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

Friday, January 29, 2021

Christian-Muslim Relations in Syria

My survey course on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam always focuses on Syria as one of several countries we examine. The course deliberately seeks to show the great diversity in those encounters, thereby disrupting the equally lazy stereotypes that Islam is always and only either hellbent on violence, or the bringer of the greatest peace and progress ever seen. 

A recent book gives us some of the most up-to-date analysis of the situation in Syria, which has of course changed dramatically starting a decade ago now with the failed "Arab spring." Prior to all the violence that "spring" brought, Syria was a place of many considerable Christian communities--Protestant, Orthodox, and Melkite Greek Catholic, inter alia, usually managing to lead decent and productive lives. But so much has changed so dramatically, and often destructively, that we need a new guide to realities on the ground. Along comes Andrew W. H. Ashdown, Christian–Muslim Relations in Syria: Historic and Contemporary Religious Dynamics in a Changing Context (Routledge, 2020), 270pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Offering an authoritative study of the plural religious landscape in modern Syria and of the diverse Christian and Muslim communities that have cohabited the country for centuries, this volume considers a wide range of cultural, religious and political issues that have impacted the interreligious dynamic, putting them in their local and wider context.

Combining fieldwork undertaken within government-held areas during the Syrian conflict with critical historical and Christian theological reflection, this research makes a significant contribution to understanding Syria’s diverse religious landscape and the multi-layered expressions of Christian-Muslim relations. It discusses the concept of sectarianism and how communal dynamics are crucial to understanding Syrian society. The complex wider issues that underlie the relationship are examined, including the roles of culture and religious leadership; and it questions whether the analytical concept of sectarianism is adequate to describe the complex communal frameworks in the Middle Eastern context. Finally, the study examines the contributions of contemporary Eastern Christian leaders to interreligious discourse, concluding that the theology and spirituality of Eastern Christianity, inhabiting the same cultural environment as Islam, is uniquely placed to play a major role in interreligious dialogue and in peace-making.

The book offers an original contribution to knowledge and understanding of the changing Christian-Muslim dynamic in Syria and the region. It should be a key resource to students, scholars and readers interested in religion, current affairs and the Middle East.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

To Be Fully Divinized in Christ

Already by the time of this blog's birth, more than a decade ago now, I was noting the increasing number of books on theosis/divinization/deification. That number has continued to grow in the past few years as more and more Western Christians in particular have rightly realized and carefully shown that theosis is not just some bit of Orthodox exotica absent from the West, but found there in many and diverse ways.

A new book, by an editor and author who is no stranger to this topic, has just been published: Jared Ortiz, With All the Fullness of God: Deification in Christian Tradition (Fortress Press, 2021), 278pp. As you'll see at the link, there are Orthodox contributors to this volume alongside many Protestants and Catholics. 

About this collection the publisher tells us this:

Christians confess that Christ came to save us from sin and death. But what did he save us for? One beautiful and compelling answer to this question is that God saved us for union with him so that we might become “partakers of the divine nature” (1 Pet 2:4), what the Christian tradition has called “deification.” This term refers to a particular vision of salvation which claims that God wants to share his own divine life with us, uniting us to himself and transforming us into his likeness. While often thought to be either a heretical notion or the provenance of Eastern Orthodoxy, this book shows that deification is an integral part of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and many Protestant denominations. Drawing on the resources of their own Christian heritages, eleven scholars share the riches of their respective traditions on the doctrine of deification. In this book , scholars and pastor-scholars from diverse Christian expressions write for both a scholarly and lay audience about what God created us to be: adopted children of God who are called, even now, to “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies

The annual "unity octave," more recently and popularly known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, ends today, which is as fine a time as any to draw your attention to a forthcoming international collection from the most prestigious academic publisher in the world: The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, eds., Geoffrey Wainwright and Paul McPartlan (OUP, June 2021), 696pp.

I was asked nearly a decade ago now to contribute a chapter, which it was my pleasure and honour to do: I wrote on The Church, showing ecumenical advances in ecclesiology. My chapter was submitted in 2012. 

The final production, however, has been so long delayed that one of the editors, Geoffrey Wainwright, died last year before this book was in print. Parts of it have been available electronically for some time, but now we shall soon have the whole thing in print, which is how God intended for books to be read. I mention all this not in any critical way whatsoever, but merely to commiserate with Prof. McPartlan, for I, too, have often been in the position he has been in, waiting on contributors to send in much-delayed chapters only to have some of them utterly disappear, submitting nothing (long may they roast in Purgatory!); others to promise and promise you a chapter, dragging things out indefinitely; and so on. 

In fact, my forthcoming Married Priests in the Catholic Church also saw its first stirrings of life back in 2012, and was, I hoped, going to be in print at least 3 years ago. But we editors are at the mercy of contributors and other forces we can only rarely, and often never, dragoon to our deadlines. So things always take much longer than one plans and hopes, leading me to the longstanding if counterintuitive realization that writing a book as solo author is always much easier and faster than editing a collection even if your overall word-count is far different. 

In any event, here is what the publisher tells us about this forthcoming collection: 

The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies is an unparalleled compendium of ecumenical history, information and reflection. With essay contributions by nearly fifty experts in their various fields, and edited by two leading international scholars, the Handbook is a major resource for all who are involved or interested in ecumenical work for reconciliation between Christians and for the unity of the Church. Its six main sections consider, respectively, the different phases of the history of the ecumenical movement from the mid-nineteenth century to the present; the ways in which leading Christian churches and traditions, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, and Pentecostal, have engaged with and contributed to the movement; the achievements of ecumenical dialogue in key areas of Christian doctrine, such as Christology and ecclesiology, baptism, Eucharist and ministry, morals and mission, and the issues that remain outstanding; various ecumenical agencies and instruments, such as covenants and dialogues, the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Global Christian Forum; the progress and difficulties of ecumenism in different countries, areas and continents of the world, the UK and the USA, Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, and the Middle East, ; and finally two all-important questions are considered by scholars from various traditions: what would Christian unity look like and what is the best method for seeking it? This is a remarkably comprehensive account and assessment of one of the most outstanding features of Christian history, namely the modern ecumenical movement.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Muslim-Christian Dialogues

Forthcoming in March of this year is a book that will carefully examine some initiatives that I know Eastern Christians to have been especially involved with over the last decade or so: Contemporary Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Twenty-First Century Initiatives by Douglas Pratt (Routledge, March 2021), 232pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

This book introduces and examines the work of two significant 21st century Christian – Muslim dialogue initiatives – "Building Bridges" and the "Christian–Muslim Theological Forum" – and gives close attention to five theological themes that have been addressed in common by them.

An overview and analysis, including inception, development, outputs and significance, together with discussion of the select themes – community, scripture, prophecy, prayer and ethics – allows for an in-depth examination of significant contemporary Muslim and Christian scholarship on issues important to both faith communities. The result is a challenging encounter to, arguably, a widespread default presumption of irredeemable mutual hostility and inevitable mutual rejection with instances of violent extremism as a consequence.

Demonstrating the reality that deep interreligious engagement is possible between the two faiths today, this book should appeal to a wide readership, including upper undergraduate and graduate teaching as well as professionals and practitioners in the field of Christian-Muslim relations.

Monday, January 18, 2021

A History of Confession in Russia

In the late 1990s I worked as research assistant to a professor, David Perrin, who was writing an historical and philosophical analysis of the sacrament of confession. It was a fascinating summer spent researching one sacrament whose practice has changed so dramatically across time and place. 

