"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).

Monday, February 19, 2018

God's Poverty....and Ours

I noted here how I came to read Herbert McCabe, and some of the connections I spied in some of his writings to our father among the saints, Sigmund of Vienna.

Now in this Lenten season, when our focus should be less on our efforts towards fasting and other sometimes suspect "ascetical" works, and more on serving others, the poor above all, I want to draw your attention to a short but compelling sermon in McCabe's God, Christ, and Us.

By the end of my first year teaching here in Indiana, I heard loud and clear from my Catholic students that they had had the what drilled into them rather well by twelve years of Catholic schooling, but nobody had ever explained to them the who. So ever after one of the challenges I set for every class I teach, at least if it bears a THEO prefix, is to help students to understand not just a teaching or even its underlying logic, history, or rationale; but to see how and where God is, how and where, sometimes obscurely or partially, a given "doctrine" points beyond itself, reveals more than itself by revealing God. We are commanded to shun murder and adultery not merely because it makes for more felicitous social relations; we shun them because it is not God's nature to kill or betray those whom he loves.

In this case, then, to the Lenten question of "Why should we help the poor" we must reply not just by way of moral exhortation ("Scripture commands you so to do"), or psychological appeal ("How can we not feel compassion for their plight?"). Scripture, as the venerable scholar Raymond Collins has made clear in a recent study, Wealth, Wages, and the Wealthy: New Testament Insight for Preachers and Teachers, does demand that we help, and does issue dozens of dire warnings about wealth, but why? Is God just the biggest social justice warrior (to use today's infelicitous argot) of all?

Perhaps we can understand why God wants us to help the poor, for we presume that God must be compassionate; but why does He also have to bore on with His condemnations of the wealthy (Matt. 13:22; 19:16ff; Mark 10:23; Luke 16:19ff; etc.)? Why can't God just let us enjoy our wealth and possessions? Even if we recognize the often subtle ways in which possessions and wealth corrupt us, surely that's a risk worth running?

McCabe is helpful here in showing us that, as with all sound teaching, the Christian teaching on poverty and its beatitude, and the Christian condemnation of wealth and possessions, are so because both are an icon of God. In this short reflection, "Poverty and God," McCabe begins by claiming that "the movement from riches to poverty, from having to not having, can be a movement not only to being more human but to being divine." Why is that? It is so because God is poor and has no possessions: "We cannot speak literally of the riches of God. But I think we can speak literally of the poverty of God....He is literally poor because he simply and literally has no possessions. He takes nothing for his own use."

As McCabe continues, "God's creative act is an act of God's poverty, for God gains nothing by it. God makes without becoming richer." To which I would add: God makes and gives without becoming poorer, either. In reflecting on this, my mind freely associated to McCabe's other chapters on prayer, and the rather freeing realization came that, as McCabe counsels, in praying for very real and practical things, we should feel no guilt as though we are somehow depriving God of something, or short-changing others if He gives it to us first. God, in other words, is not sitting on a gigantic but finite bank account from which our prayers function as so many withdrawals, depleting His capital. If that were so, would He have counseled us to pray for our daily bread--rather than asking for bread once in a while or once in a lifetime?

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Problems with Orthodox Mysticism

I've just received The Rise of Scripture, and sent to its author, the long-time Orthodox biblical scholar Paul Nadimi Tarazi, some questions for an interview I'll be glad to run as soon as he gets back to me. Tarazi has written many books about the Bible, as you can see here. This one takes a more comprehensive and far-reaching approach than some of his more tightly tailored commentaries.

The Rise of Scripture is a wide-ranging book that does not pull its punches in places, and I'm looking forward to having the author unpack his thoughts about many things, including his clear disdain for "mysticism," a problematic notion, you will have noted, I've been exploring on here with the help of Maggie Ross's fine book, Silence: A User's Guide, to which I shall be returning presently

"Mysticism" is one of those things one endlessly hears about from apologists for the East, perhaps most famously in that dreary book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Lossky that at one point it seems everyone was required to read--before, that is, the explosion in Eastern Christian scholarship of the last three decades, which has had the welcome effect, inter alia, of dethroning Lossky.

Just to give you a taste, with more to come: Tarazi repeatedly decries the "perversion" that theology--East and West, Jewish and Christian--has wrought to the scripturally revealed God, introducing terminology that is not just unhelpful but unscriptural (ousia, physis, etc). Worse, we go from theology to "mysticism," about which Tarazi inveighs thus:
As for us Orthodox, we shall continue to approach scripture from the sacred theology of the 'tradition of man' established by our church fathers, and the closer to our own times the 'father' is, the more authoritative he is.....It is no wonder that Orthodox seminary students take a short cut by reading as authoritative Vladimir Lossky's twentieth-century The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church and live in the mystical clouds of their imaginations instead of listening repeatedly until the end of days--and teaching others to do (Mt 5:17-20)--to the words of the scroll written by the hand of the One who alone speaks out of his scriptural, not mystical, cloud (Ezek 1-2). 
Lest any Eastern apologist still try to insist that our mysticism is somehow different, unique, true, and untainted by that so-called pan-heresy of ecumemism, Tarazi says this ignores "my repeated insistence that mysticism is a (fourth monotheistic) religion of its own besides Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the proof thereof being that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics speak the exact same language, and even refer to, if not even quote, one another" (437).

