Tuesday, March 13, 2018
"Some years later [Thomas More] advised Thomas Cromwell that, in serving the king, 'ever tell him what he ought to do but never what he is able to do...For if a lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him.' This is similar to the recommendation given by Thomas Wolsey to another royal servant: 'I warn you to be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head; for ye shall never pull it out again.' Wolsey, too, dwells upon the cupidity of the king--'rather than he will either miss or want any part of his will or appetite, he will put the loss of one half of his realm in danger.' Both men spoke of a man whom they knew intimately, but perhaps even they could not have guessed the carnage and destruction which would follow their own deaths."
Thursday, February 22, 2018
Christianity is not Christendom. Christianity is a religion. Christendom is the civilization that Christianity formed.
Every religion has some effect on its social and political environment. Christianity and Islam are religions that obviously have had something more than "some effect." The Islamic religion has indisputably formed a large, distinctive "world-historical" civilization. For some thirteen hundred years it has held sway over a great swath of the globe, beginning in northern and western Africa, through the "hot deserts" of the Near East and Arabia, up across the Iranian plateau, into northwest India and through the "cold deserts" of Central Asia and China. And it would tempting to call it the "Civilization of the Great Deserts" were it not for the fact that the largest single Islamic nation is Indonesia, an equatorial island archipelago between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Just as Latin and its progeny shaped Western Christendom, the Arabic language has been a unifying factor, sometimes displacing older languages (such as Coptic in Egypt), but more often supplementing the native languages of Berbers and Persians and Turks.
It some sense I've been a little paralyzed by the apparent hubris of summarizing Islamic civilization in a blog post. I have little real familiarity, other than some grasp of the history--much of it through interaction, positive and negative, with Christendom--and odds and ends that have become popular in the West--I'm thinking of the Arabian Nights--and some familiarity with the impressive philosophical tradition that both bridged the gap between Aristotle and Aquinas and raised in a unique way how we came to think about existence and essence, necessity and contingency, eternity and temporality. No decent account of Western philosophy would be complete without the names of Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali and Averroes.
In addition to the high culture of Islamic civilization--literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, medicine, architecture--there is the complex inheritance of the cultures that adopted Islam--the desert-dwelling Beduin of Arabia, the cosmopolitan Arabs of Egypt, the Persian successors of the Achaemenids and Parthians, the various Turkish sultanates all along the Silk Road. There are also the distinctive political cultures of the great dynasties and califates--the Umayyads of Damascus, the Abbasids of Baghdad, the Fatimids of Cairo, the Almohads and Almoravids of Al-Andalus, the Mughals of Delhi, and the empire of the Ottoman Turks, who eventually appropriated to themselves the riches of Byzantium.
Because these were Islamicized cultures and polities, we associate their laws and folkways, their virtues and vices, their characteristic successes and failures with Islam. The prohibition against images has been very widespread in Islam, for instance. But I don't think it's in the Qur'an. And it obviously hasn't been universal (see image above). But all Islamic governments issue passports with photos. Most allow televisions and movies. For all our ideas about what Islamic civilizations require, they change and make allowances like almost all polities.
Now there's no question that Islam has more often than not been bound up in what we would consider secular governance. And, from my perspective as a Christian, Christianity benefited from existing its first three centuries as, not only a non-governing faith, but an outlaw faith. Admittedly, during the next fifteen hundred years the Christian faith became tightly interwound with secular governance, but there was always a sense of separate roles, and ecclesiastical independence, and the decoupling of such long-standing entanglement over the last couple of centuries suggests to me that the same thing can happen with Islam. It's not a necessary development; I don't believe that hardly anything human must necessarily happen. But the mere existence of Islam outside of the Islamic world means that an Islamic government isn't a necessary condition to being a good Muslim.
So, is there a reason to fear that Muslims, coming from countries governed by pervasively Islamic governments (by profession, at least), cannot be good Americans, and live under a religiously-neutral government? I don't think so. Will Muslims bring new and different perspectives to our social life? Of course. Would I judge all of them to be positive? Certainly not. But might they contribute as well to the improvement of American life from their unique experience, as so many immigrant groups have done? Undoubtedly.
