Notes on sin, death, sacrifice (a brief sketch)

If there is a contradiction between modern evolution and orthodox Christian theology, it goes something like this:

Christianity (the biblical story) says that humans die (and suffer disease) only because of sin (e.g., Rom 8:10). But evolution says that animal and biological death was a necessary condition for the evolutionary emergence of the human being.

This seems like a contradiction (or something like it), because in order for both the biblical story and evolution to be true, one must must hold that without sin, a death-filled process led up to the emergence of a creature who was never going to die, who was never “intended” to die.

Unless. Unless what my friend Nathan Jennings implies in his book Liturgy and Theology is true. For there he suggests that what God has always wanted (and had always wanted) from humanity is sacrifice, including self-sacrifice. Just as Paul in Rom 12 urges Christians to “present your bodies as living sacrifices,” so also Adam (not intended merely literally) was always supposed to lay down his life in sacrifice to God (and others?). Then and only then, could God raise the human up (or resurrect the human) to an even higher kind of life.

(Nathan develops this idea, among other ways, in terms of the significance of the creation of the human on Day 6, and making some connections about eating.)

If this is right, then it means that we can have both evolution and the biblical story, for death has always been part of God’s plan. For lower creatures, it was part of the process leading up to Adam; for Adam (or humans) it was intended to be in the form of pre-resurrection self-sacrifice.

In conclusion, then, we can say that what the Fall (or the entrance of sin into the world) brings about not death, not even human death. Rather, it brings about involuntary human death.

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Hösle on Luther’s post-Reformational Germany

The following lines are so interesting that I cannot but quote them in full:

In his great study Die europäischen Revolutionen[1] Eugen Rosenstock–Huessy (1888–1973), one of the last German universal scholars in the humanities and social sciences, spoke of a “princely revolution” in connection with the Reformation. The formation of religiously autonomous small states with their own local universities (whereas the U. of Paris had been a European university) and an officialdom devoted to the sovereign and enjoying great prestige was one of the most important results of the German Reformation. In the seventeenth century, as in the Middle Ages, England got along with only two universities, but this did not in the least hinder its rise to become the economically and politically most advanced nation in Europe, while German had about forty universities, despite its late adoption of the institution. Princes and professors/pastors/officials were the pillars of the new order, and while the princes disappeared in 1918, Germany is still basically, even in its Catholic areas, a professors-and-officials state such as exists nowhere in the world. Although on most questions Lutheranism occupies a middle position between the Catholic Church and the Reformed denominations that freed themselves from medieval ideas much more decisively than Luther did, there is one issue one which Calvinism stands closer to Catholic doctrine than does Lutheranism, namely the right of resistance, to which both Catholicism and Calvinism cling. Luther, by contrast, radically rejects this right, and however much he believes he is authorized by Scripture to reject the right to resist (Romans 13), seen from the outside it is clear that this rejection is the price he had to pay for the protection of the princes. The peculiar combination of freedom of conscience with an insistence on subservience, even to unjust rule, long remained one of the distinguishing marks of Lutheranism in Germany. —Vittorio Hösle, A Short Hist of German Philosopy, 30.


[1] This is a plural noun.

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Redeeming the Modern Myth of Progress

What if the progress myth of secular modernity is correct, at least in large part?

I’m now wondering if, entertaining the possibility that, after the advent of the Gospel, there is something inevitable about the development of history, about the “rational” unfolding of historical progress.

Not inevitably in the sense of the absolutely necessary, but rather in the sense of an implicit logic. If one were to develop this claim, one would need to articulate an appropriate understanding of the following three dynamics:

  • The propaedeutic of the Gospel, or the legacy of classical Greek thought as the handmaiden (ancilla) of philosophy. The idea here is that the relationship between Greek philosophy (especially that of the logos) and the early (that is, apostolic and patristic) interpretation of the events of Jesus of Nazareth is not random or aleatory. Rather the former sets the stage for the latter; the latter fulfills the former in an analogous way that it fulfills the Hebrew scriptures of (what Christians call) the Old Testament, to wit:
  • The nature of the progress from Old Covenant (in Israel) to New Covenant (in Christ). Of course, this is what the New Testament is about in its fundamental nature. It grapples with the question, “How can we, members of the community constituted by Jesus Christ, remain in continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures, or the religious traditions of our ancestors (the Torah, circumcision, Temple worship, etc.)? How can we follow Jesus of Nazareth, and, at the same time, maintain our identity as faithful Jews? In the teachings of Jesus (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel), in Paul’s letters (his privileging of spirit over letter), and in the book of Hebrews we find a clear insistence that, while the New is faithful to the Old, it is, at the same time and in some sense, better.
  • The outgrowth of (what I will call) universal spirit from the seeds of Christian theology/culture. This is the most difficult claim to develop of the three, and yet it is nonnegotiable. For when it comes to the rise of modern science, the distinction between church and state, the ideal of self-governance rooted in individual freedom, and the respect for human rights, in every case it is clear that these developments grow out of the soil of Christianity. Not, admittedly, Christianity in the abstract or in pristine isolation. We should fully concede that in the West Christianity is “corrupted”: by influences of the Roman empire, by pagan thought, by heresies, etc. And yet, the soil is Christian soil. The growth of these institutions and ideals would not exist but for the prior historical condition of Christianity. Christianity implies modern science, for creation links up with our rational minds (given the imago dei). It leads to the ideal of a state which is not simply identical to or a container for the church, for the latter is born from the soil of martyrdom at the hands of coercive power. It leads to self-rule, for the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into all truth, baptism is the great equalizer, and the Gospel is “no respecter of persons.” It implies the respect for human rights, because each person has dignity, being created in the image of God, as well as being the object of the sacrificial love of Christ in his crucifixion.

The point is that, in light of these three dymanics (perhaps there are additional ones), one can affirm a kind of intelligible development in the history of Western civilization, given the advent of the Gospel. This is the fundamentally valid insight of Hegel (and Joachim of Fiori), and it has led to the modern notion of the myth of progress.

