All posts by Kristina Egumenovska

Steve Cochrane, Asia’s Forgotten Christian Story (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2019)

Asia’s Forgotten Christian Story by Steve Cochrane is a book dedicated to Christian-Muslim relations by studying Christian and Muslim sources on monastic activity in Mesopotamia and other regions in ninth-century Asia, at the time of the first 100 years of the Abbasid Caliphate rule when new restrictions were imposed on the practice of Christian faith. The exploration is done solely through the lenses of the Church of the East, a Church related to the Nestorian controversy over the unity of the divine and the human in Christ, also known as Nestorian heresy in the Christian theological doctrine. If the reader has no background on this theological landmark in the history of Christian doctrine, the book’s subtitle Church of the East Monastic Mission in Ninth century Asia might be of limited help to clarify its non-orthodox perspective. Nonetheless, the book’s thematic dedication to the monastic mission of the Assyrian Church of the East (i.e. Nestorian or East Syrian Church) is more specifically situated in the Introduction, relative both to its opposition to the Miaphysite or West Syrian Church, and to its new relations with the Catholic Church due to the common Christological document agreed upon by the Church of the East and the representatives of the Catholic Church during the Pontificate of John Paul II in 1994. The positioning relative to the Eastern Orthodox Christianity is not given. It is stated that western scholarship at times ignored or dismissed the Church’s history in Asia as the story of a heretical church. It is then claimed without much elaboration, that the Church of the East Christological position is “consistent with the stance of Antioch” (p.2) but is an attempt, in author’s terms, to articulate the mystery of the divinity and humanity of Christ in different “linguistic and theological terms” (ibid).

One could argue that this initial scarcity of detailed, accurate and in-depth historical and theological notation is irrelevant as the book concerns a particular period of Christian-Muslim relations and aims to contribute to the “larger history and future of these relations” (p.6). We will come to this seeming irrelevance later.

Pointing correctly that monastic activity in mission was taking place not only before and after Islam in Arabia and West Asia but also further east as well, the monastic mission is presented through various sources (letters, witnessing, poetry and reflections by Muslim authors, Islamic writings about Christian monasteries, d’rasa/debate, including a collection of graffiti verses, ascetic cannons), yet scantily and superficially: from a purely reader’s perspective it offers bits and pieces of information which present the various aspects of monastic mission in a somewhat bricolage form, as each short chapter can be approached in no necessary (reading) order.

On one hand, the impression of a bricolage compilation of sources might be simply due to the fact that Asia’s Forgotten Christian Story is abridged version of Many Monks across the Sea: Church of the East Monastic Mission in Ninth century Asia, by the same author. On another hand, this might be ‘welcome’ by some as it exhorts no exigent commitment on reader’s side, conveying nevertheless the message that these sources indicate a certain level of readership, interest and importance of the monasteries for the Arabs both before and after Islam made its appearance. The book argues for the commitment of the Church of the East to scholarship in monastic collections and teaching or translating activity. Hence, it emphasizes the strategic importance of the Beit Abhe Monastery located on a mountainside about 80 km north-east of the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, and the various historical figures that extend up to and after the ninth century, including patriarchs, rabbanim, caliphs and monks, such as Thomas of Marga, a former member of Beit Abhe himself. Muslims are presented through these sources sometimes as commending Christian faith (and even conferring benefits on churches and monasteries), sometimes more ambiguously which only reflects the otherwise known unpredictable relation between different faiths. Attention is given to monastic settlements from the sixth, seventh and eighth century, unearthed in the last sixty years at places like the island of Kharg and other locations in the Persian Gulf on the sea route to India and China, all of which are taken to indicate another level of the witnessing of faith.

It might be easy to agree with the author’s claim that in inter-faith relations today, it is imperative to find new/old paradigms for strengthening dialogue and relationship, and that perhaps through a re-birth and renewal of Christian monasticism in Islamic countries, new bridges could be built. But it is hard to understand how the hospitality, humility, obedience, daily liturgy and monastics’ non-intrusive witnessing of faith goes along with the claim that “[m]onasteries were places that Muslims visited, wrote about, and made the place of the forbidden ‘other’ where their imagined (and perhaps at times real) desires for wine and illicit sex could be fulfilled” (p.68)? The reader is given a displaced and everything but syllogistic conclusion, not only in terms of the presented material but in terms of the Christian ascetic anthropology. One is therefore left wondering whether this was the “Asia’s forgotten story” we should have been told, and if so, why and in what sense is it called Christian? Earlier, the author presents a Muslim literature source that the he himself classifies as “quaint and strange” (p.50), attributing it to a “young tenth-century man from Bagdad” (ibid), a source that evidently speaks more about its writer’s longings than about monasteries or the foundations, practice and aim of a monastic life. The reader might be bewildered as elsewhere the author emphasizes the life of sacrifice which involved “virginity and holiness, two qualities important to East Syrian monastic identity […], affirmed in the daily practice of the liturgy” (p.9), but does not openly bring side-by-side the contradiction of this argument when monastic life is presented in Muslim literature. Instead, we are given an elaboration on how these sources could have been read by Muslims, when we read again “[w]hether viewing the beautiful gardens, sampling the home-grown vineyard wine, or indulging in erotic adventures in imagination or reality, the monastery and monastic activities in Muslim literature became an example of Christian ‘otherness’” (p.53).

