"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).

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Searching for Sacred Images

Aidan Nichols is a prolific fellow, as we have long known. Just a couple of weeks ago I featured his new book on sophiology, and now we have another devoted to iconography, a topic of perennial interest to Christians both East and West: In Search of the Sacred Image (Gracewing, 2020), 288pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
What sacred images should surround the faithful at worship and be available to them for instruction, in meditation and in prayer? This historical study is driven by questions of catechetical, doctrinal and liturgical urgency. Aidan Nichols, one of the most respected and prolific Catholic writers of our time, has investigated the relation between Christianity and the visual arts in a number of books covering the history of Christian art from its beginnings through to the partial triumph of the Modernist movement in the 1950s. Now he looks in detail at the development of spiritual art in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He traces how in Russia the great tradition of classical iconography from the mediaeval period came to be preserved, paradoxically as a result of its very persecution, and then rediscovered. Simultaneously, artists in Western Europe were re-appraising the so-called 'Primitive' artists of mediaeval Italy, Flanders and Byzantium, while in Britain the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood revolutionized art and aesthetics. This fascinating study of these parallel movements sheds new light on the spiritual art of the period. More importantly, it asks us to look again at that art and its role in divine revelation, to see what riches are there and what lessons may be learned for a reinvigorated sacred art today.

Monday, April 27, 2020

OCA's 50th Anniversary of Autocephaly

I have long been an admirer of the Orthodox Church of America, not least for its structures set up at and after its grant of autocephaly in 1970. In honour of that half-century anniversary, a new collection has been published:  The Time Has Come, ed. Ionut-Alexandru Tudorie (SVS Press, 2020), 464pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us this:
This is a hardback commemorative volume, compiled in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Edited by St Vladimir's Academic Dean, Ionut-Alexandru Tudorie, the volume contains a collection of debates over the OCA Autocephaly reflected in St Vladimir's Quarterly (now known as the St Vladimir's Theological Journal). The various articles were written in the years leading up to and following the Russian Orthodox Church granting the Tomos of Autocephaly to the OCA (then known as the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America) in 1970.
Along with Alexander Schmemann, other voices found in The Time Has Come include Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich), Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, Archbishop Peter L’Huillier, Elizabeth Prodromou, Archimandrite Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis), Alexander Bogolepov, and several others.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Old Believers in the Tsarist Empire

Old Believers have long been on my list of interesting groups I should like to investigate more fully when the time allows. Robert Crummey's scholarship going back decades has been one of the relatively few sources in English, but recently we had another book published: Peter T. De Simone, The Old Believers in Imperial Russia: Oppression, Opportunism and Religious Identity in Tsarist Moscow (Bloomsbury, 2019), 288pp. This is a paperback version, released at the end of last year, of a book previously published in 2018.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
'Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth.' So spoke Russian monk Hegumen Filofei of Pskov in 1510, proclaiming Muscovite Russia as heirs to the legacy of the Roman Empire following the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. The so-called 'Third Rome Doctrine' spurred the creation of the Russian Orthodox Church, although just a century later a further schism occurred, with the Old Believers (or 'Old Ritualists') challenging Patriarch Nikon's liturgical and ritualistic reforms and laying their own claim to the mantle of Roman legacy. While scholars have commonly painted the subsequent history of the Old Believers as one of survival in the face of persistent persecution at the hands of both tsarist and church authorities, Peter De Simone here offers a more nuanced picture. Based on research into extensive, yet mostly unknown, archival materials in Moscow, he shows the Old Believers as versatile and opportunistic, and demonstrates that they actively engaged with, and even challenged, the very notion of the spiritual and ideological place of Moscow in Imperial Russia.Ranging in scope from Peter the Great to Lenin, this book will be of use to all scholars of Russian and Orthodox Church history.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Titles Spied While Strolling through the LRB

In the 20 February 2020 issue of the wonderful London Review of Books, the lead review by Erin Maglaque, an historian at Sheffield, examines a book published last July by John Henderson, Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City (Yale UP, 2019), 363pp.

I read this review just as Covid-19 was starting to dominate all the news stories, and just before selfish complainers calling themselves Catholic started whining most disgracefully about having sacraments suspended for a few weeks and all the other horrid inconveniences to their bourgeois life. This crowd, for all their protestations of piety, clearly clip their Bibles, Jefferson-like, to remove any hint of kenosis.

Some of even greater hysterical bent started speculating that this present pandemic is some kind of punishment from God (often for truly absurd things like the Latins giving communion in the hand, a claim which simultaneously functions as a totem and a taboo). As a result of this, we should be placating Him constantly by offering more Masses, etc. For all the problems with Future of an Illusion, as I have demonstrated on here and elsewhere, even Freud never came close to reducing God to such a sadistic figure demanding sacrificial satiation.