Yet while I’m arguing that the myth of progress is (in some sense) correct and valid, nevertheless it must be drastically emended in one particular regard: the relationship between Christianity and secular modernity. For centuries the common assumption has been that secularism will win out over Christianity. This, precisely, is the one false tenant of the modern progress myth, for what has become evident in our time is that secular modernity (in its current iteration) cannot resist the temptation to eat itself, to self-destruct. One need only to point to the incommensurate agendas of identity politics (the outgrowth of liberal political theory cum late capitalism), to the destruction of our natural habitat globally, to the futility of technological innovation devoid of meaning. Of course, this self-destructive tendency, too, grows out of Christian soil. Indeed it may be the case that Christianity also eats itself; but if so it does so in a fecund way that is ultimately life-giving.

Yet what is far from clear is that secular modernity will, in the end, triumphantly root out the Christian religion or the Eucharistic community. While the counter claim is beyond the scope of this present essay, at the very least one can see that Christianity’s demise at the hands of secularism is far less certain than the three developments sketched above. (Appeal to the owl of Minerva here might be an appropriate riposte.) The claim, in the end, relies upon the self-destruction of secular modernity: who can possibly doubt that? And after its demise? What then? Surely the continued presence of the Christian church in its wake does not unduly tax the imagination.

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Premodern Human “Perfection”

I grew up in a wonderful family with a mom and a dad who loved each other, loved Christ, and were healthy in the sense that they were always repenting, always striving to be more faithful to Christ and to each other.

And yet … it was, in truth, a fundamentalist family. So some of the thematics would frequently emerge were, well, distinctive to that culture.

One example. A frequent tirade on the part of my father against “sinless perfection.” Apparently some Christians believed that it was possible to live a life in total utter obedience to God, with not a single shred of sin in one’s life. (Frequently my dad identified the precise target of his ire as followers of John Wesley and the occasional Baptist “Arminian.”) One interesting case study in this context was C. S. Lewis: while my family in general revered him with awestruck admiration (which, to this day, I still do), at times he seemed to imply a high view of “Christian perfection.”

What?!? Did he not get Luther’s point about semper justus et peccator?

It turns out—or so I’d argue these several decades later—that here as elsewhere Lewis was actually faithfully channeling a deep current of Catholic sensibility.

For premodern thinkers of the kind that Lewis strove to represent—thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas—”perfection” has a connotation somewhat different from my dad’s apparent grasp of it. It really begins with the notion of telos, since in Greek “perfect” is teleotês. It really just means a substance (in Aristotle’s technical language) doing its “work” so as to fulfill its purpose. When an acorn successfully becomes an oak tree, it is teleotês; it is fulfilling its purpose. Same for when a car gets you from point A to point B.

Yet no one in the premodern world would say that that acorn or the car is “perfect” in every respect. After all, the air conditioner in the car might be broken. Yet, if it gets you to point B, it is fulfilling its telos, and in that sense is “perfect.”

Now for most premodern thinkers after Aristotle, human beings are like acorns and automobiles: they have an objective purpose. (This is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “functional concept.”) Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, or “happiness.” He thinks, and Aquinas and C. S. Lewis agree, that humans are able to achieve happiness (in some sense).

One example of many would be St. Thomas’ Summae Theologiae, I-II, Q. 71 A. 1. There he states that

Virtue implies … a disposition whereby the subject is well disposed according to the mode of its nature: wherefore the Philosopher says (Phys. VII.17) that virtue is a disposition of a perfect thing to that which is best, and by “perfect” I mean that which is disposed according to its nature.

Note the way he speaks of perfection in this passage.

Does this make them “Arminian”? Not at all: it just means that the imagined something different from what we do when they thought of perfection.

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Theology Necessary for Philosophy

In an insightful article on Bonaventure’s Hexaëmeron, Junius Johnson writes:

Bonaventure believes that human understanding in its natural state ought to be able to arrive at the contemplation of God as the first principle. This is Bonaventure’s version of natural theology. Yet philosophy recognizes that to attain this [ultimate] science the virtues are necessary. And so natural reason must be exercised in the exemplary and Cardinal virtues. At this point it looks as if the text is progressing directly to understanding elevated by contemplation, and yet this is the 4th vision, not the second. The problem is that, because of the fall, the virtues are not able to reach their end apart from grace. But the knowledge that the human soul is fallen and the consequent knowledge that the effect must be healed and satisfaction made before the virtues can be truly exercised cannot be reached by reason, but requires faith. Understanding endowed by nature thus naturally arrives at the second vision, understanding elevated by faith.[1]  

This is a clear and succinct argument for how and why philosophy needs theology. If the emergence of something like contemplation (I’m thinking here of Bk. X, ch. 7 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) is native to the very endeavor of philosophy, then theology is required. Why? Because contemplation requires virtue (as even the philosophers admit), which is why this topic appears only at the end of the Ethics. And yet, for someone like Bonaventure, after the fall full virtue (or the virtue required for the purposes of this discussion, at least) is off-limits to the human being, apart from “theological givens/gifts” such as grace, revelation, and faith.

By the way, I see an analogy in St. Thomas with this line of Bonaventurian thinking, in the Angelic Doctor’s treatment of sapientia in the Summa Theologiae. There he treats wisdom twice, in two different contexts: not only is it an intellectual virtue (in line with Ethics VI) that applies science or scientific thinking to the highest causes/realities (I-II, 57.2), but it is also a divine gift (II-II, 45.3). The upshot here is that full sapientia—surely part and parcel with ultimate contemplation—requires grace.

[1] Junius Johnson, ““Unlocking Bonaventure: the Collationes in Hexaëmeron as Interpretive Key,” The Thomist 83 (2019): 277–94, at 286.

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St. Thomas & “what the heart desires”

I remember, sometime in the mid 1990’s (when I was an undergrad at UT Austin), hearing R. C. Sproul say that, for Thomas Aquinas (one of Sproul’s intellectual “heroes”), reason takes precedence over desire. This statement really caught my attention, and I can honestly say that I’ve been pondering it for two and a half decades. (Side note: while in seminary at Westminister Theological Seminary, where the approach to apologetics is determined by Cornelius Van Til, I realized that Van Til’s “presuppositional apologetics” would like not agree with Thomas here, although what’s more likely is that proponents of that “school” have rarely thought about this issue, sadly.)