Saturday, January 27, 2018
I am happy to note the publication of a new book by Dr. S. J. Allen, also known to me as "my little sister": An Introduction to the Crusades. The book appears designed for undergraduate courses in medieval history, and can be read alone or in tandam with a sourcebook on the crusades edited by the said Dr. Allen and her distinguished colleague Emily Amt, as previously plugged on this blog in October 2014.
My first real introduction to the crusades was reading Stephen Runciman's three-volume history a couple of decades ago ("The First Crusade," "The Kingdom of Jerusalem," and "The Kingdom of Acre"), a beautifully written, clearly sourced and straightforward history published in the 1950's. It can now fairly be called a classic, but it is also a daunting read, and my sense, when reading it, was of being largely overwhelmed by the flood of unfamiliar names in a distant century among foreign mores, telling a detailed story of murky motivations, multiple military campaigns over generations, repeated clashes of class and culture--peasant and noble, Frank and German, Arab and Persian and Turk and Mongol--in what looked at first like a lengthy narrative but which, in retrospect, was a lot of event in a small space.
Dr. Allen's Introduction is, more modestly, a true introduction. Its first sixty pages contain the briefest summary of the events of the crusades, followed by chapters on the logistics of going on crusade (and living through one), the details of medieval combat, a case study on the negotiations between Richard and Saladin regarding Jerusalem in the Third Crusade, and a final section on how the crusades have been understood and rhetorically used, from the Reformation to the present.
There are maps, the occasional half-page topical "box" (on, for example, Prester John, or the Children's Crusade), and, toward the end, a 6-page chronology, an 11-page glossary, and an 8-page "Who's who." It's the kind of thing that I wish I had had handy when reading the "God's Plenty" of Runciman.
The Introduction can be read alone, or, as noted above, in tandem with the 400-odd pages of the Reader, a good way of putting contemporary and eye-witness flesh on the bones of the Introduction. And for those whose appetite is then whetted for one of the most controversial, most colorful, and most consequential encounters in our history, it provides a good solid foundation for further reading.
I highly recommend it. But, admittedly, I am not without my bias in favor of the distinguished author.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Just a quick post to say that I haven't abandoned the old blog.
It's partly laziness, partly busyness. Much of what is happening leaves me speechless, but at other times there seems so much to say that I feel like the proverbial ass who starved to death because he had no sufficient reason to choose between two equidistant bales of hay.
And it's not like the world is suffering from any lack of talk.
So, to the happy few (or perhaps the increasingly-unhappy fewer) I will try to get back on a regular schedule of posting in the fall.
Ave, atque vale.
Saturday, July 8, 2017
I have been reading Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris. In a 2009 post, having just completed Hugo's Les Misérables, I noted Hugo's love of digressions. Notre Dame isn't as chock-full of them as Les Mis, but Hugo engages in some major frolic and detour in the second chapter of Part Five in a section entitled "Ceci tuera cela."
"This will kill that." The printed book will kill architecture.
Here Hugo exemplifies a favorite approach to discursive writing: take a simple, smart observation and then run it into the ground.
It is a commonplace, I think, to see the great churches of medieval Europe as the books of the illiterate, the great bibles setting out, in light and sculpture and music and stained glass, the stories and dogmas of the faith. I say it is a commonplace because I'm not sure that it was so in Hugo's day. And though Hugo himself was very much the advocate and harbinger of a liberal and progressive era, he was unusual in his appreciation of the beauties of the Gothic, and arguably working against his progressivism in practicing, and arguably, in France, inventing, the genre of the historical romance.
But he sees the book and the edifice in opposition. And he puts the observation in the mouth of Claude Frollo, his clerical villain, foreseeing the satirical jibes of Erasmus eliding into the unprecedented waves of polemic and counter-blast of the Protestant Reformation, all made possible by the printing press. It is an accurate observation, but it stands independent of the status of architecture.
