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


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reading Dreher with Schmemann and MacIntyre (and thus Marx)

After having written something in 2015 about Rod Dreher's project of marketing MacIntyre's concluding (and regretted) peroration to After VirtueI decided to not bother with the "Benedict option" any more pending the release of the book, which is now upon us.

In the meantime I had hoped the nascent book might deal with serious issues in a way that Dreher's journalistic jottings up to 2015 had not manifested--not least in its relentlessly tendentious treatment of one paragraph of MacIntyre while neglecting many more important essays and books of his, not the least of which is Secularization and Moral Change.

Dreher did not read Secularization and Moral Change, and we know this from the potted history he gives us as when, e.g., he insouciantly claims that "the loss of the Christian religion is why the West has been fragmenting for some time now, a process that is accelerating" (22).  MacIntyre--who is as much an intellectual historian as he is moral philosopher--writing in 1967, having laid out in this book (as well as other places--e.g., A Short History of Ethics) abundant historical evidence for his thesis, argued forcefully that “the view that moral and social change is consequent upon the decline of religion is false, and the view therefore that such change could be arrested or could have been arrested by halting the decline of religion is also false. I have argued instead that the causes of moral and social change have lain in the same urbanization and industrialization that produce secularization” (p. 58; my emphasis). While Dreher nods his head towards the Industrial Revolution, he never really takes MacIntyre seriously and investigates the role of urbanization and industrialization. Nor, worse, does he do the only sensible thing and pursue a critical analysis of the role of economics beyond the dominant neoliberal paradigm. We shall return to this problem presently.

Though I have every sympathy with Dreher's evidently sincere desire to see Christianity flourish everywhere possible, I regret to say that Dreher's book offers little that is new and fresh to assist with such a task. It is, rather, wreathed about with the stale air of apocalypticism on the cheap. In reading Dreher I was ineluctably drawn back to a passage from the great Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann's Journals: "In the Bible, there is space and air.  In Byzantium the air is always stuffy, always heavy, static, petrified."

In fact, several passages from Schmemann came back to mind in reading Dreher, whose book fixates on same-sex marriage and gender issues to an unhealthy and unhelpful degree. None seems more acute or appropriate than this one: In March 1976 during Lent, Schmemann wrote: "Students' confessions. Always sex. I am beginning to think that this sin is useful; otherwise they would consider themselves saintly and plunge into guruism." Dreher's entire project reeks of guruism.

It is, of course, the nature of gurus that they must convince you of their epistemological superiority, as it were: they know things that you cannot possibly know, or know as fully as the guru. And one of the things the guru knows is just how bad things are, and how badly you need his advice, his counsel and wisdom, his program and, especially, his merchandise to get you out of the deplorable state of affairs you are otherwise condemned to inhabit.

That is the most objectionable feature of Dreher's book: its profiteering on the back of despondency and determinism as manifested in several such claims as "the wave cannot be stopped, only ridden." Or when he counsels Christians to build an "ark" instead of fighting "unwinnable political battles" (12). Or when he flatly insists that "the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with" (18).

These claims are theologically objectionable insofar as he presumes to know that nothing can be changed, and thus there is no room for the virtue of hope.

These claims are objectionable also on historical grounds, for while Christianity has dwindled and even died off in parts of the world at different points of history (see the history of the Assyrian Church of the East for the clearest example of this), such a process is by no means inevitable or, as Dreher suggests, entirely out of our control. Such a process, moreover, forgets the surprising ways in which the Church can rebound precisely when, in worldly eyes, she seems to be at her weakest.

Those who are more literate in Catholic history than Dreher is can tell you that as recently as 1978 the Catholic Church was increasingly being written off by journalists like Dreher as having suffered mortal blows coming out of the 1960s (with the Sexual Revolution that Dreher tediously bores on about: "History's Most Revolutionary Revolution" [201]) and in the aftermath of the chaotic Second Vatican Council, which sapped the Church's energy and focus from within at precisely the moment she was also beset from without by seemingly inexorable political forces--communism, consumerism, etc. But along came the whirlwind from Poland to upend all expectations of decline, and to sow seeds of dramatic new birth, not least in Eastern Europe, but also elsewhere in the Church through new programs, communities, and movements. Many problems remain, to be sure, but it is undeniable that John Paul II gave new dynamism to the Church at a moment when some pundits were pessimistically predicting inexorable decline and doom, as Dreher is now doing with a grandly (if very superficially) ecumenical sweep that includes Protestants and Orthodox (whose own resurgence in the post-Soviet period, after far worse, and much more genuine, "persecution" than anything faced by Christians in America today, is ignored by Dreher).

At the turn of the 19th century, similar prognostications of decline and demise were made by many as the Church in the West was being clobbered in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and the rise of modern nation-states, including Italy, whose formation would deprive the Church of the Papal States which were thought--wrongly, as we now see, and as Pope Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903] himself quickly came to see--as being essential to the mission of the Church. But it was under Leo especially that the Church--and especially the papacy--found a new focus and dynamism and emerged into the twentieth century on an upward trajectory, aided in no small part by money gained as compensation from Italy for loss of the Papal States and as part of the Lateran Treaty process.

In the middle of the 16th century, in the heat of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the plight of the Church again looked dire to many, and even what ultimately proved to be the great reforming Council of Trent was, for some of the time, a very close-run thing that nearly fell apart. But ultimately Trent proved to be a success, and the Church was again on the move with new orders like the Jesuits and new dynamism that recovered much of what she had lost, and opened up new avenues, taking on new nations and continuing to grow globally.

Going back further still to the rise of the mendicant orders, the Church in the age of Dominic and Francis was, as is well known, thought by those giants, and many others, to be in a massive state of disrepair and dissolution, perhaps fatally so. But responding, so he believed, to the Lord's call to "repair my Church," the poverello of Assisi launched a reformation that is still going on more than 800 years after his death, as the Sisters who sponsor and run my own University of Saint Francis daily, cheerfully attest.

Knowing even just a little bit of this history must surely give one pause and reason to question Dreher's firm determination that Christianity in North America and Western Europe is finished, a judgment from which he seemingly permits no dissent. Examining Christian history all the way back to the beginning helps one to see that the Church has always been in a cycle of decline and rebirth, rising in some places at some times while sinking in others.

There are other serious problems with Dreher's recounting of history, not least his retailing of the discredited notion of "wars of religion" and his indifference--which nobody who takes MacIntyre seriously could ever justify--around the founding of the modern nation-state.

But arguably the most egregious flaw with Dreher's historical section (ch.2) is its attempt to describe the history of the Enlightenment without even mentioning, let alone having read, MacIntyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, a book MacIntyre himself said was necessitated by what After Virtue didn't accomplish, left out, or needed to be further developed or changed. The convenient neglect of such a crucial if dense book reveals once and for all that Dreher's read of MacIntyre is entirely selective and tendentious.

Dreher's lack of familiarity not just with Catholic and broader philosophical history, but also with Catholic life in this country (and others) in any serious detail is really telling--apart, that is, from his boutique examples in Italy, Oklahoma, Maryland, etc. For there are plenty of Catholics I know who have been doing the things he has packaged together, and been doing them without fanfare for decades. There are, moreover, many Catholics emerging today--especially among the much-feared and much-derided "millennials"--who have a deep grasp of the faith and a deeper desire to live it. I see them every semester in my classes, and they give me a modest degree of hope.

Dreher goes on and on about "moralistic therapeutic deism" (never taking seriously some of the criticism of that claim and its research, which I have myself heard from other Catholic sociologists), but the Catholics I see in my classes are, with each passing year, farther and farther removed from that. He also makes much of the previous pope's comments about the "dictatorship of relativism," but with all due respect to Ratzinger, and again following MacIntyre (see his essay "Plain Persons and Moral Philosophy: Rules, Virtues, and Goods," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 66 [1992]: 3-19), my classroom experience has made it clear to me that nobody is ever really a relativist. When I have taught ethics and moral theology to students, disabusing students of a lazy relativism is an easy job by asking them to tell me how they live their lives when faced with significant moral choices.

I have now taught for almost 20 years in three countries at a number of Catholic institutions at both the high-school and university level. With each passing year my students seem, quietly and imperfectly, but firmly and hopefully, to be growing in the strength and depth of their faith. I find, therefore, Dreher's narrative of unrelenting decline to be extremely selective in its evidence, and plainly to ignore plenty of evidence I have myself seen first-hand.

So are my examples correct, and Dreher's wrong? Do my anecdotes trump his? I would not for a moment claim that. In fact, for a moment, let us suppose, that Dreher is more right than wrong about our particular moment in North American and West-European Christian history. Let us suppose Christianity is largely on life support, and may soon die out almost entirely. What is to be done? The answer he proposes to this is of course the "Benedict option."

But what kind of solution is this? Here remedy and disease seem almost indistinguishable, and here a deeper appreciation of MacIntyre could, perhaps, have rescued Dreher's project at the moment of its conception. For Dreher's project seems ab initio to have fallen into the very pit MacIntyre predicted not in After Virtue but in a 1979 essay "Theology, Ethics, and the Ethics of Medicine and Health Care: Comments on Papers by Novak, Mouw, Roach, Cahill, and Hartt" in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 4 (4): 435-443. There MacIntyre recognized the dangers of "the peculiarly deep secularization of our pluralist culture," which
offers traps to the theologians into which they continually fall. A culture of systematic unbelief would provide a relatively unambiguous context for theological utterance, while a pluralist culture offers an atmosphere of tolerant absorption through which the theologian is diminished and patronized and in which the theologian too often responds either by an anxious accommodation to the culture or by an equally adaptive reaction against it.
Dreher is clearly in the latter category, offering a reactionary take on this moment in our history. Like too many reactionaries he is a member of the bourgeoisie, proof of which can be seen in the very notion of a Benedict option, which can be dismissed as both harmless and irrelevant precisely because it has failed to offer us--as MacIntyre continues later in the same essay--"a theological critique of secular morality and culture," including, of course, the economics of late capitalism.

The "Benedict option," then, seems to participate too much in the fatalistic neoliberal economics of the culture it claims to resist. Dreher's whole project seems an example of the "normal nihilism" Stanley Hauerwas, himself hugely influenced by MacIntyre of course (but here, instead, drawing on James Edwards) describes thus:
Laid out before one are whole lives that one can, if one has the necessary credit line, freely choose to inhabit: devout Christian; high-tech yuppie; Down East guide; great white hunter. This striking transformation of life into lifestyle, the way in which the tools, garments, and attitudes specific to particular times and places become commodities to be marketed to anonymous and rootless consumers.
The whole "Benedict option" smacks of just such a "transformation of life into lifestyle," and its uses and abuses of Benedict have turned that great saint into a commodity to be marketed to "anonymous and rootless [Christian] consumers," alas.

In this regard, all those commentators worried about the political implications and applications of Dreher's proposal have nothing to worry about: he is simply not radical enough, for his proposal--to borrow Pickstock's language about the dreamy reforms of Vatican II--manifests "an entirely more sinister conservatism" that fails "to challenge those structures of the modern secular world that are wholly inimical to liturgical purpose."

