McHugo on Sunni and Shia Islam

9781626165861We’re a little late getting to this one, but earlier this year, Georgetown University Press published an interesting looking book on a religious divide that gets insufficient attention from Americans: A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is by John McHugo (University of St. Andrews). The Sunni/Shia divide forms the background for many contemporary conflicts in the Mideast, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An understanding of the conflict is thus essential to appreciating the politics of the region. Here’s the description of the new book from the Georgetown website:

The 1,400-year-old schism between Sunnis and Shi’is is currently reflected in the destructive struggle for hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran—with no apparent end in sight. But how did this conflict begin, and why is it now the focus of so much attention?

Charting the history of Islam from the death of the Prophet Muhammad to the present day, John McHugo describes the conflicts that raged over the succession to the Prophet, how Sunnism and Shi’ism evolved as different sects during the Abbasid caliphate, and how the rivalry between the Sunni Ottomans and Shi’i Safavids ensured that the split would continue into the modern age. In recent decades, this centuries-old divide has acquired a new toxicity that has resulted in violence across the Arab world and other Muslim countries.

Definitive, insightful, and accessible, A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is is an essential guide to understanding the genesis, development, and manipulation of the schism that for far too many people has come to define Islam and the Muslim world

A New Book on Eusebius

9781108474078Lately, law-and-religion scholars have been turning their attention to the Patristic period, during which Christians first began to think in earnest about the relation between church and state. To give just two examples, there’s Steve Smith’s new book on pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, and Robert Louis Wilken’s forthcoming book on early Christian concepts of religious liberty, which he presented at our Center’s colloquium this past fall. And so it might be a good time for us to reconsider Eusebius, that chronicler of Christianity in its formative centuries. A forthcoming book from Cambridge, Eusebius and Empire: Constructing Church and Rome in the Ecclesiastical History, does just that. The author is historian James Corke-Webster (King’s College London). Cambridge presents the book as a “radical” new treatment, which makes a traditionalist like me a little skeptical, but readers will be able to judge for themselves. Here’s the description from Cambridge’s website:

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, written in the early fourth century, continues to serve as our primary gateway to a crucial three hundred year period: the rise of early Christianity under the Roman Empire. In this volume, James Corke-Webster undertakes the first systematic study considering the History in the light of its fourth-century circumstances as well as its author’s personal history, intellectual commitments, and literary abilities. He argues that the Ecclesiastical History is not simply an attempt to record the past history of Christianity, but a sophisticated mission statement that uses events and individuals from that past to mould a new vision of Christianity tailored to Eusebius’ fourth-century context. He presents elite Graeco-Roman Christians with a picture of their faith that smooths off its rough edges and misrepresents its size, extent, nature, and relationship to Rome. Ultimately, Eusebius suggests that Christianity was – and always had been – the Empire’s natural heir.

Bacevich, “Twilight of the American Century”

9780268104863I think of Andrew Bacevich as a conservative of the old-fashioned, non-interventionist sort. You could forgive me for this, as he writes a column for The American Conservative. But he also has a column in The Nation, which suggests that his writing transcends easy categorization. Bacevich, an emeritus professor of history and international relations at Boston University, has a new collection of essays, Twilight of the American Century, which the University of Notre Dame press released last month. The title suggests that the book will join the ranks of many recent works documenting the decline of American hegemony. Here’s the description from the Notre Dame website:

Andrew Bacevich is a leading American public intellectual, writing in the fields of culture and politics with particular attention to war and America’s role in the world. Twilight of the American Century is a collection of his selected essays written since 9/11. In these essays, Bacevich critically examines the U.S. response to the events of September 2001, as they have played out in the years since, radically affecting the way Americans see themselves and their nation’s place in the world. Bacevich is the author of nearly a dozen books and contributes to a wide variety of publications, including Foreign AffairsThe NationCommonwealHarper’s, and the London Review of Books. His op-eds have appeared in the New York TimesWashington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers. Prior to becoming an academic, he was a professional soldier. His experience as an Army officer informs his abiding concern regarding the misuse of American military power and the shortcomings of the U.S. military system. As a historian, he has tried to see the past differently, thereby making it usable to the present. Bacevich combines the perspective of a scholar with the background of a practitioner. His views defy neat categorization as either liberal or conservative. He belongs to no “school.” His voice and his views are distinctive, provocative, and refreshing. Those with a focus on political and cultural developments and who have a critical interest in America’s role in the world will be keenly interested in this book.

