"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).

Friday, January 31, 2020

On the God Concepts Even Atheists Have

It's been a lot of fun this semester to explore with my students something of the relationship between psychoanalysis and Christian faith.

We began with a brief exploration of Future of an Illusion, where all modern psychological and psychiatric suspicion of faith and belief seems to find its origins. This book marked Freud out as one of the three “masters of suspicion,” so called by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur: the other two being Marx and Nietzsche. All of them are thought to be enemies of something called “religion,” even though nobody can agree on what “religion” is.

But it falls to Freud to launch the modern suspicion of prayer, faith, and belief in God. For Freud the idea that you can pray to some being called God and get him to change the weather, or help you pass an exam, or heal Uncle Joe from cancer, or spring Grandma from purgatory, is what he called an illusion, that is a fantasy you entertain that may or may not be true or come true. But what an illusion really seeks to do is to give you a sense that your wishes, your hopes, your dreams, may well come true thanks to the great Father Protector in the Sky you feel you need based on your experience as a helpless infant in a chaotic and destructive world.

We know some of the problems with this claim--it's highly philosophically flabby and lazy, for one thing, and makes generalizations so sweeping that their refutation is child's play.

But there is another set of problems, perhaps the most fatal, with Freud's claim: its lack of clinical and empirical grounding. Freud, especially in his writings from 1920 to the end of his life in 1939, often blurred the boundaries between his work as an individual clinician, seeing individuals in his consulting room at Bergasse 19 in Vienna, and making universal generalizations about all of humanity at all times and in every place and culture. As a clinician he treated perhaps a couple hundred people over his lifetime of practicing psychoanalysis. As a theoretician and cultural critic, he claimed to speak for billions past and present. This is a major weakness in his writings.

But his criticism of “religion” as an infantile illusion was widely accepted by the mainstream of psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis until very recently. It was never a serious, much less substantiated, criticism, but simply a professional prejudice. Clinicians have their prejudices and blind spots, their ideological hobby horses and fetishes, just like the rest of us. After 1927 began a widespread period of perceived opposition between psychology and theology.

Christians reciprocated by often dismissing Freud and psychology as a whole, disdaining their efforts as godless and dangerous nonsense and denying the need for any sort of therapy, sometimes saying that going to confession and praying more were all that was needed—a dangerous species of magical thinking which fails to help, and often actively harms, those who are suffering. I criticized that here.

But shortly after Freud’s death, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst in England, D.W. Winnicott, begins treating mothers and children suffering from effects of WWII. Many parents in and around London and the bigger cities made the decision to send their children to boarding schools or to live with others in the countryside (or overseas to Canada), to save them from being bombed in the cities. Mothers were often wracked with guilt over this, fearing they had done great harm to their children.

In response, when reunited after the war, some mothers went overboard, overcompensating for their absence out of a sense of guilt. Winnicott discovered, working with such kids and their mothers, that the ideal balance was between total neglect and an overzealous mother seeking to be perfect, to leave no need unmet, no desire unfulfilled on the part of her child. Such perfectionism, Winnicott realized, is actually quite harmful. The child needs the experience of feeling frustrated sometimes, of not always having every need/desire met immediately. Such experiences help the child with his/her reality-testing.

To mothers, Winnicott offered the famous counsel of being “good enough”—not neglecting the needs of their children, but not seeking to fulfill all of them every time. The best mother is the good enough mother—not neglectful, certainly, but not over-anxious to be and do every single thing, either. Frustration, after all, has its purposes, some of them positive.

In the child’s reality testing, Winnicott also famously realized, s/he makes use of objects to negotiate exploration of self and other. Some objects help the child understand him/herself and others around him. Some frustrate this purpose and end up as bad objects. But whether good or bad, these Winnicott called “transitional objects.” They facilitate the transition from the enclosed world of the infantile self to the outer world where others exist independent of the self.

These are transitional objects, and they are often very simple but very powerful. How many of you had—or still have!—a favored blanket or teddy bear or something similar? In Winnicott’s experience this was almost universal.

Winnicott, unlike Freud and a lot of early analysts, was neither Jewish nor atheist. He grew up Methodist and then became Anglican. For him belief in God posed no problem at all. (In turn, Winnicott's thought is a useful adjunct for Catholic theology, as I tried to show a little bit here.) In fact, his extensive clinical research led him to realize that Freud was wrong in seeing religious faith as an illusion or pathology. For Winnicott healthy development of infants included the development of illusions, which were then tested against reality to see which were true, which false.