I've asked him to comment further in our interview on this and other wonderfully bracing arguments in his The Rise of Scripture. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ethiopian Orthodox Feasting and Hospitality

Though a period of fasting is now upon the Church, it is never a bad time to think of feasting. Indeed, fasting often enough, of course, heightens our thoughts about feasting ("Lent" being, of course, an old and untranslatable Indo-Norse word for "agonizing period of endless fantasizing about bacon and beer"), and a new book will reward and edify those thoughts further still, adding to a growing scholarly understanding in English at least of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition: The Stranger at the Feast: Prohibition and Mediation in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community by Tom Boylston (University of California Press, 2018), 194pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Stranger at the Feast is a path-breaking ethnographic study of one of the world’s oldest and least-understood religious traditions. Based on long-term ethnographic research on the Zege peninsula in northern Ethiopia, the author tells the story of how people have understood large-scale religious change by following local transformations in hospitality, ritual prohibition, and feeding practices. Ethiopia has undergone radical upheaval in the transition from the imperial era of Haile Selassie to the modern secular state, but the secularization of the state has been met with the widespread revival of popular religious practice. For Orthodox Christians in Zege, everything that matters about religion comes back to how one eats and fasts with others. Boylston shows how practices of feeding and avoidance have remained central even as their meaning and purpose has dramatically changed: from a means of marking class distinctions within Orthodox society, to a marker of the difference between Orthodox Christians and other religions within the contemporary Ethiopian state.

Monday, February 12, 2018

On Fasting from Noise or Against Asceticism and Spirituality (I)

The paschal calculations are only out by a week this year (see here for some further thoughts on this absurd problem), so today begins Great Lent on the Gregorian Calendar, and next week it begins on the Julian.

Always around this time in the past, as here, I have listed some good books, especially Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, and I would not unsay what I have said there. But I am increasingly uneasy about much of this discussion and increasingly given to rethinking the categories of asceticism thanks to a book I mentioned at the beginning of the month in discussing the links between Freudian and Dominican notions of prayer: Maggie Ross, Silence: A User's Guide vol. I.

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of "spirituality." I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in "spirituality" taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, "spirituality" was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious--before I had the language to express it--that "spirituality" was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.

Thus I am increasingly inclined to the view that there is no such thing as spirituality, and that's a very good thing too. Some of this I got more recently from reading Robert Farrar Capon, as well as Schmemann's For the Life of the World. But the first two who really helped me to see this were, of course, John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory and John Bossy's underappreciated but delightful minor classic, Christianity in the West 1400-1700. Ross reinforces this suspicion early on in Silence: A User's Guide by quoting Meister Eckhart: if you think you are doing anything "spiritual" or "special," you're not seeking God!

But my few suspicious and criticisms are anodyne compared to the scathing, cold dissection in the hands of Maggie Ross. Her book seems increasingly to me to be a rare and welcome knife cutting through so much nonsense, some of it positively harmful. We'll start with the first two chapters before getting to the third chapter, which should really be called "A Glossary of Fatuous Terms of Destruction and Illusion Masquerading as Piety." In this third chapter she really takes the gloves off, though she drops a hint in ch. 1 when, e.g., she says that "mysticism (a dog's breakfast of a word that needs to be eliminated from the discussion) is tainted with voyeurism and self-aggrandizement and has become a consumer circus" (25). A little later on she will also scorn all language of having an "experience" of God, noting that "God" may be operative in the experience, but God is not the experience: that would be to hack Him down to our little self-conscious concepts.

The burden of the first two chapters is to sketch out her psychology, as it were, noting the tension between the self-conscious mind, which is always noisy, and the "deep mind," as she calls it. If the former, as she says, "makes us human, then its elision opens the door to...divinity" (1).

Too many of us are scared to open that door for several reasons. First, we may think that the deep mind is a morass of irrational instincts and urges, but, she says, it is itself also thinking. This deep mind, however, cannot be forcibly accessed: to get here you have to find ways to subvert self-consciousness. Perhaps, she says in a few places, the most common technique is to focus on a single word or exhalations until self-consciousness gradually falls away for a time.

However we do it, she makes the claim that putting on the mind of Christ is silence: to put on the mind of Christ is to relinquish projections and imagined stereotypes and to receive a transfigured mind back instead. This is impossible without the "work of silence," as she repeatedly calls it. The mind of Christ, then, is not an inhibited self-conscious mind, but the deep mind that avoids all notions of pious "imitation" because such ideas depend on our own suspect concepts and projections of Christ.

To become transfigured it is necessary to enter into solitude and silence: she notes the desert fathers and mothers (and modern commentators, as I have often noted--e.g., Thomas Merton) said that if you went and sat silently in your cell, your cell will teach you everything. This, she notes later, is surely why Pascal could claim that our unhappiness arises from only one thing: our inability to remain alone and silent in a room.

In reading her so far, I am put in mind of one French and two other British writers whom I read in the 1990s on these themes. The first would be the psychiatrist Anthony Storr's little book Solitude.

The second is the psychoanalyst Nina Coltart, the publication of whose Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1992 was influential for me in deciding to enter full-time psychoanalysis in 1994. Among the many fascinating chapters in that book, I have often returned to her reflections on the silent patient, which she defines as the patient who speaks for less than 10% of the total analysis; and then her own experiences of solitude and meditation as an Anglican who later embraced Buddhism.

In the midst of reading these two, then somehow I discovered Simone Weil and her especially searing insights on solitude. One of these days I must go back to Weil, on whom an explosion of scholarship has developed in the two decades since I last read her.

For Ross, engaging deep silence requires no gimmicks, programs, gurus, or expensive memberships. It costs nothing. That, of course, makes it highly suspect to the powers and principalities of our present age, which can make no profits off it--but, as she shows, suspicion of silence goes back many centuries within a Christian context alone.

There is also another factor at work, one which, as I noted in previous discussions of Christopher Bollas, centres on the fact that many of us today dismiss and disdain any notion of an unconscious life not least because the unconscious, the hidden mind is a thinking mind and we don't want to entertain Freud's insight here about that. How dare our minds go on thinking without our self-conscious approval and, above all, control!

But Ross hastens here to insert a welcome reassurance, especially for those who are worried that--as she noted earlier--the deep mind, the hidden and unconscious mind, is an irrational mass of desires that will lead you astray and deceive you. On the contrary, she says, the silence of the deep mind is perhaps most objective of all insofar as it leads away from self-consciousness and its suspect motives to simply see what is real not just in ourselves but especially in the world around us. In doing the work of silence, we can see, but see differently: deep silence transfigures. We learn to figure things out differently.

