknown in the East. Early in his life, half of which he spent as an Anglican of course, he was shaped by that uniquely patristic ethos of Oxford and the Church of England of his time (as Benjamin King has demonstrated in more detail than just about anybody in his book, Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers), and this formation made him of such interest to 19th-century Greek Orthodox thought that he was--as George Dion Dragas and C.S. Dessain had earlier showed--just about the only Western figure of that era to be translated into Greek and studied by Orthodox scholars.

Since his death in 1890, and more especially since the Second Vatican Council, the field of Newman studies has exploded, with many new books published and annual conferences organized about his thought, and journals devoted entirely to him. For those trying to find a place to begin in sorting out the riches of this vast world, you could start with a forthcoming collection set for release this fall: The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman, eds. Frederick D. Aquino and Benjamin J. King (Oxford UP, 2018), 640pp.

About this collection--edited by two who have published their own monographs and other collections on Newman--the publisher has this to say:
John Henry Newman (1801-1890) has always inspired devotion. Newman has made disciples as leader of the Catholic revival in the Church of England, an inspiration to fellow converts to Roman Catholicism, a nationally admired preacher and prose-writer, and an internationally recognized saint of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, he has also provoked criticism. The church authorities, both Anglican and Catholic, were often troubled by his words and deeds, and scholars have disputed his arguments and his honesty.
Written by a range of international experts, The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman shows how Newman remains important to the fields of education, history, literature, philosophy, and theology. Divided into four parts, part one grounds Newman's works in the places, cultures, and networks of relationships in which he lived. Part two looks at the thinkers who shaped his own thought, while the third part engages critically and appreciatively with themes in his writings. Part four examines how those themes have shaped conversations in the churches and the academy. This Handbook will serve as an important resource to critical and appreciative exploration of the person, writings, controversies, and legacy of Newman.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Neilos of Rossano and His Life

Ines Murzaku recently sent me a copy of her newest publication, which I very gladly draw to your attention. She has graciously agreed to an interview about it in the coming days. (For a previous interview I did with her, see here.)

The first is a translation she worked on along with Raymond Capra and Douglas Milewski and published by Harvard University Press under its prestigious Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library imprint: The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano (2018), 384pp.

The titular figure occupies a truly liminal place both geographically and historically in East-West relations. As the publisher tells us:
The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano is a masterpiece of historically accurate Italo-Greek monastic literature. Neilos, who died in 1004, vividly exemplifies the preoccupations of Greek monks in southern Italy under the Byzantine Empire. A restless search for a permanent residence, ascetic mortification of the body, and pursuit by enemies are among the concerns this text shares with biographies of other saints from the region. Like many of his peers, Neilos lived in both hermitages and monasteries, torn between the competing conventions of solitude and community. The Life of Neilos offers a snapshot of a distinctive time when Greek and Latin monasticism coexisted, a world that vanished after the schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople in 1054. This is the first English translation, with a newly revised Greek text.
The figure under examination here, and some of the themes, have been partly treated in some of her other recent publications as noted here.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Austerity Britain

This book has nothing especially to do with Eastern Christianity; but I make note of it in case there are others who would be interested in the history it recounts so splendidly: David Kynaston, Austerity Britain 1945-1951 (New York: Walker & Co., 2008), viii + 692pp.

It's been out for a decade, but I just found a copy in a used bookstore a few weeks ago, and read it not merely with interest but with something approaching delight in the prose and the author's deft control of what, in lesser hands, could easily have been a sprawling and uncontrolled narrative bloated on masses of data. It has won consistently, and deservedly, high praise from all the reviews I've seen. You might think, given the unrelentingly grim era it covers, and the masses of data it draws on, that this book would be a plodding dullard, but you would be wrong. The author's wry outlook and propensity for finding the telling detail without being overwhelming is excellent.

I read it because I wanted to understand in more detail what drove my Glaswegian grandparents to flee to Canada after the war, my grandfather leaving in 1948 to find work and a home, and my grandmother, with my mother and her brother, following in 1949. They never really talked in a lot of detail about why they left, other than vaguely mentioning "greater economic opportunities." And, regrettably, I never thought to ask them about all this when they were still alive.

One thing, after reading Kynaston's book, that is now clear to me is the timing: my grandfather left in early 1948, not long after the worst and coldest winter (1947) in modern British history. Now I understand why, whenever I visited their house in Canada, the heat was always utterly unbearable: 85 degrees and above. You absolutely sweltered in their house (or in the car, if driving with them) and longed to go outside and roll in a snowbank. But for them it could never be too warm.

