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

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Moscow Council

It often happens in the world of academic publishing that deadlines get changed. And so even though I drew attention to this book nearly a year ago, in anticipation of a Fall 2014 publication, it seems that it will finally be in print at the end of next month. And it is a hefty tome well worth waiting for, not least for all those interested in recent Christian, especially Russian Orthodox, history, as well as those with interests in ecclesiology.

Hyacinthe Destivelle, The Moscow Council (1917-1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, trans. Jerry Ryan and eds. Michael Plekon and Vitaly Permiakov (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 488.
About this book we are told:
By the early twentieth century, a genuine renaissance of religious thought and a desire for ecclesial reform were emerging in the Russian Orthodox Church. With the end of tsarist rule and widespread dissatisfaction with government control of all aspects of church life, conditions were ripe for the Moscow Council of 1917-1918 to come into being.  The council was a major event in the history of the Orthodox Church. After years of struggle for reform against political and ecclesiastical resistance, the bishops, clergy, monastics, and laity who formed the Moscow Council were able to listen to one other and make sweeping decisions intended to renew the Russian Orthodox Church. Council members sought change in every imaginable area—from seminaries and monasteries, to parishes and schools, to the place of women in church life and governance. Like Vatican II, the Moscow Council emphasized the mission of the church in and to the world.

Destivelle’s study not only discusses the council and its resolutions but also provides the historical, political, social, and cultural context that preceded the council. In the only comprehensive and probing account of the council, he discusses its procedures and achievements, augmented by substantial appendices of translated conciliar documents.  Tragically, due to the Revolution, the council's decisions could not be implemented to the extent its members hoped. Despite current trends in the Russian church away from the Moscow Council’s vision, the council’s accomplishments remain as models for renewal in the Eastern churches.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Out of Silence

I just received in the mail a new book whose author I know somewhat and whom I have arranged to interview in the coming days: Peter C. Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2015), 231pp. I'm excited to read this book and even more to hear from Peter, not least because I know nothing about music and have long admired people who not only understand music but can also play it, a skill I still hope to develop some day. (I take consolation from the fact that my late paternal grandmother had a cousin who, at the age of 80, decided one day she too wanted to learn how to play piano, and set about doing precisely that. She then spent most of the next decade or so of her life driving around southern Ontario to play music "for the old folks" in nursing homes!)

About this book the publisher tells us:
Listeners often speak of a certain mystery in the way that Arvo Pärt evokes spirituality through his music, but no one has taken a sustained, close look at how he achieves this. Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence examines the powerful interplay between Pärt s music and the composer s own deep roots in the Orthodox Christian faith a relationship that has born much creative fruit and won the hearts of countless listeners across the globe.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Liturgical Subjects

Among both students and scholars of early Christianity, especially in the East, Derek Kruger's name and work will be well known. Editor, e.g., of the 2006 book Byzantine Christianity, he has more recently written a book that focuses on the liturgical and spiritual worlds of the Eastern Empire: Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 328pp.

About this book we are told:
Liturgical Subjects examines the history of the self in the Byzantine Empire, challenging narratives of Christian subjectivity that focus only on classical antiquity and the Western Middle Ages. As Derek Krueger demonstrates, Orthodox Christian interior life was profoundly shaped by patterns of worship introduced and disseminated by Byzantine clergy. Hymns, prayers, and sermons transmitted complex emotional responses to biblical stories, particularly during Lent. Religious services and religious art taught congregants who they were in relation to God and each other.
Focusing on Christian practice in Constantinople from the sixth to eleventh centuries, Krueger charts the impact of the liturgical calendar, the eucharistic rite, hymns for vigils and festivals, and scenes from the life of Christ on the making of Christian selves. Exploring the verse of great Byzantine liturgical poets, including Romanos the Melodist, Andrew of Crete, Theodore the Stoudite, and Symeon the New Theologian, he demonstrates how their compositions offered templates for Christian self-regard and self-criticism, defining the Christian "I." Cantors, choirs, and congregations sang in the first person singular expressing guilt and repentence, while prayers and sermons defined the collective identity of the Christian community as sinners in need of salvation. By examining the way models of selfhood were formed, performed, and transmitted in the Byzantine Empire, Liturgical Subjects adds a vital dimension to the history of the self in Western culture.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Centenary of Armenian Tears (Updated)

I recently discussed the Armenian Genocide in my class on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam. And lo and behold the very next week Pope Francis acknowledged what every other sane and serious person on the planet knows, viz., that it was an organized, systematic slaughter of the Armenians both qua Armenians and also as Christians: thus a genocide. The Turkish government, of course, did not cover themselves in glory in their response to the pope, a response as risible as that given by the Turkish MP interviewed in this documentary (at 16:31), which I showed to my students:

As I have noted on here several times over the last two years, 2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, and now in April 2015 we are marking the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. (The New Yorker has a long and fascinating article on the genocide, which you may read here.)

Numerous books have recently been published--discussed below--and several more are set for release later this year, including Alan Whitehorn's The Armenian Genocide: A Century of Remembrance and Denial (Praeger, 2015), 325pp. About this book we are told by the publisher:
A century after the devastating mass killing of the Ottoman Armenians during the Armenian Genocide—considered one of the first genocides of the 20th century—this catastrophe continues to raise important and troubling issues, particularly given the Turkish state's ongoing denial. Indeed, much of the continuing instability and conflict in the Caucasus is rooted in the Armenian Genocide. Drawing upon diverse academic disciplines and written by a single author who is a leading expert on the subject, The Armenian Genocide: A Century of Remembrance and Denial explores the profound short- and long-term impacts of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The chapters document how this genocide created a scattered and traumatized Armenian Diaspora and imposed major stresses upon the tiny and vulnerable landlocked Armenian state. The book addresses difficult topics such as the challenge of the "double death" of the victims as a result of the ongoing Turkish state denial. This volume provides an analysis of the Armenian Genocide from several analytical perspectives, thereby giving readers a more comprehensive understanding of this enormously important subject.

About the Armenian genocide--accompanied by an equally devastating, though far less well known, simultaneous slaughter of Pontic Greeks and Assyrian Christians, and later Aegean Greek Christians also--we have seen a number of recent books, and later in 2015 will see several more. (For those desirous of some background at the conceptual and biographical level of "genocide" and the terms origins in the work of Raphael Lemkin, see here.) 

Thus, starting off in October last we saw published Geoffrey Robertson, An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians? (Biteback, 2014), 304pp. About this book we are told:

The most controversial question that is still being asked about the First World War - was there an Armenian genocide? - will come to a head on 24 April 2015, when Armenians worldwide will commemorate its centenary and Turkey will deny that it took place, claiming that the deaths of over half of the Armenian race were justified. This has become a vital international issue. Twenty national parliaments in democratic countries have voted to recognise the genocide, but Britain and the USA continue to equivocate for fear of alienating their NATO ally. Geoffrey Robertson QC condemns this hypocrisy, and in An Inconvenient Genocide he proves beyond reasonable doubt that the horrific events in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 constitute the crime against humanity that is today known as genocide. He explains how democracies can deal with genocide denial without infringing free speech, and makes a major contribution to understanding and preventing this worst of all crimes. His renowned powers of advocacy are on full display as he condemns all those - from Sri Lanka to the Sudan, from Old Anatolia to modern Syria and Iraq - who try to justify the mass murder of children and civilians in the name of military necessity or religious fervour.
In November was a hefty tome by Fatma Muge Gocek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (Oxford UP, 2014), 680pp. About this book we are told:
While much of the international community regards the forced deportation of Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, where approximately 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians perished, as genocide, the Turkish state still officially denies it.

