Archive for May, 2011

The difference between “of” and “for” in the definition of a word

For those of you who may be interested in the core meaning of the word “liturgy,” I give you the following relevant quote from an article titled “Leitourgeia and related terms,” written by Naphtali Lewis and published in the Autumn 1960 issue of the journal Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies:

…it was the established view in antiquity that the words of the λειτουργεία group were compounded of the elements “public” + “work”, to signify “work for the people”, hence “service to the state”. (Lewis 1960, p.117 — this article will eventually be publicly accessible here; for the time being you need a research library that either has a physical copy or access to Periodicals Archive Online.)

Read the rest of the article if you’re able and draw your own conclusions, but do note that the preposition he uses to describe the relationship of “work” and “the people” in the definition of liturgy is for and not of. He goes through five basic senses of the word as found in antiquity in the order that they appear to develop — euergetism on the part of the wealthy as a political service owed to the state, some kind of service benefiting the greater community, any kind of function that benefits somebody else, religious ritual, and (evidently) the service of a military engineer. Nowhere does he encounter a sense of the word that amounts to “task being undertaken by a large group”. Quite the opposite — it’s a task being offered by an individual for the benefit of a large group. In that sense, the idea of a θεία λειτουργεία, a Divine Liturgy, seems to be that it is the service being offered by God for the benefit of his politeia, his commonwealth (πολιτεία or πολιτεύμα — in the Apolytikion of the Cross it’s πολιτεύμα, “…καί τό σόν φυλάττων διά τού Σταυρού σου πολίτευμα” “…and guarding your commonwealth/republic/state/etc. through your cross”).

In any case, even if it is from 1960, this appears to be the present state of the research, as Lewis is still being cited in current works.

I know I’m a nobody of a grad student with a blog nobody reads, but if you are one of the two people who reads this, can you please help me put this “work of the people” nonsense to rest?

Update, 31 May 2011: Just minutes after posting the above, I saw this post over on New Liturgical Movement, which quotes Pope Benedict XVI in a letter to the Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music:

However, we always have to ask ourselves: Who is the true subject of the liturgy? The answer is simple: the Church. It is not the individual or the group that celebrates the liturgy, but it is primarily God’s action through the Church… (emphasis mine)

I think Benedict has slightly more influence than me, so this is good.


My first grown-up conference

This last fall, my PhD advisor’s PhD advisor paid a visit to the IU campus and met with some of us. After chatting with me a bit, he said, “You should think about going to the Oxford Patristics Conference next summer.” Oh, I said, I don’t know that I would have anything worth presenting. “Go just to go,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to meet people and hear what other people are doing.”

When I next met with my advisor, I told him the suggestion I had been given. “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” he said. “Let’s plan on you doing that.” So, I sort of tentatively planned to go, along with a list of other things that would be really cool to do over the summer.

In January, I met a Fordham doctoral student in theology at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Champaign, Illinois. (Long story.) We chatted a bit, and the Oxford Patristics Conference came up. “Yeah,” she said, “I’ll probably go, but there’s no way I’ll make the first deadline, and if you don’t make that batch, there’s almost no point in submitting anything.” I nodded in agreement, saying that I was being encouraged to go, but that I certainly didn’t have anything that was going to be ready by 31 January, and really, I probably wasn’t going to have anything appropriate this year anyway.

This semester, I took a Religious Studies seminar on early Christian mysticism — a lot of pagan neo-Platonic stuff, ironically, enough, but also Origen, Evagrius Pontus, Augustine, and (Ps.-)Dionysius. Plus, I was going to have to write a review of von Balthasar’s book on Maximus the Confessor. I realized that it was about as close to a course on patristics as I was going to get to take during my time here, and so I asked the professor, “Hey, do you think it would be worth my time to submit an abstract for the paper I’m writing for your class to Oxford?” “Oh, yes, definitely,” he said.

Well, okay, then. I thought of a topic, and I started researching it. In the meantime, I found out that some of the other cool things I thought I might do over the summer weren’t going to work out. On 25 March, I submitted an abstract for a “short communication” titled “Let us put away all earthly care: Mysticism and the Cherubikon of the Byzantine Rite in Late Antiquity”. I Tweeted, “RichardRBarrett just submitted an abstract. Yay.” This prompted Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick to ask me on Facebook, “Could you get any more vague?” Not willing to be outdone on the snark, I then Tweeted, “RichardRBarrett just did something that involved doing some things with other things. (Let me know if that’s sufficient, Fr. Andrew.)”


I turned the final paper in for the class this last Tuesday, got a very positive assessment of it back this morning, and I was inspired to drop the conference folks a line to see just what form our notification would take — we were supposed to hear by 15 May, but did we need to be checking the website, would we get an e-mail, or…?

We received over 675 abstracts, the organizer said, so what’s your reference number?

I told her. Five minutes later, I got an answer back: Yes, you were accepted.

So, there it is. I’ve presented at six graduate student conferences over the last five years, but this is my first big-boy pants conference, and it’s in my favorite place in the universe.

If I may — I’m getting a good chunk of support for this trip from a couple of sources, but it’s not quite the same thing as being a professor with a research account. If either of my regular readers have ever thought about clicking on that link up there that says “Tip Jar” and then thought, oh, well, he probably doesn’t need it, please let me assure you that this is an occasion where it would be most appreciated.

All this, and Thor rocked. It was a good day. Now I’ve got about 65 final exams on ancient Greek history to grade.

Repost — Review: Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis by Norman Russell

I wrote this review about a year and a half ago for a group blog that I’ve discovered has closed up shop. So, here it is again.

There’s a reason I’m a historian and not a theologian – or a philosopher, for that matter.

See, I’m a pretty simple guy at heart – I like narrative. I like characters. I like finding out what happened next. As soon as people start talking about contemplating the Godhead or mystical union or appropriation of the means of production or things like this, my eyes glass over until something shiny crosses my field of vision. Somebody Who Is A Big Name once gave me advice that I should try to figure out how to incorporate Hans Urs von Balthasar into my research interests if I really wanted them to be marketable; I got about thirty pages into the first volume of The Glory of the Lord when I had to put it down and admit I didn’t understand a word.

From that standpoint, I think I’m a member of the target audience for Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). Dr. Peter Bouteneff’s foreword says that the book is the product of “a specialist [who] cares enough to rethink [his] subject in non-specialist terms,” and I am definitely a non-specialist.

So what is this non-specialist’s verdict? Well… I can’t say I know any more about the theology of theosis than I did before I started the book, but that’s not Russell’s fault, that’s just a result of me not being terribly smart. However, as a historian, the book is very useful to me as an outline of the major contributors over the centuries to the understanding of what theosis is, and how they differ from one another.

Or is it? This is the problem with being a non-specialist reviewing a book for a non-specialist. I have to take the book’s word for it, for the most part.

At any rate, the overall project of the book is to be a general resource on theosis – what it is, the history of how Orthodox Christians talk about it, who has clarified which idea, and who agrees with whom and who doesn’t. It also spends time discussing how contemporary Orthodox theologians are looking at the issue, and also at least tries to move theosis out of the theoretical realm and to examine just what it means as a practical matter of day-to-day life.

Russell’s core argument is that theosis was a concept that was not fully articulated until St. Gregory Palamas, it was not fully articulated because it was not a matter of controversy until his time (with Russell arguing that all the elements of theosis were in place as normative for Orthodox Christians by the fourth century), and even so it has only been in the last four decades or so that it has taken center stage as a “common expression summarizing the whole economy [of] salvation.” Within the discussion, from the New Testament to the early Fathers, from them to Palamas, and from Palamas to Metropolitan John (Zizoulas) and Fr. John Behr, while there may be disagreement in the particulars of how theosis is described, Russell nonetheless sees a fundamental conceptual unity and convergence.

The structure of Russell’s presentation appears to be to deal with aspects of theosis in order of increasing complexity, which is perhaps why my copy is underlined less and less in later pages. The first question is, of course, is “what is theosis?” with an implied “why do we care?” Russell’s working definition is as follows:

Theosis is our restoration as persons to integrity and wholeness by participation in Christ through the Holy Spirit, in a process which is initiated in this world through our life of ecclesial communion and moral striving and finds ultimate fulfillment in our union with the Father – all within the broad context of the divine economy.

