Melancholia: My Library in Transit, Or Wherein I Mourn My Access to My Extended Mind

Knowing that Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library” has spawned many a essay and reflection, I come to this state of melancholia well aware of the literary precedent and sit in great anticipation for the freeing of my bound progeny. I have been withdrawn from the “mild boredom of order” since early February, when my wife and I decided to quickly pack things up in order to get the hell outta Dodge. Our home had been broken into for the second time, so the restlessness of the unknown and the feelings of utter violation had driven my wife, and by extension myself, into action.

The packing took only a few hours. As I look back it was a bit unwise of me to pack up almost my entire collection. I feel the pain of the withdrawal from my wayward midnight wonderings. I am someone who reads, sometimes unsuccessfully to completion, at least a half a dozen books or so at the same time. I have always felt the ability to make simultaneous connections between various works essential to my education. Perhaps this is why I feel the ultimate pull towards being a generalist instead of a specialist.

My reading fancies might lead me to reviewing some of Lonergan or poking through an assortment of modern philosophy or medieval art. But typically I am lead to the category of “MISC.” – which includes the alluring genre of the essay. Cheap collections of essays from minds of the near distant past and even further seem to be a favorite go to. I see a genetic link between the books I take to the bathroom and the books I pick up in my midnight wonderings. It must be the desire to be entertained. Long arduous reads, when I am taking short vacations (my wife may argue about my privy time, which I like to retort with resorting to W.H. Auden’s poem “The Geography of the House”) or trying to put off the resignation that comes when finally climbing into bed, are not adequate. The essay is the perfect format for the WC vacation or late night excitement. I have my favorite authors for this purpose: Herbert McCabe, OP, Montaigne, Paul Evdokimov, Adam Zagajewski, Geoffrey Hill, Alberto Manguel, something on a particular artist that is a favorite of mine (e.g. Stanley Spencer or El Greco), and (surprisingly for his typical longwindness) Hans urs Von Balthasar. This is of course not a real catalogue, but more of my ideal go to list. I probably typically grab whatever shorter book is closer at hand, or that is currently affixed by my fancy (I tend to go in cycles of interests, as those closest to me know (probably to their chagrin)).

I am ashamed to say that I used to spend an inordinate amount of time with books from the library that would be considered introductory. Drawn from a typical stack that would be perched in various precarious positions from the local university. I averaged around 150 or so when I was in school at Indiana Univ. and a bit less when I had access to Western Kentucky’s. In some ways I have felt this kind of voyeuristic and exploratory probing (prefaces, introductions, choice chapters or essays) has given me a great overview of a lot of subjects that otherwise I would not have deigned to spend significant amounts of time. Subjects such as: liberation theology, Karl Rahner, Reformed theology, poetics, Catholic moral theology, poststructuralism, and most definitely phenomenology in all its amorphous forms.

I digress…

I did keep a box or two out for the purpose of keeping my sanity on the horizon. At the time, honestly, theology and I were on break. The short of it: wrestling with whether or not pursuing theology academically has haunted me for at least the past 7 years. I have learned sustained breaks from serious reading in theology has maintained my sanity. Instead, I packed for my perusal in the interval, a ton of german lit., philosophy, and poetry. Montaigne, Böll, Bernhard, Plato, Sebald, Nietzsche, Heidegger, various biographies, and some contemporary anglo literature were to keep me company.

Of course, the pendulum swings, and now I am on track to begin graduate study of theology in the fall bringing back my desire to browse and work through some texts that are now hiding away in a storage unit in Kentucky. Perhaps some incredibly decent souls would care to donate a few texts for my edification? I am attempting to break into reviewing books in order to swell my progeny (more on that hopefully to come).

Has my collecting (which is usually progresses at a good clip) abated due to lack of shelves? Nope. “To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves” – Benjamin. Despite that drive, my budget limits my collecting, and thus my melancholia survives unabated yet sedated by my weekly sojourns in the Divinity library. I feel as if I am not alone in this state when disconnected from my extended mind?

