The Seriousness of Trivial Things

Review by Eugene R. Schlesinger

Though its urgency falls well short of the sexual abuse (and cover-up) scandals that dog just about every major expression of Christianity, and though the passage of centuries has inured us to its reality, the division of churches remains one of the greatest stumbling blocks facing Christian faithfulness. After all, Jesus ties the credibility of the gospel message to the unity of the Church (John 17:21-23).

It should come as no surprise, then, that churches are facing precipitous decline, given our divisions: Jesus suggests that the gospel cannot be believed when Christians are divided from each other. Clearly this is not the whole story, because the gospel is indeed still believed, perhaps haltingly and inconsistently, but also truly. Nevertheless, the extraordinary mercy of God must not dull our senses to the danger we face due to our divisions.

Within the context of such considerations, this learned volume by A. Edward Siecienski, the Clement and Helen Pappas Professor of Byzantine Civilization and Religion at Stockton University, serves as an instructive, and perhaps needed, shock. As high as the stakes are for Christian unity and division, Siecienski demonstrates just how trivial some of the causes of the great East-West schism were. Such a demonstration ought to lead us to consider all the matters over which we have divided from each other with new eyes.

This book builds upon its author’s previous work, forming a triptych with studies on the Filioque and the question of Roman primacy, two issues that are — rightly — far more frequently cited when recounting the Great Schism. Read in isolation from that established literature, this book would make little sense. And yet Siecienski demonstrates that for the partisans active at the time of the divisions, and for post-schism polemicists and apologists, the three issues that comprise the title of the book (whether clergy should wear beards or be clean-shaven; whether the bread used in the Eucharist can be unleavened (azyme); and the nature of postmortem purification) were just as, and in some cases, more important than the procession of the Holy Spirit and the powers of the pope. In other words, while these issues stand out as trivial to us in hindsight, this is a judgment reached only in retrospect.

Beards, Azymes, and Purgatory is structured by three major sections devoted to its titular issues. Each section is composed of chapters considering the biblical and patristic witness to the matter under consideration, and further tracings of its development through the medieval and modern periods. In every case, Siecienski demonstrates that the current state of the question is either convergence (particularly in the case of purgatory), or of recognizing that the matter is not nearly so serious as previous generations seem to have thought: the Church is capacious enough to allow multiple patterns of belief and practice on these matters. Each way station of the journey is meticulously documented, and, while I am neither a historian nor an expert on the time periods in question, I found the presentation cogent and persuasive.

At times, though, the case seems overstated. For instance, one chapter begins with the claim, “It is a historical fact that the debate over Eucharistic bread, and not the Filioque or the power of the pope, was the immediate cause of the schism that eventually split the Christian world” (p. 116). Yet other statements seem to attenuate and even walk back such claims, for instance, seeing azymes as retreating to “a distant third behind the other two.” For this reason it is not always clear precisely how strong a claim Siecienski is making.

This brings me directly to what I regard as the only serious shortcoming of the book. It lacks a proper conclusion. Its engaging preface and introduction set the stage, mark out the stakes, and situate the study within Siecienski’s already established work. Each chapter successively builds its case for just how central these matters were to the participants in the debates, and marshals a truly impressive array of historical evidence to bolster the claim. And yet, after providing a survey of the status quaestionis on purgatory, the book simply ends. A conclusion would have considerably strengthened the presentation, by allowing the author to synthesize the claims made and their import. Particularly considering the uncertainty I sometimes faced in assessing just what the claim was, the omission of a synthetic distillation is glaring.

The historical survey contains some hurdles for contemporary readers. For instance, I was shocked and unsettled by how rife the polemics against unleavened Eucharists were with antisemitism and how pervasively the arguments against beardless clergy were steeped in both antisemitism and homophobia. Among Eastern Christians, yeast was understood as characterizing a living bread, in contrast to the sterile, dead letter of Judaism and Judaizers. To Eastern eyes, those who shaved their beards were somehow both Judaizing and signaling their availability and desire for gay sexual encounters and/or trying to seduce married women into adulterous affairs. (Bad-faith “groomer” discourse against one’s opponents is, apparently, nothing new.) Whatever one’s positions on the proper stance toward LGBTQ expression, such rhetorical approaches are clearly inappropriate and unbecoming of Christian commitment.

I raise these matters neither to find fault with the book, which is to be commended for telling the story found in its sources so truthfully, nor to judge our forebears by the moral standards and horizons of the present day. Rather, these features of the historical picture are instructive, for they demonstrate to us just how ambiguous our Christian heritage and appeals to tradition are. Opposition to shaved clergy and to unleavened Eucharists are well attested in the tradition. Nowadays we recognize that this attestation does not make them part of the apostolic deposit (while going further than that in repudiating antisemitism and using LGBTQ identities as a demonizing slander). But for those engaged in the debates, nothing could be clearer than that biblical fidelity and the apostolic faith were at stake.

As I read, I was continuously left wondering, “What contemporary issues that are so obviously vital to us here and now will turn out to have been so much triviality with the passage of time?” When we assess arguments from tradition, a mere look at the past will not suffice. There is no substitute for our intelligent and responsible action, and to foster that, we clearly need a properly worked out theory of tradition. Only by grasping what it is we’re doing when we receive and hand on the faith will we be able to find our way among the swift and varied changes of this world.

Beards, Azymes, and Purgatory is an invitation to better understand the past, not just for the sake of the past, but ideally for the sake of constructing a better future. While its price probably places it out of reach for anyone except acquisition librarians, those who can get their hands on a copy will be richly rewarded for their engagement with a fascinating history, and its author is to be commended for bringing to completion such an important trilogy of ecumenically important historical theology.


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