"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Friday, May 31, 2019

God and Christ in Irenaeus

Books about Irenaeus have continued steadily to emerge over the last two decades, and I have tried to keep abreast of them on here. In February, we had another: God and Christ in Irenaeus by Anthony Briggman (Oxford UP, 2019), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
For too long certain scholars have been content to portray Irenaeus of Lyons as a well-meaning churchman but incompetent theologian. By offering a careful reading of Irenaeus' polemical and constructive arguments, God and Christ in Irenaeus contradicts these claims by showing that he was highly educated, trained in the rhetorical arts, aware of general philosophical positions, and able to use both rhetorical and philosophical theories and methods in his argumentation. Moreover, the theological account laid down by his pen was original and sophisticated, supremely so for one of the second century.
In contrast to readings that minimize the metaphysical dimension of Irenaeus' theology, Anthony Briggman establishes as pillars of Irenaeus' polemical argumentation and constructive theology his conception of the divine being as infinite and simple, the reciprocal immanence of the Word-Son and God the Father, divine generation, the union of the divine Word-Son and human nature in the person of Christ, and the revelatory activity of the infinite and incomprehensible Word-Son, amongst other features of his theology. Briggman offers a fundamentally new understanding of Irenaeus and his thought.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Muslims in Putin's Russia

In my courses on Eastern Christian-Muslim relations, perhaps the most fascinating case-study we examine is that of Russia, which presents a very different picture not just from the Arab world, but even from Muslims in other parts of Europe. A recently reprinted book sketches out that picture for us in further detail: Muslims in Putin's Russia: Discourse on Identity, Politics, and Security by Simona E. Merati (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 256pp.

This book, the publisher tells us,

offers a novel interpretation of Russian contemporary discourse on Islam and its influence on Russian state policies. It shifts the analytical perspective from the discussion about Russia's Islam as a potential security threat to a more comprehensive view of the relationships of Muslims with Russia as a state and a civilization. The work demonstrates how many Muslims increasingly express a sense of belonging to Russia and are increasingly willing to contribute to state building processes.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Theologies of Retrieval

In July 2017 I attended a fascinating conference at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where I gave a paper on the ecumenical uses of forgetting, a topic I have been thinking about for the past three years or so, not least in connection with books by David Rieff, Bradford Vivian, and others, some of them discussed here.

While at the conference, Darren Sarisky noted that a hardback edition of his collection had just been published. Now, this week, we have a more affordable paperback edition of Theologies of Retrieval: An Exploration and Appraisal (T&T Clark, 2019), 268pp.

About this book we are told the following:
One of the most significant trends in academic theology today, which emerges within Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox points of view, is the growing interest in theologies of retrieval. This mode of thinking puts a special stress upon subjecting classic theological texts to a close reading, with a view toward using the resources that they provide to understand and address contemporary theological issues.
This volume offers an understanding of what theologies of retrieval are, what their rationale is, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. The contributions provided by a distinguished team of theologians answer the important questions that existing work has raised, expand on suggestions that have not yet been fully developed, summarize ideas to highlight themes that are relevant to the topics of this volume, and air new critiques that will spur further debate.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

AngloArabia

If, like me, you have long wondered (i) how and why North American and British governments all maintain that the Saudis are our "closest ally" and no horrors--executing gays and journalists, denying women drivers' licenses, treating their Philippine domestics like dirt, and of course permitting no churches anywhere in their bogus kingdom--they brazenly and constantly commit in full view of the world can dislodge them from such exalted status and (ii) why this status persists when the US, Canada, and the UK are virtually energy-independent and no longer reliant on Middle Eastern oil in any significant degree, then Tom Stevenson's essay in the 9 May 2019 issue of the London Review of Books makes for fascinating reading. It is a review essay discussing David Wearing's new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain (Polity, 2018), 275pp.

Stevenson begins by showing that the policy of the UK and later the US since the interwar period has been to maintain such a close relationship as a means of controlling much of the rest of the world that is dependent on Saudi and more broadly Middle Eastern oil--China, Japan, and the rest of Asia above all, but also parts of Europe.

Stevenson quote Gordon Merriam of the US State Department in 1945 who plainly admitted that Saudi oilfields were above all a "stupendous source of strategic power," which power the UK and US have exploited to their advantage against the aforementioned others. But there's more.

There is, Stevenson reports, the military codependency which exists between the Saudis (and others) and the US and UK. In fact, many current heads of state in the region (Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar) are graduates of Sandhurst, which is of course the leading English military academy. And all of them buy billions of arms from the US and UK, and never more so than in the last two years. So the Saudis are armed by the West, allowing them to kill over 75,000 people in Yemen. And the UK and US both maintain massive military presence in the region, on land and at sea, all of this reinforcing to the rest of the world that if you want the region's oil you will only get it if this superpower and her mistress ("special relationship" indeed!) let you.

There is also the monetary codependency, and here is where things get really interesting if you believe, as I do thanks to Benjamin Fong's insights (some of them discussed here), that advanced capitalism is not only not a "secular" system of exchange, but a religious cult of far-reaching and almost exclusive psychic control dependent on total and blind faith not in gods but in commodities. Stevenson notes that "around a fifth" of UK current account debts are underwritten by Saudi Arabia.

But for both the US and UK, it is oil that is the new talisman, the new idol, the new gold standard. In 1974, Stevenson reports, when the US abandoned the gold standard, its Treasury secretary was on a secret flight the next day to Saudi Arabia "to secure an agreement that remains to this day the foundation of the dollar's global dominance" (a point documented in David Spiro's 1999 book The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony).

That agreement, Stevenson says, guaranteed Saudi and Gulf security (including against their own people, whose periodic attempts at rebellion are put down by police and military forces trained by the British and using British equipment, and often in the presence of British military attachés) provided that the region's oil sales were used to prop up the dollar. As a result, "a de facto oil standard replaced gold."

Well do I remember the American evangelical picketers outside our worship tent in Canberra in 1991 at the seventh general assembly of the World Council of Churches, denouncing us for "syncretism" and proclaiming the imminent arrival of "one world religion" to do the devil's bidding. But the WCC could not pull that off in 1991, for the US-UK-SA alliance, and through them the rest of the globe, had already shown that being Muslim, as Saudi Arabia is, or Christian as the UK and US try to claim, always inexorably gives way to the one true religion of us all: oil.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Florentine Fate of the Epiclesis

Given the sheer volume of books emerging today, it is hard to maintain excitement for a lot of them, but there are some coming along to which I am greatly looking forward as much for the topic as for the author, and one such book, set for October release, is The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), 380pp., by Christiaan Kappes, whom I previously interviewed about his groundbreaking and revealing work on the Immaculate Conception. I've been on panels with him, and read some of his other articles, and both he and them are always dynamite, so we have every reason to look forward with delight to this new book.