Zaretsky, “Catherine and Diderot”

9780674737907-lgHistorians have often remarked on the affinity between intellectuals and authoritarian rulers during the Enlightenment. Lots of factors explain this affinity, but one stands out in particular: the two groups shared a common enemy in traditional Christianity, which placed restrictions on both of them. Intellectuals hoped that enlightened despots would break the power of the church and promote liberty, and despots relied on intellectuals to provide arguments for the aggrandizement of state power. The alliance was always shallow and rather tenuous, but it could make for amusing episodes. One such episode is discussed in a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment, by Robert Zaretsky. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A dual biography crafted around the famous encounter between the French philosopher who wrote about power and the Russian empress who wielded it with great aplomb.

In October 1773, after a grueling trek from Paris, the aged and ailing Denis Diderot stumbled from a carriage in wintery St. Petersburg. The century’s most subversive thinker, Diderot arrived as the guest of its most ambitious and admired ruler, Empress Catherine of Russia. What followed was unprecedented: more than forty private meetings, stretching over nearly four months, between these two extraordinary figures. Diderot had come from Paris in order to guide—or so he thought—the woman who had become the continent’s last great hope for an enlightened ruler. But as it soon became clear, Catherine had a very different understanding not just of her role but of his as well. Philosophers, she claimed, had the luxury of writing on unfeeling paper. Rulers had the task of writing on human skin, sensitive to the slightest touch.

Diderot and Catherine’s series of meetings, held in her private chambers at the Hermitage, captured the imagination of their contemporaries. While heads of state like Frederick of Prussia feared the consequences of these conversations, intellectuals like Voltaire hoped they would further the goals of the Enlightenment.

In Catherine & Diderot, Robert Zaretsky traces the lives of these two remarkable figures, inviting us to reflect on the fraught relationship between politics and philosophy, and between a man of thought and a woman of action.

Denysenko on the Ukrainian Church

7898This past weekend in Kiev, two independent Orthodox bodies united to form a new communion, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and elected a 39-year old bishop as the church’s patriarch. The patriarch will travel to Istanbul next month to receive a tomos of autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople — a recognition that the new church is autonomous from the Moscow Patriarchate, or Russian Orthodox Church, which claims jurisdiction under a 17th-century decree from the Ecumenical Patriarch, now overruled.

All this might seem esoteric to Western Christians, but in the Eastern Christian world, it is very big news, with geopolitical implications. Indeed, at this weekend’s ceremonies, Ukraine’s President, Peter Poroshenko, lauded the creation of the new body as a national declaration of independence from Russia.

The situation of Orthodoxy in Ukraine has been deeply contentious for at least 100 years, as Valparaiso University Professor Nicholas Denysenko recently wrote over at the Public Orthodoxy blog. Last month, Denysenko published a longer history of the conflict, The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation (Northern Illinois University Press), which looks to be very helpful in understanding what’s going on. The publisher’s description follows:

The bitter separation of Ukraine’s Orthodox churches is a microcosm of its societal strife. From 1917 onward, church leaders failed to agree on the church’s mission in the twentieth century. The core issues of dispute were establishing independence from the Russian church and adopting Ukrainian as the language of worship. Decades of polemical exchanges and public statements by leaders of the separated churches contributed to the formation of their distinct identities and sharpened the friction amongst their respective supporters.

In The Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Nicholas Denysenko provides a balanced and comprehensive analysis of this history from the early twentieth century to the present. Based on extensive archival research, Denysenko’s study examines the dynamics of church and state that complicate attempts to restore an authentic Ukrainian religious identity in the contemporary Orthodox churches. An enhanced understanding of these separate identities and how they were forged could prove to be an important tool for resolving contemporary religious differences and revising ecclesial policies. This important study will be of interest to historians of the church, specialists of former Soviet countries, and general readers interested in the history of the Orthodox Church.

Reichberg, “Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace”

9781108730167Next month, Cambridge will release what looks to be a definitive study of the Just War theory of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace, by Gregory Reichberg (Peace Research Institute Oslo). The book’s description from the Cambridge website speaks for itself:

Inquiring ‘whether any war can be just’, Thomas Aquinas famously responded that this may hold true, provided the war is conducted by a legitimate authority, for a just cause, and with an upright intention. Virtually all accounts of just war, from the Middle Ages to the current day, make reference to this threefold formula. But due in large measure to its very succinctness, Aquinas’s theory has prompted contrasting interpretations. This book sets the record straight by surveying the wide range of texts in his literary corpus that have bearing on peace and the ethics of war. Thereby emerges a coherent and nuanced picture of just war as set within his systematic moral theory. It is shown how Aquinas deftly combined elements from earlier authors, and how his teaching has fruitfully propelled inquiry on this important topic by his fellow scholastics, later legal theorists such as Grotius, and contemporary philosophers of just war.

Time’s Up for the Endorsement Test?

