Running Zen (Self-forgetfulness)

Please. I’m not one of those mealy-mouthed new agey types.

However, I do think that long distance running is (or can be) zen. It can be “done zen” or “performed zen.” Notice that here, as in the title of this blog post, “zen” is an adverb (though it can also be a noun or an adjective).

How so? I’ve been pondering this, actually, for about a year. When I ran my first (and most recent) marathon, I realized during about the 20-mile mark, when I was tempted to “give up” and stop running on that unusually warm & humid Texas February day, that I was free to continue running.

You see, early in my adult running career, I realized that I was free to stop running. As one whose distance running is a form of meditation or contemplation, I realized, in the spirit of Fr. Thomas Keating who describes contemplation as a “mental vacation,” that the worst thing I could do was to put pressure on myself to continue to meditate / run. (Yes, for me running and meditation are the same.) There is no shame, I realized, in setting out for a 10 mile run and then “quitting” at the 3-, 5-, 7-, or whatever-mile mark.

I wanted my running to be a kind of rest, a kind of exploration, a kind of play. To stifle that by a kind of exertion of my will power did not seem to promote the kind of contemplativeness I was seeking to cultivate. Hence, I exulted in my “freedom to quit.” If I felt like walking home for the second half of my run, I did it, and I sought to make that walking time, too, a time of prayer.

But then (before my first marathon) my inner world took another turn: I discovered the joy of working the Twelve Steps. One of the key emphases of this spiritual tradition of lived, practical wisdom is that one’s own will-power is not the answer. It is not the answer to overcoming addiction. It is not the answer to finding deep freedom. It is not the answer to becoming happy or satisfied.

Now, this breakthrough served to confirm my previous embrace of the “freedom to quit.” But (in the context of the rest of steps and the culture of the Twelve Step community)  it also served to drive deep into my being an additional “lesson” which I had assented to intellectually but perhaps not embraced holistically: the humility of self-forgetfulness.

Not only is reliance on my own will power a death knell, but so also is one’s obsession with (or even consciousness of) self.

“How do I look?”

“How am I doing?”

“Do people like me?”

“Am I succeeding?”

So much of personal happiness is learning to wean oneself off of such habits.

And so it is that, when I was running my first (and most recent) marathon, and I desperately wanted to quit, I was cognizant of my “freedom to quit.” But then I immediately had another, instinctual realization. If I was free to quit, then I was also free to keep going.

Put it another way. One might assume that if a runner has true humility then she will not allow herself to quit. That would be soft; that would be self indulgent.

My “first breakthrough” was that this assumption is false, and that, actually, that kind of self-reliance is arrogant and self-centered, relying as it does on the strength of one’s own will power. Thus, the truly self-actualized, spiritual person / runner will paradoxically embrace her freedom to quit.

I still believe this, but what I realized in my “second breakthrough” was that sometimes when one quits, this, too is a form of self-obsession 0r self-consciousness. If I totally forget myself, then continuing to run (mile 10, mile 12, mile 22, etc.) is just as “available” an option, just as live-giving an option, as is quitting the run.

True, there is no shame in quitting. But, just as truly, there is no bondage in continuing to run. Once my self is transcended (this takes place moment by moment, nanosecond by nanosecond), at one level it does not matter if I quit or continue.

Hence I might as well continue.

This is a little window into my psychological experience of running. And this is why I say that running is, or can be, zen.


“Meritocracy:” Hypocrisy.

This past semester (Fall of 2014) in my Christian Formation Class at Christ Church, we participated in a class called “‘Dearly I Love Thee:’ Poetry & the Anglican Way” in which we considered the lives and work of several Anglican poets from Mary Sidney Herbert down through W.H. Auden.

I’ve always wondered about poets, in particular how they are “formed:” is their creative output more about nature than nurture? A popular view of poetry might assume so (and so did I for years) but over the years I have begun to sense that actually most Western poets are also steeped in history, literature, language (e.g. Greek and Latin), philosophy, and ancient intellectual “practices” such as the trivium and the quadrivium. Doing a christian formation class on such poets served (as all my classes do) as an opportunity to educate myself more.

One issue that kept coming up as we progressed historically from the 16th century to the 2oth was the historical development of popular democritization of literature, related to what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) discusses in terms of the “flattening out” of social space into “one speed.”