Fast forward to about three years ago, when, in a YouTube video, I heard Ashley Null make the following statement (also, I think, in his book on Cranmer’s doctrine of repentance), credited to Phillip Melancthon:

What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

Now, at a certain level I really like this statement. It resonates: our desires (including our sinful or illicit desires) are so often “justified” in retrospect by our “rational mind.” We “go after” what we want, and then we justify it ex post facto. At a basic level, that strikes me as a profoundly accurate assessment of the human condition after the fall. (My friends at Mockingbird ministries, Ashley Null included, would certainly agree.) The fallen human being is radically characterized, that is, by the libido dominandi. Truth.

By the way, this latter perspective is ratified by almost all modern thought: one thinks of Soren Kierkegaard and David Hume, the latter of whom said, “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any office but to serve and obey them.” (Alasdair MacIntyre has a nice treatment of all this in After Virtue.)

Thanks to Nicholas Lombardo for this connection with Hume.

And yet, in my research for a book chapter on Aquinas’ view of anger, I’m realizing that St. Thomas, on this issue, really delivers the goods, and is superior, in my opinion, to Melanchthon, Hume, and Kierkegaard (and even St. Bonaventure, who here as elsewhere can be viewed as an incipient, prototypical forebearer of these modern strains of anthropology).

On Thomas’ account (as he has it in the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae, Question 82 on the will), the intellect does take precedence over the will in the specific sense that the human person always seeks happiness and hence always seeks (albeit frequently in misdirected, sinful ways) the good. But in order for the human person (that is, the will, or the desire/appetite) to seek the good, he first must recognize the good, and this is an intellectual activity which performed by the mind. So, yes: intellect is priviledged over desire in this specific sense.

Yet in another way, the will leads and directs the intellect, since, as Thomas says, the will is “in charge” of every “active faculty” in the animal (rational or otherwise). I take this latter point to mean that, when I decide to focus on or to “intend” a tree as an object of my attention or to a memory of the past (or any other “object”), it is the will which makes this “choice.”

And so, I draw two conclusions from all this. First, I’m confident that any disagreement between these two schools is more “smoke than light,” that at bottom all (for the most part) would potentially agree. Thomas would say (and does say) that sometimes our desires are not guided by reason (or at least are irrational in some ways), and even that in our disordered, sinful state we sometimes rationally justify our own sin. Yes, he’d agree to that.

But I also think that his posture is the superior one, since it does full justice to the basic metaphysical principle that all creatures pursue their telos: rocks, oak trees, elephants, and humans. But in our case, that telos is to seek happiness, beatudo, eudaimonia. And that is a rational activity (since we are rational animals).

Besides, it is nihilistic to absolutize the libido dominandi, surely.  

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NT Wright on History & Eschatology

NT Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures are well worth grappling with, as is the book-form version of the same, History and Eschatology. While I take issues with his historiographical methodology (wh is a bit too positivistic), I think that his presentation of the actual view of first century Jewish thought is absolutely superb.

If we ask the question, “What is history, and what are its contents?” then the Christian can start with St. Paul & the Gospel writers (that is, the apostolic teaching of the NT itself).

But before we can ask, “What do the NT writers think history and its contents are?” we must investigate the historically conditioned character of their minds.

Ah, but before we can ask about the historically conditioned character of their minds, we must first ask about the historically conditioned character of our minds (that is, of the minds of modern interpreters, especially those who practice historical-critical method of biblical interpretation).

There are, then, three levels of history in view in NT Wright’s lecture series (and his book History and Eschatology):

  • the history which conditions the modern mind (which NTW rightly describes in terms of Epicureanism);
  • the history which conditioned the ancient (first century) mind (predominantly, at least in this lecture series/book, second Temple Judaism with its biblical themes of Temple, Sabbath, & Image);
  • the history which those ancient writers took to be real and determinative: the redemptive history—which is always already eschatological—of God’s covenant people.

After each of these investigations has been made, it is theoretically possible finally to ask: Can we ourselves adopt the apostles’ same position on history, namely the embrace of the historia salutis as narrated in Scripture? The striking reality is that, given many strands of postmodern theory (themselves neoplatonic in inspiration) this latter possibility is (in the spirit of Ricœur’s “after the desert of criticism we long to believe again”)  actually quite plausible and attractive.

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Milbank on Theurgic Neoplatonsim

In the introduction to Gregory Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul, John Milbank lays the foundation for his insistence—an insistence which is part and parcel of his genealogical method—on the distinction between the “Iamblichan/Proclan” stream of Neoplatonism versus that of Plotinus. I here want to rehearse his argument in my own words, and to articulate why it matters.

The Plotinian error which Milbank wants to rebuff (since orthodox Christian theology rebuffs it) is its denial that matter is able (in the terms of John of Damascus) to “work [one’s] salvation.” Milbank thinks that the ultimate source of this Plotinian error/denial is its view of (what I will call) “diminished emanation,” or the notion that as the emanations of the One exit and disperse themselves out into the material world, less and less of the divine is communicated as the series, or hierarchy, continues.

In contrast to this view of “diminished emanation,” the Iamblichan account of things sees the One as fully communicating itself to the lower level. Now, the One does this, in Milbank’s terms, “impossibly.” That is, there is something supremely paradoxical about this complete self-giving (which one can see in the Christian theological insistence that the son is ontologically equal with the Father): it assumes or implies absolutely no continuity between the first element (the Father/the One) and second (the Son/Nous). That is, it is totally discrete, totally “free.” Put it another way: the second element has no claim on the first; it (the second element) is completely “suspended” from the first. While in one sense (the level of grace?) the two elements are related by conjunction, in another sense (the level of nature?) they are related by total disjunction (contra Plotinus); they are totally discrete.

