Milbank on the Ethics of Plato’s _Republic_

Notes on Milbank’s Remarks at “Faith and Secularism: the Moral Resourcing of the Nation,”

held at Westminster Abbey in London, Nov. 12, 2012.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KpRvK9UgbU

As opposed to the tradition of virtue ethics, modern ethical theories tend to reduce down to deontological (ie, Kantian) approaches or utilitarian ethics. The former privilege freedom, particularly freedom of choice, and the corresponding importance of “human rights” construed in merely negative terms. The latter sees ethical goods as fundamentally measurable, and so the evaluation of political policies and so on reduces down to units of stuff.

Virtue ethics on the other hand insists that these things don’t really make us happy, they don’t really lead to human flourishing. Instead, the virtue tradition of Plato and Aristotle says that the kinds of activities that constitute our flourishing are contemplation of the divine, participation in the political life of the city, and the enjoyment of friendship.

Another key distinction between virtue ethics on the one hand and modern approaches on the other is that the latter focus on the performance of individual acts, whereas the former focus on the kind of character produced by a life lived over time.

Utilitarianism leads to an emphasis on auditing managerial solutions to ethics, while freedom-based approaches imply that as long as something is not against the law, it is fine.

Both Milbank and Hobbs agree on all of this. Yet Milbank thinks that Hobbs’ advocacy of a return to the ethical approach of Plato is “odd,” given the fact that in a pluralistic society which has been radically shaped by a) perceived violence stemming from the so-called wars of religion, and b) the concomitant banishment of the transcendent from all public discourse there is no way to adjudicate the different perspectives advocated in society, no way to agree on the common good or what humans are for (much less the wise means to achieve that end).

Hence, Milbank is arguing, a real return to Plato is mutually exclusive with secularism. For Plato, that is, religion, or the desire for the good / the true / the beautiful which is above reason and thus “guides reason,” is inseparable from his ethics. A return the Platon, Milbank suggests, involves a return to religion.

Religion, then, for Plato, is required to bring our passions and our thumos into order. Reason alone cannot do it. Morality is not simply a matter of self-control, with reason “being on top of the passions and thumos.”[1] Indeed, if morality were simply a matter of the hegemony of reason alone, that is the moral simply is the rational, then it would be perfectly moral (since it is perfectly rational) for a person to seek to amass as much power as he can. The pursuit of power is in this case perfectly reasonable and hence perfectly rational.

Rather, contemplation of the forms allows us to develop a sense of phronesis, by which we (intuitively?) know when and how to enjoy pleasure, to insist on our own honor & respect (including self-respect), etc. “There are no rules about this,” but rather it has to do with participating in something ineffable which we can hardly grasp. On this view religion has little or nothing to do with rules.

Not only can Plato not be rightly regarded as a “secular source of morality” but actually “there are no good secular sources for morality.”



[1] These being the three components of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul.


Mysticism & Temperament

There is a common assumption that mystics are born, not made. That they just appear in the the world with a certain calm, peaceful kind of temperament or natural disposition. As if the main ingredient in learning to tap into the deep wells of reality is a naturally tranquil life of the soul.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. I am convinced that the best mystics are the temperamentally addicted, afflicted, bi-polar, anxious, ADD, and vicious.

For starters, take the Buddha. Did he live a life of smooth tranquility prior to enlightenment? On the contrary, his story bears witness to the kind of turmoil that (necessarily?) precedes true spiritual peace: exclusion, isolation, fear, doubt, struggle.

Exhibit B: St. Bernard of Clairveaux. In his introduction the life of Bernard, Jean LeClerq emphasizes that Bernard’s temperament was competitive, vindictive, arrogant (due to his profound giftedness), and harsh. Yet, in the crucible of his many years of ascetic experience, his egotistical self gave way, and was transormed into to something sweet and beautiful … something strangely unique with its own distinct and savory flavor, as only a true saint of the Church can be. For Bernard, writes LeClerq, misery called unto mercy.

Finally, consider Thomas Merton, and the story he narrates in his autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain. Anyone who has read it will know that Merton was an arrogant, lustful, self-centered prick … by nature. But over time, and with many struggles, God transformed him into the kind of man who could write mystical prayers and passages like the world has never known. And who could tell the story of his transformation — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with honesty and humility.

So, what kind of person makes a good mystic? What kind of person, more than anyone else, ought to begin the practice of meditation? Not the calm. Not the serene. Not the self-controlled. On the contrary, show me a mystic who has plumbed the mysterious depths, and I will show you someone whom, almost certainly, was previously an unvirtuous ball of filth and fear who could barely make it through the day.

Real spiritual peace never comes easy. True mystics have had to “fight for it.” And that is very good news.

 

 

 

 

 


Ascension: the Fluid Body of Christ

I’ve been thinking about the Feast of the Ascension (celebrated this year on May 29) lately. The Prayer Book’s collect for Ascension reads:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ

ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:

Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his

promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end

of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and

reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory

everlasting.  Amen.

How do you think about the Ascension of Christ?

I think that, in the contemporary church, there are three different ways of thinking about this redemptive-historical event. First, most people are just confused. After all, it seems so weird that Jesus would start floating up into the sky, eventually transcending the ability of the disciples to see him.

Second, however, and better, many people assume that Jesus is going “up to heaven.” That is understandable, but this view is definitely strengthened when coupled with the idea that Jesus is ascending to his throne, which is “in heaven,” at the right hand of his father.

A third view, suggested by the liturgical calendar itself, is that when Jesus ascends, he is going away in order to send down the Holy Spirit onto the Church on the day of Pentecost. (Indeed the collect of the day on the seventh Sunday of Easter, after Pentecost, might encourage this view, with its petition to God to “send us the Holy Spirit to comfort us.”)

Notice, however, what the collect for Ascension above actually says: Jesus ascended that he might fill all things. I cannot help but think that this is sacramental language. Remember the ancient dictum which is utterly scriptural: “Christ is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ.” It is this Church with whom “he abides … on earth … until the end of the ages.”

Why did Christ ascend to a transcendent “place,” why did he ascend into a transcendent mode of being? Precisely so that he could fill all things. When his body disappears, it becomes all things. It saturates all things. All things in a mystical way become charged with divine presence. Not only does this point to the eacharistic elements as tokens of all creation, but it also suggests that all material creatures are divine. As the fathers of the church said, “When Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, he sanctified all water.”

