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


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bright Sadness

Slowly we can feel, not without a little dread, that the Great Fast of Lent draweth nigh at month's end. But in dread of what we shall give up we must not overlook what we gain: Lent is a time of such splendid and diverse liturgical riches--the Canon of St. Andrew, the Akathist hymn, the life of St. Mary of Egypt, the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, and crowning it all the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy.

As we begin to think on our forty days in the desert, I draw your attention to something I wrote three years ago about making fasting perhaps a bit more practicable in our own day. 

I also reprint something I wrote on here more than five years ago now, offering some very rich readings as we prepare for, and then enter into, the mystery of the Lord's passover. 

Perhaps my favourite of his Alexander Schmemann's books, which every year I re-read at this time, is Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (SVS Press, 1974), 140pp.

This book, I think, is Schmemann at his best: serious but light, indeed lyrical; never letting the season of penitence and the tears of sorrow overwhelm the joy of knowing that Christ's Pascha has already happened, that death has been defeated, and that life will be given to those in the tombs.

One year I read the above work with his then just-released Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, and you can see in these latter reflections how much he loved the Lenten season and how he could, in spite of it all, never fail to see that Pascha really does stand at the heart of everything.

There are other books that come to mind here as well: Frederica Mathewes-Greene, First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew (Paraclete Press, 2006, 195pp.).

If you are not celebrating the Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete in your parish, or cannot attend, then her little book is a good way of reading a short passage from the canon for each of the forty days. 

Lev Gillet's book The Year of Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church also has much good food for thought in meditating on the liturgical cycle of Lent, and in offering practical recommendations for askesis in addition to the customary fasting.

Equally edifying is the little book by the prolific pastoral theologian and Orthodox priest William Mills: The Prayer of St. Ephrem: A Biblical Commentary, on which I commented previously, and whose author I have interviewed several times about his other books.

Similarly, this splendid CD is a wonderful resource if you are on the road a lot or sitting at your desk: Have Mercy on Me, O God: The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle). Under the expert direction of J. Michael Thompson, this schola's rendering of the canon is sublime. I received from Thompson a version of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified gifts performed by the Schola under his direction. I have to confess that its lovely prostopinije setting has forced me to reconsider a chant system I had previously considered a poor cousin to the Galician and Kyivan. (This latter CD is available from the Sisters of St. Basil in Uniontown, PA.)

For those who want a serious scholarly understanding of the liturgical heart of Lent as it were, the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, see Stefanos Alexoupolos, The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite: a Comparative Analysis of its Origins, Evolution, and Structural Components (Peeters, 2009), xvi+355pp. 

In his expert review of Alexoupolos in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, the Byzantine liturgical scholar Peter Galadza lauded his book and said that his work is sure to become the scholarly standard for years to come.

Finally, this video comes to us from Russia and features the Patriarch of Moscow leading the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete with a fine choir behind him and everyone resplendent in black vestments--which some may dismiss as a "Latinization" but if so, it is one I heartily support. The abandonment of black vestments for funerals is greatly to be deplored. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Orthodoxy and Islam in Greece

We are fortunate to be living in so fruitful an era when study of the many and messy encounters between Eastern Christians and Muslims continue to produced by scholars around the world focusing on different periods and places. To released in May is a new study by Greek author, Nikolaos-Nikodemos Anagnostopoulos: Orthodoxy and Islam: Theology and Muslim-Christian Relations in Modern Greece and Turkey (Routledge, 2017), 240 pages.

About this collection the publisher tells us:

Church History reveals that Christianity has its roots in Palestine during the first century and was spread throughout the Mediterranean countries by the Apostles. However, despite sharing the same ancestry, Muslims and Christians have been living in a challenging symbiotic co-existence for more than fourteen centuries in many parts of South-Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
This book analyses contemporary Christian-Muslim relations in the traditional lands of Orthodoxy and Islam. In particular, it examines the development of Eastern Orthodox ecclesiological thinking on Muslim-Christian relations and religious minorities in the context of modern Greece and Turkey. Greece, where the prevailing religion is Eastern Orthodoxy, accommodates an official recognised Muslim minority based in Western Thrace as well as other Muslim populations located at major Greek urban centres and the islands of the Aegean Sea. On the other hand, Turkey, where the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is based, is a Muslim country which accommodates within its borders an official recognised Greek Orthodox Minority.The book then suggests ways in which to overcome the difficulties that Muslim and Christian communities are still facing with the Turkish and Greek States.Finally, it proposes that the positive aspects of the coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Western Thrace and Istanbul might constitute an original model that should be adopted in other EU and Middle East countries, where challenges and obstacles between Muslim and Christian communities still persist.
This book offers a distinct and useful contribution to the ever popular subject of Christian-Muslim relations, especially in South-East Europe and the Middle East. It will be a key resource for students and scholars of Religious Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.
We are also given the table of contents:

 1. Introduction 2. Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople 3. The Development of the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church 4. Modern Historical Context of the States of Greece and Turkey as it Relates to the Minority Question 5. Methodology 6. Conclusion, Appendix 1 & 2

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Mysticism

Nearly five years ago now when the hardcover version was released, I drew attention to The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism edited by Julia Lamm. This month, Wiley has released a much more affordable paperback version of the collection, which contains contributions from a number of noted Orthodox authors, including Bogdan Bucur, Augustine Casiday, George Demacopoulos, and Paul Gavrilyuk; and a number of chapters on Eastern periods or areas, including the Syriac tradition.

