"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, March 27, 2020

The Acts of Nicaea II

Hard to believe just a couple short weeks ago Byzantine Christians were celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy with its thunderous commemoration of the triumph of icons and defeat of iconoclasts. That seems another lifetime now, or perhaps several.

What exactly was this "triumph?" What was iconoclasm, and its response at the seventh ecumenical council of Nicaea in 787? A new paperback edition of a book first published in 2018 will remind us of what was decided and dogmatized: The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), trans. with commentary by Richard Price (Liverpool University Press, 2020), 752pp.

I've heard of some academic presses in England suspending publication pending the conclusion of this pandemic, but I don't know if Liverpool University Press is one of them. They list a release date of next week for this book, part of their ongoing and valuable series, Translated Texts for Historians.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
The Second Council of Nicaea (787) decreed that religious images were to set up in churches and venerated. It thereby established the cult of icons as a central element in the piety of the Orthodox churches, as it has remained ever since. In the West its decrees received a new emphasis in the Counter-Reformation, in the defence of the role of art in religion. It is a text of prime importance for the iconoclast controversy of eighth-century Byzantium, one of the most explored and contested topics in Byzantine history. But it has also a more general significance - in the history of culture and the history of art. This edition offers the first translation that is based on the new critical edition of this text in the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum series, and the first full commentary of this work that has ever been written. It will be of interest to a wide range of readers from a variety of disciplines.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Theology in Africa

With chapters on Ethiopian Orthodoxy and many other topics and traditions, the Routledge Handbook of African Theology, ed., Elias Kifon Bongmba (Routledge, 2020), 584pp., set for release in June of this year, looks to be rich indeed.

About this collection the publisher tells us this:
Theology has a rich tradition across the African continent, and has taken myriad directions since Christianity first arrived on its shores. This handbook charts both historical developments and contemporary issues in the formation and application of theologies across the member countries of the African Union.
Written by a panel of expert international contributors, chapters firstly cover the various methodologies needed to carry out such a survey. Various theological movements and themes are then discussed, as well as Biblical and doctrinal issues pertinent to African theology. Subjects addressed include:
Orality and theology
Indigenous religions and theology
Liberation theology
Black theology
Social justice
Sexuality and theology
Environmental theology
The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament  
The Routledge Handbook of African Theology is an authoritative and comprehensive survey of the theological landscape of Africa. As such, it will be a hugely useful volume to any scholar interested in African religious dynamics, as well as academics of Theology or Biblical Studies in an African context.

Monday, March 23, 2020

John Jillions on God's Guidance in the World

What a time to have a book appear about divine guidance! The endless, and on the whole very depressing, debates among Catholic and Orthodox Christians I have been watching, especially over whether the sacraments--the Eucharist especially--have some kind of magical properties given by God to "protect" people from pandemic have been almost entirely unedifying to behold. I'm already bracing myself for people to next start in on the apocalyptic claims, purporting to divine providential purpose in this pandemic. Years ago now one of my professors once said to me that in his view the three most theologically abused words were, and are, "Divine Providence wills...."

Along comes the calm, cool scholarship of Fr John Jillions in this moment. So I am doubly glad to be able to post this interview now about his new book, Divine Guidance: Lessons for Today from the World of Early Christianity. (I should, as the wretched lawyers say, "declare interest" here: he was on my doctoral jury, and I have long considered him a friend whom I respect greatly.)

AD: Tell us about your background. 

JJ: I was born in Montreal, and after leaving Canada in 1963 I and my brother and three sisters grew up in Southern California, Connecticut, and New Jersey. My mother’s side is Russian—my great-grandfather was a priest in Kishinev (now in Moldova)—and Orthodox parishes were part of our life from the start. My father was born in London and although he gave up the Church of England as a conscientious objector at the age of 12 he never objected to my mother taking us to church (in fact, he thought it would be unfair to leave us on our own to decide our faith later if we’d never been given the opportunity to experience it.) I never intended to be a priest, but a crisis while I was in the middle of my college years, at McGill University, led me to experience the mercy of God in a way that has never left me. And that took me to seminary and eventually ordination as a deacon and priest.

