"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).

Thursday, May 27, 2021

An Omnium Gatherum of Articles and Books on Synods and Synodality

Disarmingly published last week as a mere "note," this text from Rome portends major shifts in the ecclesiology of the Latin Church and by extension the entire Catholic communion. 

It does not arise out of nowhere and nothing, however. In his 2015 address, the bishop of Rome laid out a vision of synodality for the Latin Church that is striking and surprising.....only to those who haven't been paying attention. For those who have attended not only to Francis but also to (admittedly slow-moving) trajectories in Catholic ecclesiology for a half-century now, this vision is not really a surprise. Perhaps the only surprise is that it is this pope, rather than his immediate predecessor who wrote so much about ecclesial reforms, who is enacting a vision of synodality now.

I have been writing about synods, synodal structures, and "synodality" for well over a decade now in the Church of the West as of the East. My first contribution was in my first book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

In the book and elsewhere I have tried to stress, especially to Catholics worried about the dangers of synodality, that there is no one model all must follow. If we look to the East, we find a diversity of structures arranged according to need, context, and history. Moreover, it is very important to note that a properly functioning synodal structure can only come about where both synod and primate are functioning together. (The great Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas is crystal clear on this point.) A strong primate (whether diocesan bishop, patriarch, pope, or catholicos) is needed for synods at every level. 

In other words, a synod does not exist at the expense of a primate, but only in concert with him, each acting as a check on the other. In this light, there is no reason to believe that a more robust synodality in the West would in itself weaken either the papacy or more generally the Catholic Church. Her problems are already significant and longstanding, and they have come not in the presence of robust synodality but in its absence; they have come in a time of papal centralization and maximalization.

That book has been followed up by more articles than I can count for on the topic of synods published in such places the Catholic Herald in London; Our Sunday Visitor, based here in Indiana; Catholic World Report on many occasions, most notably here; for The Catholic Thingand for other periodicals as well. 

My most recent contribution, published in the Herald this week, is here. I told the Herald's splendid editor Christopher Altieri I had an indecent amount of fun writing that piece. Is it satirical? Is it serious? Is it both? I cannot decide; perhaps you won't be able to either. In any event, what I was trying to suggest was that if we are to have synods, then let us have them to an ultramontane degree: let us go beyond the mountains north of Rome to find healthy models of synods where they still exist--in places like Armenia, for example. 

My unrequited love affair with the Armenian Apostolic Church continued in my 2019 book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. There I went into even greater detail about local synods--at the parish, diocesan, and regional levels. If Catholics are to have synods, they must not be the chaotic talking shops in Rome since 1965 misleadingly called "synods." They must be organs of governance, with real powers, at every level of the Church. 

Others have begun to cite my work, most notably the cardinal-archbishop of Newark, in a piece just published here in Commonweal. In addition, Fr Bob Wild of Madonna House (whom I have known for some time and count a friend) has recently discussed some of my work on synodality here.

I mention all this not to brag or to feel smugly satisfied that at long last Very Important People are starting to discover my great work. (Truth be told, I have an absolute horror of the idea of being anything close to "famous" or a "celebrity" or even moderately well-known. I am a middle-ranking scribe whose "schizoid" tendencies--so well captured by Nancy McWilliams' invaluable essay--thrive best in one of the obscurer provinces of the American imperium. Leave me alone in my classroom and consulting room with students and patients respectively, and I might be useful.) Instead, I mention all this only as a service to those who still feel wildly unsure about what synods and synodality are and do. I have tried to allay those anxieties by showing the concrete tasks that real synods, proper synods, properly do. 

Will we get such synods? It is up to us to work for them and not be fobbed off with pseudo-synods. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Anarchy and the Kingdom of God

I'm greatly looking forward to reading this new book upon its release next month. When I started reading French existentialists in high-school, and then later figures like Jacques Ellul, who has written intelligently about Christian "anarchy," I started to find that the reactionary, order-obsessed nature of some parts of Christianity seemed to deliberately obscure and deny the radical, if not "anarchic," nature of the freedom promised by and in Christ. I shall see how these and other arguments unfold next month upon the release of Anarchy and the Kingdom of God: From Eschatology to Orthodox Political Theology and Back by  Davor Džalto (Fordham University Press, June 2021), 320pp. 