And part of what we figure differently is the relationship between what is known and unknown--here echoing what Adam Phillips has written about in several places, as I've noted on here the past two years, and more recently in discussing Christopher Bollas's pivotal idea of the "unthought known."

And yet, in addition to fear of the hidden and unconscious, and to disdain for its simplicity, silence is also scorned by some who abandon the work because they think it should transform them into something unique, a new self--only to discover that it does not. It leads them into communion with the ordinary, and to seeing our life in the daily things.

Moreover, it is feared by some who think it will change them rather too much. But, she says, you have to abandon and change nothing at the outset! The silence will elicit changes organically. This is very much my own recollection of the analytic experience as well: the change comes quite as much as a result of the process itself as of (and perhaps more than) any individual insights developed or traumatic memories analyzed.

Silence, Ross argues, leads us out of our very narrow, repetitive, cramped, noisy self-conscious minds into what Weil called the absolute unmixed attention which is prayer. (Cf. Coltart's understanding of the analyst proffering "evenly hovering attention," as Freud called it, and as Coltart saw as a deeply spiritual, almost sacred, practice.) How can this happen?

For Ross, "the only requirement is to observe one's own mind at work, to discover its permutations, to engage, receive, and realize the effects that arise from learning to inhabit deepest silence" (32). From here, it may be useful for some people to try meditation as an entry-level way into silence but it is not the whole thing. It can also dangerously magnify existing beliefs. So context and intent become key.

Sometimes, she notes, the way into silence can be inadvertent and this is often a sign of authenticity. But the most common entry point is through focus on one thing only: e.g., a word. There is most likely not one universal way to do this, but much depends on the individual. The point is to find a way to defeat the self-conscious mind by turning towards liminality, where the self-conscious mind submits its knowledge to the deep mind and receives it back transfigured. In the end, she says, silence can effect such dramatic change that even the way a person looks is changed.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Bp. Seraphim Sigrist on the Tapestries of Life

In this blog's infancy, I hit upon the idea of interviewing authors when talking with Bishop Seraphim Sigrist more than five years ago, when I sent him some questions about his then-new book A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East.

He has a new book out, Tapestry, and I sent him some questions for an interview about it. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background.

Vladyka Seraphim: By way of introducing myself I would say that I studied at St Vladimir's Seminary and then served in the Orthodox Church in Japan for 19 years as teacher, as deacon, and priest in a village church and finally as Bishop of northern Japan. Returning to the United States I have taught at Drew University, and, becoming involved with movements in Russia for Christian renewal, traveled to Russia many times. I live in the lower Hudson Valley and have written five books, including one Japanese translation.

AD: When we spoke on here several years ago now, it was about your book A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East. What, if anything, links that book and your newest one, Tapestry? In other words, give us a bit of chronology and background over the past few years leading up to this newest book.

I am not a prolific writer but Tapestry perhaps fits to a set of three that  begins with Theology of Wonder in 1999 and then as you mention A Life Together in 2010 and now Tapestry. The theologian Antoine Arjakowsky has described the Church as a network of friendships and this is a theme which runs through all my writing and is central in A Life Together. For its part, Tapestry approaches from many angles in its sections perhaps more the theme of the way of knowledge of God for the individual within the Christian community.

AD: You start off by referring to Fr. Alexander Schememann, whose love of poetry is well known, and who reflected in his celebrated Journals that there was more theology in the poetry of an E.E. Cummings than in many theology books as such. Is that your view also? How do you see the relationship between poetry and theology?

It seems that poetry can represent more the intuitive side of life and then there is a way of doing theology which is more careful , could we say, and analytic. But these surely can at least ideally fit together. A scholastic analysis with its back and forth of mind opens into ,the reader may suddenly realize, a sort of dance. The dense expression of Dun Scotus "haecceity" or "thisness," becomes the inscape of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

AD: I heard it said once—I forget by whom—that Christianity has produced two outstanding poets—Dante and Ephraim the Syrian. But you draw on others, including those not necessarily identified as Christian. How do you see those works and authors as part of God’s creation?

Now first of all there are more Christian writers, even in our own time, than is sometimes recognized. We are right to love Chesterton or the Inklings but there are so many others. And beyond these are there not those with gifts of wisdom and spiritual ardor such as Rainer Maria Rilke who did not also have the gift of a clearly defined theology?

AD: Your references and sources range very widely—Cardinal Newman, Clement of Alexandria, the Jungian analyst John Perkins, C.S. Lewis, Fr. Alexander Men, Wittgenstein, and others. Are there any common threads in this very diverse tapestry of characters?

Well I cite those who have inspired and interested me and whose themes resonate to me and which I share. All these whom you mention certainly have a shared quality of being alert and open in their thinking and also a godwardness, an orientation towards God as the end of their thought. You know Josef Pieper in his admirable book about St.Thomas Aquinas The Silence of St.Thomas says that new territory awaiting use by Christians is "of virtually immeasurable scope" including depth psychology, advances in physics and biology and the wisdom traditions of the East. Perhaps I have a little attempted to at least look into the new territories of our time and the time that is coming.

AD: Tell us what your hopes were and are for this book,
Tapestry. Who should read it, and why?

Tapestry is a collection of at first sight quite diverse materials ranging from the personal to the more formal in style and from the straight forward to the possibly somewhat poetic. But the life we have is also like that isn't it? A great diversity of feelings with the warm and the cold, the fast and busy and the slow and meditative, coexisting at once like levels of the sea as Thomas Merton said. The theme then, implicit at every point, is that this whole life in every moment is our knowledge of God. It is the medium through which and in which we encounter the Lord. It is life itself, in all its impermanence and change, which is or is seen to be what in the Eastern Church is called Theosis, or I would like to render it Becoming-as-Divine.