When I first told my Russian grandmother that I would be going to St Vladimir’s Seminary she said immediately—and quite prophetically—“you will have an interesting life.” Indeed it has been that. Married to Denise Melligon in 1979, we have three grown sons, and two grandchildren.

We have had opportunities to serve the Church in many different ways: Parishes in Australia, New Jersey, Cambridge (UK), Ottawa and now Bridgeport, Connecticut. Studies in Thessaloniki and then Cambridge, where we were involved in founding the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. Teaching in Ottawa with the Sheptytsky Institute at Saint Paul University and later as an adjunct at St Vladimir’s Seminary and Fordham University. And for seven years (2011-2018) I had the privilege of serving as Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America at a difficult time in its history.

AD: What led to the writing of Divine Guidance: Lessons for Today from the World of Early Christianity? 

JJ: I’ve been interested in how people perceive God’s direction in their life from the earliest years I was a priest serving in Australia in the mid-80s.  How do they discern for themselves that it is God’s voice and not a delusion? It is striking how pervasive across cultures and history is this experience of perceived divine guidance.

The Old and New Testaments are of course packed with such encounters. So this was the obvious topic for me when in 1994 I started a PhD in New Testament at the University of Thessaloniki, under the supervision of Prof. Petros Vassiliadis. I did most of the research at Tyndale House Library in Cambridge, where Dr Bruce Winter served as my co-director. He helped place the broad questions I had about divine guidance into the focused context of Paul’s Corinth where there was such a mix of Jews and Gentiles. The dissertation was finished in 2002, but I think subsequent pastoral and life experience have helped fill out the book and make it useful for a wider audience.

AD: “Divine guidance” sounds rather anodyne in the abstract, suggesting the perhaps leisurely seeking of a bit of advice on some private choice or other, but your introduction opens with some harrowing realizations of how public, and how violent, many of those quests and claims are. Have humans—especially Christian humans—always been so conflicted over the seeking, and finding, of what God wants us to do?  

Yes, and rightfully so. It is all too easy for any of us to be deluded. And it’s all the worse if we are so confident in our delusion that others follow, often to disastrous consequences for themselves and others. We need a degree of skepticism when someone says, “God told me…” Especially if their “guidance” is out of step with everything else we know from the scriptures, saints and life in the Church.

This is one reason I deeply appreciate the very cautious Jewish approach to God’s guidance. That isn’t to say that everything unusual is suspect. The scriptures and lives of saints are full of inspired people doing extraordinary and even weird things. But a sense of natural inspiration, direction and communion with God in our daily life ought to be the norm, as the Psalms repeatedly demonstrate.  “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long” (Ps. 25:4-5).

AD: Your introduction sets the scene for us, noting you will largely focus on Pauline literature and communities in a wider and comparative Greco-Roman context. What influenced those choices for you? Why Paul’s writings and not, say, John’s? 

We simply know a lot more about Paul, his writings, their historical context and Corinth than we do about any other single community or writer in the New Testament.  But it would be a useful next step to compare and contrast the approaches to divine guidance elsewhere in the New Testament and throughout the later history of the Church (and in other religious faiths as well).

AD: Drawing on insights from Raymond Brown, Veselin Kesich, Andrew Louth, and others, you note how much modern biblical scholarship is “largely shaped by anti-supernatural biases.” Some of this, you go on to suggest, is shaped in turn by the Reformation and then the Enlightenment. In a time when Christians are moving past Reformation polemics, and philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre have shown how Enlightenment notions of “rationality” and “religion without the bounds of reason alone” smuggle in all sorts of problematic practices and claims, are we living in a time when we can give renewed, un-ironic attention to the multitude of stories in Scripture of people seeking, and finding, divine guidance qua divine? 

Yes, thankfully. Communion with God is the main point of the scriptures. Why not take seriously the multitude of encounters with God recounted in the Bible? Even love of neighbor is ultimately meant to bring us to deeper love of God. As Evelyn Underhill told the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1930, “God is the interesting thing about religion."

AD: Your first chapter tells us the importance of using both literary and archeological sources. What is the significance of both, but perhaps especially the latter? 

