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

Monday, September 30, 2019

Things of Interest in the LRB for 15 August 2019

With the start of the academic year almost a month ago now, I'm a bit behind in reading for pure pleasure. So let us return to the mid-August issue of the London Review of Books and some notes on what in there seems especially interesting.

First I spy an advertisement from McGill-Queen's University Press in my native Canada for a book by an author I have often benefited from reading in the past: Todd Dufresne. His new volume is The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
In The Democracy of Suffering philosopher Todd Dufresne provides a strikingly original exploration of the past, present, and future of this epoch, the Anthropocene, demonstrating how the twin crises of reason and capital have dramatically remade the essential conditions for life itself. Images, cartoons, artworks, and quotes pulled from literary and popular culture supplement this engaging and unorthodox look into where we stand amidst the ravages of climate change and capitalist economics. With humour, passion, and erudition, Dufresne diagnoses a frightening new reality and proposes a way forward, arguing that our serial experiences of catastrophic climate change herald an intellectual and moral awakening - one that lays the groundwork, albeit at the last possible moment, for a future beyond individualism, hate, and greed. That future is unapologetically collective. It begins with a shift in human consciousness, with philosophy in its broadest sense, and extends to a reengagement with our greatest ideals of economic, social, and political justice for all. But this collective future, Dufresne argues, is either now or never. Uncovering how we got into this mess and how, if at all, we get out of it, The Democracy of Suffering is a flicker of light, or perhaps a scream, in the face of human extinction and the end of civilization.

Alexander Zevin reviews Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism by Quinn Slobodian (Harvard UP, 2018), 381pp.

It sounds like an interesting review of developments since the end of the Great War, when increasingly the focus on the nation-state was bypassed by a new globalist approach which was, one could argue, just imperialism in a new disguise.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Neoliberals hate the state. Or do they? In the first intellectual history of neoliberal globalism, Quinn Slobodian follows a group of thinkers from the ashes of the Habsburg Empire to the creation of the World Trade Organization to show that neoliberalism emerged less to shrink government and abolish regulations than to redeploy them at a global level.
Slobodian begins in Austria in the 1920s. Empires were dissolving and nationalism, socialism, and democratic self-determination threatened the stability of the global capitalist system. In response, Austrian intellectuals called for a new way of organizing the world. But they and their successors in academia and government, from such famous economists as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises to influential but lesser-known figures such as Wilhelm Röpke and Michael Heilperin, did not propose a regime of laissez-faire. Rather they used states and global institutions―the League of Nations, the European Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, and international investment law―to insulate the markets against sovereign states, political change, and turbulent democratic demands for greater equality and social justice.
Far from discarding the regulatory state, neoliberals wanted to harness it to their grand project of protecting capitalism on a global scale. It was a project, Slobodian shows, that changed the world, but that was also undermined time and again by the inequality, relentless change, and social injustice that accompanied it.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Religion and Patriotism in Post-Soviet Russia

Set for release in just six weeks, a new 220-page collection looks to contain some fascinating scholarship in an area that has been growing for more than two decades now: Religion, Expression, and Patriotism in RussiaEssays on Post-Soviet Society and the State, eds. Sanna Turoma, Kaarina Aitamurto, and Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover (Ibidem Press, 2019).

About this collection the publisher tells us this:
The 2010s saw an introduction of legislative acts about religion, sexuality, and culture in Russia, which caused an uproar of protests. They politicized areas of life commonly perceived as private and expected to be free of the state's control. As a result, political activism and radical grassroots movements engaged many Russians in controversies about religion and culture and polarized popular opinion in the capitals and regions alike.
This volume presents seven case studies that probe into the politics of religion and culture in today's Russia. The contributions highlight the diversity of Russia's religious communities and cultural practices by analyzing Hasidic Jewish identities, popular culture sponsored by the Orthodox Church, literary mobilization of the National Bolshevik Party, cinematic narratives of the Chechen wars, militarization of political Orthodoxy, and moral debates caused by opera as well as film productions. The authors draw on a variety of theoretical approaches and methodologies, including opinion surveys, ethnological fieldwork, narrative analysis, Foucault's conceptualization of biopower, catachrestic politics, and sociological theories of desecularization.
The volume’s contributors are Sanna Turoma, Kaarina Aitamurto, Tomi Huttunen, Susan Ikonen, Boris Knorre, Irina Kotkina, Jussi Lassila, Andrey Makarychev, Elena Ostrovskaya, and Mikhail Suslov.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ecclesiastical Mystagogy

St. Vladimir Seminary Press continues their welcome practice of bringing out new works in their long-running Popular Patristics series, of which the latest is On the Ecclesiastical Mystagogy by St. Maximus the Confessor.