At the First Things site today, I have a post on The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the Maryland Peace Cross case, in which the Court granted cert last month. I argue that the Court could use the opportunity to get rid of the endorsement test in Establishment Clause cases. Here’s an excerpt:

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to consider an important Establishment Clause case from Maryland, The American Legion v. American Humanist Association. The case, which presents a challenge to a Maryland cemetery’s use of a 40-foot cross as a public war memorial, gives the Court a chance to clarify its views on the constitutionality of state-sponsored religious displays. In particular, the case provides an opportunity for the Court to do away with the so-called “endorsement test,” which holds that a display violates the Constitution if a hypothetical, reasonable observer would see it as an endorsement of religion. Conservatives have criticized the endorsement test for decades, and with a new majority on the Court, they may finally have the votes to discard it. American Legion could turn out to be one of the most significant Establishment Clause cases in a long time.

American Legion is also the subject of a recent “Legal Spirits” episode Marc and I recorded. But you have already listened to that. Right?

Sexton, “A Nation Forged by Crisis”

97815416172301I’m ambivalent about the current polarization here in America. Sometimes, it seems to me that we really are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, in which two large parties, secular progressives and religious conservatives, truly distrust one another and can find nothing in common. At other times, it seems to me that things aren’t so bad, in historical terms. Early 19th Century America, before the Era of Good Feelings, was pretty rough. Just go back and read some of the campaign literature from 1800. There was a fair amount of political violence at the end of the nineteenth century. Two presidents were assassinated in the space of less than 20 years. There were the 1960s. And of course we did have a Civil War in this country.

History is a good antidote to despair. It teaches us that things have been bad before–and will no doubt be again! A new history of America, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History, from Basic Books, highlights the contingencies of our past. The author is Jay Sexton (University of Missouri). The publisher’s description follows:

A concise new history of the United States revealing that crises–not unlike those of the present day–have determined our nation’s course from the start.

In A Nation Forged by Crisis, historian Jay Sexton contends that our national narrative is not one of halting yet inevitable progress, but of repeated disruptions brought about by shifts in the international system. Sexton shows that the American Revolution was a consequence of the increasing integration of the British and American economies; that a necessary precondition for the Civil War was the absence, for the first time in decades, of foreign threats; and that we cannot understand the New Deal without examining the role of European immigrants and their offspring in transforming the Democratic Party.

A necessary corrective to conventional narratives of American history, A Nation Forged by Crisis argues that we can only prepare for our unpredictable future by first acknowledging the contingencies of our collective past.

Guroian, “The Orthodox Reality”


9780801099342The Orthodox Churches–and here I speak broadly of Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches–lack a major presence in the United States. Actually, that’s an understatement, at least in terms of numbers. A recent Pew Survey put the percentage of Americans who are Orthodox Christians at only 0.5%. Many Orthodox Christians are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Yet Orthodoxy has established a foothold in this country, and attracts a steady trickle of converts, especially among intellectuals. And American Orthodoxy has established seminaries and monasteries that contribute to the Orthodox theological tradition.

Vigen Guroian, now retired from the University of Virginia, is a good example of an Orthodox (Armenian) theologian working in the US. Unlike many theologians, his work is accessible to the lay reader. His latest book, on Orthodoxy, culture, and modernity, should appeal to followers of our Center’s Tradition Project. The book is The Orthodox Reality: Culture, Theology and Ethics in the Modern World, from Baker Academic. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

This is a book about the struggle of Orthodox Christianity to establish a clear identity and mission within modernity–Western modernity in particular. As such, it offers penetrating insight into the heart and soul of Orthodoxy. Yet it also lends unusual, unexpected insight into the struggle of all the churches to engage modernity with conviction and integrity. Written by one of the leading voices of contemporary Orthodox theology, The Orthodox Reality is a treasury of the Orthodox response to the challenges of Western culture in order to answer secularism, act ecumenically, and articulate an ethics of the family that is both faithful to tradition and relevant to our day. The author honestly addresses Orthodoxy’s strengths and shortcomings as he introduces readers to Orthodoxy as a living presence in the modern world.

Scruton on Culture

Culture-Counts-2018-310x460Last year, we were honored to host Sir Roger Scruton as the keynoter for the second session of our Tradition Project, on culture and citizenship, here in New York. (You can view the video on the sidebar to the right, or on our Videos page). This fall, Sir Roger published a book on the subject of culture for Encounter Books, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Looks very worthwhile. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

What is culture? Why should we preserve it, and how? In this book renowned philosopher Roger Scruton defends Western culture against its internal critics and external enemies, and argues that rumours of its death are seriously exaggerated. He shows our culture to be a continuing source of moral knowledge, and rebuts the fashionable sarcasm which sees it as nothing more than the useless legacy of ‘dead white European males’. He is robust in defence of traditional architecture and figurative painting, critical of the fashionable relativists and urgent in his plea for our civilization, which more than ever stands in need of the self-knowledge and self-confidence that are the gift of serious culture.

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