This collection, the publisher tells us,
brings together a team of leading international scholars to explore the origins, evolution, and contemporary debates relating to Christian mystics, texts, and the movements they inspired.
  • Provides a comprehensive and engaging account of Christian mysticism, from its origins right up to the present day
  • Draws on the best of current scholarship by bringing together a collection of newly-commissioned readings by leading scholars
  • Considers examples of mysticism in both Eastern and Western Christianity
  • Offers a brilliant synthesis of the key figures and historical periods of mysticism; its core themes, such as heresy, gender, or aesthetics; and its theoretical considerations, including theological, literary, social scientific, and philosophical approaches
  • Features chapters on current debates such as neuroscience and mystical experience, and inter-religious dialogue

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Riddle of Rasputin

I've read my share of books and articles about Rasputin over the years, and confess that I am no further ahead in understanding much of the man and the events he shaped. If nothing else, his life is a useful illustration and reminder of how often history functions as a cipher, and how unreliable it can be save for its reliably contradictory claims ostensibly about the same person and events. Those who think that "eyewitnesses" to people and events in history are always to be trusted have not read their Elizabeth Loftus closely or often enough.

This article gives a good foretaste of a new book by Douglas Smith, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 848pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
On the centenary of the death of Rasputin comes a definitive biography that will dramatically change our understanding of this fascinating figure
A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. Numerous biographies, novels, and films recount his mysterious rise to power as Nicholas and Alexandra's confidant and the guardian of the sickly heir to the Russian throne. His debauchery and sinister political influence are the stuff of legend, and the downfall of the Romanov dynasty was laid at his feet.
But as the prizewinning historian Douglas Smith shows, the true story of Rasputin's life and death has remained shrouded in myth. A major new work that combines probing scholarship and powerful storytelling, Rasputin separates fact from fiction to reveal the real life of one of history's most alluring figures. Drawing on a wealth of forgotten documents from archives in seven countries, Smith presents Rasputin in all his complexity--man of God, voice of peace, loyal subject, adulterer, drunkard. Rasputin is not just a definitive biography of an extraordinary and legendary man but a fascinating portrait of the twilight of imperial Russia as it lurched toward catastrophe.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A.E. Siecienski on the Papacy and the Orthodox

It is a great delight to see in print a book whose mss I reviewed for the publisher, Oxford University Press: A.E. Siecienski, The Papacy and the Orthodox: Sources and History of a Debate (2017), 528pp. This is a grand history told with great cogency and insight. The author manages to cover a vast terrain without ever losing control of the overall focus. It truly is a book that belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in papal history, ecumenism, intellectual history and debate, and Orthodox-Catholic relations.

When I was, more than a decade ago now, working on my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, I made a deliberate decision to concentrate only on the 20th and 21st centuries, knowing the history of earlier discussions and debates would have to await another book. In Siecienski's new tome, we have not waited in vain: our patience is richly rewarded.

As I did for his previous book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, so for this one about the papacy I sent him some questions for an interview. Here are his thoughts.

AD: For readers new to your work, tell us about your background

I am a native of New Jersey, and received my BA in theology and government from Georgetown University in 1990. After graduation I attended St. Mary’s Seminary and University, where I received a STB and MDiv in 1995.  After several years teaching at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA I studied at Fordham University, earning my PhD in historical theology in 2005.  I worked for 2 years at Misericordia University and have been teaching theology and Byzantine history at Stockton University in New Jersey since 2008.

I am married with two children, ages eleven and nine.

Religiously I am usually reluctant to talk about my background because once people find out where you go to church they immediately begin to suspect biases.  For example, when I tell people that I was raised Roman Catholic, but that I am now Orthodox, many immediately assume that I must have an axe to grind against the RC Church.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  And while I suppose some will inevitably say, “Ah, he’s Orthodox, that’s why he believes X or denies Y,” the hope is that most will see my real effort to examine all the material objectively.

AD: What led you from your previous book on the filioque to The Papacy and the Orthodox: Sources and History of a Debate?

At first I had actually planned something bigger — a book that would deal with all the other issues (aside from the filioque) that have divided East and West.  However, I soon realized that there was so much out there on the primacy of Rome — primary sources and secondary studies, histories and theological works (like your own) — that the papacy demanded its own book.  The hope was to try and put all that information together into a coherent whole so that it could be more easily understood, even by the non-specialist.

AD: It’s often the case that both Catholics and Orthodox think that “history” somehow “proves” their position on any given topic to be right. But history, like Scripture, is not one giant proof-text, and handling historical texts requires a great deal of judicious insight. Give us a sense of how you approach Christian history and why. 

History is fluid, and the problem with most debates between Catholics and Orthodox is that there is a failure to appreciate that.  There is usually a desire to “pick a century” or “pick a moment” that allegedly captures the view of the undivided church, forgetting completely that the papacy was (and still is) always in the process of developing, just as the Eastern response to it was.  Of course the other problem, and Catholics and Orthodox are equally guilty here, is the desire to read the present into the past and interpret 4th-9th century statements using a 21st century understanding of what you think the papacy should be.  For example, if I believe that the pope has universal jurisdiction as defined by Vatican I, then I am probably tempted to read Maximus the Confessor’s statements on the place of Rome as upholding that view.

AD: Attempting to “prove” or “disprove” Peter’s primacy on the basis of scriptural and patristic texts has often been done—badly—by Catholic and Orthodox apologists alike. In leaving aside apologetical and polemical methods, your historical scholarship examines Peter in the Scriptures and Fathers serenely and fairly. In doing so, did you find points of convergence or consensus? Did you find any surprises about Peter and his role along the way? 

I think here is where you see the biggest progress in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue thus far.  Over the last seventy or so years biblical scholars, historians, and theologians on both sides of the East-West divide have begun to look at the sources of the debate in a new way.  Oh sure, you can go online and still find hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of blogs and forums where people still throw around the prooftexts in order to demonstrate the truth of the Catholic or Orthodox position.  Yet I think that among scholars an objective reading of the evidence has led to a far greater degree of consensus, causing both sides to question the older (and far more polemical) reading.

So take Peter for example.  Today there are few Catholic scholars who would maintain that Peter either founded the church of Rome or ever served as its bishop (as we would understand that term).  At the same time, most Orthodox scholars, with some important exceptions, now accept that Matthew 16:18 does actually intend to call Peter himself “the rock” upon which the Church is built.  These are not insignificant developments.

However, for me the biggest insight into Peter concerned how the fathers dealt with him.  Obviously there is the long-standing debate about who or what the fathers believed “the rock” to be in Matthew 16:18, and I do deal with that.  Yet the truth is that this question was not the fathers’ biggest concern.  They far more often dealt with Peter as a figure of the Church — the shepherding, forgiving, Christ-loving Church who itself was in constant need of forgiveness and grace.  Sadly all the debates about “the rock” made people forget that.

AD: You give some fascinating glimpses into such controverted Western councils as Constance (which I discuss here) and various attempts to draw the “Greeks” to support either the new pope or the “conciliarists.” Tell us a bit more about those machinations. 

The conciliarist debate is fascinating because in many ways the Western conciliarists were saying exactly what the East had been arguing for centuries.  It almost seems like a “no brainer” that given the choice between Pope Eugene IV and the conciliarist bishops gathered at Basel, the Byzantines would choose the latter.

And yet they don’t.  It doesn’t make sense.  The fact that the Holy Roman Emperor switched sides probably had something to do with it, but I think Gill is correct in saying that the East had been dealing with popes for centuries, and recognized him as chief bishop of the West.  An ecumenical council needed representatives from all five patriarchates, including Rome, and if Basel couldn’t provide that, then it was off to Ferrara.

AD: In treating Florence, you quote Bessarion who said Orthodox views of the papacy were “more an expression of oriental politeness than inner conviction.” Given that, were Catholics then and now (following Gill’s “optimistic” assessment of Florence: p.380 in fn. 63) too sanguine about the chances for Florentine success? How else to explain how things unraveled so quickly after the delegation returned to Constantinople in February 1440? 

There is a part of me that would like to think that Florence could have worked.  As I said in the filioque book, even at Florence Maximus offered a theology that could have worked if only both sides could have read his work as something other than a prooftext.

However the reality is that even if that was possible (which it wasn’t) the Greeks had arrived at precisely the wrong moment in history.  Eugene IV had just beaten the conciliarists, a group who, more or less, shared the Greeks’ own vision of the Church, and the pope was not about to surrender his victory so easily.  This explains why the Greeks’ rejection was inevitable — they had agreed to his vision of the Church, not their own.

AD: You end your epilogue, and so your book, rather soberly by noting that Orthodox-Catholic unity is not likely to come soon, in part because of an “anti-Roman affect” in certain parts of Orthodoxy. Much of that affect, it seems to me, while drawing on older polemics, is a post-Soviet phenomenon. Do you have any thoughts on why it seems that some Orthodox have become so reactionary over the last quarter-century when it comes to relations with Catholicism in general and the papacy in particular? 

It is sad that the ecumenical progress that has taken place among scholars and many Orthodox hierarchs has not penetrated beyond Western Europe.  I honestly don’t know why. Is it an internal thing related to the tension between Moscow and Constantinople — i.e., does Moscow want to be seen as “holding the line” while Constantinople is more open?  I don’t know the reasons, but the anti-Roman affect is real.  Too often Orthodox in the West are tempted to forget, in our atmosphere of ecumenical goodwill, that we are the minority.  If ever there is to be real progress toward the restoration of communion, a way must be found to bring the majority with us, and frankly they haven’t expressed much of an interest.  The recent Great and Holy Council proved that.

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

Well, from a purely selfish perspective I think everyone should read it!  But the more realistic part of me merely hopes that the book can be of use to lots of people.  For example, scholars working on a certain historical period may find in the book a resource for understand the larger context.  Theologians and ecumenists may find a place to understand what has been before trying to decide what can come next.  However, my real hope is that anyone, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, who wants to discover how this debate got started and where things are now will find a really interesting story, told without prejudice or polemical intent.

AD: Having finished now two grand histories of the major East-West debates about the filioque and the papacy, what’s your next project? 

As I said before, this book was originally undertaken as part of a larger project to deal with “the other issues” that divide East and West.  Once I decided to deal with the papacy in a separate book, it meant that I had to put aside the other three issues I hoped to deal with — purgatory, azymes, and beards.  I have already begun the research, and I plan to begin writing soon.  We’ll see how it goes.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Beauty Will Save the World (but can we assess it?)

The Lilly Endowment together with the Forum for Theological Exploration last week organized an utterly superlative conference in Indianapolis that brought together representatives of the 92 colleges and universities across the United States who were awarded grants from Lilly at the end of 2015. I have been to many conferences over the years, but rare is the one where everything worked so well, where all the sessions were enormously valuable, and where the entire atmosphere was one of gracious conviviality. It was thoroughly edifying.

I wrote the grant application for the University of Saint Francis, where I am chairman of the theology-philosophy department, and we were successful in securing a very large grant from Lilly with which, in June of this year, we will be able to run our first annual theology program for high-school students. Its theme is: Beauty will save the world! That, of course, is drawn from Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

While at the conference last week, we were treated to a fantastic lecture by Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, whom I first learned of in the late 1990s from an old friend and roommate at the time, Blair Bertrand. Blair sang her praises very highly then, and it was not at all hard to see why after listening to her last week.

Dean is the author of several books of note, including her most recent, How Youth Ministry Can Change Theological Education -- If We Let It (Eerdmans, 2016), 320pp. Earlier works include Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church as well as The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry.

It is of course the case that Protestants such as Dean are writing for different ecclesial contexts. But what once again became clear to me last week is that the teens she works with in her own United Methodist tradition are all American teens shaped by the same American culture in many ways as are kids in Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox parishes. So it is facile to dismiss the results of her very considerable research and reflection as being of no use to Catholics and Orthodox. The issues we are facing are all very similar--even if our approaches to answering them may rightly differ.