About this newly translated work the publisher tells us this:
St Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) beautifully expounds the meaning of the Divine Liturgy in On the Ecclesiastical Mystagogy, which had a profound influence on the subsequent tradition, beginning with St Germanus of Constantinople (PPS 8). Maximus' vision of the liturgy contemplates the interpenetrating relationships of all things with each other and with Christ, In whom all things cohere. The church building and the human being and the cosmos are all mutually related and symbolically reflect each other. Further, In the liturgy we enter into the mystery of Christ. As St Maximus puts it, "Let us not be absent from the holy Church of God because she contains such great mysteries of our salvation according to... and she reveals the gift of adoption that is given through holy baptism in the Holy Spirit and that perfects each one into the image of Christ."

Monday, September 23, 2019

On the 80th Anniversary of the Death of our Father among the Saints Sigmund of Vienna

Today, eighty years ago in London, Freud did in fact "die in freedom" as he said he would when he left Vienna 18 months earlier after the Nazis (who would later murder his remaining family) made it impossible for him to remain. Thanks to Ernest Jones, Marie Bonaparte, and the British and other governments, Freud and his household were able (after liquidating most assets for "exit visas") to settle in the British capital. There in his last year he finally found the battle against the cancer of the jaw, first diagnosed in 1923 and resulting in many surgeries and other painful procedures, too hard to continue fighting against, and so at his request his physician gave him very large doses of morphine which hastened the end.

I have two essays coming out in the coming weeks, one shorter and more personal about how Freud and analytic therapy were hugely helpful in my life; the second a long intellectual-historical piece looking at the reception of Freud and practice of analysis among Catholics and Jesuits in particular. I'll post links when those are published.

In the meantime on this anniversary, I refer you to Mark Edmundson's book about Freud's last days, and some of the other works on mourning and death discussed here.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Catholic Abuse, Trauma, and Cover-Up

As someone who has recently written a book about the Catholic sex abuse crisis, and the necessary structural reforms to move past it, and as someone with a long-standing interest in psychoanalysis and trauma psychology, I am of course keenly awaiting my review copy of Abuse and Cover-up: Refounding the Catholic Church in Trauma by Gerald A. Arbuckle (Orbis, 2019), 248pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Here is a timely book on the sex abuse crisis by a scholar who is adept at weaving insights from the social sciences into a framework of practical theology.
Written for readers deeply concerned for the future of the church, this book addresses two questions: Why does the culture of the Catholic Church, despite Vatican II’s emphasis on collegiality and transparency, still cover up abuses of power? How can this culture change in order to end abuse and heal the wounds it inflicts on the Body of Christ?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Greek Thomist

Several times in the past decade we have had important new studies emerge to show us that the separations fondly maintained by some Christians--and built upon faulty history while often accompanied by demonization of such figures as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas and those apparently horrid "scholastics" more generally--were not nearly as neat, sharp, or straightforward as imagined today by those with an agenda. Thus Marcus Plested's wholly welcome Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, began this important trajectory of clarification and complication. (See here for an interview with him and video of one of his lectures.) Shortly after him, in different but related ways, Christiaan Kappes (interviewed here) continued it with his study of the Immaculate Conception. Others more recently still have joined in.

Coming up next spring we shall have another study revealing just how interconnected the "Greeks" and "Latins" were. I've met the author of this forthcoming work at several conferences over the years and always enjoyed talking with him. So I shall make a point of trying to arrange an interview with him next spring when his book comes out: Matthew C. Briel, A Greek Thomist: Providence in Gennadios Scholarios (University of Notre Dame Press, April 2020), 272 pages.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Matthew Briel examines for the first time the appropriation and modification of Thomas Aquinas's understanding of providence by a fifteenth-century Greek Orthodox theologian, Gennadios Scholarios. Briel investigates the intersection of Aquinas's theology, the legacy of Greek patristic and later theological traditions, and the use of Aristotle's philosophy by Latin and Greek Christian thinkers in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. The broader aim of the book is to reconsider our current understanding of later Byzantine theology by reconfiguring the construction of what constitutes "orthodoxy" within a pro- or anti-Western paradigm. The fruit of this appropriation of Aquinas enriches extant sources for historical and contemporary assessments of Orthodox theology. Moreover, Scholarios's grafting of Thomas onto the later Greek theological tradition changes the account of grace and freedom in Thomistic moral theology. The particular kind of Thomism that Scholarios develops avoids the later vexing issues in the West of the de auxiliis controversy by replacing the Augustinian theology of grace with the highly developed Greek theological concept of synergy.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Healing of African Memories

One of the issues that has haunted me for a long time, especially in Orthodox-Catholic relations, is what to do with the memories of our divisions and denunciations of each other--"heretics," "schismatic," etc. Given the climate in the Church today I'm of the view that such terms should be locked away in a specialized laboratory, the way the Centres for Disease Control keeps copies of deadly viruses under guard for exceedingly rare occasions where their resurrection might occasion some social good. Otherwise, lacking such a secure and controlled setting, you have the chaos of social media where every half-wit gong-show operator flings about accusations of "heretic" every few seconds based on a reading of Church history one can only regard, at best, as jejune. These kinds of antics can be damaging to the Church and her unity.