Does not realizing this bring Theosis into focus a little more than when it is held out there as simply a future destiny? Similarly there is the via negativa, the way of negation of all images and there is the positive affirmative theology. But these are not first of all abstractions rather they are grounded in the rhythm of the blood and of life, exhaling and inhaling, the arterial and the veinous blood, the light and shadow of all our moments. Tapestry is a personal expression, which I think will resonate to readers, that in realizing the depth of this life we have, we may live in, or into, eternity's sunrise.

AD: Having finished
Tapestry, what are you at work on next?

Perhaps more than another book just now, I would wish to take to heart the words of Angelus Silesius which are for reader and for writer alike, "Go and yourself become the writing, yourself the essence."

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Copts in Context

Nelly van Doorn-Harder's work on the Copts of Egypt is something I have been following for some time after having asked her to write a review for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies several years ago. So I sit up and pay attention when she publishes a new book, as she did in September in hardcover and October of last year on Kindle: Copts in Context: Negotiating Identity, Tradition, and Modernity (University of South Carolina Press, 2017), 296pp.
About this collection, of which she is editor, the publisher tells us the following:

Though the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt is among the oldest Christian communities in the world, it remained relatively unknown outside of Egypt for most of its existence. In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, this community was caught up in regional violence, and its predicament became a cause for concern around the world. Copts in Context examines the situation of the Copts as a minority faith in a volatile region and as a community confronting modernity while steeped in tradition.
Nelly van Doorn-Harder opens Coptic identity and tradition to a broad range of perspectives: historical, political, sociological, anthropological, and ethnomusicological. Starting with contemporary issues such as recent conflicts in Egypt, the volume works back to topics—among them the Coptic language, the ideals and tradition of monasticism, and church historiography—that while rooted in the ancient past, nevertheless remain vital in Coptic memory and understanding of culture and tradition. Contributors examine developments in the Coptic diaspora, in religious education and the role of children, and in Coptic media, as well as considering the varied nature of Coptic participation in Egyptian society and politics over millennia.
With many Copts leaving the homeland, preservation of Coptic history, memory, and culture has become a vital concern to the Coptic Church. These essays by both Coptic and non-Coptic scholars offer insights into present-day issues confronting the community and their connections to relevant themes from the past, demonstrating reexamination of that past helps strengthen modern-day Coptic life and culture.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Fundamental Rule of Prayer: Free Association?

Today's lovely feast, which of course brings the 40-day Christmas cycle to an end, is that of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, often known as Candlemas. And in the Catholic world it's kept as a day to remember consecrated religious who devote their lives to prayer and contemplation. But what is prayer, and what of our difficulties with it? Here are some thoughts on that question aided by two books I read back to back last weekend--quite unintentionally, I might add, or at least without conscious (!) intent.

But hear me out when I suggest that there are connections to be discovered between late Anglo-Irish Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe's God, Christ, and Us, and the contemporary Anglo-American psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas in The Evocative Object World.

I started with McCabe's lovely short book of sermons, God, Christ, and Us. If you are casting about for suitable Lenten reading material this year, permit me very warmly to recommend it. No chapter is very long, and none suffers from that kind of revolting treacle one sometimes associates with pious utterances such a sermons. McCabe was not pious in that sense at all, but very earthy and practical in a refreshingly straight-forward kind of way. The God preached by this member of the Order of Preachers is a God you actually want to meet, indeed might actually look forward to meeting, and quite probably over a drink or meal à deux. 

I first encountered McCabe's name in the 1990s when Stanley Hauerwas made an off-hand reference to him in connection to Alasdair MacIntyre. I paid no heed as Hauerwas didn't say much and I wasn't interested enough to pursue the matter. Later I would see MacIntyre himself in several places confess debts to McCabe, but without much detail to spur on an investigation on my part.

But the person who really convinced me I must read McCabe was and is Eugene McCarraher, whom I first stumbled across in articles like this (discussing Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God) and then this deeply fascinating three-part interview, the third of which avers "I swear that reading McCabe has often kept me a Christian." In my more despairing moments recently, I know exactly what McCarraher means by that, and I suspect very strongly he had lines like this from McCabe in mind:
"Like Peter and the 12 we remain Christians because there is nowhere else to go: if Christianity is not the revolution, nothing else is" (Law, Love and Language1968).
McCarraher has also written a lovely overview of McCabe's life in this Commonweal article which notes, inter alia, that McCabe's "radicalism" was precisely and only possibly because of its deep orthodoxy. Rooted in the tradition, he could see its deeply subversive potential--even if, alas, that potential is almost always domesticated, tamed, thwarted by the powers and principalities of the present age. His orthodoxy, then, allowed him freely to explore socialism and Marxism.

Though my reading is still early yet, I have not see in him so far much exploration of Freud. But the language is clearly there. Repeatedly McCabe uses classical Freudian language in unmistakable ways, especially speaking of our tendency towards "projection" and our wallowing in "illusion" about both ourselves and God. In, e.g., Faith Within Reason, reflecting on the prodigal son, McCabe writes:
Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us…For damnation must be just being fixed in this illusion, stuck forever with the God of the Law, stuck forever with the God provided by our sin (155-56; my emphasis).
A little later on, McCabe uses language that very much echos the difficulties of psychoanalysis as Freud saw them for it confronts people with hidden, and often infelicitous, desires, images, and actions. But both Freud and McCabe argue that it is much better to face up to ourselves, sinful and infantile as we are:
We damn ourselves because we would rather justify and excuse ourselves, and look on our self-flattering images of ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God…Contrition, or forgiveness, is self-knowledge, the terribly painful business of seeing ourselves as what and who we are: how mean, selfish, cruel and indifferent and infantile we are (Faith Within Reason, 157).
But it is in McCabe's sermons on prayer, two of which are found in God, Christ, and Us that most put me in mind of what Bollas says in the first chapter of The Evocative Object World, and, come to think of it, what Adam Phillips has also said, as I noted here in discussing his ideas about distractions and frustrations; see also his book Side EffectsThe link between the two of them seems to be an unapologetic advocacy of free association, leading to my question: are prayer and psychoanalysis the only activities today where one's mind can range freely without being hectored and controlled by ideologues and capitalists (the two often being the same thing)? Are the pew and the couch the only places left to us today as places that do not demand anything of us but give us silence, space, freedom?

