"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, March 20, 2018

Darwin's Worms and Freud's Death Drive

I have often commented on here over the past few years about the many books of the English literary scholar and psycho-analyst Adam Phillips. Having finished another, Darwin's Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories, herewith a few thoughts.

This is a short book, and is in essence two separate essays, the first on Darwin, the second on Freud, and they are only loosely stitched together. Phillips suggests that what interests both men is a fascination with natural history and an archaeological approach to the past. Moreover, both were skeptical of the idea of the redemption of humankind, and believed that any major changes were going to be very limited, both individually and politically.

The essay on Freud is useful in reminding us of several things Phillips has addressed in some of his other books, including his excellent "biography" of Freud I discussed here: the tendency of Freudian thought to "undo" itself by turning its awareness of our propensity for self-deception on itself; the treachery, therefore, and unreliability of all biographers; and the important place of the death drive, discussed most fully, of course, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

That drive, or instinct as some translators put it, came to Freud relatively late (1920) when other attempts to understand human beings proved limited if not futile. The theory of the death drive, often regarded as Freud's most speculative and controversial claim, arouse out of a need, Phillips says, "to tell more persuasive, more convincing life stories: stories about how people actively, if unwittingly, undo their lives; and how this is a source of satisfaction to them" (78). This theory does not posit that people are straightforwardly suicidal or anything like that; if often does not involve literal death, but rather many other ways of undermining, sometimes fatally, relationships, jobs, fortunes and prospects in ways that make no sense at least consciously or rationally. But such self-destruction does make sense in other ways which the death drive helps to explicate, not least that we seek relief from our desiring, making the death drive "the object of desire that finally releases us from desire," as Phillips concludes.

The death drive thus showed Freud something he had struggled with for a long time: why desires are not always for what seem to be self-evident goods--family, health, prosperity--but are often based on deception and destruction. For Freud, says Phillips, human beings are "not truth-seeking animals in any simple sense." Thus, while Christians and others may believe that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free," it is by no means straightforward that people always want that truth, much less freedom--a point Erich Fromm powerfully illustrated in his landmark best-seller, Escape from Freedom.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Problems of Arabic Historiography of Conquest

Every group, nation, state, culture, or even church or religious group tends to write the history of its founding and of its past with a certain eye on the present and another on the future. As I have often quoted the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, "memories always have a certain future in mind." And very often, too, in the writing of that history those memories are rarely displayed, so far as can be known, in all their messiness. Rather, they are often tidied up into carefully selected narratives of "chosen trauma" and "chosen glory," to use Vamik Volkan's very useful concepts.

All of that is true in spades for the historiography of the rise of Islam, the problems with and in which are notorious and have long bedeviled scholars. Released in December in a paperback version, Boaz Shoshan, The Arabic Historical Tradition and the Early Islamic Conquests: Folklore, Tribal Lore, Holy War (2016, Routledge) reminds us anew of those problems and takes a fresh and necessary look at them.

As the publisher tells us about this book:
The early Arab conquests pose a considerable challenge to modern-day historians. The earliest historical written tradition emerges only after the second half of the eighth century- over one hundred years removed from the events it contends to describe, and was undoubtedly influenced by the motives and interpretations of its authors. Indeed, when speaking or writing about the past, fact was not the only, nor even the prime, concern of Muslims of old.
The Arabic Historic Tradition and the Early Islamic Conquests presents a thorough examination of Arabic narratives on the early Islamic conquests. It uncovers the influence of contemporary ideology, examining recurring fictive motifs and evaluating the reasons behind their use. Folklore and tribal traditions are evident throughout the narratives, which aimed to promote individual, tribal and regional fame through describing military prowess in the battles for the spread of Islam. Common tropes are encountered across the materials, which all serve a central theme; the moral superiority of the Muslims, which destined them to victory in God’s plan.
Offering a key to the state of mind and agenda of early Muslim writers, this critical reading of Arabic texts would be of great interest to students and scholars of early Arabic History and Literature, as well as a general resource for Middle Eastern History.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Pre-Historic Iconoclasms

One of the things that recent research into iconoclasm, broadly understood, has been revealing is the fact that images have power, and are feared and subject to destruction for that very reason. This is by no means a phenomenon limited to Christian images in the East-Roman Empire in the seventh to ninth centuries. Iconoclasm both antedates its Byzantine outbreaks, and has long surpassed them, as we have seen in this country recently in debates about Confederate monuments, and as we have seen in post-Saddam Iraq, post-Soviet Ukraine, and elsewhere. It has, then, become something of a law that the outbreak of iconoclasm--that is, the destruction of images--is always politically motivated, and is always felt to be a necessary prelude to a new form of politics--something James Noyes argued several years ago in his very useful and insightful book.

Now a new book by Henry Chapman, Iconoclasm and Later Pre-History (Routledge, 2018), 246pp. comes along to demonstrate that humans were smashing images even before recorded history.

About this book we are told:
Iconoclasm, or the destruction of images and other symbols, is a subject that has significant resonance today. Traditionally focusing on examples such as those from late Antiquity, Byzantium, the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, iconoclasm implies intentioned attacks that reflect religious or political motivations. However, the evidence highlights considerable variation in intentionality, the types and levels of destruction and the targets attacked. Such variation has been highlighted in recent iconoclasm scholarship and this has resulted in new theoretical frameworks for its study.
This book presents the first analysis of iconoclasm for prehistoric periods. Through an examination of the themes of objects, the human body, monuments and landscapes, the book demonstrates how the application of the approaches developed within iconoclasm studies can enrich our understanding of earlier periods in addition to identifying specific events that may be categorised as iconoclastic.
Iconoclasm and Later Prehistory combines approaches from two distinct disciplinary perspectives. It presents a new interpretative framework for prehistorians and archaeologists, whilst also providing new case studies and significantly extending the period of interest for readers interested in iconoclasm.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Creation Ex Nihilo

Released late last year is a new collection, Creation "ex nihilo": Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges, edited by Gary Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 418pp. Containing chapters by the Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, and the Melkite theologian and patristics scholar Khaled Anatolios (whom I have interviewed on here in the past), as well as other prominent scholars, this looks to be a rich collection.