Ancient literary sources can be read as the record of elites, and thus skew the picture of popular belief at any given time. Archaeology helps broaden the picture and also date it more accurately.  This is especially important in a setting like first century Corinth where the Roman influence distinguished it significantly from its ancient Greek history.  On the other hand, archaeological evidence of a particular religious practice doesn’t tell you what people thought of it. This is why literary sources are crucial. Reading the literary sources alongside the archeological helps give a much more accurate and balanced view of the mix of attitudes in circulation.

AD: Between your chapter on Homer, Virgil, and Horace, and your first chapter on Paul, there is well over a hundred pages of detailed study of many other Roman, Greek, and Jewish writers. Clearly the ancients and so-called pagans had a lot to say on the topic. Are there certain common themes or methods across this vast body of literature that early Christians picked up and used with some regularity? 

The most common theme is shared skepticism about pagan religion—labeled superstition—and its practices. And the second broad theme is the pursuit of truth, virtue, courage, and fearlessness in the face of deprivation, suffering and death. Seneca, for example, was much admired by early Christians, to the point that many believed that Paul and Seneca had a lively correspondence (they both died around the same time, as victims of Nero). But we can’t exaggerate this common ground. Christian devotion to Jesus Christ was viewed as sheer stubbornness that deserved punishment. So Marcus Aurelius could wax philosophical as a learned Stoic but at the same time be brutal in persecuting Christians.

AD: You note an important tension in Paul’s Corinthian letters: a “reticence to use guidance language” (p.190) but also a firm conviction that God does offer guidance precisely through the Cross and through “weakness” (p.201). Tell us a bit more what you mean by this.  

Paul stays clear of the words “guidance” and “guide” even though they are frequently found in the Psalms. I argue that this is because these words later became so intertwined with pagan notions. But this does not at all mean that Paul abandoned the sense of God teaching and leading His people through many and various ways. These include the Holy Scriptures, the tradition of prayer and worship, elders and the church’s communal wisdom. But where the Jewish community was centered on the Torah and the tradition of its interpretation, Paul and the early church were centered on Christ and His Cross and Resurrection. It was Paul’s special genius to see the self-emptying weakness of God on the Cross as the heart of the new guidance He was offering to all.

AD: Can it be said that if God does speak and offer guidance in cruciform ways drawing on what is weak and foolish, this may in fact be salutary to warn us off overly powerful gurus as well as our own overweening pride in thinking we are smart enough, strong enough, saintly enough to always know what God wants? 

True. But that uncertainty should not stop us from trying to be followers of Christ and doing good as best we can with whatever information and faults we have. I’m always struck by the paradoxical combination of humility and boldness in Paul and the saints. Also, as Fr Paul Tarazi teaches, God’s will is not a complete mystery: “After all, He has given us a book of 1,500 pages!”  The paradox is that Christians seeking to follow the crucified Christ may come to very different conclusions about what to do in practice. But as I heard Fr Thomas Hopko once say, even diametrically opposite forms of action can be “of God” if what motivates them both is love of God and desire to serve our neighbor. 

AD: The psychoanalyst in me read your section on “uncertain guidance” in ch. 13 with especial attention. There you note that Paul does not in fact rely “on signs of prosperity” but often instead on weakness and opposition. What other “counter-cultural” lessons, as it were, does Paul offer us in trying to find methods for seeking, and verifying claims of, divine guidance? 

Paul is not naturally counter-cultural. His entire pre-Christian experience is in the opposite direction, as an upholder of conservative cultural and religious norms. This is why he found the Christian movement so wrong and offensive. Everything changed with his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. Henceforward, the single lens through which he looked at life and decision-making became Christ. As he told the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). That was and remains the primary counter-cultural lesson we can learn from Paul in filtering whatever claims to divine guidance come our way.

AD: At the very end of your last chapter, you briefly work in Lev Gillet and also Kallistos Ware. Tell us a bit more about their experience and relevance to your study. 

Their experience, as recounted in the book, is of interest because it took place in the context of an academic study at Oxford University on religious experience. The Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, which is now based at the University of Wales, was collecting thousands of accounts of religious experience in the 1970s. As a way of reflecting on all this material interviewed a number of scholars, theologians and pastors about how they understand this persistent phenomenon.

Interviewed separately, Fr Lev Gillet and Fr Kallistos Ware (as he was then) gave very similar criteria for evaluating such experiences. They said it must be repeated. It can be short and authoritative, or come through gradual “infiltration by God.” It can be tested by asking others who understand your problem to pray for a solution and to ask for guidance, and see whether the answers converge. But the most definitive criterion is to pay attention to the feelings and actions that the experience produces. “Does this guidance create in you sorrow, bitterness, hatred? Or does it create in you joy and love for God and other people? Judge the tree according to its fruit.”

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book, and who especially should read it. 

I have a number of simultaneous conversations in mind with this book, and Paul’s first century world has much to contribute to each. The first is with biblical scholars who have been hesitant to enter sympathetically into the first century’s community of discourse, in which rational and mystical are intertwined. The second is with Christians and others who feel their own experience of God has not been taken seriously. The third is with those who are looking for how the early church understood and evaluated divine guidance, in the hope of better understanding their own experience today. The fourth is with “nones and dones” who retain a sense of wistfulness about spirituality and God but are disappointed and/or skeptical about institutional church life.  Paul said, “our knowledge is imperfect” (1 Cor 13:9): the fifth conversation is with traditionalists who have been reluctant to see change in interpretation of divine guidance as a continuous thread in the history of thought and of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Austerity Reading

All week, as this new reality continues to settle in upon us, I have been regularly thinking of my Glaswegian grandparents living through the Second World War in an area around the River Clyde ("Red Clyde") that was regularly targeted by the Luftwaffe (because it was the largest scene of shipbuilding in the British Empire at the time). The war is, at best, a very imperfect analogy because we are not being shot at or bombed day and night. Nor are we living--yet--with really severe austerity.

Nevertheless, when they listened to Neville Chamberlain on the wireless in 1939 declaring war, they must have had a similar sense of horror at the unfolding uncertainty before them, as we do now, and the dread of not knowing how it would all play out, or when it would end.

If you do suddenly find yourself with a lot of time on your hands, and are interested in wartime Britain, then let me recommend to you the three volumes authored by David Kynaston, beginning with Austerity Britain 1945-1951, which I discussed in some detail here. Until reading it, I had not realized that rationing got much worse only after the war, thanks in part to the immediate withdrawal in the summer of 1945 of American financial aid.

And yet, this was also the period in which the Labour government came to power and led in part by Aneurin Bevan, introduced the National Health Service. I discussed here a fascinating study of Bevan's "socialism."

Here I discussed a new and utterly riveting biography of Bevan's chief, Clement Attlee.

The picture of unrelenting privation improves somewhat in the second volume, Family Britain 1951-1957.

One of the many fascinating things he unearths here is the complexity of views on, and practice of, Christianity in Britain. The idea, which I heard often growing up, that the 1950s were a time of unvarnished church growth and vigorous and enthusiastic practice of the faith is not nearly so clear in what Kynaston writes.

It's also very clear that the much-discussed turmoil and change almost always associated with the late 1960s was clearly already at work in subterranean social tumult in Britain a good decade earlier.

Kynaston's genius is to write these big books, amassing huge amounts of evidence from then-new Gallup and World Observation and other surveys of mass opinion, but to maintain a lively and cogent narrative throughout, never lagging or losing focus amidst so many numbers. They are almost compulsively re-readable books.

The third, which I'm soon to begin, is Modernity Britain 1957-1962. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:
The late 1950s and early 1960s was a period in its own right-neither the stultifying early to midfifties nor the liberating mid- to late-sixties-and an action-packed, dramatic time in which the contours of modern Britain started to take shape.
These were the “never had it so good” years, in which mass affluence began to change, fundamentally, the tastes and even the character of the working class; when films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and TV soaps like Coronation Street and Z Cars at last brought that class to the center of the national frame; when Britain gave up its empire; when economic decline relative to France and Germany became the staple of political discourse; when “youth” emerged as a fully fledged cultural force; when the Notting Hill riots made race and immigration an inescapable reality; when a new breed of meritocrats came through; and when the Lady Chatterley trial, followed by the Profumo scandal, at last signaled the end of Victorian morality.
David Kynaston argues that a deep and irresistible modernity zeitgeist was at work, in these and many other ways, and he reveals as never before how that spirit of the age unfolded, with consequences that still affect us today.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Russian Orthodox Nationalism in the Gorbachev Years

It is hard for me to believe that we are coming on the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Gorbachev years. But here we--almost--are. A book released in January of this year looks at a perennial theme in Eastern Christianity: the role of nationalism during a unique period. Sophie Kotzer, Russian Orthodoxy, Nationalism and the Soviet State during the Gorbachev Years, 1985-1991  (Routledge, 2020), 188pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
This book examines how the Russian Orthodox Church developed during the period of Gorbachev’s rule in the Soviet Union, a period characterised by perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness). It charts how official Soviet policy towards religion in general and the Russian Orthodox Church changed, with the Church enjoying significantly improved status. It also discusses, however, how the improved relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the state, and the Patriarchate’s support for Soviet foreign policy goals, its close alignment with Russian nationalism and its role as a guardian of the Soviet Union’s borders were not seen in a positive light by dissidents and by many ordinary believers, who were disappointed by the church’s failure in respect of its social mission, including education and charitable activities.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Eleven Aphorisms On "Over-Reacting" and Fetishizing "Balance"

Is there anything lazier than accusing someone of "over-reacting?" That is a failure of imagination at the best of times, but now during this pandemic even more problematic. Or is it?

Herewith are eleven "aphorisms" on the ideas of "balance" and "over-reacting" from the sometime child therapist and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, easily the most prolific, provocative, and interesting psychoanalyst writing today. All his books are worth your time.

(For some other aphorisms from Phillips that I put together, see here. For notes on Phillips' biography of Freud, see here. On the problem of distinguishing between terrorists and experts, see here. On his excellent book Unforbidden Pleasures, see here. For extended thoughts on Missing Out, see here.)

Here are some aphorisms I put together from On Balance:

Phillips begins by noting that (1)"When we talk about many of the things that matter most to us...we soon lose our so-called balanced views....Indeed, the sign that something does matter to us is that we lose our steadiness."

He rightly cautions--and this pandemic is surely the clearest example of this we are ever likely to see--that (2)"There are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it." 

For the toilet-paper collectors and other hoarders: (3) "Consumer capitalism has taught us to be phobic of frustration."

And yet: (4) "Our reaction to other people's excesses is an important clue to something vital about ourselves." 

And perhaps hoarders can be understood after all: (5) "Excesses of appetite are self-cures for feelings of helplessness." 

These "excesses" are also highly valuable for they offer us clues, pathways into our unconscious mind: (6) "Our excesses are the best clues we have to our own poverty; and our best way of concealing it from ourselves."

From what perspective dare we judge others as excessive? Do we really have the capacity for such vision, Phillips asks: (7) "There is something God-like about describing someone's behaviour as excessive."

God, in fact, as Freud famously showed in Future of an Illusion, is one onto whom we endlessly project all sorts of desires, not least to be rescued from a capricious world of "nature" that seems sometimes (as now) to want to kill us: (8) "We have delegated to a figure called God all the excesses we find most troubling in ourselves, which broadly speaking are our excessive love for ourselves and others, and our excessive punitiveness." 

Is it our sense of helplessness that leads us to blame others rather than questioning ourselves? Phillips thinks so: (9) "We are more inclined to blame the world for letting us down than to notice just how unrealistic our desires are." 

A common theme across many of Phillips' books (10): "We can't bear the complexity of our own minds, with their competing needs and desires and beliefs and feelings." Instead, we would rather be "'the emperor of one idea'" (Wallace Stevens).

God forbid that we should see this pandemic require armed force to restrain us and maintain social order, but that is far from outside the realm of the possible, including in people who might regard themselves as entirely rational, modern, scientific, secular, and not at all "religious" (11) "People become violent, lose their civility, when something that is fundamental to them is felt to be under threat....We are all fundamentalists about something."