Okay – my eyes didn’t glass over too badly, so I guess that will work. Why do we care? Well, we care because, as stated above, this is the “ultimate fulfillment in our union with the Father”, our end goal as Christians.

From that starting point, Russell works through reasonably concrete questions of the relationship between theosis and salvation and how this relationship is situated within the divine economy, the scriptural foundations of theosis, and the impact of theosis on notions of Christian anthropology. In the last third of the book or so, Russell turns more to questions of a very speculative nature – self-transcendence, participation in the divine life, and union with God. (And before anybody yells at me for just quoting the last three chapter titles, it’s just about the best I can do with this section of the book. Passages like this one from the chapter on self-transcendence are why I’m not a theologian: “This ultimate unity is unity with the divine and yet it is not a unity with anything outside ourselves. It is when the self knows itself in a direct and immediate way that it ‘sees’ the divine.” Uh, okay.)

Thankfully, the epilogue, titled “Do You Live It?” tries to provide something of a practical framework for the more rarefied speculations:

The face that theosis encompasses the whole of the economy of salvation means that it is intended for all believers without exception. To live theosis, then, means to lead our life in an eschatological perspective within the ecclesial community, striving through prayer, participation in the Eucharist, and the practice of the moral life to attain the divine likeness, being conformed spiritually and corporeally to the body of Christ until we are brought into Christ’s identity and arrive ultimately at union with the Father.

And Russell must have known there would be a none-too-bright historian whose eyebrows would be crinkling with the strain of almost getting it, because he finishes the paragraph by saying:

In simpler terms, it means for an Orthodox Christian to live as a faithful member of the Church, attending the Liturgy, receiving the sacraments and keeping the commandments. Nothing more – or less – than that.

The book has a number of strengths; Russell appears to have a great deal of facility with the relevant authors, ancient and modern, and this combined with his organizational structure makes the book accessible and informative either as a whole or in distinct parts. He is also able to adduce evidence that goes beyond literary sources, iconographic and liturgical evidence for example, in a manner that is convincing and helpful. From that perspective, Fellow Workers With God is a useful quick-and-dirty introduction to the historian who needs a rundown of certain concepts and people without getting too confused by the theology; it does not shy away from the theology, however, so it would also seem appropriate as an introductory text for somebody just getting their feet wet in the world of Orthodox theology.

The prospective reader should be aware that this is certainly a St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press publication, for better or for worse (depending on the reader, of course). Among other things, I suspect that Russell will draw criticism from some circles in how he treats St. Dionysius the Areopagite; he follows academic convention in drawing a distinction between the disciple of St. Paul and the author of Celestial Hierarchies. Perhaps this may be seen as tempered by the amount of ink he gives Fr. Dumitru Staniloe, who evidently argued against the later dating of Celestial Hierarchies. I am also not familiar enough with contemporary theologians to know if those whom Russell examines in taking the present pulse of the question represent a group weighted too far in a particular direction. Certainly the citation of Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos), who has apparently suggested that theosis is “a fundamental human right” which thus “cannot remain the exclusive possession of the Orthodox”, leaves me scratching my head a bit. On the other hand, Russell quickly follows that up by reaffirming that “it is only within the Orthodox perspective… that theosis acquires its full theological, spiritual, and ecclesial dimensions.”

I don’t think that this will be a work that will be altogether convincing to scholars who are not already inclined to be sympathetic to the concept; Russell is rather too up front about the amount of human participation assumed in theosis to be able to assuage Calvinists, for example. In the epilogue, Russell references “Lutherans [who] have studied the notion of theosis closely to see how it can enrich their ideas of sanctification and justification,” but the obvious next two questions – which Lutherans, and how many – aren’t answered with any clarity. From this standpoint, it is unfortunate, if ultimately not problematic from a standpoint of Tradition or even in terms of how Russell handles the matter, that one of the shortest chapters in the body of the book is “The Biblical Foundations of Theosis,” clocking in at a mere sixteen pages.

In conclusion, this is a book that, for my purposes, was quite informative and will bear re-reading as a reference. I still can’t quite engage the guts of the subject matter, and I’m not sure I ever will, but I’m at least more informed than I was. I’m not sure that Russell’s work contributed to my theosis, but perhaps my review may contribute to his.


Pulling some old things out of the trunk

In light of some very recent events, I thought it might not be the worst idea in the world to repost this, albeit with some introductory matter; it does seem to me that there is more to say, six years after it was published. For five of those years I’ve been a fairly regular reader of several blogs. For four of those years I have been a minor contributor to “Orthoblogdom”. There have been some, in their own way, high-profile (let’s agree that there’s an asterisk there) conversions to and high-profile departures from Orthodox Christianity that seem to have happened within the blogosphere (even within the last couple of weeks), as though their actual baptisms and chrismations and communion and living out of the Christian life were themselves more or less irrelevant — rather, what was important was how it was going to validate or invalidate what they blogged about. In the last couple of days, it looks like perhaps Orthodoxy in America has developed, at least on a very small scale (although, considering what I expect some of the consequences will be for at least one of the players, perhaps not so small to that person) it’s own version of WikiLeaks-style problems. There are attempts out there, generally bad, to create an Orthodox version of Facebook; to some extent, Orthodox blogging is Orthodox Facebook. It’s looser, less structured, less organized, but would we expect any less — or, perhaps, any more?

I said that there was an asterisk next to “high-profile” earlier. You want reality? Reality is that there is a group on Facebook called “I Bet I Can Find 1,000,000 Orthodox Christians on Facebook” that, three years after it got started, has just over 25,000 members. Reality is that a few months ago, statistics were publicly released for an Orthodox outreach website that was touted as a huge success. When I did the math, I found that the site in question had had less traffic in its entire two years of existence than this very blog had in its first year — a blog that something like five people read on a regular basis. The Internet has a way of papering over this state of affairs. One can start a group blog and call it an “institute”. One can have an individual blog and call themselves a “journalist”. Perspective is important, particularly as regards self-selection and the signal-to-noise ratio. If you’re a blogger, you’re part of a self-selected bunch. If you’re Orthodox, you’re part of a smaller self-selected bunch. If you’re an Orthodox convert, you’re part of a self-selected bunch that’s even smaller than that. If you’re an Orthodox convert who blogs, you’re part of an unbelievably tiny self-selected bunch. You can call yourself whatever you want and you can style yourself as representative of whatever you want, but don’t kid yourself about what you actually are just because you’ve got a premium theme on WordPress and a word in a dead language in your blog title (something I have been in a small way sticking my elbow into the ribs of since day one here, even if I don’t call a lot of attention to it) or because you’ve got a group blog with some pretend organizational name. Some of the self-appointed heroes and prophets of Internet Orthodoxy would do well to remember that a blog that nobody’s paying you to write doesn’t make you CNN, or Meet the Press, or Edward R. Murrow for the twenty-first century. It doesn’t even make you the Drudge Report. It makes you freaking public access, folks. The way some people smugly pat themselves on the back for whatever change they think they’ve effected, or are effecting, by virtue of a self-important blog, and use it to justify some pretty nasty actions (like, say, posting e-mails that aren’t yours that were sent to you by yet another person to whom they didn’t belong knowing full well that somebody else is likely going to lose their job over it — something like that) — how can we call this any form of Christianity with a straight face, let alone Orthodox Christianity? Really? I call it public backstabbing.

Besides the wannabe Woodwardopouloi and Bernsteinevskies, there are the Orthodox bloggers (or ex-Orthodox bloggers, I might also say) who are, plain and simple, cranks who just get crankier with every post. This is a phenomenon that I suspect would be unnecessary in an Orthodox culture; cranks have a social function after all, it’s just that Orthodox cranks don’t have a social function in American culture. What they do have are broadband connections and/or library cards. They may be entertaining from time to time, they may be thought-provoking, they may be outrageous, but what the Internet also teaches them to be is narcissistic and arrogant.