One of the "blurbers" for this book notes:

Perhaps the best book on Christian anarchism since Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and the Kingdom of God is a timely and valuable addition to resurgent interest in political theology across various disciplines. Learned and well-written, it brings neglected sources from the Orthodox Christian tradition into this current renaissance and makes clear their relevance for contemporary economic and political debates in contexts ranging from the United States to post-communist Europe and Russia. -- Eric Gregory, Princeton University

And the publisher, in turn, tells us this about the book: 

Anarchy and the Kingdom of God reclaims the concept of “anarchism” both as a political philosophy and a way of thinking of the sociopolitical sphere from a theological perspective. Through a genuinely theological approach to the issues of power, coercion, and oppression, Davor Džalto advances human freedom—one of the most prominent forces in human history—as a foundational theological principle in Christianity. That principle enables a fresh reexamination of the problems of democracy and justice in the age of global (neoliberal) capitalism.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Jewish and Palestinian Conflict in the Sunset of the Ottoman Empire

Knowing almost nothing about the latest Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I will say nothing beyond noting, as I have in the past on here, that such conflicts did not just arise in 2021 because of local circumstances, but have long and often complicated roots. A new book reminds us of this: Jews and Palestinians in the Late Ottoman Era, 1908-1914: Claiming the Homeland by Louis Fishman (Edinburgh University Press, 2021, 234pp.). 

About this book the publisher tells us this: 

Uncovering a history buried by different nationalist narratives (Jewish, Israeli, Arab and Palestinian) this book looks at how the late Ottoman era set the stage for the on-going Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It presents an innovative analysis of the struggle in its first years, when Palestine was still an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. And it argues that in the late Ottoman era, Jews and Palestinians were already locked in conflict: the new freedoms introduced by the Young Turk Constitutional Revolution exacerbated divisions (rather than serving as a unifying factor). Offering an integrative approach, it considers both communities, together and separately, in order to provide a more sophisticated narrative of how the conflict unfolded in its first years.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Muslims Fascinated with Christian Monks

As the late, great historian of Byzantine Christianity, Robert Taft of the Society of Jesus used to say, when it comes to the development of liturgical traditions at least, we're all "mongrels." By that he meant that anybody tempted (and such people are not hard to find on the Web) to propagate founding narratives of purity, in which the Latin or Syriac or Armenian or Greek or Russian traditions (inter alia) were somehow untouched by other traditions, is talking nonsense. That lesson surely applies, mutatis mutandis, to the development of monastic traditions, and indeed to the emerging tradition called Islam. In other words, people first encountered, then were fascinated with, and finally in some fashion often borrowed from each other even if in some eyes doing so was verboten (though the condemnations of such borrowings are almost always very post hoc). 

Anyway, here is a new book that shows early Christian monastic life was not just hugely fascinating to other Christians, but to Muslims as well: Christian Monastic Life in Early Islam (Edinburgh UP, April 2021, 288pp.) by Bradley Bowman.

About this new book the publisher tells us this:

During the rise of Islam, Muslim fascination with Christian monastic life was articulated through a fluid, piety-centred movement. Bradley Bowman explores this confessional synthesis between like-minded religious groups in the medieval Near East. He argues that this potential ecumenism would have been based upon the sharing of core tenets concerning piety and righteous behaviour. Such fundamental attributes, long associated with monasticism in the East, likely served as a mutually inclusive common ground for Muslim and Christian communities of the period. This manifested itself in Muslim appreciation, interest and – at times – participation in Christian monastic life.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Climate Change and Christianity

Phillip Jenkins is a scholar to whom one should always pay attention. His range is wide. To cite just one example, his book on the Great War as a "holy war" is revealing and disturbing, especially (one hopes) for all the Fatima fetishists.

He has a new book out: Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval (Oxford UP, 2021), 272pp. 

About this new book the publisher tells us this:

One of the world's leading scholars of religious trends shows how climate change has driven dramatic religious upheavals.

Long before the current era of man-made climate change, the world has suffered repeated, severe climate-driven shocks. These shocks have resulted in famine, disease, violence, social upheaval, and mass migration. But these shocks were also religious events. Dramatic shifts in climate have often been understood in religious terms by the people who experienced them. They were described in the language of apocalypse, millennium, and Judgment. Often, too, the eras in which these shocks occurred have been marked by far-reaching changes in the nature of religion and spirituality. Those changes have varied widely--from growing religious fervor and commitment; to the stirring of mystical and apocalyptic expectations; to waves of religious scapegoating and persecution; or the spawning of new religious movements and revivals. In many cases, such responses have had lasting impacts, fundamentally reshaping particular religious traditions.

In Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith historian Philip Jenkins draws out the complex relationship between religion and climate change. He asserts that the religious movements and ideas that emerge from climate shocks often last for many decades, and even become a familiar part of the religious landscape, even though their origins in particular moments of crisis may be increasingly consigned to remote memory. By stirring conflicts and provoking persecutions that defined themselves in religious terms, changes in climate have redrawn the world's religious maps, and created the global concentrations of believers as we know them today.

This bold new argument will change the way we think about the history of religion, regardless of tradition. And it will demonstrate how our growing climate crisis will likely have a comparable religious impact across the Global South.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Stupid Ideas about Married Clergy Part MMCCXVII

If asked to rank the most vexatious nonsense one hears regularly talked about married clergy, I would have no hesitation in putting in top place the old self-serving canard that a married man is somehow "divided" in his loyalties and affections, in his duties of service, whereas a celibate man knows no such divisions. This we must call--with all due delicacy and ecumenical sensitivity towards those in the West-Roman patriarchate--the ecclesiology and sacramental theology of biblical illiterates. 

Whenever I hear this "divided" claim, I always ask the following question which always remains unanswered by those whom I interrogate: "How is a married man 'divided' in serving the domestic Church, which is both his family and a fundamental unit of the entire Church? In serving his domestic Church, he is ipso facto serving the body of Christ, is he not?"

It is the shortest essay in my new book, Married Priests in the Catholic Church, "Reflections on Two Vocations in Two Lungs of the One Church," but David Meinzen's essay is one of the most singular and important ever written on this topic, for he demolishes the idea that a married priest, to avoid being "divided," must always put the parish first. Meinzen shows--drawing on his long experience as son of a married Lutheran pastor (Missouri Synod), and then a married Orthodox, and finally and currently a married Eastern Catholic priest--that any man in holy orders who neglects his family to serve his parish is unworthy of both vocations, and does damage to the one he is serving precisely insofar as he is neglecting the other. Put differently, to neglect his family is to serve the broader church badly for there is no real division between the domestic and wider Church: they are all the one body of Christ, and following impeccable Pauline logic, when one part of the body suffers, every part and everybody suffers. The logic Meinzen uses is very similar to what I used more recently in talking about the Christian case for self-care. 

Meinzen goes beyond this to make a positive case: a strong clerical family by that very fact builds up the entire body of Christ, making it stronger as well. In other words, a man living up to his sacramental vocation to marriage, and working to strengthen and protect that marriage and family, is going to be in a stronger position to work to strengthen and protect his equally sacramental vocation to priesthood. Any idea of competition between the two is the grossest of theological mistakes which must be abandoned. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The State of (Catholic) Higher Education

Every few years we are subjected to a slate of books about the state of higher education, including Christian higher education, in this country. 

This year we have two about to be released, both from (appropriately enough) the leading and most prestigious academic publisher in the world, Oxford University Press: The Soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant to Postsecular, 2nd. ed. by George M. Marsden (OUP, 2021), 488pp. About this well-known book, the publisher tells us this:

The Soul of the American University is a classic and much discussed account of the changing roles of Christianity in shaping American higher education, presented here in a newly revised edition to offer insights for a modern era. As late as the World War II era, it was not unusual even for state schools to offer chapel services or for leading universities to refer to themselves as “Christian” institutions. From the 1630s through the 1950s, when Protestantism provided an informal religious establishment, colleges were expected to offer religious and moral guidance. Following reactions in the 1960s against the WASP establishment and concerns for diversity, this specifically religious heritage quickly disappeared and various secular viewpoints predominated. In this updated edition of a landmark volume, George Marsden explores the history of the changing roles of Protestantism in relation to other cultural and intellectual factors shaping American higher education.

Far from a lament for a lost golden age, Marsden offers a penetrating analysis of the changing ways in which Protestantism intersected with collegiate life, intellectual inquiry, and broader cultural developments. He tells the stories of many of the nation's pace-setting universities at defining moments in their histories. By the late nineteenth-century when modern universities emerged, debates over Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible were reshaping conceptions of Protestantism; in the twentieth century important concerns regarding diversity and inclusion were leading toward ever-broader conceptions of Christianity; then followed attacks on the traditional WASP establishment which brought dramatic disestablishment of earlier religious privilege. By the late twentieth century, exclusive secular viewpoints had become the gold standard in higher education, while our current era is arguably “post-secular”. The Soul of the American University Revisited deftly examines American higher education as it exists in the twenty-first century.