Retrieving Patristic Social Thought – A Book Review

St John Chrysostom Denouncing Empress Eudoxia

I recently came across a quite pertinent and interesting volume in my recent “vacations” in the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. It represents a meeting held in Leuven in 2007 as part of a research program at the Catholic University of Leuven during the years 2005 to 2009. The seminar and subsequent volume proposed to “investigate[s] the potential for a dialogue between the social teachings of the Fathers and the living theology of Catholic social thought today”. It has been published as – Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics: Issues and Challenges for Twenty-First-Century Christian Social Thought edited by Johan Leemans, Brian Matz, Johan Verstraeten.

The assembled papers and research followed Brian Matz’s study that catalogued 110 patristic citations or allusions in twenty-one Catholic social teaching documents (Patristic Sources and Catholic Social Teaching), which concluded that the patristic sources are second class citizens in contemporary Catholic Social Teaching’s consideration, e.g. Augustine’s Confessions is used eight times, but not specifically as socio-ethical commentary.

Over view

The book is divided into four sections, each with differing focuses. Part I is suggestive of a renewed appreciation for the texts of the Fathers while also expressing concern for a too casual and hermeneutically reductive approach to the Fathers. Part II commends a nuanced approach by paying attention to different contexts, namely: moral discourse in late antiquity, early Christian eschatology and the audiences of the era.

Part III provides examples of a dialogue between patristic social thought and the Christian social tradition. Susan Holman explores the idea of the “common good” in the Greek Fathers augmenting the typical historiography that begins with Aristotle, flows to Augustine, and skips Aquinas. Brenda Ihssen explores the patristic understanding of usury showing us how in our blurring of the lines between usury and interest we have fallen down the same slippery slope the Fathers denounced. Brian Matz explicates St. Basil’s views of detachment regarding private property in the Graeco-Roman context and how these theological principles could inform current thought. Thomas Hughson, coming from a systematic theologian’s perspective, addresses the use of justice in Lactantius and how it compares with contemporary Catholic social teaching and social thought. He concludes wondering if the Catholic Church has neglected a rapprochement with the early church to its own detriment.

Part IV contends for room for dialogue between patristic and contemporary Christian thought, in a way meeting and moving on from skepticism of the essay in Part I. Richard Schenk, O.P. employs Ricoeur’s “ideas about memory and constructive forgetting in suggesting that a healthy dialogue between the past and present social teachings should being by acknowledging what is worth remembering and forgetting”. Remembering what articulates common principles, that bring up marginal voices, and that expose radical expressions of discipleship from beneath layers of institutionalization. The book ends with two of the editors reviewing the overall contribution to the goal of the research program at Leuven.

The real struggle of the volume is the hermeneutical gap between late antiquity and late modernity. How do we categorize and then apply the theological and practical concerns of the Fathers, which come from a completely different socio-political context. For a quick and simple example: slavery and usury, both of which were viewed quite differently in late antiquity then they are in our age. How does a homily by St Gregory the Theologian, which advocates for the obligation of Christians to meet the needs of lepers, actually work for us today?

Fr. Schenk’s reflections
(supplemented by my own)

Instead of plotting through each essay, which honestly I have not read each essay in full detail (the pitfalls of not having library lending privileges yet), I thought the most beneficial essay reflecting on the hermeneutics of retrieval, which expresses a perennial concern of mine, would be Fr Schenk’s essay. I will be outlining the major parts of the article as well as including my own explication and commentary. I apologize in advance if this is confusing to any reader.

Fr Schenk reflections take two routes: a restatement of the argument for patristic retrieval and then the sources of suspicion about the cogency of projects of retrieval.

The symposium’s mood had been set by the opening remarks by reflecting on the hermeneutical thought of the late French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur stressed a dual hermeneutic of suspicion and of retrieval. As no one is an innocent and entirely correct storyteller, we need to implement “strategies of self-examination as part of an ars memoriae”. We must not drown in the suspicion but endure the tutelage of the “schools of suspicion” in order to clear the dross and still narrate and speak of our ethical responsibility, however complicated that may be. This ethic of reading and narrative is supplemented by Ricoeur’s explication of Heidegger’s enigmatic statement in Being and Time that “remembering is possible only on the basis of forgetting”. At this point Fr. Schenk quotes Gadamer in order to further elucidate Ricoeur’s insight:

“In ways that are largely overlooked, forgetting belongs to the relation between retaining and remembering. Forgetting means not merely loss and privation, but as F. Nietsche stressed, it is a necessary condtion for the life of our mind. It is only by forgetting that our mind receives the possibility of a thorough-going renewal, the ability to see things anew with a fresh look, so that what was old an familiar now blends with what is newly seen into a multidimensional unity” Truth and Method, pg.13.

