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Book Reviews

Christos Yannaras (translated by Norman Russell), The Enigma of Evil, (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Massachusetts, 2012); ISBN 978-1-935317-28-9. 164pp. $22.95

“Nature’s logic makes no qualitative judgements: earthquakes, disasters, fire, and flood destroy human beings just as they also destroy irrational animals – without distinction. Decay, pain, panic, and death constitute the same conditions of existence for both Aristotle and his dog. Whether they affect Gandhi or Hitler, Mozart or Herostratus, is a matter of indifference… How is this irrationality compatible… with the wonderful rationality (the wisdom and beauty) of nature? …why do hatred, blind cupidity, sadism, and criminality spring from nature – why do they have roots in humanity’s biostructure? …

“The enigma of evil comes down to us through the centuries without eliciting an adequate reply. Philosophical enquiry and metaphysical hope reach us trapped in logical conundrums and insoluble contradictions…”

Do not be disappointed or feel let down if this book does not supply you with some ultimate, definitive, all-embracing intellectual answer and explanation of evil for the author makes no claim to any such undertaking. The well chosen title of the book reflects not only the nature of the subject matter but also reflects the work itself as set out as early as the preface: “This book attempts to respond to the challenge” of bringing “some logical order, some principles of understanding, to questions concerning the nature of evil” asking “Is there a hermeneutic thread that can guide us adequately in our perplexity?”

Even the attempt to define evil in this book is not some neat and easy two or three line definition. One chapter considers this in conceptual terms only for the next chapter to concede that more helpful than concepts are images: “A gazelle caught in a leopard’s claw: fear in its enormous eyes, quivering in despair… fear, alarm and panic in the eyes of a child violated by his fellow human beings for their pleasure… soldiers invading “enemy” territory, the drunken orgy of the slaughter of noncombatants…” It does not suffice for people to kill “their hated fellow human beings” but “to see them die in the most terrible pain, writhe helplessly, convulse in agony for as long as possible before expiring.” It is conservatively(!) estimated that some seventy-five million people were killed by bomb, bullet, gas, starvation from the beginning of the Great War until the closing of the Gulags. And there are pages more of such images… This is a book which truly takes it subject seriously.

The book considers (through several chapters) elements of the early chapters of Genesis. The author argues that the Genesis Garden narrative shows the relationship between man and God not primarily as intellectual or ethical but existential, that man’s existence is nourished by taking food supplied by God and that man’s receiving this nourishment is an act of relationship between him and God “just as the suckling of an infant is an act… of relationship between infant and mother”. Anyone familiar with the writings of Christos Yannaras will not be surprised that concepts of relationship are central to this book. His statement that a “relationship… formed by the offering and accepting of a gift can only constitute an event of freedom” seems incontrovertible as “ both the offering and the accepting of a gift… are never obligatory…” with man free to choose either to accept or to “refuse his nourishment/life as a blessing from God, as the realization of an existential relation with him.” More open to question, however, seems the author’s statement that “the relationship of Man with God in the first pages of Genesis is not an intellectual or emotional reference to the Creator of food, nor is it a moral conformation to the “obligation” of such a reference. The relationship is food and drink” receiving the food “with thanksgiving, that is, as blessing; it is a consummate experience of life as relation.” Undoubtedly Yannaros describes the free relationship in that man could either choose to receive his life, his nourishment, his existence from God as a blessing and in relationship with God or he could choose (and indeed, as Genesis recounts and as on-going human history agrees, did so choose) to separate his life, his nourishment, from the relationship with God making it “an autonomous existential event… an existential end-in-itself.” It was not clear, however, to this reviewer why this free relationship, the giving and receiving of life and nourishment, should be seen as excluding “intellectual or emotional reference to the Creator” or as excluding “a moral conformation to the “obligation” of such a reference. If the argument is that any such “moral conformation” or “obligation” negates the freedom of the giving and receiving (or rejecting) then perhaps this point needs further clarification? That God placed the man in the Garden to cultivate or dress it and to keep it suggests a moral or emotional facet to the relationship. God’s late afternoon (“cool of the day”) stroll in the Garden with its implication that He anticipated encounter and communion with His creature, man (as He had on previous days?) suggests a wider aspect to the relationship between created and Creator than implied by Yannaras’ apparently strictly limited definition of this relation.