Winnicott's use of object-relations and illusions, including those surrounding God, opened the door for Ana-Maria Rizzuto (some of whose thought was discussed previously in more details here). She was born and raised Catholic in Argentina, where she was a catechist in her early years, and taught a course on psychology and theology to seminarians before moving to Boston in 1965 and completing medical school and then psychoanalytic training.

That training and her early research led her to begin asking: so even if we accept Freud’s thesis that faith in and prayer to God is an infantile illusion, shouldn’t we as clinicians still investigate our patients’ beliefs about, and hopes and desires directed at, God? Aren’t we supposed to be interested in everything our patients hope for, desire, fear, love, are curious or anxious about? Why rule God out from the start—except out of professional prejudice? How helpful are we to be to people we are charged with helping if we tell almost all of them that any notion they have of God is off the table from the beginning? If you are supposed to be free to talk safely and openly to your therapist about anything, why are we saying you can talk about anything but if you talk about God we will call you crazy and clap you in a straight-jacket?

Her worldview, shaped by Catholic theology and Freudian as well as object-relations psychology, has five key components:

i) Object-related world in which we are never alone
ii) Symbolic understanding of reality
iii) Self-examination of hidden motives and agendas
iv) Transformational power of confessing my sins/struggles
v) Need to confront oneself and reality honestly: nothing can escape the ‘reality principle’ as Freud called it, or ‘God’ as Christians call Him.

She begins research projects (turning them into her first book) at Boston hospitals with patients, including psychotic and neurotic patients, to just listen to their God objects and ideas, tape-recording and then analyzing these discussions later. What she finds is that everybody has some kind of God object in mind, some kind of concept, some ideas about who or what God is or is not. These have developed very early on, and in ways that are often little understood and very undertheorized. As she puts it, “no child arrives at the ‘house of God’ without his pet God under his arm.”

And as she further showed, almost nobody develops without a God image, a God object, in mind. Even those who later as adults come to claim for themselves the status of “atheist” always have a particular God image or God object in mind that they hate or reject. Freud is the most famous example of this: he was a Jewish atheist. There are Catholic atheists, Protestant atheists, Orthodox atheists, Muslim atheists. As she puts it categorically, “there is no such thing as a person without a God representation.”

Everyone “believes” in a God object to a greater or lesser degree. This is not just a matter of intellectual reason but also of the heart, involving love and hate. But it is erroneous to think that these God representations are singularly paternal or maternal. They can and do vary from person to person.

The challenge for religious traditions then becomes: to put an “official” theology face-to-face with the child’s theology and work from there.

Both children and adult patients, in her experience, were divided into four types:

1) Believers: Those who believed in God without much problem
2) Agnostics: those wondering whether God exists, and whether to believe in Him
3) Those angry/dismayed that others believe in a God who does not interest them
4) Those struggling to get rid of objects and images of a harsh, demanding God of wrath and judgment

For Rizzuto, in sum, Freud is valuable in challenging us to examine what false illusions we might have about God while seeking to understand ourselves more deeply so that we may know whether the images, ideas, illusions, objects, representations we have about God are true and helpful, healthful, useful, or destructive and idolatrous.

Finally, and more recently, her work has been confirmed by the Catholic psychiatrist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, about whom and whose work more another time. Suffice it to say that is an invaluable book of deep and fascinating insights.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

John McGuckin's New History of Orthodoxy

I recently received the Yale University Press's catalogue of forthcoming publications, and in there spied a name very well known, whom I have sometimes in the past interviewed on here about previous books: John McGuckin, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History (Yale UP, 2020), 376pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
In this short, accessible account of the Eastern Orthodox Church, John McGuckin begins by tackling the question “What is the Church?” His answer is a clear, historically and theologically rooted portrait of what the Church is for Orthodox Christianity and how it differs from Western Christians’ expectations.
McGuckin explores the lived faith of generations, including sketches of some of the most important theological themes and individual personalities of the ancient and modern Church. He interweaves a personal approach throughout, offering to readers the experience of what it is like to enter an Orthodox church and witness its liturgy. In this astute and insightful book, he grapples with the reasons why many Western historians and societies have overlooked Orthodox Christianity and provides an important introduction to the Orthodox Church and the Eastern Christian World.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Icons of the Tbilisi Bible