Why is this “giving” impossible? It is because of the “simple nature” of the first element. That the Father is “simple” means that it cannot share itself, “by nature.” (This is what Milbank means by “absolute reserve,” xvi.) It is, to use the neoplatonic terminology, “imparticipable.”

Yet the first element does give himself to the son, even though this giving is “impossible.” Good thing, too (the impossibility): otherwise, it would not be “the entire substance” which is communicated. In other words, if the giving is not impossible (due to simplicity), then the giving ends up being diminished. It is precisely because of this “impossible giving” that the Father is able to give himself completely to the Son.

Now, one corollary of this total discreteness, this radical disjunction (by nature) is that the second element is unable to “rebound” back to the first element. Unless. Unless it does so through a third element. It is this third element which participates (as in participans), rendering the second element participated. And yet, while this third element “rebounds” to the second, it also rebounds to the first. And since it is the whole “self” which the higher communicates to the lower, this means (to use Trinitarian language) that the Son does participate in the Father, but only through the Spirit, the gift of the Spirit.

The Father gives himself to the Son, impossibly. The Son gives himself to the Father, by giving himself to (and through) the Spirit.

The upshot of all this is that, for Milbank’s Iamblichus (and Auustine, and John Damascene) matter—the “bottom” or last of hte series—is able to “rebound”—as the Spirit does—back upward. It can, thus, work to bring about our salvation (since it, for the Damascene, “is filled with divine energy and grace”).

In sum, it is the paradox of the “impossible giving” which allows Christian theology (utterly biblical, also seen clearly in Denys) to affirm both “descent all the way down” and “participation all the way up.”

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Dissertation Lecture

I’m looking forward to this! All are invited! https://uttyler.zoom.us/j/815102620

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Peterson on Church & Prayer

This paragraph from Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor is so good I must quote it in full.

I remembered a long-forgotten sentence by George Arthur Buttrick, a preacher under whom I sat for a year of Sunday … sermons while in seminary: “Pastors think people come to church to hear sermons. They don’t; they come to pray and to learn to pray.” I remembered Anselm’s critical transition from talking about God to talking to God. He had written his Monologion, setting forth the proofs of God’s existence with great brilliance and power. It is one of the stellar theological achievements in the West. Then he realized that however many right things he said about God, he had said them all in the wrong language. He re-wrote it all in [the] Proslogion, converting his Language II [discursive language] into Language I [the language of intimacy]: first person address, an answer to God. The Proslogion is theology as prayer.

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Augustine on passionately returning to God

This section of the Confessions (XII.ix.10) blows my mind (not least b/c it occurs in nestled within a rigorous interrogation of the cosmology presented by the Book of Genesis).

May the truth, the light of my heart, not my darkness, speak to me. I slipped down into the dark and was plunged into obscurity. Yet from there, even from there, I loved you. “I erred and remembered you” (Ps 118:76). “I heard your voice behind me” (Ezek 3:12) calling me to return. And I could hardly hear because of the hubbub of the people who know no peace. Now, see, I am returning hot and panting to your spring. Let no one stand in my path. Let me drink this and live by it. May i not be my own life. On my own resources I lived evilly. To myself I was death. In you I am recovering life. Speak to me, instruct me. I have put faith in your books. And their words are mysterious indeed.

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Comps, Avicenna, & Necessary Being

For almost five years now, I’ve been teaching intro to philosophy classes at UT Tyler. Lots of fun; I love it: working hard to try to get nineteen year olds (by now not living with mom & dad & thus “out there in the real world”) to question their assumptions. (Of course before you can question your assumptions you first must be aware of them, and also to identify them.) I call it “corrupting the youth.”

For the last couple of semesters, I’ve been introducing the class with a discussion of Heraclitus (or, really, Cratylus: “all is flux”) and Parmenides (“Being is all there is, period.”), with a view to putting their two views in dialectic, a concept we then discuss in earnest.

Early on in the semester, while trying to articulate what Parmenides means by “being,” I introduce the distinction between contingent being (I usually hold up my wrist watch, and talk about how it exists contingently, in that it depends on all sorts of things for its existence: factories, laws, workers, various kinds of metal, etc.) and necessary being.

This leads to a discussion of divine simplicity, or how (for a great swath of thinkers from Parmenides to Aristotle to Augustine to Aquinas to CS Lewis) being, which is ultimately described only negatively (or apophatically), is actually, it turns out, God (the protestations of the anti-ontotheologians notwithstanding).

Where did I learn all this? Two sources: David Bentley Hart’s book Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, but also my study regimen for my comprehensive examinations, part of my PhD work at the University of Dallas. When studying Avicenna, I became conscious that he is the one, historically, to state the doctrine of necessary being (in terms of simplicity) clearly.

For years now, I’ve been wanting to “drill down on this,” to make sure I have it all straight, and to be able to cite some sources in support of my understanding. To wit, this article by Olga Lizzini, in which she states the following:

… Avicenna deduces the properties of what is in itself necessarily existent. The first is being uncaused. It is in fact “evident” … that the necessary has no cause: to have a cause means literally to exist by virtue of something else, and what exists by virtue of itself cannot exist by virtue of another…. Other properties [of necessary being] are are attributable to a being necessary in itself: unity, simplicity, and then non-relativity, immutability, non-multiplicity and non-association with anything other than itself.

Notice how all the terms are negations: uncaused, non-relativity, immutable, etc.

Is Avicenna, also, the one who makes it clear that, if contingent things exist, then there must be (a) necessary being that exists? I don’t know, but I assume that he is, and I want to find out soon.

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Peregrinatio Discussion Group

There is a new discussion group starting up this month in Tyler, TX: “Peregrinatio” … which means “journey.”

We will meet on the 3rd & 5th Thursdays of the month, 6:30-8:30, at least through May, at True Vine Brewery in Tyler.

We will read two short stories by James Baldwin, CS Lewis’ “the Weight of Glory,” sections of Augustine’s Confessions, (Books I, VII, X–XIII) and Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ.