In Denial of Violence, Fatma Müge Göçek seeks to decipher the roots of this disavowal. To capture the negotiation of meaning that leads to denial, Göçek undertook a qualitative analysis of 315 memoirs published in Turkey from 1789 to 2009 in addition to numerous secondary sources, journals, and newspapers. She argues that denial is a multi-layered, historical process with four distinct yet overlapping components: the structural elements of collective violence and situated modernity on one side, and the emotional elements of collective emotions and legitimating events on the other. In the Turkish case, denial emerged through four stages: (i) the initial imperial denial of the origins of the collective violence committed against the Armenians commenced in 1789 and continued until 1907; (ii) the Young Turk denial of the act of violence lasted for a decade from 1908 to 1918; (iii) early republican denial of the actors of violence took place from 1919 to 1973; and (iv) the late republican denial of the responsibility for the collective violence started in 1974 and continues today.

Denial of Violence develops a novel theoretical, historical and methodological framework to understanding what happened and why the denial of collective violence against Armenians still persists within Turkish state and society.

Then in December we saw published a work by Thomas de Waal, Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide (Oxford UP, 2014), 312pp. (This links to the Kindle version. The hardback is forthcoming in February.) About this book we are told:
The destruction of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16 was the greatest atrocity of World War I. Around one million Armenians were killed, and the survivors were scattered across the world. Although it is now a century old, the issue of what most of the world calls the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is still a live and divisive issue that mobilizes Armenians across the world, shapes the identity and politics of modern Turkey, and has consumed the attention of U.S. politicians for years.
In Great Catastrophe, the eminent scholar and reporter Thomas de Waal looks at the aftermath and politics of the Armenian Genocide and tells the story of recent efforts by courageous Armenians, Kurds, and Turks to come to terms with the disaster as Turkey enters a new post-Kemalist era. The story of what happened to the Armenians in 1915-16 is well-known. Here we are told the "history of the history" and the lesser-known story of what happened to Armenians, Kurds, and Turks in the century that followed. De Waal relates how different generations tackled the issue of the "Great Catastrophe" from the 1920s until the failure of the Protocols signed by independent Armenia and Turkey in 2010. Quarrels between diaspora Armenians supporting and opposing the Soviet Union broke into violence and culminated with the murder of an archbishop in 1933. The devising of the word "genocide," the growth of modern identity politics, and the 50th anniversary of the massacres re-energized a new generation of Armenians. In Turkey the issue was initially forgotten, only to return to the political agenda in the context of the Cold War and an outbreak of Armenian terrorism. More recently, Turkey has started to confront its taboos. In an astonishing revival of oral history, the descendants of tens of thousands of "Islamized Armenians," who have been in the shadows since 1915, have begun to reemerge and reclaim their identities.

Drawing on archival sources, reportage and moving personal stories, de Waal tells the full story of Armenian-Turkish relations since the Genocide in all its extraordinary twists and turns. He looks behind the propaganda to examine the realities of a terrible historical crime and the divisive "politics of genocide" it produced. The book throws light not only on our understanding of Armenian-Turkish relations but also of how mass atrocities and historical tragedies shape contemporary politics.

In late February a Kindle version of a hardcover set for January release will be out: Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy, Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis (Transaction Publishers, 2015), 363pp. About this book we are told:
Sacred Justice is a cross-genre book that uses narrative, memoir, unpublished letters, and other primary and secondary sources to tell the story of a group of Armenian men who organized Operation Nemesis, a covert operation created to assassinate the Turkish architects of the Armenian Genocide. The leaders of Operation Nemesis took it upon themselves to seek justice for their murdered families, friends, and compatriots.
This book includes a large collection of previously unpublished letters that show the strategies, personalities, plans, and dedication of Soghomon Tehlirian, who killed Talaat Pasha, a genocide leader; Shahan Natalie, the agent on the ground in Europe; Armen Garo, the center of Operation Nemesis; Aaron Sachaklian, the logistics and finance officer; and others involved with Nemesis.
The author tells a story that has been either hidden by the necessity of silence or ignored in spite of victims’ narratives. This is the story of those who attempted to seek justice for the victims and the effect this effort had on them and on their families. The book shows how the narratives of resistance and trauma can play out in the next generation and how resistance can promote resilience. Little has been written about Operation Nemesis. As we approach the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, it is time.

Timed for release at the end of March is Alan Whitehorn's The Armenian Genocide: The Essential Reference Guide (ABC-CLIO), 320pp. About this forthcoming work we are told:
The Armenian Genocide has often been considered a template for subsequent genocides and is one of the first genocides of the 20th century. As such, it holds crucial historical significance, and it is critically important that today's students understand this case study of inhumanity. This book provides a much-needed, long-overdue reference volume on the Armenian Genocide. It begins with seven introductory analytical essays that provide a broad overview of the Armenian Genocide and then presents individual entries, a historical timeline, and a selection of documents.
This essential reference work covers all aspects of the Armenian Genocide, including the causes, phases, and consequences. It explores political and historical perspectives as well as the cultural aspects. The carefully selected collection of perspective essays will inspire critical thinking and provide readers with insight into some of the most controversial and significant issues of the Armenian Genocide. Similarly, the primary source documents are prefaced by thoughtful introductions that will provide the necessary context to help students understand the significance of the material.
Also in March will be a book on the same topic but of a quite different genre. Instead of scholarly study, we have Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan: An Armenian Boy's Memoir of Survival written by Aram Haigaz and translated by Iris Haigaz Chekenian (Maiden Lane Press, 2015), 396pp.

About this memoir we are told:
Armenian Aram Haigaz was only 15 when he lost his father, brothers, many relatives and neighbors, all killed or dead of starvation when enemy soldiers surrounded their village. He and his mother were put into a forced march and deportation of Armenians into the Turkish desert, part of the systematic destruction of the largely Christian Armenian population in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire. His mother urged Aram to convert to Islam in order to survive, and on the fourth day of the march, a Turk agreed to take this young convert into his household. Aram spent four long years living as a slave, servant and shepherd among Kurdish tribes, slowly gaining his captors’ trust. He grew from a boy to a man in these years and his narrative offers readers a remarkable coming of age story as well as a valuable eyewitness to history. Haigaz was able to escape to the United States in 1921.
There are, I know, further books in the works so stay tuned on here for details of some of them.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Turns of Soviet Faith

The Russian Church and its relationship to the Putin regime continue to attract considerable attention in this time of on-going war against Ukraine and geopolitical machinations by Russia in Syria, and now Iran. A recent collection sheds light on the nature of Orthodoxy in Russia in the post-Soviet world: Alexander Agadjanian, Turns of Faith, Search for Meaning: Orthodox Christianity and Post-Soviet Experience (Peter Lang, 2014), 321pp.

About this book we are told:
The book examines deep shifts in the religious life of Russia and the post-Soviet world as a whole. The author uses combined methods of history, sociology and anthropology to grasp transformations in various aspects of the religious field, such as changes in ritual practices, the emergence of a hierarchical pluralism of religions, and a new prominence of religion in national identity discourse. He deals with the Russian Church’s new internal diversity in reinventing its ancient tradition and Eastern Orthodoxy’s dense and tense negotiation with the State, secular society and Western liberal globalism. The volume contains academic papers, some of them co-authored with other scholars, published by the author elsewhere within the last fifteen years.

