Thursday, August 19, 2004

Discussion on Orthodox Caesaropapism and Proper Historiography (vs. "Theophan" and Joel Kalvesmaki)

By Dave Armstrong (8-19-04)

Meanwhile (as I was enjoying this August the glorious wilds and vistas of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), and not giving the slightest thought to apologetics, one "Theophan" (Orthodox, I believe) took it upon himself to resurrect from the distant recesses of Internet Old Papers Out There Somewhere an obscure dialogue I had with Joel Kalvesmaki (also Orthodox). Theophan pulled up no less than nine posts from my old Apologetics / Ecumenism discussion list, from January 2000. I started this list and moderated it for a year (and I believe it is still in existence to this day). He announced this on the Theological Discussion Board, in the thread, "also somewhat interesting." Accompanying this generous citation of old work of mine left unpreserved on my website, Theophan peppered his comments in the thread with silly remarks such as the following:


Anyone with a heartbeat can look at that board and see that Dave was doing a bit of "anti-Orthodox trolling." Then suddenly he hooked something bigger than he was expecting. If he is going to post catenae of proof-texts as supposed scholarship, don't cry when somebody asks him to back it up with some substance.
This is highly amusing, since it was and is my own discussion list we are talking about! It is difficult to "troll" one's own list, by definition, since -- as I understand it -- that Internet term means cruising around the Internet looking to raise a stink or a quarrel on some board or engage in a "hit piece" on someone or other, and then splitting (in other words, not being at all interested in serious conversation). Besides, Joel wrote to me initially. He was responding (at the request of someone else) to my website paper, "Catholicism and Orthodoxy: A Comparison." So the situation is the utter opposite of "trolling." How the discussion began is quite obvious in the opening of the first post that Theophan cites, where Joel (his words will be in blue throughout) wrote:

Thank you for your response to this first critique I offered. Overall, I feel that your response to this first post was rather weak, simply restating what you had originally written without dealing directly with my objections or offering any counter-evidence. You will see how this works out as you progress through this e-mail.
Later, he wrote:

[T]he reason I contacted you in the first place was because I felt that it would be good to make my critiques of these papers accountable to the author as well . . .

This is "trolling"? Someone responds to an existing paper of mine, sends me an e-mail, I counter-respond, it eventually gets posted to my discussion list as a public exchange (with both sides' full consent), but I am "trolling"? One can only throw up their hands in despair in encountering "reasoning" like this: an example of what Malcolm Muggeridge would have called (in his inimitable, delightful, tweaking fashion) "fathomless imbecility." But anyone with a "heartbeat" can figure out what can only be regarded as a manifest absurdity. I must be a dead man already then . . .

As for "anti-Orthodox," I don't know how Theophan defines that term, but if it is anything like how I define anti-Catholic, then it is an absurd charge, since I regard my Orthodox brethren as fellow Christians, and in fact, have an immense amount of respect for them (as I do, many Protestants and Protestant groups). I disagree with them on some issues, and dare to write about it. If that brands me as "anti-Orthodox," then to be consistent, Theophan ought to refer (assuming a desire on his part for fairness and consistency) also to the ongoing inter-Orthodox squabbles.

On that very same list (where Orthodox were always present, and encouraged to participate in the ecumenical endeavor), there were Orthodox from ROCOR who would not only not acknowledge Catholic sacraments, but even those of other Orthodox jurisdictions. Are they "anti-Orthodox" too? This becomes a ridiculous subjective and semantic discussion, so I will leave it at that. Even my dialogue Joel stated that he enjoyed the discussion and obtained some benefit from it (as we shall see below) so it is hardly accurate to describe my efforts as "anti-Orthodox." One might more accurately describe Theophan's attitude as "paranoid" (if we must throw such unnecessary descriptions around).

As for the insinuation that I got my head handed to me in a handbasket by Joel Kalvesmaki, well, as always, I appeal back to the discussion itself, and allow people to make up their own minds. The partisan on one side always thinks that their "champion" wins the debate, so this is not exactly a surprising development on Theophan's part. Joel scarcely even dealt with the citations and reasoning I set forth. Instead, he launched into his own thing (the frustrating "ships passing in the night" routine -- which is no dialogue) and diverted the discussion into a tedious one about legitimate and illegitimate use of sources. That is one of my pet peeves, and so I responded forcefully. Whether I succeeded or not is for the reader to judge. The hoped-for "dialogue" ended on an inconclusive, most disappointing note, with little accomplished (which is what happens when one person leaves prematurely, as Joel did). He probably had excellent reasons to leave the discussion (mostly time pressures, as he said -- I can certainly understand that), but in any event leave he did.

