"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).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Churches Leaving Buildings (I)

I've previously noted the advent of this new collection, The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish, and Ministry in the 21st Centurybut it was only last night that I actually got my own copy and could see all its riches for myself, none of which were known to me previously. Now I will of course be accused of bias insofar as I have a chapter in this book edited by, inter alia, my friend Michael Plekon; but in fact I did not know of the other chapters, and read none of them in advance, nor had a hand in them. Thus any "bias" is quite limited, and I have no vested financial interest in the sales of this book; my comments about it, therefore, are not self-interested in any real way.

I will say at once that this is a short collection whose brevity belies its riches. I have only read about a third of it, but so far each essay is a gem (except, perhaps, for my own....). Part of the radiance of this collection comes from its limpid honesty.

In an era quite nearly drowning under a surfeit of depressing demographic data purporting to demonstrate clear evidence of Christian decline, and drowning even more under a flood of superficial if not vacuous "solutions" and "options" purporting to show us how to arrest that decline, it is very refreshing to read people here admit, simply, honestly, and without fanfare, that we do not have a lot of answers at present, not least because some of the questions are new and have barely been asked, let alone pondered for a sufficient time. In short, this is not another "quick-fix" type book, or a handbook on how to turn your dwindling parish of 25 lukewarm people into a mega-church of 10,000 zealots between now and Christmas--thank God.

The contributors are an incredibly diverse lot--some known to me (indeed, some are dear friends of mine), others not. I will offer further comments in future installments, but for the time being let me say that whether you are in the academy or the church contemplating the future of Christian life and practice, especially on this continent, then this book will offer you a great group of companions with whom to ask searching and sometimes searing questions about the place all Christians--Eastern and Western--are in, and the future we all face.


Monday, October 24, 2016

He Who Suffers Shall Be Saved

The Orthodox and Catholic scholars, Nonna Verna Harrison and David Hunter, respectively, have edited what looks to be a very rich collection treating the perennially difficult problem of suffering in the world: part of the Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History, this collection, Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought (Baker Academic, 2016), 288pp. is set to be published next month.

About it the publisher provides these details:
What did the early church teach about the problem of suffering and evil in the world? In this volume, distinguished historians and theologians explore a range of ancient Christian responses to this perennial problem. The ecumenical team of contributors includes John Behr, Gary Anderson, Brian Daley, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, among others. This is the fourth volume in Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History, a partnership between Baker Academic and the Pappas Patristic Institute of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. The series is a deliberate outreach by the Orthodox community to Protestant and Catholic seminarians, pastors, and theologians.

Friday, October 21, 2016

In Praise of Oubliance

It was some 20 years ago, through a combination of reading Alasdair MacIntyre and William Cavanaugh, that I came to realize how much the structures of modernity are hidden from us, how much the liberalism of modern nation-states disguises itself as a neutral mechanism for the pursuit of competing visions of the good life--if, indeed, there even is such a thing as a good life, on which liberalism purports to take no position, though of course it does. Liberalism created, or certainly made more acute and problematic, the categories of "secular" and "sacred" and in so doing pretended to the former state while also privatizing and attempting to control the latter. Thus the ringing declaration of John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason"Once, there was no 'secular'."

In light of Milbank, Cavanaugh, and MacIntyre, it became obvious to me that the idea of "religion" is also a modern construct designed, in part, to try to domesticate and control transcendence, and also to disguise the theological claims made by "secularists." Cavanaugh's article "A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House: the Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State" was pivotal here in pulling the mask off and showing that the post-Reformation "religious" conflicts that devastated parts of Europe were, in fact, much more properly considered as the bloody birth of the nation-state. He would develop this argument in much greater detail in his extremely valuable 2009 book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. 

I mention all this to sketch the context for considering a new book by Andrea Frisch, Forgetting Differences: Tragedy, Historiography, and the French Wars of Religion (Edinburgh, 2015), 208pp.

About this book we are told:
This study argues that the political and legislative process of forgetting internal differences, undertaken in France after the civil wars of the sixteenth century, leads to subtle yet fundamental shifts in the broader conception of the relationship between readers or spectators on the one hand, and the matter of history, on the other. These shifts, occasioned by the desire for communal reconciliation and generally associated with an increasingly modern sensibility, will nonetheless prove useful to the ideologies of cultural and political absolutism.
By juxtaposing representations of the French civil war past as they appear (and frequently overlap) in historiography and tragedy from 1550-1630, Andrea Frisch tracks changes in the ways in which history and tragedy sought to 'move' readers throughout the period of the wars and in their wake. The book shows that a shift from a politically (and martially) active reading of the past to a primarily affective one follows the imperative, so clear and urgent at the turn of the seventeenth century, to put an end to violent conflict. The emotions that neoclassical tragedy and absolutist historiography sought to elicit were intended above all to be shared, and thus a medium via which political and religious differences could be downplayed or forgotten. The book aims to illuminate some of the ways in which the experience of the wars of religion, as registered in tragedy and historiography, contributed to a restructuring of the ever-vital relationship between emotion and politics, and thereby to historicize the very concept of 'esmouvoir'.
The book begins by asking what difference the Edict of Nantes made to French historiography and history more generally--what, that is, was different after the edict called for the deliberate "forgetting" of the events that had taken place up to the start of Henri IV's reign: depuis le commencement du mois de mars mil cinq cens quatre vingtz cinq jusques à nostre avenement à la couronne. Thus the edict begins what Frisch calls a politics and a policy of oubliance, calling for a deliberate forgetting of the previous Catholic-Protestant conflict, which is to be regarded as estaincte et assoupie, comme de chose non advenue.

The author notes that the effect of a policy of oubliance was "overwhelmingly negative" on French theatre, literature, and other areas. She notes, further, that there were differences in how oubliance was understood theologically by Catholics and Calvinists.

From here much of her book becomes very narrowly focused on the effects of this policy in French theatre and literature. But to my mind there is room to consider the utility of something like a new edict of Nantes today in such seemingly intractable conflicts of Eastern Christian historical memory as the Union of Brest and the Pseudo-Sobor of Lviv of 1946, about which more another time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Majestic City of Constantine

Thomas Madden remains, especially after the death of Jonathan Riley-Smith, one of the most important Crusades scholars in the world today. Madden, an award-winning and widely respected scholar who teaches history at Saint Louis University (where he directs their Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies) is the author of such studies as The New Concise History of the Crusades and Crusades: The llustrated History.

