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John D. Barbour
Autobiography and biography (which together will be called “life writing”) raise theological questions in ways different from systematic or constructive theology. These forms of life writing tell a story that may or may not be correlated with traditional doctrines. They integrate the first order discourse of symbol and narrative with secondary hermeneutical reflections that interpret and analyze the meaning and truth of religious language. The probing and disturbing questioning in a profound autobiography such as Augustine’s contrasts with the assurances and settled answers expected of theology by religious institutions and communities. Particular religious questions shape specific genres of life writing such as Puritan discourses, nature writing, or African American autobiographies. The theology in autobiography may be either explicit or implicit and involves both questioning and affirmation, as may be seen in works as different as Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Conversion has been a central theme and shaping influence on Christian texts, even when authors challenge this focus and create alternative forms. A central theological question posed by autobiography concerns the authority of individual experience when it contrasts or conflicts with traditional norms asserted by orthodox believers and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In spiritual autobiographies by contemporary writers, we see serious attention given to communal norms for life stories and a search for a distinctive personal apprehension of what is sacred. Autobiographical writing has been stronger in the history of some religious traditions than in others. Yet in the modern world, almost every culture has produced life writing that questions or challenges established patterns of thought and practice. In contrast with autobiography, sacred biography has been an important part of every religious tradition, usually describing an exemplar to be revered and imitated. Its strong didactic interests often curb theological questioning of established norms. While modern scholarly biographies often mute theological questions, some writers raise normative issues and argue for why the subject’s life should be valued. As well as the theology explored within life writing, many works reveal a theology of life writing, that is, beliefs about how this kind of writing may bring the author or readers better understanding of God or deeper faith.
Avalokiteśvara is one of the most famous bodhisattvas in Buddhism. The worship of bodhisattvas (beings of enlightenment) is one of the most distinctive features of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Whereas early or mainstream Buddhism recognizes only two bodhisattvas—the Buddha in his previous lives and Maitreya, the future Buddha—there are a number of bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna to whom one can appeal for help and guidance. Of the many bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara is identified specifically as the embodiment of compassion and as such has been worshipped throughout Buddhist Asia.
Contemporary issues in biology and Christian theology are still dominated by the legacy of 19th-century biologist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Debates in evolutionary biology in relation to religious belief have been reinforced by historical myths that stress conflict over integration. More conservative branches of Christianity, often allied to particular Protestant traditions, argue for a form of popular theology that attempts to compete with science, namely, creationism. More sophisticated versions of this position may appear under the guise of intelligent design, though creationism and intelligent design are not synonymous. The mirror image of this position has developed among biologists who identify themselves as new atheists, adding further fuel to the fire of an existing controversy. Methodologically speaking, the engagement of biology and theology will depend on different philosophical presuppositions according to basic models of (a) conflict, (b) independence, (c) dialogue, and (d) integration. The biological sciences also have broader relevance to allied subject domains including, for example: (a) ecological, agricultural, animal, and environmental sciences; (b) anthropological, social, and political sciences; (c) medical sciences, including genetic science and embryo development; and (d) new technologies that include bioengineering. Theological engagement with the biological component of each of these domains is particularly intense where there are controversial ethical issues at stake that seem to challenge specific Christian beliefs about human nature or divine purpose. A more positive approach to the biological sciences that draws on research in the constructive systematic theological task, while avoiding historically naïve forms of natural theology, is starting to emerge in the literature. Within Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christian traditions, there is a spectrum of possible positions, such that the field of science and theology as a whole tends to be ecumenical in orientation rather than divided along denominational boundaries. The Catholic and Orthodox churches, however, give greater precedence to official statements by their respective churches that then influence public reception of controversial issues in biology and theology in particular ways.
J. Blake Couey
The book of Isaiah is a compilation of prophetic poetry and narratives, named for an 8th-century
Isaiah is a sophisticated work of biblical Hebrew poetry, characterized by intricate combinations of imagery and wordplay. It features a high view of divine sovereignty, emphasizing Yhwh’s control over world nations and superiority over all human and divine powers; these ideas contributed to the emergence of monotheism in ancient Judah. The book also articulates diverse responses to imperial domination, even as it chronicles the ebb and flow of Judah’s own imperial aspirations. Striking portrayals of women and gender appear throughout Isaiah, including the extensive personification of Jerusalem as a woman and the comparison of Yhwh to a mother. Isaiah is also notable for its discourse about disability, which serves a variety of rhetorical functions in the book.