Bollas thinks that today's "attacks on psychoanalysis are thinly disguised attacks on unconscious life itself" because "there is a widespread contempt for unconcious life in modern culture." He doesn't say why this is, but it's not hard to figure out: both analysis and prayer, as activities in which our mind ranges freely in search of some outlet for our deepest desires and hurts, are precisely the vague, free-flowing, unproductive, dreamy, gimmick-free kinds of activity that cannot be monetized or commodified or turned into an app promoting "mindfulness" or some other bit of money-making chicanery.

Bollas's first chapter treats free association, noting that it's a mutual process of analyst-analysand freely associating together, creating the analysis together. As he nicely put it, this is an experience in which one can rightly and proudly say "You don't know what you're talking about!" But still you talk, and listen, and associate, and eventually certain things become clear. Other things may not become clear, but this is not necessarily a failure, for the value of analysis is not just the "what" or the content: it is also the process--as Bollas has said elsewhere, echoing D.W. Winnicott--of being held and contained, of developing a deep connection to another human being that in itself is worthwhile, not least in its transferential (and thereafter transformational) power. Furthermore, an analysis is worthwhile not just for the clarity of content that sometimes comes about, but also for the "psychoanalytic mind" it creates, as Fred Busch has so winsomely described.

The beauty of this, as I have long appreciated it, is that "psychoanalysis does not provide ready answers to patients symptoms or lives," as Bollas admits. This, he recognizes, is "disconcerting" for those who think that clinicians are supposed to be experts. In fact, Bollas--and here his thought closely tracks that of Phillips, as I have repeatedly shown on here--says that the free associating of the unconscious of both analyst and analysand "subverts the analyst's natural authoritarian tendencies as well as the patient's wish to be dominated."

In this regard, Bollas puts me in mind of how Maggie Ross describes the mistaken notions behind modern concepts and practices of "spiritual direction," much of which consists of attempts at "mind control" as she puts it, and the result of which is to reinforce one's narcissism. Silence, for Ross, whose book shows considerable familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas, is the goal, and is hugely valuable in itself--a point that also becomes abundantly clear in reading the psychoanalytic literature about silent patients who nonetheless get better--start with another fascinating English Anglican, the analyst Nina Coltart, for examples of this; see her Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

McCabe doesn't come right out and advocate freely associating during prayer, but he very much leans in that direction. This is something I'll have to think about some more, but it does seem to me a helpful way to conceive of prayer and the problems of being distracted during or bored by prayer, or restlessly wondering about the futility of it all.

Rather than fighting that, McCabe advocates letting your mind wander until you find what you really want to pray about, and then praying about it. Here, again without using the words per se, McCabe seems to me to establish the "fundamental rule" (cf. Freud's "On Beginning the Treatment") of prayer outside the shackles of whatever spiritual superegos may be trying to tell us otherwise. If we let ourselves pray for what we are really concerned about, McCabe says, those prayers not only will almost always be, but in fact should be "the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want," instead of all the pious and high-minded things we think we should pray about.

If we're distracted during prayer, it's because we're not praying for the right things (he notes those on sinking ships never report distractions during their prayers!), and constraining ourselves to pray for the things our superego tells us to--the "proper and respectable and 'religious'" things. Instead of that, as he drolly puts it, "you could let world peace rest for a while."And while you're at it, let your mind run to those distractions because they "are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer." (Lest we worry that this is an excuse for descending into infantile selfishness, McCabe says that if we are honest in prayer about our desires, the Holy Spirit will invariably lead us deeper, for prayer involves change and growing up.) If psychoanalysis involves, as Bollas argued in his first major book The Shadow of the Object, a certain "ordinary regression to dependence" for a time, does this not also describe how we are in prayer with our Father in heaven as we pray for the things closest to us that matter most to us?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Competition and Collaboration between Psychoanalysis and "Religion"

The stereotype of psychoanalysis as hostile to something called religion goes back at least 90 years to the publication of Freud's Future of an Illusion. But that book was met with an almost instant rejoinder by the Swiss Reformed pastor Oskar Pfister (whose correspondence with Freud I discussed here), which Freud himself made a point of publishing in the journal he founded, Imago. In that book, Freud made it very clear he was not dealing with theology as such, nor with what he called the truth-claims of "religion," which he never defined adequately. It was a book that Freud himself almost instantly came to regret writing, calling it his "worst book," the book of an "old man" and not of the Freud of the early period who, as Adam Phillips has shown, wrote much more vital and unsettling works.

Moreover, at the end of his life, in writing his Autobiographical Study (while also working on Moses and Monotheism) he further distanced himself by saying that "in The Future of an Illusion I expressed an essentially negative valuation of religion. Later, I found a formula which did better justice to it...granting that its power lies in the truth which it contains."

Since then, it has nonetheless remained true that most psychoanalysts have not been theists; and most have not been inclined to regard religious faith as anything other than a neurotic holdover from childhood, best dispensed with in those serious about adult freedom.

But that concern about freedom, especially from illusion and neurotic images, that so animated Freud admits of wider application, admits, even, of making alliances with theology towards the same end. As Erich Fromm was among the first to recognize, not least in his 1950 Terry Lectures at Yale--later published as Psychoanalysis and Religion--Freud and Jesus (Jews both!) are in agreement that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Other analysts were not so hostile, and a few were in fact strongly sympathetic in a variety of ways--Fromm is the clearest example here, but one must also count Winnicott, Erikson, Jung certainly (but not unproblematically), and more recent figures in Britain, including Phillips, Nina Coltart, and, as I hope to show sometime, Christopher Bollas.