About this book the publisher tells us
The phrase "creation ex nihilo" refers to the primarily Christian notion of God’s creation of everything from nothing. Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges presents the findings of a joint research project at Oxford University and the University of Notre Dame in 2014-2015. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo has met with criticism and revisionary theories in recent years, from the worlds of science, theology, and philosophy. This volume concentrates on several key areas: the relationship of the doctrine to its purported biblical sources, how the doctrine emerged in the first several centuries of the Common Era, why the doctrine came under heavy criticism in the modern era, how some theologians have responded to the objections, and the relationship of the doctrine to claims of modern science, for example, the fundamental law of physics that matter cannot be created from nothing.
Although the Bible never expressly states that God made everything from nothing, various texts are taken to imply that the universe came into existence by divine command and was not assembled from preexisting matter or energy. The contributors to this volume approach this topic from a range of perspectives, from exposition to defense of the doctrine itself.
This is a unique and fascinating work whose aim is to present the reader with a compelling set of arguments for why the doctrine should remain central to the grammar of contemporary Christian theology. As such, the book will appeal to theologians as well as those interested in the relationship between theology and science.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Come, Let Us Eat Together

The German Catholic bishops recently gave that reliably tiresome hysteric Rod Dreher another chance to collapse on his fainting couch in response to matters he's too lazy to understand with anything like detail, context, or intelligence. The bishops floated some proposals for the vexed question of eucharistic hospitality in mixed Catholic-Lutheran marriages. I have read reports of the German proposals and they would very strongly seem to vary in such slight ways from the Ecumenical Directory published by Rome (in 1967 and updated in 1993) as to be insignificant and unworthy of any comment, least of all by people who see the sky falling every time they wake up.

If the question of eucharistic hospitality is to be treated seriously, then a book forthcoming next month will aid in that important task. Edited by George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez, Come, Let Us Eat Together: Sacraments and Christian Unity (IVP Academic, 2018), 250pp. is a collection with some very prominent contributors.

On the Catholic side, we have chapters by Thomas Weinandy and Matthew Levering, inter alia; the Protestant Matthew Milliner, a dynamic young scholar of Byzantine Christian art, also has a chapter; and then on the Orthodox side we have chapters from Bradley Nassif and Paul Gavrilyuk.

About this book the publisher tells us:
As Christians, we are called to seek the unity of the one body of Christ. But when it comes to the sacraments, the church has often been―and remains―divided. What are we to do? Can we still gather together at the same table? Based on the lectures from the 2017 Wheaton Theology Conference, this volume brings together the reflections of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox theologians, who jointly consider what it means to proclaim the unity of the body of Christ in light of the sacraments. Without avoiding or downplaying the genuine theological and sacramental differences that exist between Christian traditions, what emerges is a thoughtful consideration of what it means to live with the difficult, elusive command to be one as the Father and the Son are one.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Desire and the Darkness of God

The University of Notre Dame Press sent me their newest catalogue; but it was in reviewing the back lists that brought to my attention a book I missed when it was first published in 2015: Desire, Faith, and the Darkness of God: Essays in Honor of Denys Turner, eds. Eric Bugyis and David Newheiser (UNDP, 2015), 480pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In the face of religious and cultural diversity, some doubt whether Christian faith remains possible today. Critics claim that religion is irrational and violent, and the loudest defenders of Christianity are equally strident. In response, Desire, Faith, and the Darkness of God: Essays in Honor of Denys Turner explores the uncertainty essential to Christian commitment; it suggests that faith is moved by a desire for that which cannot be known.
This approach is inspired by the tradition of Christian apophatic theology, which argues that language cannot capture divine transcendence. From this perspective, contemporary debates over God’s existence represent a dead end: if God is not simply another object in the world, then faith begins not in abstract certainty but in a love that exceeds the limits of knowledge.
The essays engage classic Christian thought alongside literary and philosophical sources ranging from Pseudo-Dionysius and Dante to Karl Marx and Jacques Derrida. Building on the work of Denys Turner, they indicate that the boundary between atheism and Christian thought is productively blurry. Instead of settling the stale dispute over whether religion is rationally justified, their work suggests instead that Christian life is an ethical and political practice impassioned by a God who transcends understanding.
If you peruse the table of contents you will see a wonderful variety of essays, including those by such notable figures as Terry Eagleton in conversation with Turner over a topic both have written about: the relationship between Christianity and Marxism.

I found Turner's work in the late 90s, and since then have returned to him, not least because he's useful in debunking any efforts towards self-congratulation or self-promotion on the part of the Christian East, some of whose apologists sometimes give the impression of thinking the East has a monopoly on apophaticism in theology--in contrast, of course, to the West's apparent horrid old "rationalism" and "scholasticism." Turner is among those who handily debunk such hoary old tales.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Assumptionists as Byzantinists

Since doing some field research with a graduate student of mine back in 2013, when we visited the remnants of the Byzantine Franciscans in Sybertsville, PA and their lovely neighbors the Byzantine Carmelite sisters in Sugarloaf, PA, I have become acutely aware of how badly Eastern Catholics fail at writing our own history, including that of such unique communities as these two. The Byzantine Franciscans are but a tiny shell of what they once were though they still maintain an absolutely lovely church and campus. The Byzantine Carmelite sisters, by contrast, had a goodly number of young vocations when I was there and seem to have a fairly stable and promising future. Their chapel is stunning, and their singing very unique and beautiful.