Theology, Politics, Psychoanalysis, and the Post-Modern University (I)

Daniel Burston is a scholar at Duquesne whose fascinating work lies at the intersection of psychology and other disciplines.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing his excellent biography A Forgotten Freudian: the Passion of Karl Stern. Stern, as I said in my review, was a fascinating figure whose eclipse seems to have come about in part by going in the opposite direction of all the major trends of the 20th century. A Jewish convert to Catholicism in increasingly secular Quebec, he was also a clinician formed in part by Freudian ideas as North American psychiatry was moving away from the great Viennese master.

Now Stern has a new book out, and it deserves attention for many reasons I shall discuss: Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Postmodern University (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 184pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Critical theory draws on Marxism, psychoanalysis, postmodern and poststructuralist theorists. Marxism and psychoanalysis are rooted in the Enlightenment project, while postmodernism and poststructuralism are more indebted to Nietzsche, whose philosophy is rooted in anti-Enlightenment ideas and ideals. Marxism and psychoanalysis contributed mightily to our understanding of fascism and authoritarianism, but were distorted and disfigured by authoritarian tendencies and practices in turn. This book, written for clinicians and social scientists, explores these overarching themes, focusing on the reception of Freud in America, the authoritarian personality and American politics, Lacan’s “return to Freud,” Jordan Peterson and the Crisis of the Liberal Arts, and the anti-psychiatry movement. 
I've started it, and the first chapter on authority is especially what caught my attention when I learned of the book's forthcoming publication last fall. I'll say more about it on here in the coming days.

Friday, March 13, 2020

On "Socialism," Christian and Otherwise

I'm working on a paper on sadomasochism and the abuses of power in the Church in light of the sex abuse crisis to be published in England. That has given me an opportunity to go back and re-read Erich Fromm, the 40th anniversary of whose death we are marking this very month in fact.

I drew on Fromm to a limited degree in my Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. But since publishing that book almost exactly a year ago now, I have read more of Fromm and thought more about the problems of obedience and disobedience in the Church.

One book in particular, a short little book published in 1981 after Fromm's death, is useful not only for these themes but for other reasons. That book is On Disobedience: Why Freedom Means Saying "No" to Power.

I commend it to your attention for all of the above, but also because the last chapter contains some welcome clarifications on what is and is not meant by what Fromm calls "humanistic socialism." The very mention of such phrases and their cognates functions talismanically for too many so-called American Christians, from whom reliably and inexorably one can expect a very great lot of incorrigible stupidity, irrelevant and adolescent deflection, and general fatuousness in discussing these matters.

Fromm cuts through all that nonsense as when he says, e.g.,the aim of socialism "is...the full development of each [as] the condition for the full development of all." Socialism refuses to allow people to be seen or treated as means: "from this it follows that nobody must personally be subject to anyone because he owns capital." Moreover "the supreme principle of socialism is that man takes precedence over things, life over property, and hence work over capital; that power follows creation, and not possession."

Importantly, socialism is against idolatry: "it fights every kind of worship of State, nation, or class."

Perhaps the most important part to stress right now to overcome American fatuities and self-congratulatory nonsense about how "free" this country is and how "socialism" is supposedly the antithesis of such freedom is the following: "Humanistic socialism stands for freedom. It stands for freedom from fear, want, oppression, and violence. But freedom is not only *from* but also freedom *to*; freedom to participate actively and responsibly in all decisions concerning the citizen, freedom to develop the individual's human potential to the fullest possible degree."

There is nothing here in Fromm--nothing--that Catholic Christians, of whom I am one, could disagree with. What this looks like when translated into policy prescriptions remains, of course, to be established. But the unthinking "Christian" opposition to socialism so-called in this country is unsustainable and absurd.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology

Oxford University Press continues to publish its eminently useful collections of leading scholars in various "handbooks," including one released late last year:The Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology, eds.Edward Howells and Mark A. McIntosh (Oxford UP, 2019), 720pp.

With chapters from leading scholars of the Christian East, including Andrew Louth, Brandon Gallaher, Luke Dysinger, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Rowan Williams and others, this is once again an impressive collection you will not want to be without (though if the price gives you pause, OUP very often brings about a paperback edition a year or two later at much more affordable prices).