Readers expecting a work that articulates a vision through operating on the broad, macro-level of theological context and principles of praxis will be frustrated. The author makes an effort to present eleven canonical monastic rules which centered on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence, laid down by “Abraham who founded the monastery of Mount Izla in the sixth century” (p.36), but even though they are recognized as “[…]the foundations for spiritual strength needed for mission assignments […]” (p.38), they are only briefly enumerated. Hence, in its focus (both legitimate and important focus) on showing that mission and monasticism are not mutually exclusive, what the book does not vividly convey is the core of the ascetic life for a Christian monk and nun: his and her prayer. This is where we come full circle to the initial point on the relevance of nuances and accurate in-depth theological information, even more so when discussing Christian-Muslim relations.

If we want to promote greater Christian-Muslim understanding, we need to acknowledge the very real, fundamental differences in Christian and Islamic theologies and accept these differences, not eradicate them, for they cannot be expunged (not even those within Christianity), unless one promotes the supposedly ‘peaceful’, yet eroding solvent of ecumenism, instead of a dialogue truly respectful of differences. It is therefore imperative not to downplay first of all the broad, but distinctive theological teachings of Christianity, and what follows are only few reflections in light of the author’s claim for the need to strengthen ‘dialogue’ between faiths. The incarnation of God, the concrete existence of Christ, of the (fully) divine and (fully) human nature in one person, is absolutely central to Christianity. Christians believe that Jesus is God, God made flesh (i.e. in time). Christians also believe that Jesus is God’s Son (consubstantial with God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, and thus eternal, i.e. the doctrine of the Trinity). God’s Son incarnated (as Ἰησοῦς Χριστός) and moreover resurrected after being crucified, is not only the core of Christians’ faith and hope of salvation, but evidently a complex theological creed, for it took the early Christians several centuries (through the seven ecumenical councils) to explicate and protect the very concept of orthodoxy (specific only to the Eastern Orthodox Church) on several important and well-known issues. When Islam came along, it explicitly dismissed this witnessing of faith as blasphemy and in this sense, metaphorically speaking, Christians and Muslims are not even ‘playing the same game’, as what is central creed in one theology is blasphemous in the other. It is another matter that precisely these differences are either incorrectly dismissed and stricken out, or misused for political or other purposes to attain everything but an engaged dialogue affirming of differences that exist and cannot be neglected or disregarded not even within Christianity, for orthodoxy is not called orthodoxy by chance.

As for the Nestorian Christology, about one hundred new fragments found in the Syrian-monophysitic literature collected in Friedrich Loof’s edition of the Nestoriana in 1905, or the discovery in 1889 of the Syriac translation of Nestorius’ Bazaar of Heracleides, edited by a Syrian Catholic scholar Paul Bedjan in 1910, show that the meaning that one gives to terms such as ousia, hypostasis, physis, prosopon, was a major point of contention. In fact, Nestorius rejected the term Theotokos (i.e. Birth-giver of God) used for the Holy Mother. This ‘simple’ fact is not however a matter of meaning and discourse, or a ‘controversy’, but a dogmatic heresy and on its own – with no additional syllogistic rigmarole – makes questionable and incoherent any claim (as one can hear in some modern theological interpretations) that Nestorius never denied the divinity and humanity of Christ. One either believes that God was born in human flesh (i.e. in time) of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, or one does not; there are no fifty dogmatic shades of grammatical coextensive grey in between. You therefore either call a Birth-giver of God for what She is, a Theotokos, or you don’t, as rejecting the only rightful term does not ‘protect’ presumably naïve people from ‘heretically’ worshiping Her, but dishonours Truth (in the face of Χριστός) and Her core identity. A (Nestorian or other) heresy is unbefitting not only dogmatically, but also eschatologically: the both divine and human nature of Christ would not have been so opaque should faith had its aim in logic.