I know that this is a strange thing to think about. But our collect for Ascension invites us to think about it, and to meditate on it. Christian truth is indeed strange. Strange and beautiful.

Note: this article is inspired partly by Graham Ward’s chapter “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ” in his Cities of God. See also here.


Bringing the Church to the World (Stations of the Cross)

Several years ago when I was on the church staff of a vibrant and growing Presbyterian church in Austin, I had the opportunity to join a small group in studying a powerful and thought-provoking book called Bringing the Church to the World. The author of this work, one of our most beloved and respected theologians / ministers / spiritual leaders, is the Anglican Bishop-scholar N.T. Wright.

The title of the book says it all. Wright’s vision for the Kingdom of God and its expansion is limited neither to a movement of solitary individuals who have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” nor to a political agenda for secular justice, but instead it has everything to do with a new kind of community. A community where justice and mercy are real. A community where broken sinners sacrificially serve one another out of love. A community that is ordered according to a biblical pattern. A community gathered under the Word-based Gospel of grace, centered on the ritual body and blood of Christ.

For more than a decade now, this has been my vision, too. I have started calling it the “bread-and-wine-community.” I believe that you, reader, are called to “do life” with your “bread-and-wine-community,” the one you gather with (and as) on Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week. These are the people whom, first and foremost, you live with, suffer with, serve with, and love with.

This is why Robert Finney, yet again, “made my day” the other day when he stormed into our office with a slightly frazzled facial expression that screamed, “Oh no … what have I just gotten myself into!?”

He proceeded to tell me about the leadership network meeting of Christian campus ministers he had attended earlier that day, where plans were made for to reach out to the university community at U.T. Tyler for Easter and Holy Week (to the extent that these evangelicals, bless their hearts, know what Holy Week is). The other campus ministers quickly made plans to share the gospel message with strangers by various means including the distribution of “Gospel tracts” which encourage people to make a decision for Christ, to give their lives to Christ.

Now I believe in evangelism. I have done street preaching (more than once) on college campuses, including here in Tyler. No question, God can use and has used tracts given to strangers (even outside the context of relationship) to bring new life.

And yet, Robert sensed the need for something deeper. Something more rooted in the ancient ways of the people of God. Something which fits out College Community motto: “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

And so he volunteered to organize a Stations of the Cross exhibit on campus during Holy Week. This “makes my day” for all sorts of reasons. Not only is this practice rooted in the history and beauty – have you seen the icons which Christ Church uses for the Stations? – of the catholic church, but it “brings the church to the world.”  It takes a practice not of some individual but of the church and it invites people in. It allows people to “belong before they believe,” to “taste and see” that the Lord is good.

Please keep Robert, me, and our Epiphany college community in your prayers this season as we bring the church to the world, and invite people into a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.


Dissertation Idea 1.1 (Ratzinger, Bonaventure, & History)

Given a hearty “thumb up” by my academic director. Any comments, please send them my way!

I.               The philosophical explananda: why certain prominent thinkers (modern and postmodern) articulate a philosophy of history that is fundamentally theological in form. Possible “exhibits” to include:

A.   Hegel

B.    Badiou (Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism)

C.    Zizek (The Fragile Absolute)

D.   Agamben (The Kingdom and the Glory: for a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government)

II.             The theological explanans: Ratzinger’s Bonaventurian theology of history as expressed in his interpretation of the Hexaemeron and other of the Seraphic Doctor’s works, as a pathway into the inherently and unavoidable theological structure of (all?) western historiography and philosophy of history (with special attention given to the role of revelation and eschatology in Ratzinger’s thought, especially as situated in their thirteenth century milieu).

III.           The statements made by the above thinkers about this genealogical state of affairs. Are such statements adequate? Can they be supplemented by Ratzinger’s account of the nature and character of historical thought?

 


St. Paul’s Foul Mouth (& Grace)

After a really rich & profound time of Bible study last night with some dear brothers & sisters, I got to thinking — it’s been a while since I’ve thought about this — about St. Paul’s penchant for strong, offensive language which crops up in the NT at least twice.

“… I consider [all that stuff I used to care about, before I met Christ] to be loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them to be shit, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8)

“But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.  I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:11-12)

Think about it. We have around a dozen letters which Paul wrote, and on not one but at least two occasions, perhaps in the heat of passion, he blurts some kind of acerbic overstatement which would have to be censored from the letter, if it were read in public today. (Granted, much of this has to do with our contemporary cultural sensibilities, derived as they are from cultural milieus such as Victorian England, but still.)

Does Paul have some sort of issue (anger, maybe?) here? Maybe.

But what’s interesting to me about both contexts above is that Paul is involved in a discussion about the grace of God which has come to him (in some sense) “apart from the law” (cf. Rom 3:21). Apparently he feels quite strongly about such matters.

The second implication for me has to do with language, and how those who follow Christ are to speak and write. The point is that what matters is not so much how successful we are in avoiding “four letter words” and so on, but rather, do we use our language and our words to promote goodness, truth, beauty, and the _shalom_ of others?

In this light it is helpful to think about Isa 64:6: “… all our ‘righteous deeds’ are like ‘bloody menstrual rags’”. Ouch. Really, Isaiah? Perhaps that’s a bit overstated? A bit unnecessary?

Not when it comes to the importance of the free grace of God, over and against the Pharasaical / Judaizing tendency we all have (it is the human condition; this is Luther’s — and Kierkegaard’s — “sickness unto death”) to depend on our own “righteous” performance.

There is no doubt in my mind that St. Paul, participating in the tradition we see in Isaiah, was speaking (writing) faithfully in the somewhat shocking language he uses in the references above.


Sins I’m Giving Up for Lent: None

I recently did a “thought experiment” on my Facebook page.  I asked the question (to my 1000+ “friends”), “What sins are you giving up for Lent?” In parentheses I added the qualification, “trick question.”

I really did not think that many people would “fall for it,” or “take the bate.” Frankly, I thought that folks would (rightly) object to such a public display of a personal, spiritual matter.

Now I won’t list for you the various answers, but suffice to say that folks chimed right in with a battery of sins, some of which you could guess.

Think with me, however, about the trials which Jesus experienced in that dessert of temptation in Matthew 4. Jesus was offered three things by the Tempter: bread, power, and health. My question for you is: are these things sinful; are these things sins?

No! These are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things. They are not sins.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time, every day.  During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus. God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

See, all of these things being offered  to Jesus by Satan … in each case, the “carrot” being dangled before Jesus was something which was already his by God’s promise.

When the devil offers bread to the famished Jesus, imagine what was running through Jesus’ mind. “Hmmm … what would a kingdom based on feeding miracles look like? A ministry of providing bread out of nothing could blaze a trail right to the king’s throne, with throngs of followers supporting me. Then I could finally restore the fortunes of Israel and God’s people.” See, Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut to the Kingdom. But Jesus said “no.” By faith & the HS – the very same resources you & I have, by the way – Jesus determined not to grasp his kingship, but to wait for it as a gift.

Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

By saying no to chocolate (or whatever) in Lent I am not really saying no to chocolate. I am saying “not now” to chocolate. And by saying “not now” to chocolate, I am saying “yes” to God, and I am waiting on his good gifts.


[Barth] + [Catholic Ecclesiology] = [Bonaventure]

According Joseph Ratzinger, for Bonaventure the Bible, strictly speaking, is not revelation, since revelation is veiled within the “swaddling clothes” of the written letter of the biblical text. Rather, revelation is achieved when the reader by faith penetrates past the literal sense into the allegorical, and gains a _visio intellectualis_, which includes a God-given understanding of the “letter” / images of the text.

Now, 15 years ago, studying the Bible and theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, this would have sounded Barthian to my non-medieval, non-historical ears. And I would have chafed against the implication (an implication which Ratzinger raises in this very context) that such a view of revelation opens the floodgates of theology to the charge of individualistic subjectivism.

Enter Bonaventure’s (and Ratiznger’s) catholic ecclesiology, specifically their unwillingness to separate Scripture from the church’s interpretation of Scripture: “… the deep meaning of Scripture in which we truly find the ‘revelation’ and the content of faith is not left up to the individual. It has already been objectified in part in the teachings of the Fathers and in theology so that the basic lines are accessible simply by the acceptance of the Catholic faith, which — as it summarized in the _Symbolum_ — is a principle of exegesis. Here we find a new insight into the identification of _sacra scriptura_ and _theologia_.” (Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, 66-67).

Hence the problem with Barth is not his denial of the text of Scripture as the Word of God, but rather modern Protestantism’s creeping individualism.

Oversimplified a bit, but still ….


Running the Race (Letting Go)

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge “fan” of the saying “Let go and let God.”

I vividly remember the summer of 1995, when I lived with a dear couple for the summer in Austin, a couple who were missionaries from Cuba doing a Hispanic, Spanish speaking church plant in Austin.

Now, I dearly loved this couple … so much that when Jaime died suddenly a few years later, I flew back to Austin from Philadelphia (where I was in seminary) to attend his funeral. Their faith was so real, so vibrant, so child like in its simplicity. And, of course, the life of an older couple depending on donors for their financial support provides many “faith challenges,” many opportunities to trust God.

And so, when Jaime y Luisa would talk that summer about “letting go and letting God,” I got it, and I appreciated what they were trying to say. And yet, the whole time I kept thinking to myself, “Yes, but there’s so much more to following Christ than just letting go. What about hard work? What about discipline? What about obedience?”

Fast forward the tape (or the mp3 file) to February 2014. I am exactly twice as old as I was that summer with the Echevarrias. I have been around the block a few times, and I have the bumps, scrapes, and scars to prove it. In particular, through some dear friends involved with the practice of the Twelve Steps formulated by Mr. Bill Wilson in the mid 20th century (with, by the way, the help of an Episcopal Priest in New York, the Rev. Sam Shoemaker), I have come deeply to appreciate the wisdom of the third step:

We made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Not only have I grown to appreciate this maxim and the profound truth behind it, but God in his mercy is putting me in situations where I have no option but to put it into practice.

For example, running a 26.2 mile marathon a few days ago. Trust me, my will power alone was radically impotent to carry my body (what St. Francis affectionately called “Brother Ass”) across that finish line. As I smashed three times into “runner’s walls” which I could not imagine getting through, trying harder was the absolute wrong strategy. “Digging deeper” was a death knell. Every time the well-intentioned bystanders would cheer us runners on with words like “you can do it!” I had to screen out such advice with something like mental earplugs.

No, I emphatically could not do it. Left to my own resources there was absolutely no way I could “fight the good fight, finish the race” (2 Tim 4:7). My own will power was impotent, pathetically insufficient.

My only choice was – and is – to “turn my will over to … God.” Thy will be done … on earth, in heaven, in my life.

For me, this is what running is all about. Running, and the rest of life as well.


“Gender Fluid:” Men, Women, Elves & Dwarves

Near the end of (the film version of) Tolkien’s _The Return of the King_, at the final battle outside the dark gates of Mordor, the dwarf Gimli looks up at elf Legolas and says (something like), “I never thought I’d fight my last battle shoulder to shoulder with an elf, of all creatures!” To which Legolas replies, “How about with a friend?”

The category of “friend,” to Legolas’ (and Tolkien’s) way of thinking “runs deeper” than the demographic categories of “dwarf” and “elf.”

According to two Eastern Orthodox practitioners deeply committed for forming and nurturing virtuous Christians who can overcome their destructive passions by the grace of God in Christ, Saint Maximus the Confessor would say something similar … except that in this case the binary opposition is not “elf and dwarf” but rather “male and female.” Likewise the ground of unity that binds erstwhile antagonists together in a deeper unity, is not “friend,” but rather “priest.”

Maleness and femaleness in the thought of St. Maximus (thinking in the context of the Genesis 1 story and its development throughout the biblical narrative), is relativized by priesthood.

This, further, fits nicely into the ancient patristic conviction that “male” and “female” (what we late moderns would call “gender”) are fluid categories. Each one of us, that is, contains streams and dimensions of our soul (and our bodies) which are both “male” (such as the driving or insensive power) and “female” (such as the desiring power).

I might be more characterized by “maleness” than my wife is, but these are relative terms, and not at all fixed, static, or absolute.

Facebook has recently updated its “gender preferences” to include the category “gender fluid.” Odd though it may sound, such a development is consistent with ancient patristic theology, and, strictly speaking, a deeply traditional Christian, even on issues of sexual morality, could adopt this gender “preference” on her Facebook profile with complete theological integrity. Strictly speaking, all Chrisitans should.

I’m wondering, finally, if Facebook would be willing to add one more gender option: “priest.”


Becoming a “People of the Book”

This is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, “The Crucifer.”

If you were to walk down hallways of Christ Church, through the nave from the guild hall, you would come to my office, where, on the wall by my office door, you would see the sign: “Matt Boulter, Assist. Rector for Evangelism.” I still have to rub my eyes every time I see it; it seems too good to be true!

Though at times I feel that such a title is an impossibly huge title to fulfill, I do have a deep longing to bring people into Christian community, into a Christ-patterned way of life.

The Bible, oddly enough, is both a barrier to and a catalyst for such an endeavor. It represents both a challenge to and an opportunity for authentic evangelism.

It is a barrier and a challenge for folks on the outside of Christian community, who Christ calls to come and taste and see that the Lord is good. To enter into authentic relationship, leaving their tired isolation behind. This is because for most people in our world, the Bible is boring at best. At worst it is stifling or even oppressive.

I feel much sympathy for people who hold this view of Scripture, for they are simply imbibing the presentation of the Bible which they have been given.   All to often in our modern world (both outside the church and inside) the Bible is presented legalistically, sentimentally, or reductionistically.

Legalistically, as if the Bible were primarily a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” rules to follow in order to earn “brownie points” with an angry God. Sentmentally, as if the Bible were a kind of therapeutic self-help book whose main purpose is to fill our hearts with warm feelings of blissful affection. Reductionistically, as if the Bible were a book which attempts to give an accurate history of the world or of certain peoples. (On this last view, both those who affirm the Bible’s historical accuracy as well as those who deny it fail to realize that historical accuracy is modern preoccupation which is quite foreign to the original writers and readers.)

Instead, what I’m all about is giving folks a taste of a very different kind of Bible. I believe (together with the great majority of pre-modern saints) in a Bible which is a world unto itself. I believe in a Bible which prefigures this community called the Body of Christ. I believe in a Bible which requires a life-long journey of learning to live well in order to begin to understand. I believe in a Bible which I cannot master, but which masters me, ordering and centering my life on the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ.

I believe that the task of evangelism includes inviting people to reimagine the Bible, and the life which it narrates.

 To learn more about how our fathers and mothers in the faith regarded the Old and New Testaments, join Father Matt on the 3rd floor of Christ Church for his class “People of the Book: a Biography of the Bible,”or podcast the classes at http://fathermatt.libsyn.com/


Year End Reflections (on the Incarnation)

The following is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, The Crucifer.

As we approach the end of 2013, I’m mindful of what an incredible year and semester it has been.

With Robert Finney’s leadership, our Epiphany College Community has begun to put down roots and to bear beautiful fruit. Our “alternative Eucharist” on the fourth floor has continued to deepen and expand. Our “young adult” (though I’m pretty sure I no longer rightly belong in that category!) community has brought in new friends who are tasting the love of Christ in Christian fellowship.

My wife Bouquet began a new job with Raymond James Financial / Southside Bank, and is thriving in that position. Our daughters Bella and Ellie continue to grow up into beautiful, godly big-little girls, at the wonderful All Saints Episcopal School.

And in my doctoral studies at the University of Dallas, I took a class (one of several) which I will be reflecting on for the rest of my life. The class was “Christian Epic: Dante and Milton,” in which we read Dante’s Divine Comedy (all three parts: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso) and Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the latter poem Rusty Reno writes,

At the outset of Paradise Lost, Milton writes of the fallen angels. Satan, their leader, rallies his troops with a speech justifying their rebellion. Bidding their farewell to the “happy fields” now lost, Satan hails the “infernal world,” promising his followers that they, with him, might make “Heaven of Hell.”What seems a disaster can be made a victory. Satan’s reasoning is simple. “Here at last,” he says, “we shall be free.” “Here,” he continues, “we may reign secure.” The gain, then, is autonomy and self-possession. Thus, in famous words, Milton has Satan pronounce the formula of pride: “Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.”[1]

“Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.” Here Milton “nails” precisely the irrationality of pride. How many times and in how many ways have I, I wonder, made “autonomy and self-possession” my goal?

Thanks be to God that God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, had in himself the opposite attitude, one of pure, self-giving, loving rationality. Thanks be to God that He knew that “it is in giving that we receive.” Thanks be to God that, unlike Milton’s Satan, he did not “consider equality with God something to be grasped,” but rather (as St. Paul continues in Philippians 2) “he humbled himself, and took on the form of a servant.”

As we celebrate this Christmastide, He did not despise the Virgin’s womb, but promoted a lowly teenage girl to the unique, exalted rank of Theotokos, “God bearer.” He took on our flesh, that he might bear our iniquities, that he might make us holy: honest, pure, unselfish, and loving.[2]

Without a doubt, we are often more like Milton’s antagonist than we are like the self-giving Lord who descends to our plight. I, for one, need more of his humility. I’m grateful for a spiritual practice which opens me up, more and more, to receive his power into my life. His power that is made perfect in weakness. His power that is fully displayed in a lowly manger surrounded by and indigent father and a humble maiden Mary.



[1]Rusty Reno, Fighting the Noonday Devil (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2011), 1.

[2] These are the “four absolutes” of the Twelve-Step Tradition developed by Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, with the help of Episcopal priest, the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker.


“So, What’s your Dissertation About?”

The following is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, The Crucifer.

It happened again this week, just like it does every week.

 

Once again this week a dear friend in Christ and parishioner at Christ Church asked me about the academic side of my life. Often the form this question takes is “So, when do you finish up?”

 

What a joy it is to be engaged in real relationships within the body of Christ, and yet it is slightly awkward to explain to folks “Well, basically, it’s going to be a long time til I finish, especially since I just started the program a year ago.” Words cannot express the deep gratitude I have to the good people of Christ Church for enduring with me this long journey.

 

The form the question often takes, however, is, “So, what’s your dissertation about?” That’s how it happened this last week. So, I thought I’d take a few of paragraphs in the current issue of the Crucifer to articulate some thoughts about, and plans for, my doctoral dissertation.

 

I want to write about late medieval nominalism, which I regard – I’m just gonna come out and say it – as a bad thing.

 

You see, the medieval period is fascinating because, on the one hand, it is an extension of the classical world (think Plato & Aristotle), but with the radical infusion of biblical revelation and the ongoing response to that revelation which is called theology (think the Church Fathers & St. Augustine). At same time, it is an anticipation, in seedling form, of the modern era, the age of secularism. (For example in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose various of the Franciscan monks are rightly portrayed as men of modern, scientific knowledge and critical thinking … men who deplore baseless superstition.) Hence my bourgeoning interest in things medieval: this period is the joint or nexus which, infused with biblical revelation, connects the classical world of antiquity to the secular world of modernity.  

