"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, October 30, 2020

Simeon Frank's Unknowable Ontology

Simeon (Semyon) Frank remains a fascinating figure from the so-called Silver Age of Russian letters. I have noticed an upsurge of interest in him over the past decade or so as more of his works are translated and studied, including the publication this year of his The Unknowable: An Ontological Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, trans. Boris Jakim (Angelico Press, 2020), 346pp. 

About this book and its author the publisher tells us this:

The Unknowable is arguably the greatest Russian philosophical work of the twentieth century. In its density and profundity it is comparable to Pavel Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth and Sergius Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb. In 1937 Frank described The Unknowable as “the best and most profound thing which I have so far written.” The Unknowable was the culmination of Frank’s intellectual and spiritual development, the boldest and most imaginative of all his writings, containing a synthesis of epistemology, ontology, social philosophy, religious philosophy, and personal spiritual experience: the soul transcends outward to knowledge of other souls, thereby gaining knowledge of itself, becoming itself for the first time; and the soul transcends inward to gain knowledge of God, acquiring for the first time stable, certain being in this knowledge.  

S. L. FRANK (1877–1950) was one of the leading Russian philosophers of the twentieth century. Some authorities consider him to be the most outstanding Russian philosopher of any age. His active philosophical career spanned the half-century from 1902 to 1950. Over the course of this period he produced seven book-length treatises on philosophy, as well as several long philosophical essays, in addition to a mass of articles and reviews. When young, he took part in a Marxist group and was arrested and banned from major Russian cities. Yet, like a number of other Russian thinkers, he was not satisfied with Marxism and turned first to Idealism and then to religious philosophy. In 1922, along with other major ideological opponents of the Communist State, Frank was expelled from the Soviet Union. He worked in exile until his death in London in 1950.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

In Praise of Maps and Atlases

Every semester for more than a decade I have made regular use of maps in my classes, especially those devoted to Muslim-Christian relations both ancient and modern. I am an unapologetic believer that understanding the lay of the land--noticing, e.g., where the river valleys are, or mountain ranges, etc.--is crucial to understanding much of the history. 

In that light, I am looking forward to getting my hands on Christianity: A Historical Atlas by Alec Ryrie with maps by Malcolm Swanston (Belknap/Harvard UP, October 2020), 224 pages + 121 color maps, 18 illus.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

With over two billion practicing believers today, Christianity has taken root in almost all parts of the globe. Its impact on Europe and the Americas in particular has been fundamental. Through more than one hundred beautiful color maps and illustrations, Christianity traces the history of the religion, beginning with the world of Jesus Christ. From the consolidation of the first Christian empire—Constantine’s Rome—to the early Christian states that thrived in Ireland, Ethiopia, and other regions of the Roman periphery, Christianity quickly proved dynamic and adaptable.

After centuries of dissemination, strife, dogmatic division, and warfare in its European and Near Eastern heartland, Christianity conquered new worlds. In North America, immigrants fleeing persecution and intolerance rejected the established Church, and in time revivalist religions flourished and spread. Missionaries took the Christian message to Latin America, Africa, and Asia, bringing millions of new converts into the fold.

Christianity has served as the inspiration for some of the world’s finest monuments, literature, art, and architecture, while also playing a major role in world politics and history, including conquest, colonization, conflict, and liberation. Despite challenges in the modern world from atheism and secularism, from scandals and internal divisions, Christianity continues to spread its message through new technologies while drawing on a deep well of history and tradition.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Voting about God

I noted this book on here many years ago when it first came out, but this year we have a papaerback edition of Ramsay MacMullen's Voting about God in Early Church Councils (Yale University Press, 2020), 182pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In this study, Ramsay MacMullen steps aside from the well-worn path that previous scholars have trod to explore exactly how early Christian doctrines became official. Drawing on extensive verbatim stenographic records, he analyzes the ecumenical councils from A.D. 325 to 553, in which participants gave authority to doctrinal choices by majority vote.

The author investigates the sometimes astonishing bloodshed and violence that marked the background to church council proceedings, and from there goes on to describe the planning and staging of councils, the emperors' role, the routines of debate, the participants’ understanding of the issues, and their views on God’s intervention in their activities. He concludes with a look at the significance of the councils and their doctrinal decisions within the history of Christendom. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Habsburg History

Eastern Christians, especially some of those we today call, or who call themselves, Ukrainians, were for a very long time bound up with the fortunes of the Habsburgs, not least in Austrian Galicia. Galician history, as I indicate at the link, is itself fascinating, not least as told by Larry Wolff, and Robert Magosci and Christopher Hann. 

Habsburg history takes place on a much wider front, of course--indeed, a global one, and is even more interesting. It is an area I have long wanted to read more of, and now I have new incentive to do so thanks to the wonderful London Review of Books, in its 24 September 2020 edition, where we find a laudatory review of a new book: Martin Rady, The Habsburgs: to Rule the World (Basic Books, 2020), 416pp.

About this new book the publisher tells us this:

In The Habsburgs, Martyn Rady tells the epic story of a dynasty and the world it built -- and then lost -- over nearly a millennium. From modest origins, the Habsburgs gained control of the Holy Roman Empire in the fifteenth century. Then, in just a few decades, their possessions rapidly expanded to take in a large part of Europe, stretching from Hungary to Spain, and parts of the New World and the Far East. The Habsburgs continued to dominate Central Europe through the First World War.

Historians often depict the Habsburgs as leaders of a ramshackle empire. But Rady reveals their enduring power, driven by the belief that they were destined to rule the world as defenders of the Roman Catholic Church, guarantors of peace, and patrons of learning. The Habsburgs is the definitive history of a remarkable dynasty that forever changed Europe and the world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Deceptions of Desire

Regular readers of this blog, and especially my book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, will be aware of how indebted I am to the Spanish Jesuit priest, theologian, and psychoanalyst Carlos Dominguez-Morano and his landmark and brilliant book Belief After Freud. That book remains, far and away, the most theologically sophisticated, compelling, and important engagement of Freud for decades. 

Well, to my enormous excitement, I see that Lexington Books is bringing out another of his books in translation next month: The Myth of Desire: Sexuality, Love, and the Self, trans. Veronica Polo Torok (Lexington, November 2020), 254pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In The Myth of Desire: Sexuality, Love, and the Self, Carlos Domínguez-Morano draws on psychoanalysis to explore the broad and complex reality of the affective-sexual realm encompassed by the term desire, a concept that propels individual aspirations, pursuits, and life endeavors. Domínguez-Morano takes a global perspective in order to introduce a methodology, examine the present sociocultural determinations affecting desire, review the main stages in the evolution of desire, and reflect on affective maturity. Domínguez-Morano further explores the five basic expressions of desire: falling in love and being a couple, homosexuality, narcissism and self-esteem, friendship, and the derivative of desire by way of sublimation. Scholars of psychology, philosophy, and sociology will find this book particularly useful.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Art, Craft, and Theology in Fourth-Century Authors

Morwenna Ludlow is well known among patristics scholars, not least for her book Gregory of Nyssa, which I profitably read many years ago. She has a new book just out on Kindle, and set for November release in hardback: Art, Craft, and Theology in Fourth-Century Christian Authors (Oxford University Press, 2020), 288pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Ancient authors commonly compared writing with painting. The sculpting of the soul was also a common philosophical theme. Art, Craft, and Theology in Fourth-Century Christian Authors takes its starting-point from such figures to recover a sense of ancient authorship as craft. The ancient concept of craft (ars, techne) spans 'high' or 'fine' art and practical or applied arts. It unites the beautiful and the useful. It includes both skills or practices (like medicine and music) and productive arts like painting, sculpting and the composition of texts. By using craft as a guiding concept for understanding fourth Christian authorship, this book recovers a sense of them engaged in a shared practice which is both beautiful and theologically useful, which shapes souls but which is also engaged in the production of texts. It focuses on Greek writers, especially the Cappadocians (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nysa) and John Chrysostom, all of whom were trained in rhetoric. Through a detailed examination of their use of two particular literary techniques--ekphrasis and prosōpopoeia--it shows how they adapt and experiment with them, in order to make theological arguments and in order to evoke a response from their readership.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Sadomasochism and Pseudo-Christian Culture