What makes the birth of Исус Христос (gr. Ἰησοῦς Χριστός) as God’s Son born in actual time and not only before time so thick for contemplation, is less obsolete for a heartful theanthropic gaze (gr. έν Θεώ), by living the beauty of human life as a renewed possibility to participate fully in God’s life. The monastics of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, take this possibility seriously, by living through and with the Holy Apostolic Church the fullness of Christian life in each and every of the Christian virtues, incessantly, as if, resting prayerfully in Христос (in His very concrete name) and also being united with Him Eucharistically. The coenobitic ‘desert’ or the monastery is therefore a place of nepsis and hesychastic life, just as of ‘mission’, even if the neptic work is presupposed in any contribution to the world. The impetus of asceticism may appear to be world denying, but its essence, on the contrary, is restorative, therapeutic. Thus, they turn ever again by Grace and toil towards a Holy communion, a theanthropic community with, through and in the Resurrected Χριστός, which is impossible (and meaningless) without the pure and purified repentant ‘water’ of the monastics’ transformative change of heart (gr. μετάνοια) in the personal here-and-now. The discourse on mission from this lived, alive position or lived theanthropic vision grows naturally and does not preclude a straightforward conversation about indispensable differences relative to other faiths or other ‘choices’ (gr. αἵρεσῐς, hairesis as one’s take), which cannot be ‘brushed away’ even while leaving the fine line between orthodoxy and heresy to the Holy Church Fathers (rather than to ‘cathedra’ theologians). For today, not compromising it in our practice, on political or other grounds, is a rarity.

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics (Leiden: Brill, 2019)

The compilation of texts under the title Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics is Volume one of a trilogy named Dialectics, Deontology and Democracy by Asger Sørensen. The collection is a child of its time: ambivalently modest and dashing when stating its aim, it scratches the surface of vital questions about human prospects impregnated in a global capitalist system and goes in-depth at others in the same class of issues, offering both less and more than what one might expect under certain headings.

The volume includes seven main Chapters divided in two parts (i.e. Economy and Dialectics) and throughout comes back to the initial argument that dialectics, deontology and democracy are “obligatory and necessary ways of relating to social reality” (p.11). Notwithstanding that ‘necessity’ arguments invoke primarily the necessity of immediate syllogistic precision, the exploration is generally done without being oblivious to the need to question various claims on ‘validity’ or to think of (social) science as a political practice. The included name index with bibliography and a separate subject index could well serve students stepping into the world of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, getting inspired by the Hegelian dialectical nuances of Aufhebung, or discovering briefly Durkheim’s sociological conception of value as a way to situate persistent to this day realities, in which liberal politics ‘liberate’ the economic decision-making from moral reasoning.

An Interlude considers the potency of the classical Critical Theory and its current relevance, whereas the work concludes with a Postscript where the critique of political economy is continued from the first part and refreshingly deepened. This last and closing section in fact abounds with solid critique of several layers of capitalist ideology and is perhaps what one might prefer to read precisely in the first part dedicated to Economics, rather than an analysis of George Bataille’s quasi-political and neo-gnostic flow-of-energy concept on general economy in a macro- and micro- perspective.

The second part dedicated to Dialectics has a low start. Its beginning chapter dedicates only few lines to summarizing Aristotle’s contribution to the topic. The point is not that there is no mention of Topika or Analitika protera or that relevant works from Aristotle’s deeply political anthropoeia philosophia are, as if, footnoted (and briefly abstracted in other chapters), but that in the volume’s Introduction, the author summarizes this Chapter as the one where “dialectics is presented in a very classical philosophical way, i.e. taking it all the way from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx […]” (p.14). A careful reader (or simply a radical one in the sense of going back to the original ancient text in the spirit of the Hegelian Bildung tradition) can arrive to Aristotle’s dialectics either through his logic and the understanding of dialectic premises, or his Metaphysics and the theory of ousia. At least, this is what one would expect from a classical philosophical treatment.

Hence, the reader gets the impression that Aristotle somehow falls under the ‘et al.’ category, which the author uses throughout the entire volume. No matter how playfully or only practically intended, the ‘et al.’ practice is at points inadmissible for arguments’ sake, opening up with no need a dismissive context which inadvertently goes against the author’s own hailing of credible normative frameworks and emancipatory politics. At times the usage is outright obdurate as in “[…] and the discovery of Auschwitz et al. […]” (p.49). In any case, even if the promised classical treatment is missing as a simple consequence of preference or choice of focus, we should be mindful that these themselves might be due to a long tradition of ‘readings’ of Aristotle which sometimes impoverish dizzyingly (Kant), adapt fecundly (Hegel) or appropriate catachrestically (Heidegger) Aristotle’s potent theoretical system and dialectic approach.