The council of Ferrara-Florence has not occasioned a lot of recent scholarship, which is curious if it is indeed the last "council of union" between East and West. Cambridge University Press, back in 2011, sent me a republished copy of Joseph Gill's 1959 study, but apart from that I have not seen a lot. So this book will be welcome for more than one reason.

Before reading the publisher's blurb, listen to what one widely respected scholar, no stranger to this blog, says about this forthcoming book:

“In this book Christiaan Kappes lays before the reader the genesis of an important, albeit often neglected, ecumenical stumbling block. Although the filioque, papacy, and azymes are traditionally considered the three great causes of the Catholic-Orthodox split, for many today the epiclesis debate remains a significant unresolved issue dividing the two churches. By detailing the theology, setting, and personalities of the first stage of that debate, along with the translation of relevant texts, Kappes has indeed provided an invaluable service to all liturgists, ecumenists, and interested historians of dogma.” --A. Edward Siecienski, Clement and Helen Pappas Endowed Professor of Byzantine Civilization and Religion, Stockton University.

And from the publisher we learn this:
The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence is the first in-depth investigation into both the Greek and the Latin sides of the debate about the moment of eucharistic transubstantiation at the Council of Florence. Christiaan Kappes examines the life and times of the central figures of the debate, Mark Eugenicus and John Torquemada, and assesses their doctrinal authority. Kappes presents a patristic and Scholastic analysis of Torquemada’s Florentine writings, revealing heretofore-unknown features of the debate and the full background to its treatises. The most important feature of the investigation involves Eugenicus. Kappes investigates his theological method and sources for the first time to give an accurate appraisal of the strength of Mark’s theological positions in the context of his own time and contemporary methods. The investigation into both traditions allows for an informed evaluation of more recent developments in the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in light of these historical sources. Kappes provides a historically contextual and contemporary proposal for solutions to the former impasse in light of the principles rediscovered within Eugenicus’s works. This monograph speaks to contemporary theological debates surrounding transubstantiation and related theological matters, and provides a historical framework to understand these debates. The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence will interest specialists in theology, especially those with a background in and familiarity with the council and related historical themes, and is essential for any ecumenical library.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Faith and Science in Russian Orthodox Thought

For some people, there is apparently a conflict between what they conceive of as 'faith' on the one hand and 'science' on the other. This has always seemed to me to rest upon one, and likely several, mistakes, but for those who struggle with such questions a new book may help: Teresa Obolevitch, Faith and Science in Russian Religious Thought (Oxford University Press, July 2019), 240pp.

Faith and Science in Russian Religious Thought provides a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between science and faith in Russian religious thought. Teresa Obolevitch offers a synthetic approach on the development of the problem throughout the whole history of Russian thought, starting from the medieval period and arriving in contemporary times. She considers the relationship between science and religion in the eighteenth century, the so-called academic philosophy of the 19th and 20th century, the thought of Peter Chaadaev, the Slavophiles, and in the most influential literature figures, such as Fedor Dostoevsky and Lev Tolstoy.

The volume also analyses two channels of the formation of philosophy in the context of the relationship between theology and science in Russia. The first is connected with the attempt to rationalize the truths of faith and is exemplified by Vladimir Soloviev and Nikolai Lossky; the second wtih the apophatic tradition is presented by Pavel Florensky and Semen Frank. The book then describes the relation to scientific knowledge in the thought of Lev Shestov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergius Bulgakov, and Alexei Losev as well as the original project of Russian Cosmism (on the examples of Nikolai Fedorov, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and Vladimir Vernadsky). Obolevitch presents the current state of the discussion on this topic by paying attention to the Neopatristic synthesis (Fr Georges Florovsky and his followers) and offers the brief comparative analyse of the relationship between science and religion from the Western and Russian perspectives.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Plus ça change....Congar on the "Crisis" of "Heresy" Today

I had occasion, while working on something else, recently to pick up a short book published in 1976, Challenge to the Church: The Case of Archbishop Lefebvre, written by the man who is arguably the greatest historian and theologian of the postwar period, Yves Congar.

Congar's book contains striking parallels to today. He wrote to respond to a remarkably similar hostile exchange of views and letters between Lefebvre and the pope—with some others being drawn in as well. The gist of those letters was that the pope was presiding over the destruction of the Church, and the only answer to this was some imagined return to “tradition.” Congar noted that “Mgr Lefebvre never stops invoking tradition,” but doing so in a way that argues tradition ceased “in 1962.”

Congar patiently but cogently dispatched the claims of the letters by showing, time and time again, that they did not, as today, have coherent and cogent arguments to offer but only their own “obstinate self-righteousness in the face of all the facts.” The answer to such nonsense, then as today, Congar continues, is for the writers and signatories to give up their “cantankerous, aggressive, or unintelligently intransigent spirit.”

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.....

Friday, May 17, 2019

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Elsewhere you can read my thoughts on the new set of canonical norms recently proffered by the bishop of Rome as some kind of system to help deal with sex abuse in the Church. As I argue there, the system is fatally flawed by (quelle surprise!) concentrating everything in the hands of bishops, not one of whom is to be trusted on this issue.

Part of the long-term challenge is to assist the Church in moving away from the Catholic imaginary in which it is assumed the current system is the only possible one; worse, the current system is the only supposedly "orthodox" one. That is false and ignorant of history and theology alike, for all the reasons I argue at length in my Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico, 2019).


The Burdens of Ukraine's Past and Her Memories

I am of course deeply interested in the problems of historical memory, especially among the Christians of Eastern Europe, and have often discussed on here over the years these themes of memory, identity, and historiography, often with a psychoanalytic turn.

It is, then, with great interest that I look forward to the publication of two new books, the first set to appear in July, and the other one in early 2020.