Far from challenging, let alone overthrowing, those structures, Dreher beats an unseemly and hasty retreat from them and says the idea of anybody challenging them is pointless. Worse, Dreher sneers that those who still want to challenge the structures of the modern secular world are deluded. Those who do not read the signs as he does are dismissed as "the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right" or as out of touch as "White Russians" after the Revolution (12). But assertions do not arguments make, and such derisive dismissals as these merely underscore Dreher's very flimsy and intellectually fragile plaidoyer for a particular program that will appeal to people most like Dreher--middle-class American Christians.

But gurus have no greater insight into the future than anyone else. Indeed, gurus are especially to be put rather severely to the question (to use a MacIntyrean formula) precisely insofar as they try to see and say how things are and how they are going to turn out. Let us invent a law here--call it Merited Commensurability: the more adamant someone is in saying that such and such is bound to happen, the more we ought to greet such claims with the strongest skepticism.

I rather wish Dreher had a deeper recognition of the contingencies of culture and unpredictability of human events. At one point he edges up to such a recognition, saying "History is a poem, not a syllogism" (23) but he has no sooner delivered himself of that single line then he races back to what the psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan has called a narrative of "chosen trauma" in which the West is in inexorable decline, and persecution of Christians is coming in fast and thick as far as the eye can see. (Dreher's treatment of Freud [pp. 42-43] turns the latter into the usual sort of grotesque one would expect from those who have never read primary sources. Dreher reads everything through Philip Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud.)

Dreher's overheated narrative of trauma and decline could have benefited from a hefty dose of modesty and restraint at the urge to predict the future. Here I rather wish he had some of the modesty as manifested, e.g., in Churchill's eloquent eulogy for Neville Chamberlain delivered in the mother of Parliaments in late 1940 after his predecessor's death:
At the lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values.
Dreher's "scale of values" inclines toward recommending such things ("options" indeed!) as deeper prayer and more frequent fasting, these being unobjectionable--indeed noble--in themselves.

But when they are packaged together with still further options enjoined upon others, and when especially they are read, as they only can be read, in light of his regular gastronomic ejaculations on his blog about oysters and mustards, or, now, the bourbon cocktail invented by a friend and called the "Benedict option," I could not help but think of another work of MacIntyre's that Dreher seems never to have read, viz., Marxism and ChristianityThere MacIntyre says of the Tractarians and the "ascetic disciplines" (weekly communion, intense local community life, regular fasting, auricular confession, and other devotions practiced in ritually resplendent churches) which they commended to everyone that these disciplines "were of a kind possible only to a leisured class."

Like most members of the leisure class, Dreher evidences little interest in the social environment flourishing on a wide scale, preferring only that it do so for the small communities he advocates, and, of course, for himself. Though Dreher commendably says at one point, "love the community but don't idolize it" (137), the rest of his book is precisely such near-idolatry. Here again one can only note that a deeper, more sophisticated engagement with MacIntyre would have saved Dreher from such fatuities.

In dozens of places, MacIntyre has offered repeated demonstrations of, and arguments against, what he calls the "communitarian mistake" which is premised upon "a further mistake...that there is anything good about local community as such" because those "communities are always open to corruption by narrowness, by complacency, by prejudice against outsiders and by a whole range of other deformities, including those that arise from a cult of local community" (Dependent Rational Animals142; my emphasis). To avoid such problems and deformities, local communities must engage in many things, including "a rejection of the economic goals of advanced capitalism" (Ibid., 145). Dreher seems totally uninterested in any such rejection.

It is more than a little amazing that Dreher seems to lack self-awareness of how such advanced capitalism makes his peripatetic blogging life possible, but makes many of his proposals impossible for too many other people, who must pick up and move far from family and community merely to survive economically. Here we must include his praise of "stability" (65-67), his advocacy that one must "live close to other members of your community" (129-34), his insistence that public schools be abandoned and people should home-school their kids (165-66), and his impertinent demand that "church can't just be the place you go on Sundays--it must become the center of your life" (131). Try recommending any one of these things, never mind all of them (and still others he recommends) to the people working three jobs just to pay rent and forced to relocate every few years when jobs disappear.

Incidentally, those Tractarians recommending such ascetic disciplines as Dreher does, and those practicing them, did not always have an easy time of it in the Church of England of the late 19th century. There was considerable opposition to many of these proposals, as John Shelton Reid's fascinating book Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism showed. In the end, the "ritualists" and Tractarians, when they did not decamp for Rome, were reduced to a Dreher style of pleading merely for the right to be left alone pursuing their "option" for what Cardinal Manning came caustically to call "private judgment in gorgeous raiment, wrought about with divers colours."

Newman, of course, came to loathe private judgment. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and then especially in his famous Biglietto speech, he denounced private judgment as just another species of liberalism. Newman, acutely aware of the contingencies of history, especially Christian history, and loathe to make the sorts of facile prognostications that Dreher does, ended that speech in Rome after being given a red hat by Leo XIII with this apt reminder:

Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. ... Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.

Dreher is not content to stand still and see the salvation of God. His busybody guruism seeking to safeguard "orthodox Christianity" is, as MacIntyre suggested decades ago, a typical reaction of the leisure class that often has the greatest tendency to fixate (as Kate Daloz has recently shown in fascinating detail) on simplicity, intentional community, and various forms of voluntary self-denial--whether in monasteries or pseudo-monastic communities. It is the leisure class especially among converts to Orthodoxy (in what Amy Slagle has aptly called the The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) who most often seem to fetishize monasteries, who have the time and money to obsess over "monasticism" and "tradition" in psychologically suspect ways, running after their "spiritual fathers" for permission to pee or clip their toenails on Fridays in Lent.