It’s a  familar story, one that gets worked into our psyches even from pop media and social media: hierarchy good, mass culture bad. Familiar, yes, but with noteworthy divergences including Marx, Nietzsche on the “left” and Leo Strauss on the “right.” Oh, and of course Plato, who in The Republic argues for the rule of wisdom (and the Philosopher King), over and against the likes of democracy, aristocracy, and timocracy.

Timocracy? Less familiar to us (as evidenced by the nonrecognition of my computer “spell checker”), but one of main political options for Plato. Timocracy means “rule by honor,” and is that system of politics by which the honorable rule. (We will “bracket” the issue of who gets to decide who the honorable are.)

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously reference timocracy outside of academic discussions of ancient texts. But most of us are, however, familiar with a similar concept: meritocracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. once quipped: “Let us judge a person not on the basis of his skin color, but on the content of his character.”

In last semester’s poetry class, discussing Eliot and Auden, one member of the group casually mentioned (as if it were a matter of obvious fact) that, in the 20th (and 21st) centuries, we no longer live in a hierarchy, but in a meritocracy.

Really? The latin verb mereo means “to deserve, to be entitled to” and meritocracy is a political arrangement in which those who “rule,” those who succeed, those to find themselves at the top of the political and social pecking order, have arrived at that pinnacle not by family pedigree (hierarchical aristocracy), not by “might makes right,” not by wisdom (philosophical rule), not by virtue of citizenship alone (democracy), but by virtue of their own merit. Their own meritoriousness. The powerful are at the top because they have earned it, because they deserve it.

Is contemporary America a meritocracy?

No way. My problem is not simply that this view is inaccurate. It is that, which is not to deny the qualified, relative virtue of our time over and against previous (pre-Enlightened) regimes and civilizations. It is, of course, better that voting rights not be distributed according to gender or race than that they are so distributed. Thank God for such progress. And one should freely admit that a poor person lacking social advantage can “make it” in today’s America much more easily than, say, in feudal Europe.

But to claim that those at the top today are there because they deserve it smacks of hypocracy. It is to ignore not only that the playing field is still not level, and to assign a moral inferiority to those who have not made it. I’d be willing to bet that most of the people who think we live in a meritocracy already find themselves at the top.

Perhaps worst of all, it smacks of rugged invidualism, in arrogant denial that any good gifts in my life (including honor and “merit”) are just that: gifts.

At the end of the day, I hope not to be judged by the content of my character. If that happens, I’m screwed. Instead, I will repent and strive to grow in faithfulness to Christ. And be thankful and humble for the gifts I’ve been given.

 

 


Foucault’s Quest for Pure Nature

The following quotation, from James Miller’s 1993 biography The Passion of Michel Foucault, confirms my suspicion that, after all is said and done, Foucault is still a kind of essentialist with respect to human nature.

Foucault suggests that behind the ‘deceptive surfaces’ of modern society lurks a human ‘nature metamorphosized in depth by the powers of a counter-nature.’ Containing, as it does, ‘the passage from life to death,’ the ‘great interior labyrinth,’ like Sade’s Castle of Murders, organizes a space proper to ‘modern perversity.’ ‘A cage,’ the labyrinth ‘makes of man a beast of desire’; a tomb,’ it ‘weaves beneath states a counter-city’; a diabolically clever invention, it is designed to unleash ‘all the volcanos of madness,’—threatening to destroy ‘the oldest laws and pacts.’

– James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 146-47 (The quotations within the quotation are mainly from Foucault’s [1962] article “Un si cruel savoir.)

Foucault is committed to the task, that is, of “peeling back” all cultural (humanly produced, whether intentional or not) influences, definitions, “historical aprioris,” etc. so as to arrive at the authentically human, at the authentic self. The procedure for such self transformation is connected to his talk of transgressing all limits and hence the necessity of cultivating for oneself various kinds of “limit experiences” (alcohol, fainting, exhaustion, heady literary effects of certain kinds of fiction, torture a la the Marquis de Sade, and–Foucault’s personal favorite–sado-massochism).

Once these limits are transgressed–and this is especially true for the absolute self-imposed limit experience of suicide–then one is finally free of all cultural constraints and is in touch with one’s “true self.”