The first is from an author whom I have read profitably in the past, and to whose new book I'm greatly looking forward: Myroslav Shkandrij, Revolutionary Ukraine, 1917-2017: History’s Flashpoints and Today’s Memory Wars (Routledge, 2019), 224pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
This book examines four dramatic periods that have shaped not only Ukrainian, but also Soviet and Russian history over the last hundred years: the revolutionary struggles of 1917-20, Stalin’s "second" revolution of 1928-33, the mobilization of revolutionary nationalists during the Second World War, and the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14.
The story is told from the perspective of "insiders." It recovers the voice of Bolshevik historians who first described the 1917-21 revolution in Ukraine; citizens who were accused of nationalist conspiracies by Stalin; Galician newspapers that covered the 1933-34 famine; nationalists who fomented revolution in the 1940s; and participants in the Euromaidan protests and Revolution of 2013-14. In each case the narrative reflects current "memory wars" over these key moments in history.
The discussion of these flashpoints in history in a balanced, insightful and illuminating. It introduces recent research findings and new archival materials, and provides a guide to the heated controversies that have today focused attention scholarly and public attention on the issues of nationalism and Russian-Ukrainian relations. The Euromaidan protesters declared that "Ukraine is not Russia," but the slogan was already current in 1917. This volume describes the process that led to its reappearance in the present day.
The second is a scholarly collection I learned about from the new Indiana University Press catalogue. This collection will not be out until early 2020, but treats many of the same questions: The Burden of the Past: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine, eds., Malgorzata Glowacka-Grajper and Anna Wylegala 2020

About this forthcoming work, we are told this:
In a century marked by totalitarian regimes, genocide, mass migrations, and shifting borders, the concept of memory in Eastern Europe is often synonymous with notions of trauma. In Ukraine, memory mechanisms were disrupted by political systems seeking to repress and control the past in order to form new national identities supportive of their own agendas. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, memory in Ukraine was released, creating alternate visions of the past, new national heroes, and new victims. This release of memories led to new conflicts and "memory wars."
How does the past exist in contemporary Ukraine? The works collected in The Burden of the Past focus on commemorative practices, the politics of history, and the way memory influences Ukrainian politics, identity, and culture. The works explore contemporary memory culture in Ukraine and the ways in which it is being researched and understood. Drawing on work from historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and political scientists, the collection represents a truly interdisciplinary approach. Taken together, the groundbreaking scholarship collected in The Burden of the Past provides insight into how memories can be warped and abused, and how this abuse can have lasting effects on a country seeking to create a hopeful future.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A.E. Siecienski on Orthodox Christianity

Some of the best books in Eastern Christian history are written by A.E. Siecienski, whom I've been delighted to interview on here in the past about his book on the papacy, which is an outstanding work I've often returned to. He and I were on a panel together in Romania in January at the inaugural IOTA conference. We were both talking about papal primacy, albeit from very different angles.

So I sat up and paid special notice when Oxford UP recently sent me their catalogue of forthcoming works later this summer and fall, and included in it is Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction by A. Edward Siecienski (OUP, 2019), 144pp.

My own introductory course on Eastern Christianity is due for a bit of an overhaul, and I rather suspect that after I've had a chance to read this book, I'll be adopting it for my classes. We'll see.

In the meantime, here is what the press tells us about this book:
To many in the West, Orthodoxy remains shrouded in mystery, an exotic and foreign religion that survived in the East following the Great Schism of 1054 that split the Christian world into two camps--Catholic and Orthodox. However, as the second largest Christian denomination, Orthodox Christianity is anything but foreign to the nearly 300 million worshippers who practice it. For them, Orthodoxy is a living, breathing reality; a way of being Christian ultimately rooted in the person of Jesus and the experience of the early Church. Whether they are Greek, Russian, or American, Orthodox Christians are united by a common tradition and faith that binds them together despite differences in culture. True, the road has not always been smooth -- Orthodox history is littered with tales of schisms and divisions, of persecutions and martyrdom, from the Sack of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, to the experience of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviet Union. Still, today Orthodoxy remains a vibrant part of the religious landscape, not only in those lands where it has made its historic home (Greece, Russia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe), but also increasingly in the West. Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction explores the enduring role of this religion, and the history, beliefs, and practices that have shaped it.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Vasily Grossman

One of the real surprises in MacIntyre's 2016 book Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, which I discussed at length here, is his series of potted biographies in the latter part of the book of a very diverse cast of characters, only half of whom I had any familiarity with. Among those who were new to me was Vasily Grossman, whom MacIntyre "displays" as a moral exemplar of a very particular type in a very singular context when one's capacity for acting as a free and virtuous agent was (to put it mildly) severely under duress.

It is with great interest, then, that I greet the publication of a new biography about Grossman, of whom I am keen to learn more. Just published six weeks ago is Alexandra Popoff, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (Yale University Press, 2019), 424pp.

Modestly introduced by the publisher as "The definitive biography of Soviet Jewish dissident writer Vasily Grossman," Yale UP goes on to tell us this about the book:
If Vasily Grossman’s 1961 masterpiece, Life and Fate, had been published during his lifetime, it would have reached the world together with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and before Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. But Life and Fate was seized by the KGB. When it emerged posthumously, decades later, it was recognized as the War and Peace of the twentieth century. Always at the epicenter of events, Grossman (1905–1964) was among the first to describe the Holocaust and the Ukrainian famine. His 1944 article “The Hell of Treblinka” became evidence at Nuremberg. Grossman’s powerful anti‑totalitarian works liken the Nazis’ crimes against humanity with those of Stalin. His compassionate prose has the everlasting quality of great art. Because Grossman’s major works appeared after much delay we are only now able to examine them properly. Alexandra Popoff’s authoritative biography illuminates Grossman’s life and legacy.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Notes on the London Review of Books 41/8 (18 April 2019)

I began last month a new series on here: annotations from my reading of the London Review of Books, which comes every two weeks and is savoured for many hours afterwards. Herewith a few notes on books discussed in the above-referenced issue.

I have had a growing interest in interwar and postwar politics of the British left, and previously noted on here, e.g., biographies of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan. But that interest has been expanding to the nineteenth century, and lately I've been reading about the celebrated Gladstone-Disraeli rivalry. So I read with keen interest Jonathan Parry's long review of The Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History 1800-2000, eds. D. Brown et al (OUP, 2018), 626pp. Parry notes that there are a few areas the collection short-changes, but overall it sounds like a worthwhile endeavor.

British historians are often themselves fascinating characters--from what I've read of the lives of, e.g., Toynbee, Hugh Trevor Roper, Martin Gilbert, and a few others. So I paid special attention to Susan Pedersen's very conflicted review (titled "I want to love it") of Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (Little, Brown, 2019), 800pp. I've only read smatterings of and about Hobsbawm, and Pedersen brings out some fascinating details of his rather charmed life. So I'll look forward to reading this biography at some point. About it the publisher tells us this:
Eric Hobsbawm's works have had a nearly incalculable effect across generations of readers and students, influencing more than the practice of history but also the perception of it. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, of second-generation British parents, Hobsbawm was orphaned at age fourteen in 1931. Living with an uncle in Berlin, he experienced the full force of world economic depression, and in the charged reaction to it in Germany was forced to choose between Nazism and Communism, which was no choice at all. Hobsbawm's lifelong allegiance to Communism inspired his pioneering work in social history, particularly the trilogy for which he is most famous--The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire--covering what he termed "the long nineteenth century" in Europe. Selling in the millions of copies, these held sway among generations of readers, some of whom went on to have prominent careers in politics and business. 
In this comprehensive biography of Hobsbawm, acclaimed historian Richard Evans (author of The Third Reich Trilogy, among other works) offers both a living portrait and vital insight into one of the most influential intellectual figures of the twentieth century. Using exclusive and unrestricted access to the unpublished material, Evans places Hobsbawm's writings within their historical and political context. Hobsbawm's Marxism made him a controversial figure but also, uniquely and universally, someone who commanded respect even among those who did not share-or who even outright rejected-his political beliefs. Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History gives us one of the 20th century's most colorful and intellectually compelling figures. It is an intellectual life of the century itself.
The review of this biography was followed by Christina Riggs reviewing Jonathan Conlin's biography, Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World's Richest Man (Profile, 2019), 402.