One of the books I'm using this semester really deserves wider recognition, especially for Western Christians wondering about the relationship between the Bible as word, and the Christian devotional use of images. It is the collection put together by the biblical scholar Francis J. Moloney, Life of Jesus in Icons from the "Bible of Tbilisi", which has been out for over a decade, but really remains very valuable for several reasons: first, the quality of the commentary, which is very solid and succinct; second, the colour of the images; and finally the fact that all this is put together in a relatively brief but very affordable hardback book.

If you don't have a copy, if you want to grow in your understanding of verbal and visual revelation alike, if you have Western Christian family and friends somewhat leery of the relationship between text and image, then get them this book.

Friday, January 24, 2020

American Christian Orientalism

Though this recent publication focuses on 19th-century Protestants, there is a good deal of evidence that such essentializing orientalism lives on today in American evangelicalism, and Christianity more generally. Current views of, e.g., Christianity in the Middle East as seen in the eyes of many of my students would reflect this. In any event, a welcome new study: An American Biblical Orientalism: The Construction of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Nineteenth-Century American Evangelical Piety by David D. Grafton (Fortress Press, 2019), 246pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
An American Biblical Orientalism: The Construction of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Nineteenth-Century American Evangelical Piety examines the life and work of Eli Smith, William McClure Thomson, and Edward Robinson and their descriptions of the “Bible Lands.” While there has been a great deal written about American travelogues to the Holy Lands, this book focuses on how these three prominent American Protestants described the indigenous peoples, and how those images were consumed by American Christians who had little direct experience with the “Bible Lands.” David D. Grafton argues that their publications (Biblical Researches, Later Biblical Researches, and The Land and the Book) profoundly impacted the way that American Protestants read and interpreted the Bible in the late-nineteenth century. The descriptions and images of the people found their way into American Bible dictionaries, theological dictionaries, and academic and religious circles of a growing bible readership in North America. Ultimately, the people of late Ottoman society (e.g. Jews, Christians and Muslims) were essentialized as the living characters of the Bible. These peoples were fitted into categories as heroes or villains from biblical stories, and rarely seen as modern people in their own right. Thus, in the words of Edward Said, they were “orientalized."

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Therapists and Spiritual Directors: Learning from Each Other

This has been out for a couple of years now, but I just came across it. For those interested in the very fluid boundary between therapy and spiritual direction this looks to be a promising collection edited by Peter Madsen Gubi, What Counsellors and Spiritual Directors Can Learn from Each Other (2017), 192pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
This new edited collection explores the intersection of spiritual direction and counselling/psychotherapy, and the relationship between the two. Citing the influencing effect prayer and counselling have had on each other, the contributors offer insight into the similarities and differences of spiritual direction and counselling, and of what the disciplines have to learn from each other.
Advocating the importance of addressing the spiritual dimension of care in areas such as mental health and social care, this book promotes a synthesis of pastoral guidance and psychological counselling. The chapters offer insight to the healing role spirituality and prayer can play when counselling for trauma, sexual abuse or loss of a loved one. Whether discussing training counsellors to be spiritually literate, or exploring how spiritual accompaniers can take a psychologically-informed approach, all the contributors bring their extensive experience to bear working with spiritual and psychological issues.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Christian Martyrs Under Islam

First published in the summer of 2018, a new paperback version is to be released in just a few short weeks. Unlike some apologetic and hagiographic texts, which would have us believe this history is unidirectional and entirely bloody and violent for Christians, this author recognizes the complexities: Christian Sahner, Christian Martyrs Under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World (Princeton University Press, 2020), 360pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
How did the medieval Middle East transform from a majority-Christian world to a majority-Muslim world, and what role did violence play in this process? Christian Martyrs under Islam explains how Christians across the early Islamic caliphate slowly converted to the faith of the Arab conquerors and how small groups of individuals rejected this faith through dramatic acts of resistance, including apostasy and blasphemy.
Using previously untapped sources in a range of Middle Eastern languages, Christian Sahner introduces an unknown group of martyrs who were executed at the hands of Muslim officials between the seventh and ninth centuries CE. Found in places as diverse as Syria, Spain, Egypt, and Armenia, they include an alleged descendant of Muhammad who converted to Christianity, high-ranking Christian secretaries of the Muslim state who viciously insulted the Prophet, and the children of mixed marriages between Muslims and Christians. Sahner argues that Christians never experienced systematic persecution under the early caliphs, and indeed, they remained the largest portion of the population in the greater Middle East for centuries after the Arab conquest. Still, episodes of ferocious violence contributed to the spread of Islam within Christian societies, and memories of this bloodshed played a key role in shaping Christian identity in the new Islamic empire.
Christian Martyrs under Islam examines how violence against Christians ended the age of porous religious boundaries and laid the foundations for more antagonistic Muslim-Christian relations in the centuries to come.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Trauma and Grace