If "supposed scholarship" is what Theophan calls the opinions of sources like the Encyclopædia Britannica, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, A History of Christianity, by Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Making of Europe, by Christopher Dawson, Christendom: A Short History of Christianity, by Roland H. Bainton, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 311-600, by Philip Schaff, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, by James H. Billington (786 pages, with 160 pages of elaborate footnotes), The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, by Alexander Schmemann [Orthodox], and The Orthodox Church, by Archbishop Kallistos Ware [Orthodox], as well as [Orthodox] Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Lenten Letter of 1972, then I confess that I am completely baffled as to how to respond (so I won't).

And then we have the stupid, familiar accusation (almost always from true anti-Catholics or those who don't understand how vigorous, passionate discussion works) about whining or "crying" when supposedly annihilated in an argument. This is fit only for laughter as well. I'm delighted that Theophan brought up this old debate. Joel at the time asked me not to post his words on my website in any edited form (and I was happy to oblige), but as they are in the public domain, on the Internet already, and as they seem to be some sort of "trophy piece" for Orthodox polemicists who want so badly to see my arguments concerning Orthodoxy defeated (hence Theophan's juvenile polemical rhetoric), it is not improper for me to reference them again on my blog and website. Joel himself said he had no objection to an unedited presentation. If the charge is that I was virtually crushed by the overwhelming weight of Joel's scholarly and historical arguments, I think it is only fair that my readers ought to see what actually happened in this debate. Vive free speech and the exchange of ideas! Let the reader judge . . . this is the beauty of open exchange of competing ideas.

Joel, in the first installment of the discusion, contended that I was somehow engaging in illegitimate methodology in citing sources such as those above:

You had made a number of claims about history. Falsification or verification of such claims can be done through historical analysis. I was not "explain[ing] the papacy and the form of Catholic ecclesiology and theology by purely socio-political analysis," but challenging certain of your claims about Church history.
This would be his theme: I could not -- so he argued -- cite historians, whose task is precisely to study such things in depth and arrive at conclusions (i.e., they make the "historical analysis" that Joel demands), and present them to us ignorant folks out here, outside the hallowed halls of ivory tower academia. That was somehow improper, as if historians are not entitled to their opinions and conclusions, and as if mere laymen like myself commit some egregious, dishonest sin in merely citing them. One has to (in effect, and the result of his argumentation) do historiography, in order to make any claims about history at all, according to Joel (at that time a graduate student in Early Christian Studies at the Catholic University of America Washington, DC, and presumably now nearing or in possession of a doctorate in history).

But this is foolish, because it would mean that no one could appeal to those who specialize in such things, and everyone would be required to specialize in them, to even make any claim at all. Such a state of affairs is manifestly absurd, a most unreasonable demand, and practically impossible. It would render meaningless in a major way the very field which Joel has chosen for himself. I could just as easily retort that "why should I trust your opinion on anything, if you are not yet a professor of history? Why should I trust your opinion even when you are that, since you have implied that no one must cite scholars' opinions; that this is somehow improper?"

I staked out the broad course of my reply in the second exchange:

I have never claimed that my own brief treatment of caesaropapism was anything more than a broad generalization. I do think it is historically accurate, generally speaking, as I will demonstrate. You seem to want minute scholarly accuracy in an overview paper [even Joel stated that this portion made up 10% of the paper above that he was critiquing]. I don't think that is reasonable or necessary; nevertheless, since you have called for further documentation, I will gladly provide it from historians: it is quite sufficient, in my opinion, to strongly back up my claims.

. . . I think the thesis under discussion can easily be defended, and I will shortly do so with further solid sources. But let's make it clear that I am positing a general tendency, in broad, general terms, much as Bishop Ware himself did (in a much more limited way), and similar to what my sources claim. My approach is more or less an amateur "history of ideas/theology" outlook, which isn't pretending to be an exhaustive treatment of all periods of Eastern, Byzantine, and Orthodox history, with the exactitude and precision of a professional historian. If Ware and Solzhenitsyn can generalize about historical trends and tendencies, so can I (neither of them being historians, either, as far as I know - though they are obviously well-versed in history).

I would expect you, as a budding historian, to approach the topic the way you do, with rigor, comprehensiveness, and precision. That's great, but it's another thing altogether to expect this of a piece of writing which had a different nature and purpose from the outset. But I can and will defend the general outlines of my thesis. That is all I should be expected to do, as a non-professional student of Church history. You will see that I do have many many history books in my library (running closely behind theology and apologetics). All the books I cite (unless I cite the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911 from online) were in my own collection.
I expressed one of the reasons motivating me to do this particular research:

We have plenty of historical faults, too: sins of commission, as I acknowledged in an earlier post. But that's the point: I acknowledged our sins; you want to deny those of Orthodoxy and its historical and geographical predecessors (well,at least this one). And I notice this often in Orthodox polemics: Rome is the bad guy, and Orthodoxy is assumed to be so flawless. Oh, there are faults here and there, vaguely alluded to, but the insinuation is that Catholicism has so many more skeletons in its closet, so much more error. This is an aside, I know, but I get tired of it. It's typified in such consciously and obsessively anti-Catholic rags as Franky Schaeffer's Christian
Around this time, I produced my many citations from historians, dealing with caesaropapism. Joel's friends started pushing him to withdraw:

Not only that critic which is my worst, but several other moderate as well, have chided me for bothering to reply to this message. Although I agree with their fears of the pettiness of such a thread, I do feel the urge to explain why these fears have some ground.
He elaborated upon his argument against citing historians as secondary authoritative sources:

1. Rather than primary sources, you offer secondary sources. Rather than dealing with records and events of the time, you're working with the variegated assessment of modern writers.

2. Furthermore, you never inform us as to the basis upon which these authors derive their conclusions. Where are they getting their information, how do they support their assessments, what are their sources? (This kind of critical assessment is to be done with all quotes, pro or con.)

3. It is unclear what the quotes you offer are supposed to do for your argument. How do they work against any of my arguments? Why did you choose these extracts and not others?

To be fair to Joel, he did qualify his criticisms in an important manner:

Would that this not discourage you! Your citations present materials and views much worth discussing. Most of them seem to confirm what I have written all along. I am especially blessed by Schmemann's critique and assessment. But the task of integrating these quotes into a coherent argument . . . is your task as the catenist.
I was under the impression that the dialogue at this point was still a jovial, amiable one. Hence I wrote:

I think this exchange is very helpful and stimulating. I've learned a lot. If someone else doesn't like this, they can delete it unread. I enjoy your posts, and I hope you enjoy mine, and don't take anything personally. Some people never seem to comprehend that distinction, unfortunately: to critique one's ideas and beliefs is not necessarily to cast aspersions upon them (in other words, apologetics and ecumenism ought to exist side-by-side, in harmony). I know you understand this: I am writing to readers who might be inclined to make the charge that it is a futile and unsavory exercise of merely personal (or, for that matter, ecclesiological) "attacks," etc.

Joel stated:
Were I to bring a paper today to a Byzantine Studies Conference arguing for the
caesaropapism of the Eastern Church I would be laughed off stage.
I summed up my presentation thus far:
I have offered plenty of evidence for my part, which you have not commented on (perhaps you intend to). Would these people, e.g., laugh Schmemann (the severest critic I produced) off the stage? He has been quite frank as to the fact of it, as a lamentable eastern tendency, which is basically my claim (despite my forays into ultimate cause, which is far more tricky to demonstrate and prove).

Joel -- near the end -- claimed to be enjoying the discussion, with some qualifications (emphases added):

I have been very blessed and informed by our discussion, in which we have come to some measure of understanding. Yesterday, as I recieved the syllabi for two of my five courses, I realized that I would have to find a plateau for our fine conversation or else suffer attenuation in my time and attention . . . While I have the answers and the will to respond to most of your objections, I have less time, and increasingly less patience, given what I feel to be poor form in argumentation on your part . . . Thanks be to God for where we have built some kind of understanding!

He acknowledged that he had some answering to do:

I realize that the "ball is in my court" on several points . . . Of course I am available for feedback and criticism and even further discussion on this thread, but it will have to be a bit slower and more limited in scope. Is this agreeable to you?

I readily agreed (though expressing a preference for more speed). For whatever reason, the further dialogue never took place. That is the fact of the matter. In my opinion, the matter was left unresolved, and Joel never dealt with my material from the historians. Basically, his main approach was to complain about the methodology I used. Now, one may think he made all the superior arguments and "won" the debate (perhaps he did; who knows, in the cosmic scheme of things? I don't think so, but maybe he did . . .), but since he himself acknowledged that there were things he needed to reply to, and said he would like to in time, it stands to reason that there was no clear or decisive "winner" in this. It was no "slam dunk." It wasn't even a dunk; not even a basket, in my opinion.

Theophan's cynical, jaded judgment is not warranted by the facts. The discussion never came to any real resolution, but at least it was amiable to the end (and there is much to be said for that). I made a claim with my sources and it was not overcome, as far as I am concerned. Not even a satisfactory attempt was made. One can complain all day that secondary, not primary sources were used, but these are still scholars (three of them Orthodox) with legitimate opinions in their own field of study, and they cannot be overcome merely by complaining about lack of context and primary content, etc. (which is mostly what Joel did). Perhaps if he sees this, he will decide to return and offer a true reply to my arguments after more than four years. In the meantime, I believe that they stand, and are adequately supported. That is not to run down Joel; it is much more so a protest against the ridiculous fictional caricatures of "Theophan," in describing this discussion and the supposed "knockout punch" that I allegedly experienced.

No comments: