Fr. Oliver Herbel
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Home page: http://holyresurrection.areavoices.com
Posts by Fr. Oliver Herbel
After having spent the last several months concentrating on some of my own historical theology work, I thought I would take the time to update SOCHA readers not only on that, but on some other publications that might be of interest. Fr. Andrew, Matthew, and Aram continue their good endeavors here, of course, but I hope the reader will pardon my little interruption. What I especially wish to call readers to note is the recent issue of the St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Quarterly (56:3, 2012). This issue contains four articles addressing various aspects of Orthodox Christian history in America as well as a review of Amy Slagle’s book The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity (based on ethnographic work at three Orthodox parishes). I highly recommend her book, by the way.
The first article in this issue I would highlight is that by Fr. John Erickson, in which he examines the role of Slavophile thought in the Russian Mission. This is a fascinating article that will hopefully begin some considerations on this topic. Highlighting St. Tikhon and Metropolitan Platon is useful. There are a few footnotes that seemed incomplete, and I think citing Jennifer Hedda’s His Kingdom Come could have augmented the discussion of the liberal wing of Orthodoxy. I found his speculation concerning Bjerring’s apostasy (possibly upset at the change in Russian theological emphases away from liberalism) interesting, but Bjerring himself had little to say on this issue, interestingly, merely noting that he preferred to remain an American citizen. Also, as Erickson noted, the Russian government had pulled funding of Bjerring’s chapel. I think Erickson’s discussion concerning converts such as Irvine is interesting and overall, this is a good article that I would recommend to anyone grappling with the history of the Russian Mission in America. Erickson’s central thesis, that Slavophile conceptions affected the Russian Mission and later died away is spot-on and a reminder of just how transnational of a phenomenon American Orthodoxy has always been.
The second article, by Ivana Noble, concerns Fr. Georges Florovsky and especially the issue of Florovsky’s “Hellenism.” One of the more helpful points I found at the outset, was the balance struck when discussing the relationship between Florovsky and Bulgakov. I think this is sometimes missing at the popular level, so the reader is well served to encounter this. Her main offering to the reader, though, I think, is to note that Florovsky was just as willing to see Latin patristics as fully Patristic, and was even willing, at least at one point, to state as much in a margin note.
That said, I was struck by how far Noble took this. In footnote twenty-two, she sided with Matthew Baker versus Brandon Gallaher regarding the extent to which Florovsky sought to “proselytize” the non-Orthodox rather than see both Latin and Hellenic Christianity as Patristic. Personally, I think Florovsky is clear that a “pseudomorphosis” occurred in Orthodox theology (at least in his read of its history) and in that sense, I wonder if Noble (with Matthew Baker’s article in hand) isn’t “talking past” the likes of Brandon Gallaher and Dn. Paul Gavrilyuk on this one. That is to say, Noble could well be right (in fact, I think she is) that Florovsky was willing to see a return to the Fathers as something allowable to Latin Christianity and yet Gallaher and Gavrilyuk could well be right (and I think they are) in noting that Florovsky was quite critical at times of Western theological developments and their impacts upon Orthodox Christianity (whether real or perceived). Anyhow, I fully expect Florovsky to remain a debated figure amongst contemporary theologians and historians, probably increasingly so.
A third article worth noting is Paul Meyendorff’s article on Fr. John Meyendorff’s historical role in the creation of the OCA’s autocephaly and how Fr. John Meyendorff understood that autocephaly’s importance. This article made good use of the OCA archives and is a useful and important read for anyone interested in the relationship between Moscow and the OCA and/or American Orthodox jurisdictional unity.
Finally, this issue included an article I wrote on Fr. Boris Burden’s role in two failed attempts at Orthodox jurisdictional unity. Both attempts (the first begun with Bishop Aftimios as the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of North America in the late 1920s and the second as the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in the first half of the 1940s) failed. One reason they failed (and not the only, but one reason that is common to both failures) was that Orthodox disagreed over how to respond to non-Orthodox. SOCHA has discussed both movements and figures in both, so readers can quickly update their knowledge of all of this.
So, all in all, I’d recommend the recent SVTQ issue. I would also like to mention the new issue of LOGOS: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies (53:3-4, 2012). I wrote an article entitled, “An Old World Response to a New World Situation: Greek Clergy in the Service of the Russian Mission to America,” which is based on the paper I gave at the Princeton Symposium in October, 2011. The priests mentioned in the article have been covered here on the SOCHA site and I suspect they will receive further treatment in the future, especially as 2016 nears, as that would be the 100th anniversary of the death of one of these Greek priests, Archimandrite Theoklitos Triantafilides.
This is not the only piece I have written in the last few months. I have written a couple of book chapters (though book publishing moves slowly, so it’ll be some time before they’re available). One is a short piece on Meyendorff and Schmemann and the other a survey of Russian Orthodoxy in the Academic disciplines directly related to theology. Shortly before Christmas (on the Revised Julian Calendar) I signed a book contract with Oxford University Press. I hope to offer more on that someday in the future. Perhaps I’ll have more to say to that in the summer or fall this year. In the meantime, may we all keep one another in each other’s prayers and may we all continue to support one another in our work and interest in the ongoing history of American Orthodoxy.
[Addendum: It has come to my attention through private emails that some readers might mistakenly think I intended to conflate Matthew Baker's positions on Florovsky with that of Ivana Noble's. I wish to clarify that such was never the case. I meant only to show the debate into which Noble entered and upon whom she relied when making her point. It should be pointed out that Matthew Baker does not deny Florovsky's claim regarding the Orthodox Church as the "una sancta," nor Florovsky's critique that Eastern Christianity often engaged in a "servile imitation" of Western sources, which Florovsky considered a "pseudomorphosis." Baker's main point would be that Florovsky's critique of pseudomorphosis is part of a larger ecumenical vision expressed by Florovsky, according to which the return of both Orthodox and Western Christians to the sources of patristic tradition, which Orthodoxy especially claims as her own, would enable a free and constructive ecumenical encounter. It is on the basis of this larger point that Noble made use of his work, pressing it (in my read) a bit farther than Baker himself. As I mentioned above, I expect that the discussions surrounding Florovsky have only but begun and if that is the case, then Baker's work (as is also the case with Gallaher's, Gavrilyuk's, and Noble's, among others) will be important as this discussion rolls along.]
I do not intend to provide full book reviews here at this time, but I do think it is nonetheless appropriate to inform our readers about two new books that discuss American Orthodox converts. Studying converts was the area of my own dissertation research (may I get that published some day!) and I hope it will be an area of interest to our readers as well. First, what spurred this posting was receiving the following announcement:
Dn. Gregory Roeber has co-authored a book with Mickey L. Mattox. Mattox presents why he converted to Roman Catholicism and Roeber why he converted to Orthodoxy. Both discuss it within the context of what Lutherans see in those churches (as both are former Lutherans) and what the larger theological issues are. This event will happen tomorrow (March 8th) at Marquette University.
Likewise, last fall Amy Slagle published The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity which is an ethnographic study of converts from parishes in the Pittsburgh area and Mississippi. I have read this and would highly recommend it.
I realize neither are strictly historical studies but I do believe they have relevance (directly so) for those of us looking at this question historically and hopefully these books will be of interest to many of our readers.
It is with pleasure that I announce to all of you a new, forthcoming documentary on Orthodoxy among the Yup’ik by Dmitry Trakovsky. Here is the press release:
After you’ve read that, if you’d like a foretaste, go here:
Please consider supporting him in his endeavor.
Those of us in the Academy are (our should be!) quite aware of the limitations of Wikipedia. Of course, some of the weaknesses are the same as they have been for any encyclopedia. Students too often think research begins and ends with them (alas, even in college). Too many citizens share that approach. Also, encyclopedia entries cannot take the time to be as nuanced as perhaps they should. In the case of Wikipedia, this can become a real problem. Recently, Timothy Messer-Kruse wrote from personal experience about how this is so (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/). I’d recommend reading the article, but in a nutshell, Dr. Messer-Kruse edited a Wikipedia entry on the Haymarket trial of 1886 based upon primary source research he had done through the Library of Congress. Wikipedia reacted by deleting his comments and noting he had to cite reliable sources! He tried again, again citing the court documents and also his own published work. It didn’t matter.
Now, on the one hand, one might argue that such is all an encyclopedia can do. It must simply add up the number of secondary sources making a particular point (that no evidence was presented by the prosecution at the trial–yeah, that was the point). Anyone stating otherwise, even if supported by primary sources, won’t be given a say. To some degree, that is what encyclopedias have always done–tried to present the general consensus on a given topic. Furthermore, Wikipedia is not a peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps it shouldn’t be expected to prioritize primary source scholarship.
On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a platform that is supposed to be open to editing can dismiss the actual primary sources (say letters or diaries or court documents) in favor of historiographical ignorance (which happens for various reasons–no judgment intended at all toward other scholars of the Haymarket riot and trial).