Contents: Russian Orthodox Church – Eastern Christianity – National identity – Religious practices – Religion and human rights – Church-State relations – Post-Soviet religiosity – Globalization, religious pluralism – Traditional and liberal values. Further details may be had here

Monday, April 13, 2015

There Are Many Mansions in the House of my Father, the Tsar

In my survey class on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam, I make a point of looking at Russia in some depth--though usually only from 1917 onward--because the encounters between Orthodox Christians and Muslims throughout the former USSR and in the current Russian Federation are of course very different from the encounters in such places as Armenia, Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. Now we have a new book to look at the pre-Soviet imperial period and the fate of non-Orthodox within the tsarist empire: Paul Werth, The Tsar's Foreign Faiths: Toleration and the Fate of Religious Freedom in Imperial Russia (Oxford UP, 2014), 304pp.

About this book we are told:
The Russian Empire presented itself to its subjects and the world as an Orthodox state, a patron and defender of Eastern Christianity. Yet the tsarist regime also lauded itself for granting religious freedoms to its many heterodox subjects, making 'religious toleration' a core attribute of the state's identity. The Tsar's Foreign Faiths shows that the resulting tensions between the autocracy's commitments to Orthodoxy and its claims to toleration became a defining feature of the empire's religious order.
In this panoramic account, Paul W. Werth explores the scope and character of religious freedom for Russia's diverse non-Orthodox religions, from Lutheranism and Catholicism to Islam and Buddhism. Considering both rhetoric and practice, he examines discourses of religious toleration and the role of confessional institutions in the empire's governance. He reveals the paradoxical status of Russia's heterodox faiths as both established and 'foreign', and explains the dynamics that shaped the fate of newer conceptions of religious liberty after the mid-nineteenth century. If intellectual change and the shifting character of religious life in Russia gradually pushed the regime towards the acceptance of freedom of conscience, then statesmen's nationalist sentiments and their fears of 'politicized' religion impeded this development. Russia's religious order thus remained beset by contradiction on the eve of the Great War. Based on archival research in five countries and a vast scholarly literature, The Tsar's Foreign Faiths represents a major contribution to the history of empire and religion in Russia, and to the study of toleration and religious diversity in Europe.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Christians Reading and Criticizing the Quran

One of the interesting developments in the last three decades has been that of evangelicals "discovering" the Christian East. There are a number of books--of varying quality, accuracy, and therefore reliability--from evangelicals documenting these discoveries, including James R. Payton's Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition, which I reviewed elsewhere (largely favorably) several years ago.

Daniel Clendenin has also written several books along these lines, including Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective. Peter Gilquist, of course, was a part of one of the first large groups of evangelicals to move en masse into Orthodoxy, as he recounts in his Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith. Gilquist's book really needs to be read alongside the recent book of my friend, Oliver Herbel, as I noted in my review of it and interview with him: Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church.

Now a new book comes along, asking how "Bible-believing" Christians are to read and understand competing truth-claims in the Quran. And the author, quite sensibly, realizes that in a book being published in 2015, evangelical Christians should not be beginning from scratch when it comes to Quaranic exegesis and dealing with competing claims. Rather, there is a 1400-year history of Eastern Christians engaging Islam, and that history and those engagements remain hugely valuable today: J. Scott Bridger, Christian Exegesis of the Qur'an: A Critical Analysis of the Apologetic Use of the Qur'an in Select Medieval and Contemporary Arabic Texts (Pickwick, 2015), 200pp.

About this book we are told:
Can Christians read biblical meaning into quranic texts? Does this violate the intent of those passages? What about making positive reference to the Quran in the context of an evangelistic presentation or defense of biblical doctrines? Does this imply that Christians accept the Muslim scripture as inspired? What about Christians who reside in the world of Islam and write their theology in the language of the Quran-Arabic? Is it legitimate for them to use the Quran in their explanations of the Christian faith? This book explores these questions and offers a biblically, theologically, and historically informed response. For years evangelical Christians seeking answers to questions like these have turned to the history of Protestant Christian interaction with Muslim peoples. Few are aware of the cultural, intellectual, and theological achievements of Middle Eastern Christians who have resided in the world of Islam for fourteen centuries. Their works are a treasure-trove of riches for those investigating contemporary theological and missiological questions such as the apologetic use of the Quran.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Medieval Muslims and Christians in Anatolia

Two years ago now I reviewed an utterly fascinating book about Christians and Muslims in Anatolia. I am thus looking forward to another book on the topic to be released later this month: A.C.S. Peacock et al, eds., Islam and Christianity in Medieval Anatolia (Ashgate, 2015), 444pp.

About this book we are told:
Islam and Christianity in Medieval Anatolia offers a comparative approach to understanding the spread of Islam and Muslim culture in medieval Anatolia. It aims to reassess work in the field since the 1971 classic by Speros Vryonis, The Decline of Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization which treats the process of transformation from a Byzantinist perspective. Since then, research has offered insights into individual aspects of Christian-Muslim relations, but no overview has appeared. Moreover, very few scholars of Islamic studies have examined the problem, meaning evidence in Arabic, Persian and Turkish has been somewhat neglected at the expense of Christian sources, and too little attention has been given to material culture. The essays in this volume examine the interaction between Christianity and Islam in medieval Anatolia through three distinct angles, opening with a substantial introduction by the editors to explain both the research background and the historical problem, making the work accessible to scholars from other fields. The first group of essays examines the Christian experience of living under Muslim rule, comparing their experiences in several of the major Islamic states of Anatolia between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, especially the Seljuks and the Ottomans. The second set of essays examines encounters between Christianity and Islam in art and intellectual life. They highlight the ways in which some traditions were shared across confessional divides, suggesting the existence of a common artistic and hence cultural vocabulary. The final section focusses on the process of Islamisation, above all as seen from the Arabic, Persian and Turkish textual evidence with special attention to the role of Sufism.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Renaissance in Assyrian Studies

As I have noted on here several times, we are seeing a burgeoning interest today in the plight of all Eastern Christians in the Middle East, including in particular the Assyrians, about whom a new book has just been published: Sargon Donabed, Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the 20th Century (Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 384pp.

About this book we are told:
Who are the Assyrians and what role did they play in shaping modern Iraq? Were they simply bystanders, victims of collateral damage who played a passive role in the history of Iraq? Furthermore, how have they negotiated their position throughout various periods of Iraq's state-building processes? This book details a narrative of Iraq in the twentieth century and refashions the Assyrian experience as an integral part of Iraq's broader contemporary historiography. It is the first comprehensive account to contextualise a native experience alongside the emerging state. Using primary and secondary data, this book offers a nuanced exploration of the dynamics that have affected and determined the trajectory of the Assyrians' experience in twentieth century Iraq.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mother, Martyr, Saint: On the Death of Maria Skobtsova

The Orthodox writer Jim Forest reminded me on Facebook that today is the 70th anniversary of the death of Mother Maria Skobtsova. (An excellent collection of resources about her may be found on the In Communion website.) Killed in the Ravensbrück concentration camp as the war in Europe was almost over, she was canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2004.