And obviously building didn't stop. So Hugo turns the argument from the destruction of architecture to its decadence, asserting the inferiority of the Renaissance style to the Gothic (in this he was famously seconded by Ruskin). The great domed churches he reduces to a formula, "the Pantheon heaped on the Parthenon," again and again and again, paying tribute to Michelangelo's St. Peters as the one work of genius that inspired the series of imitations. But the formula, however clever, hardly accounts for the originality of the centuries of Renaissance and Baroque and neo-classical work that followed.
Hugo also can't help but acknowledge the monumental works of literature that tended to define their culture. Are the great epics of Homer somehow less constituative of the Greek spiriti than the Parthenon?
It's in that ambiguity of "press" and "book" that Hugo arguably comes a-cropper. There is a real change between the medieval and modern world that is less the case of press destroying architecture than of an explosion of options and expressions that makes the relative uniformity of the pre-medieval world no longer an option. The pre-modern world tended to have what can be called a narrower canon, a more manageable set of fundamental writings, a characteristic arguably attributable in part to the limited dissimulation of written work in manuscript. And similarly, the magnificent architectural monuments of the pre-modern world were part of a comparably limited "canon." Medieval Paris was full of churches, but each represented more than a generation of devoted work. Our modern building can't shoot up as quickly as an edition of a new book can be printed. But it's difficult to think of any architectural project of the last four hundred years that would have been undertaken if, like Paris' Notre-Dame, or Florence's Santa Maria di Fiore, its completion was not expected for more than a century.
The technical power of the modern world makes more possible faster. Whether more and faster leads to better is an open question. Happily, the book never killed the edifice. But both acquired an arguably less massive inertia, reflected in the accelerated series of revolutions that perhaps best define the modern world.
Saturday, May 27, 2017
Before beginning this section I think it would be helpful to define a few words.
First, "orthodoxy" and "heresy." Both words carry connotations of praise or blame that I'd like to avoid, if possible. The point I'd like to stress here is that neither means anything if asserted without reference to a specific religious group. To take a simple example, to say that "God has an only-begotten son" is orthodoxy in Christianity and heresy in Judaism or Islam. In other words, to assert that something is orthodox or heretical only makes sense by saying that it is so in relation to some particular set of doctrines.
By the same token, though the terms "corruption" and "reform," in the context of religion, both refer to a change, the one refers a blameworthy change with respect to orthodoxy, one which distorts and denies orthodoxy, and the other refers to a salutary change with respect to orthodoxy, which restores orthodoxy and corrects heresy. Whether the "new thing" restores or obscures orthodoxy depends, naturally, on what one thinks orthodoxy is in the first place.
So what exactly is Islam? It is obviously a "World Religion," quite a major religion with something over a billion adherents at last count. Like the other two dominant Western world religions, Judaism and Christianity, it has an ascertainable set of dogmas (one God, creator, transcendent, as proclaimed by a final prophet, Muhammad), a set of holy writings (most importantly, the Qur'an), and a distinctive law, ethics, style of worship and organization. Like most major religions it has some major divisions (the Sunni/Shi'ite split) and innumerable smaller ones, most within and among the "big two."
But to simply list the distinctive characteristics of Islam can obscure what I think is most germane to the inquiry here, how its adherents should be viewed as Western and Islamic civilizations come to intermingle.
My central point is that, from the point of view of Christianity, Islam is best understood as a heresy, and that, from the point of view of Islam, both Christianity and Judaism are best understood as corrupt forms of an Islam that has existed since the time of the biblical Patriarchs, restored and reformed by Muhammad.
This relationship is sometimes papered over with the innocuous and accurate-as-far-as-it-goes description of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the "Abrahamic religions." All do indeed look back to the figure of Abraham as an exemplary figure; but they also all three look back to Noah, and the antediluvian patriarchs, and Adam. So in a sense to suggest that Abraham is a uniquely uniting figure can be misleading. More accurate is to see how Moses is the determinate figure of Judaism (revered by Christians and Muslims), Jesus is the determinate figure of Christianity (revered by Muslims), and Mohammed the determinate figure for Islam.