I knew that they had had many close calls during the war, living as they did along the River Clyde, then the largest shipbuilding site in the British Empire and thus an object of particular attention from the Luftwaffe; and I knew, vaguely, of the rationing; but I knew nothing of the detail and extent of the destruction--how many hundreds of thousands were living in the barest of "houses" with no plumbing, dozens packed into a few rooms without heat; and I did not understand how grim and far-reaching was the rationing--until reading Kynaston's book, which shows how the rationing got worse after the war, and in some cases things that were never rationed during the war ended up so afterwards. Again a piece clicked for me: my grandmother used to apply butter to her bread with a trowel, half an inch thick. Now I understand why--as, also, I understand why every meal included as fat a roast (pork, beef, ham) as they could lay their hands on. Oh, and the sugar. My grandfather was notorious for putting huge quantities of sugar on everything along with gallons of cream. They were making up for what they had not known for so long during a pivotal and memorable part of their life.

These factors--food, the cold, and the need for basic housing for hundreds of thousands of people--when combined with the huge numbers suffering from medical conditions they could not afford to treat also helped me understand the seemingly mysterious 1945 election with Labour's massive majority: it wasn't a repudiation of Churchill (whom my grandmother taught me to revere), who remained hugely popular and venerated; but it was a long-simmering desire for much better social conditions after enduring so much hardship in the war. (This election, I'm somewhat chagrined to admit, was also, I recall, one of the factors that my grandparents said drove them to leave. My grandfather's family were small business owners who felt like Labour would destroy the economy.)

Thus, for those interested in politics, this book covers, of course, the Labour government under Clement Atlee, when dramatic social changes--not least the National Health Service--were brought in. Had members of that government--in particular the fascinating and fiery orator and Welshman Aneurin Bevan--had their way, the changes might have been even more dramatic. The battles Bevan (who grew up in the staggeringly horrid conditions of the coal mines of Wales) fought against other more right-wing Labour ministers and members--to say nothing of the reactionaries in the British medical establishment--are retold in this book, making it of interest to those who follow, as I do, some of the intellectual developments of postwar British politics of the left. Nobody who doubts the existence of "class warfare" can do so after reading Kynaston's fascinating book--the first of a series, followed by, inter alia, Family Britain 1951-1957, and Modernity Britain 1957-1962, both of which I look forward to reading.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Ukrainian Catholic and Russian Orthodox Perspectives on the Ps-Sobor of 1946

Last week, Daniel Galadza (author of this book which you must read) and I finished editing a volume we hope to see in print next year: The 'Lviv Sobor' of 1946: Arriving at a Common Narrative. It is a collection of scholarly papers given at a private conference we both attended at the University of Vienna (where Daniel teaches) and hosted by the Pro Oriente Foundation of that city in June 2016. This is just a shamelessly self-promoting and very advanced notice of the book. I will post more details as they are available.

What is this book about? As we said in our prospectus:
The volume consists of papers presented at an international conference in Vienna, Austria, in 2016, organized by Pro Oriente Stiftung and the University of Vienna, dealing with the 'Lviv Sobor' of 1946, a gathering of Greek-Catholic clergy in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv organized with the help of the Soviet government, with the aim of liquidating the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Depending on whose perspective one accepts, the event is seen either as the 'reunion' of 'Uniates' to Orthodoxy or the perpetration of a violent act against human rights and freedom of conscience. Thus, one side views it as a church council, while the other sees it as a pseudo-synod.
Why look at a little-known event now more than 70 years old? The simple answer to that finds the old line very true: the past is never truly past in Eastern Europe at least, and so 1946 is a live issue in part because, in the minds of Russian Orthodox Christians at least, it is the righting of the "injustice" of the Union of Brest of 1595/96, that event which created the modern method of "uniatism" everybody (or almost everybody) has been reprobating for a quarter-century now.

1946 has not, until our book, been given a lot of attention apart from Bohdan Bociurkiw's pioneering monograph, published in 1996: The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Soviet State (1939-1950).

For its part, though, Brest has been subject to earlier scholarly treatments. The best two books for those looking to begin to understand these events and their context would be the collection of scholarly articles edited by B. Goren et al: Four Hundred Years Union of Brest (1596-1996) A Critical Re-evaluation.