The second book, set for release next month, is James L. Heft, The Future of Catholic Higher Education (OUP, June 2021), 296pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The Catholic Church has gone through more change in the last sixty years than in the previous six hundred. These changes have caused a significant shift in the future outlook of Catholic higher education as the United States has developed a culture that has grown less receptive to religious traditions and practices. Drawing upon his extensive experience, James Heft lays out the current state of Catholic higher education and what needs to be done to ensure that Catholicism isn't fazed out of the educational system. Heft analyzes the foundational intellectual principles of Catholic Higher Education, and both the strengths and weaknesses of the present day system in order to look at possibilities for its future.

Drawing upon both history and current cultural trends, The Future of Catholic Higher Education critiques the secularization thesis, explores the role of bishops, theologians, dissent, the sensus fidelium, the role of women and freedom of conscience, the relationship between theology and religious studies, hiring practices and curricular designs. Using the image of the "open circle," Heft advances a vision of the catholic university that is neither a "closed circle" of only Catholics nor a "market place of ideas with no distinctive mission." His "open circle" is one that fosters the Catholic intellectual tradition by including scholars of many religions, rooting Catholic social thought in Catholic doctrine, defending academic freedom and the mandatum.

Monday, May 10, 2021

People of the Book

Much romanticized nonsense is talked by both Christians and Muslims about our individual and shared pasts. Too much history traffics in narratives of either "chosen trauma" or "chosen glory," to use the invaluable categories of Vamik Volkan. Too much of the history of Muslim-Christian relations becomes anachronistic and often tendentious as well. The writing of such histories is a case-study in itself of historiographical hazards to be avoided.

We shall have to wait to see if a book, set for September release, avoids these pitfalls or not: People of the Book: Prophet Muhammad's Encounters with Christians by Craig Considine (Hurst, August 2021), 232pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

The Christians that lived around the Arabian Peninsula during Muhammad's lifetime are shrouded in mystery. Some of the stories of the Prophet's interactions with them are based on legends and myths, while others are more authentic and plausible. But who exactly were these Christians? Why did Muhammad interact with them as he reportedly did? And what lessons can today's Christians and Muslims learn from these encounters?

Scholar Craig Considine, one of the most powerful global voices speaking in admiration of the prophet of Islam, provides answers to these questions. Through a careful study of works by historians and theologians, he highlights an idea central to Muhammad's vision: an inclusive Ummah, or Muslim nation, rooted in citizenship rights, interfaith dialogue, and freedom of conscience, religion and speech. In this unprecedented sociological analysis of one of history's most influential human beings, Considine offers groundbreaking insight that could redefine Christian and Muslim relations.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Married Priests in the Catholic Church: the Need for and Gifts of Parish Culture

Continuing my series of reflections on, and drawn from, my newest book Married Priests in the Catholic Church, let me note with special gratitude my Anglican and Orthodox contributors (a few of whom are discussed here), whose long experience of a married priesthood informs many substantial and wholly welcome notes of realism into discussions among Catholics that too often traffic in abstraction and fantasy. 

The idea among some Latins is that a papal snap of the fingers would allow a married priest to be dropped from on high into a parish on some random Sunday: Fr Celibate is here this week; next week Fr Fecund with his lovely and bejeweled wife and 12 kids have all happily taken up residence in the rectory. Nothing else need change and life can go on as before. 

A check on this facile view is delivered very graciously from England in the elegant chapter in my book from the inimitable Fr John Hunwicke (whose ecclesial politics, as it were, differ very sharply from my own, not least when it comes to assessment of the current pontificate). After a very long life serving in the Church of England, he entered the Catholic Church via the ordinariate in England set up by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Hunwicke reflects on the fact that a married presbyterate in the Church of England has an entire parish culture that differs considerably from Catholic culture, and that the absence of this may make it much more difficult for married priests in the Catholic church to thrive. (This, he shows, was already a difference well understood by Cardinal Newman.) He withholds judgment, saying it is still early days, and this is true. But his essay offers sober cautions to and checks of our fevered fantasies and is for that reason very welcome. 

The idea that there is a unique culture to married clergy is also found among Eastern Catholics. Fr Thomas Loya (with whom, again, I differ sharply in many areas concerning both "secular" and ecclesial politics) writes a moving chapter on his experience growing up in a long-standing clerical family among Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics, and watching how having a wife and children shapes not just a man's priestly ministry, but the entire parish, and how the absence of such a family means, e.g., that paid staff must often be brought in to do what in some cases wives and children did for free.