Gulbenkian seems to have been one of those characters who probably could only have lived, and prospered, in the era he did using the methods he did. Among other things he shows the power of money to insulate an Armenian in the last days of the Ottoman Empire from its many attacks on his compatriots. As the publisher tells us:
When Calouste Gulbenkian died in 1955 at the age of 86, he was the richest man in the world, known as 'Mr Five Per Cent' for his personal share of Middle East oil. The son of a wealthy Armenian merchant in Istanbul, for half a century he brokered top-level oil deals, concealing his mysterious web of business interests and contacts within a labyrinth of Asian and European cartels, and convincing governments and oil barons alike of his impartiality as an 'honest broker'. Today his name is known principally through the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, to which his spectacular art collection and most of his vast wealth were bequeathed. Gulbenkian's private life was as labyrinthine as his business dealings. He insisted on the highest 'moral values', yet ruthlessly used his wife's charm as a hostess to further his career, and demanded complete obedience from his family, whom he monitored obsessively. As a young man he lived a champagne lifestyle, escorting actresses and showgirls, and in later life - on doctor's orders - he slept with a succession of discreetly provided young women. Meanwhile he built up a superb art collection which included Rembrandts and other treasures sold to him by Stalin from the Hermitage Museum.Published to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, Mr Five Per Cent reveals Gulbenkian's complex and many-sided existence. Written with full access to the Gulbenkian Foundation's archives, this is the fascinating story of the man who more than anyone else helped shape the modern oil industry.
When it first came out at the start of our decade, I read Eric Kaufman's Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century with great interest, though without being entirely persuaded by his thesis. So when I saw he has a new book out, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities I read Daniel Trilling's review of it with particular interest. Trilling notes that Kaufman has some interesting arguments in places and data, but overlooks a number of factors, too. Here is the publisher's blurb about the book:
This is the century of whiteshift. As Western societies are becoming increasingly mixed-race, demographic change is transforming politics. Over half of American babies are non-white, and by the end of the century, minorities and those of mixed race are projected to form the majority in the UK and other countries. The early stages of this transformation have led to a populist disruption, tearing a path through the usual politics of left and right. Ethnic transformation will continue, but conservative whites are unlikely to exit quietly; their feelings of alienation are already redrawing political lines and convulsing societies across the West. One of the most crucial challenges of our time is to enable conservatives as well as cosmopolitans to view whiteshift as a positive development.
In this groundbreaking book, political scientist Eric Kaufmann examines the evidence to explore ethnic change in North American and Western Europe. Tracing four ways of dealing with this transformation—fight, repress, flight, and join—he charts different scenarios and calls for us to move beyond empty talk about national identity. If we want to avoid more radical political divisions, he argues, we have to open up debate about the future of white majorities.
Deeply thought provoking, enriched with illustrative stories, and drawing on detailed and extraordinary survey, demographic, and electoral data, Whiteshift will redefine the way we discuss race in the twenty-first century.
My ignorance of modern poetry is lamentably vast, but one of the very few poets I have long read and admired is the subject of the next review by Robert Crawford of the seemingly endless volumes to be published of The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume VIII: 1936-38, eds. V. Eliot and J. Haffenden (Faber, 2019), 1100pp. For such a brief period, this is a massive volume, indicating just how loquacious a correspondent Eliot was, perhaps all the more astonishing in view of his vast literary output. 



Thursday, May 9, 2019

Nicholas Denysenko on The People's Faith

It is always a joy and delight to be able to talk to my friend Nicholas Denysenko, as I have on here several times over the years about his many books. Today we have a chance to hear from him about his new book The People's Faith: The Liturgy of the Faithful in Orthodoxy (Fortress Press, 2018), 240pp.

AAJD: Tell us about your background and what led to the writing of The People's Faith. 

ND: I’m trained in the sciences of liturgiology, having taken my Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America in 2008. I studied liturgy with Paul Meyendorff (as a student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary), Dominic Serra, Kevin Irwin, and Mark Morozowich. My doctoral coursework at CUA immersed me in liturgical history (esp. Serra and Morozowich), and liturgical theology (Serra, Morozowich, and esp. Irwin).

My interest in liturgical reform increased with the fiftieth anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium in 2013. Alexander Schmemann’s legacy among Western Christians piqued my interest, and I learned a lot about the contributions of liturgiology to liturgical practice during the course of researching and writing Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy (Fortress Press, 2015).

I reflected on the existence of numerous liturgical practices that are not recorded in official liturgical texts, a thought process that yielded new questions. Since liturgy is an event enacted by God and a local assembly, what is the real authority of official liturgical texts? Are official texts anything more than patterns communities should adopt – with the freedom to subtract and add, as needed, but without disrupting the essential ore of the ordo, to accommodate the particularities of parish life?

Acknowledging the gaps between official liturgical texts and local liturgical practices, are there also gaps between official liturgical theologies and the liturgical theology of the ordinary laity?

I consider the identification of the ordinary person in the pew as the true practitioner of theologia prima to be one of the great recoveries of twentieth-century sacramental theology. Aidan Kavanagh and David Fagerberg identified “Mrs. Murphy” as this theologian, but the idea hearkens back to a saying attributed to Evagrius Pontus – the theologian is the one who prays.

It’s not absurd to say that we’re all theologians, and the scholarship of sociologists of religion like Nancy Ammerman and experts in ritual studies like Nathan Mitchell remind us that the non-expert testimony on the encounter with God in and through prayer is no less real than oft-quoted sayings of the desert fathers. To paraphrase Mitchell – theological tradition is handed down from to grandchildren from the knees of their grandparents with great authority.

Having taken these lessons to heart, I sought to attempt to begin the process of recording a sampling of the liturgical theology of ordinary laity in this study, and then to bring that theology into dialogue with official liturgical theology.

AAJD: Are there connections between this new book and your 2015 book Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy?