But there are other, much more sinister, forces doing real damage to individual lives as well as the life of the Church, and Christians continue to grapple with how to respond to such traumatic incidents and their pathological sequelae. It is not at all clear how to begin healing from some of these challenges, and too often notions of the "healing of memories" remain unhelpfully vague. A recent book I'm greatly looking forward to reading examines some of these problems and proposes some concrete ways forward: The Healing of Memories: African Christian Responses to Politically Induced Trauma, ed. Mohammed Girma (Lexington Books, 2018), 208pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Africa has seen many political crises ranging from violent political ideologies, to meticulous articulated racist governance system, to ethnic clashes resulting in genocide and religious conflicts that have planted the seed of mutual suspicion.The masses impacted by such crises live with the past that has not passed. The Healing of Memories: African Christian Responses to Politically Induced Trauma examines Christian responses to the damaging impact of conflict on the collective memory. Troubled memory is a recipe for another cycle of conflict. While most academic works tend to stress forgiving and forgetting, they did not offer much as to how to deal with the unforgettable past. This book aims to fill this gap by charting an interdisciplinary approach to healing the corrosive memories of painful pasts. Taking a cue from the empirical expositions of post-apartheid South Africa, post-genocide Rwanda, the Congo Wars, and post-Red Terror Ethiopia, this volume brings together coherent healing approaches to deal with traumatic memory.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Very Long History of Vatican II

When a glut of books was published starting seven years ago to commemorate the opening and then each session of Vatican II, I began quickly to feel rather surfeited. But that feeling has dwindled in the past year or so, giving me room to anticipate a forthcoming study by Shaun Blanchard, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform (Oxford University Press, November 2019), 344pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
In this book, Shaun Blanchard argues that the roots of the Vatican II reforms must be pushed back beyond the widely acknowledged twentieth-century forerunners of the Council, beyond Newman and the Tübingen School in the nineteenth century, to the eighteenth century, when a variety of reform movements attempted ressourcement and aggiornamento. This close study of the Synod of Pistoia (1786) sheds surprising new light on the nature of church reform and the roots of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The high-water mark of the late Jansenist reform movement, this Tuscan diocesan synod was harshly condemned by Pope Pius VI in the Bull Auctorem fidei (1794), and in the increasingly ultramontane nineteenth-century Church the late Jansenist movement was totally discredited. Nevertheless, much of the Pistoian agenda--an exaltation of the role of the local bishop, an emphasis on infallibility as a gift to the entire believing community, religious liberty, a more comprehensible liturgy that incorporates the vernacular, and the encouragement of lay Bible reading and Christocentric devotions--would be officially promulgated at Vatican II.
Investigating the theological and historical context and nature of the reforms enacted by the Synod of Pistoia, he notes their parallels with the reforms of Vatican II, and argues that these connections are deeper than mere affinity. The tumultuous events surrounding the reception of the Synod explain why these reforms failed at the time. This book also offers a measured theological judgment on whether the Synod of Pistoia was "true or false reform." Although the Pistoians were completely rejected in their own day, the Second Vatican Council struggled with, and ultimately enacted, remarkably similar ideas.

I am even more looking forward to reading a just-published book by the great historian John O'Malley, whose other recent book on Vatican I was reviewed by me here.

When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II Hardcover by John W. O'Malley (Harvard UP, 2019), 240pp.

About this new essay the publisher tells us this:
Catholic councils are meetings of bishops. In this unprecedented comparison of the three most recent meetings, John O’Malley traverses more than 450 years of Catholic history and examines the councils’ most pressing and consistent concerns: questions of purpose, power, and relevance in a changing world. By offering new, sometimes radical, even troubling perspectives on these convocations, When Bishops Meet analyzes the evolution of the church itself.
The Catholic Church today is shaped by the historical arc starting from Trent in the sixteenth century to Vatican II. The roles of popes, the laity, theologians, and others have varied from the bishop-centered Trent, to Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility, to a new balance of power in the mid-twentieth century. At Trent, lay people had direct influence on proceedings. By Vatican II, their presence was token. At each gathering, fundamental issues recurred: the relationship between bishops and the papacy, the very purpose of a council, and doctrinal change. Can the teachings of the church, by definition a conservative institution, change over time?
Councils, being ecclesiastical as well as cultural institutions, have always reflected and profoundly influenced their times. Readers familiar with John O’Malley’s earlier work as well as those with no knowledge of councils will find this volume an indispensable guide for essential questions: Who is in charge of the church? What difference did the councils make, and will there be another?