Now, granted, this is not an example of traditional essentialism, where one identifies an object as a fixed instance of some genus or type of thing, hence having a fixed definition and classification. Nevertheless, there is a distinctively modern drive in Foucault to arrive at a final destination, a purely natural Ur reality, untrammeled by human culture, where one is free to be what one “truly is” (even if one is dead). (Note: it is clear to me in this context that the overall project of Derrida, who would never jump on Foucault’s metaphysical bandwagon here, is superior to Foucault’s.)

Contrast this zeal for pure nature with orthodox Christian theology, for which there is not brute nature and no brute human nature. For Scripture and tradition man is always-already conditioned and constrained by logos / language / culture / habit / politics,  by relationship with a logos-uttering God who is himself a community of persons.

For Christian theology there is no need to “peel back” all linguistic shaping, for there is no possibility of doing so.

 

 

 


Dostoevsky, Desire, & Seduction
In Notes from the Underground we see that for Dostoevsky desires (including sordid ones) cannot successfully be eradicated or stamped out. Instead they can be transformed through seduction. Thus the Underground Man quips: “So change them, seduce me with something else, give me a different ideal.”

In this spirit, Socrates in the latter books of Plato’s Republic tries to “seduce” Glaucon out of his tyrannical tendencies and aspirations by appeal to the superior pleasure of the philosophical life.

So also Aidan Kavanagh says, “Liturgy exists not to educate, but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.” (Having said this, I might want to quibble with Kavanagh’s use of “educate,” seeking to show how it is quite compatible with seduction. Education as ex-duco, a kind of “drawing out” from the deep reservoirs of anamnesis, a la St. Augustine, etc.)

All things for Good (Recovery Style)

“… God works all things together for the good of those who love him, and are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Anyone who has ever come along side someone who is suffering, or anyone who has struggled themselves, knows about the double-edged sword of these words from St. Paul. On the one hand they can be a wellspring of deep, invincible encouragement. One the other hand, though, they can sometimes feel like a “trite ditty,” a “pat answer.”

Nowhere is the latter edge of the sword more painful than when engaged in discussions with people who are deeply skeptical of the Christian Faith, especially when such suspicions are fueled by arguments about suffering and injustice in the world.

Why do shitty things happen, anyway, in a world that a good God supposedly made and loves?

Enter a recent experience I had with a group of fellow travelers who were huddled around the 12 steps of life-giving wisdom. (Yes, I’ve had the transformative gift of traveling with these broken, nonjudgmental, humble, joyful folks for a while now.) The passage we were focusing on was an autobiographical “testimony” offered by a poor, black, sexually used and abused woman who had finally, miraculously found the gift of sobriety.

She goes into great detail about the hopelessness, pain, and suffering that she went through on her way to hitting “rock bottom.” Sentences and clauses like this: “Now I had gotten to the place where I would wake up with black eyes and not know where I got them….”

But the real zinger of the chapter is this: “It was [in prison] that I found out what [recovery] was…. Today I thank my Higher Power for giving me another chance at life and … being able to help another [person who is in need].”

When I was huddled up with those secular saints meditating on this story and these words, all of the sudden it hit me: twelve step recovery proves that Romans 8:28 is true! For countless folks who were at the end of their rope, God used their darkest hours to rescue them, to restore them to sanity and health, to life and peace. This poor, black, sexually used and abused woman, who has now found true liberation, is just one of them.

And so am I.


Old People Pretending to be Young

I am 42 years old. I’m an old man. Worse, I’m a middle-aged man. Deal with it. (Yes, I’m talking to myself.)

I’m much too old, for example, to write a subversive shard of provocative bricolage, assembling an argument about why Millenials are leaving the Church in droves (while claiming to be one of them).

May God grant me the grace & peace to admit who I am, to be comfy in my own skin.

Then, and only then, will there be a modicum of hope  that “young people” — who these days often call me “sir” — will look to me as a leader, will consider me a resource for navigating the turbulent cultural waves of our time. (Such leadership will then be a “bonus,” not a motive for striving to be at peace with myself.)

In an culture in which “agism” is the last acceptable “ism,” I’m over it. I think I’m legit (hopefully in a humble way) … whether you feel the need to call me “sir” or not.


