Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Book Review: Orthodox Constructions of the West by George Democopoulos and Aristotle Pakanikolaou

Orthodox Constructions of the West
By George Democopoulos and Aristotle Pakanikolaou
ISBN: 0823251934
Price £22.99

Amongst Orthodox Christians today, one of the most common terms used when discussing comparative Theology is “The West.” This will be used as all-encompassing term to refer to various Theological and political positions taken by Catholic and Protestant thinkers, especially targeting the Roman Catholic Church. Amongst the Byzantine community, the term is especially common when discussing anything which is not Orthodox or something which is the opposite in value to Orthodoxy. This term often used but never analysed to determine its accuracy.

The book Orthodox Constructions of the West is a collection of essays from contemporary Historians and Theologians which seeks to analyse and deconstruct the mythologies created by Orthodox polemicists regarding the ‘folk devil’  concept of the West. This is achieved through a deep analysis of the historical conflicts between Christian communities in the past and the ways in which this contributed to this cultural split and the way in which it has been expanded through the ages by writers. Some of the articles which were extremely interesting were The Orthodox naming of the Other and The image of the West in Contemporary Greek Theology as well as various writings on the subject of ‘The West’ from the perspective of political science.

A key strength of this book is that it is a positive step in opening reflecting on the use of folk devils in the Orthodox community and shows the academic challenge to the growing market for polemic writings. As Dr Peter Bouteneff explains, it “represents a significant step in the direction of self-reflection and self-criticism” which Orthodox writers have lacked over time. This strength of the book as a scholarly analysis of this issue of east/west relations makes it an interesting read for the academically minded who feel frustrated by ongoing polemics under the guise of Theological correctness.

On the other hand, the understanding tone of the text is sometimes too generous to the point of severely understating issues. An example of this is the discussion of the reading of St Thomas Aquinas amongst early modern Russians, seeing the positive way in which they read him as a demonstration of Theological acceptance. This approach ignores the theological issues wmerging from the reading for the sake of amicability. This may put many off reading this, seeing the text as simple ecumenist writing, leaving the book’s credibility damaged regardless of the clear scholarly benefits it provides as a whole.

Overall, Orthodox Constructions of the West is a well compiled collection of texts which allow for an open and scholarly dialogue to develop between Orthodox Christians and Catholics on the so called ‘East-West divide.’ It provides a useful resource when looking at the complicated history of the use of ‘The West’ to mean the essence of ‘the other’ and a fascinating multi-faceted analysis of this, from the political to the Theological. Though I would not recommend the book to the average reader, it is an interesting source for Orthodox academics who wish to verse themselves in the complexities of this issue.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Review of The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700 - 1700: An Anthology of Sources by Samuel Noble & Alexander Treiger

Review of The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700 - 1700: An Anthology of Sources
By Samuel Noble & Alexander Treiger
ISBN: 0875807011
Price: £24.50

There are many introductions to Orthodox Christianity available in the English language today, covering the vast history of the Church and quoting various saints and sources to support their position. The most famous of these is Metropolitan Kallistos’ The Orthodox Church, which covers both the history of beliefs of the Church in a way which covers all key elements. Though even his books has a flaw, which Samuel Nobel addresses in the Introduction to The Orthodox Church in the Arab World. As Noble states, “The Chapter Entitled ‘The Church under Islam’ begins with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, with not the slightest hint that three Patriarchates had been under Islamic domination for more than eight centuries prior to that date.” And Noble highlights the same issue with various other texts.

It is in this respect that Noble and Trieger’s text comes as a breath of fresh air to any reader with an interest in reading about the experience of Christians in the Arab world before the 16th century. Noble has been able to collect and translate a collection of texts spanning the 1000 years between 700 and 1700, giving a sense of a diverse experience and collection of genres of writing produced by Christians in the Arab world during this time.

In my view the book is a great stride in out understanding of the experience of Arab Christians in the Middle Ages, with such texts as The Disputation of the Monk Abraham of Tiberius and Paul of Antioch’s Letter to a Muslim Friend demonstrating the interaction between the Christians and Muslims of the time, as well as other texts showing the forms of Apologetic technique being used, including the use of the Qur’an by Christian clergy to debate Muslims and explain the Orthodox faith in terms which they could understand. Noble’s translation of these texts allows for this experience to come to light for the first time and, in doing this, opens up a field of analysis of this intercultural dialogue at a time when Christian-Muslim relations are a heated topic in the context of the MENA region.

A weaker point of the book is the lack of analysis of relations in areas such as Egypt and the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox tradition, largely due to the author’s area of study being based around the Chalcedonian Orthodox community. This means that the book does not allow for a study of relationships between the two Orthodox communities in the Middle East at the time, though the stud of the Coptic Community in the context of the various caliphates has been an object of study by Medievalists and Egyptologists over the years already. 

