Reverencing the Altar: Why?

Why do we reverence the altar?

Why, in “liturgical churches,” do we bow in front of, or before, the altar (which is also a table) of God, upon which the Body and Blood of Christ are given to God’s people?

One of the greatest joys of my life personally is the opportunity to share the sacramental-way-of-being-Christian with folks who have never known. With folks who have never been exposed to the life of a Eucharistic community which centers itself on the sacramentalism by which God puts his life into us (as CS Lewis says).

Why do we reverence the altar?

Much of the time, when it comes to questions like this, there is no single correct answer. With the liturgy things are not always systematically black & white.

And yet, for me there are two reasons why we bow (or genuflect) before the altar. One is metaphysical and the other is practical.

The metaphysical reason is that we are bowing before the King of the Universe, who is present at the altar. How is he present at the altar? He is present at the altar in a sacramental way. This is true when the Body and Blood of Christ are on the altar; it is true when the people of God are surrounding the altar; most of all (in my opinion) it is true because of the aumbry or tabernacle, in which the consecrated elements are kept for later use. and which is located somewhere behind (or sometimes to the side) of the altar.

Interestingly, Christ Church South does not have an aumbry. That is OK; we are one church on two campuses, and Christ Church Downtown does have an aumbry. So, in my sacramental imagination, when I bow before the altar at Christ Church South (say, on a Thursday afternoon when I am in the worship space getting tasks done), I am actually bowing in the presence of the aumbry at Christ Church Downtown. This is something like what Charles Williams would call metaphysical co-inherence.

Secondly, however, reverencing the altar is practical. This is just as important as the metaphysical reason for bowing or genuflecting. It serves as a reminder, which seeps down into my “muscle memory” and my bones, that I need not be in a hurry. Because of Christ and the Gospel, I can rest. I can pause and give thanks. Every bow is like a little prayer. In a world in which time is both insanely scarce and efficiently commodified, this practice or habit is like a miniature “mental vacation” (to borrow a phrase from Fr. Thomas Keating). For me, it’s a little taste of leisure.

Those are my reasons for reverencing the altar. The last thing to be said is that some Episcopalians (brothers & sisters in my own church) never reverence the altar. And that is OK. Here as elsewhere, the Anglican dictum “all may, some should, and none must” is apropos.

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Creation on Day 1: Intellectual Light

“How could God have created light on the first day, when the sun was not created until the fourth day?” (I wonder who the first critical, early modern philosopher was to scornfully ask this question.) Finally, I have an answer to this question that is satisfying, thanks to the first section of the fifth “collation” of St. Bonaventure’s Collationes in Hexaëmeron.

The answer is that the light God created on the first day was intellectual light, not visual light (or any kind of physical light on any spectrum). Intellectual light, that is, which is the condition of possibility for the understanding of objects in the world (metaphysics), for the understanding the meaning of linguistic statements (logic or “interpretation”), for the understanding the propriety of “right behavior” (morality or ethics).

So thinks Bonaventure, anyway, much in line with an approach to the six days of creation initiated by St. Augustine.

OK, but here’s my lingering questions. If this light was the condition of the possibility for the understanding objects, would not there have needed to be objects for the understanding to grasp? Yes, and indeed there was: the prime matter which we read about in Gen 1:2, and which, according to Aristotle, in characterized by spatial extension. Would not there, in the same vein, have needed to be linguistic (lôgikôs) expressions in order for the understanding to comprehend? Yes, and indeed there was: first, “in the beginning was the Logos” (John 1), and second, it is God’s speech which brought the light into being in the first place: God’s speech precedes the light. Same for good behavior: not only has the Trinity (and the proprietary activity contained therein) already existed for all eternity, but the very activity of God’s creation is the standard for propriety, if ever there was one.

OK, but what about an understanding? Should there not have been an understanding already in place, before God created the condition of the possibility of its ability to function? No: there is nothing troubling about the view that God created the ability to understand before the actual factulty of the understanding. (In fact, this view lends credence to the stance of divine illumination theory, which insists that for a knower to know an object, a third thing must be in place: light.)

Of course this answer will not satisfy the biased demands of the modern skeptic, who rejects out of hand the existence of the transcendent or supernatural, and who thus rejects  the notion of intellectual light.

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Seeing the Spirit (in Saints’ Faces)

According to Rowan Williams, Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky taught that “the Holy Spirit is that which you see shining in the faces of the saints.”

Seeing the Holy Spirit. Hmmm….

As I find myself asking, “Nice, but can you really see it (the Holy Spirit)?” it occurs to me that this question epitomizes what, for me, philosophy is all about.

Because, for me, the question, “Can I see the Holy Spirit in the faces of the saints?” or “Can I see the Body of Christ in the consecrated host at the altar in Holy Communion?” is structurally similar (identical?) to the question, “Can I see a cup in a bit of porcelain matter?” or “Can I see a wave within a blob of aquatic matter?”

I am a member of that school of thought, following Aristotle (and Plato), which thinks that, in order to recognize any object whatsoever which I see in front of me, I must first have logos. I must first have a concept of “Holy Spirit” or “Body of Christ” or “cup” or “wave.” What I “see” (recognize) is pre-informed by what I know or think.

Otherwise, the world, in the words of William James, is a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” (Which is not far from what Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer before him, thought.)

Without logos, there is no such thing as object.

But where does this “logos,” this concept, this “secret knowledge” … where does it come from? Imagined in the Christian neoplatonist tradition as divine illumination, this is the real and beautiful mystery.

So, you see, it is tough (at least for us moderns) to be confident that you see the Holy Spirit in the faces of the saints, admittedly. But it is also tough (at least for us moderns) to believe that you see a cup in a hunk of porcelain. And when you realize that, it becomes easier, more plausible, to be confident in seeing the Holy Spirit, or the Body of Christ.

Thanks be to God that the logos became matter.

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Psalm 1 (Gender, Justice, Disenchantment)

Last Sunday the psalm appointed for the day (according to my church’s lectionary) was Psalm 1, which begins like this: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked….”

I want to call attention to that first pronoun, the grammatical subject of the first sentence, “they,” for this translation is not a literally accurate rendering of the original Hebrew, which says, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked….” Rather, the committee of scholars who decided to render the Hebrew ha ish (“the man”) by way of a gender neutral pronoun in English, “they.”

Many biblical scholars of Psalms hold that Psalm one, in the original context of the Hebrew Scriptures, was extremely important, in that it gave its readers (who were also worshippers, since the Psalter is something like the original hymnbook of the covenant community of God’s people) an imaginative portrait of the ideal Israelite, that is, of the Messiah, of whom King David—who, in the ancient Hebrew imagination, was a type or a kind of foreshadowing of the Messiah. Together, with Psalm 2, Psalm 1 stands at the head of the entire Psalter, and (among other things) says to the reader / worshipper: “When the Messiah comes, he will keep his heart pure; he will not participate in unjust schemes; he will be stable and trustworthy … and, just to give you a picture of what that is like, look at King David.” (Of course, the Psalter “knows” full well about David’s sin, and that is part of the point: we are to “look past” David to the true Messiah.)

This is what our king is like. He is the source of our hope and peace and security. He is the one in and from whom my identity ultimately derives. He is the one after whom we are to pattern our lives, in mimetic love.

But notice what happens when the “he” at the beginning of the Psalm is transformed into “they.” This “they” which departs from the original “ha ish” not just in terms of gender (it is no longer masculine), but also in terms of number (it is no longer singular). Suddenly, the Psalm is no longer about a great king, an imaginatively construed messiah-like figure who is supposed to be the object of our contemplation. Suddenly, the Psalm is reduced to a mere moralistic formula for us to follow. It is as if it is now saying, “Do you want to be happy? Then do these things, and don’t do these other things.”