About this hefty collection the publisher tells us this:
The Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology provides a guide to the mystical element of Christianity as a theological phenomenon. It differs not only from psychological and anthropological studies of mysticism, but from other theological studies, such as more practical or pastorally-oriented works that examine the patterns of spiritual progress and offer counsel for deeper understanding and spiritual development. It also differs from more explicitly historical studies tracing the theological and philosophical contexts and ideas of various key figures and schools, as well as from literary studies of the linguistic tropes and expressive forms in mystical texts. None of these perspectives is absent, but the method here is more deliberately theological, working from within the fundamental interests of Christian mystical writers to the articulation of those interests in distinctively theological forms, in order, finally, to permit a critical theological engagement with them for today.
Divided into four parts, the first section introduces the approach to mystical theology and offers a historical overview. Part two attends to the concrete context of sources and practices of mystical theology. Part three moves to the fundamental conceptualities of mystical thought. The final section ends with the central contributions of mystical teaching to theology and metaphysics. Students and scholars with a variety of interests will find different pathways through the Handbook.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Gregory Palamas and Islam

The fact that yesterday, on the Gregorian paschalion, was the second Sunday of Lent when Gregory Palamas is commemorated, and this coming Sunday the same feast of the same figure for those on the Julian paschalion, means that the father of hesychasm will be on a lot of minds this week. What better time to draw your attention to a book set for release next month by the widely respected scholar and theological translator Norman Russell, Gregory Palamas: The Hesychast Controversy and the Debate with Islam (Liverpool University Press, April 2020), 544pp.

Published as part of the Translated Texts for Byzantinists series of LUP, this collection, the publisher tells us, offers

--the first English translation of a dozen key texts by or relating to Gregory Palamas;
--fascinating first-hand accounts of fourteenth-century Christian debates with Muslim scholars;
--first English translation of all the Synodal Tomoi issued in defence of the hesychasts;
--detailed exposition of the historical context of a theological controversy that is still alive today.
Gregory Palamas, a monk of Mount Athos and metropolitan of Thessalonike from 1347 to 1357, was a leading fourteenth-century Byzantine intellectual. He was the chief spokesman for the hesychasts in the controversy bearing that name, which began when a charge of heresy was laid against him in 1340 and ended with his proclamation as a saint in 1368. Although excellent English translations of some of Palamas' theological writings are available, very few texts relating to his historical role have yet been translated. This book contains the first English translation of the contemporary Life of Palamas by Philotheos Kokkinos, which is our principal source of biographical information on him. Also translated into English for the first time are the Synodal Tomoi from 1341 to 1368, which chart the progress of the hesychast controversy from the viewpoint of the victors, together with the corpus of material relating to Palamas' year of captivity among the Turks, which offers a unique insight into conditions for Christians and Muslims in the early Ottoman emirate. The translations, all of which are based on critical texts, are preceded by introductions which set Palamas in his historical context and propose some changes to the conventional chronology of his life.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Orthodox Readings of Augustine

Few things move me to mockery faster, or awaken a deeper sense of scorn, than those ignorant ravings proffered by people who, without the slightest facility in Latin or the least evidence of any ability to read primary sources and critical editions, nonetheless purport to subject us to their grand theories about how all errors of Latin Christianity may be found in what I call the A Team of Latin Christians: Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. Which of us has not been subject to some bore holding forth about Augustine's doctrine of original sin, or Anselm's atonement theory, or just about anything in Aquinas as the paradigmatic figure of that wicked movement of "scholasticism"?

That is why that this book, now well over a decade old, is so important to have in a newly reissued form. Both at time of its original publication, and again today, this is such a welcome and important volume, a landmark really, showing significant progress not just in East-West rapprochement but also in the crucial question of how our historiography sometimes keeps us apart as we continue to tell tales about each other's saints and traditions rather than studying them together. If you missed it in 2008 when it first appeared, do not make that mistake again now but be sure to get your copy of this scholary collection newly reissued with a smart Coptic icon on the cover: Orthodox Readings of Augustine, eds. Aristotle Papanikolaou and George E. Demacopoulos (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 314pp.

