By: Sarah Bakker Kellogg (University of California, Berkeley)
Worlds within Worlds: On Imperial Christianity’s Illegible Internal Others
The over-arching question running through Sonja Luerhmann’s marvelous edited volume on Orthodox Christian prayer is how sensory practices and bodily disciplines work together to create a world. Rightly identifying a shared emphasis on the corporeal dimensions of corporate worship across capital-O Orthodoxy, the contributors to this volume offer a number of valuable insights into questions of personhood, mediation, tradition, authority, publicity, intimacy, belonging, and the theological valences we attach to the human sensorium. Their collective labor demonstrates that Eastern Christianity is rich soil for anthropological inquiry from a number of vantage-points and for a host of theoretical interests. It is only further evidence of this richness that despite the book’s nuanced take on Orthodoxy’s historical and geographical complexity, a number of questions remain. In this brief essay, I take up just one of these remaining questions in order to reflect on the extent to which this volume’s claims about the senses, prayer, and the worldliness of an Orthodox world resonate with my own ethnographic work on an especially marginal branch of the Orthodox Christian tradition: the Syriac Orthodox diaspora in Western Europe. One of the key claims this book makes, and its authors offer a great deal of compelling evidence to support it, is that Orthodox Christianity is a world, as common stylistic features, ethical questions, and theological preoccupations reappear again and again, from Russia to Ethiopia to India and beyond. The question I am concerned with is how much this depiction of the worldliness of the Orthodox world relies on the legacy of Orthodox Christianity’s historical relationship with empire, which has functioned to obscure other kinds of Orthodox worlds contained within it.
It will take some work to make this case, given how persuasively the contributors to this volume describe and analyze this Orthodox worldliness. When understood as a globalized aesthetic formation, following Birgit Meyer’s apt phrase, Orthodox Christianity makes Christian persons through diverse kinds of relationships among practitioners spanning multiple scales and modes of mediation. These relationships, in turn, are fashioned through ongoing processes of sensory exchange and the ethically attuned cultivation of individual capacities that enable such exchanges. Naumescu names this Orthodox mode of being and becoming “relational ethics,” and this approach mirrors my own observations of diasporic Syriac Orthodox liturgical practice, which is the site par excellence for enacting a deeply felt ethics and theology of Syriac kinship, moral personhood, and ethnic belonging. The ethical, the theological, and the ethnic are so tightly bound that the sung prayers and hymns of the West Syriac Rite serve as a parish level ethnic boundary of a sort that is entirely illegible to conventional secular social science understandings of the distinction between “ethnic” and “religious” identity (Bakker Kellogg 2015; see also Atto 2011; Calder 2016; Jarjour 2018).
In sensory practices like icon veneration, sacramental listening, repetitive recitation, pilgrimage, and learning to read ancient sacral languages, Orthodoxy’s aesthetic forms and relational ethics articulate with what the authors understand to be an authoritative discursive tradition in the sense that Talal Asad means it, in that it aspires to a kind of coherence as an ethico-theological corpus rooted in a genealogy of ecclesiastical authority. Among Syriac Orthodox Christians who have resettled in Western Europe, this dynamic takes shape in the weekly recitation of the litany of saints, from St. Ephrem of Nisibis to St. Jacob of Serug to Philoxenos of Marburg, who are not only moral exemplars for Orthodox becoming (Bandak and Boylston 2014), but also beloved ancestors, who as members of the family remain intimately and immanently involved in everyday life. For the broader Orthodox world described in this volume, the historical imagination that shapes both the aesthetic and the discursive dimensions of this ethico-theological corpus is a political imagination as well, in that it is anchored in intellectual, poetic, visual, and sonic evocations of ancient Byzantium, and this is where the authors’ views of what makes Orthodoxy Orthodox diverge from mine.
It is, to my mind, a very healthy thing when anthropologists attend critically to the imaginative and reconstructive processes through which contemporary Christians establish claims of continuity with the past, and yet it also strikes me that something crucial is lost when we do not worry as much as we might about how the present’s relationship with the past is sometimes more than just an act of imagination and commemoration. Sometimes, certain narratives of the past, originating in the past, maintain their purchase in the present because of their decisive world-making effects. In the case of Orthodoxy’s roots in 4th and 5th century Christological controversy, I do not contest the point that much of the Orthodox world aspires to a principle of unity-in-diversity made largely possible by a shared imagined connection to Byzantium. This shared imagined connection is, as often as not, a geotheopolitical construct meant to fill the space left behind by any number of failed secular and even “western” (does that mean Roman?) ventures. It is also true that this ostensibly unifying thread, which both spans the Orthodox world and defines it as Orthodox, is not to be found in the Syriac Orthodox corner of it in which I work.
Despite public lip service to ecumenical reconciliation, I know of no Syriac Orthodox person with a strong aesthetic, moral, or theological attachment to a Byzantine past. What I can attest to are many Syriac Orthodox Christians who, if they know you well enough to trust you with this revelation, will privately express anger about how their liturgical forebears were mistreated at the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.) by the imperial bishops of Byzantium and Rome. From their perspective, which is filtered through their own lived memories of religious suppression and political violence in south east Turkey, eastern Syria, and northern Iraq, the misdeeds of the imperial Greek-speaking bishops of the Byzantine Empire at the Council of Chalcedon constituted the founding moment of Syriac Christianity’s historical troubles as a perennially marginalized, subjugated, and persecuted minority. From this moment on, a vast, cosmopolitan, and continent-spanning Syriac world took shape, encompassing both “orthodox” West Syriac Christians and “heterodox” East Syriac Christians. This world was not set apart from the Greek-speaking Christianity of formerly Byzantine lands but overlapped it, and engaged it in agonistic dialogue. For centuries, this Syriac world stretched beyond Greek-speaking Christian hegemony through the expansion of the Islamic world.
This history makes a difference to how anthropologists construe the historical context of the twenty first century Orthodox world because this context has shaped that historical imagination in variable ways. How the Roman and Greek churches remember and commemorate the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, and thus how they remember their own Byzantine pasts, is very different from what the heirs of the early Syriac speaking Christians remember and commemorate, as these memories have been shaped and reshaped by their shifting position as subjects of other empires, whether Sassanid, Abbasid, Mughal, or Ottoman. It matters that the Syriac Orthodox I work with consider themselves Orthodox because they adhere to the Nicene Creed. It also matters that they consider themselves non-Chalcedonian and not in the slightest bit Byzantine, not because they disagree with the substance of the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s incarnate nature, but because they object to how the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople used the Council’s proceedings to establish their own political dominance and cultural hegemony in ways that had long-term material effects on the Syriac speaking world.
Thus it strikes me that when an anthropologist studying the heirs of the imperial position today characterizes the proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon in terms of the Christological divisions among so-called Nestorians, Miaphysites, and Chalcedonians, the impression given is somewhat slanted towards an imperial Christian understanding of what those early Christological debates were all about (Luerhmann 2018:4-7). Take the term miaphysite, for example, which is the label ascribed by Euro-American scholars to non-Chalcedonian churches like the Syriac Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches, who, in response, have also taken up the term. Yet the term does not convey a coherent position taken at the Council of Chalcedon—it was invented as a neologism by English-speaking scholars in the twentieth century by conjoining the Greek word mia- (the feminine term for “one,”) and the Greek word physis (“nature”) (Millar 2013:52; see also Amar 2011). The purpose of this neologism was to emphasize what these western scholars understood to be the non-Chalcedonian Christians’ “weak” one-nature Christological doctrine without explicitly naming it as heterodox. The weakness of their “one” was signaled through use of the grammatical feminine, even though, according to Church historian Fergus Millar, no such term is to be found any relevant ancient texts (2013:50-58). This point ought to raise an anthropological eye-brow or two. As we seek to construe the relevant context to account for “Eastern” Christianity’s constitutive difference from “Western” Christianity we do well to situate even the most neutral seeming of scholarly claims about the past within the very traditions of imperial Christian heresiology, ethnography, and historiography out of which our own modern practices of textual inscription have emerged (Berzon 2016).