Dreher, of course, is not made of such stern fanaticism, and, curiously but revealingly, his gaze falls primarily upon Catholic and Protestant communities in preference to, e.g., Mt. Athos (which is to his credit given some of the hysterical nonsense that sometimes issues from the so-called holy mountain). Nevertheless, one must challenge this desire to play at being a monk or a quasi-monastic, and one must regard any and all calls for "new forms of community" with a great deal of skepticism until and unless they engage in--as MacIntyre says--“rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”

Absent such serious rational thought, and attendant safeguards, one can only be cautious and reluctant to pursue such a life, much as would-be monks rightly were before their tonsure. I am told by a liturgist of impeccable scholarship that some recensions of the Byzantine rite of monastic tonsure saw the hegumen or abbot toss the scissors away three times when presented with them by the would-be monk, who would then have to scramble across the floor to retrieve them repeatedly, each time being reminded of the seriousness of the state of life he was about to enter and the real risks he would run thereby.

Because of those risks, it is imperative, then, that one must repeatedly and ruthlessly interrogate any romanticism about monastic or community life in any form, for they are fraught with conflicts and problems, not the least of which is a tendency toward escapism and subtle forms of self-promotion--and not-so-subtle forms of control and manipulation or outright sexual abuse. Returning once again to Dreher's fellow Orthodox Alexander Schmemann (the relative neglect of serious engagement with Orthodox sources in this book must be read as a marketing strategy to appeal to the vastly more numerous Catholics and Protestants in this country), we see that Schmemann has already offered us severe warnings about these temptations in a bracing and acid passage from January 1981:

More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:
–get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);
–while working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;
–after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;
–always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov)....
–do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;
–read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly...;
–be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. 
Real monastics, whether Benedictine or otherwise, know that the course of wisdom is to be found not in talking "church talk" or promoting "options" but in listening and serving everyone without drawing attention to oneself. Real monastics who have done that include another of Dreher's fellow Orthodox nowhere in evidence in his book: Mother Maria Skobtsova, who made wartime Paris her "monastery" without walls, serving the suffering she encountered there, including the Jews service to whom and protection of whom cost Maria her life in the gas chamber of Ravensbrück. She would later be canonized by the Orthodox church not just for this sacrifice of her life but also for her monastic service in and for the city of Paris--not atop some mountain somewhere or in an inaccessible cloister.

What Skobtsova was living was something later described by another Franco-Russian Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, as "interiorized monasticism" which is lived anywhere and everywhere for the life of the world.

Precisely insofar as it is interiorized, such a monastic spirit it is silent, reflecting, as Thomas Merton once said succinctly, the entire wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, thus: "Shut up, and go to your cell!"

May we all do so.

Michael Plekon Recognized for Uncommon Prayer

Last July, I had great fun in being able to interview Michael Plekon about his new book Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. It is a marvelous book, and I warmly commend it to you. I am, in fact, hoping to adopt it for a class next year.

Rightly and justly, it has been nominated for an award, and is now listed as an INDIES finalist. Axios! 


Friday, March 24, 2017

Where is the Kindness We Seek? (I)

In his letter to the church in Galatia, St. Paul famously lists the fruits of the Holy Spirit, one of which is kindness. Kindness is treated in another book by Adam Philips, the English literary scholar and psychoanalyst whose other very valuable books I have discussed here and here as part of an ongoing if ad hoc series of reflections reconsidering the relationship between Christianity and psychoanalysis.

This latest book to be considered is co-authored with the historian Barbara Taylor. On Kindness is a short book centred around the question: if kindness if the thing we most wish to see in, and receive from, other people, why do we stint so much when it comes to practicing it ourselves? How can we hope for something in others when we are so unsure of offering it ourselves?

As I make my way through this book, I shall have more to say on it.

Continues. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Eastern Orthodoxy in the Academy Today (IV): The Sciences

Five years ago now, I interviewed Gayle Woloschak about her then-new book, co-edited with Daniel Buxhoeveden, Science and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

So it was no surprise to find her name appear again in the collection I have been discussing on here in several parts, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education,edited by Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides and Elizabeth H. Prodromou.

Gayle's chapter, "Perspectives from the Academy: Being Orthodox and a Scientist," begins by noting the frequency with which "science" and "faith" are portrayed as radically different, if not incommensurate, but says that in her experience such a position is only held by fanatics on the extreme edges of both ideological camps. She reveres equally the wisdom that comes from science and Orthodoxy.

Gayle, a professor of radiation oncology at Northwestern University, notes that in general scientists are not believers, and are subject to peer pressure in this area just as other groups put pressure on their members. Sometimes they make prejudicial decisions about matters of religious belief without bothering to consider them with the same critical-rational skills they would consider any other matter--without, that is, using the same skills they would regard as the sine qua non of scientific method and research. But then she notes the same can sometimes be true of Christians, especially when they are debating topics such as evolution.

She notes how much "unscientific" reasoning goes into science--the role of creativity, e.g., in making discoveries, or the number of times someone in a lab follows a "hunch" or "gut instinct" and makes a discovery in a way that was not transparent to conscious, considered, logical reasoning at the time. No scientist, then, is totally "scientific" in everything if by that we mean a sort of crude empiricism.