Some of those differences will be on display mid-year in a forthcoming book. This is very advanced notice for a book I definitely want to get my hands on when it comes out, as much for the topic as the author, whom I've met once or twice at conferences over the years and who has always impressed me with the caliber of her exacting scholarship: Nadieszda Kizenko, Good for the Souls: A History of Confession in the Russian Empire (Oxford University Press, June 2021), 336pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

From the moment that Tsars as well as hierarchs realized that having their subjects go to confession could make them better citizens as well as better Christians, the sacrament of penance in the Russian empire became a political tool, a devotional exercise, a means of education, and a literary genre. It defined who was Orthodox, and who was 'other.' First encouraging Russian subjects to participate in confession to improve them and to integrate them into a reforming Church and State, authorities then turned to confession to integrate converts of other nationalities. But the sacrament was not only something that state and religious authorities sought to impose on an unwilling populace. Confession could provide an opportunity for carefully crafted complaint. What state and church authorities initially imagined as a way of controlling an unruly population could be used by the same population as a way of telling their own story, or simply getting time off to attend to their inner lives.

Good for the Souls brings Russia into the rich scholarly and popular literature on confession, penance, discipline, and gender in the modern world, and in doing so opens a key window onto church, state, and society. It draws on state laws, Synodal decrees, archives, manuscript repositories, clerical guides, sermons, saints' lives, works of literature, and visual depictions of the sacrament in those books and on church iconostases. Russia, Ukraine, and Orthodox Christianity emerge both as part of the European, transatlantic religious continuum-and, in crucial ways, distinct from it.

If I can, I'll arrange an interview on here with Dr Kizenko.

Friday, January 15, 2021

St Thomas and India

Some day, please God, I might be able to make it to India. The Eastern Christian traditions in India have long remained fascinating to me along with the other religious traditions in the country (Sikhism especially), and, of course, the wonderful food. 

In the meantime, I will slake some of my interest with a new book: St. Thomas and India: Recent Research, eds. K. S. Mathew, Joseph Chacko Chennattuserry, and Antony Bungalowparambil (Fortress Press, 2020), 200pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us this:

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.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Evil in Christian Dogma

The problem of evil is of course one that bedevils us all, and raises often intractable questions for us all. A new collection may help us grapple with it further. It is ecumenical in its sweep, with an Orthodox chapter by Paul Gavrilyuk whom I have interviewed and discussed on this blog over the yeras. David Luy, Matthew Levering, and George Kalantzis, eds., Evil and Creation: Historical and Constructive Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Lexham Press, 2020), 280pp. 
About this collection the publisher tells us this:
Evil is an intruder upon a world created by God and declared good. Scripture emphasizes this: laments are regularly juxtaposed with declarations of God as creator. But evil is not merely a problem for the doctrine of creation. Rather, the doctrine of creation provides a hopeful response to evil.

In Evil and Creation, David J. Luy, Matthew Levering, and George Kalantzis collect essays investigating how the doctrine of creation relates to moral and physical evil. Essayists pursue philosophical and theological analyses of evil rather than neatly solving the problem of evil itself. Including contributions from Constantine Campbell, Paul Blowers, and Paul Gavrilyuk, this volume draws upon biblical and patristic voices to produce constructive theology, considering topics ranging from vanity in Ecclesiastes and its patristic interpreters to animal suffering.

Readers will gain a broader appreciation of evil and how to faithfully respond to it as well as a renewed hope in God as creator and judge.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Body and Soul in Patristic and Byzantine Thought

For better or worse, much theology--Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox--has for the better part of four decades now at least been rather interested in all things somatic. Along comes another volume, published just a month ago, to advance our understanding of The Unity of Body and Soul in Patristic and Byzantine Thought, eds., Anna Usacheva, Jörg Ulrich, and Siam Bhayro (Verlag Ferdinand Schoeningh, 2020), 350pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us this: 

This volume explores the long-standing tensions between such notions as soul and body, spirit and flesh, in the context of human immortality and bodily resurrection. The discussion revolves around late antique views on the resurrected human body and the relevant philosophical, medical and theological notions that formed the background for this topic. Soon after the issue of the divine-human body had been problematised by Christianity, it began to drift away from vast metaphysical deliberations into a sphere of more specialized bodily concepts, developed in ancient medicine and other natural sciences. To capture the main trends of this interdisciplinary dialogue, the contributions in this volume range from the 2nd to the 8th centuries CE, and discuss an array of figures and topics, including Justin, Origen, Bardaisan, and Gregory of Nyssa. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Post-Soviet Russian Philosophy

One hears rather a lot about the so-called Russian Silver Age of philosophy and theology, and there is certainly no shortage of publications on the life of some outstanding Russian philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the new book about Bulgakov I noted on here last week, but what about now? How has Russian philosophy been shaping up in its post-Soviet period? A new book will give us some answers: 

Russian Philosophy in the Twenty-First Century: An Anthology, eds., Mikhail Sergeev, Alexander N. Chumakov, and Mary Theis (Brill, 2020), 444pp. 

About this collection the publisher tells us this: 

Russian Philosophy in the Twenty-First Century: An Anthology provides the English-speaking world with access to post-Soviet philosophic thought in Russia for the first time. The Anthology presents the fundamental range of contemporary philosophical problems in the works of prominent Russian thinkers. In contrast to the “single-mindedness” of Soviet-era philosophers and the bias toward Orthodox Christianity of émigré philosophers, it offers to its readers the authors’ plurality of different positions in widely diverse texts. Here one finds strictly academic philosophical works and those in an applied, pragmatic format—secular and religious—that are dedicated to complex social and political matters, to pressing cultural topics or insights into international terrorism, as well as to contemporary science and global challenges.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Sacerdotal Ministry in the Early Syriac Tradition

I have a special love for the so-called Oriental Orthodox--the Copts, Armenians, and Syriac Christians especially--and so always keep an eye out for works that highlight these venerable traditions, almost all of which have suffered more for their witness than any other Christiana in the world have or will. So I commend to you a recent hefty publication by Tanios Bou Mansour, Le ministère sacerdotal dans la tradition syriaque primitive: Aphraate, Ephrem, Jacques de Saroug et Narsaï (Brill, December 2019), 622pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this in les deux langues officielles

Dans Le ministère sacerdotal dans la tradition syriaque primitive, Tanios Bou Mansour présente une analyse du sacerdoce chrétien chez quatre auteurs syriaques, Aphraate, Éphrem, Jacques et Narsaï, en l’éclairant par le sacerdoce du Christ et en le plaçant dans la continuité du sacerdoce de l’Ancien Testament. L’originalité et l’actualité de nos auteurs résident dans leur conception de l’élection, de la succession apostolique, de traits “sacerdotaux” attribués aux femmes dans la Bible, et surtout du prêtre qui, mandaté par l’Eglise, exécute l’action du Christ et de l’Esprit. 

In Le ministère sacerdotal dans la tradition syriaque primitive, Tanios Bou Mansour analyzes the Christian priesthood in four Syriac writers: Aphraate, Ephrem, Jacob of Sarug and Narsaï. Their conception of priesthood is illuminated by the Priesthood of Christ and contextualized within the continuity of the priesthood of the Old Testament. These authors’ originality and actuality lies in their conception of election, of apostolic succession, of “sacerdotal” traits attributed to women in the Bible, and especially of the priest who, commissioned by the Church, executes the action of the Christ and the Spirit.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Bulgakov on Philosophy's Tragedy

I am, I suppose, somewhat biased both because this book is about the greatest Russian thinker of the last century and is also brought out by the publisher of my own book. But do not let that latter fact detract you from recognizing, in truth, that Angelico has some of the most interesting lists today, especially in their Russian publications. So it is no surprise, but a welcome delight, to see that they recently brought out a translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy, trans. Stephen Churchyard (Angelico Press, 2020), 304pp. 

With a foreword from John Milbank, Bulgakov's book, the publisher tells us:

written in 1920–1921 during one of the darkest passages of Sergij Bulgakov’s life, is a pivotal work in his career, indispensable to an understanding of the philosophical assumptions informing the mature theological trilogies of his final, Parisian period. It argues that philosophy, of whatever kind, always monologically privileges some single pole of what there is—a “substance” that is in truth constitutively triune. At the book’s center lies the idea of a Trinitarian ontology capable of resisting philosophy’s militant reductionism. Such resistance, for Bulgakov, requires a new conception of the very relationship between philosophy and theology. The Tragedy of Philosophy explores just what such a “critical antinomism” or “religious empiricism” might look like.

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