Westminster/John Knox Press recently sent me the second edition of Serene Jones' book Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (2019), 227pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:
This substantive collection from noted scholar Serene Jones explores recent work in the field of trauma studies. Central to its overall theme is an investigation of how individual and collective violence affect one’s capacity to remember, to act, and to love; how violence can challenge theological understandings of grace; and even how the traumatic experience of Jesus’ death is remembered. Jones focuses on the long-term effects of collective violence on abuse survivors, war veterans, and marginalized populations and the discrete ways in which grace and redemption may be exhibited in each context. At the heart of each essay are two deeply interrelated faith claims that are central to Jones’s understanding of Christian theology: (1) We live in a world profoundly broken by violence, and (2) God loves this world and desires that suffering be met by words of hope, love, and grace. This timely and relevant cutting-edge book is the first trauma study to directly take into account theological issues.
I have read it with great interest as part of a research project on trauma and Eastern Christians, especially in Russia and Ukraine. While a good deal of it is personal, and much of the rest of it rather particular to American politics of the last decade or so (not least racism and police brutality against African-Americans), there is enough material in here that all Christians of whatever tradition could profitably read it.

She rightly begins by noting that "the Bible is one long series of traumatic events and accounts of how people struggle to speak about God in the face of them" (xi). She also has an interesting analysis of so-called doubting Thomas, arguing that what if he was not engaged in some impertinence but was in fact manifesting "dissociation," a key hallmark of trauma, which led to his disbelief?

Additionally her take on the story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus, which I first proposed last spring before coming across Jones' work, matches my own: the inability to "see" Jesus here is very much the result of arguably not just post-traumatic stress but an acute stress disorder by people in the immediate throes of post-crucifixion trauma and overwhelming grief.

Jones ends on what I might call a Balthasarian note, focusing on the importance of recovering the capacity for what he called a "metaphysics of wonder." This, as Jones rightly notes, does not obliterate trauma but is both important in itself and a sign of surviving and even coming again to thrive on the far side of trauma.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Uncommonly Fine Prayers and Thoughts of Michael Plekon

In the summer of 2016 I was able to interview my friend Michael Plekon about his then-new book, Uncommon Prayer. You can read that interview here.

I am delighted to be able finally to use Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience in a course I am teaching this semester. If you haven't read it yet, you will not want to miss it. Like all his books, it is marked by an uncommonly and un-apologetically large and gracious breadth of themes, sources, and personages rendered in very accessible and inviting style--never thou shalt believe this, but instead: here, have a look at this where God may be found. I think the chapter on prayers and pirogi making is perhaps my favourite--but then I always think, as it were, with my stomach! 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Ivan Illich and Erich Fromm on the Corrupt Church

I've started working on a long essay on what we still have not learned from Erich Fromm, the 40th anniversary of whose death we will shortly mark. I think, and hope to show, that he has much to teach Catholics in particular in the sex abuse crisis, about which I published my new book several months ago now. In that book, Everything Hidden Shall be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, I drew on Fromm a little bit (and other psychoanalytic critics), but I want to expand that focus in this new essay.

Part of what has motivated me is finally being able to do a serious reading of Lawrence Friedman's magisterial biography, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love's Prophet, where he notes that while Fromm wrote many books that sold millions of copies, and are still in print today, he has nonetheless been largely ignored by North American academics (those in other parts of the world are a different story).

As I've been discovering this is true, a fortiori, of academic theologians, especially Catholics and Orthodox theologians. (Fromm got some attention in the post-war period from Protestants, but most of that dried up long before he died.) This is all the stranger given how many books Fromm wrote on topics so obviously and overwhelmingly amenable to theology: love, hope, sin, freedom, illusion, idolatry, and much else.