This is precisely the best sort of "receptive ecumenism" and open learning and sharing of gifts that too many today deride too easily. It was, in fact, encouraging and heartening to be in such a large gathering of diverse Christian traditions and be able to utter the word "ecumenical" and have people hear it as a good thing.

It should, I hope, go without saying that I have never (in more than a quarter-century of involvement with local, regional, and global bodies such as the World Council of Churches) once subscribed to the notion or approach of ecumenism as finding the lowest common denominator--as junking problematic practices or watering down difficult truth-claims. Attentive readers of my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy will recognize that the burden of that book was to take both Catholic and Orthodox claims about the papacy serious and, without diminishing either, attempt to find a way forward through the impasse. I think I was rather successful in doing so (certainly the reviews have suggested as much), but it took a lot of hard work. The simple, easy, indolent thing to have done would be to say (as an Eastern Christian to the Catholic Church) "scrap the papacy as conceived"; or (as a Catholic speaking to the Orthodox) "accept it as is."

But there will be time later to speak more of the papacy when I am able to interview A.E. Siecienski about his splendid new book, noted here. For now I simply want to mention two additional books (beyond Dean's latest noted above) that I was given last week and commend them to your interest.

The first is edited by William Placher (coiner of that eminently useful phrase about the "domestication of transcendence" so afflicting so much of Christianity in North America today): Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, published by Eerdmans in 2005. One of the key goals of Lilly-funded theology programs for high-school students is that of vocation or calling--to get young people to see themselves as diversely called, as having a vocation from God not just to such traditional paths as priesthood or monastic life, but called to serve the Church and world in many ways, not least also in the academy. This book is a collection of classical theological texts treating the notion of vocation. While there is a heavy tilt towards Protestant sources, there is also a good selection of patristic sources (the entire first section, and part of the second). In addition, Dostoevsky makes an appearance with an excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov.

The second book is surely of much more limited audience, and I confess that any time the words "assessment" or "evaluation" are uttered in my hearing, I silently curse my torturers for inflicting such undue and harsh mortifications on me in my cell, where I long only for a quiet life of study and writing. Nevertheless, the conference last week revealed that evaluation need not consist entirely of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of one's teeth. It can in fact be not only a useful process but even a revealing and interesting one. For those who are engaged in projects like our summer institute, evaluation can be greatly aided by Kathleen Cahalan's book Projects that Matter: Successful Planning and Evaluation for Religious Organizations (2003).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

God is Sovereign, But His Bishops Are Not

Over at Catholic World Report, revisiting some thoughts about sovereignty, including the influence of Joseph de Maistre who was first discussed in this interview, I look at how the notion is being used and abused today in the Catholic Church.

A good deal has been written about the concept. Perhaps the best place, for those wanting a theologically informed treatment that nonetheless ranges widely over relevant political and philosophical history, is Sovereignty: God, State, and Self by Jean Bethke Elshtain.

See also the more recent collection, Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Concept.

For books on Maistre, follow the link above to the interview I did with two of the leading Maistre scholars today.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On the Repose of Juliana Schmemann

More than 33 years after the death of the great Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann, his wife Juliana has also departed this life.

Herself a published author of two short works, one reflecting on her marriage to the great man, My Journey with Father Alexander, she would also author The Joy to Serve.

Additionally, her role in selectively editing the The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983 has been noted by Orthodox scholars such as Michael Plekon who, several years ago in reviewing the longer, fuller, and more "controversial" French edition of the journals pleaded for a fuller translation into English so that we could get a better picture of Schmemann without worrying about whether some of his acerbic comments and sharp asides would somehow diminish the man.

But now is not the time for those questions, as we pray for the repose of her soul, pray for consolation for her family and many friends, and pray the Lord to make her memory eternal.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Romanos the Melodist on the Mother of God

I have not read much about Romanos the Melodist in quite some time, so when I recently received the University of Pennsylvania Press catalogue and spied this in it, my interest was piqued: Thomas Arentzen, The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist (U Penn Press, 2017), 304pp.

About this book, set for April release, we are told:
According to legend, the Virgin appeared one Christmas Eve to an artless young man standing in one of Constantinople's most famous Marian shrines. She offered him a scroll of papyrus with the injunction that he swallow it, and following the Virgin's command, he did so. Immediately his voice turned sweet and gentle as he spontaneously intoned his hymn "The Virgin today gives birth." So was born the career of Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485-560), one of the greatest liturgical poets of Byzantium, author of at least sixty long hymns, or kontakia, that were chanted during the night vigils preceding major feasts and festivals.
In The Virgin in Song, Thomas Arentzen explores the characterization of Mary in these kontakia and the ways in which the kontakia echoed the cult of the Virgin. He focuses on three key moments in her story as marked in the liturgical calendar: her encounter with Gabriel in the Annunciation, her child's birth at Christmas, and the death of her son during Good Friday. Consistently, Arentzen contends, Romanos counters expectations by shifting emphasis away from Christ himself to focus on Mary—as the subject of the erotic gaze, as a breastfeeding figure of abundance and fertility, and finally as an authoritatively vocal woman who conveys the secrets of her son and the joys of the resurrection.
Through his hymns, Romanos inspired an affective relationship between Mary and his audience, bringing the human and the holy into dialogue. By plumbing her emotional depths, the poet traces her process of understanding as she apprehends the mysteries that she embodies. By giving her a powerful voice, he grants subjectivity to a maiden who becomes a mediator. Romanos shaped a figure, Arentzen argues, who related intimately with her flock in a formative period of Christian orthodoxy.

Friday, January 27, 2017

If She Was Silent, Why are Her Followers So Gruesomely Garrulous?

As we move further into 2017, we must be prepared for a likely avalanche of apocalyptic emoting about Fatima as the centenary of that concatenation draws near. Already pestilential agitators are seeking to use the anniversary year as a pretext for what, more than six years ago, I called "Marian Mischief Making." Let us have no more of that. They have no arguments for sane or serious people, and they would do nothing but harm.