ND: Yes. My study of liturgical reform in Orthodoxy yielded dozens of questions that are not easily answered. The process of introducing reform is the fundamental issue here. Scholars have contributed to the codification of a process of liturgical reform that has become a popular myth in the academy and the Church. The basic idea is that a group of experts studies liturgical history and writes a paper proposing a change or modification on the basis of research. At some point, a synod will hear the committee’s report and make a decision to be implemented through a revision to the liturgical books. All of this sounds clean, and good, and quite bureaucratic, but it is often incompatible with reality. Parishes introduce liturgical reforms on a regular basis, to meet the needs of their people. Some of these are so modest that one would have to observe a local parish liturgy with meticulous attention to detail to notice a change. But some changes to the official pattern of liturgy printed in liturgical texts are substantial. I have served in parishes where an official liturgical book is replaced by a local publication, especially if there is a preference for another translation of a text circulating among clergy.

Other changes are even more noticeable. Some parishes have applied the principle of which Fr. Taft (of blessed memory) reminds us: “the Eucharist is a gift to be received,” meaning that everyone received communion from the hand of another – including the presider. Taft’s principle was based on his research, so this is not surprising, but what catches my attention is the innate ecclesiology of the rite – the true presider is Christ, and the rite forms the leader – a bishop or priest – into a recipient of communion, like everyone else. (Now we should also consider the next step by re-introducing the reception of communion in both kinds by first eating and then drinking – but that is a topic for another time).

A much more controversial local tradition takes place when the Liturgy of Holy Saturday (Paschal Vigil) is celebrated on the shroud (epitaphios, plashchanitsa). I do not know how widespread this practice is, but I understand its DNA, driven by popular piety surrounding Christ’s shroud, a piety that influenced the historical development of the Divine Liturgy itself. The parishes that introduced this practice were responding to a local, community-driven phenomenon, and it caused controversy when multiple bishops issued edicts prohibiting the practice.

All of this leads to a fundamental question we should engage: do we sell liturgical theology short when we limit it to the musings of experts and official texts? I’m not calling for the dismissal of the official, not at all, because the official texts provide a pattern rooted in a traditional ordo. Nevertheless, we need to seriously consider the depth of meaning one can glean from non-expert, unofficial practices and observations. We learn a lot from official sources, authoritative teachings, homilies from bishops, hymns composed by famous saints. But all of these are not ‘the’ Church. Everyone constitutes the Church, and we have a lot to learn by consulting non-experts, popular practices, and interpretations of liturgy. I have tried to capture a sampling of this unofficial, non-expert reflection on liturgy in this study to get a sense of what we might learn if we consider the testimony of the whole body of Christ. 

AAJD: As you know, a lot of work in Byzantine liturgiology has been driven by history and texts and written by experts. But here you adopt a very different approach, reading and listening to the responses of people in selected parishes. Tell us about your methods of field research in this book.

ND: My objective was to gain insights into ordinary lay perspectives on the liturgy. A number of extant studies influenced my approach. From the perspective of the larger field of religion and sociology, Nancy Ammerman’s studies were influential, and really set the pace and the bar for ethnographic research into religious and devotional practices of communities and individuals. Ricky Manalo’s study that brings prayer and devotional practices into dialogue with Vatican II’s teaching on the liturgy was likewise inspiring. Amy Slagle is one of the best researchers on North American Orthodoxy, and I suspect that her study of converts to the Eastern Church will remain the seminal work in this field for decades to come (together with D. Oliver Herbel’s).

I drew from the principles articulated by these researchers and decided to organize focus groups of volunteers from diverse parishes who would be willing to share their perspectives on the liturgy. I received permission from the Institutional Review Board at Loyola Marymount University (my employer at the time), and organized focus groups with laity from four Orthodox parishes. The focus group sessions required discipline and restraint. In all instances, some of the participants asked me to share my thoughts on the questions I posed, so it took effort and energy to remain still, listen and record dispassionately, and reflect on the sessions afterwards. It’s essential to note the limits of the methodology, especially since I did not have the resources to devote time and space to frequent meetings over a period of time in these communities. Despite this limitation, the sessions themselves were eye-opening. On the one hand, one might glean more in a private meeting. On the other hand, the focus group environment stimulated responses – participants often spoke to one another and elaborated their thoughts on my questions, occasionally even forgetting that I was in the room. I recorded the sessions and studied them repeatedly as I developed the project. I also interviewed the pastors of each parish to obtain a sense of the parish’s history and liturgical practices.

AAJD: How did you select the four parishes you worked with?

ND: My objectives included regional and jurisdictional diversity, and I wanted to have one small parish included in the study. Three of the four parishes are in urban environments, and one is in the desert. I selected two Greek parishes because the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese constitutes about 50% of Orthodox Christianity in America. Ideally, I would have included Antiochian, ROCOR, and Serbian parishes, too. But obstacles presented themselves – the Antiochian focus group was cancelled because of a scheduling issue, and I was unable to connect with the Serbian and ROCOR parishes I had in mind. So, there is room for more research in this area, and there is a need for it as well. It would be of great benefit to include Eastern Catholic and Oriental Orthodox communities in such studies. I’m pleased with the outcome, though, because the four parish focus groups provided a plethora of material for this study – more than enough for a solid monograph.

AAJD: You note in your conclusion to chapter two that "parish liturgy is constantly evolving and changing." Tell us a bit more about that because it seems to run counter to certain narratives one sometimes hears about how "conservative" the East is, and how resistant to liturgical change it is imagined to be.

Liturgiologists have delivered profound gifts to the academy and Church with the historical studies produced over the last 100-plus years. We continue to learn more about our history, and the method of comparative liturgy – one thriving in large part because of the pioneering work of scholars like Juan Mateos, S.J., Robert Taft (S.J.), and sustained by the likes of Gabriele Winkler and Michael Zheltov – this method is not limited to presenting the history of a rite, but it also shows us what is possible. During the course of the IOTA conference in Iasi, Symeon Stig Froyshov presented a paper suggesting that the Horologion – our Liturgy of the Hours – has cathedral roots. His paper exemplified the relevance of good liturgical history since he is essentially challenging the longstanding assumption of monastic dominance in the “fusion” of cathedral and monastic liturgy.

In our scrupulous attention to liturgical texts, one can involuntarily neglect a fundamental fact about liturgy: it is a local rite, enacted by people together with God, in a community. Let us not assume that we have diocese or eparchy in mind when we say “local.” Certainly, there is a common core of Byzantine liturgy that unites all local celebrations. We all sing the Cherubikon, receive communion with a spoon from a chalice, and know that Holy Week and Pascha will be a veritable feast of Scripture with seemingly endless prostrations and venerations of the epitaphios (or plashchanitsa).

Local, parish traditions create some healthy variation in the liturgy. I have been in two parishes where a censing occurs during the Trisagion hymn – in one case, the presider censed at this point because it was part of his particular Serbian legacy. In two parishes I know of, the resurrection hymns recited by the deacon as he places the Lord’s body into the cup before consumption are instead sung by the people. These local practices accentuate Sunday as the day of resurrection.