Here Fr Schenk remarks, “…precisely because a certain kind of forgetting is necessary for there to be genuine recollection, forgetting, too like remembering, needs direction and self examination; it too, must be raised to the level of an art”. This artful forgetting and remembering is part of the practice of tradition. Riceour did demur about those who too quickly jump to reading history for particular goals, which “can lead to revisionist histories and to a selective amnesia about the more troubled aspects of the past”. Coming to the texts of the Fathers in order to read for contemporary social teachings implies a preliminary reinterpretation of that text, that being that we already pretty much have an idea where the text could take us. We have chosen certain texts over others. Fr Shenck follows Riceour further to recommend that “we must first somehow accept the story or history for what it is and only then try to elicit its future possibilities, even if it means living with an uncomfortable memory”. For an easy example, to my knowledge St. Gregory of Nyssa is one of the few Fathers who speak out against slavery. Our relationship to our past is a difficult one, parts of which are to be set aside or gotten past, that which we still need to forget, or what we need to remember in order to be guarded against, and therefore calling for forgiveness and not for our emulation.

Fr. Schenk then turns to a contribution from Johann Baptist Metz adapted from Ernst Bloch, the idea of “productive noncontemporaneity”. The products of noncontemporaneity can be destructive; where some theologians develop ways of being sectarian as badges of honor or, on the flip side, assimilated theologians in shamefulness of their community’s otherness seek to minimalize all distinctions. Productive noncontemporaneity approaches with a “chronic vigour” (J.H. Newman) that “liberates from servile adherence to both stagnation and modish fads, to continually bring the memory of the past into reflective conversation with the better movements of the times”. If we are going to approach the Fathers in order to frame our positions on social ethics, an awareness of the dangers of retrieval need to be on our horizon. Instead of an assumption of the perennial sameness of patristic teaching, which creates barriers for creative and productive grappling with modern issues, we could look to apply the teachings in our current globalized context. Here Fr Schenk suggests “migration, labor, communication, commutative and distributive justice”. This way of reading is in “hope for not yet domesticated insights prefigured in an uneven but provocative patristic literature”.

Fr Schenk then turns to the case for “suspicion”. As is the typical hermeneutical point, the work must be done for the context of then and then its application to the here and now. Recollection of patristic writers without context and with the pretext of obvious agreement and then uniting it to contemporary wisdom is dangerous. Obviously, in academia, there has been a strong tide going the other way, arguing for the particularity and incommensurability of each. The maxim “If you have read one church father, you have then read just one father” applies. At play here is obviously also the contest of the faculties, each vying for their own expertise and domain. But this heightened suspicion can all too easily push all texts to the periphery in an unending receding horizon. Memory can be blocked when it is stuck in recollection. This misuse of memory, following Ricoeur, skips the work of mourning “which comes to accept the loss of the past, falling instead into a debilitating form of melancholic or morose attachment to a past with no future”. A work of mourning that seems to be lost on certain segments of North American Orthodoxy.

Pace the suspicion of distance, otherness, and conflicting concerns Fr Schenk recommends that coming to the texts provides the ability to also revisit our modern presupposition and evaluate them accordingly.