His 1941 book Escape from Freedom is one I am also re-reading, and it has key insights also unassimilated by Catholics, but very much in need of being considered today as I shall show.

In going back to Fromm as I am doing, I realized I also have to go back to Ivan Illich, sometime Catholic priest and powerful critic of many social institutions, including churches and schools. I read his Deschooling Society in the 90s, and it has remained with me as a singular challenge.

I also spy a new collection of his writings that I'm looking forward to reading: The Powerless Church, just republished late last year. About this book the publisher tells us this:
Dalmatian-Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and radical cultural critic Ivan Illich is best known for polemical writings such as Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality, which decried Western institutions of the 1970s. This collection brings together Illich’s shorter writings from his early publications through the rise of his remarkable intellectual career, making available works that had fallen into undue obscurity.
A fervent critic of Western Catholicism, Illich also addressed contemporary practices in fields from education and medicine to labor and socioeconomic development. At the heart of his work is his opposition to the imperialistic nature of state- and Church-sponsored missionary activities. His deep understanding of Church history, particularly the institutions of the thirteenth century, lent a historian’s perspective to his critique of the Church and other twentieth-century institutions.
The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings, 1955–1985 comprises some of Illich’s most salient and influential short works as well as a foreword by philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Featuring writings that had previously appeared in now-defunct publications, this volume is an indispensable resource for readers of Illich’s longer works and for scholars of philosophy, religion, and cultural critique.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Trauma, Abuse, and the Church

At Catholic World Report you can read my latest thoughts about several new books I had a chance to read over the Christmas break, some of which I will discuss in more detail on here in the coming days.

I would especially recommend to you Judith Herman's landmark 1992 book Trauma and Recovery. Unlike a lot of other books in the social and medical sciences, this one is wonderfully cogent, clearly written, and blessedly free of a lot of horrid jargon. It brings together a wide body of literature in a compelling way that never loses its focus on understanding and helping people.

For some engagement of trauma theologically, I have already drawn attention to Marcus Pound, but will do so again, especially for his focus on the liturgy as itself a therapeutic not just individually or as an adjunct to clinical therapy, but collectively for us all. Others who have recently written theologically on trauma tend to be Protestant, but Pound writes explicitly as a Catholic grounded in Thomist thought.

Gabriele Schwab, whom I didn't mention, deserves to be read as well. Her book Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma is especially valuable for Eastern Christians still marked by and grappling with the legacy of Soviet brutality, violence, and trauma--as well as earlier traumas like the Armenian Genocide, or more recent ones like the Russian war against Ukraine.

About this book we are told this by the publisher (Columbia University Press, 2010):
From mass murder to genocide, slavery to colonial suppression, acts of atrocity have lives that extend far beyond the horrific moment. They engender trauma that echoes for generations, in the experiences of those on both sides of the act. Gabriele Schwab reads these legacies in a number of narratives, primarily through the writing of postwar Germans and the descendents of Holocaust survivors. She connects their work to earlier histories of slavery and colonialism and to more recent events, such as South African Apartheid, the practice of torture after 9/11, and the "disappearances" that occurred during South American dictatorships.
Schwab's texts include memoirs, such as Ruth Kluger's Still Alive and Marguerite Duras's La Douleur; second-generation accounts by the children of Holocaust survivors, such as Georges Perec's W, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Philippe Grimbert's Secret; and second-generation recollections by Germans, such as W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, Sabine Reichel's What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, and Ursula Duba's Tales from a Child of the Enemy. She also incorporates her own reminiscences of growing up in postwar Germany, mapping interlaced memories and histories as they interact in psychic life and cultural memory. Schwab concludes with a bracing look at issues of responsibility, reparation, and forgiveness across the victim/perpetrator divide.