A formula which, of course, is true as far as it goes, but which is still a far cry from the original intent of the Psalm.

Am I saying that gender neutral pronouns are never to be implemented? No.

Am I saying that Psalm 1 is more applicable to males than to females? Obviously not.

What I am saying is that language (and translation) matters. It shapes our thinking. It forms our assumptions. By the providence of God, our thoughts are constrained by “the prison house of language.” We should admit that in making this shift, God’s people have lost something important.

Something which is no longer mysterious, no longer beautiful, no longer transcendent. Now, as thinkers like Henri de Lubac and Charles Taylor would say, things have become immanent and disenchanted.

Is it worth it? Is the justice which has been upheld in this re-translation worth the loss of mystical enchantment? Or perhaps might there be a better way?

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Ratzinger & Tradition

As I continue to press on in my dissertation research, investigating Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (the English translation of a major section of his Habilitationschrift, or “second dissertation”), one important issue I’m attending to is how he thinks about tradition. This is because, like history itself (as well as eschatology), tradition is a phenomenon constituted by time.

In his memoirs entitled Milestones (first published in Italian in 1997), the then future Pontiff writes that during his theological studies at Munich (prior to his doctorate),

‘Tradition’ was what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner, the patrologist from Würzburg … had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was unknown before the fifth century; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to ‘apostolic tradition.’ And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand ‘tradition’ strictly as the handing down of fixed formulas and texts. This was the position that our teachers represented. But if you conceive of ‘tradition’ as the living process by which the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could not grasp (cf. John 16:12-13), then subsequent ‘remembering’ (cf. John 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word. But such a perspective was still quite unattainable by German theological thought.

The conception of tradition which Ratzinger here articulates is quite compatible with his presentation of St. Bonaventure’s logos of history as he (Ratzinger) articulates it in his Habilitationschrift. In that work Ratzinger’s Bonaventure parts company in significant ways with the eschatologically innovative Joachim of Fiori, yet all the while giving the Calabrian monk a qualified “high five” with respect to his provocative vision of a future:  a kind of democratized sapientia nulliformis, a community of wise humans who peacefully enjoy an unmediated vision of God.

My claim here is that Ratzinger’s conception of tradition as an open “remembering” of content previously unacknowledged is a necessary condition for his endorsement of Bonaventure’s innovative Joachimite eschatology.

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Hooker: Scripture, Reason, & Tradition

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues against the benefit of writing (as opposed to oral speech), saying that written manuscripts undermine true understanding, and serve merely as a kind of “sub-memory” (hypomene). Be that as it may, this is precisely how I sometimes use my blog, as a location or a platform on which to store bits of text which I think will benefit me later.

This blog post is an example of such a use, and it contains a quotation and four paragraphs on Richard Hooker. (http://www.pbsusa.org/2009/08/19/scripture-tradition-and-reason-hookers-supposed-3-legged-stool/)

What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever ( Laws, Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39,8-14).

We notice that he speaks of Scripture, reason and the voice of the Church, and in that order.

Hooker differs from the Puritans (Presbyterians) of his day in the relation of Scripture and reason. He is much nearer to Thomas Aquinas than to say Walter Travers or Thomas Cartwright or even to John Calvin or Theodore Beza. All these men agree that the Scripture delivers to us knowledge from God and that this knowledge is not available anywhere else in a world infected by sin. That knowledge pertains unto the identity of God as a Trinity of Persons, the Incarnation of the Second Person, our Lord Jesus Christ, the nature and means of salvation, the Christian hope and the mystery of the Church.

But Hooker departed from many of his fellow Elizabethans, especially the Puritans, in asserting that Scripture does not destroy nature but perfects it, that Scripture presupposes reason and requires its use and that Grace presupposes nature. For Hooker reason was God’s greatest gift to human beings, enabling them to understand God’s plan for the whole of reality, to situate themselves within it and to specify proper moral forms of human activity. This approach to Reason is rather different than that which is attached to the modern expression “Scripture, tradition and reason,” where reason is separated from Scripture and seems to be that understanding of reason’s place that we find in modern philosophy since the Enlightenment and the work of Immanuel Kant.

By “the voice of the Church” he meant the major decisions of ecumenical councils and of national churches which relate to important matters on which Scripture is silent or only supplies hints – e.g., the structure and content of Liturgy in terms of Rites and Ceremonial. These rules are morally and spiritually binding on Christians, part of the Christianity to which they are attached by providence and grace. They are not things indifferent left to the individual conscience.

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Beauty for its Own Sake: Eating & Eucharist

Have you ever asked yourself, “What is good, and how can I know?”

In Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle teaches (according to Joe Sachs) that there are three “levels” of goodness: utility, pleasure, and beauty (in that order).

Let’s apply this hierarchy to the human activity of eating. I find that people eat for different reasons.

Some people eat merely for nutrition. I call this approach to eating “the food-as-fuel” approach. Fitness freaks in the 1990’s who advocate a diet of mainly rice cakes, runners who eat “runners goo” to maintain energy levels on a long run, or weight-lifters who consume whey as a means to increase muscle mass: these are all forms of eating as utility. Here one eats as a means to some other end, an extrinsic end: weight loss, added muscle mass, etc.

Others east for pleasure. For Aristotle, this motive is superior to utility, for eating for pleasure is an activity which is a means to an end which is intrinsic to the activity itself. Here one eats because food is delicious and tasty. One drinks, for example, because beer is pleasurable. The Christian tradition gives Aristotle a “high five” for advocating pleasure, and arguing not only that it is good, but that it is better than mere utility.

Finally, however, we come to what, for Aristotle, is the most noble level of the good: beauty. You see, body builders eat for utility; hedonists and “foodies” eat for pleasure. But there is one other group of people, one other “tribe,” which consists of folks who eat not for utility and not for pleasure, but for beauty.

Beauty itself.

This tribe is called the Christian Church, the Eucharistic community, the people of God. When we feast on the body and blood of Christ at the Table where Christ is the host and we are the guests, where God and man at table are sat down, we eat not for utility, not for pleasure, but for beauty.

Elsewhere in the Ethics Aristotle teaches that beauty is, in essence, completion. It is that of which nothing is lacking, nothing is needed. In the harmony of all its parts, it is complete and perfect. It is for this that Christians eat at the holy altar. Here, we eat not to get more physical energy, and not because the elements taste so good. Rather, it is here that the cosmos is completed in all its parts: God and man, heaven and earth, nature and supernature.

All of this is included in the ritual of Holy Eucharist, when we chew on and swallow the Word made flesh, and injest his body and blood. Not by ourselves, but with each other.

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Elvis or the Beatles? Paul’s Cosmic Anthropology

For years I have said, in various contexts and to various audiences, that for the New Testament writers, there are only two kinds of humans: Jews and Gentiles. This, for them (being good first century Jews), is how humanity is carved up. (Yes, one can “slice & dice” it at a finer level: in addition to Jew & Gentile, you also have other political demographic types such as Barbarian & Scythians, etc.—see Col 3:11.)

If this sounds to you like a scene from Quinton Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction, where Uma Thurman’s character interviews John Travolta’s character with questions like “Are you an Elvis person or a Beatles person?” (although, technically, she never asks him this question), then you are onto something.

Nowhere is this division of the human race into two fundamental types, Jew and Gentile (or sometimes stated as “Jew and Greek”) more apparent than in Gal 2:15-16:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

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Phlsphy of Rlgn: Starting Points

If I were to teach an intro to philosophy of religion course (which I’d love to do), I would approach the course in the following way:

I.  God according to “Natural Reason.”

A. Parmenides on Simple Being.

B. Aristotle’s Qualified “hi-5” to Parmenides.

 • “P., you think you’re describing “Being,” but really you’re describing God.”

• “Yes, ultimate reality is simple, but we must respect sense perception.”

C. From Aristotle to Plotinus. Teasing out threeness from Divine Oneness.

II. God (& creation) according Revelation (or the Hebrew Scriptures).

A. Tautologies & Jewish Jibberish: “I am what I am”. Huh?!?

B. The opposite end of the cosmological spectrum from God: the tôhu vbôhu, terra vacua et inanis of Gen. 1:2. Sounds like “prime matter,” devoid of form & logos.

III. Putting it all together, both legacies fulfilled: the logos becomes flesh.

 

 

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The Halls of my Monastery

I used to hate hospitals. Not only did the various odors (both sterile and grotesque) molest me in the extreme, but I spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals as a child and adolescent. I had at least three major stints in hospitals in my pre-adult years, due to a variety of ailments.

But about eight years ago, when I underwent C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education), the “pastoral care training program” which priests must undergo as a prerequisite to ordination, my feelings about hospitals began to change. Perhaps due to the head of this program at Christus Santa Rosa Hospital in downtown San Antonio, I realized that hospital ministry can be a form of prayer.

That summer, as I was introduced to the practice of contemplative prayer and began to weave that “means of grace” into my life, I began to realize that the halls of that hospital were like the corridors of a monastery. As I paced up and down the those hallways, passing patients and family members and doctors and staff members, not only could I lift their burdens and trials up to the Lord, but I could also practice other kinds of prayer as well. I could focus on the rhythm of my breathing; I could listen for the “still, small” voice of the Holy Spirit; I could meditate on an ancient form of prayer or on a passage of Scripture.

And now, all these years later, this epiphany has proven to be a very real blessing in my life. The main reason has to do with my own anxious tendencies.

You see, more often than not, when I pass through that revolving door at Mother Frances Hospital, or when I pass that big water fountain on my way in to the East Texas Medical Center, I am under pressure. More often than not, I am in a hurry. Perhaps it is 7:15 and I told my fourteen year old I’d be home at 6:30. Maybe I have additional folks to visit in different locations. Maybe it’s late on a Saturday afternoon and I am way behind on my sermon preparation for the following Sunday. Or maybe it has simply been a frustrating afternoon, and I am worn out and ready to call it a day.

Whatever the source of my stress, what happens on these hospital visits is extraordinary. I almost want to say that it regularly saves my life. When I enter the building, I am stressed, but when I leave I am grateful and at peace. Why? Because of what I experience in that monastery. The suffering of the members of the Body of Christ. The extreme burdens that family members and loved ones are carrying. Most of all, I experience the faith, hope, and love of real Christians as they throw their lives upon the Good Shepherd who knows what it is like to be in pain and to suffer loss.

On my way out of the monastery / hospital, inevitably I have a spring in my step. I’ve been reminded of what really matters, and it’s not my petty concerns. I’ve tasted and experienced the reality of Christ, in the bodies and souls of members of the Body, and “through the features of men’s faces.”

 

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On Socrates’ not fearing Death

As anyone who has read Plato’s Apology knows, at one point during his trial Socrates argues that it is irrational to fear death, because no-one really knows what happens to one after death.

This has never made sense to me. “But,” I’ve always mentally protested in response to Socrates’ point, “surely this ignorance is not a reason not to fear death. After all, if anything is worthy of fear, is not a prime candidate for such fear precisely the unknown?”

I still think that my objection is valid. However, I have had some leisure today to focus a bit more deeply on this issue, and it now seems to me that Socrates does have a good point.

What he is actually doing, one could argue, is clarifying the precise kind of fear it is rational to have in the face of death: not fear of “burning in hell” or whatever the ancient equivalent to that is (since we lack knowledge about this), but rather, precisely, fear of the unknown.

Fear of the unknown, that is, is quite different in character than fear of something like pain or eternal suffering. Likewise, it calls for different therapies or remedies. One such remedy was explored 2500 years after Socrates himself died: that of Heidegger.

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“Heals over Head”–Fr. Greg Boyle

We are all part of a movement to put first things recognizably first. This movement is about heals over head. It is far easier for [an organization] to compile of menu of services … than it is to create a community of tenderness, a community so loving and so welcoming that everyone feels like they are wearing a parachute. A place, a geography, where we all decide to make a decision to live in each others’ hearts.—Father Greg Boyle, Founder & Director, Homeboy Industries.

I’ve heard plenty of speeches in my day, but the words above constitute what is for me perhaps the most moving “oratory experience” I’ve ever had.

This speech was the culmination, or the final plenary event, of a two-day conference at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles which I had the honor and joy of attending this past week, together with two dear friends, D.G. Montalvo and David Dickerson. We were attending this event at the invitation of the Episcopal Health Foundation of the Diocese of Texas, in hopes that it would benefit us here at Christ Church as we partner with the E.H.F. in hopes of increasing the holistic peace and justice of our community.

Allow me to unpack the most salient phrases in the snippet above. First, “recognizably first.” When Fr. Greg uttered these words, it “cut me to the quick.” In other words, I became deeply convicted of the need, not just to state that justice is a priority for us at Christ Church (including Christ Church South), but to make that priority recognizable, visible, clear. It must be obvious to anyone who visits us on Sunday morning that we are a community where Christ binds us together: not class, not race, not affinity.

Second, “heals over head.” I could talk about this one for hours. A huge part of my “spiritual / intellectual biography” is the issue of “reason vs. desire”: which is privileged? For Aristotle it is reason’s job to discipline the human being’s passions and desires. And yet, Christian Neoplatonism responds (I’m painting with insanely broad brush strokes here) by pointing to a “higher” kind of desire which, in turn, woos, summons, and directs reason itself. Father Greg is clearly one who affirms the priority of desire / feeling / passion over reason. Hence, “heals over head.” In the same vein he stresses that “a community tenderness is harder [and more important] than a menu of services.” In other words, for Fr. Greg, nothing can be more important than love (which, after all, is a kind of desire). Nothing can be more important than relationship, intimacy, “living in each others’ hearts.” This is the foundation of Homeboy. Good thing, too, since this is also the foundation of the Kingdom of God.

Last phrase to unpack: “parachutes [instead of backpacks].” Father Greg’s goal is to make the “homies” among whom he lives and works feel like they are wearing parachutes, and not backpacks. At first I was not sure what he meant by this. It was either David or DG who helped me “get it.” A parachute softens one’s landing; a burdensome backpack, in contrast, only weighs one down all the more. The goal here is to facilitate a soft landing, for any homie who is falling to the ground. Soft landings, instead of crashing & burning.

How is this facility accomplished? Only by a community which put first things recognizably first. Only by a community in which the members truly live in each others’ hearts. Only by a community of tenderness which privileges healing over headiness, and gives people parachutes and not heavy burdens of condemnation.

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Rigorous Honesty: Ps 139 & Truth-telling

The first paragraph of ch. 5 (“How it Works”) of Bill W.’s Alcoholics Anonymous is riveting and crucial:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to the program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

If I ask myself, “am I (constitutionally) capable of being honest with myself?” … well, that is not an easy question for me to answer. I think I am … but I also think it is important for me to open myself up to the possibility of self-deception.