 

Now, what about “nominalism?” What in the world is that? As the name implies, it has something to do with “names” (which for premoderns basically means “words”) and hence with language. In the development of late medieval nominalism a suspicion began to emerge that the words (and categories) we use to talk about the things in the world have no real connection to those things. Rather, they are sort of “made up” or “constructed.”

 

Now, that might seem hopelessly abstract to you, but consider a very pressing contemporary issue. Just this week Illinois (by no means a “blue state”) became the 19th state to opt for full recognition of “same-sex marriage.” Now, there are layers upon layer to the complicated and taxing issue of gay marriage, but one of them has to do with language. Is the word “marriage” simply a human construct? What about the words “male” and “female”, which appear in Genesis 2?

 

If we “made up” those terms and their meanings, then surely we can revise them. If they are merely humanly invented, then surely they can be humanly re-invented.

 

A late medieval nominalist, if he were consistent, would heartily affirm our culture’s current willingness to re-invent the meaning of terms which historically have been regarded as crucial to the underpinnings of the political well-being of society.

 

If we can trace the development of late medieval nominalism, however, then perhaps we can expose its false assumptions and its arbitrary moves. This, then, could go a long way to restoring the connection between our words and the things they refer to out there in world God made, his good creation which, while fallen, is redeemed in Christ.


Golf and Frisbee Golf. And Church.

I have a certain affection for the East Porch at Willow Brook Country Club (thanks, Trey & Peyton!).

And yet, in my 41 years I have never really been much of a golfer.

I have, however, been thinking about golf today. Golf, and frisbee golf.

Let me back up and tell you a bit about my day. I spent a couple of hours this morning reading a book written by one of our speakers at this year’s Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference, a priest in the church who also teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, named Dwight Zscheile (pronounced like “Shylie”).

People of the Way is a thought provoking and sobering book. In the first couple of chapters alone Zscheile brings out such useful concepts as:

-    The “vernacular principle,” according to which we Episcopalians should embrace our rich heritage of “translating the church’s life into the language of the people,” a principle which might lead me to adopt terms such as “schedule” instead of “rota.”
-    The “benefactor paradigm,” according to which “those with power, privileges, and resources do good works on behalf of others, yet retain their superior status.” This paradigm stands in direct opposition to the way of Jesus. Tim Keller describes an opposite approach, one in which “the essence of the Kingdom is the giving away of power,” an approach much closer to what Zscheile recommends in his book.
-    “Strategic, managerial solutions” which we hope will “solve the church’s problems.” Zscheile writes that “Strategy operates from a posture of strength to remake one’s surroundings according to one’s own needs and desires.” Such ways and means, Zscheile suggests, are a thing of the past.

Much of the book is a serious and intense grappling with the Episcopal Church’s struggle to deal with its loss of “the legacy of establishment,” the golden age of the Anglican Church in America, which climaxed in the mid 1960’s, during which the Episcopal Church commanded respect and wielded influence in the surrounding culture.

As such, the book grapples with the issue of class. Zscheile forthrightly admits that, in the church’s zeal for “equal rights” (the most recent example of which is the fight for “full inclusion” of LGBT folks) we are still more “classist” than ever.

And now, back to my modest thought(s) about (frisbee) golf.

On my five mile run today in Lindsey Park I ran past some Frisbee golfers, probably in their early 20’s. They looked like they were having fun, clad with tattooes, smoking I-don’t-want-to-know-what, laughing, and drinking cheep beer in tin cans.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, despite the class difference between them and the denizens of the WBCC East Porch, what the two classes have in common runs much deeper than that which divides. Yes, I am thinking about the imbibing of beer. (!) But much more than that, both groups have a longing for community, an urge to connect, and a need for love and acceptance.

Is it possible to do church, to make Eucharist, with both groups? For the love of God and the world, I hope and pray that it is!


Reasonable Sacrifice

 

And here we offer, and present unto thee, O Lord,

Our selves, our souls and bodies,

To be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice…

 

One month ago in my Crucifer article I wrote about the need, as we minister to others, to “let God be God.”

 

Closely connected to this idea is the need to be “wise as serpents.” Yes, Christ calls us to be “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), but I find that, among those who endeavor to minster to people in the name of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel, few of us are truly “wise as serpents.”

 

 I know many people who engage in ministry who are well intentioned but whose “innocence” verges on naiveté.

 

To wise is, among other things, to promote longevity, to prepare for the future, to live life in ways that are sustainable. Practices that lead to “burnout” are not wise. And yet we live in a culture in which “burnout” seems to be the default mode. Burnout in the federal government. Burnout in the global economy. Burnout in marriage. Burnout in the good earth God gave us.

 

What does it mean to be a reasonable sacrifice? Week in and week out, as these words, spoken from the altar, flow out of my mouth, as they echo in my mind, I am reminded of the need for ministers of the Gospel, including all baptized Christians (though the clergy must model this), to be “wise as serpents.”

 

This language in our Eucharistic Prayer is borrowed from Romans 12, where St. Paul calls us to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” The word “spiritual,” here, is the Greek adjective here is related to the noun logos, which means (among other things) “reason.”

 

As the baptized priests of the new covenant of Jesus Christ, who are given a “ministry of reconciliation,” we must sacrifice for others. We must give our lives away, and “spend” them on others. All of this is true, and all of this matters deeply. The Christian life is not simply a life of luxury; it is a life of sacrifice, and even a life of suffering for and with our suffering Lord.

 

A minister who “sacrifices reasonably,” however, will know when to rest and when to serve. When to go  to the hospital to visit a sick brother or sister at midnight and when to be with his kids. When to say “yes,” and when to say “no.” When to push and when to relax. When to ask, and when to not ask. All of this is a matter of wisdom.

 

And the things about wisdom, is gained only by experience. Life. Failure. Trial-and-error.

 

I’m very mindful of the many ministers at Christ Church who are not ordained, who sacrifice daily for the sake of the Gospel, and for others. These men and woman are truly awe-inspiring.

 

Let us take Christ as our model. Christ who truly sacrificed for others, by putting their needs before his own. Christ who knew when to say “yes,” and when to say “no.” Christ who was innocent as a dove, and wise as a serpent.

 


Charles Taylor & the “Two Speeds”

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the issue of the “two speeds” in the church. That is, at least since the rise of monasticism & St. Benedict, there has been in the church a kind of distinction between the ordinary “lay people” (Lat. laicus) and the more “spiritually advanced” members of holy orders, religious and “secular.”