In conclusion, Noble’s text provides a rare and wonderful glance into the Orthodox Church in the Arab World and fills a long neglected void in Scholarship regarding the Christians of the Middle East and the Arabic Christian community. The translation of these texts also allows for a peek into the various interactions between Christian and Muslim in these areas and the fascinating apologetic tradition which emerged from this. Noble has done a great service to Christian Scholarship in producing this text, which will hopefully open the eyes of others to this untapped area of study.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Sermon from British Orthodox London Mission on 10/05/14 for the Gospel Reading of John 6:47-56 Read by Deaon Daniel

In the name of the father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

In today’s Gospel, Christ explains to his followers that he himself is the living bread and that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide with him, comparing the temporary life offered through the manna given by God to Moses and the Israelites in the desert to the eternal life offered through his body and blood. For those around him, this was a difficult thing to hear, as the reactions show. Even amongst the disciples this is the case, as the verses beyond today’s Gospel tell us that they said that “this is a hard saying” and that many who had been following him walked with him no more after hearing this.

Though reading this chapter of St John’s Gospel brings thoughts to our minds such as “how can these people walk away like this” we see it all too often today when speaking to those about the Orthodox faith. To tell someone who is not Orthodox that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ is to invite a long winded debate about the difference between the real presence and symbolism and we must accept that, for even those who walked with Christ and heard him speak these words found the saying hard to comprehend.
Looking to the sayings of the fathers on this matter, the Eucharistic significance of the passage cannot be disputed as is the emphasis on the importance of the Eucharist in our Salvation. In St John Chrysostom’s commentary on the passage, we are told that it is a grave error to try to understand how we can eat the body of Christ in a physical sense and that “When we converse of spiritual things, let there be nothing secular in our souls.“

Regardless, Saint John Chrysostom goes on to tell us that throughout this passage Christ “continually handles the subject of the Mysteries, showing the necessity of the action, and that it must by all means be done,” even if we do not understand why. In this, Saint John Chrysostom asks us not to try to understand how we receive Christ through consuming the Eucharistic offering, simply to understand that it is a necessity of our Christian life.

And so we must ask, why is the Eucharist so important, and why is partaking this this mystery the way to be one with Christ? According to the Romanian Monastic thinker, Elder Cleopa, “to commune of the body and the blood of our Lord is a command of God,” this is again supported by today’s Gospel when Christ says that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” In this, the Eucharist becomes the receiving of life through the Body and Blood of Christ and therefore the true bread of life.

Amongst the Early Church fathers we see many statements explaining the nature of this bread and the evidential True Presence of Christ in this Holy Sacrament.  We see this view defended by great Theologians such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Ignatius of Antioch. These fathers, as the defenders of the Apostolic faith made it their duty to defend the teachings of the Apostles who heard this hard saying and came to terms with the mystery. As those who stand before the altar 2000 years later hearing the same words, we must ourselves come to terms with this hard saying ourselves, as though we are standing before Christ as he says that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” there is no life in us.

In accepting this, we must face the difficulty of comprehension and will most likely at times find the saying hard like the apostle did, especially in a world where everything is to be questioned, so we must also remember to take the words of St John Chrysostom on this matter to heart and “let there be nothing secular in our souls” when we approach this blessed gift, we must clear our minds of all attempts to approach the mystery as though it were an aspect of our worldly lives, and resist looking at it through the lense of worldly scrutiny. This daunting prospect of receiving the Body of the Son of Man must be approached on a separate level and with a far greater sense of reverence than any other moment in our lives, as it is a vital part of our salvation in Christ.

“How can we do this?” We may ask, as our lives are full of worries and concerns leaving us with little time to prepare to receive this greatest of gifts, and this is most certainly one of the most important questions we ask ourselves as we prepare for communion. To answer this question, we must understand the importance of the gift itself, for which we can turn to the most common prayer in all of Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer, which asks for God to “give us this day our daily bread.” As Christ told his Disciples in the Gospel today, the daily bread he gives is not a temporarily sustaining daily bread like that which came down in the Desert but the “bread which comes down from heaven that one may eat of it and not die.” In preparing to receive this Sacrament, we must see it as such, as a lifegiving bread, as the Body of our Lord himself. 

After coming to terms with the immensity of the Gift, we need to see its place in the life of the Church, since as Abba Haliegebriel reminds us, “all of the other Church Mysteries and works of the Church are oriented towards the Sacrament.” So in the same way as the life of the Church resolves around preparing for this gift, we must always work to prepare ourselves to receive this Holy Sacrament through our prayers and actions. During the Liturgy itself we pray to be counted worthy to receive this, admitting our unworthiness. In this humility we must live our daily lives, preparing for the Kingdom of Heaven.

If we remember this and spend our lives in contemplation of the immensity of this gift and its central role in our salvation we can start to shape our lives in a way which prepares us to receive it, never approaching it with secular thoughts and always remembering that this is the presence of Christ, given for the remission of our sins. It is in which submission and humility that we can overcome this hard saying and making Christ and his Church central to our lives.

I would like to leave you with a quote from the Coptic Monk, Fr. Matta El-Meskeen. He says “True movement towards God is in Christ, for he is the Son of God who comes to us on the cross, and on the cross we follow him back to the father.” As we prepare to receive the body of the son of man we must cast aside the thoughts which come from the world and focus on Christ, for he gave himself up for the sin of the world and gives himself to us through the bread of life, and only those who receive this gift for what it is can take up their cross and follow him to the father.