An altogether different perspective on what was at stake in those earlier councils comes into view through the Syriac literary tradition of the second through seventh centuries, as shifts in Syriac rhetorical conventions and theological motifs reveal Greek Christianity’s growing encroachment into Syriac modes of theological discourse, which Syriac Studies scholars have recently discerned to be a sign of the incommensurability of Greek, Latin, and Syriac as languages of theological discourse and Christological description. Part of the purpose of these councils was not only to put a limit on what could be said about the person and nature of God but on how it could be said, as in the case of the First Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E., which prohibited using feminine language to characterize any aspect of the Holy Trinity, effectively putting an end to the genre of Syriac poetic theology in which the Holy Spirit, the grammatically feminine ruho, was conventionally described as the Mother, and both God the Father and God the Son were frequently attributed with feminine anatomical attributes and capacities (Amar 2011:17). Such imperial maneuvers not only quashed an entire genre of theological discourse, but they set about to render the Syriac theological imagination illegible within Greek and Roman Christianity, while for Syriac Christians, in turn, Byzantium became synonymous with the imperial West (see also Weltecke 2016; Wood 2013)
The point of this excursion into late antique and early medieval geotheopolitics is not to fault the authors of this volume for insufficiently emphasizing the diversity within Orthodox unity. This historical material is not well known and its salience to anthropological concerns is not immediately obvious, and so I would not expect someone who works on twenty first century Romania or Russia to know what was going on in 13th century Baghdad. The point, rather, is to show how the aesthetic and discursive dimensions of a world emerge in generative tension with the other worlds it overlaps—although it might also be worth a methodological pause to consider the techniques we use to construe particular narratives of the past as necessary “context” to our anthropological analyses of the present, lest we recapitulate past imperial Christian narratives in which other Orthodox worlds are rendered illegible (Bakker Kellogg forthcoming).
For the Syriac Orthodox Christians I work with in the European diaspora, there is not one competing spatiotemporal imaginary at work in their religious and political lives but three, and not one of them is Byzantine. Instead, Syriac Orthodox Christians who think ethnically identify with either the ancient Assyrian Empire or with the ancient city-states of Aram, while those for whom the concept of “ethnicity” is meaningless identify simply with their parishes, ancestral villages, and monasteries. These historical imaginations are shaped, in variable and complex ways, by a sense of Syriac Christianity’s status as simultaneously indigenous, Semitic, and diasporic from the outset. These spatiotemporal imaginaries inform Syriac Orthodox prayer in that they are connected to what I have come to think of as distinct sensory cultures within the broader Syriac Christian world, which in turn reflect that world’s complex diasporic existence and its interactions with other worlds, whether global secularity materializing in local secular nationalisms, Turkish urban culture, Arab music worlds, rural Kurdish village life, or transnational ecumenical activism. If the worldliness of a world is marked by the convergence of aesthetic formation, discursive tradition, transnational connection, and historical imagination, then Syriac Christianity is a world straddling numerous others. This is possible because of the anchoring effects of Syriac prayer, an essential element of the liturgical performance of Syriac liturgy. Liturgical prayer, in this tradition, is an open interpretive space in which competing spatiotemporal configurations of Christian kinship, community, and ethnic belonging, originating in different regions of the Middle East and brought together in diaspora, jostle uncomfortably against one another. This is a world within others’ worlds, both fractured and knit together through intersecting sensory cultures, and its illegibility is produced, in my view, by the dominant knowledge practices and historical narratives shared by secular states and the devout heirs of imperial Christianity alike.
Admittedly, the question of Orthodoxy’s others is brought up in William A. Christian, Jr.’s epilogue, but it is not explicitly thematized as a constitutive, defining feature of the kind of Orthodox world that is represented conceptually and ethnographically in this volume. In some sense, this is good news: there is a great deal left to explore at the interface among worlds, and the multiscalar problem of finding worlds within worlds, in order to illuminate Orthodoxy’s imperial historical imagination. This imagination can at times obscure these other worlds, but this is no mere criticism for the sake of being critical; rather, in thinking about the imperial legacies of Orthodox thought and practice, we can expand our sense of what is at stake both theologically and politically in the aesthetic and discursive practices entailed in Orthodox prayer, which would in turn expand our understanding of how Orthodox prayer might in fact be shaping worlds beyond Orthodoxy itself.
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