Yannaras’ exposition of early Genesis distinguishes between good and evil in terms of life (good) and death (evil) and “not to categories of behaviour, not to regulative/moral rules, not to faithfully keeping or breaking some law.” This is the Orthodox Christian understanding, further expounded through his appreciation of God’s words concerning not eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as a warning, not the threat of punishment as other Christians have interpreted it. Yannaras faithfully continues this thoroughly Orthodox exposition through his appreciation of man’s subsequent “denial of access” to the tree of life: this “privation of immortality, does not constitute a punishment; once again it constitutes a blessing: ‘That evil should not become immortal.’” Yannaras is, at times, intellectually demanding and stretching. If “evil (the mode of individual autonomy) is rendered existentially unlimited, then a second pole of existential absoluteness is brought into being, a pole that is parallel and opposite to the existential mode of divine love. That is the whole of the existential event becomes trapped in the polarization of good and evil, of love and self-interest. Such a polarization no longer constitutes a dilemma (of existential possibilities) of freedom, but becomes an existential necessity that is given and insuperable: a bipolar (schizoid) manifestation of the existential event in itself. This existential threat is averted thanks to death, which sets the boundaries of nonrelational existence… (individual-centred) autonomy.” This is an understanding of good and evil in terms of relationship with God as good and non-relation, self-centred, individual-centred, autonomous existence as evil. It is also an utterly Orthodox appreciation of man’s expulsion from Paradise, of his being barred from the tree of life, of death, as blessing, even as something to be thankful for – and not as punishment. This reviewer was instantly reminded of an illustration he had once seen in an extraordinarily beautiful Armenian Bible in which the angel was leading Adam and Eve out of the Garden with such gentleness, even tenderness. Given the author’s suggestion of art rather than intellectual concepts as a possibly better way to grapple with the enigma of evil (discussed later in this review) this memory of the Armenian Bible illustrator’s work was highly relevant.

Yannaras draws his readers’ attention to a problem in understanding death as a blessing to prevent evil becoming immortal. What of the fallen angels? “Why did the free choice of autonomy of nonrelational existence, not exclude the demons from immortality as it excluded” man? “Why does not the immortality of the demons not constitute a second pole of existential absoluteness, a schizoid split of the fact of existence?” This is a question that Yannaras does not appear to answer directly. Rather he points out how limited is our knowledge or understanding of these nonmaterial (spiritual) personal existences. In the Biblical books, the understanding of the demons undergoes “evolutionary change”, over time and contemporary “representations are employed in a very conventional way.” Biblical authors to not attempt “a systematically articulated proposition of an ontological interpretation of the nature of angels and demons. What they aim to do is to describe historical experiences, naturally in the language current in each period…” Some may see this as a fault, a failure by Yannaras to adequately deal with the problem encountered… others may see this as acknowledgement of the limitations of our knowledge and experience and in the Orthodox tradition of living with mystery, of not knowing all the answers.

This limitation of knowledge is conceded again as regarding the Genesis serpent and the lack of any “hermeneutic hint as to how and why evil” first began and entered “creation… to lead Man astray”. The explanation offered as being the most probable is the “poetic/iconological character” of early Genesis (its use of archetypal images) in which “the poetic expression remains always unconstrained by the demands of systematic syllogistic coherence and… frequently makes hermeneutic leaps that presuppose as given the self-evident truths of the specific epoch or society. The fault lies rather in later interpreters who analyse a poetic/symbolic text as if it were a scientific record of historical events.” The human author(s) of the early chapters of Genesis rightly assumed a common world-view, a common understanding or background shared by the people for whom they then wrote. They did not need to spell out absolutely everything but wrote from within their shared context. Later interpreters have only limited knowledge (if any at all) of that context and those assumptions.