If there are places where science and faith come close to one another, it is often, she notes, in the context of medical schools, where the concern today is on treating the whole patient, and where, therefore, there is often an openness to spiritual realities, not least in situations where one is dying.

She concludes by noting the number of outstanding questions where science and Orthodoxy, and Christianity more generally, could have a lot to learn from each other, not least as technology and pharmacology increasingly foist difficult questions on us.

That is very much an overriding theme of this volume as a whole: the fact that Orthodox interactions inside the American academy today remain new and rare, and a whole host of questions await both as these interactions grow and continue in the years ahead.

Concluded. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Eastern Orthodoxy in the Academy Today (III): Becoming Partakers of the Divine Nature

In our last installment, we looked at two chapters in this important new collection, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education: Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections, edited by Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides and Elizabeth H. Prodromou. Let us consider some more of the contents of this thick tome.

Aristotle Papanikolaou's chapter begins by recounting the challenge he faced in starting to teach undergraduates theology at Fordham University, noting that for many such students today the "question...is not 'why God?' but 'why religion?'"

In such an environment, he suggests that Orthodoxy may have an advantage, or perhaps something of an edge, insofar as it can help students, and others, to appreciate the role not of "organized religion" but of personal freedom whose consummation is to be found in theosis, which he calls "the single greatest contribution that Orthodox scholars can offer to the academic world, no matter what the discipline" (263).

Theosis (divinization/deification) has come in for an enormous re-think in the last decade and more, with numerous books, collections, and articles published on the topic by a variety of authors from a variety of traditions and publishers. I draw your attention in particular to one of the richest such collections, Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification edited by Carl Olson (whom I interviewed here about this welcome book which I am using in a class this semester) and David Meconi.

Their collection draws on a wide array of Catholic sources, ancient and modern, East and West.

Other collections feature more intense focus on Greek patristic sources for theosis, as in Norman Russell's two valuable books, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition along with the relatively more accessible and shorter Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis.

Arguably the most important, and certainly most welcome, development of the last decade was the one that began to drive the nail in the coffin of the claim that theosis is purely some Eastern exotica, unconnected from, indeed opposed to, the rationalism of the West.

Such collections as Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions, published in 2008 and edited by Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung, have been very helpful here. So too has the two-volume collection Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology, published in 2006 and edited by Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharlamov.

Continues.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Did Early Martyrs Feel or Deny Their Pain?

The University of California Press, which has a number of series publishing works about early and Eastern Christian history, inter alia, has just sent me an intriguing new study by L.S. Cobb, Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts (UC Press, 2016), 264pp.

Amidst much chatter recently about the dim future of the Church in the West, and the various forms of "persecution" that are coming, this book raises an important question about how to respond to any form of "persecution," violent and otherwise, and where power ultimately lies.

The key question, in the words of the publisher's blurb, is this:
Does martyrdom hurt? The obvious answer to this question is “yes.” L. Stephanie Cobb, asserts, however, that early Christian martyr texts respond to this question with an emphatic “no!” Divine Deliverance examines the original martyr texts of the second through fifth centuries, concluding that these narratives in fact seek to demonstrate the Christian martyrs’ imperviousness to pain. For these martyrs, God was present with, and within, the martyrs, delivering them from pain. These martyrs’ claims not to feel pain define and redefine Christianity in the ancient world: whereas Christians did not deny the reality of their subjection to state violence, they argued that they were not ultimately vulnerable to its painful effects.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Smashing the Money Changers in the Church of Introverts or: Where is Christopher Lasch When You Need Him?

In high school, my friends and I got hold of a cheap, free personality inventory from some book or other which we all took with great interest, discovering how heavily some of us, myself included, tipped the scaled towards "introversion." It was amusing and interesting, and nothing more.

Since then, it seems we are bombarded more and more with articles and now books about introverts, including a recent one from a publisher I thought somewhat more serious than this: Introverts in the Church by A.S. McHugh, a revised and expanded version of which is apparently coming out in August of this year from Intervarsity Academic Press.

In seeing this listing in IVP's most recent catalogue, I was put in mind of this article which merely confirmed my cynicism that there is nothing that cannot be commodified by the economics of neoliberal capitalism. The author, having delivered herself of an apparently profitable book about introversion, has now set up a "nascent for-profit company, Quiet Revolution (stated mission: 'To unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all')."

That, as Bernard Wooley might say, is one of those irregular verbs:

I unlock the power of introverts
We make an obscene profit exploiting psychological theories of dubious weight
They engage in the "banality of pseudo-self-awareness."

This latter is the memorable phrase of one of the most interesting cultural critics and historians of the late 20th century, who died too early, but not before leaving us a number of important works: Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism. I slogged through that book as an undergraduate in psychology in Canada in the early 1990s. I didn't understand half of it, but what a thrilling book that demanded so much of the reader--psychoanalytic theory not uncritically applied, mixed in with heavy doses of Marxist socioeconomic criticism as well, none of it issuing in what one might expect. Lasch defied categories in many ways, not least the one that attempted to portray him as simply indulging in some cheap armchair analysis. He was far too deep and wide-ranging a thinker merely to sprinkle a few psychiatric labels about--but neither, unlike some Marxist critics, was he willing entirely to jettison what psychoanalysis and psychiatry might have to offer. 

Perhaps even more important and prescient than his landmark book on narcissism is a book published precisely two decades before last November's election, the ongoing relevance of which is indicated by the title alone: The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. That book was published posthumously in 1996, Lasch having died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 61.