Monday, September 9, 2019

George Demacopoulos on Colonizing Crusaders

I had a very lovely breakfast with George Demacopolous in Romania in January at IOTA and so heard from him directly about his forthcoming book, which has just been published: Colonizing Christianity: Greek and Latin Religious Identity in the Era of the Fourth Crusade (Fordham UP, 2019), 272pp.

Following my usual practice, I e-mailed him some questions about the book. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

GD: Methodologically, I am trained as a pre-modern historian, but I’ve spent a good deal of time among Religious Studies and Theology faculties so I suppose you could say that my interests lie in applying historical-critical methods to aspects of Church history that continue to resonate with modern believers.  In recent years, I’ve grown more appreciative of certain theoretical resources, such as discourse analysis and postcolonial critique, because I think that they offer fresh ways of interpreting pre-modern texts.

AD: This is a book that tackles three controversial things—the Crusades, colonialism, and competing Christian identities. Tell us a bit about how you came to see the connections between them, and perhaps especially how you found the critical scholarly literature on colonialism and post-colonialism to be helpful. 

GD: It all started when Aristotle Papanikolaou and I began to explore the negative reception of Augustine among modern Orthodox communities.  The more I read the various caricatures of Augustine that prevailed in Russian and Greek writing in the 19th and 20th century, the more it became apparent that there must be a “backstory” to modern Orthodox identity narration that functioned in negative juxtaposition to the West, especially Catholicism and its bogey men—Augustine, Aquinas, etc.

As it happened—and this was about 10 years ago--I was in a faculty “theory” group at Fordham at the same time and we spent a few years reading postcolonial theory.  The more I thought about modern Orthodox identity in light of the stages of colonialism-decolonialism-postcolonialsim, the more I became convinced that there were aspects of the Orthodox story that aligned with phenomena in other cultures and contexts.  While I found the work of many postcolonial theorists (e.g. Said, Bhabha, Young, etc.) to be enlightening and provocative for my thinking about modern Orthodox identity formation vis-à-vis the West, it was also clear to me that there were at least two really important differences from the historical setting that I was pursuing versus the ones that postcolonial theorists typically engage in Africa, India, and the Middle East.

First, whereas their stories typically involved Christianity as an important aspect of the hegemonic colonial force, the Orthodox Christian story is possibly the only one in history where a Christian community is the victim of colonization, rather than the aggressor.  I believe this has some important implications—not only for Orthodox identity but also for the ways in which it complicates our understanding of the relationship between Christianity and colonialism.  Second, unlike the vast majority of the colonial stories that animate postcolonial critics, the Orthodox experience of colonialism occurred in the Middle Ages (not the early modern period).  I’m convinced, in fact, that the Western European experience during the Crusading period served as an important reference point for subsequent colonial enterprises.

AD: Until his death a few years ago, the Cambridge Crusades scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith mentioned more than once his despair that no matter how this history is told, it will always be traduced and tendentiously misrepresented for present political purposes. Did you hesitate at all before wading into the histories of the Crusades? Did you despair at all after having done so?!

GD: Yes, Riley-Smith took the Crusaders at their word that they believed themselves to be doing the work of God, that their conquest of the Near East was an “act of love.”  I don’t think I ever hesitated to pursue this project along the lines Riley-Smith laments.  I suppose if there is one thing that I don’t want readers to do with my work it is to misread my goals for the project. When I draw attention to some of the terrible things that Western Crusaders did and the outlandish ways by which they justified them, I do not do so in order for us to dismiss Western Christianity or because I think that those people represent Western Christendom.

Rather, I draw attention to this history because it helps us to explain the political, cultural, and military context in which Eastern Christians first began to narrate an Orthodox identity that was decidedly framed by juxtaposition against the West.  My theological point of view (such as I have one) is that the breakdown of Christian unity in the thirteenth century has virtually nothing to do with theology—it was entirely born of political and cultural animus. Viewing the breakdown through the lens of a colonial encounter (supplemented by the insights of postcolonial critique) helps us to see this in ways that more traditional historical-critical methods can elide.

AD: You also suggest in your introduction that the Fourth Crusade is especially painful in the East for opening up “permanent fissures within the Orthodox community.” Tell us a bit more about that.