I recognize that somebody criticizing people who blog by means of a blog is problematic, and I don’t have an easy way around that one. What I can say is that as somebody who keeps a blog, even one that virtually nobody cares about (I get 60-70 hits on a busy day, and most of my hits come from people looking for Greek answer keys), I have always tried to be mindful that I published an article called “Becoming Orthodox in Spite of the Internet”. I don’t blog about theology, I’ve never made this about my conversion experience, and in general I don’t get into the various online cockfights (which is why, I think, I’m generally ignored). It’s a wannabe academic’s notebook of random things. I’ve spent more time writing about not getting into (and then getting into) grad school and why I think Christopher Nolan is influenced by The Prisoner than I have about this or that theological position. I’ve written about places I’ve been and things I’ve learned and the things I’m interested in, but I don’t use this blog to try to style myself as an Orthodox Prophet for the Digital Wilderness. The point is, I still think the things that concerned me about Internet Orthodoxy six years ago are legitimate points of concern today, if not vastly moreso, and I’ve tried to not contribute to the problem — probably unsuccessfully, but that’s the reality of being a human being.

Anyway, here it is:

Becoming Orthodox in Spite of the Internet

The Internet provides an unprecedented amount of information on virtually any topic, all at the click of a mouse. Fly-fishing, comic book collecting, the history of woodcarving, how to knit sweaters for your dog–it’s all out there. Some of it’s even useful. Not only that, it so happens that there are a huge number of websites out there devoted entirely to Orthodox Christianity. Sounds like a wonderful thing, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. The Internet has the potential to be the biggest stumbling block over which an inquirer might trip. As somebody who was recently received into the Church after a two-year period of inquiry and instruction, I certainly found this to be the case.

I still recall my first time in an Orthodox church, and my reaction to it. It was St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle, Washington–it’s a seventy year-old building, with a very tall and ornate iconostasis, candles and icons covering virtually every space on the walls, and decades’ worth of incense permeating everything. As a liturgical environment, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and it all added up to a very tangible awareness of the presence of God. You could have knocked me over with a feather. My reaction came in three stages: first, while still in the nave, I felt compelled to light candles. Second, before leaving the premises, I dropped about $50 at their book counter. Third, as soon as I got home, I did a Google search on “Orthodox Christianity” and browsed through the hits.

Sound familiar? And why not? That’s how we’ve been trained, in this age of the Information Superhighway. When I was a little kid, if a new topic of interest made itself known to me, the first thing I would do was to go to the library and look it up there, but the Internet makes it so that you don’t even have to leave your home. Googling “Orthodox Christianity” gives you lots of interesting-looking web pages right off the bat: the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese home page, the Orthodox Church in America home page, something called “”, the Orthodox Christian Fellowship site, another page called “Orthodox Ireland”, a document called “Celtic Orthodoxy–the Celtic Orthodox Christian Revival”… hm. And here’s a site run by something called “The American Orthodox Church” that claims to be the “Voice of American Orthodox Catholic Christianity”. A note on the page says “The American Orthodox Church was originally established in 1927 with the blessings of the Holy Patriarchate of Moscow. No Other so-called ‘Mother Church’ or jurisdiction has been in existence until 1971-1972 and this is why we are the true Mother Church in the USA and Canada.”

And herein lies the problem with the phenomenon of “Internet Orthodoxy”. There is no barrier to entry with respect to posting pages on the World Wide Web; anybody with a computer and a phone jack can publish anything they want and make it accessible to anyone using a search engine. (Or, as UC Berkeley computer science professor Robert Wilensky puts it, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.”) There is a lot out there that the wide-eyed inquirer can easily encounter, for which they simply will not have the spiritual maturity to deal with. At least two of the sites listed above are going to be controversial for people within the Church; how in the world is an inquirer who might not even have attended a service yet going to make any sense of it?