Enter Psalm 139, verse 6: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”

When I cultivate an awareness of God, of the Holy Spirit, deep within me, it allows me to be honest with myself. It allows me to sit in silence and not need to pretend to be anything. Instead of pretending to be something, I can simply be. I can be comfortable with myself.

Because in that moment, who am I trying to impress? The Holy Spirit? That would be really dumb. I can simply be, simply sit in silence, with my feelings, with my body, with my sense perception, with a biblical passage or a word or a mantra echoing in my heart.

Now, sitting in silent meditation is not the only way to cultivate rigorous honesty. And if this practice occurs in a vacuum, cut off from other spiritual practices, it will be especially “ineffective.” Really, I think that the progress which results from meditation has to do with presence. When I practice being present in presence of the Holy Spirit in silent meditation, it gives me the “spiritual muscles” to be present with others: my spiritual director, my sponsor, my wife, my friends, my parishioners, complete strangers I encounter on the street, etc.

But it all begins, and ends, with rigorous honesty.

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Baptism & Richard Dawkins

In eight short days I will have the staggering privilege of initiating (at least) five precious human beings created in God’s image into the holy community of the Body of Christ through the mysterious waters of Holy Baptism. (How the cosmos arranged itself to allow for this state of affairs is beyond me.)

Now, I have been intrigued by baptism for quite a while. In fact, if I were to make a list of the top ten reasons I left evangelical Christianity for the Anglican Way (embodied in the Episcopal Church, in the Diocese of Texas), somewhere on that list would be baptism. In particular, the teaching about Baptism contained in the Book of Common Prayer, on page 298 of which we read:

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body of the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.

Thanks be to God that, in my mid thirties, I finally found a community of people who believe this crazy teaching. Crazy, but necessary.

Necessary, that is, if secularism is not true, not the “be all and end all.” Necessary if God is real and there is more to existence than “matter and energy.” Necessary if real truth and beauty are grounded in a metaphysical reality which transcends human wants and needs.

Necessary, but crazy. Why “crazy”? Because it flies in the face of so much “evidence.”

I mean, just look (as a good friend of mine would say) at Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, who was of course baptized in the Church of England as an infant, but who as an adult has attacked the Christian faith as vociferously as anyone in modern history.

What about him? Surely, my friend argues, he is proof that baptism is not some ontologically real and efficacious transformation that grafts one permanently into the life of God … right?

Well, what if that’s not right? What if we take page 298 of the BCP at face value? What if, since Richard Dawkins was baptized many decades ago with water and the Holy Spirit, God has “sealed [him] by the Spirit in baptism, and marked [him] as Christ’s own forever,” as the Celebrant confesses in the actual service of Holy Baptism in the Episcopal Church? What if, on the basis of this sealing and marking, together with all that they entail, and together with the context in which they find their larger meaning, God has promised to bring Richard Dawkins finally back to himself, at some point and in some way which right now is unclear to us?

After all, it seems to me, the alternative is untenable. For if Baptism (together with all that it entails, and together with the larger context in which it finds its meaning) does not save, then secularism is the case, and we Christians should, finally, put all this religion stuff and “God talk” to sleep.

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Nihilism & Theology (D. Bentley Hart)
“So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear and unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history.” — David Bentley Hart, _The Reason for God_, 293.
 
So true. This is what I am constantly trying to get my undergraduate students to see. Before they can even be open to theology and religion (Christian or otherwise), they first must question their “ordinary” modes modes of understanding. They must first become skeptics. They must first become nihilists.
This is why Socrates was such a gadly, attempting to “corrupt the youth,” to get the young, future politicians of Athens to question authority, to question their assumptions, to question to the status quo.
 
This is why John Milbank says that “theology is a hair’s breadth from nihilism.”
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Mystical Ecstasy & Alyosha’s Mini-arc

I am grateful to be the recipient of a world-class education in the history of Western thought at the University of Dallas’ Institute of Philosophic Studies, where I was initiated headlong into many of the great classical texts of the Western canon, many of which I had never before read, including Hesiod’s Theogony, Dante’s Comedia, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, just to name a few.

The final class in this sequence of core courses is “Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky,” in which we read (among other texts) The Brothers Karamazov. Or, were supposed to have read.

I confess publicly, and for the first time, that I simply did not (have time to) read this very long tome that semester. Such is the life of a full-time priest, working in a city 90 miles away from his academic institution, to which he was commuting (during the period of his coursework) on average twice per week.

The guilt from such an omission was almost unbearable, and it is a miracle that I got through that course (one of three grad courses I was taking at the time). Which might be why I firmly resolved to make The Brothers Karamazov the first major text I would read, once I had successfully gotten both coursework and comprehensive exams under my belt. Hence, I am reading it now, and what a stimulating read it is!

One feature of the text to which my attention has been drawn is the structure of Book Seven, entitled, “Alyosha.” Breifly, I summarize this structure, this narrative arc of character development, as follows:

  • §1, “Odor of putrefaction.” Here, Alyosha stumbles spiritually at the scandalon of religious scorn and hypocritical gloating on the part of a certain religious faction. Basically, there is a party of monks at Alyosha’s monastery who despise the holy starets, Father Zosima (Alyosha’s beloved mentor and father in the faith), and who longs for his downfall and ruination. Of course the members of this faction, led by one Father Therapon, have their religious justifications. But it is this religious scorn, and not the absence of a certain hoped-for miracle (the lack of deterioration of the now deceased Father Zosima’s remains) which causes Alyosha to spiral downward into a tailspin of spiritual and emotional blackness.
  • §2, “Here’s an opportunity.” Enter Rakitin, that “careerist seminarian” who embodies the worst kind of sanctimonious, fraudulent bigotry. Rakitin stumbles upon Alyosha just as the former has been laid low emotionally, and is literally lying on the ground near a tree, trying to get his head screwed back on straight, attempting to recover from the emotional blow dealt by those who have been publicly denigrating Zosima, in light of his death and decomposition. Rakitin skillfully takes advantage of Alyosha, tempting him to “act out” and give in to his incipient anger and woundedness. First, Rakitin tempts Alyosha with food (sausage), then drink (vodka), then sex (the intriguing and beautiful prostitute Grushenka). Alyosha, in a state of weakness, gives in to his seducer Rakitin.
  • §3, “A spring onion.” In the rooms of Grushenka, who seems to be deeply taken and captivated by the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers Alyosha (who is pretty much the same age as the seductress), the narrator employs the image of a spring onion to symbolize the wonderful effects of love for the other. Grushenka narrates a Russian fable involving the giving of an onion from one person to another, and how this small act of kindness can save a person from Hell. Grushenka, who knows full well that she is a grave sinner who stands guilty before God and man, testifies that she knows the joy of giving a spring onion to someone in need. Alyosha, who up to this point has been tight-lipped and awkward in Grushenka’s room, immediately recognizes her humility and this spiritual seed of life to which she has born witness. And it is just this, this brilliant flash of grace flowing from the heart and lips of this humble sinner, this shard of love born of true poverty of spirit, which revives the stricken Alyosha, acting as a sort of “smelling salt” which quickens him to return to his true spiritual nature. Finally, his head is screwed back on straight, and he has now come to his senses.
  • §4, “Cana of Galilee.” Now that Alyosha has been restored to his true self by the (unintended) ministrations of Grushenka, he is now liberated truly to enjoy God and life. Returning to the monastery, he encounters the saintly Father Païsy, who continues to read the Gospels over Father Zosima’s open coffin, as he has been doing for hours and hours. Slowly Alyosha falls into a peaceful sleep and experiences a vivid dream about Jesus and Mary at the wedding of Cana, even as the words of John 2 proceed from the mouth of the venerable monk. Alyosha, asleep before the remains of his loving mentor even while remaining on his knees, is now awash in the mystical, peaceful vision of Christ he is now experiencing. Eventually he awakes, and the lines which follow are among the most arresting I have ever read:

[Alyosha’s] soul, brimming with ecstasy, was yearning for freedom, for wide open spaces. Overhead, stretching into infinity, was the heavenly dome, full of silent, shimmering stars. From the zenith to the horizon stretched the forked outlines of the faintly visible Milky Way. A cool, silent, motionless night had enveloped the earth. The white towers and gilded cupolas of the monastery church gleaned in the sapphire light. The splendid autumn flowers in the bed around the house were dormant for the night. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens. The mystery of the earth appeared to reach out to the starts. Alyosha stood gazing. Suddenly he fell to the ground, as though stunned.