So though they are far from constituting a single religion, they do constitute three singularly similar religions, with Islam closer, religiously, to Judaism than Christianity, just as the careers of Moses and Muhammad, as political leaders and lawgivers, are more similar to each other than to the career of Jesus.
Christianity is arguably distinctive in having a soteriology that presumes the existence of a divine law that has itself become a hinderance to the reconciliation of God and man. To put it another way, in Judaism and Islam the tension beween law and grace are less central than in Christianity, where the redemptive death of the Son has a unique role. But Judaism, even before the advent of Christianity, gave rise to the prophetic movement, as a critique of the law and the cult that is the object of so much of the law, and after the destruction of the second temple a long and complex series of legal and theological developments continued to give rise to a way of life rooted in the law, but by no means merely "legalistic." Similarly, in Islam, the law there newly proclaimed, not radically different in its ethical standards from Jewish law, is subject to a God who is repeatedly "the compassionate, the merciful," and whose severe judgments on lawbreakers do not preclude God's continuing willingness to forgive. As in Judaism the formal priority of the divine law is mitigated by a long and subtle history of legal, theological and philosophical development. There is also the express appeal to the heart in movements such as Sufism, an appeal whose point is not an opposition to the law, but, in a figure such as al-Ghazali, having a "completing" effect on one already a formidable shaper of law and philosophy.
Despite popular claims, I don't see great discrepancies between Islam's ethics and those of Judaism and Christianity. There are differences, of course. Islam allows limited polygamy, for instance, but the practice is hardly widespread, and certainly less common than the "serial polygamy" of marriage and divorce and re-marriage so common in contemporary Christianity. Some see in the Qur'an a violent attitude to non-Muslims, and I am familiar with the passages that give rise to those concerns. But I also can't help but note that there are similar passages in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that with similar justification have grounded polemics contending that Judaism and Christianity are inherently violent and intolerant. But in practice, so far as I can tell, ordinary Muslims try to be honest, generous, hard-working and forgiving, pretty much as ordinary Jews and Christians do.
The conclusion of this is that the religion of Islam is sufficiently similar enough to the religions of Judaism and Christianity that I do not see that there is any religious impediment to Jews, Christians and Muslims living together in peace as citizens of religion-neutral republics. Those differences that are undoubtedly there need not necessarily lead to attempts to dominate. Of course religious differences will give rise to political differences, but the resolution of those differences by means of representative government with fundamental rights of speech, press, assembly and religion protected, means that those differences need not undermine the common polity.
But, one might respond, Islam is more than a religion. It is also a polity, a culture, a civilization, and that fact arguably creates problems above and beyond those posed simply by the religion. It is to that contention I hope to turn in the next installment of this series.
Monday, March 27, 2017
This is a book I can certainly recommend, keeping in mind my own very limited interaction with Orthodoxy. A few years ago, essentially on a whim, I attended a local Divine Service. It was an ordinary Sunday, at a small church, with fifty to sixty participants that morning. The language was English, those who welcomed me were happy to have a Catholic visitor (the greeter was himself a former Catholic), and the liturgy, simple as it was, was sublimely beautiful. A Catholic's relationship to Eastern Orthodoxy is rather unique; the Catholic Church recognizes as valid all the Orthodox sacraments, though that recognition is not reciprocal. So my relationship was not one of hostility, or competitiveness, but of curiosity about a polity that, from a Catholic perspective, has been in schism for a millenium or so.
Fr. McGuckin's book pretty thoroughly covers the bases for an overview. It begins with a history of the Church, first tracing the first centuries of full communion between Latin West and Greek East, then summarizing the subsequent history, giving sketches of each patriarchal, autocephalous and autonomous Church within the single communion. Some of these sketches can be rather dry, but they are essential to understand the present position of Orthodoxy, especially the complex jurisdictional status of "new lands" such as the United States.