The other important work is Borys Gudziak (who was in Vienna), Crisis and Reform: The Kyivan Metropolitanate, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Genesis of the Union of Brest.

For those wanting wider and longer historical contexts, then two well-known historians who were in Vienna, one of whom contributes to our volume, have authored important works: Frank Sysyn and Serhii Plokhy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Religions and the Public Squares of Our Time

A full thirty years ago now, the late Richard John Neuhaus (whose biographer, Randy Boyagoda, has done a splendid job here) continued to make quite a splash in these United States at least with the publication of the second edition of his The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

At the time, of course, the Cold War was still going on, and these questions were thought a uniquely American preoccupation, the Soviet Union and much of the rest of the world having neither democracy nor "religious freedom" in any serious way.

Since then, of course, much has changed here and abroad, and now Eastern Christians (and all of us) in Europe and here find the debates still going on, often to the surprise of many who, e.g., are confronting forms of Islam in the Western world that are challenging the broad if at times lazy "secular" consensus about interactions between mosque/church and the public square.

Along comes a new collection of scholarly pieces to look at these issues in a variety of places, containing chapters not just on politics in the strict sense but also on ecology and violence, some authored by some of the leading lights of our time--Charles Taylor, Rowan Williams, and John Milbank, inter alia: Religion and the Public Sphere: New Conversations, eds. James Walters, Esther Kersley (Routledge, 2018), 110 pages.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Religion and the Public Sphere: New Conversations explores the changing contribution of religion to public life today. Bringing together a diverse group of preeminent scholars on religion, each chapter explores an aspect of religion in the public realm, from law, liberalism, the environment and security to the public participation of religious minorities and immigration. This book engages with religion in new ways, going beyond religious literacy or debates around radicalisation, to look at how religion can contribute to public discourse. Religion, this book will show, can help inform the most important debates of our time.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Soloviev and Divinization

Among the "rediscovered" themes and personages of contemporary Eastern Christian scholarship, and Christian theology more generally, we find many recent books devoted to deification/divinization/theosis; and a similar number of recent books devoted to the luminaries of Russian Orthodoxy's so-called Silver Age. A forthcoming book unites both: J. Pilch, Breathing the Spirit with Both Lungs': Deification in the Work of Vladimir Solov'ev (Peeters, 2017),

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
This book is an examination of the teaching of the Russian religious thinker Vladimir Solov'ev (1853-1900) about divine-humanity, the term he used to express the patristic doctrine of deification. The first chapter examines the theme of deification in the patristic tradition and shows the he himself was extremely familiar with the writings of the Church Fathers and the doctrinal teachings of the early Church Councils. The following three chapters are devoted to specific works of Solov'ev which are in detail, Lectures on Divine Humanity, The Spiritual Foundations of Life, and The Justification of the Good. Of these, the latter two have, to date, received little extended scholarly study.
The over-arching thrust of this work is that Solov'ev's concept of deification started as a reflection of the mystical and cosmic expressions of deification characteristic of the late Greek patristic period but develops so to be expressed in the western terminology of grace and focuses on the active implementation of deification in the world, taking the teaching out of its original monastic context. Chapter Two reveals the significant impact of Maximus the Confessor on Solov'ev's thought and identifies the dyothelite Christological model which Maximus develops from the dogmatic definition of the Council of Chalcedon as a crucial hermeneutical principle in Solov'ev's thought. Chapter Three shows the development of Solov'ev's teaching about deification, examining how it expands to embrace different models of deification, adopting western as well as eastern theological approaches and finding its centre in the life of the Church. Finally, Chapter Four shows how Solov'ev's deepening understanding of the western approach to deification through the language of grace is combined with an eastern understanding of human anthropology, enabling him to integrate realistic and moral approaches to deification, and address the whole range of human experience in terms of divine union and the Kingdom of God.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Praying with the Senses

I've previously noted a new interest in the role of the senses within Christian experience, a trend that was begun in part by the Orthodox scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey's well-received book on the olfactory, now some dozen years ago.