The impact of Isaiah was felt immediately, as evidenced by the number of copies of the book among the Dead Sea scrolls and citations of it in the New Testament. It greatly impacted the development of important religious ideas, including apocalypticism and belief in resurrection. In Christianity, Isaiah played an important role in reflection upon the nature of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles, even as it informed Christian anti-Judaism. The book has had a more complicated reception in Judaism, where it significantly influenced the growth of Zionism. Scholarly study of Isaiah continues to clarify the shape of its final form and history of composition. Current research on the book is increasingly interdisciplinary, engaging metaphor theory, disability studies, and postcolonial thought. The history of the book’s interpretation and reception is another area of growing interest.
Eastern Orthodox and Catholics of the Byzantine Rite practice a liturgical tradition historically synthesized and disseminated via the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Various traditions of Jerusalem, and Palestine more generally, became a significant part of the synthesis. After Constantinople’s fall in 1453, the Greek liturgical books printed in Venice came to codify the textual and structural bases for the various families of this Rite. These families nonetheless employ different languages and music. They are also distinguished by ritual particularities. The Byzantine tradition stresses the sacramentality of the entire worship space and retains a transcendent ethos. The latter derives from the belief that earthly liturgy is a copy of the heavenly.
While the full, codified Rite reveals an obvious regard for Scripture, approximately 85 percent of the Old Testament is not part of the lectionary—even if allusions to those unused passages are occasionally found in the hymnography.
Historically, various genres have evolved in Byzantine hymnography, but—with some exceptions—the evolution of new forms ceased after Constantinople’s fall. As in all classical Rites, the Eucharist consists of a Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist, though an elaborate preparation of the gifts precedes the Liturgy of the Word. A distinctive Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts is a prominent part of Lenten observance. As for the Hours, Vespers and Matins (Orthros) are the “hinges” of the office. Especially in the ancestral territories of the Rite, these have remained prominent—even in parochial churches.
The Orthodox Church does not grant the same status to the Septinarium as does the Catholic, but all seven sacraments are celebrated with significant rites. Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation), and the Eucharist are always administered together as initiation into the Church.
The immovable cycle of feasts begins on September 1, imitating the old Byzantine civil calendar, while Easter, the actual start of the Church year, inaugurates the cycle of movable commemorations. The latter includes a cycle of eight melodic tones, with one tone used per week. For the reckoning of the date of Easter, the Julian calendar continues to predominate, even though the Gregorian has been used by many Orthodox Churches for the immovable cycle since the post-World War I period.
The theological academies of the Russian Empire spawned a flowering of liturgical scholarship at the end of the 19th century. The Bolshevik Revolution curtailed this, and the baton passed to Rome’s Oriental Institute and to Orthodox institutions in Paris, Athens, and Thessaloniki, not to mention individual scholars throughout Europe.
Among the greatest challenges for the Byzantine Church today is the development and appropriation of solid research—both historical and theological—with a view to revitalizing worship in cultural environments significantly different from those in which it was born. Sociological factors, however, impede liturgical reform.
Fundamentalism has a very specific meaning in the history of American Christianity, as the name taken by a coalition of mostly white, mostly northern Protestants who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, united in opposition to theological liberalism. Though the movement lost the public spotlight after the 1920s, it remained robust, building a network of separate churches, denominations, and schools that would become instrumental in the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism after the 1960s. In a larger sense, fundamentalism is a form of militant opposition to the modern world, used by some scholars to identify morally absolutist religious and political movements in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and even Hinduism and Buddhism. While the core concerns of the movement that emerged within American Protestantism—defending the authority of the Bible and both separating from and saving their sinful world—do not entirely mesh with this analytical framework, they do reflect the broad and complex challenge posed by modernity to people of faith.
“Christian initiation” refers to the ritual process employed by various churches in forming new Christian converts through catechesis (instruction) during the “catechumenate” to baptism, postbaptismal rites (including hand-laying and anointing, sometimes called “confirmation”), culminating in First Communion, and leading to the further integration of these newly initiated members into ongoing Christian life through “mystagogy.” Christian initiation is the story of diversity and change as the biblical images of initiation lead toward a rich variety of early Christian practices and theological interpretations, eventually coming to focus on Christian baptism as “new birth” or the “washing of regeneration” in water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5 and Titus 3:5) in early Syria and Egypt and baptism as participation in the death and burial of Christ (Rom. 6) in North Africa and other places in the West.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, after Christianity emerged as a cultus publicus, the rites of Christian initiation underwent a certain standardization and cross-fertilization as various churches borrowed from one another to construct rites that display a remarkable degree of homogeneity. These rites include a decided preference for celebrating Christian initiation at Easter, after a period of final catechetical preparation in Lent; prebaptismal rites with an exorcistic focus; an almost universal (Rom. 6) theological interpretation of baptism; and postbaptismal hand-layings or anointings associated explicitly with the gift or “seal” of the Holy Spirit, still leading to First Communion within a unitive and integral process. Another characteristic, thanks to the controversies faced by Augustine with Pelagianism, was the development of a new theological rationale for the initiation of infants, which focused on the inheritance of “original sin” from Adam. This would have far-reaching consequences for subsequent centuries as infant baptism became the norm for practice and theology.