I was thinking about her extraordinary and staggering life again last week as I was finishing up what I hope to be the final edits to one of my forthcoming books (more on that later), a collection of papers from the Huffington Ecumenical Institute's 2012 symposium on Orthodoxy and the local Church in North America. One of the contributors, Fr. Justin Mathews, a priest of the OCA and founder of FOCUS, was discussing how inspirational Mother Maria's life was for those who, like him, have been working with the poor on the streets of North America--just as she worked with the poor, with Russian refugees, and with Jews hiding from the Nazis, on the streets of Paris. A political radical who may have wanted to see Trotsky assassinated, she was divorced twice, and in these and many other ways was nobody's idea of a nun, still less a "saint." And yet, as we contemplate this week the sacrificial self-offering of One on behalf of many, we see clearly that she too offered her life as a holy oblation outside the city in witness to Christ and in defense of His people--and long before that had served those people with a radical hospitality that many of us still need to learn. 

Forest was the editor and compiler of a book of her writings: Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings (Orbis, 2002). 

He also put together a charming book about her life suitable for children: Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue.

Sergei Hacke's 1981 biography is still available: Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945.

And finally my friend Michael Plekon has a good chapter on her life in his collection, Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Canon Law and Episcopal Authority

I recently attended a colloquium with Judge Michael Talbot, chief justice of the Michigan Court of Appeals and also the chairman of the Review Board for the Archdiocese of Detroit. He gave utterly fascinating insights into how, as a civil lawyer in private practice and then a judge in Michigan for decades, he had to learn a radically different legal culture when he entered the world of canon law and began dealing with ecclesiastical organs and tribunals attempting to root out clerical sexual abuse. The differences he discussed were very considerable--sometimes a cause for wonder, sometimes a cause for despair. But fascinating nonetheless.

In our discussion, I raised with him some of the early canons about clerical abuses, and their complete intolerance for any of this activity (even consensual activity). He noted that unlike Anglo-American law, canon law does not have a healthy doctrine of stare decesis and thus legal precedent does not carry the same weight. As a result, earlier canons can safely be ignored. As I was reflecting on this, it occurred to me that this may well be because canon law is concerned above all with the salvation of souls, and thus there are substantial theological reasons behind this different legal culture.

But this is not to say that precedent is irrelevant, or past canons carry no weight. No Eastern Christian would say that. But what weight should they have? Which canons are still important today, and which can safely be left behind? A new book, set for release this summer, will help us grapple anew with old canons still of enormous relevance to Orthodox-Catholic relations and the vexed question of the papacy. Did the papacy ever function as an "appellate court" as it were in the early Church, hearing cases from patriarchates and dioceses unable to resolve them independently? That question has long needed more consideration, and in Christopher Stephens, Canon Law and Episcopal Authority: The Canons of Antioch and Serdica (Oxford, 2015) it should at long last get it. 

About this book we are told:
Christopher Stephens focuses on canon law as the starting point for a new interpretation of divisions between East and West in the Church after the death of Constantine the Great. He challenges the common assumption that bishops split between "Nicenes" and "non-Nicenes," "Arians" or "Eusebians." Instead, he argues that questions of doctrine took second place to disputes about the status of individual bishops and broader issues of the role of ecclesiastical councils, the nature of episcopal authority, and in particular the supremacy of the bishop of Rome.

Canon law allows the author to offer a fresh understanding of the purposes of councils in the East after 337, particularly the famed Dedication Council of 341 and the western meeting of the council of Serdica and the canon law written there, which elevated the bishop of Rome to an authority above all other bishops. Investigating the laws they wrote, the author describes the power struggles taking place in the years following 337 as bishops sought to elevate their status and grasp the opportunity for the absolute form of leadership Constantine had embodied.

Combining a close study of the laws and events of this period with broader reflections on the nature of power and authority in the Church and the increasingly important role of canon law, the book offers a fresh narrative of one of the most significant periods in the development of the Church as an institution and of the bishop as a leader.

Part One: The Canons of Antioch
1. The Canons of Antioch and the Dedication Council
2. The Canons of Antioch in Context
Part Two: Antioch and Serdica
3. The Dedication Council
4. Serdica, Rome, and the Response to Antioch
Part Three: Canon Law and Episcopal Authority
5. Law, Authority, and Power
6. Constantine, Control and Canon Law

Friday, March 27, 2015

Trinitarian Theology and Disability: an Interview with the Tataryns

At the end of February, I was at Baylor University at the Wilken Colloquium, devoted this year to the theme of eschatology. One of the speakers was the Reformed theologian J. Todd Billings, who gave a memorably moving presentation based on his new book, which is itself based on his life as a young man given a diagnosis of incurable cancer: Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015). In the discussion afterwards he noted that we still have not seen enough theological reflection on what it is like, and what it means, to live with a chronic condition, a major handicap, or a terminal diagnosis. I thought at the time of a recently published book, Discovering Trinity in Disability: A Theology for Embracing Difference (Orbis 2013), 144pp.

The book is co-authored by a Ukrainian Catholic priest-academic and his wife, also an academic, about their life with their three daughters. As such, they are immersed in the world of Eastern Christianity. Fr. Myroslaw, in fact, is author of other works, including How to Pray with Icons as well as an early and still-important study on the role and reception of Augustine of Hippo: Augustine and Russian Orthodoxy.

I asked Fr. Myroslaw and Pres. Maria for an interview, and here are their thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your backgrounds

Myroslaw is a Ukrainian Catholic priest and Doctor of Theology. He has served as pastor in Ontario and Saskatchewan (currently in Kitchener) and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Toronto, and, presently, Waterloo, where he has also been Dean and Acting President at St Jerome’s University.

He is married to Maria whose doctorate is in English, with a specialization in Literary Disability Studies. She has been the primary caregiver for their 3 daughters and an advocate for disability rights.

AD: What led to the writing of this book?
Although we had been entirely conscious of how our daily lives are permeated with the intersecting issues of disability, theology, culture, and justice, the real impetus for this collaborative project simply came from the publisher’s request. Without the outside proposal, daily life forever obstructed our desire to write together. Everything else seemed to take priority.

AD: Through much of this book, but especially in Maria's "Why We Wrote This Book," you've both put yourselves out there more than most "normal" academics would in writing, where we often treat issues in a dry, detached, clinical manner. The more personal side of our life has, in some ways, been bred out of us through graduate programs. Did you find it a struggle or a liberation (or both?) to be more directly personal about your own struggles and those of your family?

I, Maria, found it intensely difficult to include our personal life in this writing. In any academic work, I believe it is critical to disclose our ideological standpoint, or as much as possible to reflect on how our thinking is fueled by our personal experiences. My life with disability had compelled my work in disability studies, but for me, using family examples was uncomfortable and even invasive. However, we were instructed to write for an audience that was not strictly academic; our editors felt the personal was important. Unlike for me, Myroslaw, did find writing the personal experience somehow liberating. He included the excerpts from our life at the end of chapters and I, reluctantly, conceded.

AD: Also in that section, Maria, you note your entirely understandable frustration, which I share completely, with the usual shower of treacly pious cliches that rained down on you as a child when your father died. Has that changed at all in the intervening years--do you think Christians today are any better at resisting the usual tropes ("it's for the best" or "he's in a better place" or "don't be said--he's with Jesus in heaven!") that surround death in our culture today?

What an interesting question! Unfortunately, I think not. Understandably, because our mainstream culture still promulgates myths of control both in and of life (especially now promoting choice over when to die) death, grief, pain is strangely medicalized, sterilized, so that it is, as an event, removed from the normal. When faced with death, people, Christians or not, are simply not enculturated with responses beyond the reigning clichés. We want and need to feel helpful, comforting, and, in the moment, the tired tropes invariably revive.

AD: That section ends almost cryptically by declaring "We searched our faith tradition for signs of disability and, indeed, we found the Divine Trinity" (p.7). Tell us more what you meant by that.