This short essay of his, discussing one of Riley-Smith's books, is invaluable for highlighting the problems discussing "the Crusades" today, a discussion marred by what the psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan calls "time collapse" and group identities built on "chosen traumas."

Madden is a wide-ranging scholar, and in addition to his several studies on the Crusades, he has also authored other works dealing with cities that have had a huge influence on the fortunes of Eastern Christianity, including Venice: a New History and Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice

He has, next month, a new book coming out that remains at the centre of the Eastern Christian imaginary (to borrow Charles Taylor's phrase). I look forward to reading:Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Viking, 2016), 400pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
For more than two millennia Istanbul has stood at the crossroads of the world, perched at the very tip of Europe, gazing across the shores of Asia. The history of this city--known as Byzantium, then Constantinople, now Istanbul--is at once glorious, outsized, and astounding. Founded by the Greeks, its location blessed it as a center for trade but also made it a target of every empire in history, from Alexander the Great and his Macedonian Empire to the Romans and later the Ottomans. At its most spectacular Emperor Constantine I re-founded the city as New Rome, the capital of the eastern Roman empire, and dramatically expanded the city, filling it with artistic treasures, and adorning the streets with opulent palaces. Around it all Constantine built new walls, truly impregnable, that preserved power, wealth, and withstood any aggressor--walls that still stand for tourists to visit.
      From its ancient past to the present, we meet the city through its ordinary citizens--the Jews, Muslims, Italians, Greeks, and Russians who used the famous baths and walked the bazaars--and the rulers who built it up and then destroyed it, including Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man who christened the city "Istanbul" in 1930. Thomas F. Madden's entertaining narrative brings to life the city we see today, including the rich splendor of the churches and monasteries that spread throughout the city.
     Istanbul draws on a lifetime of study and the latest scholarship, transporting readers to a city of unparalleled importance and majesty that holds the key to understanding modern civilization. In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, "If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital."

Monday, October 17, 2016

From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt

First released in hardcover in 2014, and then this past May in paperback, Maged Mikhail's From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt: Religion, Identity and Politics after the Arab Conquest joins a series of other recent publications (discussed here and here) examining what happened to Christian populations after the conquest of Islam in the early seventh century.

As with Penn and Hoyland, Mikhail's book begins by noting that when Arab Muslims encountered residents of Egypt, what began in that encounter was not the complete replacement of one culture by another, but the great co-mingling of many ideas and practices. Thus he also issues a correction and caution against seeing the year 641 as some kind of radical break.

He begins by noting important issues with texts and their interpretation. In some ways, there are problems of abundance. In others, as is well known, there are problems of scarcity and unreliability among Arabic texts. With these latter, the biggest problem is the length of the period in which they circulated orally, subject to all manner of revision and emendation. You can only imagine what that does to the reliability of the tales retailed thereby.

But Christian texts are not without their own problems. Focusing on the well-known History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Mikhail notes the textual variants in the two main recensions of that key document for so much of Alexandrian ecclesiastical history.

All this pales, he suggests, in the light of the massive doctrinal controversies that so marred Egypt, the frontline of the fight between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. Anything and everything has been touched and tarred by this, and the fact that the Coptic Church emerged as a non-Chalcedonian church has been used to explain all kinds of things, no matter how far-fetched. Here a good deal of the influence is still felt by W.H.C. Frend's study from 1972, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement.

It is now exceedingly difficult, Mikhail says, to see which, if any, of the Coptic Christians in Egypt believed in the comical and amateurish notion of "monophysitism" that has come down to us as a belief in a "single divine nature." It was, in other words, a heresy held by nobody. Rather, Coptic Christians were concerned that Chalcedon was suspectible of a "Nestorian" interpretation, and to guard against this they preferred the well-known Cyrillian formula "of two natures" rather than Chalcedon's "in two natures."

As a result of getting this clear, Mikhail says we must now reject the idea that the "monophysites" suffered from an "intrinsic inability to resist Islamic theology." To be sure, the intrusion of Islam did eventually force greater co-operation among the various Christian groups in Egypt, but it was a much longer and messier process than many imagined. And here, too, he also debunks the slanderous nonsense that the Copts, hating their "Byzantine" "overlords" turned around to "welcome" the Islamic invaders. This lie has been debunked again and again, and it comes in for fresh demolition here in a book marked by careful sifting of the evidence (the notes and bibliography run to well over 100pp) and very much worth your time if you have any interest in Coptic, Egyptian, Islamic, Arabic, and doctrinal history.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

What's Behind the ISIS Mindset?

As I've noted previously, I am engaged in a project of examining ISIS propaganda and its uses and abuses of "memories" of "the Crusades." As I've been engaged in this, I came across the work of the historian and psychoanalyst Charles Strozier, editor of this recent collection, The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History (Oxford UP, 2010), 296pp., which contains a number of essays of note.

I began with an essay by Farhad Khosrokhavar, a French scholar whose work has focused especially on Iranian and other contemporary Islamic contexts. His essay in the present work, "The Psychology of the Global Jihadists" is especially useful, not least for showing profound differences between Christians and Muslims on the questions of "fundamentalism" and its relationship to violence.

He begins with two factors in the psychology of jihadists: the desire for revenge against perceived (and sometimes actual) slights or attacks by the West; and a desire, equally Western in nature, to be a "star" or "celebrity." Undergirding both of these is a sense of resentment and loathing.

He further notes three other factors: internalized humiliation and an attempt to reverse this in a disproportionate manner; victimization; and "narcissistic recognition" through global media (141). I find it striking how he notices parallels between a totalized Islamic psychology of victimization at the hands of the West, and a totalized "othering" of Islam in the eyes of the West. We are closer, and more similar, than either wishes to admit.

This victimization is dangerous precisely in its absoluteness: "absolute victimization...legitimizes the use of absolute violence against 'godless' societies" that reject Islamic beliefs. If you have the slightest doubt about this, read the latest issue of the ISIS propaganda magazine, Dabiq

Victimization leads to jihad, understood in apocalyptic terms, says Khosrokhavar, and this apocalyptic worldview is also abundantly illustrated by picking up any issue of Dabiq. But this is an apocalypse of limited utility: the point of violence is to provoke an apocalyptic counter-violence from the West whose goal is not to inaugurate the end of the world, but to totally transform the West into an idealized vision of Islam: apocalypticism as instrumental, not eschatological, in other words.