I think, though, that his most penetrating critical analysis of modern American culture, with its endless eschatological foolishness, remains The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, originally published in 1991. In any and all of these books, Lasch remains, at least for me, the kind of thinker whose ideas regularly pull one back and have considerable staying power. 


In 2010, I was glad at last that Lasch was finally the subject of a serious scholarly biography, which I read with great interest: Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch by Eric Miller.

To be sure, these otherwise repellent profit-makers exploiting "introversion" for their own gain may have an important point to make, but once again Christianity got in first: the necessity of silence and contemplation, of withdrawing from the noisy mob, of untethering ourselves from all the ways we are distracted and fill our heads with endless, and usually very banal, thoughts, of refusing to go along uncritically with the boosterism and faux optimism of businesses and other organizations prone to group think.

In this regard, I await with interest the forthcoming publication next month of Robert Cardinal Sarah's The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (Ignatius, 2017), 248pp.

An earlier history of silence may also be found in Diarmaid MacCulloch's book.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Assyrian Church

When it first appeared in 2006 in a handsome hardbound version, I read this book with great interest. It was one of several that appeared in that decade as part of an ongoing reassessment of the Church formerly and incorrectly called "Nestorian," a church once so vast that it spread all across Asia along the so-called Silk Road.

Now we have an updated edition of Christoph Baumer, Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity (I.B. Tauris, 2016), 344pp.

About this book we are told:
The so-called 'Nestorian' Church (officially known as the Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East, with its See in Baghdad) was one of the most significant Christian communities to develop east of the Roman Empire. In its heyday the Church had 8 million adherents and stretched from the Mediterranean to China. Christoph Baumer is one of the very few Westerners to have visited many of the most important Assyrian sites and has written the only comprehensive history of the Church, which now fights for survival in its country of origin, Iraq, and is almost forgotten in the West. He narrates its rich and colorful trajectory, from its apostolic beginnings to the present day, and discusses the Church's theology, christology, and uniquely vigorous spirituality. He analyzes the Church's turbulent relationship with other Christian chuches and its dialogue with neighboring world religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism. Richly illustrated with maps and over 150 full-color photographs, the book will be essential reading for those interested in a fascinating, but neglected Christian community which has profoundly shaped the history of civilization in both East and West.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Vatican II and the Christian East

The indefatigable Matthew Levering, a good friend, prolific author, and great editor, e-mails all contributors last night to remind us that, the Kindle version of The Reception of Vatican II having been published in mid-February, this week marks the release of the paperback and hardback versions of that book, to which I contributed a chapter.

Edited by Levering and Matthew Lamb, and published by Oxford University Press, this wide-ranging collection treats each of the documents of the Second Vatican Council to scholarly scrutiny in light of the last half-century's developments within and without the Catholic Church. My own contribution comes in the chapter devoted to the decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches.

About this not-to-be-missed collection, the publisher tells us:
From 1962 to 1965, in perhaps the most important religious event of the twentieth century, the Second Vatican Council met to plot a course for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. After thousands of speeches, resolutions, and votes, the Council issued sixteen official documents on topics ranging from divine revelation to relations with non-Christians. But the meaning of the Second Vatican Council has been fiercely contested since before it was even over, and the years since its completion have seen a battle for the soul of the Church waged through the interpretation of Council documents. The Reception of Vatican II looks at the sixteen conciliar documents through the lens of those battles. Paying close attention to reforms and new developments, the essays in this volume show how the Council has been received and interpreted over the course of the more than fifty years since it concluded.
The contributors to this volume represent various schools of thought but are united by a commitment to restoring the view that Vatican II should be interpreted and implemented in line with Church Tradition. The central problem facing Catholic theology today, these essays argue, is a misreading of the Council that posits a sharp break with previous Church teaching. In order to combat this reductive way of interpreting the Council, these essays provide a thorough, instructive overview of the debates it inspired.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Politicization of Marian Devotion

I have for some time deplored the tendency of certain fundamentally unserious Catholics to treat Marian devotions and "doctrines" as magical playthings the doubling down on which, or the forced dogmatizing of which, will somehow "solve" the problems of Church and world alike. (In criticizing these jejune and insolent demands, one cedes nothing of one's own devotion to the Mother of God.) That is all great silliness of course, though it is sometimes the silliness of otherwise seemingly intelligent and apparently devoted people, whose impertinent demands for new dogmas are nothing other than a species of abuse of their fellow Christians (Catholics included!) in a manner reminiscent of what Newman felt at the time of Vatican I. In a famous letter to his bishop, which I read with my students this semester, Newman plaintively decries the advent of:
thunder in the clear sky, and we are told to prepare for something, we know not what, to try our faith, we know not how. No impending danger is to be averted, but a great difficulty is to be created. ... What have we done to be treated as the faithful never were treated before? When has the definition of doctrine de fide been a luxury of devotion, and not a stern painful necessity?
It is, then, with great interest that I learn of a new collection which analyzes modern Marian "apparitions" in light of the politics of their respective nation-states in the last two centuries: Marian Devotions, Political Mobilization, and Nationalism in Europe and America, eds. Roberto Di Stefano, Francisco Javier Ramón Solans (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 341pp.

About this book we are told:
This volume examines the changing role of Marian devotion in politics, public life, and popular culture in Western Europe and America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The book brings together, for the first time, studies on Marian devotions across the Atlantic, tracing their role as a rallying point to fight secularization, adversarial ideologies, and rival religions.
This transnational approach illuminates the deep transformations of devotional cultures across the world. Catholics adopted modern means and new types of religious expression to foster mass devotions that epitomized the Catholic essence of the “nation.” In many ways, the development of Marian devotions across the world is also a response to the questioning of Papal Sovereignty. These devotional transformations followed an Ultramontane pattern inspired not only by Rome but also by other successful models approved by the Vatican such as Lourdes. Collectively, they shed new light on the process of globalization and centralization of Catholicism.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Eastern Orthodoxy in the Academy Today (II).