Others have revealed their indolence and ignorance alike by claiming that the Catholic Church has never before responded to a plague by closing churches. Maglaque brings out of Henderson's book sufficient evidence to rubbish this claim, showing that in northern Italy starting in the autumn of 1629, as plague swept through there as it has done again this year, all the churches were closed and people forcibly quarantined, and subject to severe penalties for violating the same. Schools, taverns, sports contests, barber shops, and many other enterprises were all closed. This quarantine dragged on until the spring of 1631.

Some enterprising clergy held masses on adroitly chosen street corners that could be viewed by residents from many surrounding buildings. Some others were willing to hear confessions outside closed doors and windows, or outside entirely, while standing at some distance and wearing a waxed cloth as PPE, to use today's acronym. 

As the plague seems to have moved out after the summer of 1631, people began to resume life, but with an estimated 12% of the population now dead. This, we're told, was much lower than Venice (33%), Milan (46%), or Verona (61%). Henderson's book makes it clear, then as now, that the greatest burdens, of both quarantine and death, were born by the poor.

William Davies next reviews a book not entirely removed from Henderson's, and that is Keir Milburn's new work, Generation Left, looking at the economic prospects of those under 30 today. The book focuses on that generation growing up after the 2008 financial crisis and now Brexit.

Much of what is said, however, sounds like it would apply just as much in a comparable analysis of the same cohort on this side of the Atlantic. Once again we see that boomers are the most tied into the comforts of the bourgeois life, and as a result the most reactionary when it comes to things like, e.g., leaving the European Union.

Growing up in Her Britannic Majesty's senior dominion, I of course learned at least a little of the history and occupants of the vice-regal office of governor general. So the name of John Buchan, the Baron Tweedsmuir, was known to me, but not much else about his vast literary career, which is covered in a new book by a distant family member, Ursula Buchan, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, reviewed in this issue of the LRB by Christopher Tayler.

Baron Buchan seems to have been of that generation of almost fanatically industrious Scotsmen living during and after the Great War determined to accomplish as much as possible. At the same time, however, as this review makes clear, most of his writing (over 30 books) is marked by then-commonplace imperial prejudices if not outright bigotry.

Prejudices and bigotry abound in the Westboro Baptist Church in uniquely appalling ways, and these are not spared us in James Lasdun's review of Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Phelps-Roper (Riverrun, 2019), 289pp.

Phelps-Roper is a granddaughter of the founder of this church, and her book sounds utterly riveting. One reads details of the church's horrifying protests, but more interesting still is the fact her grandfather was not always this way, but started life as a Democrat who ran for many local and state offices, and whose early training was as a civil rights lawyer. He apparently had all his many children go to law school. So he is not a typical know-nothing troglodyte.

Interesting, too, is how Phelps-Roper, brought up on prejudice and hatred with her mother's milk, came to find her way out of that, not least, we're told by engaging with the wider world on (of?) Twitter.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Ecclesiology in Practice

When I first began studying ecclesiology twenty years ago, it was common to read things like the 20th century was the "century of the Church." In other words, as many remarked, one looked in vain in the patristic, scholastic, and early modern periods for systematic treatises on "the Church" in almost all major thinkers East and West.

Instead, it was only with the advent of the 20th century, and the important concomitant of the ecumenical movement--widely thought to have started at the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh--that we realized we needed to reflect carefully not just on the Church in the abstract, but also in her concrete structures, not least if the hope for Christian unity was going to make progress.

Still, much of ecclesiology has tended towards the idealistic, and only much more recently has turned to considering such things as episcopal, patriarchal, and papal structures, as I did in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy. More recently still have we begun to look at even more local structures, including parishes and diocesan synods, as I did last year in my Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.

The ongoing attention to the concrete in ecclesiology, to a practice-informed theology, is well served in a new book by Clare Watkins, Disclosing Church: An Ecclesiology Learned from Conversations in Practice (Routledge, 2020), 282pp.