GD: More than anything else, the legacy of the Fourth Crusade is that Eastern Christians have become divided over the proper response to the West.  It was in the context of the Latin empire of Byzantium that some Eastern Christians began to say for the first time that Orthodox could not marry Latins and they could not receive the sacraments from Latins.  It is a common misconception that these things occurred with the Schism in 1054 (they did not).  It was also in the context of the Latin empire that some Eastern Christian began to say that other Eastern Christians who had various levels of association with Westerners could not be permitted to participate in Eastern Christian sacraments because they were tainted by the exposure to Latins.  To be clear, this was not the majority position—it was clearly a minority position—but it gave birth to a trajectory within Orthodoxy that would have profound and long-lasting implications.  In fact, I believe that every modern inner-Orthodox debate either explicitly or implicitly is concerned with the question of Western Christendom and what the proper response to it should be.

AD: Without naming him explicitly, Freud nonetheless seems to me to lurk in the background as you attempt to draw out the connections between sexuality, power, and colonialism. Messis and Said are some of your principal interlocutors here. Tell us a bit about what you found valuable in their works.

GD: Yes, I’ll admit that I was never really that enamored with employing psycho-analytic approaches to historical questions, but these methods are very important to many postcolonial theorists, especially someone like Homi Bhabha.  Moreover, Said and Robert Young are two postcolonial theorists to draw out the sexual dimensions of power relationships as well as issues of longing, fantasy, and repulsion.  I do believe that some of the pro-Crusader texts that I examine in the book give themselves easily to analysis from this perspective, even if I don’t explicitly pursue the psycho-analytic dimensions.

AD: You make it clear that Byzantium in the crusading period should not be regarded as uniformly “subaltern.” Would you elaborate a bit as to why this is an important clarification?

GD: To be “subaltern” is to have no access to power, to have no control whatsoever to one’s own discourse.  At the turn of the thirteenth century, Byzantium was, arguably, the most advanced and culturally sophisticated Christian society in the world.  So while I believe that it is very clear that the process of colonialism-decolonialism-postcolonialism helps us to understand Orthodox Christian history and culture from the Crusades to the present, I do not think that the situation is the identical to other regions of the globe where Western Europeans arrived and completely transformed indigenous societies.

AD: I’m especially struck by your third chapter on papal ambivalence, a phenomenon which is always so psychologically revealing. Here you discuss Pope Innocent III’s “double-bind” with the capture of Constantinople. Tell us a bit more about that bind. It seems clear that part of the bind (then as now) is that by calling Eastern Christians genuine Christians (with “valid orders” as Catholics might say today) in a real sacramental Church the pope appeared to undercut his own claim to being the fount of all validity and liceity in the Church?

The chapter argues that the unexpected capture of Constantinople in 1204 put Pope Innocent III into a rhetorical and practical double bind. On the one hand, the pontiff sternly criticized the crusaders for their brutality against fellow Christians and for compromising the larger military effort in the Holy Land.  On the other hand, Innocent saw the conquest of Constantinople as an opportunity to resolve the schism on his own terms and, at least initially, he hoped that the accrual of Byzantium to the crusaders’ Eastern network might be beneficial to his larger objectives.

But if Innocent was to capitalize on this, it meant that he would need to reformulate the very basis of crusading ideology so as to authorize the subjugation of a community that he had previously defined as Christian. Of course, one of the ways that Innocent does this is by asserting, all the more forcefully, the prerogatives of papal authority.  In the conclusion of the chapter, I assess this dimension of Innocent’s ambivalence and observe that:  “Innocent’s repeated acknowledgement that the Greeks do not accept papal rule exposes the inherent contradiction within the discourse of papal sovereignty.  Indeed, each papal recognition of Greek disobedience reveals a gap in the very premise of papal authority, whether the premise is constituted on the Petrine myth or some other foundation.  The dissonance of papal sovereignty is 'put on trial' by its every iteration."

If the bishop of Rome is truly and authentically the source of all hierarchic power and Christian teaching that its advocates claim it to be, then any acknowledgment from the bishop of Rome that there are “Christians” who do not accept such a principle undercuts all value in the claim of papal authority as a first principle.  In Bhabha’s terms, Innocent’s assertion of papal authority encodes its own inevitable undoing; its very iteration establishes an ambivalent situation that disrupts its claim to monolithic power.  As discourse, the Roman claim of papal sovereignty in the Church bears at one and the same time a striking ambivalence--both possibility and dis-possibility.

Thus, papal discourse vis-à-vis Greek Christians in this period implicitly dictates either (1) that Greeks are not Christians (because they fail to acknowledge papal authority, which is a measurement of authenticity imposed by the discourse) or (2) the recognition of papal authority is not a meaningful measurement or requirement of Christianity (because the discourse admits that no Greek acknowledges papal authority).  Either way, the assertion cannot withstand its own logical weight.