When the original was published, we asked the now-deceased Augustine scholar and sometime Augustinian priest J. Kevin Coyle to review it for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, which he did in glowing terms.

About this newly reissued collection the publisher tells us this:
Orthodox Readings of Augustine examines the theological engagement with the preeminent Latin theologian Augustine of Hippo in the Orthodox context. Augustine was not widely read in the East until many centuries after his death. However, following his re-introduction in the thirteenth century, the Latin Church Father served as an ecumenical figure, offering Latin and Byzantine theologians a thinker with whom they could bridge linguistic, cultural, and confessional divides.
Contributors: Lewis Ayres, John Behr, David Bradshaw, Brian E. Daley, George E. Demacopoulos, Elizabeth Fisher, Reinhard Flogaus, Carol Harrison, David Bentley Hart, Joseph T. Lienhard, Andrew Louth, Jean-Luc Marion, Aristotle Papanikolaou, and David Tracy

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Deification Through the Cross

The topic of deification/divinization/theosis has been "hot" for well over 15 years by this point, with new books appearing almost every year. I have documented and discussed many of them on here in the past decade. Late this year we shall have another book by a prominent and important scholar, an author whom I have interviewed on here before, whose voice as a Melkite priest within the contemporary academy is a rare and important one: Khaled Anatolios, Deification through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation (Eerdmans, November 2020), 500pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
It is commonly claimed that Western Christianity teaches salvation as deliverance from sin through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, while Eastern Christianity teaches salvation as deliverance from death—and as deification—through Christ’s incarnation. But is it really true that there is no normative, unified doctrine of salvation to be found in Scripture and tradition?
Theologian Khaled Anatolios, deeply grounded in both East and West, here expounds a soteriology that speaks deeply to all Christians. He argues that both Western and Eastern perspectives are needed, and especially that Eastern theology and liturgy, contrary to Western misperceptions, hold cross, resurrection, and glorification together in an exemplary way. Anatolios uses the phrase “doxological contrition” to suggest that the truth of salvation is found both in Jesus’s perfect glorification of God and in his representative repentance for humanity’s sinful rejection of its original calling to participate in the life of the Holy Trinity.
Deification through the Cross is a salutary rebuttal of the postmodern fragmentation that assumes no single, normative soteriology can apply globally. Anatolios systematically expounds an integrated soteriology, which he then puts into dialogue with various perspectives, including liberation theology, Girardian theory, and penal substitution. All who seek to understand and teach “the joy of our salvation” will find indispensable help in this magisterial retrieval of an often-misunderstood doctrine.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Russian Orthodox Images in the 19th-Century West

I have met the author of this forthcoming book several times at conferences over the years, and she is a lovely human being whose papers are always deeply fascinating, as this forthcoming book of hers very much also seems to be. I'm hoping we can arrange an interview about her forthcoming book: Heather Bailey, The Public Image of Eastern Orthodoxy: France and Russia, 1848–1870 (Northern Illinois University Press, June 2020,) 312pp.

About this new book the publisher tells us this:
Focusing on the period between the revolutions of 1848-1849 and the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), The Public Image of Eastern Orthodoxy explores the circumstances under which westerners, concerned about the fate of the papacy, the Ottoman Empire, Poland, and Russian imperial power, began to conflate the Russian Orthodox Church with the state and to portray the Church as the political tool of despotic tsars.
As Heather L. Bailey demonstrates, in response to this reductionist view, Russian Orthodox publicists launched a public relations campaign in the West, especially in France, in the 1850s and 1860s. The linchpin of their campaign was the building of the impressive Saint Alexander Nevsky Church in Paris, consecrated in 1861. Bailey posits that, as the embodiment of the belief that Russia had a great historical purpose inextricably tied to Orthodoxy, the Paris church both reflected and contributed to the rise of religious nationalism in Russia that followed the Crimean War. At the same time, the confrontation with westerners' negative ideas about the Eastern Church fueled a reformist spirit in Russia while contributing to a better understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy in the West.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...