He did not know why he was embracing the earth. He could not explain to himself why it was that he wanted to kiss it with such abandon. To kiss the whole of it, and yet he kept kissing it as he wept and sobbed, drenching it with his tears, and passionately swearing to love it, to love it forever and ever. ‘Drench the earth with the tears of thy joy, and love these thy tears….’ These words echoed in his soul. What was he weeping about? Oh, in the ecstasy he was weeping even for those stars which shone upon him from infinity, ‘and he was not ashamed of his passion.’ It was as though the threads of all God’s countless worlds had converged in his soul, and it quivered upon contact with these distant worlds. He wished to forgive everyone for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself but for others. ‘They would then ask forgiveness for me,’ were the words that echoed in his mind. But with each passing moment, he became distantly, almost palpably aware, that something as firm and immutable as the vault of heaven was entering his soul. An idea seemed to be taking possession of his mind, and it would be for his whole life and for eternity. He fell to the ground a weak adolescent, but when he rose to his feet he was a hardened warrior for life, and he recognized this in a flash of ecstasy. And never, never in his whole life, would Alyosha be able to forget this moment. ‘Someone visited my soul on that occasion,’ he would repeat later, firmly believing his own words.

Three days later he left the monastery, in accordance with the instruction of his deceased starets, to ‘go out into the world.’

What to make of this trajectory, culminating in these haunting words of mystical ecstasy? I can think of six things.

  1. This book, in the context of Dostoevsky’s larger story, is a wonderful example of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ, makes us more fully human. To quote St. Irenaeus, “The Glory of God is the human being, fully alive.” Christians are / ought-to-be more fully alive than anyone else, and this vignette points to that fact.
  2. Alyosha, when faced with fierce temptations, did not give in. Why did he not give in? Only because he was rescued by love, the love of the sinful prostitute Grushenka. Still, what would have happened had he slept with her? Would he have experienced the joy of hearing the Gospel flow from the lips of Fr. Païsy? I doubt it. There is something about not ruining the story which makes for spiritual elation, once the temptations have subsided.
  3. Suffering leads to ecstasy, and this ecstasy involves the passions. This vignette is an “argument” for privileging the passions over reason, even while admitting the necessity of the latter.
  4. I find it interesting that, in Dostoevsky’s rendition of Alyosha’s experience here, we find an emphasis on the whole: the cosmic dimensions of salvific reality. God is way bigger than we normally realize. So is Christ. So is the cosmos.
  5. Alyosha’s mystical experience leads to and includes gospel reconciliation. We find him deeply impacted by the idea of forgiveness, which I think is probably the primary theme of this entire book.
  6. This kind of experience, which entails a movement from adolescence to adulthood, leads to full maturity in Christ (see Eph 4:13).

All in all, this is a riveting chunk of text, one that will stay with me (I dare say) for the rest of my life!

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Reason & Desire in Dostoevsky
When I read / assess a thinker, I’m always asking the question: does he or she  privilege reason, or does he or she privilege thumos / desire? (I am thinking here of the tripartite schemas of the human soul, according to Aristotle and Plato.)
For example, I’m pretty convinced now that while Thomas privileges reason, Bonaventure privileges desire.
Reading _the Brothers Karamazov_, it is pretty clear that Dostoevsky privileges desire.
For example, consider the comments from the narrator on Alyosha, who, having just left the monastery in despair, is struggling with the way certain religious figures in the monastery are gloating over the “premature” putrefaction of Father Zosima’s remains:
… I am glad my young hero did not turn out to be too rational at such a moment, since there will always be plenty of opportunity for an intelligent person to employ his intellect, but if love did not hold sway in his heart at such an exceptional moment, would it ever do so? – Part III, Bk. 7, §2, “Here’s an opportunity.”
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Ascension: All things full of Christ

This time of the church year is a rich one. Here we are, nestled between Ascension (my favorite feast) and Pentecost. Why did Christ ascend?

In one sense, it was to bring the entire world back to the Father. In other sense, it was to pour the Holy Spirit out upon the Church and “all flesh” on the Day of Pentecost.

But there is another sense, as well. One of the two collects for the Ascension in the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” What does it mean to say that Christ, post-Ascension, now fills all things?

Well, I don’t know, but I do know that when you look at your brothers or sister in Church, you are looking at someone filled with Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that when you encounter a stranger on the street, especially if they are down and out or strung out, you are looking at someone filled with Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that the “bread” and the “wine” of Holy Eucharist are full of Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that the Church father said that when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, he sanctified all water.

I don’t know, but I do know that St. Gregory of Nyssa said that, when Jesus gestured toward some bread and said, “this is my body,” he could have just as easily gestured toward a tree branch and said the same thing.

I don’t know, but I do know that a life of prayer, meditation, and “sobriety” (1 Peter 4:7) can train, sensitize, and condition one to experience the mystical reality of God, mediated by and through the things of creation, which mediate the presence of Christ.

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On Unicorns: why Actuality precedes Possibility

This (slightly embarrassing) article is inspired by section II of David Bentley Hart’s chapter entitled “Being (Sat)” in his The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. It is intended for philosophy and theology geeks alone.

In his book Metaphysics: the Invention of Hierarchy, Adrian Pabst lays blame at the feet of several late medieval thinkers (chief among them Gilbert of Porreta) for departing from traditional metaphysical thought with their suggestion that possibility is prior to actuality. According to Pabst’s narration, this move is part and parcel with detaching the existence of things in the world from the existence of God, and the essence of things from the existence of those same things.

In an attempt to keep this blog post as pithy as possible, let me just say that one reason it is difficult for us moderns to “wrap our heads” around the massive historical import of this move of Gilbert’s is that the assumptions behind it have become as “natural” to us as the air that we breathe. That is, the priority of possibility has attained in our culture the status of unquestionable ideology. After all, take the example of a unicorn. It seems as obvious as the nose on your face to assume that, of course, we can speak of a unicorn without needing to affirm its existence. Here is a clear example, it is easy to assume, of the priority of possibility over actuality, of essence over existence.

And for a season in my intellectual pilgrimage, this issue of unicorns presented real and difficult problems for me, so much so that for a while I wanted to argue that unicorns must actually exist somehow; otherwise we’d not be talking about them. I felt that this position was required in order to maintain the priority of actuality over possibility.

Alas, however, no such positing is necessary, and I have since come to agree with what Thomas Aquinas would say: we have no reason to think that unicorns actually exist because no one has ever actually seen one.