The Lewis essay is easily found online in PDF form; just google it. For the Baldwin shorts (and my notes on “The Weight of Glory”), as well as our reading schedule go here.

Please read the Chadwick translation of the Confessions.

For our first meeting (Jan 16), be ready to discuss Baldwin and Lewis.

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Enns: God, stories, children

Here is the link to a post I mentioned in a recent Christian formation class on Judges. Enjoy!

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Tim O’Malley on Contemplation

Very thankful for Tim O’Malley’s article this morning.

The middle paragraphs on contemplation are extremely well-stated: terms such as “marinate” and “takes time” are deeply satisfying to me.

Of course, even Plato’s Line (end of Bk VI of the Republic) makes it clear that nous (intellectus) is distinct from dianoia (ratio), and this has huge implications for Christian contemplation. CS Lewis has a good section on this in The Discarded Image. (The good strains of 20th-century philosophical hermeneutics are allies here, IMO, especially the likes of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricouer, who emphasize meaning over scientific rationality.) Augustine’s portrayal of the time-laden process of reading a Psalm (Confessions XI), further, shows the Christian emphasis on textual (possibly even narratival) “dianoia” (moving through one element at a time, in the spirit of Thomas’ componendo et dividendo), an aspect to which O’Malley alludes.

Good stuff. Thanks be to God!

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Coakley, Theology, & Wigan Pier

I find Sarah Coakley’s program of theologie totalé scintillating and encouraging. Her emphasis on the necessity of ascetic contemplation for theology, together with her sober admission of the validity of various modern, secular critiques is just what is needed for theology to remain vital and credible today.

And yet I do have a couple of questions, which emerge from chapter two of God, Sexuality, and the Self. In particular I have qualms about her schematization of three theological positions which she aims to criticize: from most “conservative” to most “revisionist,” they are represented by Pope John Paul II (now Saint John Paul) and Pope Benedict XVI (a.k.a., Joseph Ratzinger); John Milbank; and Sallie McFague (see 74 n. 6).

Coakley thinks that these three theological approaches are like the Wigan Pier near Manchester, England (derided by Goerge Orwell), in that they are, to put it simply, fake. They try to ignore the receding of the “sea of faith” away from the shores of culture, heralded by Matthew Arnold in his 1867 poem Dover Beach, promoting themselves are “the real deal.” Just as Wigan Pier is a false sea-side resort, then, these three theological approaches are mere imitations of real spirituality, implies Coakley.

Coakley associates the first two positions in their purportedly blind rejection of modern, secular philosophy and the sociology upon which it is built. (This “post-Kantianism” agrees with Kant that God cannot be known “speculatively in a ‘scientific’ metaphysics” [77 n. 8].) While Coakley herself is not simply a proponent of McFague’s (third) approach or indeed the post-Kantianism upon which it relies, she does take the first two positions (above) to task in their (purported) blunt denial of secular critique, the first on the basis of anti-relativism (a moral objection) and the latter on the basis of more intellectual criticisms. Coakley thinks that this shared posture results in a refusal to acknowledge the often embarrassing “messy entanglements and detritus” of the lived experience of actual religious communities, in which oppression occurs, often in the name of normative “orthodoxy.”

Yet I have two qualms with–or at least questions about–Coakley’s categorization: one regarding Radical Orthodoxy (the second position) and the other with respect to Ressourcement theology (with which Ratzinger, a figure head for Coakley’s first position, is closely allied).

Consider Graham Ward’s essay, “The Displaced Body of Christ” in Radical Orthodoxy, published in 1999. I will not here describe that essay, but Ward’s emphasis on the transient suffering and abuse of the poorest of the poor–with whom, argues Ward, Christ identifies–surely strikes a chord distinct from Coakley’s characterization of RO. Or again, what of William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, with its extended and harrowing exposé of the ecclesiastically sanctioned Pinochet regime in Chile? True, Cavanaugh is no liberation theologian, but his description is surely not guilty of turning a blind eye to the suffering and the “lived experience” of those wounded by Pinochet’s evil hypocrisy.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Coakley seems to forget the fact that, as Milbank states in the introduction to Theology and Social Theory, RO speaks with the voice of Nietzsche. Coakley suggests that RO is deaf to the hermeneutics of suspicion, yet Nietzsche–arguably the inventor of such criticism–is a chief muse of this movement!

For these reasons Coakley’s characterization of Radical Orthodoxy fails to persuade me, despite my profound respect for her overall project.

My second qualm concerns Benedict XVI, who has been shown to have close ties to the Ressourcement movement of such luminaries as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthassar. This connection is clear among other ways in the common involvement in the founding of the Communio journal on the part of all three 20th-century theologians. Further, does Coakley think that these Ressourcement architects of Vatican II are so fearful of moral relativism that the resulting stance is one of obscurantism? (Such a claim would be odd, since during the Vatican II discussions, many accused these thinkers themselves of relativism.) If not, then it would appear that Ratzinger is vindicated, since he himself threw in his lot with them (see Ayers, Kelly, and Humphries, “Benedict XVI: a Ressourcement Theologian?, in Flynn and Murray, eds., Ressourcement: a Movement for Renewed Twentieth-century Catholic Theology).

In short, I support Coakley’s vision, especially with its passionate insistence on the necessity of contemplation. I even admit that RO needs to hear and heed this call. Yet in her attempt to provide foils against which to perceive her own stance, I fear that she has painted with too broad a brush.

(One final thought: I’d suggest that the posture of Ratzinger, de Lubac, Balthassar, and Milbank, in their attitudes toward post-Kantian secular critique of tradition is infinessimally alined with someone like Paul Ricouer, himself a hair’s breadth, I’d argue from Gadamer. Would Coakley be critical of him in the same way she is critical of the former thinkers? I see that she cites Ricoeur twice later in her book. Thus to this issue I will plan later to return.)

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End of the World (my own positions)

“The end of the world” means: the termination of chronos. The giving way of chronos to some other kind of time. Bonaventure in II Sents posits 4 kinds of time, including “angelic time” (Kohlbinger, Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas). Augustine agrees on angelic time.