I maintain only the fondest recollections of their dynamic and wonderful founder and mother-superior, a no-nonsense Irish Catholic from New York who "discovered" the Christian East in the 1950s and felt it was her life's work and call to help Catholics know the East, love the East, and be reconciled with the East. Hers is a fascinating history, and I strongly encouraged her to write both her own history and that of the community she founded, but she was reluctant to do so, having so many other pressing projects. 

All this is but a preface to note a new book whose publication I cheered because it helps fill in some of the many holes in Eastern Catholic historiography: L'apport des Assomptionnistes français aux études byzantines : une approche critique (Peeters, 2017), 536pp.

I studied and wrote about the activities of a few of the Assumptionists and their role in Ukraine and Russia when Peter Galadza and I were working on Unité en division : Les lettres de Lev Gillet, Un moine de l'Eglise d'Orient à Andrei Cheptytsky, 1921-1929. It was, at times, hard going trying to find out much about some of these figures. So I am, as I say, happy to see this new edited collection about which the publisher tells us the following:
Membres d'une congrégation catholique fondée en France en 1845, les Assomptionnistes n'avaient pas initialement vocation à devenir des byzantinistes. Lorsqu'à la faveur de l'installation d'une petite communauté à Constantinople en 1895, certains d'eux ont entrepris des recherches sur l'Orient orthodoxe, ils ne pensaient probablement pas faire école ni marquer la byzantinologie d'une empreinte spécifique. Pourtant leurs travaux, poursuivis durant plus d'un siècle, ont stimulé et nourri ceux de beaucoup de spécialistes. Comprendre comment ils ont abordé leur objet d'étude - l'Église byzantine -, selon quelles directions de recherche et en mettant en valeur quel type de résultats, permet de repenser aujourd'hui certaines des orientations qu'ils ont données à la discipline. Les études réunies dans cet ouvrage collectif analysent dans une perspective critique les méthodes et les choix scientifiques de ces religieux catholiques, mais aussi leurs préjugés en tant que spécialistes d'une confession qu'ils qualifiaient eux-mêmes de «dissidente», alors qu'ils étaient animés, au moins à l'origine, par une perspective prosélyte. Les contributions de ce volume entrecroisent l'histoire des intellectuels catholiques au 20e siècle et l'historiographie byzantine, afin d'éclairer ces relations entre engagement confessionnel et science, souvent fécondes, mais parfois peut-être aussi contradictoires, et afin d'esquisser un bilan de l'oeuvre scientifique des Assomptionnistes de l'Institut français d'études byzantines.
For those who do not read French, the table of contents, available here, shows that there are a handful of articles in English, including one by Daniel Galadza, author of the recent monograph I noted here.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Orthodox Perspectives on War

I had known for some time that this collection was in the works, but it was only late last week that the University of Notre Dame Press put into my hands a copy of Orthodox Christian Perspectives on War, eds. P.T. Hamalis and V.A. Karras (2018), 384pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Many regions of the world whose histories include war and violent conflict have or once had strong ties to Orthodox Christianity. Yet policy makers, religious leaders, and scholars often neglect Orthodoxy’s resources when they reflect on the challenges of war.
Through essays written by prominent Orthodox scholars in the fields of biblical studies, church history, Byzantine studies, theology, patristics, political science, ethics, and biology, Orthodox Christian Perspectives on War presents and examines the Orthodox tradition’s nuanced and unique insights on the meaning and challenges of war with an eye toward their contemporary relevance. This volume is structured in three parts: “Confronting the Present Day Reality,” “Reengaging Orthodoxy’s Tradition,” and “Constructive Directions in Orthodox Theology and Ethics.” Each exemplifies the value of interdisciplinary reflection on “war” and the potential for the Eastern Orthodox tradition to enhance ecumenical and interfaith discussions surrounding war in both domestic and international contexts.
The contributors do not advance a single account of “the meaning of war” or a comprehensive and normative stance purporting to be “the Orthodox Christian teaching on war.” Instead, this collection presents the breadth and depth of Orthodox Christian thought in a way that engages Orthodox and non-Orthodox readers alike. In addition to offering fresh resources for all people of good will to understand, prevent, and respond faithfully to war, this book will appeal to Christian theologians who specialize in ethics, to libraries of academic institutions, and to scholars of war/peace studies, international relations, and Orthodox thought.
Contributors: Peter C. Bouteneff, George Demacopoulos, John Fotopoulos, Perry T. Hamalis, Valerie A. Karras, Alexandros K. Kyrou, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Elizabeth H. Prodromou, Nicolae Roddy, James C. Skedros, Andrew Walsh, and Gayle E. Woloschak.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Byzantine Bodily Perceptions

It seems somewhere in the 1980s Christians all over the world woke up one morning and began to theologize about the body. The trend took off in the West, with rather questionable premises and dubious results, often issuing in a lot of very cheap psychologizing by people who found the "theology of the body" a nifty trick to making money marketing bad books.

Here, as in all things, the East lags behind, but more recently we have seen an upswing in serious scholarly books devoted to the role of the body, the place of the senses, and even studies of one sense in particular--the olfactory, for example, or the auditory.

Now two more books join this increasing number. The first is set for an official release date of today: a collection, Perceptions of the Body and Sacred Space in Late Antiquity and Byzantium, edited by Jelena Bogdanovic (Routledge, 2018), 304 pages + 65 B/W illustrations. I drew attention here to another new work by Bogdanovic.

