Going to hear Malcolm Guite at Regent College’s Laing Lectures this week reminded me once again that western Christianity does, indeed, have its own resources and treasures that can be used by the Spirit for renewal. While I love delving into Eastern Orthodoxy — Anthony Bloom, John Behr, Kallistos Ware, Andrew Louth, Archimandrite Sophrony, The Philokalia, Theophan the Recluse (et al., et al.) — it should be remembered that my own tradition has rich resources at its disposal.
In particular, in light not only of Malcolm Guite but also as a response to an annoyance of mine (‘Greek/eastern theology is so much more poetic than Latin/western theology’), I once made an incomplete list of ‘poet saints of the West’:
Godric! (May 21)
Paulinus of Nola (June 22)
Nicetas of Remesiana, poss. Te Deum (22 June or 7 Jan)
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Sedulius a saint?
Thérese de Lisieux
I don’t know why that was the list — what about St John of the Cross? St Ambrose? St Thomas Aquinas? C S Lewis?
We have many poet saints in our tradition, and they are worth getting to know — imagination bridges the gap from earth to heaven, like the Bifrost of the Norse. So, to close, one of Guite’s programmatic quotations, from Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
In 2018, I finished 56 books. Those that were either my chosen spiritual/theological/devotional reading or ended up having some such impact are:
Faith, Hope and Poetry by Malcolm Guite
Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth
Modern Orthodox Thinkers from the Philokalia to the Present by Andrew Louth
Robert Grosseteste by R W Southern
The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters
The Philokalia, vol. 1, trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware
Five Books on Consideration, by St Bernard of Clairvaux
The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite trans. John Parker
On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian trans. Kenneth P Wesche
Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 2, part 1, by Aloys Grillmeier
With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray
A World Transformed by Lisa Deam
Money, Sex and Power by Richard Foster
A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love by Alan Jacobs
My friend’s book about John Chrysostom
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Dayspring MacLeod
The World of Medieval Monasticism by Gert Melville
On the Thirty-nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity by Oliver O’Donovan
Some of these I read for work, but when work involves reading theology and the history of theology, one’s own thinking cannot remain unchallenged. Some of these will be re-read; many have lessons that need to be applied to my life.
The most ‘normal’ book I read, it seems, was Richard Foster, Money, Sex and Power. I am currently working through St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations. Maybe next I’ll read A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren — hop on the bandwagon late (as usual); I got it free and exclaimed, ‘Hey, a Brian McLaren book from before he was a heretic!’
I am slowly working my way through the collection of essays, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality, ed. Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif. Right now, I am reading the chapter about Scripture in The Philokalia by Douglas Burton-Christie (who wrote a good book about Scripture and the Desert Fathers called The Word in the Desert). Of the many important and interesting things he is bringing to light from the teachings of the fathers in the The Philokalia is this:
You must know yourself to understand Scripture.
Gnothi seauton — Know thyself, said the old oracle at Delphi.
How does knowledge of myself contribute to knowledge of Scripture?
One of the important things we need to keep in mind when we consider the entire monastic, ascetic, and mystical tradition of Christianity, is that the Bible is not simply a repository of stories and facts that we can come to a full apprehension of by our application of better philological and historical methodologies. For them, it was the word of God, and understanding it was part of being transformed, part of acquiring wisdom, part of knowing God.
This tradition, that draws from Origen but, in this Philokalia, includes St Maximus the Confessor and Evagrius, is more concerned with the spiritual sense of Scripture (which includes but is not limited to allegory).
We have here two different ways of knowing Scripture, ways that Henri de Lubac, in Medieval Exegesis, sees as both important, although one had (and has) the ascendancy. The way most of moderns read Scripture is the pursuit of facts, details, surface realities. This, at a certain level, anyone can do. It does not necessarily require knowledge of myself to have an intellectual grasp of the Pauline articulation of justification, or to argue that the Philistines were so good at beating the Israelites because they entered the Iron Age first. It requires philology, history, maybe philosophy.
The other way is the pathway of wisdom. This is the pathway where the question of justification is driven into my own beating heart and cannot keep itself to my intellect. Here, in this pathway, factoids like, ‘Philistines had iron’, are interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the drive towards understanding myself, the divine, the world, and how best to live in the midst of them all.