More recently still, there has been a series of attempts to build bridges between psychoanalysis and "religion," usually broadly and vaguely defined. One such attempt is to be found in the collection I've just finishe dreading, Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century: Competitors or Collaborators?, edited by David M. Black and published by Routledge in 2006.

Like all collections, this one is uneven. It's fourteen contributors are mostly clinicians and mostly in Britain; one is a retired cleric of the Church of England and another has some theological background. Several have written interesting chapters, but all are pitched very widely.

One does not find, therefore, a good deal of substantial or detailed theology as such in a proper sense. Several contributors are manifestly uneasy with such a theological engagement, preferring instead to speak of "spirituality."

There is, however, in Michael Parsons chapter, "Ways of Transformation," some well-informed discussions of Western and Eastern theological sources, including Kallistos Ware and Nicholas Cabasilas. All these are marshaled towards arguing that "helping someone towards a more abundant kind of aliveness is...what a psychoanalyst is there for." Both good theology and good analytic therapy help, Parsons concludes, to free people from past ways they have thought about themselves which imprison them.

Rodney Bomford's chapter, "A Simple Question?" also makes reference to the "apophatic tradition," noting the importance of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysius the Ps-Areopagite. But he does not really engage the tradition beyond saying that the mystical tradition as a whole often understands the spiritual world in the same five terms that Freud used to describe the unconscious.

There is, then, a good deal of work waiting to be done on a properly theological encounter between analytic thought and the apophatic theology of the East.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Tapestry of Our Life

The retired Orthodox Bishop Seraphim Sigrist was the first author I interviewed on here not long after this blog started nearly eight years ago now. Then we were discussing his book A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East.
Now he has sent me a copy of his newest book, Tapestry (Lumin, 2017), 148pp.

The publisher gives us a very short blurb:

In Tapestry, one receives the impression of a world shimmering and glimmering, giving glimpses of the true and the beautiful, no dogma, nothing hard and fast, all in movement and knowing unknowingness.

I've sent the author some questions for an interview. When I have his responses, I'll post them.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Schmemann and Ricoeur

I'm delighted to see a paperback version of Brian Butcher's book appearing in February: Liturgical Theology after Schmemann: An Orthodox Reading of Paul Ricoeur (Fordham University Press, 2018), 360pp. Brian and I started in the doctoral program together at the Sheptytsky Institute when it was then (2002) based at Saint Paul University in Ottawa (prior to its move to the University of Toronto last summer).

About this book, which was Brian's doctoral dissertation, the publisher tells us the following:
While only rarely reflecting explicitly on liturgy, French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) gave sustained attention to several themes pertinent to the interpretation of worship, including metaphor, narrative, subjectivity, and memory. Inspired by his well-known aphorism, “The symbol gives rise to thought,” Liturgical Theology after Schmemann offers an original exploration of the symbolic world of the Byzantine Rite, culminating in a Ricoeurian analysis of its Theophany “Great Blessing of Water.” 
The book examines two fundamental questions: 1) what are the implications of the philosopher’s oeuvre for liturgical theology at large? and (2) how does the adoption of a Ricoeurian hermeneutic shape the study of a particular rite? Taking the seminal legacy of Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) as its point of departure, Butcher contributes to the renewal of contemporary Eastern Christian thought and ritual practice by engaging a spectrum of current theological and philosophical conversations.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Possibility of an Ascetical Politics in Spite of Death (III)

Continuing on with McGowan's extremely interesting book Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysishe advances some insights into how the consuming impulses are exploited by capitalism through very subtle but powerful unconscious influences, including a play on nostalgia for a past we are only dimly aware of at best. Products are marketed to us but this, McGowan says, is based ultimately on a false promise: “Objects of desire are desirable only insofar as they attempt to represent the impossible lost object” (30).

Rather than try to work around this, McGowan says the genius of psychoanalysis is that it redirects our attention to the very thing we think we are missing (as Adam Phillips also does, as I noted in earlier parts of this essay), and says this thing is in fact what we should focus on: "psychoanalysis frees the subject to find satisfaction through the subject’s symptomatic disruption rather than continuing to view the disruption as the obstacle to the ultimate satisfaction that the subject is constantly missing” (57). Put more simply, in some cases rather than lamenting one's "symptoms" or what appears to be lacking in one's life, realize instead that the apparently lost object is a lie offering false hope that will never really satisfy even if one could attain it. Desire is always holding itself out as something we want, but always just outside our range, perpetually frustrating us. Desire doesn’t want satisfaction but continued desire. Capitalism depends on this. 

Our failure to come to this realization is due in part to the "cross-contamination," as it were, of desire on the part of what Freud controversially called the death drive: “The neurotic mistakes the experience of the death drive for the experience of desire" (59). The task of psychoanalysis is to help the analysand see this and move past it.

On a broader cultural level, though, the great insight offered by psychoanalysis is to frustrate capitalism by shifting focus away from the often mindless desire to accumulate the ever-new objects claiming to offer us, yet again, the hope of satisfaction that has hitherto eluded us. We do not find these objects; and in the few cases when we think we do, it turns out that satisfaction is not very satisfying and so we quickly get back into the consuming loop, thereby fueling capitalism, which needs limited dissatisfaction—just enough to propel people to think that the next object will in fact satisfy them. As McGowan says, “The fundamental project of capitalist ideology involves identifying accumulation with enjoyment.”

Unlike other theorists who have treated these issues, McGowan rightly criticizes the Marxism that is sometimes too facilely counter-posed to capitalism, arguing that Marxism itself has failed to challenge this identification of accumulation with enjoyment. In Marxism and communism, the focus shifts to the means of production, assuming that a free proletariat will produce endlessly because this is the way to endless enjoyment -as-accumulation.