Well, one might argue, if they don’t exist, but we can still talk about them, then does this not suggest the priority of possibility over actuality, of essence over existence?

And the answer (in my opinion) is: not at all. All of our talk of unicorns manifestly does presuppose the actuality of … something. Not of unicorns, granted. But has anyone ever spoken of a unicorn while not relying on the notion of a horse? A horse, mind you, which actually does exist.

And not just a horse. No one, further, has ever spoken of a unicorn without, well, without speaking. That is, without depending on the actual existence of those human artifacts called words (or, as Derrida calls them, graphemes and phonemes). Again, graphemes and phonemes that actually exist, and which must be interacted with for any thought about unicorns (or anything else at all) to occur.

Unicorns, then, don’t exist. Thanks to the work of the human (productive) imagination, we can still talk about them … but not without relying on a whole host of real things which, unlike unicorns, actually do exist.

Essence, then, is seen to require existence, and actuality is (for now, at least) still required for anything at all to be possible.

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How to talk about the Benedict Option (Prolegomena)

Which of the following visions for humanity is more accurate, more true, more desirable: A or B?

A: “Human beings are meant to enjoy deep, relational, holistic communion with one another.”

B: “Human beings are meant to co-exist with one another through the mechanisms of tolerance.”

How should we discuss Rod Dreher’s proposal of the Benedict Option? Even before the book is widely analyzed, I predict that most of the discussions will take place at a level that is unhelpfully superficial. People will talk about, for example, whether Christianity is “for the culture,” or “against the culture” employing the categories bequeathed by the 2oth century liberal Protestant Richard Niebuhr.   Yet few will dig deeper, and question the assumption that both of those stances share: that Christianity (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is separable from culture in the first place. The real need is to question the assumption that the Body of Christ (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is ever, in reality, acultural.

Aristotle wrote long ago that “knowledge of opposites is one and the same,” by which he means that two opposing species of intellectual positions often reduce down to the same common genus. Keynsian economists and members of the “Austrian School” both agree on a fundamental shared principle: the validity of political economy. But what if it is precisely this underlying assumption, this common genus, which needs to be questioned?

I will never forget a conversation which I had with a Tibetan Buddhist in the mid 1990’s. I was an undergrad  at U.T. Austin, and I was dialoging with a new friend of Asian descent. As an evangelical who had tacitly inherited a sort of “common sense realism” view of the world, I was asking him about what he regarded as true and false. But the discussion, over and over again, hit a brick wall. Since he would not, even from the very beginning, acknowledge my distinction between “true” and “false,” we hit one dialogical roadblock after another. More recently I found myself sitting on a bench in discussion with a practicioner of Harikrishna … and although the intervening two decades did supply me with more wisdom and better conversation skills than I had as a college sophomore, nevertheless I was reminded all over again of the stark contrast, the fundamental divide, between the Eastern and Western worldviews, or visions of reality.

It is no coincidence that religions such as Buddhism and Harikrishna are far more accepted in our American culture today than they were in the late 20th century. Part of their new plausability, I think, is that they are radically counter-cultural. People realize that our flattened out, “disenchanted” secular lives are neither sustainable nor desirable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or to quote Seal (thus dating myself yet again), “We’re never gonna survive … unless we get a little crazy.”

The teachings of Jesus, and the apostolic commitments of his followers about the Body of Christ vis-a-vis the systems of Ceasar, are crazy and strange at root. Dreher is operating out of a conviction that when one grasps the Faith aright, it is “made strange.”

It is precisely its “crazy” counter-culturalism which draws me to Rod Dreher’s vision. Many of us share the conviction, pace David Brooks, that Christianity is also, at root, radically counter-cultural. (Does this mean we can no longer go to Starbucks or that we are obliged to opt out of Netflix or boycott SXSW? No, not necessarily.)

Yet David Brooks and many others assume a tacit agreement, an easy compatibility, between secular, political liberalism on the one hand and the Christian religion on the other. (So much so that some can speak of “American civil religion,” and some even still regard it as a viable option.) Of course this assumption is not prima facie absurd: after all, both Locke and Jefferson were good Anglicans.

But it is precisely this assumption which needs to be questioned. It is an assumption laid bare by books such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, John Milbank’s 1991 Theology and Secular Theory, and Charles Taylor’s 2007 A Secular Age. (These books, with balanced, rigorous erudition, reveal how deeply the disease has penetrated, just how deep the rabbit hole goes.) All three resonate with the strange reality of  the “two cities” which Augustine develops in his magisterial City of God. Brooks, in opposition to all four, sees an easy compatibility between the City of God and the City of Man. At the very least all sides should admit that he stands in deep opposition to St. Augustine. St. Augustine, whose strangeness rivals that of a Tibetan Buddhist, from a modern American perspective.

It is this assumption of easy compatibility which David Brooks (like Niebuhr before him) holds in his article and adopts from a secular vantage point, but never questions.

I’d argue that historic, catholic Christianity differs from modern secularism kind of like harikrishna differs from common sense realism: they operate on entirely different registers of reality.

What would it look like to question this assumption of the validity of modern secularism? For starters, it could look like asking the the above question, Which is more desirable for humanity: A or B?

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“Theos” as Conceptual Idol? (a 3-fold response)

This little essay, a practice exercise for my upcoming PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy & theology geeks, and for them alone!

For at least four decades now, one strain or type of “postmodern” theologian (such as Jack Caputo) has been arguing, following Martin Heidegger, that any purported conception of God, but especially any used by the (western) metaphysical tradition, is inherently idolatrous. In this regard, Caputo is also channeling the spirit of his friend Jacques Derrida (d. 2004), insofar as both the Gentile Catholic Caputo and the Jewish Derrida root their critiques in an allegedly biblical “idoloclasm.”

As I see it, there are three valid responses to this criticism, which show that our intellectual conceptions of God are not necessarily idolatrous.

  1. First one can argue that the best renditions of philosophico-theological accounts of God proceed on the basis of a kind of Pseudo-Dionysian apophaticism. That is, when thinkers from Augustine to Thomas (and one could possibly throw Aristotle into this list, albeit anachronistically, perhaps) develop their accounts of God in a philosophical or theological register, they are essentially saying what God is not. They are making denials about God. For example, with regard to the Aristotelian (and neoplatonist) point that God is “pure act,” one could argue that this is really another way of saying that God does not at all admit of any kind of potentiality, including and especially the potentiality of materiality.
  2. Second one could appeal to biblical revelation, which does two relevant things. First, it claims that God is being or “has” being (Exodus 3:15, inter alia), a claim which then gives license to the interpreter to imagine God, to describe God, to think God (conceptually). Second, though, Scripture itself develops multiple images of God which no one, not even the most hard core iconoclast, has regarded as idolatrous. Examples: God as a pillar of fire in the Old Testament; God as a dove descending on Jesus in the New Testament. I suppose one could even place Christ himself in this context: the incarnation establishes a new economy of images.
  3. Third one can appeal Thomas Aquinas’ the logic of divine naming, which he includes in his “Five Ways” in Summa Theologiae (prima pars, Question II). On this view, God’s naming works such that even terms or concepts such as “first mover” or “first cause” do actually refer to God. This position is ably represented by Denis Turner, for example here. (That Thomas thinks this, it seems to me, indicates something inscrutably profound about his thinking about God. Somehow, God is accessible both to natural human reason and to divinely bequeathed faith.)