Fr Schenk concludes his essay by suggesting that the present volume is indicative of the future dialectic of Christian social thought’s use of patristic thought. Neither direction, suspicious or overly ambitious, presented a grand, harmonious synthesis. A future sourcebook should be attentive to all of the nuances:

“…by showing the past and present state of Christian social teaching as an ever searching form of practical wisdom, growing in its treasury of articulated convictions and motivated by common principles, but also appropriated by many persons, in many times and places, for often disparate needs and with varying degrees of merit, guilt, and what has been called “moral luck”…Aware of its own past and present fragility, it should look for those overlooked impulses among patristic writings, suggestions of a more radically genuine discipleship hidden meanwhile beneath layers of otherwise defensible domestication and institutionalization…In an age tempted towards the extremes of secular and religious identities, each styled as self sufficient, glorious and universally liberating, this admission of a sometimes halting, partial and mendicant progress might be the greatest social teaching of all.”

St. Nicholas saving innocents - Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky


My interests in such a long overview is due mostly to the fact that I found this volume to be a fascinating and practical application of the tensions of the Orthodox ideal of “Neo-Patristic Synthesis”. I am aware of the baggage this “movement” and phrase have, but I move forward nevertheless. There have been numerous attempts of developing various sides of the Neo-Patristic project, but to my mind not many successful moral or ethical works that take their cue from the project (excepting maybe Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality as a great handbook for personal ascesis). It seems most of the work has been warmed over accomodationist material that seems regulated to the demands of this age and certain modish fads, i.e. why the focus on “green” theology at the loss of the development of the Greek Father’s view of natural law? I do not say this because I think we should rape and pillage the earth because of some horrible understanding of “having dominion”, rather I say that we need to attend to our tradition in all of its aspects, not just sexy fads (and by all means, I am in favor of a prophetic critique of our indiscriminate relationship to our environment).

My casual acquaintances with various Orthodox websites and the arguments had on blogs, comment threads, and even Facebook with a certain lovable Hierarch, show an adversity to some of the basic teaching of the Fathers, mostly due to the hermeneutical jump from then to now, or to too simple reductions and simplifications of the “Christian”ness of various socio-political positions (libertarianism not being the only target here). From the other direction, comes the overly simplistic jump that Aaron documents here in a review of a volume of St. Basil’s homilies. Perhaps I am too indebted to my agrarian/Hauerwas-MacIntyre/distributist/anarcho-syndicalist leanings, which should be the topic of a future blog post as a way of historically/biographically situating my own struggling with the tradition (i.e. how I needed St. Silouan in order to finally push me into Orthodoxy).

Anyway, I opened this volume to read some excellent essays, and came away specifically with Fr. Schenk’s great overview of the very basic tensions of any retrieval of the Fathers. I am and will be blogging specifically in the direction of Orthodox moral theology and welcome any complaints, comments, or suggestions in future reviews/topics.

For now, to be continued….

Attempting to blog… again.. (or) is blogging dead?

Various blogs of my own creation have cropped up on the internet over the past decade or so… some I would be more ashamed to own than others, but nevertheless I am going to attempt the blogging game again. For the past few years, as I since been married, finished a masters degree in library science, and took small vacations from serious theological study (to pursue silly ventures like poetry) I have maintained a tumblr blog, Paideia, which was a sporadic linkage of pictures, poems, quotes.

I wonder (aloud) as I attempt to grapple again in a somewhat public venue with various theological topics whether this type of venue has already seen its zenith? I remember when certain blogs (5 or 6 years ago) were highly visited, argued, debated, and even gathered the attention of various professors who joined the foray (this brings to mind Hunsinger’s appearance on Ben Myer’s blog, Faith & Theology).

In the Orthodox world there was much action/debate/gossip/news/etc. to be found on a few blogs, which have now switched venues or even ecclesiastical association.

So, why this blog?

My hope is to actually highlight certain Orthodoxy theological positions, debates, tensions, and interests in a fairly balanced and nuanced manner that I am currently not aware exists on the internet (with obvious nods to Aaron of Logismoi for his constant stream (perhaps dribble recently 😀 ) of quality posts). I am hoping for the type of conversations and insights notable from such blogs as the aforementioned Logismoi, Ora et Labora, A Vow of Conversation, and even the cantankerous but ever lovable Ochlophobist. However, as my temperament is not the same as the above I hope this blog will still present something of value.

This quote from Fr. Georges Florovosky will be a constant theme:

“Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304 — h/t to Fr. John Schroedel