He then discusses the doctrinal foundation of Orthodoxy, looking first at what is held authoritative, then discussing, in separate long chapters, "theology" (the Trinity and the incarnation) and "economy" (teaching regarding salvation, or deification).
One of the differences between McGuckin's account, and that of Ware (as I admittedly dimly remember it), is that Ware very much emphasized the closeness of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, whereas McGuckin tends almost exclusively to contrast Orthodoxy with "the West" or "the Latins." There are, of course, good reasons for finding similarities between Catholics and Protestants, which can broadly be summarized as the "Augustinian heritage." But my sense is that McGuckin goes too far in emphasizing Catholic/Orthodox difference on questions where the two communions stand far apart from Protestantism: the authority of Holy Tradition, the importance of the episcopate, the centrality of the sacraments and sacramentals, the reverence paid to the Mother of God and the saints, and the use of images in prayer and worship. Don't misunderstand, he isn't polemical, and part of this sense of distancing comes from what exactly he is doing, not writing a treatise on ecumenical relations between Catholic and Orthodox, but summarizing Orthodoxy in Orthodoxy's own terms. Thus, the delineation of Orthodoxy in distinctively Orthodox terminology does help to see genuine differences, even if, from a Catholic perspective, this may appear to make of those differences more of a gulf between the two communions than in fact actually exists.
Fr. MeGuckin does a very good job of reviewing the hierarchy of sources of orthodoxy: scripture, the seven great Councils, the very rich forms of worship and prayer, and the writings of the Fathers, the monastics and the saints, and he conveys well the sense that these things are distorted if considered separately, that scripture is not an ancient anthology, not to be considered primarily as a book, but as it is encountered in the Divine Liturgy, as it is reflected in the lives of the saints and in the continuing unfolding of Holy Tradition.
He is most disdainful of the scalpel that Western Christians have taken to scripture using form-historical criticism, seeing it primarily as a massive exercise in missing the point. And on that issue I do in fact have much sympathy with him. Biblical studies, in the West, have tended, in the last century and a half, to focus almost exclusively on separating the "genuine," the "historical," from the "priestly," or "mythological," or "pre-scientific." The more sophisticated proponents of these studies have, in fact, not necessarily privileged the former over the latter, but the popular view that has trickled down to the general public is as a debunking of scripture, and I have to say that, for all its interest and continuing novelty, it seems to me to have been largely spiritually sterile. At the same time I suspect that Orthodoxy's lack of engagement with these studies has more to do with Orthodoxy's having been suppressed and isolated for so long, and that, in some form or fashion, its welcome resurgence will require it at some point to take some more articulated position with respect to the critical acid of modern doubt.
I found the best part of the book to be the review of "theology," the Orthodox articulation of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, perhaps because those topics are arguably held most closely in common between East and West. Fr. McGuckin reviews this teaching with extensive quotations from St. Irenaeus of Lyon, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian (a/k/a St. Gregory Nazianzus), St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Gregory the Dialoguist (a/k/a Pope St. Gregory the Great), all of whom are also honored in the West as pillars of the patristic age. And Fr. McGulkin does not follow the lead of some contemporary Orthodox in reading St. Augustine out of the Eastern tradition. He correctly sets out how a number of differences between East and West come from positions which, if not entirely Augustinian in origin, certainly have come to prominence in the West due to Augustine's overarching prestige. But McGuckin nevertheless always insists that the Blessed Augustine is an Orthodox father whose particular teachings, like those of every other Orthodox father, are never infallible or beyond being rejected or found wanting.
By contrast I was disappointed in the next section on the economy of salvation. It set out clearly the Eastern notion of deification, but as opposed to a rather woodenly presented Western conception substitutionary atonement (a contrast minimized by the honest admission that the dominent Western models of salvation do indeed have some scriptural and patristic support). There was a great deal on the importance of a correct ecological relationship to the world and to nature, not something that I would disagree with, but I was not convinced that such a concern has particularly distinctive or ancient roots in Orthodoxy. All in all what was most noticeable was the considerably lesser citation to the great Orthodox sources compared to the prior section.