What is the answer to this? Though McGowan does not use theological language about ascetic detachment, it seems very clearly to me that this is what he has in mind: “The point is not to take a vow of poverty and attempt to live without any commodities at all but to transform one’s relation to the commodity. The commodity does provide enjoyment, but only insofar as one doesn’t have it” (85). Once one has acquired the commodity, then, the enjoyment declines and ceases, in some cases almost at once; but the desire motivating its acquisition in the first place roars on, seeking new things to consume. What is the antidote to this? According to McGowan, “more enjoyment — that is, the recognition of our satisfaction — is only possible insofar as we abandon the imperative to accumulate.”

That seems a fine message to think on more deeply as we move into the detachment which is the Lenten desert in just a few short weeks.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Philo of Alexandria

One of the diverting pleasures of my life is getting new catalogues in the mail from publishers; I'm sufficiently old-fashioned enough to prefer these in print, having found several of the electronic versions highly irritating to navigate.

The newest catalogue to arrive is from Yale University Press and among its notices is that of a book just released this month: Maren Niehoff, Philo of Alexandria: an Intellectual Biography (Yale UP, 2018, 336pp.).

About this book the publisher tells us
Philo was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who left behind one of the richest bodies of work from antiquity, yet his personality and intellectual development have remained a riddle. Maren Niehoff presents the first biography of Philo, arguing that his trip to Rome in 38 CE was a turning point in his life. There he was exposed not only to new political circumstances but also to a new cultural and philosophical environment.
Following the pogrom in Alexandria, Philo became active as the head of the Jewish embassy to Emperor Gaius and as an intellectual in the capital of the empire, responding to the challenges of his time and creatively reconstructing his identity, though always maintaining pride in the Jewish tradition. Philo’s trajectory from Alexandria to Rome and his enthusiastic adoption of new modes of thought made him a key figure in the complex negotiation between East and West.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Possibility of an Ascetical Politics in Spite of Death (II)

As I noted before, this is a book of unexpected but tremendous insight, often in spite of its best efforts to rubbish Christianity, which it sees exclusively through the eyes of American evangelicals allied to the Republican party (with an occasional Catholic thrown into the mix), a perverse and ignorant group that is nonetheless held up to represent the whole of Christianity. The fact that there are, within the Christian East, ancient and venerable thinkers who would agree with a good deal of what McGowan proposes, beginning with the Desert Fathers and continuing through the Cappadocians at the very least, escapes the author. But we set that aside in light of the many valuable insights proffered here. Once again the patristic method of "despoiling the Egyptians" (see Exodus 3:22) becomes invaluable here.

As I noted before, McGowan's point of departure is Freud's theory of the death drive, a topic which has remained controversial and relatively neglected (apart from the Kleinians and later the Lacanians) within the analytic and later psychological communities, especially American ego psychologists who, as David Pavon-Cuellar's splendid new book, Marxism and Psychoanalysis (about which more another time), makes clear, are too often the lamentably helpful handmaids of capitalism in therapeutically intervening with people to restore them to the status of normal consumers and spenders. These ego psychologists thus reject the death drive, and I wonder if part of that rejection is not situational or geographic: they had not lived through fighting on American soil in 1914-18, and not sustained the losses Freud himself did, not merely of patients and friends but of his own daughter killed by the Spanish flu epidemic immediately afterwards. As a result, they were not surrounded by the mountains of graphic evidence of man's perverse propensity towards sadism and masochism in about equal measure.

The neglect and disdain of the death drive by ego psychologists in capitalist America (which Freud, having visited once, disdained, not least for its fetishizing of medical "credentials" to the exclusion of so-called lay analysts) should not surprise us. What does surprise me at least is that the death drive seems also to have generated very little theological commentary--at least what I can discover via a few quick surveys in, e.g., the ATLA database. This is surprising to me insofar as there is here, it seems, a considerable analogy to be made to the controversy generated by, and offense taken over, Christian ideas of original sin--a point to which McGowan comes, as we shall see below.

Once again a close reading of the original Freud is indispensable here, and once again such a reading suggests much greater depth and nuance than he is often credited with, and a much greater willingness to test theories out and to amend or discard them where indicated. And Freud did test his theories out, amending his earlier work on the pleasure principle when confronted with patients whose habits of repetition were in the service of self-destruction, including destruction of the very things designed to help them--like analytic therapy. Why would people do this? Were they really trying to kill themselves (a common but faulty misrepresentation of Freud based, I suspect, in part on his use of "biological" language--drives), or were they more likely after a lesser form of destruction?

The latter is the case, as Freud made clear, and as we realize from one (the other being Terry Eagleton) of the few significant contemporary figures to engage Freud on this point: Zizek's The Parallax View rightly notes that “The Freudian death drive has nothing whatsoever to do with the craving for self-annihilation, ... for the return to the inorganic absence of any life-tension; it is, on the contrary, the very opposite of dying – a name for the ... horrible fate of being caught in the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain."

What is most striking is how much of that guilt and pain is self-induced--how much of the destructiveness of our life comes from our own efforts. This was a problem that had puzzled Freud throughout much of his clinical practice, leading him to theorize beyond the pleasure principle he had articulated years earlier. Early, tentative theorizing led him to think that the search for pleasure, especially libidinal pleasure to satisfy the drives, was what motivated people, but over the years his work with patients kept showing him how often they worked to undermine their own lives and sought to destroy them, however unconsciously--a point later analysts have also noted, including Adam Phillips, and D.W. Winnicott, whose aphorism that health is much more difficult to deal with than disease springs immediately to mind here.

Moreover, the theory of the death drive was helpful in the later works of Freud as he began to grapple more seriously with the problems of aggressive violence, including repetitive cycles of sadism and masochism. In these later works, confronted by these phenomena, he had to revisit and revise earlier ideas about repetition and destruction (as seen, e.g., in the short, little-known 1916 essay"Those Wrecked by Success"  as well as other essays--"On Beginning the Treatment," "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love," and perhaps especially "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through"). After the Great War Freud was confronted with the seemingly strange actions of people who, claiming their life was not going well, actively but often unconsciously sought to undermine or thwart the very treatment designed to help them recover. Some of this came through pioneering work with patients traumatized by the war--what later psychiatry, as today, would call PTSD, with its frequent flashbacks and seemingly masochistic repetitions of horrors endured in conflict. Why would people keep returning to these horrors, whether in nightmares or even in waking life?

