The theological undertaking is always conditioned by the human problems – political, cultural, philosophic, religious – in which theology moves, and in which are as many question marks, existential, not theoretical, about the faith and the Gospel. Through such questioning, the Church is contested in her ultimate hope and in the expression of her faith. This contestation occurs at the precise point where the Church and the world meet – a world to which the Church is simultaneously consubstantial and heterogenous, leading to a necessary ambiguity, an unavoidable tension.

This whole situation of the Church and of theology at the frontier between God and the world will be reflected particularly in the language of theology, where the Church gives an account of her faith, of her hope, of her knowledge of the trinitarian God. This language is “capable of God” (capax Dei), but, at the same time, always inadequate, having to undergo itself the baptism of fire, of dying to human wisdom, to be reborn to “God’s folly” (1 Cor 1:25), even to the point of martyrdom and the profession of blood.

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 197.

If I were still Catholic I suppose I should be singing the Te Deum like they do when a pope is elected. Not sure what to do now, but I presume that the basic principle is the same. I’ve just seen that Mubarak has resigned (see here, here and here). I know that lots of questions remain, among them whether this popular “secular” space that has opened up in the Middle East can continue. But I’m still overwhelmed that such change is possible, a bit like Madiba being released, the Berlin wall coming down and so on.

I don’t have time now to discuss the more serious questions about Christians in the Middle East (and I kept toying with posting something after the attack at the beginning of January but decided not to because of the complexities involved), but for those interested who haven’t seen it, you might want to look at this article on Christians and Moslems in Egypt which provides a slightly different perspective to some of the western Christian voices one hears on the topic.

Update: This is also worth reading.

Another update: Joe Koczera has a post on this tragedy here.

Update: They’ve been freed – Al Jazeera report here, and BBC here.

From the BBC World Service (18:05 GMT):

Gunmen take hostages in Baghdad church

Gunmen have taken around 40 worshippers hostage in a central Baghdad church, Iraqi police say.

The gunmen first attacked the stock exchange in the Iraqi capital before moving to a nearby Assyrian Catholic church, where a Sunday evening service was being held.

At least six people were killed in the attacks, police said.

The gunmen are reportedly demanding the release of al-Qaeda members imprisoned in Iraq and Egypt.

According to the police, several other people were wounded.

The attackers are also holding two priests at the Our Lady of Salvation Church, the Chaldean Bishop Shlemon Warduni told the AFP agency.

“What we know is that a number of worshippers and two priests are being held hostage at the church by terrorists,” he said.

A local television station, al-Baghdadia, said it had been telephoned by the suspected attackers, who claimed they were from the organisation Islamic State of Iraq – an umbrella group embracing al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

The broadcaster said the men were demanding the release of al-Qaeda prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.

It reported that the men spoke in classical Arabic, which could imply that they are not from Iraq.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Baghdad said the church in Karada district was surrounded by security forces and the area sealed off.

There were reports that the gunmen threatened to shoot the hostages if the church is stormed by security forces.

In 2008, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen and found dead two weeks later.

We clearly need to pray. But this also reminded me of something Steve Hayes wrote here:

The destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East surely cannot be described as an unintended consequence of the invasion. It was both forseeable and foreseen, and therefore must have been intended. It is an integral part of the Bush-Blair legacy. It is said that one should not ascribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance and stupidity, but the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth cannot have been that stupid…. can they?

May God have mercy on us all.

I’ve been re-reading Sergei Hackel’s biography of Mother (now Saint) Maria Skobtsova, Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945. I may write again on some of her perspectives on monasticism (which evoke somewhat conflicting responses in me). But for now I note something that has also struck me in other books I have read in the last year or two, notably in Gillian Crow’s biography of Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony, namely the really desperate situation of the Russian émigrés in France in the period between the first and second world wars. It is easy to wax lyrical about the theological fruitfulness of the theological renewal associated with the emigration – and it certainly was fruitful – and yet, certainly for me as a westerner reading books in translation, it is all-too-easy to forget both that it was Russian and that occurred against the backdrop of appalling social dislocation and need.

This connects with something I was sometimes conscious of in the Netherlands, namely, the strange combination of proximity and distance between the past and the present. I lived for years in a building that had been occupied by the Hitler’s troops during the Second World War, and in a community that had lost two of its sisters to the Nazi camps. On many days I walked past a memorial to them. And yet that past somehow seemed very remote and I was sometimes struck between the contrast between it, and the affluence and apparent security of the present. Not only did the past seem remote, but I had to consciously remind myself that there are also people today in similarly desperate situations. We can somehow domesticate both the past and those aspects of the present that would otherwise be threatening to us, keeping it at a distance, whether by interpretive strategies, border controls and the way society is organised, or simply by self-centredness.

Being back in South Africa it is in some ways more difficult to escape this as one cannot go very far without being aware of desperate social need. But we too – or let me speak only for myself, and say I too – can too-easily forget the horrors of the past and find ways of trying to escape the challenge of the present. And in that context it may be reassuring, if challenging, to realise that the theological fruitfulness of the Russian emigration also occurred against a similarly challenging background.

Such terrible times are coming, the world is so exhausted from its scabs and sores, it so cries out to Christianity in the secret depths of its soul, but at the same time it is so far removed from Christianity, that Christianity cannot and dare not show it a distorted, diminished, darkened image of itself. It should scorch the world with the flame of Christ’s love, it should go to the cross on behalf of the world. It should incarnate Christ Himself in it. Even if this cross, eternally raised anew, be foolishness for our new Greeks and a stumbling block for our new Jews, for us it will still be “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).