Now we have a new and wide-ranging collection to continue this exploration: Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice, ed. Sonja Luehrmann (Indiana University Press, 2017), 280pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
How do people experience spirituality through what they see, hear, touch, and smell? Sonja Luehrmann and an international group of scholars assess how sensory experience shapes prayer and ritual practice among Eastern Orthodox Christians. Prayer, even when performed privately, is considered as a shared experience and act that links individuals and personal beliefs with a broader, institutional, or imagined faith community. It engages with material, visual, and aural culture including icons, relics, candles, pilgrimage, bells, and architectural spaces. Whether touching upon the use of icons in age of digital and electronic media, the impact of Facebook on prayer in Ethiopia, or the implications of praying using recordings, amplifiers, and loudspeakers, these timely essays present a sophisticated overview of the history of Eastern Orthodox Christianities. Taken as a whole they reveal prayer as a dynamic phenomenon in the devotional and ritual lives of Eastern Orthodox believers across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
And we have a nicely detailed table of contents as well:

Introduction: The Senses of Prayer in Eastern Orthodox Christianity / Sonja Luehrmann

Part I: Senses
1. Becoming Orthodox: The Mystery and Mastery of a Christian Tradition / Vlad Naumescu
          A Missionary Primer / Ioann Veniaminov
2. Listening and the Sacramental Life: Degrees of Mediation in Greek Orthodox Christianity / Jeffers Engelhardt

Creating an Image for Prayer / Sonja Luehrmann
3. Imagining Holy Personhood: Anthropological Thresholds of the Icon / Angie Heo
          Syriac as a lingua sacra: Speaking the Language of Christ in India / Vlad Naumescu
4. Authorizing: The Paradoxes of Praying by the Book / Sonja Luehrmann

Part II: Worlds
5. Inhabiting Orthodox Russia: Religious Nomadism and the Puzzle of Belonging / Jeanne Kormina
          Baraka: Mixing Muslims, Christians, and Jews / Angie Heo
6. Sharing Space: On the Publicity of Prayer, between an Ethiopian Village and the World / Tom Boylston
    Prayers for Cars, Weddings, and Well-Being: Orthodox Prayers en route in Syria / Andreas Bandak
7. Struggling Bodies at the Crossroads of Economy and Tradition: The Case of Contemporary Russian Convents / Daria Dubovka
          Competing Prayers for Ukraine / Sonja Luehrmann
8. Orthodox Revivals: Prayer, Charisma, and Liturgical Religion / Simion Pop

Epilogue: Not-Orthodoxy/Orthodoxy's Others / William A. Christian Jr.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Armenia Christiana: Between Old Rome and New

I have long been fascinated by the Armenian Church. In my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, I spent no little time on her because her structures are utterly unique amongst all the apostolic churches of East and West. There is much else that is unique and admirable in her liturgical traditions--and food! The best vegetarian meal I ever had was at an Armenian parish in Cleveland last fall when I was giving a lecture there.

Armenia has often been a point of contact between old and new Romes. Its history is a complex one, as a new book will allow us to see more fully: Krzysztof Stopka, Armenia Christiana: Armenian Religious Identity and the Churches of Constantinople and Rome (4th – 15th century) (Jagiellonian University Press, 2018), 400pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
This book presents the dramatic and complex story of Armenia's ecclesiastical relations with Byzantine and subsequently Roman Christendom in the Middle Ages. It is built on a broad foundation of sources – Armenian, Greek, Latin, and Syrian chronicles and documents, especially the abundant correspondence between the Holy See and the Armenian Church. Krzysztof Stopka examines problems straddling the disciplines of history and theology and pertinent to a critical, though not widely known, episode in the story of the struggle for Christian unity.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ashley Purpura on God, Hierarchy, and Power

I briefly met Ashley Purpura last November at a conference on the future of the liberal arts hosted at Purdue University. I have been greatly edified by her book God, Hierarchy, and Power, and will be drawing on it for a presentation I'm giving next January in Romania at the inaugural conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association, at which I am also one of the official ecumenical observers. I was delighted to be able to arrange an interview with her about this new book. Here are her thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background

I grew up Orthodox and started really reading about saints’ lives, theology, and Christian history as a teenager. I graduated from Florida State with B.A. in Religion, and then earned a M.T.S. at Harvard Divinity School where I studied the history of Eastern Christianity (primarily in Syriac and Greek sources). I went on to complete my Ph.D. in theology at Fordham University, where I specialized in the history of Byzantine and Orthodox Christianity. Currently, I am an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Purdue University in Indiana, where I live with my husband and four children.

AD: What led to the writing of God, Hierarchy, and Power?