The chapter on the encounter between the serpent and the woman is masterful, extending into considerations of creation understood in the light of our ‘understanding’ of the Trinity. Another insightful chapter is “How God Knows Good and Evil, and How We Know it” and the chapter on angels and demons is, for this reviewer, worth the price of the whole book, being such an excellent addition to the body of writings currently available on this area. There are, nonetheless, in this book, occasional niggles…

Yanarras’ apparent dismissal of death in the animal kingdom as evil is, I submit, open to question. Even if the suffering of an animal in a laboratory for medical research being accepted (as the lesser of two evils?), very few people would regard animal experimentation for cosmetic purposes as other than evil. Besides, it seems as though Yannaras may here be contradicted by his own example or illustration of the “gazelle caught in a leopard’s claw” as an image (more helpful than concepts) of evil.

“Created demons are spoken of” in the historic witness of the Church “as timeless, dimensionless, incorruptible, and indeed impassible beings.” Surely this is a misreading of the Church’s historic testimony concerning demons? Maybe timeless and dimensionless; but angelic incorruptibility or impassibility seems at odds with an angelic fall (which can hardly be denied since the alternative, that they had been created evil, would be accepted by no Orthodox theologian including Yannaras himself) so angels are therefore subject to change. “Created demons” seems a particularly unfortunate expression with potential implications against the utter goodness of their original creation.

In contrasting the apparent contradiction between humans and demons, that the former became subject to death so that evil did not become immortal but the latter, despite their angelic fall, retained their immortality, Yannaras argues “If it is the nonmateriality of their created existence that preserves them from existential limitations, then these unanswerable questions are transformed into the conundrum: Why should matter be evil by definition when it has been created by God?” Yannaras suggests “no realistic answers”, no “explanation” of evil through “human science or by rational thought”, that language is too limited – but that what is “inexpressible in our given linguistic semantics can be obtained through… loving relationship… trust, self-transcendence… self-offering.” Since one emphasis of the author is the struggle for a language to better express what we are trying to say about evil, that a simple intellectual approach is inadequate, that we need to find a way to express things “beyond the decisiveness of concepts”, such as through art which is a “language that manages to “say” that which in the semantic system of concepts proves unsayable”; to encounter in this book such questions as the above one on the apparent evil of matter is perhaps as unavoidable as it is uncomfortable. By his own admission Yannaras is wrestling or struggling with momentous issues in inadequate (conceptual) human language and seeking other or better ways to say what he would say, such as through art. Elsewhere in the book he discusses the material creation as always having involved decay (not just subsequent to a human fall) and considers the second law of thermodynamics, the principle of entropy… But this is to look at the created universe as we know it. Does a material creation have to be thus? Could it hypothetically have been other than it is? Some think on things that are and ask “Why?” but others imagine things that never were and ask, “Why not?” Yannaras’ words on the language of art provoked a memory and so this reviewer turned to a work of artistic imagination, J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Silmarillion, in which is described the pre-cosmic ‘angelic’ fall of Melkor and the effect of his fall and subsequent influence on the material creation. Lands were “built… and Melkor destroyed them; valleys…delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains… carved and Melkor threw them down; seas… hollowed and Melkor spilled them… and though… all things were in hue and shape other than… at first intended, slowly nonetheless the Earth was fashioned…” Does the Christian artist here offer a pointer to further theological considerations as yet unexplored?

Some might well consider this reviewer’s Tolkeinesque musings as potentially erroneous and in need of restraint by Tradition – and perhaps the niggles I have flagged up in Yannaras are to be viewed similarly. Quite possibly this is inevitable when pushing the boundaries in struggling with such a subject. Yannaras’ (developed from Lossky?) theology of personhood has indeed been critiqued by other Orthodox writers considering if it is fully in line with the Fathers. For this reviewer, that most definitely does not mean not to read him but simply to read him, sometimes, with caution for Yannaras writes, and certainly in this book, much that is wonderful.