The desire to overcome humiliating victimization leads to a "counterhumiliation [which] merges with a politics of death, and thanatos becomes the focal point. The reasons are as much psychological as instrumental" (146). Thus the jihadist searching for martyrdom is searching not just for a counter-humiliation of the West (by killing some of its citizens), but also for a narcissistic triumph over the West, which will guarantee their eternal celebrity by broadcasting their attacks far and wide and keeping their names alive after death. Here Khosrokhavar forces upon us a question I have asked before in the aftermath of ISIS attacks: should we not severely curtail coverage of them, and stop printing the names of the attackers if, as this author claims, "the world media are thus the magic ingredient of the jihadist self-image" (148). Martyrs achieve fame twice over: in Western media, and among fellow Muslims in the umma. 

Khosrokhavar ends with an interesting if often counter-intuitive argument: jijadists are quintessentially modern creatures of secularization. Had Islam not encountered secularization, with the latter's drive towards some kind of radical purity and purgation of all so-called sacred beliefs and practices, but instead remained within its traditional contexts, then such an Islam would not have been forced to adopt a counter-strategy of radical purity and purgation by jihad in which even most other Muslims (to say nothing of Eastern Christians, traditionally tolerated under Islamic dhimmi laws, as I have shown on here repeatedly) are found wanting, and thus also fit for extermination as insufficiently Islamic. Thus the jihadist response to secularization is an equally utopian vision rather than a desire or an effort to rebuild historical Islamic institutions and cultures.

This author's work on humiliation is supplemented by an earlier, shorter chapter co-authored by Bettina Muenster and David Lotto, "The Social Psychology of Humiliation and Revenge," in which they note the burgeoning research by psychoanalysts in the late 20th century. Humiliation forces one to feel helpless at the hands of unjust treatment meted out in public. These three factors lie behind the generation of narcissistic rage leading to revenge. It is possible, they conclude, for revenge to be averted with sincere apologies and a search for forgiveness, but this is by no means guaranteed.

Several authors in this collection draw attention to the work of Vamik Volkan, especially his 1998 book Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride To Ethnic Terrorism, which I have found fascinating even if it was written before the rise of ISIS. Volkan, now retired as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at the University of Virginia, has, avant la lettre, provided a helpful way of understanding why ISIS has so constantly harped on the Crusades and uses this language incessantly in Dabiq. 

Volkan writes that "I use the term 'chosen trauma' to refer to an event that causes one large group to feel helpless and victimized by another group. A group does not really 'choose' to be victim­ized and subsequently lose self-esteem, but it does 'choose' to psychologize and mythologize—to dwell on—the event  For each generation, the description of the actual event is modified....Once a trauma becomes a chosen trauma, the historical truth about it does not really matter" (my emphasis).

I would apply this to the invocations of the Crusades. Volkan's notion of chose trauma is, to my mind, the best way to date of understanding what is going on by constantly referring to "the Crusades": a chosen trauma useful for buttressing group identity, and useful for creating a totalized mythology about the West and its "crusader armies" of our time.  In doing so, they make it abundantly plain that historical truth is irrelevant.

As I continue to read Volkan, I shall have more to say about his several books.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Henry Chadwick: Unpublished Writings

Last year, when the second of two dynamo brothers died, I paid tribute to the great Anglican historians Owen and Henry Chadwick, several of whose books are absolute landmarks and utterly invaluable. It was Owen who died in the summer of 2015, his brother Henry having predeceased him in 2008. But it is Henry's unpublished writings that we will soon be able to enjoy thanks to an unexpected but welcome collection set to emerge this month: Henry Chadwick, Henry Chadwick: Selected Writings, ed. W.G. Rusch (Eerdmans, 2016), 416pp.

This collection, the publisher says, offers
Rare scholarly insight into the early church — still relevant for the church today

This anthology offers a choice selection of writings by one of the twentieth century’s premier church historians, Sir Henry Chadwick. Many of Chadwick’s considerable contributions to a fuller understanding of the early church were unpublished or not circulated widely during his lifetime, but here they are compiled in a convenient, accessible form.
Reflecting Chadwick’s wide-ranging expertise, this volume contains his essays on a variety of themes pertaining to the early church, including the emerging faith’s relationship to classical culture; the interaction between piety, politics, and theology; councils in the early church; the power of music in the church; and more. As relevant for the study of early Christianity today as when they were first written, Chadwick’s essays remain a valuable resource for better understanding the church both past and present, shedding light on ecumenical problems that still keep Christians visibly divided.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Jesus the Hunky Hipster

In an informal contest I have been running for nearly 20 years now, nothing has yet surpassed a picture of Jesus I found in the bookshop of the Montreal Oratory in the 1990s. It must surely be counted the crowning glory of the very stiff competition run for decades in the peasant Catholicism of Quebec, which is so rich in so many splendid examples of kitsch. (In what other part of the world do you find, in the snacks section of your local gas station or grocery store, hosties?)

My particular award-winner featured a blue-eyed Jesus whose flaxen locks were vigorously flapping about in the breeze as he lunged to catch a football tossed in His direction by some primly dressed children (with starched collars, blue eyes, and the proverbial white picket fence in evidence) in what was made out to be 1950s North America. It was one of those pictures that changed as you rotated the angle at which you held it--I'm sure there must be some kind of technical name for those? At one angle, it was Jesus the football player; at another angle, Jesus was at bat in the ole ballpark. In either case it was screamingly absurd, and reeked of the age-old temptation to recreate the Lord in that generation's image.

But such images and temptations have long been with us, whether good or bad, and for good or ill, as a book, released this year in a Kindle version of a book first published in 2014 in hardcover, documents: Michele Bacci, The Many Faces of Christ: Portraying the Holy in the East and West, 300 to 1300.