AD: As you are working towards your conclusion, you note that from this literature you review one can find clear evidence that neither Latin nor Greek views of the other were monolithic, and that the boundaries between each sacramental community were “extremely porous.” What lessons, if any, do these insights offer us today?

GD: This is an important question with broad implications.  In general terms, it teaches us is that history, even (if not especially) the history of the Church is far more complex and varied than we typically understand.  More specifically, it encourages us to see that there have always been multiple “authoritative” voices saying a variety of things about the boundaries of the Christian community and the standing of person on that borderland.  There was never a time when these questions were easy and, for me, that is a cause for hope because it means the cause of Christian unity has always been a challenge, even though the Scriptures themselves have made it a mandate.

AD: Having finished the book, what are you at work on now?

My next major project will look at the presentation of violence in late-ancient and medieval Greek hymnography.  What I’m particular interested to explore is the context in which Christians begin to ask God to destroy enemies.  It didn’t start that way.  I have a theory to explain what happened, but you’ll need to wait for the next book.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Historical Contingency

As I argued here, I am increasingly convinced that many conflicts within Catholic and Orthodox Christianity today (and between their so-called apologists) are historiographical in nature. Much of what--especially in more "popular" forms, or in the proliferation of books appearing from dodgy publishers or even self-published, as well as on myriad blogs and websites--makes it into print today purporting to tell Christians about our past is not serious and scholarly history told, as I argued, with requisite asceticism, serenity, and comprehensive accounting of the evidence in a manner free of ideological bias or a tendentiousness designed to thwart your imaginary enemies--the "Franks" and "Latins" and "Greeks" and "modernist heretics" and, of course, "the Masons."

This kind of history exults in creating grotesques and fatuously glosses over any acknowledgement of the contingency of human affairs, pretending that one can here, now, today, in an unaided fashion make infallible snap judgments about long-ago events half hidden in the mists "between two waves of the sea" (Eliot). When the evidence is lacking for such judgments, then one magics up some conspiracy theories to account for such lacunae and to stitch together wholly implausible events in search of a kind of coherence which is often mythical and almost invariably constricting and constraining, sometimes lethally so if one cares about the truth.

Where, in this, is the awareness of the contingency of our lives (a theme I first learned many years ago from Stanley Hauerwas and then Alasdair MacIntyre and finally Newman)?

For some Christians, perhaps most, like people in general, they abhor any notion of contingency and instead prefer (often unconsciously) to find their lives to be determined, and to make others' lives be determined, too, according to the dictates of some pope or patriarch or preacher on the TV, or perhaps some politician, all of them offering a program, group, party you can join (for a fee, of course) and be magically rescued from having to contend ever again with the messiness of your own life--never mind that of your community, country, and Church. This thinking is typically manifest via "if only" statements: if only the pope weren't a modernist; if only the seventeenth secret of Fatima were revealed; if only we didn't have the media/deep state/Clinton/Trump/Phanar/Mt. Athos/Moscow/Constantinople (etc.) to contend with then we could really smite our enemies and bring the messiness of history to an uncluttered end.

But surely contingency is the very price and stuff of our freedom as creatures? Surely it is, and is to be welcomed as, a gift, however disguised it may often seem to people who would rather make themselves "slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary" or who "exult in the freedom to submit themselves to church authority with wild abandon" (Neuhaus)?

But that itself raises two further questions: do we secretly hate freedom, as suggested here? And do we in fact prefer to have determined lives, not only determined by others (including those wreathed about with pious smoke) but also by our own self-generated narratives and internal censors and self-diagnoses, as Adam Phillips suggests in his invaluable book, Unforbidden Pleasures, discussed here?

The question of historical contingency comes in for examination in a new book, Contingency and the Limits of History: How Touch Shapes Experience and Meaning by Liane Carlson (Columbia University Press, 2019), 304pp.

About this new book the publisher tells us this:
Central to the historicizing work of recent decades has been the concept of contingency, the realm of chance, change, and the unnecessary. Following Nietzsche and Foucault, genealogists have deployed contingency to show that all institutions and ideas could have been otherwise as a critique of the status quo. Yet scholars have spent very little time considering the genealogy of contingency itself—or what its history means for its role in politics.
In Contingency and the Limits of History, Liane Carlson historicizes contingency by tying it to its theological and etymological roots in “touch,” contending that much of its critical, disruptive power is specific to our current historical moment. She returns to an older definition of contingency found in Christian theology that understands it as the lot of mortal creatures, who suffer, feel, bleed, and change, in contrast to a necessary, unchanging, impassible God. Far from dying out, Carlson reveals, this theological past persists in continental philosophy, where thinkers such as Novalis, Schelling, Merleau-Ponty, and Serres have imagined contingency as a type of radical destabilization brought about by the body’s collision with a changing world. Through studies of sickness, loneliness, violation, and love, she shows that different experiences of contingency can lead to dramatically dissimilar ethical and political projects. A strikingly original reconsideration of one of continental philosophy and critical theory’s most cherished concepts, this book reveals the limits of historicist accounts.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Poison of Papal Centralization