Simply, we set out to find and analyze images of disability in the Bible and in theology. Foundational texts of disability studies in the humanities regularly indicted the Christian tradition for much of the oppression suffered by people with disabilities and indeed, voices of disabled people persistently spoke of exclusion and pain suffered in their churches. In popular understanding, the Judeo-Christian tradition viewed disability either as a mark of sin, divine disfavour, or testing: a Job-like trial to see if you’ll go to the devil! God has singled you out...

So we wanted to examine some of the classic biblical passages used to devalue people with physical and/or mental impairments to determine if popular conceptions concurred with text and exegesis. This is why “we searched our faith tradition for signs of disability.” Of course, this search could constitute a life’s work with volumes of material. We delved into an example or two from a theological period and then jumped over centuries into another one. Nevertheless, we had not expected what we found. I, for one, grew up knowing that the doctrine of the Trinity was a mystery impossible to fathom. The shamrock provided a visual, but honestly—that symbol linked too quickly to leprechauns and beer drinking!

Investigating images of disability in our theological tradition illuminated the understanding of God as Trinity. Through our Judaic history, our record of Christ’s life and the development of the church, tracing the response to human vulnerability and difference reveals the inevitability of a Trinitarian God. Tracing the Christian reflection of Christ’s response to difference, impairment, alienation, erases the mystery of Trinity; disability seen with Christ makes the Trinity make sense.  God is community: interdependent, inclusive, inviting, and embracing. God cannot be one: independent, solitary, autonomous (traits we North Americans value). God is love and love must go beyond self. It was a revelation, to look for disability and to find Trinity.

AD: Your introduction notes the work of Jean Vanier in bringing to the world's attention the plight of disabled people and how they are often appallingly treated. How influential was Vanier in your writing this book?

Vanier’s work did not directly inform ours. However, Jean Vanier, as a Christian, echoes Christ’s example of resisting mainstream norms to illuminate and value our shared and endlessly variable humanity.  Vanier’s life reinforces the Christian tradition we highlight in our work.

AD: Your introduction notes that Christian communities may be good at rallying after an initial crisis or tragedy, but fade away quickly as people assume governments and social-service agencies will take their role. What can Christian communities do today to be more involved in helping people in need over the long haul?
If we believe that community necessitates relationship amongst members, then the answer to this question is alarmingly simple: we maintain a relationship with the disabled individual, even if they have ceased to run bake sales or attend services. Every person’s circumstance will be specific. A church community may not be able to provide specialized medical care, if it should be needed, but a community may always ensure that its members feel wanted and relevant, no matter the state they may be in. A community can ensure that members are not isolated, forgotten, lonely. Medicalized treatments and services play an important role in our lives, but they do not supplant the vital need for genuine caring relationship that a church community can and must provide if we aim to follow Christ. When a community cares for its members, no one person can feel burdened by giving or receiving care. Shared actions of love and care energize and motivate the Trinitarian dynamic represented in the icon that we describe in our book.

AD: You argue that "there is no one (definitive) definition of disability....Disability affects every person in society" (p.18) and yet I don't think we really realize this because, as you note, they are hidden away, or labeled as "special" or otherwise treated from a distance as "different" or "other." How can churches help avoid this ostracization, this distanciation, this "othering," and instead come to see everyone as fully part of God's commonwealth? 

How can churches help avoid this “othering”? How can churches mirror Christ’s love, generosity, and courage to oppose mainstream norms? This is the truly daunting challenge. To see the fullness of Christ in the incommensureable breadth of humanity entails a profound transformation of perspective that demands conscious determination and work. To live as Trinity, we must necessarily unlearn enculturated prejudice. To unlearn means that we must recognise the prejudice in us and our role in the oppression of those who are seen as different.  This acknowledgement is much easier said than done. Our view of disabled lives as less valuable than non-disabled lives seems self evident, far from a constructed societal policy that derived from a historical period of expansionist power politics. Church communities, it seems to me, thrive on opportunities  for growth and conversion to deeper spirituality. To unlearn disability as deviancy and to dispel our fear of difference can be propelled by church leadership, who can create the attitude and language of welcome and familiarity. It is contagious! It is possible and it is beautiful.

AD: You make a strong point (pp.94-95) about how labeling people as "special" is in some ways the equivalent of the old label of "leper." Tell us what you meant by that. 

There is power and privilege in belonging to a dominant “norm.” Cultural studies has demonstrated the unspoken privilege of whiteness, for example.  Why was whiteness not “coloured” and subject to study? Similarly, when civil rights movements developed into disability rights movements, the insulting language surrounding people with disabilities began to change into what appeared as more “positive” terms. But these were euphemisms for the same debilitating and dehumanizing attitudes that existed before and generally remain today. Retarded kids became special kids, but no one wants to be special any more than they want to be retarded! “Special”, in the 1990’s, became the accepted term for segregated, excluded, bullied, too costly. Even as parents, we’d be called “special” in a way we could tell meant, thank God YOU are the special ones and we are normal! One could feel good about distancing oneself from the disabled person, by praising them as special (and turning away). One wouldn’t feel as decent if one spat in the face of a disabled person and turned away. Hence, the special label helped the labellers, not the labelled.
AD: You refer several times to how Jesus debunks ideas of "normalcy." Tell us more about that. 

Jesus hung out with women, prostitutes, children, lepers, tax collectors, foreigners and pointed out the hypocrisy of spiritual leaders. Jesus was crucified for defying norms. Need I say more?
AD: You make various references throughout the book to Eastern Christians persons and practices--sacraments, Maximus the Confessor, Athanasius of Alexandria, etc. But in chapter 11 you talk in particular about the role of icons. Tell us how their portrayal of transfigured bodies is important to your arguments about embracing difference.  

Icons do not try to present human bodies in anyone’s ideal form. There is no “normal” body. Humanity, all creation, is transfigured through Christ and as Christians we see material reality, each other as divine vessels. Only through creation can we come to know God.  Physical variation in any form participates in the breadth and depth of divine revelation.

AD: One thing I've always been cheered by is that in the icons of the risen Jesus, His "disability" as it were is transfigured but not hidden or disappeared. In other words, His wounds are still visible, and I think that's tremendously important to illustrating how God works--not by covering up, hiding, pretending something didn't happen, or finding a clumsy "work-around" but instead working through His disabling wounds.

Yes. Our vulnerabilities/impairments bring us in touch with our physical reality, our humanness, and through our humanness we can come to know God.
AD: Sum up your hopes for this book, and who should read it.
We hope that believers and non-believers find value in the book. Believers who, by deepening their understanding of the Holy Trinity, become more radical in their willingness to see how we are all interdependent and so all, in our own unique manner, reflective of the Divine Life. Unbelievers who come to recognize that to be human is to be interdependent and that the idea of a human being as a solitary, unconnected entity is a myth that needs to be discarded. We hope that rather than seeing others as different, dangerous, or frightening we come to see each other as another face of the Divine Trinity.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dionysius, Thomas, and Albert Walk into a Bar...

Bearing an official release of today, this new book seems to be a good companion to read alongside Marcus Plested's splendid Orthodox Readings of Aquinas (I interviewed him here): Bernhard Blankenhorn, Mystery of Union with God: Dionysian Mysticism in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas (CUA Press, 2015), 544pp.

