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Visiting Scholar: Charles Stang

Posted On November 21, 2014 | 08:51 am | by jessicas | Permalink

Harvard Divinity School professor Charles Stang was the Director’s Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks during the week of October 20. Margaret Mullett sat down with Stang, whose research focuses on the history of Christian thought in late antiquity, to discuss his experiences as a scholar and at Dumbarton Oaks, as well as his upcoming book, Our Divine Double.   

Charlie, it has been great to have you here as Director’s Visiting Scholar this week. How did you first hear about Dumbarton Oaks?

It was when I was a first year doctoral student and my adviser Nicholas Constas told me about the Greek Summer School. Then I talked to my wife’s family. My father-in-law grew up in Georgetown, and he knew Dumbarton Oaks very well, mostly at night in the traditional Georgetown way: over the wall and into the pool. The Summer School was amazing: there was wonderful teaching from Alice-Mary Talbot and Alex Alexakis, and I was excited and daunted by the difficulty of the palaeography exercises in the afternoons. My Greek improved tremendously over the month. I felt in a way like a fish out of water: I was familiar with Greek philosophical and theological texts up to the fifth and sixth centuries but not much later, and I was very struck to meet fellow students who worked in later periods and on more historical topics; it was a spur really to exploring the riches of Greek late antiquity and beyond. When I look back at that month, I have very strong memories: I spent every minute I was not preparing or reading in the pool and gardens.  

After that first experience, you’ve spent most of your scholarly life at Harvard? 

That’s true. I loved it as a student and it has been good to me as a teacher. I was glad for the sabbatical I spent in Jerusalem—I had a whole year at Hebrew University. Before graduate school, though, I did have an extraordinary experience teaching at Eton. Someone went every year as a kind of cultural ambassador, and, knowing that I’d be leaving after a year, I was able to revel in the cultural oddities of the place while trying to teach American Studies. And it was close to London and close to Heathrow so I was able to get easily to Europe and the Middle East. This is how I came to T. E. Lawrence—I was traveling to Israel and Jordan one Easter vacation and I wanted a good book to take with me, and someone recommended Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I wrote a few pieces about Lawrence and recently my interest has been revived. He led me also, through E. M. Forster, to Cavafy, whom I enjoyed also because a friend was translating him at the time. 

But didn’t that give you some perspective on Byzantine Studies quite early on?

Well, at a slight angle to that world perhaps. But I think it attracted me to the way that Byzantine Studies is changing. It seems to me that Byzantine Studies is increasingly opening up to adjacent worlds (I know that someone like Irfan Shahîd was always in those worlds, but it is a recent feature of the development of the subject as a whole). The openness to Syriac is something I now find important and empowering: I first got into my work on the Silk Road when I started to learn Syriac. I wanted the Divinity School to talk about world Christianity in the premodern world as well as in its contemporary context, and I could offer an ancient world that was Christian but not European or colonial in origin. So I devised a curriculum to introduce students to this world and discover how eastern Christianity had dropped out of the West’s narrative. This then fed into my own research: it was a real example of teaching-led research rather than research-led teaching. Of course, sometimes Byzantinists are forced to rely on languages like Syriac and Armenian when the texts do not survive in Greek.

This brings us to your next visit to Dumbarton Oaks for the Evagrius Round Table of 2011. You weren’t at the first meeting in Notre Dame, I think?

No, Robin Darling Young brought me in after that first meeting. So I came to Dumbarton Oaks and it was the best academic event I have ever experienced. And in the wake of that Robin and I got to talk about a translation of his so-called “Gnostic trilogy.” Joel Kalvesmaki was in already and Columba Stewart and Luke Dysinger and Sidney Griffith, a dream team really. We’ve only met two or three times all together, but smaller cells have met more frequently. Oxford University Press will publish it, but the joy of reading together is important. 

Your new book on twins sounds exciting too. Were you working on it while you were here?

It is called Our Divine Double, and I finished the draft and submitted it in September. It is about the idea one finds in certain second- and third-century sources in various traditions—Christianity, Manichaeism, Neoplatonism—that everyone has a divine alter-ego counterpart.  It has led me into discussions of selfhood and deification in early Christianity. While I was here, I was working on Evagrius with Robin and Joel and polishing the Silk Road paper for the December workshop in Vienna. 

You have done so much, and all before your fortieth birthday. So what were your impressions this time?

It was really good to see Byzantine Studies flourishing, and an experimental, nontraditional Byzantine Studies too. I hope to find other ways of coming back and of bringing my students and . . . 

. . . persuading them to come for the Summer School perhaps?

Just so.