If the Eastern rites underwent little further development in the Middle Ages, the West experienced what many have been called a sacramental dissolution, disintegration, and separation. Gradually, the postbaptismal rites of hand-laying and anointing, associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit and now with the physical presence of the bishop, became separated from infant baptism and were given at a later point. Similarly, the reception of First Communion also became separated and was often postponed until the canonical age of seven. This process was inherited by the adherents of the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the 16th century. Little was done to restore the unitive and integral process of Christian initiation from the earlier centuries and confirmation itself developed among the reformers largely into a catechetical exercise or rite with First Communion either prior to or after confirmation.
In the early 21st century, thanks to the Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and similar rites in other churches, the unitary and integral process of initiation has been restored. What remains to be done, however, is the full integration of infants and children into this process, although in several Anglican and Lutheran contexts infants now are again recipients of the full rites of initiation, including First Communion.
Ruth A. Meyers
Weddings and funerals mark major transitions in human life. In these rites of passage, which effect a transformation from one status to another, an individual is separated from one state of existence, passes through a threshold or liminal space, and is incorporated into the community with a new status. In a wedding, individuals move from being single to being joined in a marriage, and in rites surrounding death, a person moves from the land of the living to become an ancestor. These rites of passage concern not only those making the transition but also the community. The ritual actions enable the individuals as well as the community to navigate momentous events in human life, they acknowledge and bring about a transformation in the community, and they offer an interpretive framework for the transition.
Weddings and funerals are not rooted in any single religious tradition. Rather, they are social and cultural events that may also have a religious dimension. Many religious weddings and funerals incorporate practices from different cultural contexts, and as social or cultural norms change, ritual practices may evolve to accommodate these norms. Wedding practices have changed to reflect modern Western notions of companionate marriage rather than arranged marriage, and, more recently, growing acceptance of same-sex life partnerships has led a few religious bodies to develop rituals to bless these relationships. Funerals express different understandings of life after death, and they are adapted to various practices for disposal of the body, for example, cremation or burial of the body.
The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit.
Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect.
The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society.
Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom.
Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.
The foundational materiality in Christian worship is the bodily presence of worshippers. Gender differences—and the manifold ways in which they are embodied and performed in different cultural contexts—are therefore inscribed into the very fabric of liturgical practices, past and present. In Christian worship today, the workings of gender are evident across a broad spectrum of ecclesial traditions. Some churches have authorized rituals for the blessing of same-sex unions; some are ordaining openly transgender priests. Other churches continue to struggle with the ordination of women, while a few aim for explicitly “masculine” worship experiences. Feminist concerns over liturgical language mark some communities, while churches rooted in more traditional contexts maintain seating arrangements that separate women and men. Clearly, the workings of gender in Christian worship today span a broad spectrum of quite dissimilar concerns. At the root of all these concerns, however, lies the same vital reality, namely that worship is an embodied practice and therefore never gender-free.
What often goes unnoticed in contemporary discussions is the fact that gender differences have marked liturgical practices in Christian communities since earliest times. The workings of gender, in other words, have a genealogy in Christian worship. Scholars have only recently begun to map this terrain, by bringing the interpretive tools of gender theory to bear on liturgical historiography. Paramount among these interpretive tools is an understanding of gender as attending to all gendered particularities and sexualities (e.g., eunuchs in Byzantium, ascetic virgins in Merovingian Gaul, transgender people in contemporary North America, etc.). Gender, in other words, is understood to encompass much more than the traditional binary of “women” and “men.”
The emerging gender-attentive insights into liturgical history have been intriguing and at times quite surprising. These insights span the whole of liturgy’s past, from ways in which gender shaped early baptismal practices (e.g., in the choreography of the rite, in questions surrounding the minister of baptism, in the bodily proprieties considered appropriate at the font) to the workings of gender in the 20th-century Liturgical Movement (e.g., its first important text, Tra le Sollecitudine (1903)—usually hailed for its evocation of an “active participation” of the faithful in worship—also sought to discontinue the presence of castrati singers in the Sistine Chapel choir while ensuring that women would not take their place).
In between earliest glimpses of the workings of gender in Christian worship and our own times lie approximately a thousand years of a complex history. Tracing this history of the interplay between gender differences and Christian worship not only constitutes an important task for historians of liturgy, but also provides rich resources for addressing contemporary issues.