Why do I think that there will be some kind of time, something like time, after the end (or, what Josef Pieper calls “the transposition” in The End of Time)? Because I am committed to the resurrection of the body, which surely entails the ongoing presence of materiality. (I am willing to say that departed souls are completely outside of time, but language fails here.)

What about aeternitas? Do I not concede that, since God is non-temporal (without qualification), one must say that God is absolutely not in any temporal realm? Yes, I do concede that. Hence, I suspect that after the transposition we will oscillate between the two “realms” of (alternative) temporality and God’s timelessness.

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Hebrews 11 & “a heavenly country.”

Last Sunday (in accordance with the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer) I preached on Hebrews 11, verse 16 of which speaks of “a better country” which Abraham and company desired and sought, a better country with is also “a heavenly one.”

Verse 16 speaks of a “homeland” (Gk. patrida) which informs the medieval obsession with the notion of patria, the homeland which is often associated with beatific vision which Christians will enjoy as the final purpose of their very existence.

In my sermon last Sunday, I said (as I have done, surely, every time I have preached on Heb 11 over the past 19 years I’ve been a minister in the church) that this “heavenly country” for which Abraham and company were hoping and waiting is, in reality, the Church, the Body of Christ.

The main point I want to register in this blog post is just how strange this idea is. Just how difficult it is for folks in the 21st century West to grasp and believe this. If one is strange enough to take her faith seriously in the first place, it is almost impossible not to hear “heavenly country” as referring to “heaven, the place you go when you die and will float on the clouds like an angel.” Or something like that.

Instead, what I tried to say last Sun in my sermon, is that this “heavenly country” the church is the portal between heaven and earth. I feel that I did not do a very good job of convincing folks of my point.

And, what is worse, I failed to connect my point to the last verse of chapter 11, verse 40 (not included in last Sunday’s reading, in my defense) which is surely clear: since the object of Abraham’s hope “has been provided for us,” such that “without us they will not be saved” … surely it is clear that the “heavenly country” which Abraham and company were looking for … surely it’s clear that this refers to the church! (Right?)

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Kristeva’s Western Metaphysical Destiny

This paragraph in Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity just blew my mind:

[Kristeva] suggests that the West has a ‘metaphysical’ destiny, because it has always been afflicted by an overwhelming sense of something missing: ‘is not our life on earth a shadow?’ (Job 8:9). As a result, she argues, cultural and philosophical processes become a question of how this missing thing is to be conveyed in time and space. By comparison, she suggests, Chinese culture has always concerned immanent, cosmic transcription, via a ceaseless repetition of signs. But the closed and all-sufficient character of this process confines such repetition to a variation of the same figures and tropes, though this is rather more than mere ‘rotation of crops’. And in consequence there tends to be an absence of language for personal grief, dissapointment, dispossession, and ontological anxiety.”

Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity, 171–2.
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Kierkegaard & “Recollecting Forward”

At one point in his Repetition, Kierkegaard says that repetition is “recollection forward.” (By “recollection” here he means Platonic anamnesis.)

I’ve always struggled a bit with his notion, but recently in a coffee shop I had a little breakthrough. For some reason, after I purchased my coffee, I had to wait for about fifteen minutes for it to be ready. But I noticed that this delay did not irritate me at all.

Waiting for the coffee for about fifteen minutes did not bother me at all, whereas, on the other hand, I have noticed that if I have to sit in a meeting without coffee, even for a shorter period than fifteen minutes, it can feel like sheer hell. (I really hate doing certain activities without coffee: meetings, reading, working in my office, for example.)

Why is this? Why is it that, in the coffee shop I was not irritated by my lack of coffee, but in a meeting of shorter duration I almost always am?

The explanation is quite simple. It has to do with anticipation. In the coffee shop, while I was reading Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity, I was not feeling irritated because I knew that my coffee was coming. There is something about anticipation which changes everything, and not only makes the interval of waiting OK, but also in some way is even better than having the real thing / experience itself.

I suspect that, even for Kierkegaard not all repetition is recollection forward, but only some. Perhaps, then, “recollection forward” is this: anticipation.

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Augustine’s Confessions I: Notes

I’m currently rereading Augustine’s Confessions (for the third or fourth time), this time as part of the larger project that is my doctoral dissertation.

Lots going on in Book I. I want to give a quick list of some important themes, and then focus in particular on two: his way of overcoming destructive desires, and his “hermeneutic of suspicion” of the pagan Greek religious deities.

First, the quick list. Augustine introduces several themes which will emerge later in the book, including: the role of memory in the pursuit of God, language acquisition in infants, the pejorative nature of custom (Latin mos: see esp. xvi.25), his opposition to capital punishment, his deferred baptism (xi.17–18) his own identity as both sinner and victim, seeds of grace in the early years of his life.

One riveting theme, however, which I have not noticed in the past: his way of reading the pantheon of Greek deities, and the religious “system” in which they appear. In addition to reiterating his view that the Greek gods are veiled demonic, evil spirits, Augustine actually claims in this early book that a prime motivation for ancient pagan mythology is the need, on the part of the powerful, to justify their own immorality and corruption, particularly their sexual immorality:

Have I not read … of Jupiter, at once both thunderer and adulterer? Of course the two activities cannot be combined, but he was described as to give an example of real adultery defended by a fictitious thunderclap acting as a go-between.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.25.

Here Augustine is participating in the great philosophical work of demythologization, adding his voice to the likes of Xenophanes and Plato before him. As for both predecessors, so also for Augustine: after ridding ourselves of pernicious myth, there is still a substratum of legitimate myth, good and proper myth remaining underneath. It is not the case for any of these demythologizers that once we dispel bad myth we are left with “science” or “pure reason” completely without remainder.

What is the real truth about ancient pagan myth? It underwrites and legitimizes the (sexual) immorality of those in power. “If Zeus can do it, then so can I,” says in effect, not only the likes not only of Homer but also of Terence:

But what a god ([Terence] says)! He strikes the temples of heaven with his immense sound. And am I, poor little fellow, not to do the same as he? Yes indeed, I have done it with pleasure.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.26.