About this collection we are told:
Perceptions of the Body and Sacred Space in Late Antiquity and Byzantium seeks to reveal Christian understanding of the body and sacred space in the medieval Mediterranean. Case studies examine encounters with the holy through the perspective of the human body and sensory dimensions of sacred space, and discuss the dynamics of perception when experiencing what was constructed, represented, and understood as sacred. The comparative analysis investigates viewers’ recognitions of the sacred in specific locations or segments of space with an emphasis on the experiential and conceptual relationships between sacred spaces and human bodies. This volume thus reassesses the empowering aspects of space, time, and human agency in religious contexts. By focusing on investigations of human endeavors towards experiential and visual expressions that shape perceptions of holiness, this study ultimately aims to present a better understanding of the corporeality of sacred art and architecture. The research points to how early Christians and Byzantines teleologically viewed the divine source of the sacred in terms of its ability to bring together – but never fully dissolve – the distinctions between the human and divine realms. The revealed mechanisms of iconic perception and noetic contemplation have the potential to shape knowledge of the meanings of the sacred as well as to improve our understanding of the liminality of the profane and the sacred.
The second is also an edited collection in the prestigious Dumbarton Oaks series, and edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey (author of one of the above-linked books on smell) and Margaret Mullett: Knowing Bodies, Passionate Souls: Sense Perceptions in Byzantium (DOP, 2017), 342pp.

About this book we are told:
How does sense perception contribute to human cognition? How did the Byzantines understand that contribution? Byzantine culture in all its domains showed deep appreciation for sensory awareness and sensory experience. The senses were reckoned as modes of knowledge―intersecting realms both human and divine, bodily and spiritual, physical and intellectual.
Scholars have attended to aspects of sight and sound in Byzantine culture, but have generally left smell, taste, and touch undervalued and understudied. Through collected essays that redress the imbalance, the contributors explore how the Byzantines viewed the senses; how they envisaged sensory interactions within their world; and how they described, narrated, and represented the senses at work. The result is a fresh charting of the Byzantine sensorium as a whole.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights

The Orthodox scholar George Demacopoulos (some of whose publications I have noted on here over the years, and whom I interviewed about his book Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome) recently announced on Facebook that the "Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University has won a $250,000 grant from Leadership 100 to conduct a five-year scholarly study of the compatibility of Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights."

These are topics that George and his colleague Aristotle Papanikolaou have circled around for some time in some of their individual publications as well as co-edited collections from the excellent conferences they organize and host on a regular basis. See, e.g., Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine as well as the earlier and invaluable collection Orthodox Constructions of the West, which I discussed in detail starting here 

The news of this grant is welcome in a time when it has become increasingly fashionable to denounce the horrors of, and call for the total replacement of, modern liberalism, including its notions of human rights. Twenty years ago, in writing a thesis on Alasdair MacIntyre, I became very sympathetic to his splenetic dismissals of rights language, belief in which, he said, is at one with belief in witches and unicorns. Even more, of course, did MacIntyre set his face against the entire liberal project as having failed to do what it promised and instead having illicitly smuggled in (a favourite MacIntyre verb) a lot of premises and practices extraneous to it. I followed him very closely in thinking this, and still do to some extent.

I wrote at a time when the Radical Orthodoxy movement was going strong, and in fact I made inquiries with both John Milbank (when he was briefly at the University of Virginia) and Catherine Pickstock at Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge, about writing a dissertation on medieval voluntarist corruptions of authority, with the idea of building upon MacIntyre's claim that modern emotivism rests upon the obliteration of any coherent distinction between power and authority, and upon Radical Orthodoxy's claim (increasingly challenged) that the real bogeyman here is Scotus.

More recently, however, as a student of MacIntyre, I have followed him in tempering some of the criticisms of the liberal project precisely insofar as he has admitted to not knowing how to replace it, and has admitted to being aware of the acute problems that any such "replacement" would have to grapple with. Thus in his essay "Toleration and the Goods of Conflict," published in the 2006 collection Ethics and Politics, he said those calling for new forms of community after liberalism, or built on the ashes of liberalism, have yet adequately to engage in "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.” Would that more recent authors had such humility and restraint.

Such restraint has not always been in plenteous supply among critics of liberalism, including Milbank and Pickstock who, as Eugene McCarraher noted in this splendid series of interviews, sometimes turned theology into a "blood sport" and treat “'modernity' and 'liberalism'...as though they were the spawn of Satan."

Such curdled denunciations are by no means limited to Western Christians. Eastern Christians, especially in the post-Soviet period and space, have often been even more reactionary in this regard, denouncing human rights and much else besides as threats to "holy Russia" and other places that do not exist.

More recently, however, some scholars have begun to reconsider matters, arguing that Orthodoxy is not necessarily hostile to rights language no matter how much certain of her apologists would like for this to be so. Thus we had the collection Orthodoxy Christianity and Human Rights published in 2012 under the editorship of A.Brüning and E. van der Zweerde.

In 2013, we saw the publication of The Russian Church and Human Rights by Kristina Stoeckl, whom I interviewed here about this important book.

This year--this month, in fact--we were promised another collection, Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe: A Dialogue between Theological Paradigms and Socio-Legal Pragmatics, but publication seems to have been delayed.

And soon, it would seem, thanks to Fordham's funding, we will have further treatments of these complex issues, which can only be welcomed.

Monday, February 26, 2018

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

When we were last met to discuss Maggie Ross's wonderfully cool diagnosis of much that ails us, Silence: A User's Guide, I sketched out some of the background influences and concerns to this book, and to my reading of it. I also noted one or two places in the first part of the book where we get some hints of what is to come as we move now into the third chapter, "The Language of Silence," where Ross really lets fly, inveighing against many common, but even more commonly misunderstood and misapplied terms, concepts, and practices.

This entire third chapter, as I commented previously, really could bear the title "Glossary of Nonsense Terms Fatuously Flung About by Careless Christians." In the book it functions very much as an excursus between the background she lays out in chs.1-2, and the objections to silence in the rest of the book. I will only give you a taste, but the entire chapter is very much worth your time.

One of the biggest misunderstandings--as I have long thought myself--comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of "experience," which Ross says is "perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list." Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today's usage, running totally contrary to "ancient, patristic, and medieval" wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word--and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed--because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

Mystical/Mystic/Mysticism: All these terms "have become useless and misleading" and function to justify "weirdness," "exoticism," "voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography" (90). See below for more on the problems with "mysticism."

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called "spirituality" exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as "spiritual directors" everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted "spiritual directors" lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross's denunciation of "spiritual direction, so-called" as having "little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control." As she continues, "modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the 'directee' become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined 'spiritual life' instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other."

After this swamp-clearing excursus, the rest of the book is a more extended critical analysis of how to practice silence and of the obstacles towards doing so. She begins chapter 4 by briefly surveying how few modern thinkers are interested in silence because they operate under a Cartesian method. Of the few who, she says, escape this influence to some extent, she cites the Canadians Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan; and the Greek Orthodox scholar John Panteleimon Manoussakis, whom I interviewed here.

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross's critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty "cures" approved by modern "therapists" and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over "unknowing" that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word "experience and other anachronisms" the effect of which is to "have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears." Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we "experience" (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.

Later on she also decries the elimination of "behold" and cognates from modern biblical translations. This term, she says, is "arguably the most important word in the Bible..., which occurs more than 1300 times in the Hebrew and Greek" (179).

Lots of churchmen, she says, have been quite content to eliminate ideas of beholding and the silence which it requires, in part because both are suspect and hard to control. Of those very few not guilty of this, Ross cites some of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, including our old friend Evagrius, whom I have often cited on here and whom I taught to my students last semester. According to Ross, the writings of Evagrius "speak to human beings in every age....His advice is just as applicable today in an urban culture."

In the final part of the book Ross presents something of an apologia for the fruits of silence, noting that there is a reciprocal relationship: the more one enters into the silence of the deep mind, the more mind is released from tightly held ideas and hostile emotions, especially avarice, anger, and judgment. Instead of these, one emerges more compassionate, detached, and willing to forgive. At the same time, she notes, one's powers of discernment are heightened as silence encourages a ruthless honesty.

For those worried about the "political" implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed "me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell" Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are "green" in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of "custody of the ears." Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User's Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fr. Paul Tarazi on Scripture, Theology, and Mysticism: An Interview

Last week I gave you a taste of what was in store if you buy a copy of Fr. Paul Tarazi's new wonderfully refreshing and provocative new book The Rise of Scripture.

I was put in touch with him by my friend Fr Bill Mills, whom I have often interviewed on here over the years. I sent Fr. Paul some questions, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background.

Fr. PNT: The Tarazi family is a traditional Rum Orthodox family from the city of Gaza, Palestine. A copy of the family tree goes back to our forefather David, who “was in Gaza in 1755.” My mother was from a traditional Rum Orthodox family in Nablus, Palestine. My father was born in Gaza but established himself in Jaffa where I was born in 1943. In 1948, the household left for Cairo, Egypt, where we stayed one year and in 1949 we relocated to Beirut, Lebanon. There I did my primary and secondary studies at the Christian La Sallian Brothers School where I, as with many of my colleagues, was influenced by the teaching of “Brother Paul” who was practically unique. In a pre-Vatican II era we never heard him using the phrases “the (Catholic) church” or “the magisterium.” He simply referred to “le Christ” and taught us the gospel parables and the letters of Paul. When I learned of the Orthodox Youth Movement of the Orthodox Church of Antioch in Beirut, he urged me to join. There I received and taught others a thorough knowledge of the Orthodox faith centered on scripture.

Upon graduating from high school in 1960, I enrolled in the School of Medicine at the Jesuit St. Joseph University of Beirut, where I completed five out of the seven required years for the MD diploma before I decided to study theology in Bucharest, Romania, starting in the fall of 1965. In 1970, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch launched the St. John of Damascus School of Theology at Balamand in North Lebanon, just south of Tripoli. I was summoned to start teaching there after the completion of my first year of doctoral studies and did so while completing those studies. I earned my Th.D. in Scripture in December 1975. At Balamand I taught Old and New Testaments, Hebrew, and Greek. In 1976, the School of Theology closed sine die, and I was offered the position of Lecturer of Old Testament at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. I accepted and taught there since then and until my retirement in 2014 as Professor of Old Testament, teaching both Old and New Testament, Hebrew, Greek, and intermittently teaching Homiletics and Arabic.

I was ordained to the priesthood in October 1976 upon my arrival in the USA. Between 1980 and 1996 I was Visiting Professor of Scripture at Balamand where I gave intensive courses twice a year. Between 1994 and 2004 I was Associate Professor of Scripture at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA.

AD: You've written a considerable number of other books. What led you to write this one, and are there connections with your other books?

Fr. PNT: Over the years I wrote an Old Testament Introduction trilogy and a New Testament Introduction tetralogy, as well as many commentaries on books of the Old and New Testament. I produced an audio commentary of 175 hours on all the biblical books. This prepared me to produce my latest book, The Rise of Scripture, which was conceived and based on scholarly research, yet written for the general readership. This goes along the lines of my commentaries where I use transliteration to invite my readership to deal directly with the “original” biblical text.