About this book we are told by the publisher:
Dionysius the Areopagite exercised immense influence on medieval theology. This study considers various ways in which his doctrine of union with God in darkness marked the early Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas. The Mystery of Union with God considers a broad range of themes in the early Albert's corpus and in Thomas that underlie their mystical theologies and may bear traces of Dionysian influence. These themes include the divine missions, anthropology, the virtues of faith and charity, primary and secondary causality, divine naming, and eschatology. The heart of this work offers detailed exegesis of key union passages in Albert's commentaries on Dionysius, Thomas's Commentary on the Divine Names, and the Summa Theologiae questions on Spirit's gifts of understanding and wisdom. The Mystery of Union with God offers the most extensive, systematic analysis to date of how Albert and Thomas interpreted and transformed the Dionysian Moses "who knows God by unknowing." It shows Albert's and Thomas's philosophical and theological motives to place limits on Dionysian apophatism and to reintegrate mediated knowledge into mystical knowing. The author surfaces many similarities in the two Dominicans' mystical doctrines and exegesis of Dionysius. This work prepares the way for a new consideration of Albert the Great as the father of Rhineland Mysticism. The original presentation of Aquinas's theology of the Spirit's seven gifts breaks new ground in theological scholarship. Finally, the entire book lays out a model for the study of mystical theology from a historical, philosophical and doctrinal perspective.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ephraim's Hymns of Faith

One of the loveliest aspects of the Great Fast in which we are all immersed currently is that it affords us the daily opportunity of reciting the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, that great father of Syriac Christianity, which Sebastian Brock has called the "third lung" of Christianity. Much in the Syriac tradition remains unknown and inaccessible, but gradually over the years we have been seeing a steady increase in good scholarly studies and translations, including this forthcoming volume set for release in mid-April: Ephraim the Syrian, The Hymns on Faith, trans. Jeffrey Wicks (Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 440pp.

Published in the highly respected "Fathers of the Church" series (book 130) of CUA Press, this book, the publisher tells us, will introduce us to:
Ephrem the Syrian, who was born in Nisibis (Nusaybin, Turkey) around 306 CE, and died in Edessa (Sanliurfa, Turkey) in 373. He was a prolific author, composing over four hundred hymns, several metrical homilies, and at least two scriptural commentaries. His extensive literary output warrants mention alongside other well-known fourth-century authors, such as Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea. Yet Ephrem wrote in neither Greek nor Latin, but in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. His voice opens to the reader a fourth-century Christian world perched on the margins between the Roman and Persian Empires.

Ephrem is known for a theology that relies heavily on symbol and for a keen awareness of Jewish exegetical traditions. Yet he is also our earliest source for the reception of Nicaea among Syriac-speaking Christians. It is in his eighty-seven Hymns on Faith - the longest extant piece of early Syriac literature - that he develops his arguments against subordinationist christologies most fully. These hymns, most likely delivered orally and compiled after the author's death, were composed in Nisibis and Edessa between the 350s ans 373. They reveal an author conversant with Christological debates further to the west, but responding in a uniquely Syriac idiom. As such, they form an essential source for reconstructing the development of pro-Nicene thought in the eastern Mediterranean.
Yet, the Hymns on Faith off er far more than a simple Syriacpro-Nicene catechetical literature. In these hymns Ephrem reflects upon the mystery of God and the limits of human knowledge. He demonstrates a sophisticated grasp of symbol and metaphor and their role in human understanding.

The Hymns on Faith are translated here for the first time in English on the basis of Edmund Beck's critical edition.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Syriac Christians Envisioning Islam

Michael Phillip Penn, whose other publication this year on Syrians encountering Islam was noted here, has another book coming out in June that I'm eagerly looking forward to reading: Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World (U Penn Press, 2015), 320pp.

About this book we are told:
The first Christians to encounter Islam were not Latin-speakers from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speakers from Constantinople but Mesopotamian Christians who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Under Muslim rule from the seventh century onward, Syriac Christians wrote the most extensive descriptions extant of early Islam. Seldom translated and often omitted from modern historical reconstructions, this vast body of texts reveals a complicated and evolving range of religious and cultural exchanges that took place from the seventh to the ninth century.
The first book-length analysis of these earliest encounters, Envisioning Islam highlights the ways these neglected texts challenge the modern scholarly narrative of early Muslim conquests, rulers, and religious practice. Examining Syriac sources including letters, theological tracts, scientific treatises, and histories, Michael Philip Penn reveals a culture of substantial interreligious interaction in which the categorical boundaries between Christianity and Islam were more ambiguous than distinct. The diversity of ancient Syriac images of Islam, he demonstrates, revolutionizes our understanding of the early Islamic world and challenges widespread cultural assumptions about the history of exclusively hostile Christian-Muslim relations.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In Honour of Thomas Hopko

The news has been circulating for more than a week that the Orthodox presbyter and theologian Thomas Hopko is in his last days. I met him briefly once in 2008 at the Sheptytsky Institute's "Study Days" that summer. It was there, I think, that I first heard his "55 Maxims of the Christian Life." It was there that I came to admire him as a plain-spoken, pull-no-punches type of man who clearly had no patience for obfuscation and nonsense. He was faithful to Orthodoxy and in doing so was unwilling to trim his sails because of political pressure to "make nice" to others. Those traits were on display in his book Speaking The Truth In Love: Education, Mission, And Witness In Contemporary Orthodoxy.

I have not always agreed with Hopko, as I note in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity. There I noted that on at least one occasion his spare style and restrained rhetoric seem to have been abandoned in favor of an absurdly inflationary list of things he wanted changed in the Roman Catholic Church. In his talk "Roman Presidency and Christian Unity in our Time," Hopko went on at length about dozens of issues that nobody else on the Orthodox side was writing or worrying about--nobody, that is, who was as intellectually serious as Hopko otherwise is. Moreover, as I argued, Hopko attributed--with enormous irony!--a massive power to the pope that (a) the pope has never had and today does not have; and (b) that the Orthodox would be the first to object to his having in the first place! I wrote off the paper as rather a fluke, and of the more than twenty Orthodox thinkers I reviewed in my book, demonstrated just how sui generis Hopko's list was. We all have bad days and bad ideas sometimes make it into print. This list did not affect my view that Hopko remains a serious and sober thinker.

But Hopko has produced other important books. Friends at Christmas several years ago gave Christ in the Old Testament: Prophecy Illustrated to my sons, and it is a charming and beautifully illustrated book thanks to the artistic talents of Niko Chocheli. 

Several years ago now when I was trying to write a book on the importance of a clearly defined theology of sexual differentiation--the real issue underlying the push for the ordination of women and the recognition of same-sex "marriage"--I found Hopko's edited collection Women and the Priesthood very prescient in his claim that
The question of women and the priesthood is but one important instance of what I perceive to be the most critical issue of our time: the issue of the meaning and purpose of the fact that human nature exists in two consubstantial forms: male and female. This is a new issue for Christians; it has not been treated properly in the past. But it cannot be avoided today.
Hopko went on to quote an even stronger formulation from (of all people) Luce Irigaray, who wrote that “Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age. … Sexual difference is probably the issue of our time which could be our ‘salvation’ if we thought it through." Such "thinking through" still awaits us, and I hope to finish an article on it perhaps late this summer.

Hopko, in a more focused treatment, returned to some of these issues in his short book Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections.