I can confess now to my earlier Schadenfreude when the news of Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s disgrace broke nearly twenty years ago now and he was found to have been paying off a gay lover from diocesan funds and then lying about the amounts and the sources. (He initially claimed that whatever he took from the diocese was more than offset by royalties from his writings, speaking fees, etc. This turned out to be widely off the mark by a considerable amount, and the lie merely compounded myriad offenses for which, were I running the Church, he would have immediately been put on trial by a regional or national synod of bishops, and deposed from office swiftly if found guilty, as he admits he was.) This was just an extraordinary twist to a much more familiar tale involving him and all his episcopal brothers: the moving around and covering up of sexual abusers in Weakland's diocese of Milwaukee. Both revelations allowed me, for years, smugly to feel that I had two impeccable reasons for writing off this aptly named creature, and I never gave him another thought. With a name and record like his, would one seriously reproach oneself for snickering sanctimoniously?

But my undergraduate readings in Emmanuel Levinas, on the dangers of abstraction and the reduction of unique human beings to a category, and the refusal to engage them face-to-face, have been haunting me a lot lately. So too am I haunted by not always doing what I am forever my haranguing my students to do: to "despoil the Egyptians" as the Fathers counselled, that is to discern where, even in lives of those who have done manifest and notorious, or hidden and banal evil (which is all of us), we might also find glimmers of goodness, even in small ways. Such discernment is necessary to prevent us from demonizing people and turning them into grotesques, as I certainly had done at an earlier point in my life whenever Weakland's name was in the headlines.

My conscience thus doubly pricked, I felt I owed Weakland a read when, early this summer, I found his A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop in the $1 bin at Hyde Brothers, the only truly outstanding used bookstore in Ft. Wayne. So I bought it, figuring that if it turned out to be maudlin self-justifying treacle, I wouldn't begrudge the loss of a mere dollar--not least because I could always recoup great emotional compensation by allowing my children to set the book on fire and roast marshmallows over it.

But I’m very glad I did buy it and read it. His was a fascinating life--growing up dirt poor in Pennsylvania, discovering sophisticated talents for both music and advanced scholarship on the same (he eventually finished his doctorate at Columbia in medieval musicology), and then getting pulled into all the major developments of the Church since the Second World War. He writes in a generally cogent fashion mostly free from excesses either of self-justification or self-abasement. The sketches he gives of many figures--perhaps most clearly Popes Paul VI and John Paul II--are highly revealing and often bemusing--when, that is, they do not make one cringe, weep, or both over their manifest flaws so visible to others if not themselves. (But then, as I long ago learned from Freud, we are all ambivalent half-blind creatures who disguise that by thinking ourselves steely-spined, fervent and zealous always for the truth, and transparently good--while everyone else, of course, is feckless, fickle, opaque, and wicked.)

Weakland spent no little time in official and semi-official Orthodox-Catholic dialogues and encounters, and has interesting things to say about trips to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarchs, especially Athenagoras. He also made a long-sought pilgrimage to Mt. Athos for an encounter between Western monks (Weakland was a professed Benedictine) and Eastern monastics. In this he put me in mind of Basil Pennington's charming book about such meetings, The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monks Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground. 

(Since both Weakland and Pennington's books have appeared there has been a small explosion of interest in the so-called holy mountain. I have noted some of those books on here over the years.)

But I appreciated the book not only for its biographical and historical and ecumenical detail, but above all for its ecclesiological insights of which I was unaware. For those of us who have been arguing for years now against a centralizing papacy. which arguments I first laid out in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, and more recently in my new book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, Weakland provides a great deal of evidence for why resisting a centralizing papacy and its curial micro-managers is important to the Church.

For those vanishingly few people today who still want to maintain, in the face of a relentless daily onslaught of evidence to the contrary, that only a strongly centralized papacy will "save us" from, say, the ostensibly wayward teaching of supposedly heterodox hierarchs, then let me dust off a question I've been asking for well over a decade: who, pray tell, appointed and promoted the bishops like--to pluck names at random--Bernard Law? Roger Mahoney? Theodore McCarrick? or Michael Bransfield? or George Pell? or Joseph Hart? or, for that matter, Rembert Weakland? It is, as Freud so clearly saw in his much-maligned and almost entirely misunderstood book Future of an Illusiona peculiarly stubborn feature of certain minds in some religious traditions desperately to hang on to illusions precisely as a species of wish fulfillment. In this case, the wish is quite understandable, indeed commendable: it is to have bishops who are shepherds, not wolves. But imagining the papacy as the only, or best, route to finding such shepherds is now revealed to be perhaps the clearest species of illusion on offer anywhere today.