“Pass[ing] Understanding:” Liturgy, Thomas, & Van Til’s Oversimplification

“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God….”

These words constitute (along with others) the “final blessing” or “benediction” at the end of the Holy Eucharist, both Rites I & II, from the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

For years I have pondered the claim of Cornelius Van Til, not just that human reason is “fallen,” that is, debilitated in some way as a result of the Fall of Humanity, but that medieval thinkers, and St. Thomas Aquinas in particular, erroneously hold that human reason, after the fall, remains in its pristine, pre-lapsarian state, and is thus not fallen.

(Not sure if there are sill any serious “vantillians” out there nowadays, but still….)

At the end of a service of Holy Eucharist a few months ago, while con-celebrating with a fellow presbyter at my home parish, I believe that I had an insight into why Van Til is basically wrong. Further, I think that this “case study” is a good example of a deeper problem which characterizes the thought of many conservative evangelicals, even those who are relatively rigorous academically.

Here’s how it happened. My fellow priest who was celebrating on this particular occasion a few weeks ago, inserted the word “human” into the final benediction of the liturgy: “… the peace of God which passeth all human understanding, keep your heart….” [italics mine] This “spontaneous” insertion into the liturgy caught my attention, not merely because I generally regard such insertions as unnecessary, superfluous, and pernicious (participating as they do in the modern enlightenment Romantic tendency toward “expressive individualism”), but also just because it was not clear to me that it was accurate.

That is, it was not at all clear to me that, in fact, the “peace of God” here passes some understanding that is specifically and distinctively human.

Now, of course, I “get” the intention of the celebrant. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure I myself “experimented” with this spontaneous emendation a couple of times myself.) His point was that, surely, nothing can possibly surpass the understanding of God.

But it is precisely here that the folly of such expressive individualism lies, for according to the tradition — as seen, for example, in Plato and St. Thomas — there is no understanding that is not human.  That is, there is no such thing as a “divine understanding.”

Understanding, in short, is a human thing. Only humans (that is, rational animals) know by that discursive process called “understanding.” For Plato (as seen in the penultimate segment of his “line” image in Book VI of the Republic the term here is dianoia (“knowing through”), while for Thomas in the Summa Theologiae it is ratio. For Thomas, God (as well as angels) does not know by “rationization” … he knows things directly, through the simplicity of God’s divine self (which is to say, not through anything at all).

OK, back to Van Til. Van Til says that for Thomas “reason is not fallen.” But this is a horrible oversimplification, for it fails to distinguish between the kind of knowing that humans (characteristically) “do” and the kind of knowing that God “does.” What humans do is dianoia / ratio; what God (and angels … and perhaps exceptional cases in which humans achieve a kind of unmediated knowledge, such as perhaps what St. Augustine reports in Bk VII of the Confessions) does is noesisintellectus.

Does the peace of God pass all understanding? Yes, because only humans “do” understanding; God does not. Hence, the qualification of “human” inserted into “the peace of God which passeth understanding” is not just superfluous but a kind of category mistake.

Does Thomas think that “reason” is fallen? Contra Van Til, yes he does: dianoia / ratio, as a human activity or faculty, is impaired by man’s sin and the fall. However, noesis / intellectus is not fallen, and it might just be possible that maybe just maybe human beings can participate in this divine activity, by grace.

Be that as it may, while the peace of God surely does surpass ratio (which is by definition human), there is no way it could possibly surpass intellectus (which is by definition divine and / or angelic).

 

 


If I don’t control my appetites …

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will end up drunk in a ditch on the side of the road.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will get type two diabetes and probably die of cancer at an early age.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, eventually my wife will leave me and I will lose my ministry and my kids will grow up damaged and dysfunctional.

All of this (and more) I believe. After all, “… the fruit of the Spirit is … self-control….” (Gal 5:22-3).

But if one wants to control her appetites, then maybe it would be a tad helpful to know what an appetite actually is. (For appetites manifestly are not controlled by “trying harder.”)

Enter Thomas Aquinas, who has some very interesting things to say about appetite and the larger issue of desire.