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine

For those who read German and want (in addition to the landmark study of Nicholas Denysenko, interviewed here) a new book to understand the ongoing developments and difficulties in the newly autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, see this recent study: Orthodoxe Kirche in Der Ukraine - Wohin?: Dokumente Zur Debatte Um Die Autokephalie (Aschendorff Verlag, 2019), 156pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
In der Ukraine bestanden seit langer Zeit verschiedene Orthodoxe Kirchen, die sich gegenseitig nicht anerkannten. Am 6. Januar 2019 unterzeichnete Patriarch Bartholomaus von Konstantinopel eine Urkunde (Tomos) fur eine neu gegrundete "Orthodoxe Kirche der Ukraine" und verlieh ihr Autokephalie, d.h. Unabhangigkeit und das Recht zur Selbstverwaltung. Nur ein Teil der orthodoxen Bischofe der Ukraine schloss sich dieser Kirche an. Wo befindet sich durch die jungsten Entwicklungen die Orthodoxe Kirche in der Ukraine? In einer neu erlangten Einheit und Unabhangigkeit? auf einem "Minenfeld", wie Erzbischof Anastasios von Albanien sagt? in einer schlimmeren Spaltung als vor der Gewahrung der Autokephalie? Dieser Band ermoglicht eine Urteilsbildung durch deutsche Ubersetzungen kirchlich relevanter Dokumente, beginnend mit dem "Tomos der Autokephalie" bis hin zur Verwerfung des Tomos durch einen seiner Adressaten. Eine Einleitung und Kommentierungen machen die Dokumente auch fur ein breiteres interessiertes Publikum verstandlich. Die Dokumentation deckt Fragen auf - vor allem nach dem Wesen und der Leitung der Kirche -, die auch das kirchliche Leben im Westen betreffen.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Prayerful Distractions as Psychological Free-Associations

Almost two years ago I was speculating rather cautiously on the possibility of a kind of "psychoanalytic" reading of Herbert McCabe's ideas around prayer, drawing on his helpful notion about "distractions" which come from his short chapter in God, Christ, and Us.

Well last night I had a chance to read another of his works, God Still Matters, with additional chapters on prayer and the Trinity. It was in this work that he acknowledges that his thoughts on distractions--which he says reveal to us what we really want, and instead of fighting them we should encourage their surfacing, the more easily to pray about and for them--were not his own, but came from a fellow Dominican, Victor White.

Now it all makes sense and I feel vindicated in my speculation. For White was a long-time dialogue partner with Carl Jung, and in fact wrote works about Jungian psychoanalysis, including God and the Unconscious.

All this, of course, takes us back to the great Viennese master himself, whose reflections on free association were and are so profoundly revealing and revolutionary. (At Strands in New York over Christmas, I picked up a short book by Anton Kris, Free Association: Method and Practice, which you may find interesting. Christopher Bollas also has interesting things to say about this in a variety of places, including here.)

We think that freely associating on the analyst's couch is a spectacular waste of time. And, wouldn't you know it, that's precisely the argument most of us use against prayer. McCabe again:
For a real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer. I reckon that more than 80% of our reluctance to pray consists precisely in our dim recognition of this and our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely non-productive, non-money making, but is even non-creative. it doesn't even have the justification of art and poetry. It is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead. 
Finally for my students this semester in addition to reading McCabe, Plekon, and others, we will be reading Romano Guardini's lovely little classic, The Spirit of the Liturgy, where he also winsomely writes about liturgy being utterly wasteful of time for it is simply children at play in the Father's playground.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Orthodox Nationalism and Intolerance in SE Europe

Focus on nationalism and Orthodoxy has been a staple of scholarly discussions for decades, and given the revival of nationalism all over the world, including in Orthodox Europe, it is no surprise that scholarly studies continue to emerge, including S.P. Ramet, ed., Orthodox Churches and Politics in Southeastern Europe: Nationalism, Conservativism, and Intolerance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 267pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Orthodox Churches, like most religious bodies, are inherently political: they seek to defend their core values and must engage in politics to do so, whether by promoting certain legislation or seeking to block other legislation. This volume examines the politics of Orthodox Churches in Southeastern Europe, emphasizing three key modes of resistance to the influence of (Western) liberal values: Nationalism (presenting themselves as protectors of the national being), Conservatism (defending traditional values such as the “traditional family”), and Intolerance (of both non-Orthodox faiths and sexual minorities). The chapters in this volume present case studies of all the Orthodox Churches of the region.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Trauma in the Soviet Union and Beyond

I recently mentioned how much I have learned and continue to learn from Robert Jay Lifton. This short note is a supplement to that, drawing your attention to a book which I have just finished: Beyond Invisible Walls: the Psychological Legacy of Soviet Trauma, eds. Jacob D. Lindy and R.J. Lifton and  (Routledge, 2001).