What Taylor is doing in this book is (among other things) giving a kind of genealogical account of what intellectual and cultural developments led to the kind of secular world in which we live, in which (for example) atheism seems more obvious to people than historic Christian faith. The question is “How did the secular world come to be?”

One of the developments which Taylor points to is the attempt on the part of various and sundry reform movements, particularly throughout the medieval period, to “flatten out” the various distinctions among “religious” people and the ordinary secular folk. Of course, a primary movement like this is the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Now anyone familiar with Taylor will know that he is not given to brash, unqualified positions. Rather, especially in a work like this one, he tries to be descriptive and nuanced. Thus it is at times a challenge to discern the precise role he imputes to such movements, let alone to detect his final evaluation of them.

And yet, it is difficult to resist the c0nclusion that such reform movements played a complicit role in the rise of the modern world, and to the extent, then, that this book is a subtle and complex critique of modern secularism, such movements are viewed with suspicion.

This account resonates with me. It is easy for me to lay much blame for the contemporary marginalization of theology and church at the feet of the Reformation in particular, although for many years I subscribed to the opposite view that the original Protestant movements (and subsequent communities which were loyal to them, such as British Presbyterianism) could be viewed as a kind of “counter-Enlightenment,” almost like a reformed & renewed version of medieval Christendom.

Yet this has not been my position for several years now, at least since my conversion to Anglicanism. I cannot now resist the temptation to view the 16th century Reformation as an essential ingredient of the rise of western modernity, and Taylor’s point about the Reformation’s attempt to flatten out the “two speeds” makes a lot of sense to me.

And yet, I do agree with John Milbank and others in Radical Orthodoxy that this is an example of a movement which – however destructive and ill-conducted – was in fact reaction against a real problem in the Catholic Church. That is, the ultimate cause or problem is, as always, within the Church’s “own house.” (Note that RO and similar movements are, when at their best, not just a critique of modern secularism but also of the conditions within the church and within Christendom which gave rise to modern secularism.)

In other words, even if Taylor is right to criticize the flattening out of the two speeds, it does not follow from this that the “dual speed arrangement” was legitimate in medieval Christian culture. Rather, the resources were always there in the Church, perhaps, to overcome this false dichotomy and to empower all the faithful to live the life of Christ to the fullest, in the deepest possible ways. (Two possible counterpoints would be what some would regard as the failure of halakhic Judaism, and Paul’s injunction to celibacy in I Cor 7.)

To this end, I appeal to Scripture, namely the Psalms and the “new covenant” which is described in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.

The psalms are replete with a celebration of delighting in the law of the LORD, and this certainly does not seem to be limited to some “higher class.” Rather, all people chanted such Psalms as Psalms 19 and 119 in the gathered assembly of the Temple (note that it is the simple who are made wise by the law in Ps 19:7):

Psa. 19:7       The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;

Psa. 119:1     Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD!
Psa. 119:18     Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.
Psa. 119:29     Put false ways far from me
and graciously teach me your law!
Psa. 119:34     Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Psa. 119:44     I will keep your law continually,
forever and ever…. (ESV)

In addition it is difficult for me to envision some kind of “remedial level” of spirituality as compatible with the “new covenant” language of Jeremiah 31, which implies a full penetration of intimate “cutting” in covenant with the Spirit of God.

“And they will not teach each other or say to one another ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Heb 8:11, quoting Jer 31:34, NRSV)

Seems like “one speed” to me.

 

 

 

 


Strange Table Fellows (Real Social Space)

One of the deepest joys & privileges of my life is the opportunity to oversee the work of planting and growing a college ministry on the campuses of Tyler, working hand-in-hand with Robert Finney. What we are beginning to see in this ministry is that, sometimes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes very strange “table fellows.”

In Acts 13 St. Luke gives us a beautifu image of the church at Antioch. He tells us that, among the leadership of this missional work, there was a striking degree of diversity. The elders of this church consisted of a hodge podge mix of folks from one end of the ideological / socio-economic spectrum to the other, including “Manean, a member of Herod the ruler,” on the one hand, all the way down to “Simeon who was called “Niger”). Note that “Niger” connotes dark skin, which meant then largely what it means now: not just social difference, but social inferiority. (This pecking order of dysfunctional brokenness seems to be well nigh universal: my wife Bouquet can tell you how, in her home country of Laos, lighter skin is highly favored, and I can verify that the same thing holds in Mexico.)

And yet, here they both are in Antioch, both Manean and Niger, serving side by side as utter equals in Christ to build and extend the Reign of God in Jesus Christ.

Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller points out that we see something similar Acts 16, where the Gospel meets and redeems both a financially successful, single,  entrepreneurial woman named Lydia, and a slave girl being trafficked by her abusive pimp.

Sometimes you just have to laugh. Robert and I spent a few minutes “busting a gut” this week, just reflecting gratefully on the motley crew of young people God is bringing to us. Students from a frankly fundamentalist background who carry all sorts of assumptions about Christianity and the world, sitting right next to students who literally have never heard of King David or Abraham, and who flirt with alternative sexualities.

And yet I am utterly convinced that this is what ministry in this time and in this place must look like.

Theologian John Milbank calls it “real social space,” where you belong at the table, not because you agree on some issue (predestination, gay “rights,” vegetarianism, or whatever) but because you are made in God’s image and Christ Jesus shed his blood for you on the cross.

This is how the missionary activity of the apostolic era is portrayed in the Book of Acts; this is how it must be engaged in today, when the culture is in many ways remarkably similar to that of the Roman Empire of the first few centuries after Christ.

In our Epiphany College Community we are, by the grace of God, introducing students to “a new way of being Christian that is really, really old.”

 

 


Anglican (Episcopal) Approach to Scripture

For years now I’ve been fairly obsessed with this issue of how Episcopalians regard Holy Scripture, especially in contrast to more standard evangelical views, patterns, and assumptions.

In fact a few years ago I posted a series of blog articles on this topic beginning here.

More recently, however, I have uploaded a youtube video (actually it is a series, since I “messed up” in the first video, and lack the necessary editing skills to correct the error … hence the additional video) which describes the Anglican approach to Scripture as liturgical, and hence viewed from the following four perspectives:

1. Community

2. Story

3. Context

4. Sacrament.

You can find the videos here, here, and here.