I wanted to write something grounded in historically Byzantine sources, but that spoke to present conversations and concerns. I thought of this project as a way to step back from the more commonly (and to my mind, unsatisfactorily engaged) question of “Why can/’t women be priests?” and address instead, why there is a hierarchy at all, and how it functions theologically when confronted with pragmatic challenges. Certainly, the experience of having an ecclesial leader who appears to fall short of the ideal of his calling is nothing new! In so many hagiographies, liturgical moments, patristic writings, etc. maintaining proper order, offering total obedience, and serving with humility appear as important markers of spirituality—and I wanted to see how theologians who address the nature and limits of hierarchy negotiate these ideals in theological, ritual, and practical terms. This led to some insights about power and about the iconic nature of hierarchy that I had not originally anticipated—but that I am very glad to have had the opportunity to explore.

AD: Your introduction notes how historically saturated Orthodoxy is with hierarchy in its ecclesio-sacramental life while facing three contemporary challenges: inclusivity, exclusivity, and the relationship between power and hierarchy. Tell us a bit about each.

By these challenges, I point to the way that hierarchy functions and is perceived to function at both theological and pragmatic levels. The hierarchy determines by councils, sacraments, etc. who is inside the Church (inclusivity) and where the Church is recognized. At the same time, however, it also excludes not only those who are not included in ecclesial participation, but also certain categories of individuals from joining the priestly hierarchic ranks (women, for example). I suppose you could say by that by naming certain boundaries of Orthodoxy, the hierarchy includes some and excludes others—but of course as Dionysius would note, the divine hierarchy is not limited to or actually subject to our ecclesiastical administration.

In terms of power and hierarchy, I really explore this in the final chapter, but even in the introduction I consider how the visible leaders of the Church have authority and in what ways this authority is limited. The relation between power and hierarchy is very much tied to spiritual leadership and authority, under what conditions does a bishop, for example, have authority to lead and speak on behalf of the Church, especially considering cases of potential abuses of power. I think being able to articulate and respond to these challenges will help contemporary Christians (and perhaps others) develop a greater understanding of how and why hierarchy functions religiously. Although it can indicate lines of demarcation, it also is divinely dynamic in ways that often are obscured.

AD: I well remember a doctoral seminar with the Orthodox scholar John Jillions some 15 years ago (while teaching in Ottawa and before he became chancellor of the OCA) who said very forcefully that he thought the ideas of Dionysius the Areopagite about hierarchy had created significant problems for Orthodoxy and the Church in general. You draw on Dionysius. Tell us your own take on him—is he problematic? 

I do not read him problematically, although several scholars I greatly respect do take issue with his writings and his legacy. Dionysius has always been debated in terms of where he fits christologically, and for some more contemporary authors, in terms of his heavy reliance on Neoplatonism. Historically, Dionysius’s concept of hierarchy was widely influential and later patristic authors cite him as an authority on a range of soundly Orthodox topics (icons, liturgy, etc.). There are certainly ambiguities in his writings, and places where he does not necessarily speak to issues modern readers would like to see him specify—so in that way he does provide us with challenges for interpretation. He is very insistent on one properly fulfilling the function of a particular rank to be actually in that hierarchic rank. Dionysius’s insistence that correction come from above rather than below one’s rank, in my read is not giving hierarchs a free pass to do what they want until the other hierarchs chastise them, but rather idealizing that those in the hierarchic positions have more knowledge to do things that may not yet be understood by those hierarchically beneath them. I think Dionysius offers us a way of understanding and speaking about God’s relation to the world and the Church that can be read as quite beneficial and insightful.

AD: The bulk of your book, after Dionysius, is spent on three Byzantine figures—Maximus, Niketas, and Nicholas—and you say (p.133) that they offer us two key insights: God alone is the source all power, and any power, to be authentic, must be divine. Those seem to me quietly subversive claims! In other words, where we may be tempted rather lazily to excuse certain exercises of power as just a lot of political intrigue or patriarchal egos on the global stage (a kind of ecclesiological “crypto-Arianism” if you will), these insights challenge us always to remember that the Church is both human and divine, and thus human hierarchy is always held to divine account, and at its best is an icon of the divine. Is that a fair read of your argument? 

Yes, I don’t intend it to be a type of rebuke as much as reminder—but it is still subversive for those who would claim for themselves power instead of humbly considering how they are empowered and to what end. For those perhaps who feel disconnected or put off by the business of church politics and egos, in very simple terms, God is bigger than all of that! His gift of love (especially sacramentally) is not somehow impaired by our sinful humanness (although our ability to receive/perceive it might certainly be).

