Book Reviewing and What is On My Shelf

In the vein of book reviewing, I am hoping to receive a few books in a recent “gig” of reviewing for Englewood Review of Books. So far this hasn’t  come to fruition, but hopefully somethings will be coming down the pipe soon enough… and probably just in time for me to put on the shelf with the imminent coming of Wombmate Greeson. If any other publishers or authors would want me to review any book for them I am more than open to doing so.

In other news, I am currently processing a variety of books. Some for joint reading with friends, others for my own edification, and others for research oriented reasons.

Most recently I have returned to the The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Alphabetical version) for my own edification. I have always been drawn to the simplicity and praxis oriented nature of these sayings, but more especially I am drawn to the constant self critical appreciation and reception of the ascetical life (in all of its demands and eccentricities). This brings to mind certain essays of Thomas Merton, the insights of Fr. Staniloae (in Orthodox Spirituality) and a wonderful essay by +Kallistos Ware. I am also eagerly waiting the opportunity to peer into Nathan Jenning’s Theology as Ascetic Act.

Asceticism has received interesting attention in venues I would not have readily thought to be receptive. I first encountered this in a paper I wrote for an Islamic manuscripts class I had at Indiana University. This paper reflected on the aesthetics of asceticism as described in the treatise of one Sufi (or at least Sufi inspired) calligrapher in which asceticism was a way of inserting oneself into an authoritative role. Geoffrey Harpham and Richard Valantasis’s work was essential to the thesis – as was obviously Foucault.

I bring this up to reflect a different discourse I encounter in the Sayings that I do not find in most hagiographical work (e.g. in the Synaxarion). The Sayings seem to reflect more of a mode of self criticism and redirection than any specific sort of glorification of the monks reflected therein. The aim of the stories are more parables or pedagogical moments, than a posturing of the aesthetics of asceticism. I have not made it to the end of the Sayings, so I could possibly find some exceptions. I would be anxious for other’s views on this.

In concert with a friend, I am reading through Schillebeeckx’s Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. I am not familiar with Schillebeeckx’s other work beyond a superficial understanding of some of his experimental Christology. So far I would heartily recommend this text to those interested in liturgical theology, sacraments, and who possess some background in the arguments surrounding Vatican II (natural desire for God, reassessment of Aquinas, the transcental turn (e.g. Rahner, Lonergan).

Schillebeeckx does a wonderful job of probing deeply into the Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ and the trinitarian reality of God and how this specifically plays out in the sacraments. Especially enlightening for me was the relationship between the eternal relations of the triune God and how the economic actions of Christ for our salvation can still be present in the sacraments today. For example:

“…in the sacraments there is nevertheless a certain presence in mystery, this is possibly only if, in Christ’s historical redemptive acts, thee already was an element of something perennial; an enduring trans-historical element which now becomes sacramentalized in an earthly event of our own time in a visible act of the Church. And indeed, in keeping with sound Christology, we must hold that this trans-historical element is unquestionably present in the acts of Christ’s life…

In the man Jesus God the Son is personally present. His human existence itself is wholly and entirely a presence of God among us. But it is in the activity of Jesus’ life alone that this personal presence of God the Son is fully realized. The historical redemptive acts of Christ, which as historical are irrevocably past, are personal acts of God the Son, although performed in a human mode. They are acts in time which are the personal acts of the eternal God the Son. Consider now that the man Jesus is not first a man and then God as well; he is God-man; not a mixture, but God existing in human form. In virtue of the Hypostatic Union we are confronted with a divine way of being man and a human way of being God. The man Jesus is the existence of God himself (the Son) according to and in the mode of humanity. For person and nature are never extrinsic elements separate from one another. The God-man is one person. Since the sacrifice of the Cross and all the mysteries of the life of Christ are personal acts of God, they are eternally actual and enduring. God the Son himself is therefore present in this human acts in a manner that transcends time. For of course we cannot conceive of the presence of a mere act; presence in this kind of context is always the presence of the person who acts; a personal presence which renders itself actual here and now, and active in and through an act. Jesus’ human act being the act of the Son of God in his humanity, cannot, therefore, be expressed merely in terms of time, as though the person who is man ware something quite extrinsic to the humanity of Christ. Precisely because the human acts of Christ are acts of God they share, in and according to humanity, in the mystery of God. Being radically the act of the eternal God, Jesus’ human act of redemption, in spite of its true historicity, cannot be merely something of the historical past. His human presence to his fellow men is permeated with his divine mode of being and of being present…

Considering that Christ’s entire human life on earth was the living out of that relationship in which, within God, he stands to the Father – so that it was his very sonship realized in human form – we must conclude that all the mysteries of the human life of Christ endure for ever even in the mode of glory. Passover and Pentecost are an eternal mystery of which the glorified body of Christ is the permanent sign, established for ever.

For this reason the Epistle to the Hebrews could speak of a “heavenly altar” and an “eternal sacrifice,” and on the same account the early Christians were deeply convinced of the “once for all” character of the redemption, of its being ephapax. As the realization in human form of the redeeming Trinity, the historical mysteries of Christ’s life, which were personal acts of the God-man, are a permanent, enduring reality in the mode of the Lord’s existence in glory. The mystery of saving worship, or Christ’s act of redemption is, in the mode of glory, an eternally actual reality, as the Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly stresses.” pg 57-59.

The heavenly high priesthood of Christ’s continued work on our behalf is stressed time and time again as is the essential ecclesial nature of the sacraments. As I progress through the book I will update my opinions and perhaps how beneficial it would be to read Schillebeeckx alongside Schmemann or Zizioulas.

To be continued…

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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

Reflections

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….