In part I, we gave a brief overview of the contents of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education: Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections. I then focused on Michael Plekon's chapter.

Among the other contributors whom I count as friends, I turn next to Radu Bordeianu's chapter, "Ecumenism in the Classroom: an Orthodox Perspective on Teaching in a Catholic University." Bordeianu is a Romanian Orthodox scholar who has taught at Duquesne in Pittsburgh for many years now. He has invited me there to be part of the Holy Spirit Colloquium and Lecture; and we have often been at other conferences together across the country. I interviewed him a while back about his superlative book, Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology, which I thought, then and since, is the finest work in ecclesiology to appear so far in this century.


In his chapter in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher EducationBordeianu begins by explicitly turning again to Staniloae as a model and inspiration before turning to reflections in three areas: teaching, research, and service. In all three, Bordeianu contends, ecumenism is not an optional add-on, but an integral part of each. Given the realities not just of the modern academy, but of the world, at least in North America, where huge numbers of Orthodox are married to non-Orthodox, ecumenical sensitivity and ministry remain very important, no matter how many times fanatics fulminate against the very concept and word.

Academics, even when not explicitly teaching ecumenism, can model it, Bordeianu says, and in so doing make their own modest contribution to the search for Christian unity. To do anything other than that in the modern university would, I can readily attest, turn students off very quickly. Explicitly bashing other Christians in the classroom, especially in front of students who may be curious about but otherwise ignorant of or estranged from Christianity, is guaranteed to alienate them further and deepen their inclination to write off all Christians as crazy.

Continues.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Omnium Gatherum: On the Centenary of the Russian Revolution

This weekend one of my favourite academic conferences is being held at Miami University in Ohio: the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture (ASEC). I have been going since the fall of 2009, when it was at Ohio State in Columbus and a much smaller affair led by the inimitable Jenn Spock of Eastern Kentucky University. I have watched the conference grow since then.

Unlike other conferences, which are often overwhelming in size (as, e.g., the AAR certainly is), ASEC remains a place where you can have a real exchange of ideas in a substantial fashion, and not merely pontificate or grandstand, but actually learn from each other. Papers tend to be works-nearing-completion (rather than condensed versions of some magnum opus you've just published), and presenters therefore tend to be more open to suggestions from other scholars in the audience. I fully expect that to be the case again this year at Miami University.

Miami University is where Scott Kenworthy teaches. Scott is the author of a wonderful, fascinating work The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism, and Society after 1825. If you have any interest in Russian history, Russian Orthodoxy and monasticism, and what the 1917 revolution did to the Church there, then this richly referenced book is for you.

This year's conference, whose details you may find here, is packed with fascinating topics. We meet in the shadow of several significant anniversaries, chief of which is of course the centenary of the Russian Revolution (to say nothing of the advent in 1517 of certain Lutheran theses). Many of the papers focus on the revolution, including a keynote lecture from Vera Shevzov, author of, inter alia, Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of Revolution.

As you can see from the above-linked program, there are familiar and new names presenting this year. I look forward to hearing from all of them, and may try to live-blog some of the presentations.

Among the former are some whose works have been reviewed on here over the years, including Amy Slagle's groundbreaking work The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity.

Paul Valliere is a senior scholar who has been widely respected for his work on modern Russian theology as seen in his best-known work, Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key.

More recently, he has authored a suggestive book, Conciliarism: A History of Decision-Making in the Church. And more recently still, he has authored the preface to God as Love: The Concept and Spiritual Aspects of Agape in Modern Russian Religious Thought, written by Johannes M. Oravecz and published by Eerdmans.

Finally, I'm looking forward to seeing and getting caught up with Christopher Johnson, author of The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Eastern Orthodoxy in the Academy Today (I)

When, in 2004, I was invited to give a paper in Prince Edward Island at an international conference, "Faith, Freedom, and the Academy," I tried to address the topic from an Eastern Christian perspective. In doing so, I realized that little had been done at that point. Indeed, one of the rare essays I found, by Alexander Schmemann from the 1960s (shortly after the deplorable Land O' Lakes farrago), explicitly wondered aloud whether questions about faith and theology in the modern university were an exclusively Western problem, there being, then, no significant presence of Orthodox academics in Western institutions.

That has all changed, especially in the last two decades. Now there are dozens of Orthodox in several disciplines (most, but not all, in theology and history) teaching at institutions in Europe, Canada, and these United States. Some of them contribute to, and reflect on, that academic experience in a handsome (and rare hardback for this press) new book I just received this week in the mail: Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides and Elizabeth H. Prodromou, eds., Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education: Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 454pp.