I could describe dozens of examples in this space of local variations of liturgy, along with abbreviations, rites, customs, censing patterns, melodies, and even translations of the liturgy. These examples verify liturgy as an event of encounter between God and the community, and it’s important for us to honor these variations because liturgy itself originated as observance of rituals that were not dependent on codified texts. The late antique evidence of the extemporaneous orations of the Eucharistic prayer reminds us that Liturgy is filled with the Holy Spirit and is therefore not circumscribed – even to texts we would like to define as canonical. It has to be this way, to respect the fact that a single culture does not hold privilege over all the others in the rites, gestures, and words we use for worship. The Church is always a Church in a specific place and location, hence the local or particular quality of the Church – our unity comes from our one Lord, and our one baptism.

Throughout history, certain clergy have attempted to impose uniformity through the liturgy. To this day, you will hear clergy complain that father so-and-so doesn’t celebrate the Liturgy “correctly,” or that the Greeks “innovated” in their nineteenth century revisions. If corrections that come from Church authorities are designed to correct errors that are leading people away from Christ, then they are needed. But if these corrections and directives are motivated by the demands of a compliance seeking to eradicate local differences, they are more often than not actually attempts to assert authority and establish control of clergy and people through the liturgy. Appeals to authorities like this one are misapplications of authority because they do not honor the tradition of the local community.

They also attempt to circumscribe liturgy – you can’t control it, because liturgy is not a text, nor is it merely human: God is the presider at each assembly. A serious examination of parish liturgical practice would illustrate that the vast majority of parishes observe the common liturgical core quite faithfully. The tendency to opt for variation here and there is a necessity. It is a well-established tradition of both East and West that was compromised by the invention of the printing press that enabled authorities to distribute a single liturgy and define it as the only correct one. We shouldn’t mess with local parish variations unless they are creating divisions in the parish or leading people away from Christ. I honestly believe that those who seek to eradicate healthy local practices that are not printed in the service books have way too much time on their hands and should find something more useful to do.

AAJD: Your third chapter notes some generational shifts in both preparation to receive the Eucharist, and the frequency of doing so. Did your research uncover any commonalities here in the 21st century? E.g., I've often heard it said that since Schmemann's work on liturgy, a lot more people receive a lot more frequently than they once did. Is that a generalization your research could support?

Yes, at least in the parishes of my study. I was particularly intrigued by the stories shared by people who were raised with rigorous preparation for Communion and continue to feel self-conscious about frequently receiving communion now, even if they have been receiving more often for a number of years. Many older respondents of my study wondered if other parishioners were observing them with disapproval. It is certainly normal, and healthy to take stock of one’s readiness and worthiness to receive Christ.

But there is another dimension to this question, and that concerns the formative aspect of ritual and how that affects the introduction of a major change. Receiving communion more frequently requires a permanent change of habit, adopting a whole new perspective on the meaning of Communion, and learning a new way of preparing for it. The respondents’ sustained questioning of their worthiness and their sensitivity to the way others perceived them demonstrates that receiving liturgical change and establishing it as a permanent new practice is a complicated process that requires time, patience, and continued instruction. Scholars and students of the Church should consider how the process of reception works outside of the Liturgy as well – it tells us a lot about how much sustained ministry is required to implement any process, even if it is designed to do good in the Church. 

AAJD: You note (p.91) that a "primary objective" of your work is to strengthen the connection between "academic liturgical theology" and people's experience of liturgy. Are there particular areas where that connection is very attenuated? Are there areas where it may be relatively strong?

There are both gaps and areas of intense relationship between academic liturgical theology and the people’s experience of liturgy. One of the gaps is somewhat paradoxical, as many of the people expressed gratitude for the liturgical experience of sharing in a journey. I remain somewhat awestruck by the people’s gratitude for being a part of a community that receives communion together, a sense that one is not alone in this journey of receiving divine grace through communion, despite being unworthy. Without prompting, a number of adults idealized their view of the children who line up to drink from the fountain of immortality. They admire the children’s gravitas in simply obeying the command to approach, to draw near, without overanalyzing all of the social, spiritual, and theological dimensions.

Certainly, Orthodox academics have a lot of work to do in deconstructing the hierarchy that has been idealized and falsely affixed as an ecclesial structure. A view of an assembly of all receiving the same communion, together, from the ages of a few months up to one-hundred, is truly unique, an authentic representation of what we pray – the communion of the Holy Spirit, including all, without discrimination. Again, because it is worth repeating – the youngest infant and the highest ranking patriarch are all recipients of the same gift of our Lord. My sense was the people were deeply grateful for this experience of the fullness of community, in the ritual of receiving God’s gift. The next step for us Byzantines is to revise the ritual in such a way so that all truly receive in the same way – by eating the bread and drinking from the cup, and receiving from the hands of another (which will require bishops – yes, even bishops! – to actually receive communion from the hands of another, to which I referred earlier in this interview).

Let me refer to communion as a portal through which to view an attenuated connection between academic theology and the people’s perception. Many of the same people who expressed gratitude for experiencing communion together also lamented the exclusivity of the liturgical event, shedding tears over those who would like to partake of the cup but cannot because of ecclesial divisions.

No patriarch will hasten to restore Eucharistic communion with non-Orthodox Christians because some people are sad that other Christians cannot partake.

But the study reminds us that the privilege of partaking of the Eucharist is one that was originally open to all. I view the perceptions of the people here as a reminder that excluding other Christians after inviting all to “approach” is scandalous, and that the Eucharist should be the source of renewing the urgency to heal divisions, not to enhance them. This is an invitation for the academics to revisit the Eucharist as a symbol of true unity – not of exclusivity and division.

AAJD: You note how many participants in your study commented on a "fissure between the Lenten cycle and the rest of the year on account of the sheer weight and demand of the requirement for Orthodox Lenten worship" (p.111). You also note how often the topic of fatigue is raised by participants during Lent. Did your participants have any thoughts as to how to overcome these challenges? Do you?

Most of the parishioners in the study viewed the rigors of Holy Week and Pascha as ideals laity should attempt to meet, to the best of one’s ability. Many respondents expressed admiration for clergy who participate in the entirety of Holy Week and Pascha. One elderly respondent noted the repetition of Gospel passages throughout the Holy Week offices and suggested that the clergy could review the lectionary for Holy Week and revise it to eliminate repetition. The lectionary is an amalgamation of Constantinopolitan and hagiopolite traditions, so the respondent’s observation is true, and it would be healthy for the Church to examine the lectionary, and also the times appointed for the services to suggest a revised pattern that eliminates at least some of the repetition and makes the transition from Holy Saturday to Pascha more sensible.