By the way, as an Anglican priest I’d be remiss not to mention that our Book of Common Prayer is replete with references to desire, not least the Collect for Purity: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Indeed, desire is what the Christian life is all about. (John Piper gets this right with his “Christian Hedonism,” in my opinion, albeit in a truncated way which leaves much to be desired — no pun intended.)

For example Thomas insists that, though all people do not choose God, all people do nevertheless desire God.

He also teaches that if a thing exists, then it has appetite. So rocks have appetite, as do trees, earthworms, chimps, human beings, angels (what Thomas sometimes, in a more metaphysical mode, calls “intelligences”), even God himself. Appetite is the tendency that a thing has to “complete” itself, to strive for its telos.

For Thomas the appetite, like the external sense organs of eye, ear, nose, etc., are passive. They require an object if they are to be “activated.” But the object required to activate or to “ignite” the appetite is no ordinary object. It is a fusion of various “inputs,” the result of a chain of psychic steps which include sense impression, synthesis by the common sense, and “intention.”

What, you ask, is an “intention?” For Thomas an intention is a kind of psychic apprehension (performed in nonrational animals by natural instinct, and in humans by the evaluative faculty known as the vis cogatitiva) by which an object is imbued with self interest. That is, a lamb grasps by natural instinct that a lion is a threat; a human being (who happens to be an entrepreneur) grasps that a market opportunity will create wealth which will lead to creaturely comfort.

More on appetite forthcoming. For now, if you want to control your appetites, perhaps you should know what they are, and how they work.

For more, see Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, ch. 1.)


Everything’s Doing It: Being’s Appetite

Nicholas E. Lombardo, O.P. does a great job of showing how, for Thomas, human psychology is rooted in metaphysics. To see this one need only to note that in ST I 5 the Angelic Doctor establishes that being is convertible with the good (everything that exists is good, and vice-versa), and that the good is that which is desirable, or “appetible.”

Hence all existing things, and not just animals (rational or otherwise) are characterized by desire or appetite: they all strive toward their perfection / fulfilment / telos.

As Lombardo rightly concludes: “Consequently, for Thomas, all being is ecstatic.” (Lombardo, _Logic of Desire_, 26).

Prior to reading this book, had someone asked me, “Why, for Thomas, is all being ecstatic?” I probably would not have known what to say. In fact, last semester I read deeply in John Wippel’s The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas, and while I do recall his emphasis that being is “pure act,” I don’t recall him connecting being’s activity or ecstasis specifically to desire or appetite.


Thomistic Brain Science? (Initial Thoughts)

From the perspective of theological anthropology, what should one make of contemporary “brain science?” That is, when you are at a conference and the scientific expert is locating various human activities (fear, abstract thinking, anger, etc.) in various specific parts of the brain, is this coherent from a theological point of view?

It is tempting for me (as a traditionalist Christian) to say, “No, because abstract thinking, for example, is not spatially located.” (You see, I am not a material reductionist; I believe in an immaterial soul, at least in human beings.)

But wait. This is where Thomas comes in. Thomas would distinguish between, say, fear on the one hand, and “universal reason” on the other.  For Thomas, the former _is_ spatially localizable, since nonrational animals fear (fear is a passion, which results when the animal’s sense appetite is moved by the perception of an intention), and the (nonrational) animal psyche (and all psychic powers of the nonrational animal) is corporeal without remainder (Lombardo, _Logic of Desire_ 24).

However, for Thomas “abstract thinking,” or what he would call “universal reason” occurs only in rational animals, and is an activity which takes place in and through the immaterial intellect, which is thus not spatially localizable.

However, does it necessarily follow from this claim that “universal reason” is unrelated to local parts of the brain? I don’t think so. It may well be the case that a specific part of the brain is necessary for universal reason to take place. (After all, the same thing can be said for the external senses, which are spatially localizable.)


Scratching Where it Itches: What is Emotion?

I am interesting in showing the modern provenance of the contemporary idea of emotion, demonstrating its innovative character as a rupture from premodern accounts of human experience rooted in Aristotle’s view of the soul and the tradition of virtue.

In his The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, Nicholas E. Lombardo, OP gives a brief account of the development of thinking about emotion in recent modernity.

A key issue in thinking about this is: what role does the body play?

William James, “What is an Emotion?” 1884 – “Our natural way of thinking about … emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily perception. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.