The second point of interest, coming from Book I, is the way Augustine deals with his illicit desires. Far from trying to beat down his lusts, he counters them with a stronger desire, a joyful aching, for God:

Bring to me a sweetness surpassing all the seductive delights which I pursued. Enable me to love you with all my strength that I may clasp your hand with all my heart.


Augustine, Confessions, I.xv.24

And again:

Even at this moment you are delivering from this terrifying abyss the soul who seeks for you and thirsts for your delights (Ps. 41:3), whose heart tells you ‘I have sought your face; your face, Lord, will I seek’ (Ps. 26:8).

Augustine, Confessions, I.xviii.28
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Dissertation Progress & Outline

As of today, I am probably about one-third finished with my PhD dissertation in philosophy, which I am completing under the direction of Philipp Rosemann at Maynooth University (the National University of Ireland). As of a couple of weeks ago, my examiners for this project will be John Milbank and William Desmond. For more on all this, see here.

Here is the outline for my dissertation, the (partial) title of which is “Ratzinger’s Bonaventure & the Mythopoiêsis of History”:

  • Chapter 1: the Sitz im Leben of each thinker (Bonaventure and Ratzinger).
  • Chapter 2: the Aristotelian positioning of narrative poiêsis in relation to two other modes of discourse: science and history. As a discourse in between, mythos metaxologically mediates the difference between epistêmê and historia.
  • Chapter 3: the structural position of intellectus in the work of Bonaventure and Ratzinger, and its connection to narrative or mythos.
  • Chapter 4: the role of desire, or affective disposition, in Bonaventure and Ratzinger, and its connection to narrative or mythos.
  • Chapter 5:  the narratival interpenetration of mind or thought, on the one hand, and history on the other, in Bonaventure and Ratzinger.

In the introduction and statement of method (found here), I introduce several key themes, including:

  • mythos/story/narrative.
  • the historical manifestations of science.
  • the pattern of exit and return.
  • the philosophical importance of desire, or the existential register of affect.
  • history and time as the life-blood of theology.


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Open to History (Christian Neoplatonism)

Please ignore this post, unless you are interested in my doctoral dissertation, or are predisposed to matters relating to philosophy and theology. 

In my dissertation I am trying to show that, in our current cultural milieu in the twenty-first century West, philosophy is dependent upon theology, for reasons having to do with history.

Like Josef Pieper’s The End of Time, Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity compellingly suggests or argues that, in a unique way, Christian Neoplatonism is hospitable to history. That is, there is something about Christian Neoplatonism which–unlike other philosophical approaches–does not exclude history from philosophical consideration.

In chapter 4 (“The Repeated Sign”) of the book, Pickstock seamlessly transitions, with no apparent difficulty, from a discussion of ontology to a discussion of history, or what I call historiology.

In fact, on the basis of this chapter, we can say that, for Christian Neoplatonism, unlike many or most other philosophical approaches (inimical to history), the logos of history is no more problematic than the logos of entities in the world, or ontology. Why is this?

It has to do with the Forms, which Pickstock also describes as (closely related to) the “imagined double” of any given thing, including the universe or world as a whole. If any given apple is, at the same time, not-another-apple and also not-a-tomato (entities which are wholly imagined or remembered), its intelligibility hinges on this imagined double, and this kind of reasoning is no less applicable to the world as a whole.

And since the world, or nature, is a meta-indexical whole (that is, it does not point to some other item in the world; it is “beyond indicating”), the question emerges: does its meaning reside in or rely on some higher, or other, reality? That is, if the world is beautiful, then it must rely on some notion or idea or reality of beauty which is not itself contained in or constrained by the world. So, either it is not beautiful, or its beauty depends on some higher reality (in which case its meaning does rely on a “higher” reality).

But what Pickstock implies–and here is the point–is that the apple and the world are no different than, say, the history of the French Revolution. Just as the apple is intelligible only because of the alternative apple or the non-apple, so also the set of “real” space-time, physical events which led to the overthrow of the Ancien Régime in France near the end of the eighteenth century are only intelligible on the basis of an imagined history, that is, an imagined narrative.

(The same applies to the history of the individual self, as Kierkegaard suggests in Repetition by appeal to the “shadow-existences” which one plays in the theater of one’s own self-imaginings. See Repetition 154–5.)

As for the apple, so also for the French Revolution (or any other historical development). This is the case for Christian neoplatonism, but not for modern, secular, alternative philosophical approaches. Christian Neoplatonism confidently embraces a philosophy of history, but other approaches (from Aristotelianism to Kantianism) cannot.

Hence, history is no longer off limits to the philosophical quest for truth.

Hence, we can once again remain open to history, willing to consider attentively whatever it has to say to us.

When we do that, we are confronted by certain parameter-shifting considerations, having to do with creation, fall, incarnation, resurrection, and new creation (or apokatastasis, the redemption of all things).

And now we are doing theology (founded, as it is, on a particular history). It is theology that is here informing our philosophic quest.

Philosophy, then, is here dependent upon theology. Why? Because of the difference that history makes.

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Kierkegaard, Repetition & History

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

In Soren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Repetition, the “author” / protagonist / narrator Constantine Constantius performs an unusual kind of experiment. Nostalgically recalling a past trip to Berlin (from Copenhagen), he begins to wonder if he could replicate such an experience again. He means this literally, and so he decides to try to repeat the trip exactly has it happened before, complete with every sensation, impression, thought, pleasure, pain, etc. The question with which this philosophical novel opens, then, is: Is repetition possible?

The answer, it turns out, is no. But as the Constantine tells his larger story, which involves a “young man” enmeshed in a botched love affair strikingly similar in all its details to that of the “historical” Soren Kierkegaard, we realize a deeper philosophical truth. While identical repetition is not possible, it turns out that, at another level, nonidentical repetition is nevertheless not only possible, but absolutely necessary.