At the Other Place, you will find some thoughts on sadomasochism and its dynamics in a Christian context. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Saving Russian Iconography

At the end of this month will emerge a paperback edition of a lovely, important, fascinating book first published several years ago. For all those interested in Russian history, and in iconography, this book needs a place in your library: Irina Yazykova, Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography, trans. Paul Grenier (Paraclete Press, 2020), 224pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this: 

This dramatic history recounts the story of an aspect of Russian culture that fought to survive throughout the 20th century: the icon. Russian iconography kept faith alive in Soviet Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. As monasteries and churches were ruined, icons destroyed, thousands of believers killed or sent to Soviet prisons and labor camps, a few courageous iconographers continued to paint holy images secretly, despite the ever-present threat of arrest. Others were forced to leave Russia altogether, and while living abroad, struggled to preserve their Orthodox traditions. Today we are witness to a renaissance of the Russian icon, made possible by the sacrifices of this previous generation of heroes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Ministry After Freud

One of Freud's longest and closest friendships was with Oskar Pfister, a Swiss Reformed pastor (discussed briefly here) who immediately saw the pastoral applicability of psychoanalytic techniques. Pfister visited Freud and befriended his entire family in Vienna over many years. It was perhaps with him in mind that Freud spoke of the ideal psychoanalyst as being neither a priest nor a physician, but instead a "secular pastoral worker." (That did not stop numerous Catholic--mainly Jesuit--priests from becoming analysts, as I documented in part here.)

But then Freud published Future of an Illusion, and inadvertently alienated most Jews and Christians--needlessly, as I have argued in a variety of places (including on here) over the years, and will argue at much greater length and detail in a book I'm working on, "Theology After Freud," which will doubtless get finished in fifty years or after my death, whichever comes first. For Freud is in fact the most useful adjunct theology could have for his clear-eyed efforts to diagnose and destroy illusions and idolatry which afflict us all, and often are bound up together in most ideologies, including those afflicting Catholic Christianity today. 

Pfister, as it turns out, was not alone in finding Freud useful for pastoral ministry. Along comes a new edition of a book which documents how Protestant pastors in this country found him helpful: Allison Stokes, Ministry After Freud (Wipf and Stock, 2020), 264pp. 

About this new book (originally published by Abingdon in 1985, apparently) the publisher tells us this:

Ministry After Freud tells the fascinating story of the impact of Freud's depth psychological discoveries on the practice of American Protestant ministry. It focuses on the lives and work of leaders such as Elwood Worcester, Anton Boisen, Flanders Dunhar, Smiley Blanton, Norman Vincent Peale, Seward Hiltner, and Paul Tillich, who were pioneers in the Religion and Health Movement, which brought together religion and psychology in healing ministry, and greatly influenced the practice of pastoral care and counseling. Never before chronicled and described, this Movement paralleled the Social Gospel Movement.

The book also tells the story for the first time of the New York Psychology Group, which met on Manhattan in the early 1940s. Members of this exclusive group—including Paul Tillich, Seward Hiltner, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, David Roberts, Gotthard Booth, Violet De Laszlo—shared ideas about the bearing of psychology on religion, ideas that later deeply influenced American intellectual and religious life through the articles and books these people wrote. The author identifies religion and health as a movement in theological liberalism, which historically seeks to interpret the gospel for each generation.

I have read and benefited from the book, and all who are interested in this history will not want to be without it. It is very cogently written, with a keen eye for telling detail and judicious assessments at every turn. It documents the Emmanuel Movement out of Boston in 1906 and other early movements that led to burgeoning interest in psychology and especially psychoanalysis, leading up to and developing yet further after the 1909 visit of Freud et al to this country.