So for James an emotion is the feeling of a perception-induced bodily change, not a mental affection that gives rise to a “bodily perception.”

James identification of emotion as bodily feeling has antecedents in Hume’s theory of the passions.

Although critics of James’ view (such as Walter Cannon) emerged, emotion-as-bodily-feeling was convenient to behaviorism (with its “purposeful avoidance of interior phenomena”) and logical positivism (with its “reduction of ethics to irrational emotivism”). On this view emotions are regarded as “physiological and nonrational,” and hence have little to do with philosophy.

But eventually Anglo-American philosophy began to shift toward a cognitive account of emotion, with the publication of Errol Bedford’s “Emotions” in 1957. Bedford argues that “emotions have a cognitive dimension that theories of emotion as pure feelings cannot explain.” 11

Then Anthony Kenney publishes an article in which he argues that emotions are “intentional,” that is, “directed toward definite objects.” Next: George Pitcher argues that emotions are interior sensations, contra Hume and James. After the subsequent work of Magda Arnold and the emergence of a new interest in cognition in philosophy and psychology, “cognitive accounts of emotion have since become dominant.”

This is true for Martha Nussbaum and Robert Solomon. Solomon maintains that emotions are inner judgements, while Nussbaum has developed a “neo-Stoic ‘cognitive-evaluative’ view, according to which emotions are forms of evaluative judgment that ascribe to certain things and persons outside one’s control great importance for a person’s own flourishing.” Bodily feeling, thinks Nussbaum, sometime accompanies emotion but is not essential to it.

Which of the two views: the more body-centered one of James & company, or the more cognitive one of Solomon / Nussbaum, is more Christian, more consistent with a Christian anthropology? That (among other things) is what I’m hoping to find out.

 


Boethius & the Maiming of Metaphysics

What is the relationship between metaphysics and the revealed “system” of doctrinal truth called theology?

Some – such as 20th century “manual theologian” Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange – see a relationship of extreme continuity such that the two disciplines “overlap” almost totally. Others, often working in the post-metaphysical wake of Martin Heidegger, think that any would-be metaphysical determination of God participates in “ontotheology” or the metaphysics of presence, and is thus an example of conceptual idolatry, completely failing to speak truthfully of the “God of the philosophers” (to quote Paschal, the Jansenist precursor of this movement). A prime example of this stance is postmodern Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion.

I read Boethius’ De Trinitate in light of this controversial question. To that end I seek to apply the vocabulary of Augustine and Aquinas: Augustine who equates his project with that of Aristotle (and Plato), Aquinas who redefines the terms in light of the Aristotle-induced controversy of 13th century Paris.
What we find in the De Trinitate is a middle ground or a third way: in the spirit of Augustine Boethius extends of the Augustinian project of metaphysical wisdom, but in a striking way he anticipates Thomas’ distinction between theology and metaphysics.

In the end what we can say is that Boethius’s De Trinitate is a fecund exhibit of revelation’s impact upon metaphysics, and that in three ways. In light of revelation, Boethius teaches that:
1. Man – Aristotle’s stock example of an individual substance – is demoted to a status which fails to meet the minimum requirements for substantiality.
2. God – the paradigm of esse for Aristotle – is placed “beyond substance” and thus beyond being.
3. Relationality – in Aristotle’s Categories placed in the backwaters of metaphysical insubstantiality – is now elevated to the supreme category, the only one (of the ten) worthy of unqualified divine description.

In the light of this triple reconfiguration the “impact” mentioned above seems so deep as to approach impairment. In fact I suggest that what we see in this theological tractate is the “theological maiming of metaphysics.” However, in the divine economy this kind of impairment serves a redemptive purpose, as we see in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.


Lewis, Milton, & Solid “Spirits”

In _The Great Divorce_, Lewis’ heavenly beings – incredibly solid & blindingly bright – are called “spirits.” They stand in stark contrast to the less-than-fully-real, spectral travelers from the cosmic omnibus, newly arrived into the realm of the Real, who are called “ghosts.”

This metaphysical nomenclature is medieval, biblical, & correct, & hints at Lewis’ proper criticisms of Milton’s idea of material angels, expressed in his _Preface to Paradise Lost_.


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.