This latter method reads the prophets and asks, ‘How shall I live?’ The former reads the prophets and asks, ‘What did this mean to the original audience?’
But to be able to use Scripture to draw oneself up to God, to be able to be deified by reading Scripture, to figure out how to live with Scripture as a light — this requires self-knowledge. And self-knowledge is not something any age, our own included, has been particularly comfortable; explaining why the ancient wisdom keeps harping on it.
This theme, ‘Know thyself’, is a favourite amongst many poets, among them Sir John Davies (1569-1626), as explicated by Malcolm Guite in Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here). So let me break off and give you instead a selection from Sir John Davies, Nosce Teipsum:
For this the wisest of all mortal men
Said, He knew nought but that he nought did know;
And the great mocking master mocked not then,
When he said, Truth was buried deep below.
For how may we to others’ things attain,
When none of us his own soul understands?
For which the devil mocks our curious brain,
When, Know thyself, his oracle commands.
For why should we the busy soul believe,
When boldly she concludes of that and this;
When of herself she can no judgment give,
Nor how, nor whence, nor where, nor what she is?
All things without, which round about we see,
We seek to know, and how therewith to do;
But that whereby we reason, live, and be,
Within ourselves we strangers are thereto.
We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ebbs and floods of Nile;
This coming Tuesday is the feast of St James, the brother of our Lord, and first bishop of Jerusalem. To celebrate this feast, my church has decided to worship using the Liturgy of St James! How cool is that? This is precisely the sort of way I would like to celebrate a saint as well — worship God in a way (descended from how) he did!
For example, reading St Anselm’s Meditations on the feast of St Anselm. Using a 1552 BCP to commemorate Cranmer? Using the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes on his commemoration. Praying the Jesus Prayer to commemorate St Gregory Palamas. Or maybe reading The Triads. I like reading their works — read Ambrose on his feast, Augustine on his own, likewise Basil, the Gregories, Chrysostom. Read about Augustine of Canterbury for his. That sort of thing.
And what is the Divine Liturgy of St James?
It is one of the oldest liturgies of the church, especially when we reduce the body of liturgies examined to those in continual use. Some suspect it is the oldest, but that’s a difficult thing to prove definitively. It is a traditional eucharistic liturgy from the church in Jerusalem, hence its association with St James. The traditional liturgy of a city is often associated with its first bishop, or, at least, a famous one — so, St Mark in Alexandria, but St Ambrose in Milan and St Gregory the Great in Rome.
It is unlikely to have been the actual divine liturgy used by St James, just as the entirety of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is not John Chrysostom’s (the anaphora is, though, as demonstrated by Robert Taft some years ago). From what I gather over at the OrthodoxWiki, the liturgy as we have it is probably a fourth-century version of the traditional Jerusalem liturgy, maybe from the time of St Cyril.
That said, there is definitely a pre-Cyril, indeed Ante-Nicene, substratum to this text. Some claim that you can see elements of Aramaic idiom in some parts of the liturgy. This I cannot say, but I can say that to this day it is the divine liturgy of many Syriac-speaking churches. It includes the ‘lift up your hearts’ (sursum corda) section at the beginning of the anaphora, in common, then, with the third-century Apostolic Tradition (attributed by scholars to Hippolytus), the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Roman Mass, and the Book of Common Prayer.
It is a beautiful liturgy, full of deep theology — read it here.
What do we gain if, this Tuesday, we celebrate Holy Communion with this liturgy, like the Eastern Orthodox churches (and my church)?
Well, regardless of which liturgy one uses, the mystic union of the sacrament of Holy Communion is always a moment of grace. In less important ways, using this liturgy is a way to connect through time and space with other Christians and honour one of the leading apostles. Praying these prayers joins with many centuries of Christian worship. It joins us with Jerusalem, the Holy City. It cuts through time and space.
That’s pretty cool. It thus serves as a reminder of the ongoing reality of our holy, wholly powerful, God.
I am reading Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love right now, part of an attempt to make me a better reader, since I study and teach texts. What follows is perhaps not the hermeneutics of love, but I hope it is at least helpful? To soften it, I do think Jacobs has written an interesting, if at times challenging (I am more a philologist than literary critic) book. Sometimes I wonder why we need to work our way through Bakhtin to reach the end of the journey, but I imagine it is all worth it.