Which brings us to another issue–no amount of information and no amount of reading is going to make one Orthodox. Knowledge will not bring one into the Church; the Holy Spirit has to do that. That’s sounds like a horrible thing to say in our rational day and age, but the books and websites are, plainly, no substitute for prayer, going to services, establishing a relationship with and receiving instruction from a priest. I truly wonder how today’s inquirers would do with the early practice of catechumens knowing nothing of the Mysteries of the Church until after their baptism–and not even being told exactly what was happening to them in their baptism until after it was already done! The Church at that time held that knowledge wasn’t going to do one a lot of good until they were already part of the family and could put that knowledge in context. Perhaps, in this time of unrestricted, instantly available information, there’s something we can learn from that.

In this “do-it-yourself” world, the truth of the matter is that you cannot teach yourself to be Orthodox, regardless of how good the instructional materials seem to be. A close family member of mine is undergoing her own inquiry right now; we recently had a conversation where she told me about having spent three-quarters of her day reading things on the Internet, but she hadn’t yet been to a service. I gently suggested that the next thing she needed to do was to go to a Divine Liturgy, and that perhaps she had better not read anything more until she had done so. If you want to learn more about the Church, go to church. It’s that easy, and that difficult.

Something else that one is likely to encounter on the Internet: chat rooms, discussion groups, mailing lists, newsgroups, whatever you want to call them, proclaiming to be places where one can discuss Orthodoxy. I spent a lot of time in these early on in my inquiry, and for my part, I found the tone of most of these to be as un-Christian as one could get–petty, contentious, often with the overall message of “my jurisdiction is holier than your jurisdiction”, and frequently becoming dominated by arguments over secular politics. What also would inevitably occur is the appearance of non-Orthodox and sometimes non-Christian posters who weren’t truly interested in honest discussion, but rather just being gadflies. Even in some of the milder of these groups, where in theory jurisdictional discussions were off-limits, it seemed that folks had a tendency to be on a fairly short fuse, and exchanges could turn into yelling matches rather quickly. I reached a point where I realized that these groups were distracting my catechesis; they were in no way contributing to it. It was so much “godless chatter”, of which St. Paul counseled avoidance (1 Timothy 6:20).

Are there good uses of the Internet for the inquirer and catechumen? Of course. The home pages for the canonical Orthodox jurisdictions, as well as for most individual parishes, provide a lot of wonderful information, and the outside links they provide are in general quite trustworthy. There are excellent resources out there with respect to the Orthodox approach to prayer, liturgical texts, setting up the home icon corner, as well as a wonderful database of the writings of the Church Fathers. Other websites have made the acquisition of previously not-so-easy-to-find liturgical items a fairly simple matter–prayer books, icons, prayer ropes, incense, home censers, candles, recordings of the music of the Church, and so on. At the same time, it is also true that many of the suppliers of these items are themselves of a questionable status; that’s not to say they’re off-limits, but the inquirer visiting some of these online establishments must exercise caution and discernment about where they venture on these sites. Perhaps, if a local parish has an ordering relationship with a supplier like Light and Life, the inquirer is better off going that route–and that way, the parish will benefit. Ask your priest, once you have a relationship with one.

For my part, I can honestly say that I became Orthodox in spite of the Internet, rather than because of it. It wasn’t until I decided that I would limit my exposure to those sites run by a canonical jurisdiction or to online shops, and avoid pretty much everything else, that a lot of things became clearer for me on my road to conversion. At most, an inquirer’s Orthosurfing needs to judiciously supplement, rather than supplant, their attendance at services, prayer, and talking to a priest. If you want to know more about the various historical and doctrinal issues, your local parish has either a good library, a well-stocked book counter, or both, and the priest can suggest which books to read. Books are still no substitute for going to church, but at least it is more likely that a book by a reputable author and publisher will have been carefully vetted in a way that a website probably will not have been.

Unfortunately, the signal-to-noise ratio with respect to what’s out there on the Net is so low, the wheat will sit right next to the chaff and most inquirers–and frankly, most Orthodox laity–won’t be able to tell the difference. If you still want to attempt to use the Internet as a resource, a search engine is only going to give you a list of hits that will be, at best, confusing once you start working your way through all of them. Better to start out with the home pages of the canonical jurisdictions, and take note of the pages to which they’ve linked.

But hey, a Google search is still great for figuring out how to spin thread from cat hair.

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