As the blurb tells us, the idea of a blonde Jesus is not new:
It is common to think of Jesus of Nazareth’s main physical characteristics as including long, wavy, blondish hair and a short beard. Yet the Holy Scriptures are silent about Christ’s features, and his representations are hardly consistent in early Christian and medieval arts. The wearing of long hair, moreover, is explicitly condemned by St Paul as shameful and effeminate: therefore it is surprising that, notwithstanding the Apostle’s authoritative judgement, the long-haired archetype came to be accepted, as late as the ninth century, as the standard iconography of the Son of God.
In The Many Faces of Christ Michele Bacci examines the complex historical and cultural dynamics underlying the making and final successful establishment of Christ’s image between late antiquity and the early Renaissance. Unlike earlier studies, the process is described against the background of ancient and biblical conceptions of beauty and the physical look as indicators of moral, ascetic or messianic qualities. It takes into account a broad spectrum of both iconographic and textual sources, and also looks at analogous processes in the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Taoist traditions.
This book will be of interest not only to specialists of late antique, Byzantine and medieval studies, but to anybody interested in the historical figure of Jesus and its shifting, controversial conceptions over the course of history.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Church Has Left the Building

I was delighted to be asked by my friend Michael Plekon to contribute an essay to a new collection, The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish, and Ministry in the Twenty-first Century (Wipf and Stock, 2016), 162pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The origin of the phrase "the church has left the building" lies with Elvis. In order to clear halls of his riotous fans after concerts, it was announced that "Elvis has left the building." Here, the expression highlights intense change within the church. Not only does the church change for its own existence, it also does so for the life of the world. The church cannot avoid the many past and future changes of our constantly transforming society, demographic changes long in process. What you have before you is a gathering of first-hand reflections--stories really--from a diverse group of Christians, lay as well as ordained. While each has a distinctive experience of the church in our time, all of them have something to say about the many changes in our society and how these are affecting our faith, the parish, and pastoral work.

I have not received my copy yet to know what else is in it, so I will say more later.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Robert Hoyland on Arabic Conquests

When we were last met together, we were discussing Michael Philip Penn's two recent and highly valuable books. In those he mentions other scholars who came before him in attempting, however incompletely, to make the Syriac encounters with Islam--by far the earliest such encounters, and the ones with the most numerous and most contemporaneous documentation--better known. One of those pioneering scholars was Robert Hoyland, author of the recent study In God's Path: the Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire. Hoping for a longer review later, I post a few notes here about this important book deserving a place in every library concerned with Islamic history and the history of Muslim-Christian relations.

Hoyland begins by noting an unapologetic preference for 7th- and 8th-century texts, which are of course the earliest such records. What makes this approach innovative, but also, for a time, anathema to other scholars, is that these texts are often thought--disdainfully by some--as being largely "Christian" texts.

But this illustrates the central point he's going to make: there is no clear differentiation, in the earliest generations, between Arab Muslims and Syriac Christians; such a separation would come much later, and not be nearly so clear or so sharp as many today imagine. Other scholars have known for quite some time of the existence of these texts, but have avoided using them, leaving us as a result with virtually nothing--certainly nothing reliable--in the first generations of Islam after the Quran. To overcome this caesura, Hoyland is openly recognizing and using what he terms an "overwhelmingly" large number of texts of Christian provenance in Syriac and other non-Arab languages. For obvious reasons most Islamists before this have avoided using them. He's not just using or championing these texts over Islamic ones: he's arguing that the distinction between them is false and misleading.

Hoyland will also challenge a couple of other commonplaces in this book, including the one that sees the Arab advances in the 630s-640s as staggering and relentless in their success. Not quite so fast, he says, in more ways than one: it is better to see these advances over the longer period of  630-740 and to note during that period that there were some setbacks as the Arabs had to learn and adjust to a world so new to them in many ways.

As they encountered that world, Hoyland documents just how much it was not in fact totally overturned or remade by the Arabs. Neither did they bring in a dramatically new civilization from Western Arabia so much as remake existing ones, drawing on Christian and other elements to cobble together what, thanks to Hoyland, Penn, and contemporary scholars, we now recognize as a real bricolage. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Vatican II and the Christian East

It was a delight and privilege to be asked, about 18 months ago, by my friend Matthew Levering, to write the chapter on Vatican II and the Christian East, commenting on the former's document about the latter, Orientalium Ecclesiarum. My essay, along with an abundance of other riches, is set to appear next year in Matthew Levering and Matthew Lamb, eds., The Reception of Vatican II (Oxford UP, 2017), 480pp. Consider this a foretaste. I shall have more to say once the book is in print.

Oxford gives us the following details about the book:
This volume is a sequel to Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering's Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition (OUP 2008). That volume led readers on a guided tour of the Second Vatican Council's sixteen conciliar documents, examining each document in light of Church Tradition. But that is only half the story. The meaning of the Second Vatican Council has been fiercely contested since before it was even over, and since its completion has seen a battle for the soul of the Church waged through the interpretation of Council documents. The Reception of Vatican II looks at those same sixteen conciliar documents from the opposite perspective. 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 documents 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 and calls for a wholesale overhaul of Catholic doctrine. In order to combat this reductive way of interpreting Vatican II, these essays provides a thorough, instructive overview of the debates inspired by the Council and offer a way forward for its ongoing reception of the Council.
The Reception of Vatican II will shed new light on the ongoing legacy of one of the most important religious events of the twentieth century.
We are also given the table of contents:

Part One: The Constitutions
1. Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Sacred Liturgy) - Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B.
2. Lumen Gentium (The Church) - Guy Mansini, O.S.B.
3. Dei Verbum (Divine Revelation) - William M. Wright IV
4. Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) - Thomas Joseph White, O.P.