We who are called to be poor in spirit, to be fools for Christ, who are called to persecution and abuse – we know that this is the only calling given to us by the persecuted, abused, disdained, and humiliated Christ. And we do not only believe in the promises of blessedness to come: now, at this very moment, in the midst of this cheerless and despairing world, we already taste this blessedness whenever, with God’s help and at God’s command, we deny ourselves, whenever we have the strength to offer our soul for our neighbors, whenever in love we do not seek our own ends.

Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters Series)186.

There were a few comments a while ago that raised the topic of Thomas Merton’s relationship with Orthodoxy, and TheraP mentioned a review that he had written on Father Alexander Schmemann’s work. I had read the review in Monastic Studies (no. 4, Advent 1966: 105-115) earlier this year, and since reading Father Schmemann’s The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom, had been wanting to return to it. TheraP drew my attention to the fact that it had also been included in the volume Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart & the Eastern Church (The Fons Vitae Thomas Merton series), and this weekend I have been visiting friends who have this book. The whole book looks fascinating and there are several other essays that I have dipped into and would like to read properly, both by Merton and by people like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Canon A.M. Allchin, Rowan Williams and Jim Forest. But I re-read his review of Father Schmemann’s Sacraments and Orthodoxy and of Ultimate Questions. Here are a few extracts:

Sacraments and Orthodoxy, a powerful, articulate and indeed creative essay in sacramental theology which rival Schillebeeckx and in some ways excels him. Less concerned than Schillebeeckx with some of the technical limitations of Catholic sacramental thought, Schmemann can allow himself to go the very root of the subject without having to apologize for his forthrightness or for his lack of interest in trivialities.

Let the reader be warned. If he is now predisposed to take a comfortable, perhaps exciting mysterious, excursion into the realm of a very “mystical” and highly “spiritual” religion, the gold-encrusted cult thick with the smoke of incense and populated with a legion of gleaming icons in the sacred gloom, a “liturgy which to be properly performed requires not less than twenty-seven heavy liturgical books,” he may find himself disturbed by Fr. Schmemann’s presentation. Certainly, Sacraments and Orthodoxy will repudiate nothing of the deep theological and contemplative sense of Orthodox faith and worship. But the author is intent on dispelling any illusions about the place of “religion” in the world of today. In fact, one would not suspect from the title of this book, it is one of the strongest and clearest statements of position upon this topic of the Church and the world. (474) ….


A process of reevaluation of tradition from the point of view of its relevance to the “needs of the time” and the “questions of contemporary man” is occurring right now in western Christianity. And the criterion for what is eternal and what is obsolete in Christianity is almost without any argument declared to be “contemporary man” and “contemporary culture.” In order to suit these, some are ready to discard from the Church everything that appears to be “irrelevant.” This is the eternal temptation of modernism, which periodically disturbs the church organism. And therefore, when people talk about this or that obsolete custom or tradition, it is always necessary to show the utmost care and to put the question not in terms of its relevance or irrelevance to what is “contemporary,” but in terms of whether it expresses something eternal and essential in Christianity, even if it outwardly seems “obsolete.”

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist. Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 86.

This permanent worship, in spirit and in truth, given to the Father places Christ in a double relation of love for the Father and of mercy for the world. Jesus stands at the intersection, at the crossroads of the conflict and the reconciliation of the world with the Father. It is in the prayer of Christ, in His permanent and perfect worship, that the relations of the world and God are unveiled in their hidden truth, reaching a degree of extreme tension. Far from being absent from the prayer of Christ, the world is intensely present in it, in two ways: a) because Christ summarizes in Himself humankind, recapitulates it, takes up the burden of its sin, presents Himself to the Father by carrying upon his shoulders this load of iniquity and sin, “the One who knew no sin, was made sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21;  see Gal 3:13); and b) because this world and this humanity are the object of the supplication of the Savior, of His heavenly intercession. (157-158) …

In the Spirit, the Church evokes the Savior’s entire work of redemption, but also, inversely, the cosmos, creation, all of humanity projected in Christ, recapitulated, and restored in Him. Here we discover the concept of “extensive Christology.” This means that the redeeming Pascha that the Church memorializes is the heart of the world’s history, its most real and decisive destiny. The Church gives thanks to the Father for Jesus and remembers Him. In the power of the Spirit, this  memorial of the Church is creative: it transcends space and time, makes us contemporaries of the Jesus of history, of the creative Logos, of the crucified Christ, exalted at the right hand of the Father; contemporaries, that is, of the One who is, who was, and who is to come. The tribulations of Christians behind all the iron curtains of the world sensitize us more to the ecclesial and cosmic memorial of the Cross and Passion of the One who recapitulates and sublimates in Himself all human suffering, who wipes away every tear. …

It is necessary to widen the memorial of Christ to a remembrance of the saints, the deceased, the suffering, the living, of all the members of the Body of Christ. It is necessary, finally, that the memorial of the divine Christ, historic and whole, culminates in the eucharistic communion which introduces us at the same time to an encounter with the risen Christ who becomes more intimate, more inward than our inmost self. But eucharistic communion also means life in common, a sharing with all the members of the Body of Christ, the saints, the deceased, the living; the eucharistic communion therefore actualizes the real, sacramental presence of the entire Church, in the totality and the fullness of her faith, her tradition, and her holiness. All this is immersed in the eucharistic Body and Blood we consume and which consume us, which we assimilate and which assimilate us. (184-185)

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999).