As he prepares to "shuffle off this mortal coil" and stand before the "awesome tribunal of Christ," we can pray that because of these books and the rest of his life's work, he will hear the "Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord" that we all long to hear on that day. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Render Unto the Sultan

As I have repeatedly noted on here, there is much we still need to learn, or in some cases re-learn, about the encounters, varied and various according to time and place, between Eastern Christians and Muslims. That is as true for two neighbors encountering one another across the Anatolian plateau as it is for leaders at the highest levels of Church and empire. We need, moreover, to deepen our understanding of Church-state relations in the East if only so that we can finally move beyond tired stereotypes of "caseropapism" and other slogans. A book set for release early next month should shed welcome light here: Tom Papademetriou, Render unto the Sultan: Power, Authority, and the Greek Orthodox Church in the Early Ottoman Centuries (Oxford UP, 2015), 288pp.

About this book we are told:
The received wisdom about the nature of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire is that Sultan Mehmed II reestablished the Patriarchate of Constantinople as both a political and a religious authority to govern the post-Byzantine Greek community. However, relations between the Church hierarchy and Turkish masters extend further back in history, and closer scrutiny of these relations reveals that the Church hierarchy in Anatolia had long experience dealing with Turkish emirs by focusing on economic arrangements. Decried as scandalous, these arrangements became the modus vivendi for bishops in the Turkish emirates.

Primarily concerned with the economic arrangements between the Ottoman state and the institution of the Greek Orthodox Church from the mid-fifteenth to the sixteenth century, Render Unto the Sultan argues that the Ottoman state considered the Greek Orthodox ecclesiastical hierarchy primarily as tax farmers (mültezim) for cash income derived from the church's widespread holdings. The Ottoman state granted individuals the right to take their positions as hierarchs in return for yearly payments to the state. Relying on members of the Greek economic elite (archons) to purchase the ecclesiastical tax farm (iltizam), hierarchical positions became subject to the same forces of competition that other Ottoman administrative offices faced. This led to colorful episodes and multiple challenges to ecclesiastical authority throughout Ottoman lands.

Tom Papademetriou demonstrates that minority communities and institutions in the Ottoman Empire, up to now, have been considered either from within the community, or from outside, from the Ottoman perspective. This new approach allows us to consider internal Greek Orthodox communal concerns, but from within the larger Ottoman social and economic context.

Render Unto the Sultan challenges the long established concept of the 'Millet System', the historical model in which the religious leader served both a civil as well as a religious authority. From the Ottoman state's perspective, the hierarchy was there to serve the religious and economic function rather than the political one.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Philosophy, Theology, and the Search for Unity: An Interview with John P. Manoussakis

I was of course greatly interested when a new book crossed my desk bearing the title of  For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West. I was even more interested in seeing that the author is already someone on whom I had commented previously, viz., John Panteleimon Manoussakis, an archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Church and a professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. As I noted earlier, Fr. John's previous essay was a wonderfully bracing blast of cool reason in the often overheated world of East-West dialogue. We have more of that in his short but elegantly written and winsomely argued book bearing a foreword from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. I sent him some questions for an interview, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

I was born in Athens, Greece and finished my primary education there, including a year of theological studies at the Rizareios seminary. In 1994 I received a scholarship to study theology at Hellenic College, the seminary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. I was then already a novice in a monastery. So I embarked on my studies and the next year I was tonsured monk and ordained to the diaconate. I completed my bachelor’s degree and continued my graduate studies at Boston College in classics (MA) and philosophy (MA, Ph.D.). My years at Boston College were of the happier sort—the kind of happiness that one intimates in Aristotle’s description of contemplation in the tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, for example. It was a life immersed in books and stimulating exchanges and discussions with professors and classmates.

I had the good luck to study under Richard Kearney whose profound knowledge of philosophy, literature, and the arts was only rivaled by his generosity and hospitality, both academically and in his personal life. Under less hospitable circumstances one could imagine a work like God after Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic being looked upon with suspicion as crossing the borders between “unadulterated” philosophy and theology. This was never the case at Boston College—on the contrary, I was encouraged to pursue my philosophical interests no matter how far from the philosophical canon they might take me. Such an encouragement was Richard Kearney’s own work (his The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion came out just as I was working as his assistant), Fr. Richardson’s seminars on Heidegger, and Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenological readings of the Church Fathers (Marion was visiting then as the Gadamer chair). The Jesuit community at Boston College provided me with an intellectual home (I recall our endless discussions with Fr. Gary Gurtler for example) that proved equal to the excellent reputation that the Jesuits have as educators, in-forming the whole person (cura personalis). After I completed my doctorate, I was ordained a priest and continued teaching at various positions until I came to Holy Cross.

AD: What led to the writing of this book, For the Unity of All?

As I relate in the Introduction, this book was for me an outstanding debt of sorts, dating back to the theological discussions that I had with my classmates at our junior seminary in Athens. At the time—and I am afraid it might be still the case—there was a deep-rooted fear of all things Latin in the ecclesiastical environment of Greece. It was not unusual to hear teenage students recounting with the seriousness and confidence of a prelate a list of "Latin errors." These were, of course, second-hand positions, received and repeated uncritically (as one might expect) and, more importantly, very useful in solidifying one’s own identity in opposition to the West. A number of my classmates and I began to question these polemical discourses. Some of them, by the way, have moved on to become talented clergyman as, for example, the Grand Archimandrite of the Patriarchal Church at the Ecumenical Patriarchate Fr. Bessarion (we used to joke that his name was given in honor of Cardinal Bessarion who distinguished himself at the Council of Ferrara-Florence).

This interest in ecumenical dialogue, especially with the Catholic Church, was sustained throughout my life and was fostered by a number of occasions and professional engagements. I think that living and working in America—that is, in a country that is, more or less, denominationally neutral—makes it easier to engage in the ecumenical dialogue among Christians and to appreciate the need for such a dialogue. I was thinking recently of the important role that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America played, and continues to play, in this rapprochement: the great Patriarch Athenagoras, who became the man with the courage to open his arms to the Pope at that historic embrace of 1964 in Jerusalem, had previously served as the Archbishop of America. Similarly, Archbishop Iakovos of America and Athenagoras of Thyatira were instrumental to those first meetings that broke the silence of centuries. The affiliation of all these men with the Orthodox Church in America is not accidental. From the vantage point of a religiously homogeneous country (often with a “national Church”), such as the historically Orthodox countries of Russia and the Balkans, it is difficult to recognize in the face of the fellow Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, a brother or sister in Christ, without mistaking it for the face of the enemy. So, I credited the last twenty years of studying and serving as clergyman in the United States as formative of the openness that became the presupposition of writing this book.

For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West is also a book outside the main line of my research and publications, which are focused on philosophy and, in particularly, phenomenology. Yet, the need to write it was irresistible and, therefore, worth the time that I took away from other projects. I felt that I could not move on with these other projects unless I had first “expectorated” as Kierkegaard would say what I had to say in this book. Writing it was for me an affair with a personal urgency.

AD: As you doubtless know, some people, including in the Church of Greece and atop the Holy Mountain, regard all dialogue with the West as a danger if not a ruse to distract and destroy Orthodoxy (the "pan-heresy of ecumenism"). So tell us how you see the "theological dialogue" mentioned in your subtitle.