There follows a section on what the Orthodox tend to call the greater and lesser mysteries, which Catholics call the sacraments and the sacramentals. McGuckin thoroughly runs through the differences in custom and conception, though my general sense is that the differences are minor and that the inevitable superiority that McGuckin finds in admittedly admirable, beautiful and spiritually profitable Orthodox approaches comes to sound a little perfunctory.
The long section on Orthodox liturgy and prayer is filled with numerous and generous quotations hinting at the flavor of Orthodox worship. My only quibble with this section is that, from my quite limited experience (see the second paragraph above) the bare words on the page in fact fall far short of conveying the beauty of Orthodox prayer in the Divine Liturgy. But I recognize that a book can only do so much.
Next there is a brief but important section on Orthodoxy and the political realm, taking the West to task for developing the papal monarchy, and strenuously denying the appropriateness of the term "Caesaropapal" for the place accorded the Byzantine emperor. Here, again, the Eastern and Western approaches seemed as described more similar than distinct, at least insofar as the post-Constantinian, pre-disestablished Church asserted the divine authority of both political and religious rulers, even while drawing lines between secular and sacred authority and asserting the superiority of the sacred.
While it is easy for those of us in the West to be scandalized by the giving of titles like "Equal of the Apostles" to Constantine, the foundation of the Western Empire under Charlemagne operated under many of the same assumptions that it was appropriate to recognize a particularly Christian ruler as heir of the Caesars with the special calling to care for the Church. That notion didn't die in the Reformation, with Henry VIII most prominently claiming the privileges of Emperor and a headship of the Church in his realm. The Western Empire, of course, didn't end until the Napoleonic wars, and a number of Christian monarchs in the West claimed privileges over the Church that only in the last two centuries have been abolished. So, in that sense, as well, the history of the East doesn't seem that strikingly different from that of the West, and there seems to be as little desire for the re-establishment of the Christian Caesar there as here.
Finally there is a section on Orthodoxy and certain modern social issues, such as women's emancipation and sexuality. Here there was not so much as a description of Orthodoxy's stance as the review of those issues by one Orthodox priest--Father McGuckin. I didn't find myself disagreeing with much that he said; I just wasn't entirely sure to what extent it represents Orthodox thinking on these subjects. Father McGuckin is a convert, an Englishman (I think) and a faculty member at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. I don't list those things as drawbacks, only as possible limits on the extent to which Father McGuckin may be representative on these issues. Insofar as his stance seeks a balance between a charitable progressiveness and tradition, it reads, to me, much like the pronouncements's of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Again, I don't find that a basis for disagreement. I simply suspect that some Orthodox might find him a little too accommodating.
I hope I've conveyed the sense of recommending the book. No single volume obviously can be the last word on such a subject. And I found it interesting that, at the same time that I was finishing up this book, I happened to run across and purchase the Pleiade edition of the works of John Calvin. Having been raised Presbyterian, and having audited a course on Calvin, my third year of law school, at the nearby Divinity School, I've had a long relationship with him, and, in many ways, he represents the polar opposite of Eastern Orthodoxy.
I discussed above McGuckin's description of the Orthodox conception of the bible, not so much as a stand-alone book, per se, but as a series of sources integrated into the tradition. Calvin can be taken as representative of the Western approach, at least since the Renaissance, of giving the bible the treatment that the earlier Renaissance humanists gave the received classics upon which they hoped to refound intellectual life. Having been purified of extraneous matter the Christian scriptures were to become the standard for a wide-ranging critical role far beyond the literary standard-setting of a Cicero or a Livy.
For all of McGuckin's disdain of Western medieval scholasticism, medieval Catholicism's relative lack of 'bible-centeredness" makes the East and West in those centuries look much more similar than in the modern world. There was always an assumption that East and West could be reconciled, even with many non-theological stumbling blocks, like the Fourth Crusade. In some ways the ushering in of the Age of the Book in the Renaissance created a greater cultural divide. The question, I suppose, as the Book gives way to the Net, is whether that will lessen or heighten the tensions between East and West.