Furthermore, this is a perennial problem within American Orthodox history. Both Matthew Namee and I have encountered it on more than one occasion, especially when discussing what we’ve called “the myth of unity”–the idea that all Orthodox in America were always under the Russians until 1917 and/or that the Russians always worked hard to demonstrate that they always clearly had jurisdiction everywhere and anywhere on the North American continent (or perhaps Americas more generally). Often those screaming the loudest were used to doing “history” work by collecting a bunch of secondary sources together. Similarly, when discussing Archbishop Arseny of Canada, those who seemed most upset with what I found in the court documents were not those who had actually read the court documents (we at SOCHA read them and made them available). Sometimes, people simply like the “conventional mendacity” (to quote Lord Acton) built up over the ages.
One of the long-term goals of SOCHA is to provide a platform that highlights primary sources and their importance. Exactly how this will be done is still coming into view, but certainly this blog is a beginning. We have posts by the four of us directors as well as by others who are knowledgeable in particular primary sources. We will continue to provide informative articles based on primary source work. More than that, once we are able to move forward with our future digitization project, readers will have access to primary sources themselves. We even envision a platform in which readers will be able to submit primary documents to the database. This will make it similar to Wikipedia, in that people will be able to add to the knowledge base and influence what is known and learned. Yet, it will differ in that it will be source material that is added, not conventional mendacity nor even a well documented interpretation. There will be limitations, of course, as readers won’t be spoon fed interpretations but would have to read, say, Bjerring’s writings themselves to determine what he tended to emphasize in his extant sermons, but I think this is actually better. Encyclopedias can be nice starting points, but a platform that forces people to think critically and rely on primary sources is better.
Of course, scholars and researchers are seriously questioning the degree to which people are prepared to think critically (you could follow the trail starting with this: http://chronicle.com/article/Academically-Adrift-The/130743/) but that’s a different discussion for another time.
In the last several years, the discipline known as the “Digital Humanities” has come to the fore. Digital Humanities is basically the intersection of the humanities and digital technology, for all the breadth that can mean, but often involves meta-data (data about data, if you will). One of the sub-disciplines in the digital humanities field is digital history.
Digital history has generally meant using digital tools to help analyze historical source materials, though this can be done in different ways, from digital archives and interactive maps to text mining (assessing a text for patterns, perhaps of place-names or certain verbal structures). By virtue of this blog and our associated Journal of American Orthodox Church History, SOCHA is certainly involved in digital history. Furthermore, we intend to establish an online digital archive that will be searchable. It will take time for this to occur, of course, but it is our full intention to work toward that.
That said, there are some areas of caution that one ought to have when thinking about digital history. This recent blog post by Stanley Fish gets at one way in which text mining can be problematic:
Essentially, Mr. Fish notes the problem of omitting contextual considerations. It is too tempting for people in the digital humanities to perform their search, find some pattern of something or other and then make a bold claim.
I think he’s spot on, and even more so when applied to digital history. It is a temptation in history generally. It is difficult sometimes for historians not to confuse trivia with history. Already, historians, especially new (young) historians, find a unique little snippet only to be faced with the challenge of confronting that initial excitement with the prospects of context. That is, what is the ultimate significance of that snippet? What does it tell us about American Orthodox Church history, for instance, or religion in American more generally in the nineteenth century, etc.? That is, the contextual questions are there to keep the historian honest and avoid a myopic vision. Text mining, though, as noted by Mr. Fish, is already beginning to make the temptation of mistaking trivia for history all too real. The larger contextual and theoretical questions are sometimes pushed aside all too easily.
So, are we at SOCHA part of the problem? I don’t think so. I realize any singular blog post, taken on its own, could certainly seem to be analogous to the context-less argument from text mining, but I think if one realizes that the blog entry ought to be seen within the context of the blog as a whole, and really in the context of SOCHA’s work as a whole, all is well. Matthew Namee and I have both written on early jurisdictional issues. We also have JAOCH, which often deals with larger American-Orthodox historical concerns. It is true that JAOCH is “narrow” in that it is concentrated on certain ecclesiastical histories, but it still requires the articles to be grounded in the larger histories of those various churches. Also, when we do finally, some year down the road, unveil our digital, searchable archive, the intention will be to further the use of source material and not simply to encourage “pattern finding.” There is much that digital history has to offer, but in keeping with the concerns raised by Mr. Fish, it is our hope and belief that SOCHA will be part of a creative but historically honest and grounded use of digital technology.