About this collection we are told:
Over the last two decades, the American academy has engaged in a wide-ranging discourse on faith and learning, religion and higher education, and Christianity and the academy. Eastern Orthodox Christians, however, have rarely participated in these conversations. The contributors to this volume aim to reverse this trend by offering original insights from Orthodox Christian perspectives into the ongoing discussion about religion, higher education, and faith and learning in the United States.
The book is divided into two parts. Essays in the first part explore the historical experiences and theological traditions that inform (and sometimes explain) Orthodox approaches to the topic of religion and higher education—in ways that often set them apart from their Protestant and Roman Catholic counterparts. Those in the second part problematize and reflect on Orthodox thought and practice from diverse disciplinary contexts in contemporary higher education. The contributors to this volume offer provocative insights into philosophical questions about the relevance and application of Orthodox ideas in the religious and secular academy, as well as cross-disciplinary treatments of Orthodoxy as an identity marker, pedagogical framework, and teaching and research subject.
"Seldom have so many scholars representing such a wide range of disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities (even the hard sciences) been brought together to address the important issue of faith and learning through the prism of various aspects of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The fact that all but one of these contributors are themselves Orthodox Christian scholars provides ample proof that most likely representatives of Orthodox Christianity will be active participants in the ongoing debate addressing the crucial question of faith and the academy, or Athens and Jerusalem, to borrow Tertullian's much abused epigrammatic description of the phenomenon. Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education will be useful to the growing number of classes on Eastern Orthodox history and culture taught in American colleges and universities." —Theofanis G. Stavrou, University of Minnesota.
If you peruse the table of contents here, you will recognize some familiar names but also some new ones. I am happy to count several of the contributors as my friends, and naturally turned to their chapters first.

I began with Michael Plekon's chapter, "In the World, for the Life of the World: Personal Reflections on Being a Professor and Priest in a Public University." Fr. Michael, for those who don't know him, has taught at Baruch College in the City University of New York since 1977. (A recent piece about his life there may be found here.) In that time, he has published a long list of books and articles, and I have interviewed him on here several times about some of his recent books.

He begins on what I would call a quintessentially Plekonian note, by arguing that in addition to being a priest, he has spent his whole working life as an academic, and that the latter is not merely an adjunct to the former, a way of paying the bills so he can concentrate on "spiritual" matters: rather, as he says, the university is "my primary location for Christian vocation and ministry" (p.315).

That primary location is an enormous school (17,000 students and faculty) of the greatest diversity anywhere in the country. That diversity shows itself in the classroom with the type and range of questions asked and issues examined.

That diversity all but requires a gracious hospitality on the part of professors, as Plekon notes. I can attest, having been graced by his friendship for a decade now, that he is indeed an enormously hospitable person, and so is the parish, St Gregory's in Wappinger Falls, NY, to which he is attached. (I have often said that were I to find myself living in the lower Hudson Valley, the first thing I would do would be to join St. Gregory's, whose wonderful community has numerous times been wonderfully welcoming to me.)

How, Plekon asks in the latter part of his essay, are we to balance hospitality and ecumenical sensitivity in public settings while being faithful to Orthodoxy? This is a question he has elsewhere addressed, perhaps most importantly in a collection edited by his Doktorvater, the eminent sociologist Peter Berger, ed., Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position (Eerdmans, 2009).

He cites a number of familiar examples of people who have grappled with earlier versions of that question--Schmemann, Meyendorff, Skobtsova, et al. In a move that is typical of all such figures, and faithful to Orthodoxy's liturgical ethos, Plekon ends by noting that perhaps the greatest way Orthodoxy can teach the truth and exercise hospitality at the same time is through the Eucharist.

In future installments, we shall look at some of the other chapters. In the meantime, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education: Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections is a landmark collection not to be missed.

Continues. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Russian Freud

We seem to be in the midst of a sustained period of re-evaluation of Freud and the psychoanalytic movement he founded. I have myself reviewed some of those efforts, and contributed to them also, as you can see beginning here. After its fortunes clearly began to flounder in the latter decades of the 20th century (the history of which is discussed here), and psychoanalysis seemed to reach its nadir, the first decades of this still-young century have seen a number of books published re-evaluating and re-assessing not only the great man and his life, but any number of other protagonists--Fromm, Erickson, Jung, and many others. (So too have we been seeing evidence that the efficacy of psychoanalysis has been greatly underestimated by those eager to seek faster and cheaper alternatives.)

One thing we have not seen until now is an exploration of Freud's interactions with the country, church, and culture that figures so large in so many of his writings: Freud's Russia: National Identity in the Evolution of Psychoanalysis by James L. Rice (Transaction, 2017), 298pp.

About this book we are told:
Freud's lifelong involvement with the Russian national character and culture is examined in James Rice's imaginative combination of history, literary analysis, and psychoanalysis. Freud's Russia opens up the neglected "Eastern Front" of Freud's world—the Russian roots of his parents, colleagues, and patients. He reveals that the psychoanalyst was vitally concerned with the events in Russian history and its nineteenth-century cultural greats. Rice explores how this intense interest contributed to the evolution of psychoanalysis at every critical stage.
Freud's mentor Charcot was a physician to the Tsar; his best friends in Paris were gifted Russian doctors; and some of his most valued colleagues (Max Eitingon, Moshe Wulff, Sabina Spielrein, and Lou Andreas-Salome) were also from Russia. These acquaintances intrigued Freud and precipitated his inquiry into the Russian psyche. Rice shows how Freud's major works incorporate elements, overtly and covertly, from his Russia. He describes Freud's most famous case, the Wolf-Man (Sergei Pankeev), and traces how his personality fused, in Freud's imagination, with that of Feodor Dostoevsky. Beyond this, Rice reveals the remarkable influence Dostoevsky had on Freud, surveying Freud's extensive library holdings and sources of biographical information on the Russian novelist.
Initially inspired by the Freud-Jung letters that appeared in 1974, Freud's Russia breaks new ground. Its fresh perspective will be of significant interest to psychoanalysts, historians of European culture, biographers of Freud, and students of Dostoevsky in comparative literature. It is a major work in fusing European intellectual history with the founding father of psychoanalysis.
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