About this new book the publisher tells us this:
From 2006 to 2011 researchers at Heythrop College and the Oxford Centre for ecclesiology and Practical Theology (OxCEPT, Ripon College Cuddesdon) worked on a theological and action research project: "Action Research – Church and Society (ARCS). 2010 saw the publication of Talking About God in Practice: Theological Action research and Practical Theology (SCM), which presented in an accessible way the work of ARCS and its developing methodology. This turned out to be a landmark study in the praxis of Anglican and Catholic ecclesiology in the UK, showing how theology in these differing contexts interacted with the way in which clergy and congregations lived out their religious convictions. This book is a direct follow up to that significant work, authored by one of the original researchers, providing a systematic analysis of the impact of the "theological action research" methodology and its implications for a contemporary ecclesiology.
The book presents an ecclesiology generated from church practice, drawing on scholarship in the field as well as the results of the theological action research undertaken. It achieves this by including real scenarios alongside the academic discourse. This combination allows the author to tease out the complex relationship between the theory and the reality of church.
Addressing the need for a more developed theological and methodological account of the ARCS project, this is a book that will be of interest to scholars interested not only Western lived religion, but ecclesiology and theology more generally too.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Memoirs and History of the Armenian Genocide

For a lecture I was to give in Europe in June (now postponed until next year for obvious reasons), I was asked to focus on the role of traumatic memory in the life of Eastern Christians, individually and ecclesially. As I had a chance to explore some of the clinical research, it fast became apparent, based on dozens of studies with diverse populations around the world, that trans-generational transmission of trauma is real, often affecting at least the third generation (ie., grandchildren of the original victims).

In this light, it is striking to read that the scholar Roderic Ai Camp, the grandson of an Armenian genocide survivor named John Minassian, has written a foreword to his grandfather's Surviving the Forgotten Genocide: An Armenian Memoir (Rowman and Littlefield, 2020), 288pp.

This book, published at the end of March is, the publisher tells us,
A rare and poignant testimony of a survivor of the Armenian genocide.
The twentieth century was an era of genocide, which started with the Turkish destruction of more than one million Armenian men, women, and children—a modern process of total, violent erasure that began in 1895 and exploded under the cover of the First World War. John Minassian lived through this as a young man, witnessing the murder of his kin, concealing his identity as an orphan and laborer in Syria, and eventually immigrating to the United States to start his life anew. A rare testimony of a survivor of the Armenian genocide, one of just a handful of accounts in English, Minassian’s memoir is breathtaking in its vivid portraits of Armenian life and culture and poignant in its sensitive recollections of the many people who harmed and helped him. As well as a searing testimony, his memoir documents the wartime policies and behavior of Ottoman officials and their collaborators; the roles played by foreign armies and American missionaries; and the ultimate collapse of the empire. The author’s journey, and his powerful story of perseverance, despair, and survival, will resonate with readers today.

Last month also saw the publication of another book on this topic: Marc Baer, Sultanic Saviors and Tolerant Turks: Writing Ottoman Jewish History, Denying the Armenian Genocide (Indiana University Press, 2020), 360pp.

About this new study the publisher tells us this:
What compels Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, and abroad to promote a positive image of Ottomans and Turks while they deny the Armenian genocide and the existence of antisemitism in Turkey? Based on historical narrative, the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 were embraced by the Ottoman Empire and then, later, protected from the Nazis during WWII. If we believe that Turks and Jews have lived in harmony for so long, then how can we believe that the Turks could have committed genocide against the Armenians? Marc David Baer confronts these convictions and circumstances to reflect on what moral responsibility the descendants of the victims of one genocide have to the descendants of victims of another. Baer delves into the history of Muslim-Jewish relations in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey to find the origin of these many tangled truths. He aims to bring about reconciliation between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, not only to face inconvenient historical facts but to confront it and come to terms. By looking at the complexities of interreligious relations, Holocaust denial, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and confronting some long-standing historical stereotypes, Baer sets out to tell a new history that goes against Turkish antisemitism and admits to the Armenian genocide.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

St Thomas Christians in India

In my time working for the World Council of Churches in the 1990s, I often encountered so-called Thomas Christians from India. As I was very new to the bewildering world of Eastern Christianity, it was hard to sort everyone out, but I learned that Syrian Orthodox clerics and hierarchs from India were often easy to sort out from the rest of a crowd by distinctive cassocks that were often a riot of wonderful colours--oranges, pinks, and so on--that most other traditions soberly scorned, to their loss.

Since that time, we have continued to learn more about the various so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches. In June of this year we will have a new book deepening our understanding further: St. Thomas and India: Recent Research is authored by K. S. Mathew, Joseph Chacko Chennattuserry, and Antony Bungalowparambil (Augsburg Press, 2020), 200pp.

About this book we are told this by the publisher:
In St. Thomas and India, renowned scholars trace the historical, religious, and cultural connections link India's Syrian Christian community with St. Thomas the Apostle. They use modern historiographical methods seek to corroborate the ancient tradition that tells of St. Thomas's missionary journey to India in the middle of the first century, in which he established seven churches in some of the major commercial centers of Malabar. From this first churches, Christianity spread throughout the region. St. Thomas in India also examines the legacy of the ancient Christianity on the Syrian community in India today, as well as exploring the various cultural and religious connections between the Syrian church in Indian and other ancient churches in the east.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Islamic Prophethood Understood Thomistically?