Father Simon Smyth

Translated and introduced by John Anthony McGuckin, The Harp of Glory, (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York, 2010); ISBN 978-0-88141-054-9. 159pp. £19.78 (Kindle Edition: £6.41)

This volume (no.39 in The St Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series) is an absolute gem, a liturgical jewel of the most wonderful richness. It is a poem or hymn which McGuckin decribes as an “African Akathist”. Two thoughts occur immediately. Firstly that whereas McGuckin rightly describes The Hymn of Glory as matching the “great Byzantine rhapsody” of the Akathist “both in quality and religious fervor” that whereas the Byzantine Akathist might run to over two thousand words, The Hymn of Glory greatly exceeds this in length, maybe by as much as ten times, perhaps exceeding twenty thousand words. The other thought that immediately occurs is an exchange from Richard Marsh’s Black Angels: asked whether he had been to Ethiopia before, Marsh replied that it was his first visit to Africa, to which he was asked did he really think that Ethiopia was in Africa? This “question seemed too preposterous to require a reply, and anyway I was tired… Only later, when I began to come to some sort of terms with this extraordinary land, did I begin to grasp something of its significance.” Perhaps not so much then an African Akathist as an Ethiopian Akathist.

John Anthony McGuckin, a priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church, offers The Harp of Glory “to the Orthodox faithful as a veritable gem, found in, and taken from, a treasure chest that has been so rarely opened by the wider Christian world. Ethiopian Orthodox spirituality remains an unknown element to most of the Latin, Byzantine or wider Christian worlds.” McGuckin considers this “a matter of ecumenical sadness” and “a lost opportunity.” He adds a valuable corrective to the tendency of those Byzantine Orthodox who concentrate on “the Christological divisions” resulting from Chalcedon: “it might be a more appropriate thing to think more generously of the great antiquity and profound spirituality of the worlds of the Coptic and Ethiopic Churches… veritable cradles of martyrs.” His introduction is, thankfully, far more irenic than many of us, alas, too often experience in Byzantine writings upon anything Oriental Orthodox. He even credits Origen as “the first to put together the format of the global” interpretation of scripture, as “a single inter-related text” recounting the Gospel story, that those sufficiently enlightened in the Gospel might see the deeper mystical meanings below the superficial surface of the historical accounts, clues in these stories allowing them to read the “Old Testament… wholly, and entirely, in the light of the Gospel.” The Harp of Glory is “a scriptural catechesis”. An excellent feature of the book in this regard are the footnotes on every page linking the phrases of the poem to their scriptural origin or inspiration whether (to glance randomly at just two pages) verses or passages from Luke, Psalms, Judges, Exodus, Matthew, Genesis or Song of Songs, Isaiah, Enoch, Kings and Numbers!

McGuckin’s excellent scholarly introduction discusses the origins of the hymn through his translation of the Dominican Mark Van den Oudenrijn’s 1961 Latin translation from the original Ge-ez and so back into fifteenth century Ethiopia and the hymns ultimate patristic and scriptural inspirations. The introduction considers the extraordinary achievement of this alphabetic poem, truly a literary masterpiece. Let us be honest and admit that many readers are tempted to skip introductions. Resist any such temptation with this introduction for you would miss so much. A thorough reading of the introduction will be richly repaid in a profound appreciation of and delight in the hymn which is a profound “all-encompassing” “gateway to the Scripture” with nearly every line offering keys “to interpretation of a massive array of Biblical texts”, the reader seeing “the text anew in the light of Christ’s salvation of the world through the regal event of his Incarnation into time and space through the loving obedience of the Blessed Virgin.”

John Anthony McGuckin is to be highly congratulated for this magnificent addition to the growing list of quality English translations of Oriental Orthodox texts. He writes: “It is with much pleasure that I am able now to share it with the larger readership it deserves.” And it is with much pleasure that this reviewer enthusiastically recommends it to that same large readership: buy it, read it, immerse yourself in it

Father Simon Smyth




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