In this sense, by being too eager to ‘move on’ in his argumentation at points too quickly, Sørensen risks being not radical enough in the most necessary sense, the political one. Leaving unmined treasures of insights and knots that could have been brought to light is evidenced also when the dynamic of lotteries, gambling halls, internet scams and casinos is put under the umbrella of ‘ideology of hope’ (p.290), without mining one’s own or contextual anthropological assumptions as crucial for giving a consistently critical perspective. The work itself, for instance, is seen as seeking to contribute to the establishment “of credible normative frameworks enabling us to comprehend conceptually, and hopefully also to cope with, the current human predicament, while remaining painfully aware that such an ambition may in fact be overly presumptuous” (p.20). Perhaps claiming an aim only to give it up rhetorically in the same assertion might be attractive to a certain readership, but some might see the claimed scope as complacent and missing any substantial ethico-political challenge. Moreover, even though Sørensen is afraid that Honneth’s critique might be politically impotent “due to its very radicality” (p.12), the reader might wonder what in particular is radical in reducing Critical Theory to social philosophy, given also the well-presented argument on Honneth’s approach in light of the classical critical project (p.67-82).

Imprecision, inaccuracies, and possible contradictions are thus somewhat burdensome, even though the volume is not lacking in solid demonstrations; among else, into how the ever-growing mathematization of political economy is covering up its deeply ideological violence, which leaves out the problem of social (and political) justice. Nonetheless, the claim that an apolitical relation to social reality fails to recognize the value of all intermediary institutions, since it subscribes to the idea of a single individual facing the absolute (p.122), is potentially ideological itself if left unpacked, despite one’s otherwise evident dedication to the critical project. The fact that Durkheim’s or our current intermediary institutions would condition an answer to relevant questions, or aim to eliminate the challenging ethico-political questions altogether, does not cancel or salvage us from the human condition and facing ‘the absolute’ whose historical trajectory, from God to State to Market, is only a potent soil to plough into critically.

The collection is therefore a good reminder of a struggle. A struggle of weakened States embedded in the new practices of imperialism and fragmented by the cynical ideology of global capitalism, which relies on the displaced likelihood that once something happens, it can be quickly renormalized as already having been possible. Examples abound, but think of a recent one: the imposition of a European State onto a non-European one to change its name even in its relation to all other states, against the clear will of the only sovereign (i.e., the people) and through an openly illegal and anti-constitutional process, but such that the first (politically) demarcates the (ethnic) identity of the ‘Other’ by claiming exclusivity over cultural history and even symbols. It is such political violence par excellence that defines our current world, alongside the direct one and the one that counts several millions of people as nothing, for they are neither consumers nor employees. But, if we do not see that all three orders of violence sit in the lap of greed, force and ‘this is mine’ ideology so typical of capitalism, we have understood nothing of its nature.

Hence, if our aim is effective change of the conditions currently guiding people’s lives, the grand problem might not even be how do we system-wise sustain such change and reach those that are most in need of justice and equality. Badiou has already addressed this question elsewhere. Rather, are we aware that an ‘all-inclusive’ proletarization is already underway? Such that we are all (beyond the classical image of proletarians) potentially stripped of our substance? We could, at least potentially, imagine a rich rather than a meagre symbolic life offered to newborns brought to a world of biogenetic manipulation (geared, likely, out of any democratic oversight) and threatening ecological breakdown, coupled exponentially with freedom reconfigured as being able to follow one’s whims: yet lo and behold, our political problem is deeply ethical. It reconfigures for each of us the quintessential question of what do you believe in and hope for, and how do you live in the name of it.

There was a reason why Marx was concerned with raising the awareness of the working class and the need for unity in making a change that will indeed not be in the interest of the few only, and why education is such a potent ‘game-changer’, or why for that matter Hegel was obsessed with Bildung in line with the tradition of the classical Athenian polis, and his view that critique presupposes alienation. Potentially excluded from our very substance, each-of-us a Homo Sacer might be the only proper conceptual start.

Maria Sommer & Dion Sommer, Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Care, socialization and play in Ancient Attica: a developmental childhood archeological approach, by Maria Sommer and Dion Sommer, is an archeological study based on a collection of material relating to childhood in ancient Attica, dating back to 480-300 B.C. It reconstructs in front of our eyes a deeply human world of care and play in ancient Attica and empirically depicts how the growing field of childhood archeology with its historical contextualization can contribute important knowledge to developmental psychology.

Continue reading Maria Sommer & Dion Sommer, Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)