Among the many things that could be said about the supposed goings on at Fatima, perhaps the first point is contextual: war (and the rumour of war, and the aftermath of war) brings out an hysterical-apocalyptical complex in just about everybody. This point is abundantly illustrated in a book I have previously noted on here: Philip Jenkins' The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

Jenkins, a widely published and respected historian, makes two points in this book that would be equally shocking to most Christians today: the first pertains to the gung-ho enthusiasm for the war, and the bloodthirsty language one heard from pulpits of every tradition (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim) and in every country, each insistent that God was blessing their side and going to smite their enemies. Libido dominandi was the order of the day, not the soft pacifism on the cheap one so often finds on the lips of prelates, preachers, and people today.

The second was equally ecumenical: everybody was claiming visions of some sort--French atheists in foxholes claiming visions of their dead comrades in arms; Russian Orthodox peasants claiming divine visions; staid German Lutherans and English Anglicans got in on the act with their own supposed apparitions; and even Muslims were also claiming to have had visions! So the Roman Catholic visions that supposedly manifested themselves at Fatima were entirely unsurprising and just one of many during the Great War. All these others quickly faded.

Why Fatima did not fade but took off raises all sorts of questions:
  1. How is it that she who silently pondered in her heart (cf. Luke 2:19) the staggering Incarnation via her womb would suddenly become garrulous 19 centuries later in predicting the depredations of Russia? Why then, and why Russia? Why not 1914 in attempting to avert war? Or why not later, in predicting the rise of Hitler? (Cf. q. 4 below.)
  2. How can such a focus on Russia be seen and interpreted in anything other than the context of geopolitics at the time, in which context one must include Western hostility to Bolshevism, longstanding hysteria (recently revived in our own day) about Russia (even to the extent that two ostensibly Christian powers--England and France--would side with a Muslim empire against her in the Crimean war), and Catholic hostility to "schismatic" Orthodoxy, above all in Russia
  3. How could she who is portrayed so often iconographically as the hodegetria, the pointer of the way to Christ, suddenly develop a taste for narcissistic and repetitive demands for devotion to be pointed to herself and, especially--bizarrely--her "Immaculate Heart"? Devotionally this seems very close to fetishism.
  4. How, if Fatima did indeed consist of "prophetic" messages foretelling future disasters, was a Jewish woman apparently so anxious about as-yet unseen Russian dangers, but would see and say nothing about the impending Shoah
  5. How can we not see Fatima in any other context than that of the mounting personality cult surrounding the papacy, so amply documented by eminent historians such as Eamon Duffy (himself a Catholic) and Owen Chadwick? How, that is, can 1917 be interpreted without recourse to the 1854 definition of Pius IX, the 1870 definition of papal infallibility, and continuing on through other so-called apparitions from the 19th century? Can the papal-centric rhetoric in Fatima (and all the hysteria surrounding the supposed "third secret") be interpreted without regard for this novel ecclesiology of which it is a part? 
  6. How much damage to its own credibility did the papacy inflict on itself by tendentiously dragging Fatima through the 20th century, dangling prospects of the revelation of the "third secret," before dashing all that to the ground in the year 2000 with a conveniently retroactive rubbishing of the whole thing: 
Insofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past. Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity. What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the “secret”: the exhortation to prayer as the path of “salvation for souls” and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.  
If this is all that Fatima is--just a convenient reminder to pray, fast, do penance, and convert to the gospel of Jesus Christ--then it is of course entirely unobjectionable. But in too many hands for too long it was turned into a spectacle, almost a fetish, and wrapped up in a gauze of apocalypticism. Let 2017 pass without any more commentary. It edifies nobody.  

Monday, January 23, 2017

Unforbidden Pleasures and Desires: Despoiling Psychoanalytic Egyptians and Englishmen

I've previously discussed a book, Missing Out, by the prolific English scholar and psychoanalyst Adam Philips. It is a book that has remained with me for many months now, provoking a good deal of thought, and (always a sign a book has sparked real interest in an academic) I am keenly trying to gin up ways to work it into one or more of my courses.

As I continue to make my way through several of his recent publications, I am struck, as I was when reading Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, that his more recent book, Unforbidden Pleasures: Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016), similarly, but equally unwittingly, presents rich theological possibilities, especially if one thinks about these matters, as I do, in a rather Evagrian spirit.

Herewith the publisher's blurb, and then some further thoughts of mine:

Much has been written of the forbidden pleasures. But what of the "unforbidden" pleasures?
Unforbidden Pleasures is the singular new book from Adam Phillips, the author of Missing Out, Going Sane, and On Balance. Here, with his signature insight and erudition, Phillips takes Oscar Wilde as a springboard for a deep dive into the meanings and importance of the unforbidden, from the fall of our "first parents," Adam and Eve, to the work of the great psychoanalytic thinkers.
Forbidden pleasures, he argues, are the ones we tend to think about, yet when you look into it, it is probable that we get as much pleasure, if not more, from unforbidden pleasures than from those that are taboo. And we may have underestimated just how restricted our restrictiveness, in thrall to the forbidden and its rules, may make us. An ambitious book that speaks to the precariousness of modern life, Unforbidden Pleasures explores the philosophical, psychological, and social dynamics that govern human desire and shape our everyday reality.
Philips, it is clear, thinks some theology suspect--Christian, but also, in our day, particularly Islamic--because of its inordinately large role (at least its perceived role) as a source of most of what is forbidden. In that regard, he would seem to play to type at least as many Christians assume whenever they might pause for a second to entertain psychoanalysis at all--if they do. Such people assume (based, almost invariably, on twisted and partial fourth-hand accounts of  the later Freud, who was not as interesting or worthwhile as the earlier Freud, at least when it comes to cultural matters) that all psychoanalysis (if not all psychology) is hostile to theology.

