Ancient Christian Ecopoetics

Cosmologies, Saints, Things

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Virginia Burrus
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , October
     2018.
     296 pages.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812250794.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ancient Christian Ecopoetics: Cosmologies, Saints, Things is an erudite study of the theology of holy things in the late ancient Christianity. Written by Virginia Burrus, this bookis a fascinating and welcomecontribution to the field of late antique Christianity. The volume begins with an introductory in which Burrusseeks to explore the potential and constructive dialog between current ecological thought and ancient Christianity. By situating key monastic insights in the context of ecological theory, it aims to advance a better understanding of Christian practices.

The thesis Burrus employs is that late ancient monastic piety can be understood as a ”contemplative ecology” and thus, situates itself in the trajectory of the relationship between theology and ecology. From within this perspective, she then presents a provocative thesis that should encourage scholars to rethink their readings of late monastic literature.

The book is divided into three major chapters. Chapter 1 (”Beginning Again with Khora”) opens with a contextualization of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo that emerges in late antiquity. In this sense, the starting point is the Platon’s Khora, more exactly the Khoric resonances of the Christian and Jewish Cosmology. In this chapter Burrus describes the ancient cosmology—Platos’s Khora from Timaeus, Philo of Alexandria, Origen, On First Principles and Against Celsus, Athanasius of Alexandria, Against the Gentiles and On the Incarnation of the Word and Augustin of Hippo, On Genesis—as a fundamental feature of the late cosmotheology. Strictly speaking, in ancient Jewish and Christian doctrine God appears as maker and father of the cosmos.

Chapter 2 (“Queering Creation: Hagiography Without Humans”) explores the topic of the queer in late ancient saints’ Lives. More exactly, the central thesis of this chapter holds that late antique Christian hagiography can be understood as a possible narrative resource for both a queer and a queerly ecological mode. The point of departure for this chapter is the Life of Plotinus. According to Burrus, Plotin developed the meanings of the queerly ecological, meanings that can be traced across the Egyptian and Palestinian monasticism.

The final part of this chapter argues that the late ascetic hagiography (The Lives of Antony, Paul, and Mary of Egypt) can be understood as a kind of queerly ecology. Moreover, the author points out the relationship between late ascetic hagiography and queer human. As Burrus remarks, ”this might well be the defining charcateristic of hagiography—its interest in transgressing the limits of humanity ... They are human and then some, we might say; by exceeding normal limits, they may no longer seem to be human at all” (106-107).

As we know, the saint is constantly in the process of spiritual self-transformation—of becoming the Other—whether human or angel, so that the late ascetic hagiography promotes an explicit deconstruction of the human-nonhuman binary. In this context, Burrus reiterates the most well-known examples of the holy desfigurations of Syncletica and the Symeon Stylite as a hybrid of human. Briefly, the holy monks are more-or-less than human. From this perspective, Christian hagiography ”evokes a sensitivity to beauty that is not lavish but austere and withholding, not gentle but jagged and harsh, not scaled to the human but extending and enduring beyond human experience or understanding” (141). Therefore, monastic hagiography undermines any understanding of the natural order of the human given that the behavior of the monk is unnatural.

In chapter 3 (“Things and Practices: Arts of Coexistence”) Burrus develops a deep theology of holy things. Much of this chapter is devoted to Christian things—relics, reliquary, bone, wood, blood, oil, wax, metal, glass and so on—from a nonanthropocentric perspective. Burrus’ major premise is that, in Christianity, “tactile thingsare imbued with holy power,” and notes the following: first, ancient Christians participated in ”a world of active materials” given that ”in the making of holy things, human craft colludes with the ongoing flow of divine creativity, as the vital power of materiality traverses the boundaries between human and nonhuman, creature and god” (163). Second, late ancient Christians, through their connection with these holy things, open themselves to a wider world of lively, tactile, and irreducibly relational things. From this perspective, ”a nonhuman thing may be encountered as a supplement for a human, while a human may equally be encountered as a supplement for a nonhuman” (164).

The next chapters concentrate particularly on the ”feeling things” (relics and icons), ”situating things” (architecture, landscape, and cosmos), ”speaking things” (rhetoric and performativity in Basil’s Hexameron), and ”desiring things” (contemplation, creation, and God in Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius). 

In the final chapter (“Things and Practices: Arts of Coexistence”), Burrus’ analyses, which is in dialogue with contemporary discussions of ecology are both persuasive, and full of insight. This chapter is a fascinating analysis of the relatinoship between holy things and social practice of late ancient Christian piety. In this context, Burrusargues that the one of the most important ways in which late Christians cultivate relations with nonhuman things is through the cult of saints. As we know, the holy power and presence of a saint can be transferred to a holy thing (fragment of wood or rock, icon, and so on), so that the saint is transformed into thing. Burrus expresses this point well: ”the body-and-spirit of the saint mingles with other materials, and new hybrides emerge. These hybrid things in turn create new relationships with other humans, as well as nonhumans, across many generations in some cases. Such relatinoships activate and engage the bodily senses and emotions of the humans involved and of the nonhuman things too, through acts of mutual care, shared vulnerability, and riveting love” (213).

What is particularly new in this study, however, is the focus on the understanding of holy things in late ancient Christianity. Briefly, this book represents a comprehensive study of the way in which the line between the living an the nonliving begins to dissolve. In this sense, each chapter tells a kind of story: that things are not static but, in conjunction with human agency, as in the case of a reliquary, can become dynamic.

This is an excellent book, which is indispensable for scholars of asceticism in the late Christianity, and is well worth the attention of a broader audience. Certainly, Ancient Christian Ecopoetics: Cosmologies, Saints, Things will beequally valuable for research and teaching will become a go-to reference for theologians everywhere. Burrus’ book is a well-sourced, and the index will be particularly helpful to those digging deeper in these texts. Also, an extensive bibliography makes this book especially usefulfor scholars.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Lemeni is Associate Professor of Eastern Spirituality at West Unveristy of Timisoara in Romania.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Virginia Burrus is the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University.

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