Weakland--whatever his sins, which I do not for a moment excuse, as I noted above--is useful to us as an important witness to the ongoing pathological and cancerous growth of a centralizing papacy in areas almost entirely ignored by everybody else. Weakland tells a small slice of history of which I was unaware: the pressure, from Pope Leo XIII onward, to turn the worldwide abbot-primate of the Benedictines (which role Weakland filled from 1967 until being made a bishop in 1977) into a micromanaging quasi-papal figure, and the international Benedictine Confederation into a highly centralized body trying to control Benedictine houses around the world. Many times he had to fight various figures in the Roman Curia (some of whom call to mind Congar's acid description of a certain Roman bureaucrat as "an imbecile, a sub-human...this wretched freak, this sub-mediocrity with no culture, no horizon, no humanity") who wanted Weakland to become some kind of hammer, pounding all the world's Benedictine houses into submission on almost invariably tedious points beloved by bureaucrats if for no other reason than to show their own power.

Weakland, to his credit, fought this trend as much as possible, noting that it was not just an attempt at centralization, but also at finding convenient scapegoats: "the Congregation for Religious wants a primate who will carry out their orders and take the blame if things go wrong," he writes. His refusal to go along with this was, he says, a manifestation of a Benedictine "spirit of independence" which some tried to suggest was just disguised "disobedience" to the pope. But Weakland saw through that, and apparently both he and Paul VI also realized that such curialists and their claims were trying covertly to manipulate even the pope to their own ends. (Weakland hints that Paul's character is very much like that revealed in Louis Bouyer's explosive memoirs, where Bouyer notes how often the liturgical reformers tried to claim certain things were desired or demanded by the pope, when the pope had done no such thing--but the climate of secrecy in which they were all operating, usually for no very good reason, allowed for such games to be played.)

Neither Weakland nor I, to be clear, are arguing against papal authority in certain respects. There is an equal if opposite danger afoot here, that of demonizing popes and the papacy, which has not been without its merits in certain extreme and emergency situations, and can still be useful in "calling everyone to dinner" as a colleague of mine once phrased it. But those extreme and emergency situations, largely creatures of revolutionary Europe in the very longue durée from c. 1789 to c. 1918, are completely gone, but the centralized and now paralyzed structures created in response to them, are, alas, with us still.

Today, in a very different era in which we are all finally coming to see how poisonous papal centralization is, and how cancerous its growth, and are finally, belatedly, starting to look for alternate models of local and synodal governance, which I have outlined in very short form here, in slighly longer form here, and in longer form still in the new book, we have people like the flawed Rembert Weakland to thank for fighting this battle avant la lettre even as he was losing other ones with the demons that variously attack all of us.

Monday, September 2, 2019

King Charlie the Big?

The University of California Press just sent me their catalogue of forthcoming publications, and in it I spy a new study of one of those figures who often loom large, for good and ill, in the minds of certain Christians, especially those trying to find bogeymen for divisions, so-called heresies, the rise of those horrid "Franks" who apparently drove East and West apart, etc. Charlemagne rather majestically fits that bill for some.

King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne by Janet L. Nelson (University of California Press, 2019), 704pp.

About this biography we are told this by the publisher:
Charles I, often known as Charlemagne, is one of the most extraordinary figures ever to rule an empire. Driven by unremitting physical energy and intellectual curiosity, he was a man of many parts, a warlord and conqueror, a judge who promised "for each their law and justice," a defender of the Latin Church, a man of flesh and blood. In the twelve centuries since his death, warfare, accident, vermin, and the elements have destroyed much of the writing on his rule, but a remarkable amount has survived. Janet Nelson's wonderful new book brings together everything we know about Charles I, sifting through the available evidence, literary and material, to paint a vivid portrait of the man and his motives.
Building on Nelson’s own extraordinary knowledge, this biography is a sort of detective story, prying into and interpreting fascinating and often obdurate scraps of evidence, from prayer books to skeletons, gossip to artwork. Charles’s legacy lies in his deeds and their continuing resonance, as he shaped counties, countries, and continents; founded and rebuilt towns and monasteries; and consciously set himself up not just as King of the Franks, but as the head of the renewed Roman Empire. His successors—even to the present day—have struggled to interpret, misinterpret, copy, or subvert his legacy. Janet Nelson gets us as close as we can hope to come to the real figure of Charles the man as he was understood in his own time.
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