However, the uniqueness of The Rise of Scripture lies in that it is the fruit of 60 years of “labor” with the original text, which “labor” gave birth to a completely novel view of the origin of scripture, a view that runs on a different path than contemporary “scholarly consensus” as well as that of classical theology. The book is a more “solid” version of the audio version, which I presented to two audiences of former students in the summer and fall of 2015. The Rise of Scripture is rooted in my earlier work in that I refer to them profusely in this book, and draw the ultimate conclusion from decades of study. A branching off the book was lately conceived as a podcast series entitled “Tarazi Tuesdays” where I discuss in more detail issues dealt with in the book itself. One can access this podcast at this link.

AD: Nicolae Roddy (editor of this three-part Festschrift for Fr Paul Tarazi), in his foreword, notes that getting students to read Scripture today is difficult on account of our culture's emphasis on autonomous individualism and consumerism. Is that also your experience? Any suggestions to those of us also trying to teach Scripture in this context?

Professor Roddy accurately reflected my stand since he knows me personally and is familiar with my work. His assessment renders accurately my sentiment. What makes teaching Scripture so difficult for Roddy and for me is not so much the contemporary cultural background and its assumptions; rather it is the rampant fake scriptural scholarship to which the students readily appeal as being reflective of scripture itself. Biblical scholars want us to believe or, rather, take for granted that scholarly, theological, and confessional tenets accurately reflect what scripture is saying. The same is done with so-called incontrovertible archeological discoveries. Notice how more often than not a statement by a scholar is taken as “scripture,” that is, what so and so said or so and so wrote. Such an approach becomes ludicrous in view of the Pauline “as it is written” that refers exclusively to scripture itself. Paul’s writings were scripturalized through apostolic (Petrine) authority—not through a gathering of humans as the ecumenical councils were, let alone through the words of intellectual giants, like Origen and Athanasius, and their followers, the Cappadocians: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote (egrapsen) to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (graphas)” (2 Pet 3:15-16).

Just listen to how terminology—“the Lutheran take on scripture,” “the Orthodox approach to scripture,” “the Calvinist understanding of scripture”—has become the authoritative “hermeneutical key” to the entire scripture. It is contemporary scholarship that fell prey to individualism and consumerism when it devised “the reader response exegesis.” Even worse is “the reception history criticism (hermeneutics),” which opened the floodgates for every individual to consider one’s take on scripture at any given moment and equate it to what scripture is “actually” saying. As was made clear for the ages in Matthew 23 the onus of responsibility falls on us the “theologians” and not on the flock.

The solution, then, is for us to teach exclusively the scriptural text and refer our students eager to learn “more (stuff)” to satisfy their curiosity and ego with textbooks of patristics, church history, history of the interpretation of scripture, church architecture, and the like, although these “subjects” should not be part of the curriculum itself. Otherwise, scripture will remain what we have turned it into: one of the “subjects” learned or dealt with at theological schools. It is no wonder that church tradition fantasized with bestowing the higher honor of “theologian” to the fourth evangelist, leaving the other three with the lesser honor of simply “evangelist”! The noun “evangelist” is scriptural (Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5), whereas, the noun “theologian” is nowhere to be found in that literature.

AD: You end your second chapter, "The Language of the Old Testament," by saying that "in Scripture it is the Semitic language that has the upper hand, a premise that classical theology across the board has a hard time accepting" (79). Tell us more what you meant by that. Would you say that's true even of the Syriac theological tradition?

My statement you are referring to should be taken in conjunction with my entire argument. Classical theology is basically Greek. That language—which was subdued in scripture and relegated to secondary status (see especially the Prologue to Sirach)—became at the hand of the Greco-Roman Christian intelligentsia the referential language, proof thereof being seen in the treatment of the Septuagint as scripture per se.

This is evident on two levels. On the one hand, Greek was the official language of the first three ecumenical councils endorsed by all major Christian traditions, including the Syriac. On the other hand, and more importantly, the “Founding Fathers” of the Syriac theological tradition engaged the pre-Chalcedonian controversy by writing in Greek. At any rate, even the major Syriac Fathers who wrote in Syriac were post-Nicean and thus—as my Finnish colleague Dr. Merja Merras, herself a Syriac Patristic scholar, said—were already under the spell of Nicea’s teaching rooted in homoousios, an essentially “Greek” term as is evidenced in the Armenian Nicean Creed that, by the confession of the Armenians themselves, hardly renders the meaning of homoousios. Let me, an Arab by upbringing, point out that even Semitic Arabic cannot render the play on ’adam and ’adamah which is essentially not found except in the scriptural language that, as I argued, is based on Aramaic, yet hardly equal to Aramaic, the parent of Syriac. The scriptural language was made/build up by the scriptural authors themselves on the matrix of Aramaic, as is clear from the Book of Daniel.

AD: Much of the first several chapters of your book speaks of "shepherdism" as the backdrop for the entire scriptural story" (133). Explain that term a bit more for us if you would.

By shepherdism I mean the total way of life as witnessed specifically by a Syrian Desert shepherd. Unlike city-centered socio-polity, shepherdism is anchored in a full symbiosis between human, animal (specifically Syrian Desert sheep), and vegetation, which fits perfectly the description of what the scriptural God intended for the scriptural ’adam “on the ground (’adamah)”: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food’” (Gen 1:29-30). Furthermore, this is precisely, we are told, what the same God found to be “good” (v.30), actually “very good” (v.31). The sheep are an integral part of the shepherd’s “family,” as is evident in Nathan’s parable to David: “the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him” (2 Sam 12:3). In shepherdism the human does not kill at will the sheep of his flock, which he relies on for food and wool for himself and for members of his immediate family. Even the sheep are not allowed to dilapidate at will the common source of food (Ezek 34:17-22).

