Category Archives: Theology

The Vale of Abraham

by David Bentley Hart

I may be entirely mistaken here, I confess it; that is why, in my footnotes for the tale of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, in my recent translation of the New Testament (Yale University Press), I freely state that mine is a speculative rendering.  But, if I am wrong, mine is an honorable error.  The text of Luke 16:22-23 reads thus: ἐγένετο δὲ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πτωχὸν καὶ ἀπενεχθῆναι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀγγέλων εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ· ἀπέθανεν δὲ καὶ ὁ πλούσιος καὶ ἐτάφη. καὶ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ ἐπάρας τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ, ὑπάρχων ἐν βασάνοις, ὁρᾷ Ἀβραὰμ ἀπὸ μακρόθεν καὶ Λάζαρον ἐν τοῖς κόλποις αὐτοῦ.  My version of the passage reads thus: “And it happened that the poor man died and was carried off by the angels into the Vale of Abraham; but the rich man also died and was entombed.  And lifting up his eyes in Hades, being in torment, he sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his vales.”  The issue, obviously, is my eccentric choice to render κόλπος not as the conventional “bosom,” but as the aggressively unconventional “vale.”  N.T. Wright, for instance, in an article in The Christian Century, complained that I had perversely chosen the metaphorical meaning of the word over the literal, and in so doing had ignored the ancient Jewish idiom of “Abraham’s bosom.”

Actually, neither meaning is either more literal or more metaphorical than the other, but it is true that “bosom” might have been the more common meaning in the first century; and, were Luke merely a common writer rather than quite an educated one, that would be an extremely significant consideration. As for the ancient Jewish idiom to which Wright so cavalierly alludes, it never existed as far as we know; it is entirely his invention. There is, it is true, a fragment of papyrus from Alexandria, probably from about the same general era as Acts, that mentions the κόλπος of the three patriarchs; but, of course, that does not tell us how the term or the image is to be understood there either. In what sense could three men share a single bosom, after all? Surely one should assume the phrase means “their midst,” or “among them,” or “their special place,” or “their sheltering care,” or even (to risk a wild conjecture) “their vale.” Then, from some centuries after the time of Acts, there is a single Mishnaic phrase that might refer to the same image, in the tractate Kiddushin (72b), where the third-century figure Adda bar Ahava is described as seated within “Abraham’s bosom” (presumably not a metaphor). But this, it is generally believed, is a usage without deep roots in antiquity, perhaps borrowed from the Christians and entirely unilluminating as to what the Greek phrase used by Luke back in the first century really meant. It is possible, I happily grant, that κόλπος should be taken as simply equivalent to the Hebrew cheyq—the breast, or the fold in a man’s garment located at the level of his chest—and understood literally. But Luke did not write in Hebrew or Aramaic, and he lived in a Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean world, and he used its language, and he conceived of reality in the terms common to his time.

This is all very important to keep in mind, because Wright had an odder complaint to raise against my treatment of the parable: he objected truculently to my observation, in my footnote to the episode, that the rich man and Lazarus are depicted as occupying two distinct regions of the one realm of the dead (Hades or Sheol). Continue Reading…

How to Be the Right Kind of “Fundamentalist”?

by Davor Džalto  |  ру́сский

“Fundamentalism” is a difficult concept to define. The difficulty does not primarily stem from the demanding task of describing certain actions, beliefs, and ideas and drawing general patterns that would help us differentiate “fundamentalist” phenomena from what they are not. The way the concept of “fundamentalism” is often employed, both in the public discourse and in academia, shows that the major obstacle consists in the underlying logic behind many implicit or explicit definitions of fundamentalism, which differentiates between actions and ideas that “they” propagate and do (which can be labeled as “fundamentalism”), and same or similar actions and ideas that “we” do. That means that the concept of “fundamentalism” is more often than not used as an honorific term, whose lack of descriptive value is compensated by a strong judgment value.

Take, for instance, the categories that Leonard Weinberg and Ami Pedahzur offered in their attempts to define “fundamentalism” in Religious Fundamentalism and Political Extremism (2004). They identified a couple of main types of “fundamentalist” groups and movements (such as “reactive” groups and movements; movements that “define the world in dichotomous and Manichaean terms…Choices between good and bad are always clear-cut and straightforward”; fundamentalists that hold the sacred texts to be “of divine origins and consequently inerrant and beyond questioning”; and so forth).

Certainly all of us can think of those religious radicals and fanatics who conform to some of these descriptions, or maybe to all of them at the same time. The problem, however, is elsewhere. Continue Reading…

Non-Fundamentalist Monastic Spirituality of Mother Maria Skobtsova

by Kateřina Kočandrle Bauer

Since the beginning of modern times, monastic spirituality has had to face both extreme fundamentalism and extreme liberalism, or in postmodern times, relativism.  One reason is an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the human person and human identity. Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945), an Orthodox nun who left Russia after the 1917 revolution and settled in Paris, represents a monastic spiritual journey that moderates both fundamentalism and extreme relativism. She was creative and innovative in her spiritual journey, but at the same time she held onto the spiritual values of the Christian tradition of the past that, in a new context of exile, did not lose meaning. We can find inspiration for a non-fundamentalist but rooted monastic spirituality not only in Mother Maria’s life and actions but also in her theoretical presuppositions for the monastic journey, especially her understanding of the human person as made according to God’s image and likeness and her notion of human identity.

The fundamentalist notion of the human self affirms a strong identity. Postmodern liberal identity, on the other hand, is fluid and often unstable. Fundamentalist religious identity plays strongly on collective identity and thus denies to a certain extent individuality and authenticity. Postmodern liberal consumerist identity, however, seeks only individualism and authentic experience but often without a profound understanding of the past. Here, Mother Maria offers a position that moderates the two extremes: first, she speaks of collective identity as sobornost, but only together with the authenticity of individual identity; and second, she affirms rootedness in the past, but combined with dynamicity and the possibility of adapting Christian identity to the contemporary context—bringing it into the present.  Continue Reading…

Can Saints Be Wrong? A Palamite Perspective

by Ivana Noble

What kind of authority does the experience of the saints have? Can those who are close to God be wrong in assessing the world or in their understanding of other people’s lives? Looking at the lives of the saints, do we find a notion of infallibility at work? In today’s Orthodoxy, St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), a monk at Mount Athos and later Archbishop of Thessaloniki, belongs among the most frequently cited saints, so let us have a look at what he says on the subject.

St. Gregory Palamas is best known for his defense of the hesychast monks who were given the gift of unceasing prayer and a direct vision of God. He shared monasteries and even hermitages with them, learned ascetic practices from them, grew under their spiritual direction. In other words, Palamas had a long-term experience of a daily contact with those of whom he would say that the gift of grace transformed them into the likeness of God. But he also experienced that these people had their convictions which remained even after the transforming spiritual experience had arrived.

To use an example, St. Theoliptos of Philadelphia was a firm opponent of the Council of Lyons and of reunion with the Roman Catholic Church. Palamas did not see such a conviction as a consequence of the closeness to God. Rather, it belonged to the realm in which human faculties such as reason, emotions, or will operated. While this has not been a view unanimously agreed upon by the Fathers, for Palamas there was no direct continuity between the human faculties and divine illumination, not even when the human faculties were used in contemplation. Continue Reading…