Anyway, in his discussion of Bakhtin, Jacobs mentions the Russian critic’s Orthodox background (even if Bakhtin was not himself particularly orthodox), and after a brief nod to theosis writes:
Moreover — and this is a still more important point for our purposes here — the God in whose image we were made and are being remade is a Trinity, that is, an intrinsically relational being. Here again we must invoke a doctrine that, although not unique to Orthodoxy, is characteristic of it: perichoresis, the eternal loving dance in which the persons of the Trinity are intertwined. To become deified … is to learn to practice with our neighbors the perichoretic movements that are so awkward for fallen human beings. (63)
There are two weaknesses here, one which this section shares with the preceding paragraph about theosis, and which is entirely forgivable, since no one can read everything. I shall quickly dispense with the first weakness, which is a lack of deep engagement with Orthodox thought on these points. Jacobs is neither a professional theologian nor, indeed, Orthodox. His métier is English literature and literary criticism. And he knows that body of literature very well. To complain that he does not reference Zizioulas on the Trinity or any of the Russian spiritual masters or contemporaries of Bakhtin discussed in Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers would verge on the petty. It would have been nice to see such engagement, nonetheless.
Then again, perhaps such engagement may have saved him from the other weakness, which is an error of fact.
Perichoresis is not about dancing, despite many westerners thinking so (most recently Richard Rohr).
The first place I learned that this word is not about dancing was Edith M. Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, her last book as an Anglican (she is now Orthodox). She phrased it very well, and if my notes were with me instead in a shipping container in the port of Vancouver, I’d share her thoughts with you. Alas.
Anyway, the O in perichoresis is long, not short (an omega, not an omicron). If this were about the ‘divine dance’ (into which we are allegedly invited in the minds of some), the O would be short. Instead, it is related to the verb choreo, translated by the big, fat Greek dictionary (affectionately known as LSJ) variously, depending on context. The most relevant of the brief definitions:
make room for another, give way, withdraw
after Homer,go forward, advance
to be in motion or flux
have room for a thing, hold, contain
The related verb perichoreo:
A.go round, “σὺ περιχώρει λαβὼν τὴν χέρνιβα” Ar.Av.958; π. τὴν Ἑλλάδα Thalesap. D.L.1.44. II.rotate, Anaxag.9, 12. 2.to be transferred to, come to in succession, “ἡ βασιληΐη π. ἐς Δαρεῖον” Hdt. 1.210 ; “ἡ ὀργὴ π. ἐς τό τινων μίασμα” D.C.40.49.
The noun derived therefrom in Classical Greek is given by LSJ simply to mean ‘rotation’. This is obviously not exactly what Greek theology means while talking about the inner life of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. From what I can tell, when the word was used by St Gregory of Nazianzus (possibly the first to apply perichoresis to the Holy Trinity), it referred to mutual coinhering or mutual indwelling.
Thus, the choreo has to do with making room, and peri, literally ‘around’ as a prefix, has to do with the mutuality of the three. The point is not that the three divine Persons are dancing and making room in the divine dance for each, as cute and happy that image is. That is actually a very poor analogy, especially given the apophaticism of St Gregory in other places, that is, given his insistence on divine incomprehensibility and the utter unlikeness of God to us.
Rather, it has to do with the divine ousia, the essence of God Almighty, whereby that which the Father is, so also is the Son, and so also is the Holy Spirit. Whatever one does or is, so are the others. They have a single nature, substance, essence, and thus, although three persons, they mutually coinhere in perfect love. They do not ‘dance’ and let the other have room to dance. It is more intimate than that.
When writing about Jordan Peterson and marriage as a case example of how Christians should have a different approach to life from the world, I made reference to an excellent article by Fr John Behr, ‘From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human‘, in the current issue of The Wheel. In this article, where Fr John discusses the basis of biblical anthropology and what maleness and femaleness have to do with this, he talks about the martyrdom of marriage, as well as the martyrdom of parenthood.
Here is a way of viewing marriage most of us are unused to.