Actually shepherdism “defines” the scriptural “divine” in that the scriptural God resides and meets his people in a “tent (of testimony)” to the extent that it is as shepherd leading his flock that he sits upon the cherubim (Ps 80:1). Thus, whereas the anti-kingly scripture says that it is the shepherd who “rules” (malak, acts as a king), classical theology turns the matter on its head by saying that it is the essentially “eternal” one seated on his celestial throne that condescends to show himself as shepherd! Put otherwise, whereas the “reality” in scripture is the shepherd of whom the ruler is a reflection; in classical theology the “reality” is a Platonic ethereal presupposition of which the shepherd is just a figure of speech. How can that be when the scriptural Lord God already in Genesis 3:8 walks (mithallek) as a shepherd does in the Syrian wilderness in order to judge the man (ha’adam), as he does the deities as though they were mere ’adam in Psalm 82:8, just a couple of psalms after we are told that, as shepherd, he sits on his throne of justice (80:1)?

AD: Am I wrong in detecting a clear, underlying goal of your book as being the drawing out of many, intimate, but often overlooked connections between Old and New Testaments? Thus, e.g., you speak of "Paul as Moses" (ch.18) and look to Joshua in ch. 19 as a central "literary protagonist" to the Pauline "corpus [which] corresponds to the prophetic literature" (p.383). My students often struggle to see any connections between the Testaments, as I know many Christians in general do. How is it that the modern Church struggles with this in a way that many of the Fathers, e.g., did not?

You are on the mark, so long as one looks at the interconnections between the two Testaments as “literary.” In my eyes, for the New Testament to be scripture, it has to be cast in the same mold as the original scripture, the Old Testament. Here again I refer my readers to 2 Peter 3:15-16 in my answer to your third question. Today’s students cannot ignore modern scholarship that, far and wide, has shown the inadequacy of historicizing the scriptural data, which is essentially literary and thus mashal-ic as is evident from Ezekiel who was dubbed as memashshel meshalim (parabler of parables; Ezek 21:5; see also Hos 12:10).

The Fathers who did not have to struggle with the issue were able to do so simply because they eschewed the reality of the matter. Their interest was a Jesus of whom the Old Testament spoke not so much as a coming one, but rather as someone who existed in eternity and thus before the Old Testament. In other words, their solution was a fake solution anchored in Platonic “realism.” Even more, their premise is rooted in the fact that they were Hellenized minds that subscribed to the superiority of Greek over “barbarian.” Since they were well aware that the Greek Septuagint was a translation of an original Semitic text, they upheld that superiority—or at least the equality between Greek and Semite—by putting the Old Testament on par with Greek philosophy: the latter was a propaedeutic for the Greeks unto Christ just as the Old Testament was for the Jews. In other words, the Old Testament was not necessary for one to accept Christ (Paul would have rolled in his grave!). Justin the Philosopher launched the view that the human being had a spark of the divine in him, a view that found its culmination in Maximus the Confessor and his “natural theology”: scriptural “revelation” is ultimately unnecessary. A serious contemporary student of scripture cannot possibly subscribe to the patristic theory that the one who was on the mountain speaking to Moses is none but the eternal logos, i.e., Christ himself!

AD: Your ch.24, "Scripture vs. Theology," contains some absolutely scathing comments one might more readily expect from a Protestant apologist than an Orthodox priest-scholar. E.g., "theology, which is the lingo of every Christian group, whether church or denomination, is by definition a 'perversion'...of God's gospel teaching found in the Old Testament writings propounded by God's apostle Paul...in his writings" (421). And later in that chapter (pp.422-29) you spend a good bit of time denouncing (I do not think the word too strong) the introduction of philosophical and other technical language (Trinity, ousia, physis, homoousios) as "non-Scriptural."  The sum of these developments, you say, is that "historical theology, in all denominations, Christian as well as Jewish, supplanted scripture with its own comments intended to sacralize tradition and thus give it a binding value equal to that of scripture" (432). I'm wondering if you want to elaborate more on this, not least in indicating what, if anything, you think can be done to move the churches beyond (or back behind, if that were possible) this language to see God as He reveals Himself in Scripture.

PDT: Let me begin by inviting my readers to consider how much of the theological debate between denominations revolves around our different understandings of concepts introduced by us. Take, for instance, the “fine” lines between Lutheranism and Calvinism—not to mention the other trends issued from the Reformation—regarding not only classical fabricated lingo, but even concerning an assumedly solid scriptural notion or concept: faith. This term whose original meaning in both Hebrew and Greek is “trust” has suddenly been taken as equivalent to “belief.” In other words, a behavioral matter was transformed into an intellectual subject. I am not saying that this misunderstanding started with the Reformation. To the contrary, the Reformation, which was hailed as liberation from traditional Christian thought, became actually enslaved to a phenomenon that goes back to the ancient “creeds” or “creedal formulations” that split rather than united the one church of God. The saga continued in the Reformation churches that came up with their multitude of “confessions of faith” to which the believer is supposed to “subscribe.”

All our theological debates are carbon copies—or at least sub-tunes—to the debate between Samuel and Israel in 1 Samuel 8. Israel subscribed to the understanding of “king” à la nations, whereas Samuel was offering Israel a king who is essentially a shepherd—an oxymoron among the nations. But the theologians are “Greek” by definition. Witness is that the Renaissance, the Janus face of the Reformation, reintroduced Plato and Aristotle on the scene of the natio Christiana. So all theological effort boils down to “going back” to something that is considered by its proponents to be the “pristine” and “unadulterated” truth of the matter. Against 1 Samuel 8 we de facto advocate that every stage at which our community is at today is “faithful” to the original message.