Part Two: The Decrees
5. Christus Dominus (The Pastoral Office of the Bishops in the Church) - Matthew Levering
6. Presbyterorum Ordinis (The Ministry and Life of Priests) - David Vincent Meconi, S.J.
7. Optatam Totius (The Training of Priests) - Bishop Robert Barron
8. Perfectae Caritatis (The Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Life) - Sara Butler, M.S.B.T.
9. Apostolicam Actuositatem (The Apostolate of Lay People) - Michele M. Schumacher
10. Ad Gentes (The Church's Missionary Life) - Ralph Martin
11. Unitatis Redintegratio (Ecumenism) - Matthew J. Ramage
12. Orientalium Ecclesiarum (The Eastern Catholic Churches) -Adam A. J. DeVille
13. Inter Mirifica (The Means of Social Communication) - Daniella Zsupan-Jerome

Part Three: The Declarations
14. Dignitatis Humanae (Freedom of Religion) - Nicholas J. Healy, Jr.
15. Gravissimum Educationis (Christian Education) - Paige E. Hochschild
16. Nostra Aetate (The Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) - Gavin D'Costa


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Eastern Orthodox Higher Education

In 2004, I flew to the University of Prince Edward Island to give a lecture at an international conference entitled "Faith, Freedom, and the Academy," which topic I alone addressed from, of course, an Eastern Christian perspective. That talk formed the basis later on for my chapter in the Festschrift for Michael Plekon, which our mutual friend William Mills put together, about which I interviewed him here.

In my original lecture, I noted that debates about faith, freedom, and the academy were in many ways almost exclusively Western debates. I drew on what little had been published about such questions by Orthodox scholars (including Alexander Schmemann), who all noted the same thing, before going on to suggest that Orthodoxy did indeed have much to offer the Western Church's grappling with these questions in the context of Catholic institutions and Ex Corde Ecclesia, about which I have had a few things to say.

It is of interest to me, then, to note, forthcoming in January 2017, a new collection that will go some ways towards extending Orthodoxy's grappling with questions that have long bedeviled other post-secondary Christian institutions of higher education: Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education: Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections, eds. Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides and Elizabeth H. Prodromou (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 432pp.

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 that contribute to 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

Monday, October 3, 2016

Michael Philip Penn on the Encounter Between Islam and Syriac Christianity

Twice last year we were blessed with very important books by Michael Philip Penn treating the tremendously significant but insufficiently understood Syriac encounters with early Islam. What follows is not so much a full review as an an aide-mémoire containing some notes on both of them considered singly and together.

Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World  (U Pennsylvania Press, 2015), by Michael Philip Penn, opens by noting the many problems that we today have in understanding these encounters. First, we tend to interpret them through a prejudicial lens of "class of civilizations," sometimes seeing antagonisms where there are none. Second, we rely too much on Greek and Latin texts when the first encounters took place in neither language, but instead in Syriac, which language retains the largest single body of (largely untranslated) documents about the Muslim-Christian encounter. It is Penn's burden in this book to bring those documents from, as he says, the periphery to the centre of the encounter, changing our understanding of it thereby.

An additional benefit of these documents comes from their contemporaneous nature, recording stories of early Islamic life and so filling in well-known gaps in Arab history, which lags at least a century behind Qur'anic texts and thus contains little that is reliable of the first generation after Mohammad.

Additionally, Penn notes that early Syriac sources record interactions with Muslims that are more positive than we may imagine, though there is no uniformity here, either positive or negative. Instead we have "fuzzy boundaries and categorical ambiguity" (4). We also have an array of texts in different genres, ranging from short marginal notes to lengthy treatises. One thing that becomes clear from this body of literature is that Islam and Syriac Christianity were too entangled for each to see the other as clearly separate and "other." This entanglement was not a temporary blip or short-lived, either, Penn suggests, but remained for several generations after they first met. The differentiation was gradual and messy, and would remain fluid for much longer than most realize.

Additionally, when Islam encounters Christianity in its Syriac forms, it does not encounter a unified Christianity, for we live, of course, in the aftermath of Chalcedon, and Syria was on the frontlines of the Christological divisions. Further contextual divisions occur in the same period as a result of the many conflicts between Byzantium and the Persians.

Penn notes that one of the first books to begin, however incompletely, to draw on Syriac sources was the controversial 1977 study of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. Since then other scholars--e.g., Barbara Roggema, Gerrit Reinink, Andrew Palmer, and of course Sidney Griffith--have drawn on some Syriac sources or made them available in translation.

But the virtue of this book stems, in part, from its bringing together much of this literature in one place rather than confining it to specialized articles in scholarly journals.

Its additional virtues come from undermining (once more....) the oft-repeated nonsense about how non-Chalcedonian Eastern Christians "welcomed" Muslim invaders to save them from their perfidious "friends" in the "imperial" (Chalcedonian) Church. Others have shown this to be false, but Penn provides perhaps the most comprehensive take-down of this tenacious lie.

Early Syriac treatments of Islam (the earliest treated here dates to the 630s, the latest to the 860s) tended to regard the latter less as a totally extraneous tradition, and more as a strange variant of the former. This would change over time, leaving us with a picture that fits nobody's contemporary narrative. Instead, what we see is a series of "complex, heavily negotiated interactions occurring in a rapidly changing and highly permeable environment." It is important, Penn notes in the conclusion, that this history be much better understood if only to correct commonplaces today that would see Muslim-Christian relations, especially in Syria, condemned to a narrative of endless antagonism and violence based on a partial picture of the past.

Such a picture is best illustrated by viewing some of the various documents Penn draws on, and so it makes sense that last year at the same time he also published just such a collection of source material: When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam.

This is a collection of 28 texts that vary widely in genre, as well as chronology, context, and "confessional" nature. As such, it offers us a portrait of the Syriac-Muslim encounter that is not neat and does not conform to the two widely available hermeneutics today--that of relentless intolerance, violence, and dhimmitude; or that of hand-holding hippies avant la lettre who lived in endless peace and harmony. The value of such a collection consists not just in upending today's prejudices, but also in making available some of the oldest, most immediate records of the earliest encounters with Islam. In doing so, it helps us escape the hegemony of Western texts, both Byzantine and Latin.

After a brief prologue, this second book's introduction immediately zeroes in on the year 630 as pivotal not just for Muslim-Christian relations, but for the history of the region and so of the world. Penn also focuses briefly on the history of scholarship connected with the region, and with Islam, noting how often it has been shaped by the presuppositions of those scholars coming from the West with their own agendas.

Penn also pays tribute to those earlier scholars who attempted, often piecemeal, to do what he is attempting to do more widely here, including the collection of Andrew Palmer from 1993, The Seventh Century in the West Syrian Chronicles.