Not so, as I have tried to show on here repeatedly. Indeed, there have been recent and commendable moves precisely to re-think the entire relationship between psychoanalysis and theology, and in serious hands a very good case can be made that each has much to offer the other, and indeed, as some have argued, psychoanalysis finds consummation (to use a Pickstockian term) in theology.

Philips should not for a moment be dismissed as just one more cultured analytic despiser of theology. He is far too literate and supple a thinker for that, and what he says, and the manner in which he says it, clearly indicate that he is not some ham-fisted ideologue or fanatic. Indeed, to state the matter positively, his thought clearly offers, it seems to me, many rich opportunities (as I showed with his earlier book Missing Out) for Christians to "despoil" the Egyptians and rediscover a good deal of wisdom.

Rather, he is interested in the uses and abuses of theology (and many other things besides--family, culture, and our own selves) to bind us with commands and dictates that clearly forbid many things. As he puts it, "this book is about whether the unforbidden pleasures have something more to tell us, or at least something else to tell us, about pleasure than the forbidden ones. Were this to be true, a lot of things that we have taken very seriously would seem less serious. The tyranny of the forbidden is not that it forbids, but that it tells us what we want--to do the forbidden thing. The unforbidden gives no orders" (160).

It is not the forbidding that he necessarily objects to but the fact that such acts, when used or thought of wrongly, especially in the hands of those trying to control others, can ultimately prove to be not just unhelpful but unhealthful and indeed downright destructive. Here--though he does not quote Paul--the letter to the Galatians is apt: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (5:1). What Philips would suggest is that most of us are all too willing to be yoked and enslaved, most often and most acutely by our own internal censors and controllers--what Freud called the super-ego.

But what if the freedom we conceive of is based on a mistaken understanding? What if, that is, we conceive of freedom as "doing what is forbidden without consequence"--what Paul and the tradition after him would call licentiousness, which is neither free nor freeing? What if we conceive of freedom as being liberated to "follow your bliss" or "indulge your passions"? Evagrius and the tradition developing after him (which, I would suggest, was psychoanalytic avant la lettre) would say that following your passions is not freedom but enslavement. True freedom comes from being uncontrolled by such desires. Again, Phillips does not pursue these questions in precisely this theological vein, but such questions are very strongly suggested by his deeply suggestive writing; and I like to think that were he and Evagrius to enter into a discussion, they would find much in common.

Phillips does, however, openly explore theology at least a little bit when, e.g., at the start of his chapter "Against Self-Criticism," he begins thus:
Jacques Lacan famously remarked that there must surely be something ironic about Christ's injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself because people actually hate themselves.
Who among us has not wondered precisely the same thing? In reading this, I was immediately put in mind of Paul Evdokimov's lyrical book, Sacrament of Love, where he talks about marriage in this staggering vein: "In order to be loved by the other, one must renounce oneself completely. It is a deep and unceasing ascetic practice.” Learning to love oneself, in other words, is not at all self-evident or easy, and it is the achievement of Phillips' book to ask why that is so.

He specializes, in fact, in asking questions, making suggestions, dropping both, and then repeatedly circling back on them. Phillips' very diffuse and circuitous style are greatly on display in this book, which requires a good bit of patience to extract some of his really important questions and suggestions. In this regard, his style strongly reminds me of a passage from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited: "Up, down, and round the argument circled and swooped like a gull, now out to sea, out of sight, cloud-bound, among irrelevances and repetitions, now right on the patch where the offal floated." Here, I suspect, we see the real result of his work as an analyst, which with most patients rarely proceeds straightforwadly and directly. Rather, as Freud famously put it, much of the really hard work in an analysis comes from "remembering, repeating, and [only then] working through."

Given such a style, it would be facile to glance at any given passage and assume that Phillips is advocating some kind of anarchist approach to life--let nothing be forbidden or controlled! But that would be to misunderstand him (I think!). It is not that certain things are, or should be forbidden: Phillips does not object, per se, to forbidding some things. But he asks: what if we have this forbidden-unforbidden relationship rather backwards? What if we spend too much time lamenting what is apparently forbidden--so much time, in fact, desiring what is, or seems to be, forbidden that we fail to realize that much, perhaps most, of our satisfaction and joy in life comes from what is unforbidden?

Additional important questions abound: why do we spend so much time and effort on self-criticism "and then we turn this ferocious, unrelenting self-criticism into an unforbidden pleasure" (83). In other words, why do we not forbid such ferocious self-criticism, instead of allowing it such lavish free reign in our lives? Why not forbid that?

Our self-criticism comes from our superego, Phillips suggests, revisiting a classic part of the Freudian tripartite model of the mind. And why do we allow the superego such a reign and role when it is "remarkably narrow-minded" and "relentlessly repetitive"? Our superegos are the worst sort of guests we would either never invite or else flee from the presence of at a party--complete bores whose views never change, and are expressed in the most tedious and strident terms.

Part of what psychoanalysis may be able to assist people with--and so, mutatis mutandis, good spiritual direction, as I suggested here might also be able to offer--is helping the analysand, who is "suffering now from the self-cure of his organized symptoms," be able to "recover an appetite to speak with greater freedom." That sounds rather undemanding and perhaps even banal, but for many people it is precisely that greater inner freedom which can make all the difference.

Finally, I take Phillips to be useful in reminding all of us that what we often deride as daily drudgery--getting up to do our duty, which is not forbidden--is, for most of us most of the time, the greater, if greatly overlooked, source of most of our satisfaction in life. We spend too much time imagining the greatness of fulfilling our forbidden desires--of longing for an imagined life where all our forbidden desires are fulfilled, and Missing Out on the life we have.

The problem, moreover, is--to put it in explicitly spiritual terms--not only that we downplay or deride our daily life as drudgery denying us our forbidden desires: the problem is that this attitude and approach overlooks the station to which most of us have been appointed for our divinization and sanctification.