At heart we are British in that these viewed and still view Great Britain as the “goal” and “culmination” of all preceding civilizations. One can easily see how this state of mind pervades the United States. While we are enslaved to progress, scripture is inviting us to “regress’ to a higher standard of life where human, animal, and vegetation share the same “one” world, a movement clearly reflected in the flood story. When and only when the teachers at our schools endorse this, will they be able to move the churches beyond (or back behind, if that were possible) this dilemma and revert to the “literally” and “literarily” scriptural God. Otherwise, we shall continue on our path of self-justification, the self-righteousness condemned by scripture, assuming the correctness of the delusion that “progress is by definition tantamount to improvement.”

AD: It's clear by the end of ch.24 (and scattered references passim) that you have no truck with "mysticism." I confess that I don't either, and have been writing right now an English Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross (Silence: A User's Guide) who shares much of your criticism of "mysticism." Tell us, briefly, what the problem is with the usual notions of "mysticism," especially in the Eastern Churches.

The heart of the problem lies in the unproven and unprovable assumption that there exists somewhere on its own a “world” of the divine, the numinous, with which one connects directly with one’s spirit or soul or being. Furthermore, the possibility of such intercourse is due to the fact that the spirit or soul or being are somehow of the same nature or essence as the (eternal) divine. These assumptions do not correspond in any way with the scriptural premise.

In scripture the nephesh is the breathing, and thus a mere sign that someone is living, and has nothing to do with the Platonic and theological “soul.” It is of the realm of the “flesh” (basar), animalic as well as human. Even the ruach—which is essentially divine (the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit; Is 31:3a)—when applied to the human being, is no different than the ruach of an animal: “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Eccl 3:21) The reason, as I explained in my book, is that the scriptural God is intentionally “inexistent,” is not egregious, does not “stand out,” cannot be pointed to as a statue. So, from the scriptural perspective, a divine world is a projection of the human mind “in the image” of that mind, in order to deify oneself rather than glorify God. In other words, mysticism is a self-serving creation of man. What makes it worse is that it reflects arrogance toward the “lesser” human beings. See for instance how Origen and the Fathers after him divided humanity into three classes: the fleshly, the soul-ly, and the spiritual. Only the latter can accede to theosis. This is the epitome of arrogance in the eyes of the scriptural God who uttered the words of Isaiah 2.

AD: Give us a sense of your hoped-for audience--who should read this book, The Rise of Scripture, and why?

My intended audience has always been the people at large—regardless of their “beliefs”—because of my conviction that the so-called scholarly community is self-serving, if not self-aggrandizing. “Scholars” fell under the prophetic indictment because there is no need for them in scripture. God on the Holy Mount spoke directly to the entire people. The duty of the “medium” was to communicate God’s words verbatim as Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel did, and not to comment on them. The scriptural God does not need a Hermes, let alone hermeneutics. My so-called commentaries and studies are basically an explanation of the original vocabulary to my audience in order to have them hear scripture with the “ears” of the original addressees. Once this is done, the contemporary hearers will hear God’s words which summon them to do (obey) those words (Deut passim), and not cogitate on them. My profuse use of transliteration aims at circumventing the–by definition--imperfect translations and at inviting my readers to “visually” hear the original. In this sense, my hope for the audience is that they make the effort to absorb the original text if they truly want to be free and decide for themselves, and not be mesmerized by a guru. However, the “general” audience is not to be equated with a “passive” or “lazy” audience, because whether they are aware of it or not they will be judged on whether they will have done God’s words (Mt 25:34-46). My hoped-for audience is a mindful audience that will have to digest what I shall have chewed for own sake!

AD: Having finished The Rise of Scripture, what projects are you at work on now?

Considering that this work represents the summation of my engagement with the scriptural text since the age of thirteen, I should like to concentrate, besides my podcast series that is planned to run indefinitely, on prodding and helping former students to write on scriptural matters. And, out of obedience to (some of) them, I am planning to finish my work on the Pauline corpus by writing a commentary on Ephesians and on 2 Thessalonians. All the notes are ready, and I should be able to finish it by the end of the year and see it published in 2019. If the good Lord grants more years with enough energy, then I should like to produce a one-volume commentary on Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Unconscious Incarnations

With a title like Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives on the Body (Routledge, 2018), 170pp., and an editor and contributor like the Orthodox priest-scholar John Panteleimon Manoussakis (whom I interviewed here about his delightful book For the Unity of All), you'd better believe I'm looking forward to the publication in April of this book!

About this book the publisher tells us:
Unconscious Incarnations considers the status of the body in psychoanalytic theory and practice, bringing Freud and Lacan into conversation with continental philosophy to explore the heterogeneity of embodied life. By doing so, the body is no longer merely an object of scientific inquiry but also a lived body, a source of excessive intuition and affectivity, and a raw animality distinct from mere materiality.
The contributors to this volume consist of philosophers, psychoanalytic scholars, and practitioners whose interdisciplinary explorations reformulate traditional psychoanalytic concepts such as trauma, healing, desire, subjectivity, and the unconscious. Collectively, they build toward the conclusion that phenomenologies of embodiment move psychoanalytic theory and practice away from representationalist models and toward an incarnational approach to psychic life. Under such a carnal horizon, trauma manifests as wounds and scars, therapy as touch, subjectivity as bodily boundedness, and the unconscious ‘real’ as an excessive remainder of flesh.
Unconscious Incarnations signal events where the unsignifiable appears among signifiers, the invisible within the visible, and absence within presence. In sum: where the flesh becomes word and the word retains its flesh.
Unconscious Incarnations seeks to evoke this incarnational approach in order to break through tacit taboos toward the body in psychology and psychoanalysis. This interdisciplinary work will appeal greatly to psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists as well as philosophy scholars and clinical psychologists.

Monday, February 19, 2018

God's Poverty....and Ours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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