Additionally, he mentions Robert Hoyland's Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam

Hoyland is the author of another recent book, In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire, about which more another day.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Popes, Dictators, and Money

When it was published nearly a decade ago now, I read with utter fascination, not a little horror, and occasional laughter John Pollard's study Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: Financing the Vatican, 1850-1950. Published by Cambridge University Press, the same university where he is a professor of history, the book showed, inter alia, the rather complicated relationship popes have had to their own finances and those of the Holy See--to say nothing of the sometimes complicated tangles popes worked themselves into when Vatican holdings were considered in light of Catholic social teaching about, e.g., usury, the dangers of greed, and the obligation to care for the poor. But the achievement of Pollard's study was not to issue in some sanctimonious screed about the solemn necessity of selling Michelangelo's frescoes to finance a soup kitchen; nor did it result in a gauzy hagiography of how every penny is piously proffered to widows and orphans. Instead, it was a judicious piece of scholarship noted for its sobriety and its ability to avoid these pitfalls.

If money is messy and complicated, how much more so were the relations between the papacy, the Vatican, and the dictators of Europe in the first half of the last century. These come in for Pollard's expert scrutiny in a paperback version, released in June, of his 2014 book: The Papacy in the Age of Totalitarianism, 1914-1958 (Oxford UP, 2016), 556pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
The Papacy in the Age of Totalitarianism, 1914-1958 examines the most momentous years in papal history. Popes Benedict Xv (1914-1922), Pius Xi (1922-1939), and Pius Xii (1939-1958) faced the challenges of two world wars and the Cold War, and threats posed by totalitarian dictatorships like Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, and Communism in Russia and China. The wars imposed enormous strains upon the unity of Catholics and the hostility of the totalitarian regimes to Catholicism lead to the Church facing persecution and martyrdom on a scale similar to that experienced under the Roman Empire and following the French Revolution. 
At the same time, these were years of growth, development, and success for the papacy. Benedict healed the wounds left by the 'modernist' witch hunt of his predecessor and re-established the papacy as an influence in international affairs through his peace diplomacy during the First World War. Pius Xi resolved the 'Roman Question' with Italy and put papal finances on a sounder footing. He also helped reconcile the Catholic Church and science by establishing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and took the first steps to move the Church away from entrenched anti-Semitism. Pius Xi continued his predecessor's policy of the 'indigenisation' of the missionary churches in preparation for de-colonisation. Pius Xii fully embraced the media and other means of publicity, and with his infallible promulgation of the Assumption in 1950, he took papal absolutism and centralism to such heights that he has been called the 'last real pope'. Ironically, he also prepared the way for the Second Vatican Council.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


After a sustained publishing boom of books about icons, we seem to have been in a bit of a lull for the last 3-5 years. But along comes a new little book, released just this month, to revive interest: Faith Riccio, Icons: The Essential Collection (Paraclete Press, 2016), 128pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This lovely little gift book about approaching and praying with icons everyday has over 60 full color images of Sr. Faith's icons, each paired with a scripture and an inspirational word. Experience how these beautiful icons help us live a good life, what they have to offer, what they did for Sr. Faith, and what they can do for you. Icons are an invitation to go beyond our world; to take a moment to look as through a window into heaven. The space they create gives us a wonderful and open access to reach out toward God and know him deeply in a new way. They are meant to enrich our spiritual lives. They were created to touch and form us and have an ability to soothe and confront where necessary. They provide a place to gather our wandering attention and direct it toward God.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Powerful Papal Palliums

Well do I recall the flurry of commentary in 2005 when Pope Benedict XVI unveiled a new style of papal pallium that many commentators took to be an overt sign of openness to the East. The longer tail-end of his pallium (left) draped down in such a way and at such length as to suggest, in the eyes of some, a desire to resemble the Byzantine omophorion at right. Whether that was his intent or not, and whether or not it did advance East-West relations, the longer style was short-lived and he was soon back to a shorter style, which his successor in the Roman bishopric has maintained.

This may all seem like an extreme example of inside baseball, but the vestment itself has far-flung ecclesiological (and so ecumenical) implications. We are, and have been for nearly two decades, in a period of sustained study of past papal practices to see how and where the papacy drove East and West apart, and how and where earlier models of papal ministry may be useful today in bringing East and West back together (a process on which I have had a few things to say).

In that context, a new study set for release next month will take its place in shedding welcome light on the power and ecclesiological meaning of the pallium: Bonds of Wool: The Pallium and Papal Power in the Middle Ages by Steven A. Schoenig SJ (CUA Press, 2016), 544pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In the pallium the medieval papacy created a mechanism of control over the far-flung bishops of the Latin church, a prerogative by which the popes shared honor and power with local prelates―and simultaneously wielded power over them. Contributing to the sway and oversight of the Roman church, this vestment became part of the machinery of centralization that helped produce the high medieval papal monarchy.
The pallium was effective because it was a gift with strings attached. This band of white wool encircling the shoulders had been a papal insigne and liturgical vestment since late antiquity. It grew in prominence when the popes began to bestow it regularly on other bishops as a mark of distinction and a sign of their bond to the Roman church. Bonds of Wool analyzes how, through adroit manipulation, this gift came to function as an instrument of papal influence. It explores an abundant array of evidence from diverse genres―including chronicles and letters, saints' lives and canonical collections, polemical treatises and liturgical commentaries, and hundreds of papal privileges―stretching from the eighth century to the thirteenth and representing nearly every region of Western Europe. These sources reveal that the papal conferral of the pallium was an occasion for intervening in local churches throughout the West and a means of examining, approving, and even disciplining key bishops, who were eventually required to request the pallium from Rome.
The history of the pallium provides an enlightening window on medieval culture. Through it one can perceive how medieval society expressed beliefs and relationships through artifacts and customs, and one can retrieve the aims and attitudes underlying medieval rituals and symbols. Following the story of this simple material object sheds light on some of the ways medieval people structured their society, exercised authority, and communicated ideas and values.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Eternal Memory to Jonathan Riley-Smith, Doyen of Crusades Scholars

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of the doyen of Crusades historians and scholars, Jonathan Riley-Smith of the University of Cambridge (into whose doctoral program I was admitted in 2000, before ultimately turning them down). Shortly before his appointment before the awesome tribunal of Christ, he penned this sagacious and moving reflection on the process of dying, which I commend to your attention. Until reading it, I was not aware of his being a Catholic, nor the depth of his faith.