Here Phillips--who at one point goes on an interesting aside about what unique factors English analysts have contributed to the analytic tradition, riven as it often is by ideological factions which the British Independent School, inter alia, managed to largely circumvent (in, e.g., such analysts as Nina Coltart)--puts me in mind of the most famous Englishman of the 19th century, John Henry Newman.

In one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons from his Anglican days, he compared the man who overlooks his own life and thinks, to be worthy of God, he must do as an apostle did (Newman was preaching on St. Bartholomew's day). But Newman gently but firmly rebukes this line of thinking in a way that is, I think, greatly in line with the spirit of Phillips, if not the letter:
To rise up, and go through the same duties, and then to rest again, day after day,—to pass week after week, beginning with God's service on Sunday, and then to our worldly tasks,—so to continue till year follows year, and we gradually get old,—an unvaried life like this is apt to seem unprofitable to us when we dwell upon the thought of it. Many indeed there are, who do not think at all;—but live in their round of employments, without care about God and religion, driven on by the natural course of things in a dull irrational way like the beasts that perish. But when a man begins to feel he has a soul, and a work to do, and a reward to be gained, greater or less, according as he improves the talents committed to him, then he is naturally tempted to be anxious from his very wish to be saved, and he says, "What must I do to please God?" And sometimes he is led to think he ought to be useful on a large scale, and goes out of his line of life, that he may be doing something worth doing, as he considers it. Here we have the history of St. Bartholomew and the other Apostles to recall us to ourselves, and to assure us that we need not give up our usual manner of life, in order to serve God; that the most humble and quietest station is acceptable to Him, if improved duly.
Newman clearly recognized, here and elsewhere, that the better part in life consists not in wasting time fantasizing about "forbidden" desires, but in the unforbidden pleasure, indeed eternal joy, of following the Lord daily and quietly, and in so doing discovering that true freedom for which we have been sent free. To the extent that Adam Phillips, in Unforbidden Pleasures: Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality, helps us appreciate this, all of us, Christian and otherwise, are once again in his considerable debt.

(Stay tuned for future thoughts on Phillips On Balance as well as his Side Effects.)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Alasdair MacIntyre on Ethics Amidst the Conflicts of Modernity

One cannot do any sort of serious philosophy or theology today without attending to the context in which we live, a context that nobody has done more, in the realm of moral philosophy, to analyze than the greatest moral philosopher of our time, Alasdair MacIntyre. A new book by him--who is now well into his 80s--is therefore a signal event of capital importance. Just released at the end of the year is his Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 322pp.

MacIntyre has often been quoted, but too often those quoting him the most, or most often, have read him too little, as I have demonstrated and others too--most especially on the questions of conflict between monastic communities and Christian churches (variously understood) and the modern nation-state. MacIntyre is a careful thinker, and part of thinking with MacIntyre means taking the time to read him carefully, and to think about the implications of what he says. I wrote an MA thesis on him almost 20 years ago, and one of the many admirable things I found about him was how often he was willing to say "I know this requires more work" or "I thank my critics for pressing me to think more deeply about...." His genuine openness to recognizing what needs more work, or correction, or even outright retraction is refreshing to see today, and rarer than one might think among contemporary academics.

About this newest book of his the publisher tells us:
Alasdair MacIntyre explores some central philosophical, political and moral claims of modernity and argues that a proper understanding of human goods requires a rejection of these claims. In a wide-ranging discussion, he considers how normative and evaluative judgments are to be understood, how desire and practical reasoning are to be characterized, what it is to have adequate self-knowledge, and what part narrative plays in our understanding of human lives. He asks, further, what it would be to understand the modern condition from a neo-Aristotelian or Thomistic perspective, and argues that Thomistic Aristotelianism, informed by Marx's insights, provides us with resources for constructing a contemporary politics and ethics which both enable and require us to act against modernity from within modernity. This rich and important book builds on and advances MacIntyre's thinking in ethics and moral philosophy, and will be of great interest to readers in both fields.
And we are given the table of contents:

Preface
1. Desires, goods, and 'good', the philosophical issues
2. Theory, practice, and their social contexts
3. Morality and modernity
4. Neo-Aristotelian ethics and politics developed in contemporary Thomistic terms: issues of relevance and rational justification
5. Four narratives
Index.
I wrote to Prof. MacIntyre to see if he would be willing for me to drive up to South Bend to interview him about this book, but he wrote a gracious and kind letter in response saying that some time ago he took the position to refuse all further interviews. There have, in fact, been at least three over the years I have read to great profit, but I had hoped to add to those interviews by talking about his forthcoming book.  Alas, it is not to be. (I do not for a moment begrudge MacIntyre, now well into his 80's, for husbanding his energies selectively, as I should also do at that stage--especially when confronted with letters from provincial academics one does not know!)

For those few who do not know his work, MacIntyre really burst onto the scene with his 1981 book After Virtue, updated in 1984 and released in a third edition in 2006. This is arguably his best known and most widely read book whose ringing peroration has inspired some people with a notion of a "Benedict option" for Christians of our time, though MacIntyre himself greatly regrets that line, and it has other problems I documented here. In addition, such "option" talk is not nearly as new as some seem to think. Jonathan Wilson, e.g., already wrote along these lines in his 1997 book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre's After Virtue

Many Christians have found MacIntyre's work very useful in a variety of projects--e.g., ecclesiology, moral theology of course, and much else besides. His work has been ecumenically engaged by Christians of all traditions, though Eastern engagement, as with many things, has tended to lag behind Protestant and Catholic engagement for several reasons.

Perhaps none has engaged MacIntyre more, nor forced other Christians to do so theologically, than Stanley Hauerwas, beginning with his collection of 1981, Revisions: Changing Perspectives in Moral Philosophy. Pick up almost any book by Hauerwas and you can expect to find him telling you how much he is indebted to MacIntyre.

