Monday, June 16, 2014

Memory Eternal | Αἰωνία ἡ μνήμη: Ellen Bradshaw Aitken (1961–2014)

οἱ ὀρθῶς φιλοσοφοῦντες ἀποθνῄσκειν μελετῶσι

“True philosophers are always preparing to die” (Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedo 67e).

Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, my advisor, friend, and mentor, died early in the morning on Saturday, June 14. Her death was graceful and peaceful, as was her life. Many of her friends, colleagues, and students have shared memories of Ellen on her Facebook page, which now serves as a fitting memorial to a life well-lived. This is true because Ellen was always enthusiastic about the possibilities of scholarship in the digital age, but especially because memorials are as much for the living as for the dead. We ‘share’ and ‘like’ to support each other, so I want to do my small part in preserving her memory among the living by sharing my experiences of her life—and her death.

My relationship with Ellen was always serendipitous. I first met her in 2002, when I was a master’s student at Harvard. As my de facto advisor for matters related to the study of the New Testament, she gently answered my naïve questions about the value of historical scholarship. She did not have to take the time for this, but she did—always. When I was considering Ph.D. programs several years later, after she had moved on to McGill, she suggested that I apply there. I am embarrassed to say that neither McGill nor Montréal had been on my rader before that moment, but the decision was easy. Over the next nine years, in addition to regular meetings in her office or over lunch, we would have many chance conversations in the foyer of the Birks building at McGill. I vividly recall one such conversation, in which she explained with a warm smile that she need only stand in a certain spot for a short while and whomever she wanted to see would invariably pass by. Call me superstitious, if you like, but I believe that she is standing in that very spot right now, smiling warmly and waiting to see whomever she wants to see.

Even my thesis topic seems to have come to me serendipitously, although in truth I had long been wondering how best to integrate Ellen’s interests into my own scholarship. I recently explained this to an inteview committee during a coveted campus visit (I did not get the job), and one or two members chuckled, as if it were a strange and amusing thing for a newly-minted Ph.D. to express such concern to carry on his or her advisor’s work. They did not know Ellen. Everyone who knew Ellen also knows that they owe her a debt of gratitude for her patience, her gracious and diplomatic manner, and—especially for students and former students like me—her tireless advocacy. That is how she lived.

I visited Ellen twice in the hospital before she died. The first time she was tired but lucid. She looked well for someone who had recently undergone a nine-hour surgery. She explained that she had been anointed several times (for healing), and that she and her husband, Bill, were starting to think about end-of-life matters. I prattled on nervously about a newly ordained priest at the parish I attend and about a paper I had just given. The second time I visited her she was in the ICU for treatment of the infection that would hasten her death. She was awake and aware of my presence but unable to talk very easily since her breathing tube had only recently been removed. I held her hand tightly but said little, not knowing what to say. Then she showed me a small boat of sculpted marble resting on her lap. Bill explained, at her request, that they had seen a similar boat at a funeral they had attended (sadly, I forget whose funeral). Each person at this funeral was asked to breath into this boat, which was later buried with the deceased. Ellen put the little boat into my hand and asked me to breath into it. As I did, the image of an Orthodox priest breathing three times over the waters of a baptismal font appeared to me—strange but somehow appropriate. I have since thought also of the Ferryman of souls, Charon, from classical Greek culture. Whatever the association, what stands out most in my memory is this simple and beautiful ritual. When I could not find the words to say goodbye, Ellen provided a way forward. That is how she faced death.

If Socrates is right—if true philosophers are always preparing to die—then the highest compliment I can pay to Ellen is that she was a true philosopher. This is true because of the graceful way in which lived and the graceful way in which she faced a vicious illness, but above all it is true because of the graceful way in which she prepared others for her death. I know, too, that Ellen would appreciate the fact that the role of Socrates is taken over by a woman, Macrina the Younger, in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Gregory of Nyssa calls Macrina Teacher—διδάσκαλος—for her fortitude in the face of death. It seems fitting, then, to dedicate Macrina’s words to my Teacher, whom I pray is free from all pain and suffering in the God who is Love:

“Love is the foremost of all all excellent acheivements and the first of the commandments of the law. If ever, then, the soul reach this goal, it will be in no need of anything else … For the life of the Supreme Being is love … ” (Macrina the Younger, in Gregory of Nyssa’s Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection [J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca 46.96–97]).

Monday, May 12, 2014

Saint Paul, Conversion, and Social Constructionism

Ravenna Paul

Several weeks ago I met with a few friends for an ongoing discussion of William James’s classic Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience. One of our criticisms of James concerns his assumption that psychological phenomena recur unchanged over millennia. This came up again in our discussion of James’s lectures on conversion. As a New Testament scholar, I wondered why James skips lightly over Saint Paul’s conversion. James calls it "the most eminent" of those “striking, instantaneous instances” of conversion, but refrains from analyzing it in much detail. This is significant because Paul’s conversion has provided a template for other conversions throughout the history of Christianity. It is also significant because, in recent decades, scholars have debated the conditions of Paul’s about-face from persecutor of the church to preacher of Jesus as the Christ. A consensus has formed around the view that Paul did not—indeed could not—convert from Judaism to Christianity, but from from Pharisaic Judaism to an apocalyptic, messianic sect of Judaism. The debate continues over the question of whether this conversion was truly instantaneous or whether it was the culmination of prior social and psychological processes. This question is complicated by the fact that our only accounts of the event come from Paul’s own letters, written some twenty years later, and the second-hand reports in the Acts of the Apostles.

As I see it, there are at least three ways to frame the issue: (1) Paul’s experience was preconditioned by his formation as a Pharisee and/or other factors related to his Jewish upbringing, and is fully explicable within that context; only later did he identify Jesus with the apocalyptic son of God who had been revealed to him in the environs of Damascus. (2) Paul’s experience was preconditioned by his knowledge of the emergent Jesus movement and his fraught encounters with its members; he may not have been looking for a revelation of Jesus, but he was psychologically prepared for the event. (3) Nothing or next to nothing in Paul’s background prepared him for the event, although he presses his background into service, at times, in order to articulate his present commitment to Jesus in the starkest possible contrast to his checkered past. The first two positions are mutually compatible, in part because they both presuppose that conversion is a socially constructed phenomenon, and in part because Pharisees and the earliest followers of Jesus coexisted as first-century Jewish sects. As yet, there was no such thing as Christianity. The third position approximates James’s notion that Paul’s conversion exemplifies a distinctive, transhistorical variety of religious experience—the instantaneous conversion.

To say that conversion is socially constructed is to acknowledge the power of language to shape social realities. As an Evangelical convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, my own experience provides a kind of case study. My conversion did not take place instantaneously in a blinding flash of light, but only after many months of reading, praying, and searching for what I hoped would be an intellectually and spiritually deeper experience of church. I was frustrated with the vapid homogeneity of Southern California’s Evangelical churches, where a typical worship service consists of 45 minutes of repetitive praise songs and a 45 minute, rhetorical roller-coaster of a sermon with a final call to “ask Jesus into your heart” or “make Jesus your personal Lord and Savior.” The parody of such services in the video below is spot-on:

During my conversion I read enough Evangelical-to-Eastern Orthodox literature and encountered enough converts from Evangelical Christianity to learn that we all have similar stories, despite differing emphases. At one point this bothered me so much that I stopped calling myself a convert. I have since come to appreciate the fact that such recycling of stories is unavoidable and even necessary for the formation and maintenance of likeminded communities. For converts to the ethnically-constituted churches of Eastern Orthodoxy—Greek, Russian, Arabic, and so on—these stories help us to bond with each other and to establish a distinctive identity in parishes that are still largely defined by family ties and cultural commitments that, to be frank, do not always coincide with our own. In short, our stories shape our social reality within communities that continue to generate considerable barriers to entry and considerable cultural dissonance thereafter. The relative homogeneity of these stories does not point to a transhistorical variety of religious experience but to the historical experiences of particular people who share a particular set of circumstances and, for reasons that are probably beyond our ken, collectively choose to represent those experiences in a particular way.

So, what does all this have to do with Saint Paul? He was not the first Jew to conclude that Jesus is the Christ, nor even the first Jew to invite non-Jews to participate in this new community of likeminded believers, so it is reasonable to suppose that his conversion story was influenced both by his past and by the lost stories of others in his adoptive community. Still, James’s notion of relgious ‘geniuses’ makes me wonder whether one person’s story can be so compelling as to change the narrative for everyone who follows in his or her footsteps. Were we to identify Paul’s conversion story as just such a story, would this imply that his experience was indeed sui generis—unprecedented—or only that his peculiar genius lay in his manner of presentation?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Quote of the Day

οὔτε γὰρ ὁ σοφὸς ἐγκρατὴς ἀλλὰ σώφρων, οὔθ’ ὁ ἀμαθὴς ἀκρατὴς ἀλλ’ ἀκόλαστος· ὁ μὲν γὰρ ἥδεται τοῖς καλοῖς ὁ δ’ οὐκ ἄχθεται τοῖς αἰσχροῖς. σοφιστικῆς οὖν ψυχῆς ἡ ἀκρασία λόγον ἐχούσης οἷς ἔγνωκεν ὀρθῶς ἐμμένειν μὴ δυνάμενον (Plutarch, Virt. mor. 446c).

The wise man is not self-mastered but moderate, nor does the fool lack self-mastery but moderation. For the one takes pleasure in what is honourable, while the other is not troubled by shameful things. Lack of self-mastery, therefore, is the mark of a sophistic soul having reason but not the ability to stand by the things that it has correctly discerned (Plutarch, On Moral Virtue 446c).

Friday, October 12, 2012

Quote of the Day

χρηστοῦ μέν ἐστιν ἡγεμόνος συγγνώμη, φιλοσόφου δὲ κακοῦ μὴ πικρὸν εἶναι (Dio Chrysostom, Alex. 32.18).
Clemency is the mark of a good ruler, but lack of severity is the mark of a bad philosopher.
Sorry, Plato. If Dio is right, either a good king will be a bad philosopher or a bad king will be a good philosopher.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Quote of the Day

“The poetry of the sane person is eclipsed by that of inspired manics” (Plato, Phaedrus 245a)

Now I know why I’m such a bad poet

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