 


(Struggling to) Let God be God

God has been showing me many new things of late, but for months now there is one truth, one dimension of reality, which seems to be dogging me, as if the Holy Spirit is really trying to get my attention.

Do you remember those passages (there are several of them), contained in the four Gospels, in which “the crowds” – it’s interesting how in the Jesus stories “the crowds” functions virtually like a major character in the plot – are following, chasing after Jesus? In the stories we find Jesus walking around embodying the Kingdom of God in his person, in his words, in his deeds, and quite reasonably the crowds of fellow Jews flock to him and pine after him, looking for a blessing, looking for encouragement and help, looking for relief.

And time and time again, what does Jesus do? How does he react to these throngs of hurting and broken people who are in desperate need? Time and time again, not always, but certainly most of the time, Jesus the Good Shepherd and Great Physician does something which, if one stops and ponders it, is mind boggling.

Time and time again, he runs away from them. He avoids him. If they are going one direction, Jesus heads inthe other direction. He hides from them. He tries to escape from them.

Why does he do this? He does it in order to be alone. In order to seek his Father’s face. In order to find rest. In order to be in God’s presence. In order to regroup. Perhaps we could say, “in order to keep, or to regain, his sanity.”

As one who is set apart for ministry in the church (that means I’m supposed to “help people,” right?) I find this riveting. This is food for thought. This is fuel for reflection and a new paradigm for what it means to serve God in the world.

Because – think about this with me – who is it that is in those crowds? Of whom do those swarms of people consist? If we imagine these stories as they invite us to imagine them, we begin to realize that those crowds are saturated with people who are hurting beyond measure. Those crowds are full of the same kinds of people who have seemed to be filling my life recently. People who are on the brink of divorce; people who will literally die if they don’t get medical attention; people who are on the brink of mental and emotional breakdown.

Think about it. Jesus was being pursued by people on the brink of death and divorce, and he fled from them. He could have “saved” them, but he did not. What this means is that their marriages actually ended in bitter, painful divorce. They really died. They really had mental breakdowns and collapses.

What in the world is going on? When you stop and think about it, it is pretty amazing. It prompts an epiphany of how – and why – we do ministry.

At the end of the day, I must stop trying to “save” everyone and everything. I must let God be God.

If the one person in the history of the human race really could solve everybody’s problems, then surely those of us who cannot should stop trying to, stop pretending that we can.

In the intense, daily work of Gospel ministry, I, we, must finally let God be God. 

 


(The heart of) Catholic Ecclesiology

The heart of what I call “catholic ecclesiology” is the conviction that Christ is fully and completely bound to the church as a corporate, visible body.

One can discuss catholic ecclesiology in terms of space, and in terms of time.

In space catholic ecclesiology is the idea that what binds the church together in unity is more fundamental than ideological positions which fall outside the purview of the mind of the universal church. Ultimately what binds the church together in unity is performance of the liturgy, which is the deepest corporate participation in Christ, with brothers and sisters in community. Hence I might vehemently disagree with a sister on all sorts of issues (for example, issues having to do with human sexuality), but we are still bound together in Christ. Hence we experience the deepest possible level of unity.

The denial of this spatial catholicity is seen when subcatholic ideologies are allowed to rupture the unity of the church, such that people who disagree, especially bishops, the focal point of unity in the church, no longer participate together in the (eucharistic) liturgy.

In time catholic ecclesiology is the idea that, over the peaks and valleys of history, the church will emerge faithful and victorious. Is the church locked into a vicious cycle of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, a seemingly endless repetition of the fate of Old Covenant Israel? Catholic ecclesiology says “no,” and insists that history is on the side of the institutional church, that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, that the church is qualitatively more spirit-infused than (because it is a fulfillment of) Old Covenant Israel.

The denial of this temporal catholicity is seen when theologians imply, or when people think or assume, that the church’s unfaithfulness will perpetuate itself indefinitely, a move which locates cosmic salvation outside the church, with a Christ who is isolated and disembodied.

Both denials, that of spatial catholicity and that of temporal catholicity, sever Christ from the church. But catholic ecclesiology always holds them together. Christ is the sacrament of God, and the church is the sacrament of Christ.


Sign of the Times: Reason:Faith::Bezos:Moon::Post:Times

In his 2006 Regensburg address, Pope Benedict XVI (controversially and polemically) diagnosed the malaise of the modern west in terms of the separation of faith and reason (theology / revelation and philosophy) a development which one can see beginning in Avicenna, but which really developed in the late medieval period.

It is difficult to imagine a more apt symbol of this split than the ownership of the two leading newspapers in the nation’s capital, the political center of the planet’s sole superpower.

The leading newspaper in the capital city of planet’s lone superpower is now controlled by a dot com and one Jeff Bezos. Can anyone doubt that zombies are right around the corner?

Which is worse: the Moonies (who control the _Washington Times_ or the MNC’s (multinational corporations)?

It is difficult to imagine a more apt symbol of contemporary America, and  its separation of the “rationalism” of the global “free market” on the one hand, and the fundamentalism of modern religion on the other.


My Take on (American) Evangelicalism

Thanks to my friend Tish for posting this, I assume at least partly in response to this. And also one should see this, with which I heartily agree.

Of course “evangelicalism” is a slippery term b/c it is both a sociological descriptor and a theological tradition.

Question: where does Catholic Christianity figure in all this?

Reason I ask: I walked away from evangelicalism (at least in my own mind!) not so much b/c it was so militantly opposed to progressive culture (in terms of science, poverty, & liberal politics … the things cited in the title of Tish’s blog post), as Tish’s interlocutors (eg, Rachel Evans) seem to be saying and against which Tish seems to be protesting, but precisely for the opposite reason.

I see evangelicalism as being part and parcel with secular culture: individualistic, private, trend-obsessed, market based. (Example: show me a church planter’s vision statement [the mere fact that evangelicals use "vision statements" speaks volumes] that does not tacitly try to position itself in terms of the contemporary religious “market” in America.)

Which of course is why many, many of those who decry evangelicalism are themselves … evangelicals. It is now trendy in evangelical circles to be progressively anti-evangelical. (Witness the “emergent church” … as I throw up in my mouth a teency bit.)

Evangelicalism, as best I can discern, is not sacramental; it is not sacred; it is not other worldly; it is not mystical; it is not transcendent; it is not rooted in history (by and large). I say this as an ex-evangelical (said in the most wounded tone of voice I can muster, imagining myself to have gone through a painful “de-conversion” experience.)