It is, I think, a compelling testimony to his scholarship that in treating the Catholic Church's role in the Crusades he never once comes off as an apologist for his faith, of whose adoption you would not get any hints from reading him. He was a scholar of the old school, content to let the evidence take him where it did without imposing an ideological agenda upon it. In this regard, he avoided the temptation of what another great historian, Robert Taft, calls "confessional propaganda" offered in the place of genuine history.

I have relied on Riley-Smith's books in my classes for years, including as recently as this summer when I taught a course on ISIS and the Crusades, looking at the historiographical issues involved in the former's abuse of the latter to justify attacks on everybody from Japan to France and the United States.

For this latter purpose, I had my students read Riley-Smith's short but accessible work The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. Its power, especially in the era of ISIS, comes from the fact that he shows, calmly and clearly, how little Muslims cared about the Crusades--indeed, how very little they had even heard of the Crusades--until the turn of the last century when fatuous would-be Christians like the doltish Kaiser Wilhelm II started talking them up again carelessly in an effort to promote a more Christian martial spirit.

Unapologetic as I am about the use of maps to understand history and religious traditions, I have also found Riley-Smith's The Atlas of the Crusades to be enormously valuable. So too, but more widely, is his The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades.

Part of Riley-Smith's early research was the recognition that there were multiple forms of "Crusading," and multiple institutions involved, including military orders such as the Hospitallers: The History of the Order of St. John, first treated by him decades ago, and now in an updated Kindle version.

Before the Crusades were enacted, they first had to be thought, and part of Riley-Smith's early research that was especially valuable was his investigation into what the Cruaders themselves thought they were doing. These researches are especially important still today because they go a very long distance towards debunking the slanderous nonsense that Christians sat about thinking up bloodthirsty schemes by which--proto-colonialists or neo-imperialists that they were--they could steal land and life from poor besotted Muslims and Jews. Thus The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading goes a considerable distance into the minds of those doing the Crusading, and those involved on the peripheries of those, such as various popes.

Riley-Smith authored comprehensive surveys of the Crusades, and updated them regularly, as with his 2015 The Crusades: A History: Third Edition.

But he was also the author of many scholarly articles on individual aspects of the Cruades, and for those with access to such journals you will find many riches. To give just a taste: his 1980 article in History: The Journal of the Historical Association, gives us a perhaps characteristic approach: "Crusading as an Act of Love." The very title runs so profoundly counter to the usual portrayal of the Crusades but it was Riley-Smith's genuinely magisterial achievement serenely to disregard current fashions and nasty political orthodoxies and instead try to bring the past to life on its own terms, so far as possible, and let us get into the mind of those whose efforts we so facilely slander even before we have understood them.

Thus it was Riley-Smith's achievement (and later others) to show us that, indeed, the Crusaders--some of them--saw their actions as manifesting love for their own souls (Crusades as acts of penance), for their persecuted Eastern Christian brethren (Crusades as acts of liberation), and even in some cases for the Muslims who had to be brought to Christ (Crusades as acts of evangelization and conversion).

May his labors of scholarly love continue to bear fruit in the years ahead, and may Jonathan Riley-Smith's memory be eternal!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Primacy and Synodality in Orthodoxy and Catholicism

It is happy news indeed that the recent meeting in Chieti of the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue has produced a common statement on primacy and synodality. The text has not been released yet to my knowledge, but this article is the best one I've seen to date about the dialogue, document, and next steps.

I have, of course, had not a few things to say on the topic myself in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, which sought, inter alia, to offer a way to synthesize synodality and primacy in ways that Orthodoxy and Catholicism alike could both accept. I am gratified indeed that all the reviews in reputable journals have been favorable, especially those from my Orthodox interlocutors.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Socialist Churches in Petrograd

More than a decade ago we published in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, a groundbreaking article based on archival research in Russia of the socialist views of clergy in the twilight of the Romanov era. The author showed just how many parish clergy in particular were far more socialist in their views that has often been alleged by those who portray the Church as a monolithic agent of reaction and conservative bourgeoisie hanging on to their privileged positions.

A book set for release next month takes us further into exploring this time and these political views: Catriona Kelly, Socialist Churches: Radical Secularization and the Preservation of the Past in Petrograd and Leningrad, 1918–1988  (Northern Illinois University Press, 2016), 440pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In Russia, legislation on the separation of church and state in early 1918 marginalized religious faith and raised pressing questions about what was to be done with church buildings. While associated with suspect beliefs, they were also regarded as structures with potential practical uses, and some were considered works of art. This engaging study draws on religious anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and history to explore the fate of these “socialist churches,” showing how attitudes and practices related to them were shaped both by laws on the preservation of monuments and anti-religious measures. Advocates of preservation, while sincere in their desire to save the buildings, were indifferent, if not hostile, to their religious purpose. Believers, on the other hand, regarded preservation laws as irritants, except when they provided leverage for use of the buildings by church communities. The situation was eased by the growing rapprochement of the Orthodox Church and Soviet state organizations after 1943, but not fully resolved until the Soviet Union fell apart.
Based on abundant archival documentation, Catriona Kelly’s powerful narrative portrays the human tragedies and compromises, but also the remarkable achievements, of those who fought to preserve these important buildings over the course of seven decades of state atheism. Socialist Churches will appeal to specialists, students, and general readers interested in church history, the history of architecture, and Russian art, history, and cultural studies.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Michael Plekon's Uncommon Prayers--and Ours, Too

In July I interviewed Michael Plekon about his forthcoming book Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. You may read that here. I also noted that I would post a reminder when the book was finally published in September, as it now has been.

Consider yourself reminded to go and buy a copy! While you're at it, check out some of his other books (or books devoted to him), all of which will be well worth your time.

In particular, I interviewed him in 2012 about Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time.

In an interview from 2011, we discussed some of his other earlier books, including Hidden Holiness as well as Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church.

He is also the editor of numerous works, including those by Afanasiev, Evdokimov, and others--don't forget the splendid biography of Elisabeth Behr-Siegel!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Lying on the Couch of Unknowing: Apophatic Psychoanalysis (II)

Last week, I noted that the British psychoanalyst and literary scholar Adam Philips is a prolific fellow. I first came upon him recently in reading reviews (e.g, here, and especially here, which coheres with some of the ideological strains of the early psychoanalytic movement I discussed here) of his 2014 book, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, which is on my list to read.