In conclusion, however, one should also respond to this Derridian / Heideggerian point with salutary gratitude. Idolatry, for anyone purporting to stand within a biblical or theological tradition, is a real thing, and a pernicious problem. One must repent; one must be on guard. And yet, on the basis of the three responses above, I think we can legitimately disagree with Caputo / Derrida / Heidegger.

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Modern Metaphysics, Morphed

This article, an exercise in my preparation for PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy and theology geeks, and them alone.

How does the meaning of the term “metaphysics” change from the premodern to the modern period?

As good a place as any to begin is Book VIII chapter 6 of Augustine’s City of God, where Augustine rehearses:

  1. The priority of simple being over all non-simple being.
  2. Because (unlike body and soul) simple being is beyond degree(s of comparison), it is that by which any apprehension of beauty is judged. Hence simple being must be a or the “primary form” that exists in the mind.

Two quick notes about this summary rendition of things. First, Augustine here builds upon Aristotle’s work of prôtê philosophia (subsequently named The Metaphysics) which conceives of the unmoved mover (which, as “that which is most knowable in itself,” is the ultimate pedagogical destination of Aristotle’s entire programmic “order of learning” or hierarchy of sciences, beginning with the Organon) as pure, fully “actualized” being, pure energeia. No matter, no potency at all can be said to be in God. Hence, for the Stagirite theos is utterly simple (haplax). Second, it is instructive, as we juxtapose this way of thinking with modern thought, to remember Avicenna’s determination of simple being as necessary, and complex being as contingent. Although not all pre-modern thinkers—Plotinus and Averroes come to mind—agree with this characterization, it is still conveniently helpful to regard all material, spatio-temporal being as contingent, for the pre-modern mind.

Enter Descartes, who changes things at the most fundamental level possible. The short version of things is that metaphysics is now cast in terms of res cogitans and res extensa. But that dichotomy lies at the far end of a series of moves which change the course of intellectual history precisely in their details.

Those crucial “details” begin with a move which I will characterize as: grounding the sciences in the irreducibility of the individual subject. Descartes agrees with Aristotle on the importance of “that which is most known or knowable[*] in itself,” but for Descartes, who thinks he’s doubted everything that can be, can no longer regard this “thing” to be God. Further, it is still for him—as also for Aristotle—this recursivity or reflexivity which alone can ground scientia. What, then, is the locus of this reflexivity? No longer nous noeôs, it is now: subject and object. The latter grounds the former and the former grounds the world.

No longer, then, is science—as was the case from Aristotle through the Scholastics—an ordered system of intellectual disciplines, each of which depends upon the former epistemologically (or pedagogically), and upon the subsequent ontologically. Now, with the birth of the modern, they are considered to be (grounded in) a reflexive relationship between subject / observer and object / observed.

So, if “metaphysics” refers to that which is beyond the natural (which, for Descartes is collapsed with culture, the domain of human poiêsis and technê), the that which is beyond is the human subject, res cogitans.

True, Descartes believes in God and math, but these things are arrived at and secured only after he convinces himself that the subject, the cogito, exists. Plus, while the subject is known for Descartes, God and math are for him likely objects of mere belief. (They are moments of his “way out,” back out into the world, subsequent to his “movement inward,” which hits “rock bottom” at the point at which he cannot doubt the existence of his self.)

Finally, it must be said that this metaphysical shift which we see in Descartes is not the end of a development, but only the beginning: thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Kant, Bergson and Husserl build on this foundation, in their various and unique ways. Just one example would be Husserl’s redefinition of “absolute being” (also for Bergson) and “dependent being.” According to Dermot Moran,

Husserl maintains that consciousness cannot be thought away in such an experiment and hence must be understood as having “absolute being” whereas reality has to be understood as dependent being. In this section [§49] Husserl styles the world of pure consciousness as “immanent being” and as absolute. (Dermot Moran, “Foreward,” in Edmund Husserl, Ideas (… ), xxiii.

[*] in Greek these two participles are morphologically identical.

 

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Platonic Forms (a feeble attempt)

What, for Plato, are the forms? Nothing could be more difficult than to answer this question: even Augustine, who certainly knew Plato much much better than I, dumurs in attempting to “nail” Plato “down:” after all, “he emulated … the well known practice of his master Socrates … of concealing his own knowledge of opinion.” (City of God VIII.4)

So, then, what follows is the best I can do in stammering toward some kind of sketchy impression of Plato’s doctrine of the forms.

Many interpreters of Plato, including Aristotle, who followed the truth over his friend, take Platonic forms to be mental concepts. And, one can see a certain plausibility in this interpretation, especially based on the early dialogues, such as the Euthyphro, where the form of “piousness” is considered in the context of a discussion on genus and species, and in the Phaedo, where equal sticks and stones are said to be equal, due to the reality of some form of equality. In the former case it can be said that genus and species are, in fact, mental concepts, and in the latter case one can say that mathematical type entities seem to be mental concepts, as well.

So, is this the answer? For Plato, are the forms simply mental concepts?

Not quite, for beginning in the middle dialogues, including the Republic, the Symposium, and the Phaedrus, the Good seems to be a mysterious reality, in which the human soul participates. This is construed in diverse ways, but in each case the Good is transcendent and elusive while nonetheless characterized as a kind of desiridatum for which the human mind strives. In the Republic one thinks of the Good which lies above the divided line, and hence above the rational intellect simply speaking. Since the entire logic of the divided line proceeds on the basis of participation (with the lower realm of appearances “participating” in the upper realm of rationality), it makes sense to see rational nous, or indeed the whole soul or the whole person, as participating, striving to participate, in the good, into which it is “wooed” or even seduced.

Speaking of seduction, in the Symposium we encounter divine Diotima, at whom the lover enjoys or delights in looking[1], Diotima here considered as the beloved. In addition to this, Diotima (according to Seth Bernardete in his commentary on the Symposium) completes Socrates’s life-long education, providing the third of his major breakthroughs or epiphanies (after the second sailing of the Phaedo and the Parmenidean realization, narrated in the first half of the Parmenides, that if the forms are knowable, they are knowable only by God), that all things participate in Beauty. On this scenario, the ultimate form is “Beauty” (there is room in Plato to argue that beauty is “convertible” with the Good), and all things participate in it, as illuminated reason is enabled to perceive.

Hence, a more plausible view, in opposition to form-as-mental-concept, is the view that Plato regards the Form(s) as participata, that in which all things—including the human mind—participate. For Plato, then, it is the Form(s) in which we live and move and have our being.

If ever there were an “extra-mental” reality, this is it.

 

[1] The Greek eidos is cognate with the verb for “to look,” also with the Latin video, whose first letter was originally a diagamma, yielding the Greek stem “id.”

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Phenomenological Reduction: a Theological Refutation?

Note: this article is intended for philosophy and theology nerds, and them alone!

I am suspecting that “the phenomenological reduction” is not possible when it comes to eating (an apple, or the consecrated Body of Christ, for example). It seems to work for vision, but not for eating. If I “bracket” the existence of the apple (while eating it), then am I not also led inextricably to “bracket” the existence of the tongue, teeth, throat, and stomach which touches them? They are “like objects,” after all. (Or something like that.)

Aristotle may have known this in advance, as evidenced by his words in _De Anima_ II.9-11. There he says that touch (which subsumes taste & smell, such that, ultimately, there are only 3 senses) “proves the existence of the soul” because for it alone among the senses is the “third thing” (required for sensation to work) the actual human body. (He is here assuming that since the body cannot be the thing which does the experiencing, the only option left is to say that the soul is the thing that does the experiencing.)

Which means that the body cannot be bracketed while eating, period. Which means that the apple cannot be bracketed. Which means that the phenomenological reduction does not work with respect to eating.