It is hard to read the book now without at least a touch of wistfulness for a bygone era in which pastors and theologians sought out serious methods of pastoral counselling  and tried to learn as much as they could from Freud and related traditions of aptly named depth psychology. Who has that depth today in an era of monetized "mindfulness" apps on a phone and similar trifles? 

Monday, October 12, 2020

A New Biography of Stalin

The influence of Stalin on the destruction of Eastern Christian churches--Catholic and Orthodox--is notorious. I have read a couple biographies about him over the years, and now Princeton University Press has another one coming out this month: Ronald Grigor Suny, Stalin: Passage to Revolution (PUP, 2020, 896pp.

About this hefty new study, the publisher tells us this:

This is the definitive biography of Joseph Stalin from his birth to the October Revolution of 1917, a panoramic and often chilling account of how an impoverished, idealistic youth from the provinces of tsarist Russia was transformed into a cunning and fearsome outlaw who would one day become one of the twentieth century's most ruthless dictators.

In this monumental book, Ronald Grigor Suny sheds light on the least understood years of Stalin's career, bringing to life the turbulent world in which he lived and the extraordinary historical events that shaped him. Suny draws on a wealth of new archival evidence from Stalin's early years in the Caucasus to chart the psychological metamorphosis of the young Stalin, taking readers from his boyhood as a Georgian nationalist and romantic poet, through his harsh years of schooling, to his commitment to violent engagement in the underground movement to topple the tsarist autocracy. Stalin emerges as an ambitious climber within the Bolshevik ranks, a resourceful leader of a small terrorist band, and a writer and thinker who was deeply engaged with some of the most incendiary debates of his time.

A landmark achievement, Stalin paints an unforgettable portrait of a driven young man who abandoned his religious faith to become a skilled political operative and a single-minded and ruthless rebel.

Friday, October 9, 2020

St Maximus the Confessor

This blog just passed its tenth anniversary, which I only realized now, a few weeks after the fact. If you go back to those early days of innocence and wonderment, you will see that ten years ago we were in the full flood of publications by and about Maximus the Confessor. That has recently abated only slightly, but now we have a new translation to pick up the slack: St. Maximus the Confessor, The Ascetic Life, The Four Centuries on Charity, trans. Polycarp Sherwood (Angelico Press, 2020), 296pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662), saint and martyr, might well be called the Saint of Synthesis. His thought, no less than his geographical wanderings, place him between Rome and Byzantium, between the theologies of East and West, and between the early Middle Ages and the ancient Church, whose representatives and traditions (which during his day had suffered much at the hands of imperial and ecclesial censure) he salvaged and brought back to the attention of his contemporaries. In this, we may take him as an exemplar for our own time, which demands of us as well such a re-excavation of the traditions of the Church as we seek also to bridge the divergences of the past (along with others that have meanwhile come to roost) in our present spiritual quest.

The Ascetic Life takes the form of question and answer between a novice and an old monk. This dialogue springs directly from the nature of Christian life, centering above all on the quest for salvation, that is, the Lord’s purpose in His Incarnation—for it is by learning to make this purpose our own that we shall be saved, or deified, as St. Maximus would say. Once this purpose has been made clear and embraced, the three principal virtues required for attaining it are then explored—love, self-mastery, and prayer. Love tames anger, self-mastery overcomes desire, and prayer joins the mind to God.

The Four Centuries on Charity is written in the form of sententious or gnomic literature, which was first fixed in “centuries” by Evagrius Ponticus, both the number 100 and the number of the centuries being significant: the first as a perfect number referring to the One, God; and the other as representing the four Gospels. St. Maximus himself offers concision as the reason for his choice of the sententious form, for it facilitates the work of the memory in order that the reader may lay by a store of memorable, pithy sayings upon which to dwell prayerfully.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Greek Christians and Arab Muslims in the Levant

Late Ottoman history, including the founding of various Orthodox nation-states out of that empire on a wave of nationalism, remains a topic of great interest to me. So this new book, released just this month, looks especially fascinating: Michael Kreutz, The Renaissance of the Levant: Arabic and Greek Discourses of Reform in the Age of Nationalism (De Gruyter, 2020), 230pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Since the Mediterranean connects cultures, Mediterranean studies have by definition an intercultural focus. Throughout the modern era, the Ottoman Empire has had a lasting impact on the cultures and societies of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean. However, the modern Balkans are usually studied within the context of European history, the southern Mediterranean within the context of Islam.

Although it makes sense to connect both regions, this is a vast field and requires a command of different languages not necessarily related to each other. Investigating both Greek and Arabic sources, this book will shed some light on the significance of ideas in the political transitions of their time and how the proponents of these transitions often became so overwhelmed by the events that they helped trigger adjustments to their own ideas. Also, the discourses in Greek and Arabic reflect the provinces of the Ottoman Empire and it is instructive to see their differences and commonalities which helps explain contemporary politics.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Reformation and Enlightenment Influences on Russian Orthodoxy

One of the self-congratulatory illusions (in the strict Freudian sense) that some Orthodox apologists like to tell themselves is that their tradition has somehow been insulated or even inoculated from Enlightenment influences and, to a lesser degree, the upheavals of the various Protestant reformations of the sixteenth century. Neither illusion (which functions, as Freud saw, as a protective device as well as of wish fulfilment: in this case the desire that Orthodoxy be "protected" from what are taken to be nefarious philosophical influences, and the wish that it remain a "safe haven" free of such things after all other Christians have apparently succumbed to them) withstands a moment of scholarly scrutiny, but when has that ever gotten in the way of a good myth? 

In any event, a forthcoming study will add to our understanding of this period: A Spiritual Revolution: The Impact of Reformation and Enlightenment in Orthodox Russia, 1700–1825 by Andrey V. Ivanov (University of Wisconsin Press, November 2020), 320pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The ideas of the Protestant Reformation, followed by the European Enlightenment, had a profound and long-lasting impact on Russia’s church and society in the eighteenth century. Though the traditional Orthodox Church was often assumed to have been hostile toward outside influence, Andrey V. Ivanov’s study argues that the institution in fact embraced many Western ideas, thereby undergoing what some observers called a religious revolution.

Embedded with lively portrayals of historical actors and vivid descriptions of political details, A Spiritual Revolution is the first large-scale effort to fully identify exactly how Western progressive thought influenced the Russian Church. These new ideas played a foundational role in the emergence of the country as a modernizing empire and the rise of the Church hierarchy as a forward-looking agency of institutional and societal change. Ivanov addresses this important debate in the scholarship on European history, firmly placing Orthodoxy within the much wider European and global continuum of religious change.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Pavel Florensky's Idealism

Angelico Press continues to have some of the most interestingly diverse lists of contemporary Catholic publishers, and continues their admirable interest in the Christian East by publishing both new works and translations of classics, as in this case: Pavel Florensky, The Meaning of Idealism: The Metaphysics of Genus and Countenance, trans. Boris Jakim (Angelico, Sept. 2020), 108pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The Meaning of Idealism is a journey: from Plato and Aristotle to Neoplatonism to Medieval theories of being and knowing, from these to Orthodox spirituality, to Vedic mysticism, from Vedic mysticism to astrology, from astrology to modern science-including relativity, the mathematical theory of invariants, and the multidimensional universe.

And about its celebrated author we are told this:

Arguably the greatest Russian theologian of the early 20th century, Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) also did original work in such fields as liturgical aesthetics, iconographic theory, the philosophy of names, theoretical mathematics, and even electrical engineering. He became a Russian Orthodox priest in 1911, while remaining deeply involved with the cultural, artistic, and scientific developments of his time. Arrested by the Soviets in 1928, he returned to his scholarly activities until 1933, when he was sentenced to ten years of labor in Siberia. There he continued his scientific work and ministered to his fellow prisoners until his death four years later.

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