One of the common themes of his work is the path not taken, the life not lived, and what one makes of that. Thus, e.g., his 1998 book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life and then his more recent work, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.

This latter book is an odd creation in some ways, and its oddness is well captured by this reviewer. Nevertheless, as I said last week, there is a great deal of wisdom in this book and its "apophatic" proposals, which I want to discuss here.

The appropriate place to begin is with Phillips flatly declaring, early in the book, that "reality matters because it is the only thing that can satisfy us" (25). This will get developed in the rest of the book's realist, anti-fantasist stance in which Phillips clearly comes out against spending time imagining what could have been--what sort of life we could have had, or worse, could yet have if we but overcome our limitations and frustrations. In this regard, as in much else in the book, Phillips puts me in mind of nothing so much as the counsel against the logismoi we find in Evagrius and the tradition following from him--the warnings against vainglory, against idle speculation, against imagining the future, or fantasizing about communion with God, and so on.

For to give ourselves over to such disordered fantasizing, to wondering after would-be satisfactions in some imaginary future, is to open ourselves to an endless frustration with our life, which is itself an enormous problem insofar as "frustration may be the thing that we are least able to let ourselves feel"(27); and again: "There is nothing more opaque about ourselves than our frustrations" (28).

Frustrations, if allowed--as Evagrius recognized long before Freud came along--to take root in our mind can become, as Phillips nicely puts it, "intractable because their satisfaction is too exactly imagined" (32) and as a result "there can only be unrealistic wanting" (33). What is the answer to this?

Here Phillips makes what I might call his "apophatic" turn, that is his turn to not knowing or, as he frequently puts it, to not "getting it," to letting go of the desire, one might say, to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. ("Omniscience... is the enemy, the saboteur, of satisfaction" [134].) Here he counsels and encourages us down an unexpected and unusual path: "We need...to know something about what we don't get" (33).

This, of course, immediately raises practical if not moral problems: "But how...would you teach someone to not get it?....Teaching them how not to conform without trying not to conform?" (48-49). As we teach others about the importance of not always "getting it" we need to see the benefit of doing so, asking ourselves and others: "In which area of our lives does not knowing, not getting it, give us more life rather than more deadness?" (80). In other words, rather than being despondent in our frustrations, why do we not see what we can learn from them?

Not surprisingly, Phillips does not give us many answers to his own questions. But he does repeatedly suggest that we need--in our relationships, including clinical relationships between analyst and analysand--to recognize what he calls "the unknowledges" not as bad things but as freeing things: in Phillips' conception--which is not without controversy in the psychoanalytic world--psychoanalysis is an exercise in learning how not to get it and not be bothered by that: to acquire an "understanding to the limits of understanding" and to "make sense of our lives in order to be free not to have to make sense" (63). Whether in psychoanalysis, textual analysis, or much else besides, he sides with Žižek's warning against "'the attitude of overinterpretation'" (70).

It is not hard, of course, to see Christian applications of this. It is not hard, it seems to me, for Christians with a robust mystical tradition, as one finds in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, to be capable at least of understanding this, if not putting it into practice. It is not hard, that is to say, for people of faith to recognize what they do not know and graciously to accept their not knowing and to be reconciled to their remaining in a cloud of unknowing without frustration. (Such a state, I would stress, is not an excuse for anti-intellectualism or willful obscurantism justified by some fatuous appeal to "the holy fathers" or "the Bible.") In the famous words of Newman:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene--one step enough for me.

This is nowhere more important, Phillips counsels, than sex: "When it comes to sexuality, we don't get it....It means that when it comes to sex we are not going to get it. We may have inklings about it....We can know the facts of life, but nothing else. We may, as we say, have sex, but we won't get it" (77). And again: "What psychoanalysts mostly know about sex is the strange ineffectuality of so much of their knowledge" (79).

I have to confess to finding this enormously refreshing, not only insofar as it breaks with what is often (unfairly, in my view) characterized as the Freudian--and more generally psychoanalytic--view of sex, which purports to be certain of its orthodoxies about sex and ostensibly seems to have little doubt about what it knows; but also and perhaps especially with Christians who claim to know--or certainly to talk as if they know--far more about sex than seems either possible or desirable. This is perhaps especially true of those who inflict on us their ghastly pop psychology or their unrelievedly tedious "theology of the body."

In discussions of communion with God, and communion with one's lover, there is, I would suggest, far too much talk from people with far too little to say. It is better to pass over both in silence, recognizing what we do not know, and likely will never know, and not being frustrated by that. To those always grasping, always talking, whether about God, sex, or (worse) both, I am so often and so sorely tempted to respond with Clement Atlee's famous response to the voluble and excitable Harold Laski: "A period of silence from you would be most welcome." Perhaps this desire for silence about such matters is what long ago attracted me to St. Philip Neri who famously said, when pressed for details about his inner communion with God, "secretum meum mihi." 

Adam Phillips makes two further points worth dwelling on, including that the quest for certainty, the quest to overcome our frustrations as manifested in perverse fantasies, are forms of erotic hatred motivated by hostility and a desire to convert childhood traumas into adult triumphs (164): the "quest for certainty in certain areas of our lives is a quest for revenge" (146). We seek revenge for not getting it, whether getting it is a simple joke, parental attention and affection, or sex from some high-school paramour. We seek revenge in the perverse as a result of not getting it, and vainly try to content ourselves with something less than love: "Freud has exposed our avoidance of love as an avoidance of satisfaction" (168).

In the end, Phillips says, there is one final reason to return to Freud for he "invites us to wonder what relationships would be like if we dropped the idea that they had anything to do with indebtedness or obligation" (134). Again, the theological usefulness and application of this should be obvious, for we relate--or we ought to relate--to God not out of any sense of guilty obligation or dread at not paying a debt back to him. We either relate to Him out of love or we are wasting His time and ours.

If, in that relationship, we experience frustrations, then perhaps, if Phillips is on to something--and I certainly believe he is--we ought to attend to those frustrations and see what they can teach us rather than necessarily seeking to solve the frustrations. For--if Job is our guide, inter alia--it seems clear that God is not in the business of always relieving us of our frustrations at not knowing what He is up to. And that is just as it should be.
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