The explanations for the existing Holy Week pattern are spurious, at best. For example, the obsession with Judas as the antagonist throughout the week displaces Jesus as the suffering servant – Jesus should be our focus, not Judas. And the most glaring thematic problem is the continued appointment of anti-Semitic texts in the hymnography of Good Friday Matins (and elsewhere). The most popular pastoral justification for retaining these texts is that we need to learn how to hear them correctly. Similarly, many pastors try to diminish the paschal character of the Vigil (Holy Saturday Vesperal liturgy) by reducing it to a “breaking through” of the resurrection, in “anticipation” of the real vigil to come at midnight.

Such justifications are both unfortunate and absurd. The liturgical scholar Bert Groen has published an essay exposing the anti-Semitic tropes throughout Byzantine Holy Week, and has stated the problem directly: no one wants to reform the ordo of Holy Week on their own because of its solemnity. This is the reason we retain the multiple overlaps of Gospels and popularize the false teaching that the Paschal Vigil is not really Pascha, at least not yet.

I would not call for a complete overhaul of Holy Week, in deference to the reception issue I mentioned above. As a Church, we have the responsibility to fine-tune it, though. The solution will come from a bolder initiative: to invite poets, linguists, artists, theologians, and musicians to engage the creative process and compose new hymns, new music, and new art that could be adopted for the services. Holy Week is an invitation to enter into the bridal chamber of Christ, to die and rise with him. Our services should proclaim this invitation in word, rite, and gesture. And they make this proclamation with unfathomable profundity! But the proclamation is often paused by the obsession with Judas, the condemnation of the Jews, the schizophrenic celebration of resurrection only to resume lamentation at the tomb.

A more general comment from a number of respondents will break open the larger point here, one with serious consequences for liturgical vitality: too much of the liturgy is concealed from the people because the clergy are performing it in private. A plea for the clergy to make their prayers the people’s prayers was a refrain among respondents. A desire for assurance that the living God is truly with them as they journey through the rigors of life was another refrain.

We appeal to the antiquity of our liturgical tradition to demonstrate our connection with the apostles. But we tend to forget that all of the prayers, rites, and songs we cling to with such fervor were once quite new and innovative. Our collective refusal to compose new hymns, prayers, and to rethink our order violates the spirit of the Byzantine tradition. We should be alarmed by our aversion to the brilliant creativity in liturgical composition that was the very hallmark of the patristic tradition we claim. The time for us to reclaim that creative energy of the Holy Spirit is now.   

AAJD: You note the dangers of "the canonization of a particular theological interpretation of a rite" as leading in part to rigidity (p.135) and this brings me back to your admirable opening comment about your "ascetical" approach in the interviews to being the one who listens rather than the expert correcting every idea and answering every question. How strong was the urge among people you talked to for there to be a "correct" or, dare one say, "orthodox" view of what liturgy is and does? Or were people more generally comfortable with a certain polyvalence here?

For the most part, respondents approached the sessions with openness. On several occasions, they asked me to elaborate an issue, and I declined, reminding them that my task was to take account of their observations. I was struck by their hunger to learn more, though. When Christians have questions, they do what everyone else does in the attempt to find a quick answer: perform an Internet search. My exchanges with the respondents heightened my own awareness of the information illiteracy afflicting the general public. We have a golden opportunity to identify opportunities to teach people the meaning of the various liturgies. Considering the shifting demographics of the Byzantine Churches, a more earthy, hands-on approach to teaching the Liturgy would be suitable for our times, alongside the creation of updated catechetical texts that present the fundamentals of the Liturgy. For example, it could be beneficial to spend some time reflecting on the Eucharistic Prayers in small groups in an extraliturgical context to consider the deeper meanings of offering, anamnesis, epiclesis, and commemoration.

AAJD: Your participants having raised, often in painful terms, the problem of eucharistic hospitality with their family and friends who are not Orthodox, you later return to this issue in the context of "the anti-ecumenical turn in Orthodoxy" (pp.147-49), noting that it's not even possible to have a "public discussion on allowing non-Orthodox to receive Communion" (151). What lies behind all this do you think? Why is even a discussion of the problem--never mind a change in practice--off limits?

I think, my friend, that your recent scholarship on the Catholic sexual abuse crisis discloses what lies behind all of this. It is psychological, a mindset cultivated by the continuous formation of communities on the basis of what distinguishes us from other Christians as opposed to how we are all one in Christ.

For most of the history of Orthodoxy in North America, the institutional Church has exploited encouragement of cultural pluralism to show how we are different. Greek immigrants hosted food festivals to demonstrate their legitimacy as good citizens of this land, a symbol of émigré arrival. Communities emphasized sustenance of their core values to ensure multigenerational longevity. We believed that there were two keys to keeping young people in the Church: through the unique beauty of Orthodoxy, and by making it accessible through English-language liturgies. Since Eastern Churches have always emphasized the local nature of the Church, it was easy enough to pass on a sense of fidelity to the covenant – to remain within the covenant of an exclusive community, be it Greek, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian. Orthodox ecclesiology was and is also exclusive – there is no “subsistit in” in our conciliar theology, we claim to be THE one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. (See paragraph no. 1 of “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” from the Holy and Great Council in Crete, 2016).

My sense is that Orthodoxy has turned inwards during the post-Soviet period in an effort to reclaim a legacy that was paused during the Soviet period and the Cold War. The raging of the cultural wars in the North American religious context eased the enhancement of an anti-ecumenical turn inwards among Orthodox here. All of these factors combined are like ingredients thrown into a pot for a dinner at which discussion of the possibility of healing divisions with other Christians is discouraged at best, and often prohibited. These factors have combined to form a collective mindset of sectarianism, a disposition in which communities are content with the status quo of mutual exclusivity – even if our children attend the same schools and the parents fraternize at basketball practices.

Ecumenical urgency resurfaces with global catastrophes, when the faces of victims of genocide beckon us to stop looking inwards. God forbid that a global human catastrophe is the only reason for re-igniting the sense of urgency for serious ecumenical dialogue among Christians. 

AAJD: The vast majority of your participants seem to have confined their reflections to Sunday Divine Liturgy--though many also spoke of the Lenten-Paschal cycle. Do you have any plans for more narrowly focused further research into, say, people's experience of funeral liturgies, or baptisms?

I think two studies are necessary, and I may or may not pursue them. First, a study of children’s perceptions of liturgy. A tightly-conceived and careful methodological approach to the study is needed. It would be particularly insightful to work with children in the same parishes. Such a study could teach us a lot about the process of learning through experience, of the whole community partaking of the liturgy together.

An appropriate follow-up would be a study of people’s engagement in all aspects of Church life – reading the Bible, daily prayer, confession, fasting, domestic observance of feasts, and personal behavior. Ammerman’s studies in particular demonstrate the value of non-expert observance of religious practices outside of official worship – and Manalo’s study, especially his engagement with Peter Phan, reminds us that the point of Liturgy is not its celebration, but communal union with God – an aspiration that is not exclusive to liturgy alone.