In Catherine Pickstock’s treatment of this Kierkegaardian theme (in her 2014 Repetition and Identity, especially chapter 5, “The Repeated Self”), she puts it like this, channeling the spirit of Charles Péguy: in order for a thing to be (or for an event to occur) it must occur twice, and this in all sorts of senses. As a banal example, take an ordinary object in the world such as a tree: in order for it to be a tree at all, it must also be perceived or conceived in the intellect. This intellectual event—the perception or conception, or indeed imaginary anticipation or memory—is the “doubling” of the object.

A key point which Pickstock brings out is has to do with spatial points and temporal instances. Such “entitities” don’t really exist in the world in some sense, and yet our minds supply them, in some sense co-constructing our space-time reality by means of them. Indeed, they supply them by necessity. That is, without these mentally supplied points and instances, all things run together; every thing flows into and out of every other thing, in a kind of Heraclitan flux. Even to say “the cup is here and the napkin is there” requires the presence of such mentally supplied points. Such points, then, are (in Pickstock’s terms) fictive. It is Zeno of Elea who originally expounded such truths. On this point both the Eleatics and Heraclitus agree: such points (and instances) don’t really exist at all. Pickstock’s point (with Kierkegaard and Péguy—and Gilles Deleuze) is that without them, the world is unintelligible.

We have seen that … pure thinghood is devoid of … ontological content, and, yet, that, without these null divisions [of point and moment], there would be no coherent entities and no coherent events. Similarly, they are devoid of meaning-content and signify nothing, being empty even of sound and fury. And yet, without them, there would be no meaningfully distinct entities and no significant or distinguishable events. (Pickstock, Repetition & Identity, 76)

Let us now take this train of thought one step further, extending it to the realm of history and the logos of history. As for points and moments, so also for fictional narratives in general. The only way the human intellect can articulate (put into words) a historical event, occurrence, period, or epoch is by way of some kind of narrative. And at one level the narrative is fictive: like points and instances, in some sense it is not real. And yet, without it, historical accounting or articulation is literally impossible. Narratives are to history what points are to spacial reality.

The narrative fiction, then, is another instance of this intellectual doubling, and without it no logos of history, indeed no graphê  of history, is possible. For history—in any form—to happen once, it must indeed happen twice. It must be repeated.

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Bird Box, “Deaths of Despair,” & the Gospel

It’s been eight decades since Albert Camus dropped the famous bombshell in the playground of Western culture that the only “serious philosophical question” left for us to ponder is: why not suicide?

What was in 1940 a radical, subversive scandal (and not just in 1940: I remember reading the Stranger, mesmerized, on the campus of UT Austin in a beautiful, melancholy courtyard, during a tumultuous rainstorm in 1995) is, near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, well, mainstream, bourgeoisie, maybe even blah.

Hence Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Ways to Die. Hence a 2015 National Academy of the Sciences report that, for the first time in a century, the mortality rate among “middle aged, white Americans” was on the rise, due to suicide and other “deaths of despair.” Hence the 2016 film “Suicide Squad” (with the sequel planned for later this year). Today, suicide is not edgy and dopamine-producing; if anything it’s banal.

But if its banal, its definitely not pleasant to watch. If one is in doubt about this claim, one only has to watch the 2018 Netflix hair-raiser Bird Box, starring, among others Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich.

Pleasant, no. But disturbing to the point of provoking existential self-examination, yes. There is so much about this film to discuss, but in this brief piece I’d like simply to address one aspect of the film, one assumption that it makes (this being your requisite spoil alert).

In the film, during which one suicide after another takes place, the viewer learns that the motivation behind each decision to end it all lies the root reality of fear and regret. Some quality of the evil “something” which victim after victim sees triggers within them the hyper-intensified memory of something beyond traumatizing, some kind of anguish (remembered or imagined) too agonizing to bear. With dreadful tears of dread, one character after another decides to end it all, with absolutely zero regard for who might suffer from their loss or who might witness the tragedy.

Indeed, the salient assumption in the film is that a typical human life lived in Western society will eventually be filled with such traumatic regret or horror. That is, after spending decades of one’s life in the cesspool of human civilization, the typical adult life (or soul) will be so saturated with guilt, fear, and despair that eventually, and given the right triggers, the thought of continuing to live becomes tortuously unbearable.

The film presupposes, that is, not simply that human life is not worth living, but that it is a given that, in the main and over time, normal human fear, shame, and guilt will accrue to the point of no return and no redemption. (It’s kind of like an alternative version on the level of the individual, of the dark, negative assumptions of modern philosophy at the level of the political.)

This assumption on the film’s part explains the role of the two small children (“Boy” and “Girl”) in the narrative. Since they they have only lived in the hellish wasteland of humanity for a mere four or so years, they have up to this point in their lives accrued a far smaller amount of emotional baggage of the heart, in comparison to their middle aged counterparts. Hence they are able to do things and perform tasks which older characters cannot.

The burden of this modest post is not to take issue with this assessment: it does seem plausible—a mere logical consequence, even—in today’s secular, nihilistic world.

Rather, I’d like to remind my readers, and above all myself, that there is a better way. It is called the way of the Gospel. The way of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The astonishing thing about the Christian Gospel is that it does not live in fear (much less in denial) of the horror of the very real tragedies that exist within us and outside of us. On the contrary: Psalm 88 is utterly devoid of redemption, as is the service of Good Friday (for example, in the Book of Common Prayer). There is a time and a place for horrific, gut-wrenching grieving. Christians are not shiny-happy people.

And yet, when a believer embraces the dark side of reality within her and without, what does she find? She finds God. A Deity of Despair. A Lord of Languish. A Christ, anguishing and then dead, pinned and afixed like a tortured specimen, on a Roman torture device called the cross.

This is the better way, for in the life one who has been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20), this gruesome darkness is not the end, but the beginning. (For him, in this limited sense despair can be delicious, as Martin Luther taught.) As the story goes, Christ did not remain on the cross or in the tomb.

The senseless suffering, guilt, and pain, it turns out, is not the end. Yet it absolutely must serve as the beginning. The beginning of a new life, victorious over despair.

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