Other authors from Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic backgrounds reflect on parish culture and its sometimes difficult and painful challenges. We will hear a bit from them next week. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Chrysostom and the Charismatics

My inner ecumenist's super-ego occasionally does battle with my triumphalist id when it comes to evangelical and charismatic Christians, especially in their on-going "discovery" of, e.g., patristic sources, iconography, medieval thought, and other matters. It is hard not to consider such attempts in a condescending manner sometimes, and such people as Johnny-Come-Lately types; harder still not to be horrified by such repugnant concepts as the "prosperity gospel." But resist such ungenerous thoughts and impulses, if they afflict you, to give this interesting book a hearing: John Chrysostom and African Charismatic Theology in Conversation: Salvation, Deliverance, and the Prosperity Gospel by Samantha L. Miller (Fortress Academic Press, 2021), 170pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

This book puts John Chrysostom in conversation with deliverance ministries and the prosperity gospel in modern African charismatic Christianity. Samantha Miller argues that Chrysostom had a cosmology not unlike that present in the charismatic Christianity of the global south, where the world is populated by spirits able to affect the material world. Additionally, Chrysostom had plenty to say about suffering, demons, and prosperity. Through this conversation, issues of personal moral responsibility and salvation rise to the surface, and it is through these issues that modern Western and African Christians—theologians, pastors, missionaries, and laity—can perhaps have a conversation that gets past the question of a spirit-inhabited world and talk together about the saving work of Christ for the benefit of all the church.

By this same author, and on a similar topic, is another book published last year:  Chrysostom's Devil: Demons, the Will, and Virtue in Patristic Soteriology (IVP Academic, 2020), 216pp. About this book the publisher tells us:

For many Christians today, the notion that demons should play a role in our faith―or that they even exist―may seem dubious. But that was certainly not the case for John Chrysostom, the "golden-tongued" early church preacher and theologian who became the bishop of Constantinople near the end of the fourth century. Indeed, references to demons and the devil permeate his rhetoric. But to what end? In this volume in IVP Academic's New Explorations in Theology series, Samantha Miller examines Chrysostom's theology and world, both of which were imbued with discussions about demons. For Chrysostom, she contends, such references were employed in order to encourage Christians to be virtuous, to prepare them for the struggle of the Christian life, and ultimately to enable them to exercise their will as they worked out their salvation. Understanding the role of demons in Chrysostom's soteriology gives us insight into what it means to be human and what it means to follow Christ in a world fraught with temptation and danger. In that regard, Chrysostom's golden words continue to demonstrate relevance to Christians in today's world.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Hearing the Scriptures in Byzantine Hymnody

Since at least Susan Ashbrook Harvey's 2006 book Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olafactory Imagination, books about not just the body, but the senses, have been increasing. 

Later this year we will have another one, devoted not to scent but to hearing and written by the Greek Orthodox biblical scholar Eugen Pentiuc, Hearing the Scriptures:Liturgical Exegesis of the Old Testament in Byzantine Orthodox Hymnography (Oxford University Press, Sept. 2021), 456pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Throughout the ages, interpreters of the Christian scriptures have been wonderfully creative in seeking to understand and bring out the wonders of these ancient writings. That creativity has often been overlooked by recent scholarship, concentrated as it is in the so-called critical period. In this study, Eugen J. Pentiuc illuminates the remarkable way in which the Byzantine hymnographers (liturgists) expressed their understanding of the Old Testament in their compositions, an interpretive process that he terms "liturgical exegesis."

In authorship and methodology, patristic exegesis and liturgical exegesis are closely related. Patristic exegesis, however, is primarily linear and sequential, proceeding verse by verse, while liturgical exegesis offers a more imaginative and eclectic mode of interpretation, ranging over various parts of the Bible. In this respect, says Pentiuc, liturgical exegesis resembles cubist art. To illuminate the multi-faceted creativity of liturgical exegesis, Pentiuc has chosen the vast and rich hymnography of Byzantine Orthodox Holy Week as a case study, offering a detailed lexical, biblical, and theological analysis of selected hymns. His analysis reveals the many different and imaginative ways in which creative liturgists incorporated and interpreted scriptural material in these hymns.

By drawing attention to the way in which the bible is used by Byzantine hymnographers in the living Orthodox tradition, Hearing the Scriptures makes a ground-breaking contribution to the history of the reception of the scriptures.

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