15.06.40, Bitton-Ashkelony and Perrone, eds., Between Personal and Institutional Religion

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David Brakke

The Medieval Review 15.06.40

Bitton-Ashkelony, Brouria and Lorenzo Perrone, eds. Between Personal and Institutional Religion: Self, Doctrine, and Practice in Late Antique Eastern Christianity. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 15. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. pp. 345. ISBN: 9782503541310 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Brakke
The Ohio State University

It seems that historians of religion should no longer need to refute characterizations of the Mediterranean world in the fifth through eighth centuries, whether in the West or the East, as "stagnant" or merely a time of "revision" of earlier insights. The editors of this volume of learned essays nonetheless frame their collection as a response to such views; they seek "to discern the diverse and convoluted transformations of Eastern Christian thought and practice" in the centuries after Chalcedon through the overarching theme of the relationships or interactions between "personal religion" and "institutional religion" (3). Although the editors explicitly choose not to define these categories, it is reasonably clear what they mean by personal religion: it is the religious experience and practice of the "individual," for that word appears multiple times in their elucidation of the personal. Institutional religion does not receive the same elaboration, but it must be significantly different from individual--that is, "collective" or "group." The editors attribute the increased importance of "individual piety" to the growth of monasticism and its influence throughout society, but one may argue that many forms of monasticism in fact created modes of "institutional" or group religion unprecedented (at least in Judaism and Christianity) in the intensity of their collectivist mentality. I shall return to this point below.

In any event, although they do not mark this division in the table of contents, the editors present the essays as exploring religious transformations in Eastern Christianity through four sub-themes: the self, memories of history and identity formation, post-Chalcedonian theological discourse, and interactions between Judaism and Christianity as public religion. The first four essays explore the late antique self by studying spiritual direction, early Byzantine homiletics and hymnography, and mystical discourses of self-perfection. Lorenzo Perrone discusses how Barsanuphius and John of Gaza addressed the problems of "the anxious self" in the turbulent period of post-Chalcedonian politics. Georgia Frank argues that Romanos the Melodist introduced Satan into his homily On the Newly Baptized in order to foster a strategic forgetting that would lead to self-transformation. According to Derek Krueger, Andrew of Crete's Great Kanon scripted the self as penitent, a "sinner in need of divine assistance" (91). Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony dives into the problem of self-exposure, particularly speaking about mystical experiences, among eastern Christian authors, culminating in Symeon the New Theologian.

The second set of chapters focuses on memories of history and identity formation in the centuries after Chalcedon, when Eastern Christians grouped themselves into diverse factions, often based upon differing collective memories of central events, especially the Council of 451. Alberto Camplani examines how in Alexandria and Edessa lay-ascetic groups (the philoponoi and the bnay qyama) caused revisions in written accounts of their communities' ecclesiastical past. Sergey Minov demonstrates that the author of the Cave of Treasures constructed a specifically Syriac Christian identity through various strategies, not the least of which was adopting the pseudonym of Ephrem. Roger Scott traces the diverse ways early Byzantine historians integrated religion, particularly "doctrinal correctness" (221), into their chronicles.

In the third section, two essays discuss theology after Chalcedon. Yonaton Moss shows how Severus of Antioch created his own canon of "Church Fathers" as authorities in support of his anti-Chalcedonian theology, and Aryeh Kofsky argues that both pro- and anti-Chalcedonian theologians found ways to integrate into their views the Christology of Julian of Halicarnassus (d. ca. 527) thanks to its affinity with ascetic self-transformation. Fourth and finally, chapters by Oded Irshai and Hillel I. Newman explore interactions between Judaism and Christianity. Irshai examines the anti-Jewish aspects of Justinian's attempt to impose a uniform date of Easter and then turns to Easter's role in bolstering imperial authority under later emperors. Newman argues that the ritual execution of Haman at Purim was not specifically anti-Christian, but that Haman represented "every enemy of Israel in all times and places" (331).

All of these essays exhibit the clarity, exacting scholarship, and knowledge of the sources that we would expect from such accomplished scholars. If one seeks coherence in a collection like this, here it is to be found primarily in its geographical, chronological, and religious focus: Christianity in the late ancient and early Byzantine East. If some of the essays seem less relevant than others to the theme of personal and institutional religion, they nonetheless as a group do indeed, as the editors hope, "enrich and nuance the distinctive social and religious portrait of late antique Eastern Christianity" (7).

But can we say more about the announced theme after reading these essays? The editors eschew reaching any grand conclusions, but I see no reason why the reviewer should not try. As I said at the outset, editors Bitton-Ashkelony and Perrone claim that "'personal religion,' individual piety, became tremendously important in the period under discussion," and they attribute this development above all to "the blossoming of an ancient monastic culture and the impact of its ascetic ideal on late antique society as a whole." They argue that "within this spiritual setting a new significance was imparted to the individual experience of religion, which expressed itself in a variety of ascetic manifestations," especially spiritual direction and individual prayer (a "new practice") (1-2). The essays support this approach to how personal and institutional religion related during this period, but we might start toward a more specific hypothesis by unpacking the passively phrased statement, "a new significance was imparted to the individual experience of religion." Who imparted that significance, and to what ends? The example of monasticism suggests concerted efforts by elites to focus on the individual precisely by bringing him or her into a much more intensely collective institution. To be sure, many of the heroes and heroines of monastic literature are extreme solitaries, hidden in caves or wandering the desert or perched on pillars. But collective, rule-based monasticism embraced all but a tiny minority of dedicated Christian ascetics: in those communities spiritual directors may have attended to the anxieties of the individual soul, but they did so in contexts where almost every decision an individual might otherwise have made independently--what and when to eat, how much to sleep, what to wear, when to pray and so on--was regulated according to communal norms. In a Foucauldian vein, one might argue that during this period Christian institutions imparted a new significance to the individual as justification for regulating, directing, and scripting the individual, who nonetheless participated in the formation of his or her self and sometimes resisted institutional constraints. This is not to revive the model of an oppressive or repressive Byzantine Church, for the history writers, spiritual directors, emperors, hymnists, and preachers we meet in this volume served a variety of Christian institutions and could hardly have been part of a single project. Yet they all sought to conform individual selves to a collective identity or communal script.

Perhaps it is our evidence, nearly all of which originated in and was preserved by ecclesiastical institutions, that suggests such a view: we just do not have very good access to the individual piety or experience of pre-modern people. At the end of his incredibly rich and even moving representation of the self in Andrew of Crete's Great Kanon, Derek Krueger writes that the hymn "provides evidence not precisely for the religion of individuals, but for established and institutional images or imaginings of individual interior life" (90-91). Even when we turn to an articulate and sensitive author like Symeon, Bitton-Ashkelony may speak of "self-exposure," but she just as often characterizes Symeon as deliberately forming a self-portrait to serve institutional goals: Symeon took no "individualist approach to the ascetic life"; rather, he was engaged in an "effort to establish a new spiritual hierarchy in which he ranked himself among the elect, thanks to his experiences, which he averred out loud" (124). Symeon the individual self seems to escape our grasp and perhaps his as well. These conclusions and the problem of evidence for the individual self will come as no surprise to anyone who works on pre-modern religion (or perhaps religion of any period), but I wonder whether the articles in this book press us to say something more specific about this place and time. The direction of souls, the preaching of homilies, the recitation of hymns and prayers, the composition of partisan communal histories, the invention of theological authorities, the imposition of a standard calendar--all these activities suggest efforts by diverse leaders to form individuals that are appropriate to specific institutions and individuals finding their selves within those institutions. Is this relationship between the personal and the institutional distinctive of this period? Would the modes of being "religious" it produced have been recognizable to Mediterranean people of the first or second centuries? Such are the thoughts to which this collection of stimulating essays gives rise.

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