AD: Tell us a bit about how you arrived at your four modern interlocutors: Marx, Foucault, Butler, and Arendt. Two of them in particular—Foucault and Butler—are of course well known for their reflections not just on power but also on gender and sexuality, which themes also come up to some extent in your (65-68) discussion of Maximus the Confessor. Is it possible in Orthodoxy (and Catholicism for that matter) ever to separate out questions of power and hierarchy from sex and gender, or does such an attempted separation merely reinforce certain problems, including exclusivity and inclusivity mentioned in your introduction?

I think it is important when reframing the position of power in the world as unconventionally as I do to consider the other ways in which power has been interpreted quite influentially. With these particular four interlocutors I found parallels and reframing of the source of power and authority and how they function, that was helpful in articulating what I found going on in the Byzantine authors.

To your second question, I think gender is a category largely constructed around disparate power dynamics, so I do not think one could talk about power and hierarchy, and sex and gender separately. Even to just talk about power and hierarchy and omit sex and gender really just reinforces the notion that these issues and identities are excluded from the authoritative dominant (arguably male) discourse. This of course is a modern take, and one that I think fruitfully can be considered with pre-modern theologians. As you mention, I do give some attention to gender in its relation to hierarchy in this book, but there is still so much work to be done on how disparate power dynamics relate to gender constructions, religious ideals of authority, and one’s sex. I would like to see more consideration on these intersections, but I think there are numerous ways of entering into conversation on these topics and even a more segmented approach may prove insightful for a broader sustained and integrated reflection.

AD: This is less a question than a comment: I think the most outstanding feature of your book is its refusal to shrink from theology proper, which seems to me a particular weakness of too much ecclesiology today, focused as it often is on the understandable temptation to treat everything in terms of human politics and dynamics of power. Thus I greatly cheered your argument at both the beginning and end of the book where you insist that “hierarchy as developed and reflected by Byzantine theologians is most fundamentally and consistently rendered as the communication of divinity” (p.16) and that “justifications for breaks in communion, even when grounded in differing ecclesiological or administrative conceptions, need to be discussed at the level of divine reflectivity, divine participation, and divine communication” (164). Is it hard to keep God in the picture sometimes when the humanity of it all—the offices, personalities, rituals, and vestments of hierarchy—weighs so heavily?  

Yes, I think there is a temptation at times to want to hold tightly onto all of the “things” of our religious identities as the essence of what makes us Orthodox (or some other religion). Such offices, rituals, jurisdictions, and vestments, etc., however, do not determine our Faith. Being in communion with God, being in His image and likeness, recognizing and venerating God in others—these get to the essence of who we are as Christians! The hierarchy is about communicating God to the world through material and relational means, allowing humans to be in communion with God sacramentally, and increasingly forming humans in His likeness. I think this is the insight I find appealing in Dionysius and the later Byzantine authors I present—that the authenticity and authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as we perceive it (and its assorted trappings that you mention) are dependent on communicating God to the world and bringing us into communion with Him.

AD: On that point, you weave into a good deal of your work reflections on the ritual and liturgy of hierarchy. I’ve often heard it said that Byzantine hierarchical liturgy—e.g., the greeting and vesting of the bishop, the kissing of his hands, the repeated singing of Εις πολλά έτη—reinforces certain habits of mind that may be less than healthy or desirable and that such liturgies should be reformed today. What are your thoughts on the rituals surrounding ecclesial hierarchy? 

I think there are ways in which ritually greeting and vesting the bishop the participants are reverencing and icon of God, even if it is at times a poorly depicted icon, the one who venerates it is still blessed. I do think the rituals and liturgies need to be intelligible to and understood by their participants. That has quite a bit to do with education, and perhaps a little with reform. Outside of liturgical contexts and ritual actions of respect, personal and pastoral interactions with a bishop can be more challenging if a bishop thinks something is owed him based on his position, rather than gaining loving respect from manifesting Christ-like kenotic service on behalf of his flock.

AD: What are your hopes for this book, and who especially should read it?