The 1981 publication of After Virtue was MacIntyre's first full-length book in a long time. Part of its success, I maintain, lies in its style: it is an extended narrative of "how we got here." It is not the usual horrid, turgid, incomprehensible analytic philosophy one (despairingly) finds in parts of 20th century academic philosophy. Instead, it tells a story of how philosophical developments have led us to the emotivism of our time. Ranging widely from Aristotle to Aquinas, from Kant, Hume, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche to Gewirth, Anscombe, and Davidson, MacIntyre shows the dead-ends to which we have come in our moral, social, and political lives by being trapped by emotivism.

He posits two ways out of this: a Nietzschean way or an Aristotelian, here and elsewhere arguing for the superiority of the latter (while also "ransacking," as it were, Nietzsche and others, including Marx, for what may be useful). Anyone who foolishly imagines that a book of moral philosophy written more than a quarter-century ago now must be hopelessly out of date has not been attending to any political discussion in 2016, or for decades before that. It remains as vital and helpful in understanding our world as ever, and I regard the reading of After Virtue as obligatory for anyone today who claims to have a post-secondary education.

Much of his writing before After Virtue was piecemeal and later gathered into such collections as Against the Self-Images Of the Age: Essays on Ideology and Philosophy, first published in 1971. I read this book in the 1990s, when John Spong fancied himself an avant-garde figure but in reality offered tiresome clap-trap too bloated on its own eminence to rise to the level of intellectually serious heresy. Thus I realized that one could easily substitute a figure such as Spong (a real "Dr. Spacely-Trellis, the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon” if ever there were one!) for those who come in for withering criticism in MacIntyre's book, which included wonderfully acerbic reviews of then-new publications by such Church of England heretics bishops as John Robinson (Honest to God)--to say nothing of others such as Bultman and Tillich, all of whom, MacIntyre suggests, seem engaged in some strange project of concocting a vaguely religious-sounding atheism to comfort bourgeois academics who would have us believe that "what Jesus really meant turns out to have been an anticipation of Martin Heidegger, and when the gospel is demythologized a theistic existentialism is what remains." In the end, such a project is summed up in one of MacIntyre's many memorable perorations: "the creed of the English is that there is no God and that it is wise to pray to him from time to time."

In the 60s and 70s, MacIntyre had published some longer monographs as well, though these are not as well known. Of that period I would argue that A Short History of Ethics remains important, not least in showing MacIntyre's historicizing project and his work very much as an historian of philosophy in particular (which would reach fullest flower in After Virtue), but an intellectual historian in general as well.

Perhaps, for Christians today, his most significant and lasting book from this period remains Secularization and Moral Change, about which I noted a few things here.

After writing After Virtue, MacIntyre recognized just how much further work was to be done in order to demonstrate, verify, and even amend many of his claims in that book. Thus After Virtue has been regarded as the first volume of a trilogy, followed in 1988 by Whose Justice? Which Rationality? This is a longer, denser work than AV, and concentrates in good measure on the so-called Enlightenment in its various forms as well as more recent modern philosophers.

The third volume of the trilogy began its life as the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, and was published afterwards, in 1990, as Three Rival Inquiries of Moral Inquiry. This, too, is another example of historical "display" by MacIntyre albeit in different form than the two earlier books. Perhaps the two most important chapters here are his justification of pedagogical authority via a reading of St. Augustine, and then his calling for the overhaul of the modern university as an institution, and the modern lecture within it. 


I wrote my MA thesis on MacIntyre in 1997, and so ended with his then-latest book, Three Rival Inquiries, wondering what books we might expect from him next. I had several ideas--as did many others--as to where we thought he needed to go next, but his two books around the turn of the century were, to me at least, considerable surprises. Thus in 1999 we had Dependent Rational Animals and then in 2006 we had Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922.

I have written elsewhere several times about the latter book especially. As for the former, Artur Rosman's essay, here, accords well with my own views about this astonishing, under-appreciated book, which I have used in undergraduate ethics classes.

I attended the launch, in 2010 at Notre Dame, of God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition. This came in the aftermath of the Jenkins-Obama debacle at UND, and while he didn't get into the matter directly even when pressed by a questioner, it seemed very clear to me he thought Jenkins guilty of treachery towards the Church and any university that takes itself seriously as Catholic. It was also an occasion to hear from MacIntyre why it took him so long to write After Virtue--why, that is, there was such a long gap between his last book in the early 70s, and the appearance of AV in 1981--and he answered with a disarming shrug, "Because I didn't think I had much to say before then." Would that more academics felt such apophatic restraint as we continue to drown under too many publications!

Since the book launch was about a book devoted in part to the nature of higher, and specifically Catholic higher, education, one questioner asked for MacIntyre's views on whether his conception of the teacher-student relationship was undermined by having students write evaluations of professors each semester. I shall never forget MacIntyre's wildly applauded and bracing answer: "Student evaluations are of the devil. Next question?"

In addition to all the foregoing monographs and collections, some of MacIntyre's most important pieces are also to be found in articles. I still regularly refer people to his very useful essay on epistemological crises, which was reprinted in The Tasks of Philosophy: Volume 1: Selected Essays. In this collection also we have reprinted his essay on first principles, which was published in a very small book after having been given as the Aquinas lecture in 1990 at Marquette.

In addition, Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays Vol. 2 contains an essay I have very often referred to, an essay Eastern Christians in particular would do well to study: "Poetry as Political Philosophy," one of the earliest places where MacIntyre begins to describe and denounce the "dangerous and unmanageable institution" of the modern nation-state in all its pomps and works--which he memorably disdains as no more substantial than the accoutrements of the "telephone company."

Moreover, his "Toleration and the Goods of Conflict" remains an important cautionary warning for Christians seeking to build communities of any sort today.

In sum, picking up any book of MacIntyre's will give you a lifelong supply not just of "things to think about" but a whole new way of thinking about thinking, of imagining the world we live in today--a new epistemology inextricably tied up with a new politics containing a new moral philosophy. Thus there are, to use one of his better known phrases, goods internal to the practices of reading. Tolle, lege. 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...