Martyrdom was long regarded in the Christian tradition as the highest expression of faithfulness to Christ. From St Stephen to St Polycarp, St Perpetua, St Cyprian, St Alban, the martyrs were seen as the pinnacle of Christian devotion. Second only were the confessors, those imprisoned but not killed for the faith. Martyrs had a guarantee of heavenly glory, even those as yet unbaptised (these communities believed in baptismal regeneration, remember).
The lapsed, who buckled and gave in, were a problem. Could their post-persecution penitence avail them anything? The traditores, who handed over church property, were even worse. Traitors.
Martyrdom helped shape the church’s image and strength as a community (an unintended consequence).
When martyrdom went away, the monks became living martyrs. They abandoned all to gain everything. They moved to the desert. They suffered to come near to Christ.
The martyr dies on behalf of something bigger than him/herself. The martyr suffers out of love of something better than this present darkness. The martyr is (literally) a witness to the glory of Christ.
In marriage, husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Christ died for the church. Wives are called (controversially) to submit to and respect their husbands.
Marriage is a living death.
Whoa, whoa, whoa.
That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?
Speaking as a happily married man with close to eleven years experience, I don’t know that it is. In marriage, I must die. Or rather, ego must die. As a husband, I must love my wife. Love her the way Christ loves the church. Jesus abandoned everything for His bride. He who knew no sin became sin for His bride. He who had the form of God took on the form of a slave for His bride. He who was immortal died for His bride. He who made flesh took on flesh for His bride.
Jesus Christ was whipped, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross.
Out of love for His bride.
Marriage becomes a high calling, doesn’t it?
Out of love for God, I have to love my wife enormously. I have to die to myself for her. Every. Single. Day. What is best for her? What would make her happy? What would make her life easier? Can I care for our son in the morning so she can get some more sleep? (Yes.) Can I bathe him so she can have a break? (Yes.) Can I do some dishes? (Yes.) Can I watch chick flicks? (Yes.) Can I forego Star Trek to give her the quality time she needs? (I mean, I guess so.) Can I do our taxes on time? (Maybe. I mean: Yes.) Can I wash, hang up, and put away laundry? (Yes, but sometimes I forget step 3.)
Bachelor MJH would do dishes only when absolutely necessary. He would stay up late. He would eat too much ice cream. Drink too much beer. Vacuum only occasionally. Watch Star Trek every night. Avoid chick flicks. Marriage is a means of grace that can strip away this ego-centred life.
Instead, I put my wife before myself.
And, of course, two human persons living together are not exactly a binitarian model of the Trinity. Seeking to work out differences and difficulties with love, with humility, with patience. This is also a good place for ego to come and die, and for Christ to come and reign.
Marriage is a living death, but it is a good way to die.
And hopefully, by living this way, my marriage can witness to Christ. Like a martyr.
Every once in a while, someone asks me what I think of Jordan Peterson, usually on the grounds that I’m Canadian. Or that I studied at the University of Toronto. This is akin to people asking me what I think of Pope Francis since I study ‘popes’. I dunno. Don’t really know enough, to be honest. Of course, not knowing enough about the man hasn’t stopped any of Peterson’s critics yet, has it?
In February, I was chatting with some fellow Christians who were interested in Peterson and reading his book Twelve Rules for Life. They spoke highly of the book, saying that, although Peterson is not a Christian, he talks about the Bible and a lot of the things he says are in agreement with Christian teaching.
I’ve been mulling this over, especially after a fellow catholic Anglican called the book ‘insipid’. I’ve also read a few articles on the man, usually via Mark Galli (editor-in-chief of Christianity Today) in his weekly e-mail or First Things. Galli himself is not a commentator on Peterson, he simply links to articles. First Things is careful of Peterson, I would say, delicately critical of him at times but also ready to point out the folly of many of the man’s critics. Anyway, thinking this over, my initial reaction to Christians who see Peterson as an ally remains:
Ally in what?
I don’t want to be holier-than-thou in what follows. I believe that gender, sexuality, men’s issues, etc., etc. are important, and that our culture and civilisation are washing these things away precipitously, in such a way that, in my grimmer moments, I suspect that western culture, despite the good it has brought to the world, is going to commit suicide (much like the Roman Empire is said to have done).
But I also think that our first priority vis a vis western culture — as with Chinese culture, Arabian culture, Sudanese culture — is the making of disciples.
Peterson may support many of the same values of ‘family’ and share much of the traditional Christian worldview on ‘gender’, but do not mistake this for the heart of the church militant here on earth. Our goal is to love our neighbours and help them find their way to the feet of Jesus our Master as His disciples to become citizens of heaven.
Let us consider marriage as a case study, based entirely on hearsay about Peterson.
According to hearsay, Peterson believes that the aimless, drifting, frustrated, infantile, juvenile young men of America would benefit from the stability provided by an early, committed, faithful marriage. This is no doubt true. Indeed, I suspect that white Anglophone society is having a bit of a male crisis that needs to be resolved, and part of that crisis is a refusal to grow up. I once heard a fellow on approach to middle age (if he’s middle aged, then I’m closer than I’d like) remarking that calling his partner his ‘girlfriend’ seems so childish. I’m too nice in person to say, ‘Grow up, commit, and marry her.’
I have two thoughts about this proposal, one about discipleship, the other about marriage.
First, as Christians, we should know that this is but one prescription for but one symptom of a deeper malady afflicting our society and every society of all of history. The real cure for our social ills isn’t marriage. If we want men to grow up and take charge of their lives, while most of us in a very normal way will do this through marriage and fatherhood, this answer is not necessarily that of the Bible.
Becoming disciples of Jesus is the real cure. I know, how old-fashioned of me! I sound like a Bible-thumping Baptist evangelist from the Deep South or something, not the sort of person who just today was praying the Jesus Prayer before the tomb of the Venerable St Bede and has a theology degree!
Awkward as it is, Jesus is the answer.
And when I say this, I mean Jesus the Christ, the risen, ascended saviour, God the Word who became incarnate as a man. The Master of the Universe Crucified for us. One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. To quote Peter the Fuller (not Peter Furler):
Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy upon us.
I write this as a married man and a father, but as one who has single friends who lead full, rich lives that do not lack direction. For many of them, this direction comes from Christ. One of my single familiars is changing careers to become a missionary. Another one has found the encounter with Christ in the liturgy and the community of his church to be the great comfort in his life. (And his cat.) Other single friends have found a rootedness in Jesus that they express in art and live out in community.
If we promote Peterson’s solution, we will be telling these brothers and sisters that they are part of the problem, whereas in reality they already found the solution.
Second, then, marriage is not the be-all and end-all of the human state. Our single Saviour never married. St Paul lived in a celibate state. From what I can tell, so did some of the prophets. Marriage can be life-affirming, beautiful, powerful, healthy, and transformative. The asceticism, or the martyrdom (to borrow from Fr John Behr), of marriage can shape us into the likeness of Christ. Theosis can be achieved in the married state. Marriage provides certain circumstances for our growth as disciples.
But the Bible and the tradition are not necessarily that into marriage, are they? I mean, from the cult of marriage in evangelicalism and contemporary Roman Catholic stuff, you’d think that marriage was the best thing ever. In the long Christian and biblical tradition, marriage and sex are approved of, and seen as part of the God-ordained natural order. But Jesus talks about those who are made eunuchs for the Kingdom of the Heavens, and St Paul thinks it would be better if everyone could be celibate without burning with lust.
Tradition is unsure what to do with marriage, probably partly because in most pre-modern societies marriage is very much of this world — a social contract, an economic arrangement, a political alliance.
Without attempting a full theology of marriage and sexuality, it is perhaps enough to note that Scripture and tradition approve of both marriage and the single life. The disciple is to sit at the feet of Jesus in either estate.
But that means that marriage can’t be the answer, doesn’t it?
Indeed, once again, a Christian view of marriage just brings us back to Jesus as the answer. We need to look into Him, plug into Him, and live as His faithful disciples if we’re ever going to see western culture re-evangelised. That’s what society needs, not merely more married couples. How will a growing number of married unbelievers save the soul of western society?
So: Jordan Peterson? I don’t know enough to say. I think he’s probably not wrong on a lot of things, but Christians need to remember that the Kingdom of the Heavens is bigger and stranger than psychology and the things of this world.