I am well aware of the ecumenical phobias and the anti-ecumenism obsession infesting certain corners of the Orthodox world. One could say a lot about them, but very little to them. The dialogue they oppose so vehemently is not the dialogue with other Christian Churches and traditions but rather the dialogue with the Orthodox “ecumenists.” This is an important clarification, I think. The polemics of those “guardians of Orthodoxy” are not directed against western Christians (even if their language seems to suggest so): they are rather aiming at other Orthodox—it is, in short, a civil war going on within the Orthodox Church. Ironically, these very same people who denied any form of dialogue in the name of doctrinal purity are, in effect, cut off from the Orthodox Church, as their fear of becoming “contaminated” by the “pan-heresy of ecumenism” leads them often to extremes, such as refusing to commemorate their bishop or participate in the ecclesial life of their local church. They set up their own “communities”—usually “organized” around on-line sites that feed off and circulate an entirely uncritical delirium, usually coupled with propagation of conspiracy theories. They have therefore to do more with a virtual phenomenon than with a reality. This is expected: orthodoxy for them is not the truth incarnate in the person of Christ, a life lived concretely in Christ’s body, namely, within the Church and in the Eucharist; their “orthodoxy” is merely an ideological position that needs to be defended at all costs and with the same partisan zeal that, by default, remains willfully blind to both life and truth. For me there is no graver heresy than ideology (and every heresy was, historically, an ideology in its own right)—for it constitutes a denial of the incarnation. Every ideological discourse, even when carried in the name of Christianity, is fundamentally un-Christian and anti-Christian.

AD: In his preface, His All-Holiness notes that in the East-West dialogue "differences in methodological...approaches to primacy" still require attention. Tell us how you understand those methodological differences and what your book offers in this regard.

I believe that the Patriarch refers here to the recent attempts to articulate a position on primacy that would be consistent with the ecclesiology and theology of the Orthodox Church. It is important to notice that the Patriarch lists first the methodological and then the theological differences. In the chapter that discusses the issue of primacy in For the Unity of All, I try to show that the perceived theological difference on this topic between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches is rooted, in fact, in a methodological one: that is, that of inconsistency in failing to apply to the third level of the ecclesiological structure the same principles that we follow in determining primacy on the local and eparchial levels. The Orthodox Church has not adequately utilized her theological resources in thinking through the ministry of primacy. This task is being carried on at the moment, both within the Orthodox world and in the joint international commission of the theological dialogue with the Catholic Church. I have documented the progress and the shortcomings of this discussion in my book, so there is no need to repeat them here.

AD: Your chapter on the Theotokos ("Mary's Exception") is a wonderfully cogent, lucid, gracious treatment, clearing the way of difficulties and misunderstandings. But I noted you did not take up the Orthodox objection I have sometimes heard, viz., that there was no need for the West to dogmatize on the conception of the Theotokos as Pope Pius IX famously did in 1854. What are your thoughts on that?

That’s correct—as this objection does not pertain to the matter at hand but rather it questions the necessity of defining Mary’s immaculate status as well as the prerogative of the Pope to do so unilaterally. It is, in fact, more of an objection to the Pope’s role to define and promulgate the doctrine of the Church. However, in the chapter on “Mary’s Exception” I was more interested in the question itself: is Mary without sin? And how are we to understand such a statement in light of the homiletic and liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church? Perhaps the answer to this question would not have been necessary, had it not been often listed as one of the reasons that underline the separation between eastern and western Christianity. But since it has been cited as such in the past, I thought that it deserved to be re-examined under a new light.

AD: I was of course especially interested in your chapter on Petrine Primacy, and I genuinely appreciated your direct but courteous disagreement (fn. 26, p.31) with my proposal (in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity) for a permanent ecumenical synod, which I was modeling more on the "synodos endemousa" of Constantinople than the idea of a permanent ecumenical council which, following Zizioulas (with whom I agree) is indeed an event rather than an institution. Is there value for a permanent or standing synod around the one who exercises the Petrine primacy so that it does not become unilateral or unbalanced--that the papal "monarchism" of the past does not rear its head again?

That’s a good question. I think that the confusion here might be due to a certain equivocity. There are two different bodies that bear the designation of a synod: the synod of one particular Church, assembled around its primus or prōtos, and the ecumenical synod or council. The latter is indeed an event and not an institution and therefore it cannot be a permanent body. The former, however, is an institution and it is characterized by permanence. The difference is the following: the synod of a Church is comprised by hierarchs of that Church alone: a bishop who does not belong to that local Church cannot participate in it. While the ecumenical synod aspires to the maximum representation of all hierarchs of all local Churches (it is for this reason that no synod in the Orthodox Church has been designated as ecumenical after the separation from Rome). One needs to respect the difference of these two bodies, even though they both are synods of bishops. To create a hybrid third synod that would borrow the regularity of the local synod but also be comprised by hierarchs of other local churches, as in the case of an ecumenical council, is, in my view, problematic. Nevertheless, there is a point of cardinal importance implied in your suggestion which is the need to inscribe primacy within synodality (that is, the primus, even “the universal primus,” is always in reference to a synod) and, conversely, every synod (even the ecumenical synod) is headed by a primus. This principle, however, does not necessitate that the synod of the primus on the universal level be also a permanent synod: for whoever this primus is, he is also the primate who presides over the synod of his local church, and that is a permanent body of ecclesial governance. The risk of monarchism would be accentuated were we to grant to one primate the presiding role of two permanent synods at the same time, one of his local Church, the other of the universal Church.

AD: Having just given a lecture on eschatology and the Byzantine East, I was interested in your treatment of it, especially in a Palamite light and in your chapter on Will and Grace--as well as your earlier treatment of it in the Harvard Theological Review, which was a very illuminating article. In my lecture  at Baylor on eschatology I noted a number of historians of American Christianity (especially its Protestant expressions) who said that in the 19th century preachers talked eschatology easily and frequently in Sunday sermons but would rarely if ever have preached on sex whereas today the situation is reversed: nobody talks judgment and hell, but homiletical treatments of sex are not at all uncommon. What are your thoughts on all this?

I am not sure that this is a fair assessment, given the recent revival of eschatology in every theological tradition. Think of the works on eschatology published in the last few years by Pannenberg, Moltmann, Ratzinger, and Zizioulas (to list only some representative names). On the other hand, the fact that sexuality has become a question for theology might not be unrelated to renewed interests in eschatology. One of the most pertinent concerns in every treatment of eschatology is the fate of the human body: its desires and, by implication, the question of human sexuality. A couple of days ago I was invited to give a lecture on marriage in Helsinki. I found it impossible to develop a proper theology of marriage without reference to eschatology and the role that sex plays in our salvation and condemnation.

AD: What challenges do you see remaining in the East-West theological dialogue? Do you realistically anticipate a resolution of the question of primacy any time soon?

Recent events and the kind of language that I hear generated by various Orthodox Churches has made me quite pessimistic with regards to the immediate future of the theological dialogue. In particular with reference to the question of primacy the greatest challenge is the lack of such primacy at the pan-Orthodox level. Yet, it is rather a secular mentality that demands immediate results, results which somehow we can bring about by our own efforts. The gift of Church unity and the road that leads to it does not depend on us—except in the sense of praying and working for it, remaining vigilant and receptive to God’s grace. The unity of our Churches is His gift and His doing. To oppose it is to oppose Him. Certainly, such resistance to God’s call to unity—the unity of all—is possible but it cannot be victorious. I believe, with St. Augustine, that God’s grace is ultimately irresistible and that, no matter how hardened our hearts, one day we will partake from the same bread and the same chalice at the Lord’s altar.

AD: Having finished this book, what projects are you at work on now?

I will return to my philosophical work. I am finishing a book on the ethics of time called "The Scandal of the Good." It is conceived as a sequel of sorts to the theological aesthetics presented in my God After Metaphysics. Even though I keep promising myself to refrain from writing anything theological, I am afraid that I will be returning to these theological questions from time to time.
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