This is a unique collection both in its origins and its contents--as well as structure. The book brought together clinicians from the former Soviet Union (though Ukraine is a major absence here), including Russia and Armenia, as well as other Eastern Bloc countries, including Romania (easily the most harrowing chapter in the book) and Eastern Germany. Clinicians discussed not only particular cases and their history, but also the history of psychology and psychiatry in the Soviet context, and how often those disciplines were used and abused for political purposes--e.g., "enemies of the revolution" were bogusly diagnosed as "psychotic" (etc.) and drugged and hospitalized against their will.

The chapters on Romania, Armenia especially, and Russia slightly, all touch briefly on the role that Orthodox Christianity plays and played in

In addition, perhaps the most outstanding feature of the book is that all the cases of individual patients are told by clinicians, and then discussed by others, with the counter-transference being front and centre and often given as much space as the case history. Normally this would be bad clinical practice, but what becomes clear is that even "professionals" like therapists were so badly caught up in and themselves traumatized by the Soviet experience that any attempt at working with patients immediately raised floods of issues in themselves.

Lacking in most cases remotely adequate access to supervision or even to other therapists whom they could trust, these therapists also engaged in the dissociation and splitting so characteristic of traumatized people. Since so much was forbidden in former USSR, inhibiting patients from openly sharing all details, the counter-transference becomes even more important as it raises things the pt. cannot or will not talk about not just individually but collectively. Thus the counter-transference is not just personal to therapist, but expresses something of what Jung famously called the collective unconscious. As a result, as Jacob Lindy’s chapter, “Invisible Walls,” notes, clinicians and survivors both are thrust into the role of understanding the “historical implications” of the trauma under question, and clinicians “find themselves in the role of psychohistorian, for the stories of trauma often contain information about our times that is not otherwise available” (197).

What is clearly available, however, thanks to this book and more recent research, is an awareness--Lindy again--that "in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe, the impact of political trauma has been so pervasive for three generations as to have affected nearly every family” (198). That trauma, though, is vast and still poorly understood, as Lifton notes in his conclusion: Soviet “trauma operates on many levels and its complexities defy our ordinary categories. It lacks the structure and limits of a discrete disaster such as an earthquake….The effects reverberate over years or even decades….What we are discussing here is on the order of a sustained catastrophe that never goes away.”

Part of the challenge Lifton sees in conclusion is that in the West both the clinical categories of PTSD and some semi-literate and popular acceptance of the same, has gained a foothold in last 30 years, but not so in East: “the concept of PTSD as a legitimate medical condition does not match easily with the stoic, suppressive, minimizing adaptations to trauma and loss” Part of my lecture for next June will be to tackle this issue and to suggest that Eastern Christian spiritual, theological, and liturgical resources have much to offer.

To do so, I will be drawing on another book just finished--about which more another time: Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery. The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. This book, rightly, is a landmark and has been translated into multiple languages. It is pellucid in its clarity and cogency, which is not a small thing if you know how many books in the social sciences are so atrociously written. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Jewish Philosophers and the Jewish Jesus

Sometimes it's the books one picks up casually, with initially only very moderate interest, that end up staying with one, shaping one's thinking in a permanent manner, and being so often returned to in one's mind and quoted over and over again.

So it was with me when, at a used bookstore in Ottawa in the mid-1990s, when I was an undergraduate student, I picked up The Levinas Reader. It seemed only moderately interesting at the time, but it was wonderfully discounted so that was sufficient to tempt me to buy it. That was my introduction to the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, some of whose other works I would later attempt to read.

One in particular is Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, where he writes so memorably about the "ethics of the face" and the face-to-face encounter, noting that the dangers of abstraction and reduction, by which a person is dehumanized, are much harder to sustain when I am confronted by the ethical obligation posed by the mere existence of the person facing me.

From him I have ever after returned to, and lectured about, the "ethics of the face." I thought of him again in writing this piece at Our Sunday Visitor. And in particular in my mind's eye as I was writing, my friend mentioned in the piece was front and centre. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is astonishing to me that anti-Semitic attacks continue and seem to be increasing in one of the last places on earth one would expect them. Kyrie eleison.
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