AAJD: Were there any big surprises in each of the parishes you worked with?

This is not so much a surprise, but an observation that deserves attention, reflection, and prayer. The people I interviewed viewed the Liturgy as an invitation that should not be taken for granted. They consistently expressed frustration at their failure to achieve the ideal established by the liturgy itself. Many of them expressed frustration at preoccupations with the details of life during Liturgy. This was the most important insight, that they were able to identify the Liturgy as a divine gift for us, and found diverse ways to express their desire to engage it as people at their very best, devoting full attention to laying aside the cares of everyday life and being present to God. The tension of confession of unworthiness and gratitude for God’s gift was thick – and beautiful in its thickness.

AAJD: Having finished this book, what are you at work on now?

Ever since the publication of The Orthodox Church in Ukraine last year, I have been cranking out essay after essay of in-depth analysis of the religious scene in Ukraine. I am in the slow process of developing a sequel. The sequel will discuss the tomos and the birth of the OCU, but there is a desperate need for a sophisticated look at the intersection of religion and politics in Ukraine, to cut through the unfortunate post-truth propaganda and regurgitation of Soviet-era narratives popularized by confessional media sites. To that end, the study will address the problem of political religion in Ukraine, and will also discuss the role of the media, both in Ukraine and elsewhere.

I am also developing essays on sacramental reconciliation, Eucharistic theology, iconography, and liturgical idolatry. Watch for information about a one-day symposium to be held at Valparaiso University on April 24, 2020: “Religion, State, and Nationalism: Problems and Possibilities.” We are honored to host a number of theologians and experts such as Antoine Arjakovsky, Dorian Llywelyn, and Atalia Omer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Jean Vanier: In Gratitude

I noted a few weeks ago the move by Jean Vanier into palliative care. Now he has died. Here is a moving interview he gave almost twenty years ago reflecting, inter alia, on death.

I first discovered him in the 1990s, probably around the time he gave the celebrated Massey Lectures in 1998. Those were published as Becoming HumanBefore that, and often afterwards, he was interviewed on my favourite CBC Radio show, Ideas. You can find many of those interviews starting here.

When I was both listening to him on the radio--he has an absolutely unique and unforgettably enchanting voice--and reading some of his many books, I was at at that time a psychology student and an analysand of Dr. Louise Carignan, thinking of clinical training as a pastoral counsellor and/or psychoanalyst. At the same time, I was living in an ecumenical intentional community--Somerset House--which we set up in part with the hope of working with street-people in downtown Ottawa, some of whom lived very literally on our doorstep (which was at a major intersection a few blocks south of Parliament Hill). During this period I was doing volunteer pastoral work at a large nursing home while also volunteering with the Ottawa Crisis Centre, working overnight shifts on the suicide hotline.

These latter two experiences gave me my first, and ever-memorable, taste of the fact that the very frail and elderly residents I was accompanying, and many of the deeply broken people who called into the suicide line, gave me back far, far more than anything I may have thought I was giving to them. Vanier was the one who helped me understand this. He wrote about this many times, and in this very moving article an unnamed Catholic bishop also realizes this paradox so richly illustrated by Vanier's life:  “Up until now, we have spoken about doing good to the poor. But at L’Arche, you say that it is the poor who do us good."

That lesson, along with his constant emphasis on how much the gospel is lived by, and revealed in, those the world considers "defective," are the two things that have remained with me for more than twenty years now, informing my work on Dorothy Day and also my fascination with "holy fools" who blur the boundaries between what we want to call "sanity" and "sanctity" and who are often regarded as losers, freaks, misfits.

There are many other books written by Vanier which you can see here. And there are a number of books written about him, including Michael Higgins 2016 work Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart. 

Forthcoming later this summer is what seems to be a major biographer of Vanier: Anne-Sophie Constant, Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man (Plough, August 2019), 250pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

The life of Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche, who changed the way the world views disability
It’s a crazy story. In August 1964 a thirty-six-year-old Canadian from a famous family – one who has already joined the navy during war at age thirteen, become an officer, earned a PhD, and taught ethics at the University of Toronto -- takes up residence in a little house he just bought in the village of Trosly, France, with two mentally disabled men he has removed from a care home. The house, which he calls l’Arche (the Ark), has neither water nor electricity. His plan? None. He is just convinced he has to do it, touched by the silent cry of these men shut up in the gloomy, violent institution where he found them. His example is contagious; within months the community has grown to over fifty.
Jean Vanier is known and loved around the world for having created L'Arche, those unique communities of people with disabilities and their volunteer caregivers in more than one hundred and fifty sites on five continents. But Vanier is also a philosopher, a spiritual master who touches believers and nonbelievers alike, a tireless messenger of peace and ecumenism, and an adventurer with life full of twists and turns. Anne-Sophie Constant's literary biography paints a rare portrait of this extraordinary man and the events and influences that shaped his destiny.
“The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints, opinions, and prejudices; from intellectual, religious or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion. . . . Jean Vanier has transformed the lives of thousands and thousands of mentally disabled people. And he has transformed the understanding of thousands of people regarding the disabilities of their own children and of people with disabilities. Where we see only failure, disgrace, impossibility, limit, weakness, ugliness, and suffering, Jean Vanier sees beauty. And he knows how to open the eyes of others to see it.”
And now, his earthly life over, I have to imagine that Vanier has made God's job very easy, allowing Him quickly to say, even this very day, "Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master!" May Vanier's memory be eternal, and may his intercession inspire all of us to deeper lives of vulnerable service.

Monday, May 6, 2019

John Chryssavgis on Creation as Sacrament

I have used several of John Chryssavgis's books in classes over the years, and recommended to students still others. So when I saw in the most recent catalogue from T&T Clark that he has a new book out, of course I paid attention to: Creation as Sacrament: Reflections on Ecology and Spirituality (T&T Clark, 2019), 232pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
John Chryssavgis explores the sacred dimension of the natural environment, and the significance of creation in the rich theological history and spiritual classics of the Orthodox Church, through the lens of its unique ascetical, liturgical and mystical experience.
The global ecological crisis affecting humanity's air, water, and land, as well as the planet's flora and fauna, has resulted in manifest fissures on the image of God in creation. Chryssavgis examines, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, the possibility of restoring that shattered image through the sacramental lenses of cosmic transfiguration, cosmic interconnection, and cosmic reconciliation. The viewpoints of early theologians and contemporary thinkers are extensively explored from a theological and spiritual perspective, including countering those who deny that God's creation is in crisis. Presenting a worldview advanced and championed by the Orthodox Church in the modern world, this book encourages personal and societal transformation in making ethical and economic choices that respect creation as sacrament.
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