The theory of the death drive seemed to fill the same place for Freud, a self-described "godless Jew," as original sin does for Christian theology--a point McGowan partially acknowledges: “It is as if psychoanalysis accepts the Christian notion of original sin without the corresponding idea of a future recompense" (33).

But as I noted, there seems to be little contemporary theological engagement with Freud on this question--though contemporary philosophy has fared a little better with not just Zizek but also Jonathan Lear, especially his Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life.

And yet, as I hope to show in subsequent posts, the possibilities for a very rich theological engagement are here in abundance, ripe for the plucking.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Jesus' Granny and Friend Jimmy Go AWOL

There are many hilarious tales of the plight of relics in the early Church, revealing that even in regards to holy things human beings can be just as grasping and venal as we are with regard to more traditional objects of avaricious desire. Thus one hears of  relics stolen by monks in their mouths while pretending to kiss them; heads of saints or Baptizers forever disappearing and re-appearing; bits of bones being snatched away from one monastery to draw pilgrim traffic and money to another. In more anal-retentive hands, these might be occasions of outrage or scandal, but I find these tales at once funny and re-assuring.

Some of those tales are coming in for recent scholarly scrutiny in two books, beginning with Eirini Panou, The Cult of St Anne in Byzantium, which is set for release in May from Routledge (250pp.).

About this book the publisher tells us:
This is the first undertaking in Byzantine scholarship to focus on St Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary. St Anna is a completely underexposed figure in Byzantine studies, and the examination of the formation, establishment, and promotion of her veneration offers a fresh insights to the way saints were manipulated in Byzantium. By studying various aspects of Byzantine culture such as topography, visual evidence and material culture, social history, theology and a variety of texts such as homilies, hagiography and histories, this work highlights the importance of examining and using different types of material for the study of the cult of Byzantine saints from the sixth century through to the fifteenth. The scholarship presented here enriches our knowledge of otherwise unknown aspects of the Byzantine culture. The variety of topics discussed makes the book an essential tool for literature and art historians, students of social, liturgical and theological studies, of early Christian and Byzantine topography, of homiletics, relics, early Christian texts and Medieval Christianity.
A second book, also from Routledge, traces one of the best-known pilgrimages in Western Europe and the saint associated with it: Translating the Relics of St James: From Jerusalem to Compostela, edited by Antón M. Pazos (2016, 252pp.).

About this collection the publisher tells us:
Analysing the narration of the translation of the body of Saint James from Palestine to Santiago de Compostela and its impact on the historical and biblical construction of Jacobean pilgrimages, this book presents an interdisciplinary approach to the two cities at the centre of the legend: Jerusalem and Compostela. Using a range of political, anthropological, historical and sociological approaches, the contributors consider archaeological research into Palestine in the early centuries and explore the traditions, iconography, and literary and social impact of the translatio on the current reality of pilgrimages to Compostela.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Possibility of an Ascetical Politics in Spite of Death (I)

I stumbled across this book and wasn't expecting much. I have read a lot over the last two years in the areas of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Christianity, and the vast majority of those books have proven to be extremely limited.

But not so Todd McGowan's Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. This is a fascinating and rewarding book that is at once deeply challenging to contemporary politics and theology alike. It explicitly treats the former at length and in very interesting and reflective ways; it rarely engages the latter except via polemical denigration and sometimes near-caricature, but I shall not hold that against the author because what he does say is nonetheless, in ways he does not recognize, very amenable to parts of the theological project of Eastern Christianity in particular. (The other benefit to this book, I have found--at risk of saying too much--is to understanding my own life and the operation of certain habits of mind, to which McGowan's book delivers a sharp and welcome challenge.)

There are themes in this book which are very reminiscent of those treated by Adam Phillips, as I noted here, especially in his two books Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life  and perhaps even more in Unforbidden Pleasures: Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality. I discussed both here and here.

In particular, both Phillips (whom McGowan does not seem to cite, at least in Enjoying What We Don't Have) and McGowan are concerned about changing how we relate to the world of advanced capitalism with its constant promotion of acquisition and accumulation. Both, in some senses--without using this term, which they might well recoil from--promote what seems to me to be a clear form of ascetical detachment that someone like Evagrius would find most commendable.

McGowan's point of departure is a relatively late, and often very controversial, work of Freud: the death drive, which he advances in the most detailed form in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of 1920.

For Freud, the death drive is not just or even primarily connected to death itself. It is most often encountered in the ways in which people sabotage themselves not once but repeatedly and on-goingly. Why do we do this? As strange as it may sound--though it seems extremely obvious to me--the very enactment and repetition is an attempt to get at something valuable, or perceived as valuable but lacking: “Subjects engage in acts of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage because the loss enacted reproduces the subject’s lost object and enables the subject to enjoy this object” (13).

As McGowan goes on
The repetition involved with the death drive is not simply repetition of any particular experience. The repetition compulsion leads the subject to repeat specifically the experiences that have traumatized it and disturbed its stable functioning. The better things are going for the subject, the more likely that the death drive will derail the subject’s activity. According to the theory implied by the death drive, any movement toward the good — any progress — will tend to produce a reaction that will undermine it (14)
The genius of McGowan's book is to take the death drive not as something to be lamented, or healed, or overcome (he doesn't really think any of those are possible, and to the extent that some suggest they can be, they are probably capitalists hawking some gimmick like "mindfulness," or "gurus" propagating some nonsense), but harnessed: he argues that it is by "adopting the death drive as its guiding principle that emancipatory politics can pose a genuine alternative to the dominance of global capitalism rather than incidentally creating new avenues for its expansion and development” (21).

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