I’ve been convinced for about a decade now that evangelicalism is actually the reverse face (the “kissing cousin” or the “other side of the coin”) of our distinctively American secular culture.

 

 


Rainbows & Light (Nyssa & Desmond)

Gregory of Nyssa and quantum physics (about which I know almost nothing) agree: the rational mind cannot fully grasp the nature of light.

William Desmond might say that it is “overdetermined:” the problem is not that light manifests too little to our souls (mind, sense perception, imagination), but rather that it manifests too much. We cannot stare directly at the sun. Light is both wave and particle at the same time (which makes little sense rationally).

This “overdeterminedness,” Gregory argues, characterizes the Christian God who manifests himself (“godself” if you like) by revelation and who is apprehended by faith.

In Gregory’s words, in the context of his rainbow analogy for the Trinity,

… for just as in the case of things which appear to our eyes experience seems better than a theory of causation, so too in the case of dogmas which transcend our comprehension faith is better than apprehension through processes of reasoning, for faith teaches us to understand that which is separated in person [in the three persons of the Trinity], but at the same time united in substance. – St. Gregory of Nyssa, Epistula XXXVIII, quoted in Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics 71.

What is the relationship between nature and grace, between philosophy and theology, between reason and faith? Here we find a clue: faith apprehends that which overwhelms and transcends reason. Against virtually all modern thought beginning with late medieval nominalism, faith is more than reason, not less.  Which is what John Milbank is trying to get at with his language of “intensities.”

Question: how does Desmond‘s “overdeterminedness” differ from Marion’s “saturated phenomenon?”


A Grand, Heart Felt, Merry-Old English “Thank You!”

I have many, many reasons to be grateful. God in his faithfulness has showered my life with one blessing after another.

And yet, there is one gift I have recently received for which I must express thanks.

Bouquet and I had a wonderful trip to England earlier this summer. In addition to getting to Oxford to present a lecture at an academic conference, we had the opportunity to re-connect with some specific things which are truly life-giving to us: medieval history, Christian mystery, bucolic country sides, and plenty of time to stroll around (around Oxford, the Cotswolds, Salisbury, and London) and just be together.

The conference at Oxford was a success, and I felt like I did well in my first academic lecture to a group of peers and colleagues. In Oxford we stayed at St. Stephen House, a seminary founded during the Anglo-Catholic “Oxford Movement” of the 19th century, for the training of Anglican clergy and which is a part of Oxford University, and there Bouquet got to hang out with a group of pastors from all around the world who were studying CS Lewis. In Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds I went on a glorious 12 mile run through the meadows and ancient streets which I will never forget. In Salisbury we lingered at Old Sarum for hours and just reflected on God’s work in the world and in our lives. In London we worshipped at St. Paul’s (a 5 minute walk from our “hotel,” a glorified college dorm at the London School of Economics).

All in all the trip was wonderfully rejuvenating professionally (I’m hoping that my presentation will be published), pastorally (it was great just to observe how the clergy in England carry themselves), and personally (we ate lots of savory Indian food!). Our imaginations were kindled and our hearts and minds quickened. I had a sense that the Church of England is alive and that the Gospel continues to penetrate the culture. The sermon at St. Paul’s (as well as the worship at St. Mary Magdalene, Oxford) were Spirit-filled. At St. Paul’s there must have been 750 worshippers in attendance, from every conceivable tribe, tongue, nation, and people … listening attentively to a sermon about learning to live like Jesus Christ.

But the main point is that none of this would have been possible without our true family, the people of God at Christ Church (not Christ Church, Oxford but Christ Church Tyler). It would not have been possible without my bishop and my rector who allowed me to enroll in a PhD program. It would not have been possible without several friends who supported us financially and spiritually. It would not have been possible without the vestry’s generous gift of a continuing education fund. There are just to many people to thank!

Most of all, of course, we give thanks to God in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!


Anyone Remember Stephen Covey? (Technique, Disclipline, & Happiness)

Few books have I read more than three times. One of them is certainly Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. Another, however, is a book I poured over in college, not so much because, like Mere Christianity, it deeply fed my soul, but rather because it was a real challenge (at the time) to know quite what to make of it. The book was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by the Mormon Stephen Covey. Not only did my Navigators “discipler” invite me to read this book with him, but later I read it as member of a small team of missionaries in Mexico City with Campus Crusade for Christ.

One of the things that always sort of blew my mind when discussing the book with people (and I’ve had similar experiences in other contexts) is the ease with which people apparently implemented the book’s principles and techniques. Years later, in retrospect, I now realize that what was so intriguing to me about the book was the counterfeit nature of its technique: in an inchoate way I was noticing how technique is a cheap copy of true discipline, true ascetical practice.

For example, one of the little “exercises” (actually more like a “task”)  you are supposed to do, in implementing the first principle (“Begin with the end in mind”)  is to craft a purpose statement not just for your business or your educational program of study, but for your life. Wow. That’s a really tall order. I remember that for many folks their life’s purpose statement had to do with the laudable intention of helping other people.

Now it’s not my aim to create a mission statement for my life in this blog post. Rather, as I was driving into class today I was asking myself, “Now, why are you doing a PhD again?” What I realized is that doing a PhD in philosophy actually allows me to reflect more deeply on what it is that, as a pastor, I think I am (supposed to be) doing.

Am I supposed to be making people feel better? Am I supposed to be solving their problems for them? Am I supposed to be dispensing “truth” into their minds?

And the answer gradually came to me: ultimately, I’m undertaking this crazy academic endeavor which requires tons of sacrifice on the part of many loved ones because I sense that my vocation is to convince people that if they will worship God with their whole lives, then they will achieve “happiness,” or what Aristotle calls eudaimonia and what St. Thomas calls beatudo. If they worship God they will begin to participate in a way of living which is truly “supernatural” and mystical.

Now there are lots of barriers to this goal, lots of “plot complications” in getting people to see the truth and importance of this claim. My studies allow me to “bone up” and to become proficient in dealing with some of these complications or barriers.

For example, there is the barrier of thinking that the way we know things is through the assimilation of information. People think that if they only had the right information, then they could implement the right strategies, take the right steps, and all would be well. And here we are, again, back to the issue of technique versus discipline.

I hope to come back to this later, but for now, I note that technique is individualistic and immanently contained, as if the outcome was totally dependent upon one’s own actions. Discipline, however, is necessarily communal and merely a preparation for the grace of God to flow into our lives.