Which means objects exists.

No wonder Christians (as opposed to Greeks, who privilege vision, & Jews, who privilege hearing) privilege eating (and hence touch).

Grateful to John Milbank & Catherine Pickstock for their emphasis on the sensation of touch (in their book on Thomas Aquinas, Truth In Aquinas).

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“Second Sailing” as Proto-Phenomenology? Not quite.

Note: this post is intended only for philosophy & theology geeks!

In her chapter, “Introduction to the Phaedo,” Eva Brann helpfully illuminates what is going on in Plato’s “second sailing,” discussed in the Socratic dialogue of the same name. Just before Socrates shares his discovery of the second sailing with his interlocutors in the Phaedo, he pauses dramatically and reflects deeply within himself. Indeed, he seems to be signaling, what is at stake in this second sailing is “no trivial business:” he means to inquire into the very “cause of generation and destruction as a whole.”[1]

Socrates then proceeds to narrate an intellectual autobiography of sorts, emphasizing the unfruitfulness of his prior “inquiry into nature.” At first, he says, he would “give the most ordinary answers to explain generation and growth: a human being grows by eating and drinking and adding flesh.” Note that this explanation is merely physical, merely based on a kind of naïve visual observation with little attempt to inquire “behind” the surface level items of everyday experience. This is an “explanation” that functions at the level of “things bumping into each other,” the naïve, “physicalist” kind of explanation offered by the Presocratics of the Milesian School.

Brann continues to comment upon Socrates’ account of his intellectual development in the Phaedo by pointing out the importance of the young Plato’s self-narrated discovery of a claim put forward by Anaxagoras, that “Mind orders the world.” Despite the fact that Anaxagoras failed to apply this principle rigorously to his system, instead falling back upon the same superficial explanations of ancient physicalists such as Thales, this insight about mind would prove determinative for the young Socrates, according to his own account. For it was this inkling that allowed Socrates to move beyond merely physical explanations. His recourse? If one wise statement from a predecessor in the tradition—that is, if just one logos—could prove fruitful, why not search for others as well?

Socrates describes this “moving beyond” in terms of a “turning away,” a forsaking his prior method of “direct” naïve observation for what he calls a “second sailing.” A fresh attempt to regroup, to start over, to turn away (albeit provisionally) from what the eyes see, to an investigation of what speech has in common with what those eyes see.[2] After all, one thing that eyes can never see is the very thing that Socrates initially stated as his goal: “the cause of generation and destruction as a whole,” whatever that might turn out to be.

How similar is this move to the procedure(s) which, twenty-four and centuries later, Edmund Husserl advocates under the banner of “phenomenology?” The short answer: very similar, indeed … but more different than similar.

To see resemblance, however, one must first appreciate that the procedure which Socrates enacts in his “second sailing” is actually composed of two, smaller-scale moves: first, he turns away; then he searches for something by means of words, by means of logoi.

What is fascinating is that, Husserl’s phenomenological procedure, has advocated and spelled out in his Ideas I, also involves not one fundamental move, but two.

And as is the case with Plato, the first move is a kind of turning away. Husserl writes:

We put out of action the … natural standpoint, we place in brackets whatever includes respecting the nature of Being: this entire natural world therefore which is continually “there for us”….[3]

How similar is this move to (the first moment of) Socrates’ move? From the quotation immediately above (together with its context) we know that Husserl’s move involves a turning away from a certain kind of naïve, “natural” assumption: that the things which we see “really” exist. But what is Socrates turning away from?

I decided that I must be careful not to suffer the misfortune which happens to people who look at the sun and watch it during an eclipse. For some of them ruin their eyes unless they look at its image in water or something of the sort. I thought of that danger, and I was afraid my soul would be blinded if I looked at things with my eyes and tried to grasp them with any of my senses. So I thought I must have recourse to conceptions and examine in them the truth of realities.[4]

Now, from this quotation we see that what both Plato and Husserl turn away from is a kind of naïve trust which assumes that things are in reality the way they appear to us by way of our vision. In this regard, it seems to me that Plato & Husserl are, in their “turn away,” doing the same thing.

Further, in a kind of intermediate move—a move between the moves—Socrates follows Husserl in emphasizing the importance of images, images which both thinkers affirm and advocate as an object of our focus. Plato seems to endorse the consideration of “image[s] in the water; in Husserl’s phenomenological reduction / ephochê he thinks that “a new region of being,” that of consciousness, comes into view, and within this region the mind attends rigorously not just to memories but also to “fantasies,” that is to say, to images.

Let me quickly register one pointed difference, however, in the two “turnings away.” Husserl makes it explicit in Ideas Part I, §32 that in the phenomenological reduction, one turns away not just from a kind of naïve dependence upon what one perceives by way of vision, but also from any kind of “theory” about the world or the things in the world. The world which we acknowledge, if only for the purpose of “setting in brackets,” is a world “free from all theory.”[5] So what one does here is to suspend the existence of the world, a process which includes provisionally denying or ignoring any kind of metaphysical scientific claim. The rejected world is “just the world as my senses take it in.” It is this world which is provisionally suspended, or assumed not to exist.

Now, one the one hand, Socrates can be said to turn away from this same world of appearance, and to suspend, reject, ignore, deny the theories of the world which he had previously been assuming. So far, Plato’s move matches Husserl’s. However, one must also recognize that Plato’s rejection of theory quickly gives way to an new entertaining of them, in the form of logoi, or wise opinions passed down primarily from his predecessors in the tradition. Secondly, and more fundamental, Socrates does not say that he is suspending or doubting or turning away from “the existence” of anything at all. I’d argue, in fact, that it is impossible to regard Socrates as doing this. Such a move occurs only after Descartes in the tradition, since prior to him there is an “ontological assuredness” (Cornelius Castoriadis) which characterizes all premodern thinkers. For them the question is never “Does anything at all exist?” but only “how does reality exist?”.

The deepest point is this, it seems to me: that from which Socrates turns away is merely one theory of how things exist. Granted, it was the theory which he apparently had adopted, but by his day many rival theories were on the scene (Parmenidean monism, Pythagoreanism, etc.). That from which Husserl turns away (albeit provisionally), however, runs much deeper than any one of these ancient, inter-mural theories, one among which Socrates repudiates. The “natural attitude” seems to be universally assumed. Even Buddhist mystics and ancient Cynics assume the world to exist in the sense in which Husserl means. And yet, this is what Husserl calls into question.

Put it another way: Plato seeks “to inquire into the cause of generation and destruction as a whole;” he never calls that cause–which surely is (closely related to) being–into question. But this calling into question is the very thing that Husserl’s phenomenological epochê does do.

To conclude. In this sloppily-written short essay, I’ve noted some similarities & differences between Plato’s “second sailing” and Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. Let me state what, perhaps, is the most interesting similarity between the two moves: they both “pause and reflect deeply” within themselves. What Plato states briefly, though, and passes over quickly, Husserl, like his contemporary Henri Bergson, “stays with” and elongates. For these latter two phenomenologists, then, this move deep within turns out to be a much bigger deal.

 

 

[1] Eva Brann, “Introduction to the Phaedo,” in The Music of the Republic (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2011), 20.

2 Brann, “Introduction,” 22.

[3] Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, tr. W.R. Boyce Gibson (New York: Routledge, 2012), 59 (Part I, §32).

[4] Plato, Phaedo, 99d-e, from the Perseus Digital Library, URL = http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D99e

[5] Husserl, Ideas, 60.

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