Christianity has never spoken with one voice on just about anything, including how Muhammad should be regarded. Some dismiss him as a delusional devil; others see him as saying things which Christians should regard as largely unobjectionable, if not conformable to their own tradition; others think he is advancing a species of Christian heresy largely derived from Arianism; and still other voices, ancient and modern, have still different views.

Along comes what seems to be a very careful new book giving painstaking consideration to these questions. Released just last month is Muhammad ReconsideredA Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy by Anna Bonta Moreland (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), 196pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Scholarly attempts to understand Islam in the West over the past several years have failed to take Islamic theology seriously. This book engages Islam from deep within the Christian tradition by addressing the question of the prophethood of Muhammad. Anna Bonta Moreland calls for a retrieval of Thomistic thought on prophecy to view Muhammad within a Christian theology of revelation, without either appropriating the prophet as an unwitting Christian or reducing both Christianity and Islam to a common denominator. This historical recovery leads to a more sophisticated understanding of Islam, one that honors the integrity of the Catholic tradition and, through that integrity, argues for the possibility in principle of Muhammad as a religious prophet.
Moreland sets the stage for this inquiry through an intertextual reading of the key Vatican II documents on Islam and on Christian revelation. She then uses Aquinas's treatment of prophecy to address the case of whether Muhammad is a prophet in Christian terms. The book examines the work of several Christian theologians, including W. Montgomery Watt, Hans Küng, Kenneth Cragg, David Kerr, and Jacques Jomier, O.P., and then draws upon the practice of analogical reasoning in the theology of religious pluralism to show that a term in one religion—in this case “prophecy”—can have purchase in another religious tradition. Muhammad Reconsidered not only is a constructive contribution to Catholic theology but also has enormous potential to help scholars reframe and comprehend Christian-Muslim relations.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Orthodox Liturgy Phenomenologically Understood

I wonder if the author this book, released late last year, has suddenly realized she may need to write a second volume, devoted to the phenomenology of Orthodox liturgy during a pandemic? I have been watching with great interest the diverse approaches taken to the question of whether to have liturgies in Orthodox temples with a "skeleton crew" as some have done; whether to cancel outright; whether to have everybody broadcast liturgy live on Facebook (etc.); or whether, as the Ecumenical Throne has recently decreed, to have only one broadcasted liturgy per diocese.

In any event, this looks to be an important new study by Christina M. Gschwandtner, Welcoming Finitude: Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy (Fordham UP, 2019), 352pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:
What does it mean to experience and engage in religious ritual? How does liturgy structure time and space? How do our bodies move within liturgy, and what impact does it have on our senses? How does the experience of ritual affect us and shape our emotions or dispositions? How is liturgy experienced as a communal event, and how does it form the identity of those who participate in it? Welcoming Finitude explores these broader questions about religious experience by focusing on the manifestation of liturgical experience in the Eastern Christian tradition. Drawing on the methodological tools of contemporary phenomenology and on insights from liturgical theology, the book constitutes a philosophical exploration of Orthodox liturgical experience.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Crucifixion of Eros: An Interview with Matthew Clemente

Now more than ever the rashness of predicting the future is revealed in all its futility, but nonetheless I will make bold to say that the future of the philosophy of religion is in very good hands indeed with the young and newly minted scholar Matthew Clemente coming on board and making a splash with his new book, the fruit of his doctoral dissertation, which was just recently published: Eros Crucified: Death, Desire, and the Divine in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy of Religion  (Routledge, 2019), 202pp.

It is such a deeply fascinating book that I find myself almost ineluctably picking it up again and again to re-read parts of it, all the while plotting to find ways to use it in my courses.

Now, you might expect that with such a title and focus, this book would be catnip to me, a psychoanalyst manqué, and you would be right.

But in addition to the book's engagement with our father among the saints, Sigmund of Vienna, there are many other wide-ranging and often astonishing insights and claims, and then there is still more: the book's method, which is my second principal reason for delighting in it, recommending it, and wanting my students to read it. Here Clemente embodies, with almost effortless grace, the method of "despoiling the Egyptians," of discerning the spirits, of finding good wherever it may be found and engaging it directly.

This is a method I have had to spend no little time and energy trying to inculcate in my students in the past two years, many of whom seem increasingly to be not just uninterested in but hostile to learning from such as Nietzsche, Freud, Kierkegaard, Plato, Kristeva, Lacan, Levinas, and Žižek, inter alia, all of whom (and others) feature prominently as interlocutors in this book. Rather than retreat into some enclave of Catholic identity from which to hold oneself aloof from figures such as these (one of my students said to me this year that he refused to learn from "anybody who doesn't have 'St.' in front of their name"!), Clemente finds what is good, notes what is not, and moves on without rancor or defensiveness. It is very refreshing and encouraging to behold.

Following my usual practice, I e-mailed him some questions about the book, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

MC: My friend and mentor, the philosopher Richard Kearney, is known for asking his students Paul Ricoeur’s famous introductory question: d'où parlez-vous? Where do you speak from? And of course, the answer always comes in the form of a story. Where do you speak from means tell us your story, tell us the story of your life. Well, my life as a philosopher began by mistake. I was not called to philosophy by an oracle. I fell into it like Adam into sin.

I am notoriously bad at keeping a schedule and have been my entire life. (I often joke that my wife is the single mother of four children, our three kids and me. I wouldn’t know where I was going or what day it was if not for her). The summer before my freshman year of college, I was scheduled to register for classes on a certain day at a certain time. Naturally, I forgot. And by the time I realized my mistake, all of the classes I had planned on taking were filled. Left with few options and feeling more than a little desperate, I decided to fulfill as many core requirements as I could. I ended up taking the last available seat in the last available Intro to Philosophy class. (I had never read a word of philosophy before then and didn’t expect to read much after the semester ended).

That class happened to be taught by a professor named John Manoussakis. I was there for his very first lecture at Holy Cross and his was the first college class I took. 12 years later, I completed my doctorate in philosophy and published my first book which focuses mainly on Manoussakis’s work.

I currently teach at Boston College and at Suffolk University, am the Associate Editor of the Journal of Continental Philosophy and Religion (Brill), and have been fortunate enough to study with and work alongside some of the best living Continental philosophers, Kearney and Manoussakis in particular.

AD: What led to the writing of Eros Crucified?

MC: The things that interest me are the things I don’t understand and will never understand. What to make of death. What to make of sex. What to make of great suffering and great beauty. How to reconcile these brute facts of human existence—my existence—with my own struggles over and longing for faith.

I think it would be a fair criticism of me and my work to say that I try to say too many things. When I was writing Eros Crucified, I was nagged by this persistent feeling, this little inner-voice that kept telling me “you’re doing too much.” But I’ve always been that way. I’ve always wanted to say everything, everything I ever thought, everything I ever felt, all I had to say. Eros Crucified is a first attempt at that. (God willing, there will be many more). It represents, for better or worse, the ideas and obsessions that have boggled my mind for the past half-decade and probably much, much longer.

AD: Your disclaimer at the outset outlines a bit of an analogy between a philosopher and a detective like Sherlock Holmes. Later on you quote Ricoeur ("controlled schizophrenia") on the problems of effecting too sharp a separation between philosophy and theology. Tell us a bit more about your own understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology, and how you see a philosophical mind working.

MC: My book was born out of my dissertation. After my defense, the big take away I got from my readers was that at times it was unclear what position I was defending, which side of a question I was trying to argue for and which I was trying to upend. This, I realized, amounted to a difference in methodology.

For me, writing philosophy is not like writing a logical proof. A proof begins with a conclusion and builds an argument from which that conclusion necessarily follows. My writing was much more organic. At different points during the writing process I agreed with, or at least honestly entertained, every idea put forth. By the end, I don’t think I agreed with any of them. That is because philosophy begins with questions—or at least it ought to—and pursues answers, answers it will never find, only approach. The search is the thing. And who knows where the search will lead?

I love detective fiction and have been reading a lot of it lately. The detective is for me the ideal thinker. He is a questioner, a believer, an artist. In him, philosophy, theology, and poetry meet. As a philosopher, he knows that he knows not. He is late on the scene and so must question his way toward probable answers. He deals in probability, not certainty. Even when he solves a case, he never knows exactly what happened or why it happened. He was not there. He will never know. But he hopes to get nearer to the truth, closer to understanding, and he finds satisfaction in simply knowing what the truth is like—what might have happened, what probably happened, what is most likely to have happened.

Now although he is a skeptic and a questioner, the detective is not a doubter. Every detective is a theologian and indeed must be. By that I mean the detective is committed. He has his dogmas, his fundamental principles, which ground and orient his search. If he didn’t believe—believe to the core of him, in his very bones—he would never begin. There is such a thing as crime. There is such a thing as truth. The detective stands against one and on the side of the other. And while he may never know, still he believes there is something to know. He believes his search for truth will not be in vain. These are the premises from which his investigation begins, the foundation on which every investigation is built.

Yet in order to solve the case, the detective must do more than question and believe. He must create. He must paint a picture. Provide an image where no image exists.

Holmes and his descendants emphasize the role that reason plays in uncovering the truth. But the truth is that truth is never uncovered. It is recreated, reinvented, birthed into existence by the artists of existence, those who take the raw material of existence and make of it something that enables us to see and hear the world around us. Without inventiveness, without poetic imagination, no question would ever be answered, no problem ever solved. Experience is interpretation. Interpretation is construction. Construction is art. This fact goes unacknowledged by philosophers and detectives alike, but it is an essential aspect of how they—and we, all of us, who must create the world in order to live in it—engage with existence.

AD: Your Preface immediately takes us to the problem at hand: the poisoning of eros by Christianity (at least according to Nietzsche). For many Catholics today, bombarded with banal slogans about a "theology of the body" for 30 years now, this might come as a startling claim. Tell us a bit more about what you mean, including your claim of "the grave danger of a spiritualized sexuality" (p.80).

One of the great things about teaching philosophy is being reminded every semester of where our ideas come from, where our understandings of ourselves, our world, our relation to the divine originate. So much of what we call “Christianity” predates Christ—or at least Christ as incarnated in Jesus, the man who drank wine and went to weddings, wore clothes and did all of the unnatural and ridiculous things we human beings do.

The notion of spiritual purity, for instance, is thoroughly Platonic. The idea of the immortal soul is not a Christian one. (Why care about the resurrection of the body if there is an immortal soul that goes to heaven or hell the moment one dies?). Nietzsche is not wrong to call Christianity “Platonism for the masses.” By and large, what we think of when we think of Christianity is merely a less sophisticated form of Platonic philosophy. But this is a great danger. Because if the incarnation stands in opposition to anything, it is the spiritualized view of the human person offered by Platonic philosophy.

Sex is one of the strange and unsettling things about human existence that gets reduced by philosophy. Plato, of course, diminishes it. How often does he put into the mouth of Socrates the notion that sex (and bodily pleasure of any kind) is beneath the philosopher, the spiritualist par excellence who strives only for “higher” intellectual pleasures?

But the same is true in reverse. To idealize sex, to see it as some pure and sacred event rather than recognizing it for what it is—both beautiful and disgusting, at once the pinnacle of our existence and the epitome of our degradation—is to deny the scandalous truth of the incarnation. It is to reject the belief that God became man. Fully man, utterly man, with all of the parts of a man—even the most intimate and the most profane. Christ was—to borrow another phrase from Nietzsche—human, all too human. We, unfortunately, are not.

AD: "Eros has become an idol." There are many ways that crucial claim of your book can be hijacked, it seems to me, but you're not interested in simplistic one-sided ranting against "too much sex on TV today" or anything like that. Rather, part of your project, it seems to me, is to maintain the tension Freud saw: "The highest and the lowest are always closest to each other in the sphere of sexuality," a claim you immediately set alongside St. Paul's letters and, later, Kearney's recognition that "pornography...is a twin of Puritanism." Unpack all of this and tell us about the tension you maintain in the grandeur and griminess of human sexual desire, the "baseness and beatitude" you speak of later (p.125).

One of the things that Christians, myself included, don’t spend enough time reflecting upon and thus fail to take as seriously as we should is that religion itself is the greatest form of idolatry, that belief is a temptation, that Christ reserves his harshest rebukes for those who believe most ardently. To believe in God is an easy thing. It costs little and provides a good deal of comfort. What could be better than believing that everything happens for a reason, that there is someone looking down on us from on high, some utterly perfect, utterly beneficent, utterly distant being who guarantees our security and yet remains immune to the illness of the world?

Human life, we all know but rarely admit, is messy and complicated and the best aspects of our existence are also the worst. Our cities are built on top of sewers. Our advances are bought with war and destruction. Art is born of suffering. Life springs forth from the bowels. Being honest about our situation is hard enough. We prefer to flatter ourselves with thoughts of the “inherent dignity” of man. Or, if we’re being reactionary, we take pleasure in emphasizing the ills of human existence to the exclusion of its beauty. Sometimes we even deny that beauty exists. This is our lot. These are the ways in which we conceive of ourselves. And then along comes this strange and startling god—a god who is fully human, more human than any of us—and he alone is honest. He alone shows us—not with words or dictates, but with his life, with how he lives and, even more so, how he dies—that each of us is infinitely beautiful, infinitely perverse.

If Eros has become for us an idol that is because we refuse to see our sexuality (and thus our humanity) as it is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We refuse to look at the one who has been humbled and exalted, humiliated and, in his very humiliation, lifted up. In denying him, we deny ourselves. We prefer the counterfeit to the real thing, the lie to the truth of who and what we are.

AD: As one who has recently written a lot about Freud, and is working on a book ("Theology After Freud") I was fascinated by your treatment of him, which seems to me so skillful and deft in many ways--finding what is good and useful, but not being afraid to criticize or go beyond him. You also note--as did Lacan and Manoussakis--that there is significant overlap between Freud and Augustine. Tell us a bit more about that.

Thank you for your kind words. One of the goals of my writing is to test everything and retain what’s good, as St. Paul put it. A close friend, William Hendel, recently suggested to me that this single line of Scripture sums up St. Thomas’s entire project. Thomas is motivated by a desire to see how many disparate things he can incorporate into a deeper, richer, more philosophically complex understanding of Catholicism. I don’t know that anyone would call me a Thomist, but in this sense at least I view myself as very much indebted to the Thomist tradition.

Chesterton once observed, “The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike take positive evil as the starting-point of their argument.” I would say that this is what any honest man must do. That the human heart is more perverse than anything—“beyond remedy,” the prophet Jeremiah insists—is one of the first discoveries made by any man who looks into himself. It should come as no surprise then to find so much overlap between Freud and Augustine, the psychoanalyst and the orthodox Christian. After all, both attempt to offer an image of the phenomena of life by plumbing the depths of the human soul, and their own individual souls most of all.

I have never really understood why so many Christians are reluctant to accept and adopt the best arguments from the best thinkers. Heinrich Heine—an underappreciated philosopher and great wit (his work is really just a pleasure to read)—notes that so-called pessimistic philosophers, those seen by many to be the enemies of faith, actually provide the faithful with a good deal of ammunition. Their bleak (and honest) assessments of the human condition, far from refuting the tenants of faith, lend support to dogmas like original sin. Heine, of course, was bemoaning this fact. But I accept his observation and will adopt it for my own purposes. Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, Lacan—these are not our enemies. They are our great thinkers, our great sufferers. Their insights have been purchased at a price. The price of honesty, an honest assessment of themselves. I am ready to listen to anyone willing to look into the depths of his own heart. And I’m not surprised when he reports having seen nothing there but dark.

AD: In a time when--if they know anything--most people assume that Catholic Christianity is conservative, if not reactionary, when it comes to questions of sex, sexuality, and gender, you speak of "the radical reevaluation of gender relations introduced by the Christian understanding of sacramental sexuality" (p.118). Tell us a bit more of what you mean here.

Freud, in classifying libido as masculine, identifies the desire to use and objectify others for our own selfish purposes—sadism in his terminology, will to power in Nietzsche’s—as the defining characteristic of human sexuality and thus the defining characteristic of human beings. The violently obsessive nature of male desire seeks the subjugation and ultimately the destruction of that which it loves; “male love is murder,” to quote Žižek. That we desire, in a very literal sense, a love object and not another human being seems to me not only experientially verifiable, but also irrefutable.

To return to a point touched upon above: isn’t desire understood as such the glue that binds together the apparent opposition between pornography and puritanism? What is the attraction of the pornographic if not that it gives the viewer an object to vent his sexual desires upon in the place of a real human being? What does puritanism offer if not an idealized (that is, inhuman) image of purity that only an object could attain?. Interestingly, Freud posits that women too are defined by this destructive desire and that sadistic sexuality, far from being an exclusively male problem, is the rule. Yet how do we account for the existence of a love beyond exploitation, one that forgoes power, refuses to objectify, loosens its grasp? (Obviously, for Freud no such love exists).

It is no secret that Christianity has throughout its history neglected the feminine, feared it, suppressed it, relegated it to the realm of the irrational and untrue. But if we’re being honest, we must admit that the Christ we meet in the Gospels is not a particularly masculine figure. A savior who comes not in power but in weakness, who preaches mercy instead of justice, forgiveness in place of revenge, who measures his wealth not by how much he can possess but how much he can give away, who shows us how to inhabit our vulnerability and be honest about our frailty, whose love is abandonment—that is not a very manly savior.

What is fascinating is that thinkers such as Nietzsche and Lacan appreciate this “revaluation of values” while many of their Christian counterparts—who focus with an almost fetishistic fervor on the perfection, omnipotence, justice, and transcendence of the divine—fail to even recognize it. In Beyond Good and Evil, for instance, Nietzsche speaks of woman as “clairvoyant in the world of suffering” and then immediately links female love with the love of Christ. Lacan, writing in Seminar XX on the “something more” (en plus) of female jouissance, says that male mystics such as John of the Cross embody feminine desire and he links that mysterious jouissance with l’amour de Dieu.

There is no question, I think, that if human sexuality is to be saved—and by that I mean, if human beings are to be saved—it can only be by means of the crucifixion of Eros, the nailing to the cross of our lust for power and might.

AD: Your quoting Mannoussakis, "There is no other" (p.123) puts me immediately in mind of Winnicott's equally blunt aphorism, "there's no such thing as a baby." Unpack this a bit for us.

Your pairing of these assertions is, I think, instructive. The first gestures at what I was just saying in response to your last question. There is no other means that the other is for me merely an object, a tool that I use and abuse for my pleasure. There is no baby means that for the infant, there is no self or rather that the self is all other, lost in the oblivion of fusion (“oceanic oneness” in Freud’s language) with the mother. Both capture something true about the human condition which strives at all costs to eliminate otherness, either by reducing it to the subhuman (sadism) or subsuming it into the indifferentiation that makes one from two (fusion). Both, of course, are different instantiations of Thanatos, the death drive, the desire our own unmaking. Both refuse the salvation that comes from without, the grace that comes from the other.

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

Whenever I write, I write with a reader in mind. That reader is the person I am trying to persuade, the one for whom all of my arguments and hesitations, illustrations and tangents are intended. The worst writing is written for an audience that already agrees. I assume a suspicious reader. My reader is hostile.

My goal is not to win a convert but simply to get the reader to acknowledge that a person as reasonable as him or herself could hold the positions I put forward. My ideal reader for this book would be someone skeptical of faith—Catholic Christianity in particular—someone with an affinity for existential philosophy and Freudian psychoanalytic thought.

But books are made to be read and ideal readers—like all ideals—simply do not exist. As I have worked through your questions, I have been touched time and again by your charitable and attentive reading of my work. That there is someone willing to show my book such good will tells me that my highest hopes for this project have already been reached. An author cannot ask for more.

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

My latest obsession has been Socrates’s assertion at the end of the Symposium that authors should be able to write both tragedies and comedies, the true tragic dramatist is also a comic poet. I see the seeds of work of literary theory developing along these lines but God only knows if and when it will be finished.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Sophiology Man

The English Dominican Aidan Nichols long ago emerged as one of the most serious Latin interlocutors with and scholars of the Christian East. More than thirty years ago now, he began this exploration with his Theology in the Russian Diaspora: Church, Fathers, Eucharist in Nikolai Afanas'ev (1893-1966), drawing on a figure who even today still retains great power and promise and relevance, especially in the area of ecclesiology. I drew on Afanasiev extensively in my book last year, Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.

That is not to say that all of Nichols' works have been problem-free. His first edition of Rome and the Eastern Churches was a mess, riddled with errors of all sorts. But the second edition was a welcome new version free of the problems of the original.

Nichols is certainly prolific, and here I have noted just a fraction of his books on Eastern themes and figures. He has yet another book out this year on a figure who continues to haunt many Western theologians and ecumenists: Aidan Nichols, The Sophiology Man. The Work of Vladimir Solov'ëv (Gracewing, 2020), 178pp.

About this new book we are told:
This book is an introduction to the personality and thought of the founder of Russian sophiology, the philosophy and theology of 'wisdom', Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ëv. Seen as the single most important philosopher Russia has as yet produced, there has been an explosion of interest in, and writing about, Solov'ëv since the ending of Soviet period constraints in the later 1980s. From the closing years of the twentieth century there has also been an unexpected outbreak of 'philo-sophiology' in the West, to which his philosophical endeavours are highly relevant.
 After an early 'theosophical' stage where his interests were concentrated on an 'integral' or 'holistic' grasp of the true, and a middle 'theocratic' period when his mind was concentrated on how to achieve, for Christendom and global society, the common good, Solov'ëv moved into a late 'theurgical' phase dominated by such themes as nature, art and love (though the good and the true were not forgotten). These topics could perhaps be summed up as anterooms of the third of the great 'transcendentals' of Christian Scholasticism: namely, the beautiful. Solov'ëv did not leave behind a fully coherent body of reflection on the 'Lady' Wisdom celebrated in such sapiential books of the Old Testament as Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon--the 'Sophia' that gives 'sophiology' its name--but Aidan Nichols helps to make his sophianic doctrine, drawn from sources that were a mixture of Christian and Jewish, both traditional and esoteric, intelligible to the reader. He also gives an account of Solov'ëv as an early 'ecumenist', concerned with the reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches - and indeed with the reunion of Christians all round. At the end of his life, his many-sided intellectual, ecclesiastical, political, moral, and aesthetic enterprise metamorphosed into the belief that only divine intervention, in the form of the Parousia of Christ, will ever resolve the myopia, lethargy, folly and other evils of homo sapiens on this planet. Among those evils he identified one attempted 'final solution' --a globalist utopia organized without reference to the incarnate God. It is perhaps his most pertinent word to people today.
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