I hope this book will encourage scholars, clergy, and laity to reflect further about how power in general and hierarchy specifically, functions theologically within Christianity (and perhaps reflect on parallels in other religions). Additionally, I think this book prompts a reconsideration of how theological interpretations of power relate to religious structures of authority and diverse devotional expressions. For the more Byzantine-minded reader (academic or otherwise), I hope this book sheds light on the ways four historically disparate (and in the case of Stethatos and Cabasilas, understudied) theologians can be brought into conversation with each other to inform contemporary Orthodox thought, and how our understanding of pre-modern authors can be accentuated by considering modern critical theoretical developments.

AD: Having finished God, Hierarchy, and Power, what are you at work on now?

Presently, I am working on a series of articles that focus on the constructions of gender, “the other,” and Orthodox identity in Byzantine hymns, rituals, and hagiographies. In working on these manuscripts, I find myself still coming back to power and authority quite a bit, but by focusing more on patriarchy instead of hierarchy.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Image of Christ in Russian Literature

Northern Illinois University Press continues to be in the front lines of scholarship about Russian history, including Russian Christian and literary history. Just last month it published a fascinating new study by John Givens: The Image of Christ in Russian LiteratureDostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pasternak (2018), 329pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Vladimir Nabokov complained about the number of Dostoevsky’s characters “sinning their way to Jesus.” In truth, Christ is an elusive figure not only in Dostoevsky’s novels, but in Russian literature as a whole. The rise of the historical critical method of biblical criticism in the nineteenth century and the growth of secularism it stimulated made an earnest affirmation of Jesus in literature highly problematic. If they affirmed Jesus too directly, writers paradoxically risked diminishing him, either by deploying faith explanations that no longer persuade in an age of skepticism or by reducing Christ to a mere argument in an ideological dispute.
The writers at the heart of this study understood that to reimage Christ for their age, they had to make him known through indirect, even negative ways, lest what they say about him be mistaken for cliché, doctrine, or naïve apologetics. The Christology of Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Boris Pasternak is thus apophatic because they deploy negative formulations (saying what God is not) in their writings about Jesus. Professions of atheism in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s non-divine Jesus are but separate negative paths toward truer discernment of Christ.
This first study in English of the image of Christ in Russian literature highlights the importance of apophaticism as a theological practice and a literary method in understanding the Russian Christ. It also emphasizes the importance of skepticism in Russian literary attitudes toward Jesus on the part of writers whose private crucibles of doubt produced some of the most provocative and enduring images of Christ in world literature. This important study will appeal to scholars and students of Orthodox Christianity and Russian literature, as well as educated general readers interested in religion and nineteenth-century Russian novels.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Biblical Images and Liturgy

In his often very droll and always very enlightening Christianity in the West 1400-1700, the late John Bossy noted that the motto of the Reformation really should have been in principio erat sermo. The Reformation's focus on (fetish for?) written texts like Scripture and their homiletical exposition often came, as we know, at the expense of the other senses, including the eyes, leading to outbreaks of iconoclasm ("stripping of the altars") not just in Calvin's Geneva or Knox's Scotland but in England and elsewhere.

But over the last quarter-century, many Protestant scholars have begun to re-examine Christian history and even to ransack it for things missing in their own traditions today. Thus we have, e.g., as I've often noted on here, a huge new interest in icons and iconography as well as patristic and sacramental theology.

Now a new book comes along, building on such Orthodox scholars as the late Alexander Schmemann, to repair some of the gaps in Protestant approaches to Scripture and liturgy: Gordon Lathrop, Saving Images: The Presence of the Bible in Christian Liturgy  (Fortress, 2017), 224 pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
The Protestant Reformation emphasized the centrality of Scripture to Christian life; the twentieth-century liturgical movement emphasized the Bible’s place at the heart of liturgy. But we have not yet explored the place of the Bible as the subject of critical exegesis in contemporary liturgy, argues Gordon W. Lathrop. He seeks to remedy that lack because it is critical historical scholarship that has shown us the grounding of the text in the life of the assembly and the role of intertextuality in its creation. “Saving” and revitalizing images of the past are at the heart of Scripture and are the work of the gathered community. Lathrop finds patterns in biblical narratives that suggest revising our models of the “shape” of liturgy (after Dix and Schmemann) and our understanding of baptism, preaching, Eucharist, and congregational prayer. He lifts up the visual imagery at the Dura Europos house church and elsewhere as a corrective to the supersessionist impulse in much Christian typology. He identifies the liturgical imperative as seriousness about the present rather than an effort to dwell in an imagined past. Saving Images is a call for a new, reconceived biblical-liturgical movement that takes seriously both biblical scholarship and the mystery at the heart of worship.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Jesus in Asia

It has long been known, if only to certain scholars, that Christianity (especially Assyrian and Syriac Christianity) spread far into Asia early in the first millennium, and was not a post-Reformation import of either Protestant or Jesuit missionaries. And just as Western cultures sometimes turned Jesus into a blonde, blue-eyed football player, so too were images of Jesus recreated in a variety of different cultural contexts across Asia, as R.S. Sugirtharajah's new book reminds us: Jesus in Asia (Harvard UP, 2018), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Reconstructions of Jesus occurred in Asia long before the Western search for the historical Jesus began in earnest. This enterprise sprang up in seventh-century China and seventeenth-century India, encouraged by the patronage and openness of the Chinese and Indian imperial courts. While the Western quest was largely a Protestant preoccupation, in Asia the search was marked by its diversity: participants included Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Catholics, and members of the Church of the East.
During the age of European colonialism, Jesus was first seen by many Asians as a tribal god of the farangis, or white Europeans. But as his story circulated, Asians remade Jesus, at times appreciatively and at other times critically. R. S. Sugirtharajah demonstrates how Buddhist and Taoist thought, combined with Christian insights, led to the creation of the Chinese Jesus Sutras of late antiquity, and explains the importance of a biography of Jesus composed in the sixteenth-century court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. He also brings to the fore the reconstructions of Jesus during the Chinese Taiping revolution, the Korean Minjung uprising, and the Indian and Sri Lankan anti-colonial movements.
In Jesus in Asia, Sugirtharajah situates the historical Jesus beyond the narrow confines of the West and offers an eye-opening new chapter in the story of global Christianity.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Christian Politics: Is There Any Such Thing?

As someone who grew up in and remains a citizen of Her Britannic Majesty's Canadian Dominion, I watch many things in these United States with puzzlement, sometimes with horror, but never with boredom. I developed a fascination with politics when I was quite young, and recall the summer of 1984 as being something of an awakening, with the Reagan re-election here, and the Tories elected to a landslide majority in Ottawa just weeks before that. I was hooked for years after that on federal politics in both countries, along with following Thatcher in Britain closely.

Given, inter alia, the so-called legal system in this country, with its massive rates of incarceration and bloody capital punishment (if prisoners survive that far and are not shot by police beforehand), as well as the racket which is health insurance and medical care, it has always puzzled me that both Britain and Canada are held up as more "secular" countries, while the United States is somehow more "Christian."  Part of that seems to me to be nothing more than the volubility of certain politicians and Christian leaders alike here more loudly proclaiming some version of "faith," often in defense of "family values." (I learned long ago from Stanley Hauerwas that the gospel sharply relativizes the value of families, and ever since have never trusted a word from anyone who utters the phrase "family values.") Too often, it seems, Christianity in the US is a handmaid of advanced capitalism, militarism, and the inescapable imperialism that this country has always practiced even while fatuously pretending otherwise.

But Christianity cannot be reduced to those dubious "values," and it is the salutary reminder of this crucial fact which I take to be the central virtue of a new book authored by Matthew Bowman: Christian: The Politics of a Word in America (Harvard UP, 2018), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Religious diversity has long been a defining feature of the United States. But what may be even more remarkable than the sheer range of faiths is the diversity of political visions embedded in those religious traditions. Matthew Bowman delves into the ongoing struggle over the potent word “Christian,” not merely to settle theological disputes but to discover its centrality to American politics.
As Christian: The Politics of a Word in America shows, for many American Christians, concepts like liberty and equality are rooted in the transcendent claims about human nature that Christianity offers. Democracy, equality under the law, and other basic principles of American government are seen as depending on the Christian faith’s sustenance and support. Yet despite this presumed consensus, differing Christian beliefs have led to dispute and disagreement about what American society and government should look like. While many white American Protestants associate Christianity with Western Euro-American civilization, individual liberty, and an affirmation of capitalism, other American Christians have long rejected those assumptions. They maintain that Christian principles demand political programs as wide-ranging as economic communalism, international cooperation, racial egalitarianism, and social justice.
The varieties of American Christian experience speak to an essentially contested concept of political rights and wrongs. Though diverse Christian faiths espouse political visions, Christian politics defy clear definition, Bowman writes. Rather, they can be seen as a rich and varied collection of beliefs about the interrelationships of divinity, human nature, and civic life that engage and divide the nation’s Christian communities and politics alike.
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