Nietzsche & “Family Values”

When was the last time you heard a pastor or a conservative politician in America invoke the notion of “traditional family values”? Examples of this kind of rhetoric abound, and one quick example is this.

Question: if 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could hear someone (a pastor, a politician, a “think tank”) invoke this rhetorical phrase, what would he say? I’m pretty sure he’d say: “I won!”

In his editorial introduction to Nietzsche’s _Beyond Good and Evil_, Rolf Peter Hortsmann provides the following summary of three Nietzschean bedrock convictions as expressed in this book (pp xvi – xvii):

  1. “Life is best conceived of as a chaotic dynamic process w/o any stability or direction.”
  2. We have no reason whatsoever to believe in any such thing as the “sense” or “value” of life, insofar as these terms imply the idea of an “objective” or “natural” purpose of life.
  3. Human life is “value-oriented” in its very essence – that is, w/o adherence to some set of values or other, human life would be virtually impossible.

Commenting on this summary, Hortsmann continues: “Where the first conviction is supposed to state an ontological fact, the second is meant to be an application of the ontological point to the normative aspects of human life in particular. The third conviction, though somewhat at odds with the first two, is taken by Nietzsche to reveal a psychological necessity.”

Values, then, are for Nietzsche a way of coping with the senselessness of life.

Now, as Allan Bloom states in this lecture, no-one in the United States talked about “values” before Nietzsche; he introduced this language and rhetoric into our culture. Why, then, do conservative, evangelical Christians adopt a category which has as its foundation atheistic nihilism? Why do they speak of “values,” as in “traditional, family values”?

The answer to that question is complicated, but for me the most penetrating analysis would have to deal with the fact that evangelicalism, in addition to its frequent historical ignorance, long ago jettisoned the Church’s traditional language of the objective Good which is mediated by and embodied in the formation of virtue. It has become a thinly-veiled secularism.

If you lose the language and tradition of virtue (and by the way “virtue” was totally absent from my senior-year ethics class at a prominent Evangelical seminary in the year 2000; instead we focused entirely on “what the Bible teaches”), then you lose any objective basis for morality. And if you lose that, then right-and-wrong devolve into something like preference.

“My tribe’s ‘preference’ over yours:” this is not far from today’s culture wars. That the partisans in this struggle often resort to bullying and might-makes-right tactics (on both sides, including the “Christian Right”) is yet another symptom of the underlying source of the illness: that modern American evangelicalism has “given away the farm” to secularism.



A Certain Distinction in Nietzsche

To introduce a certain way of thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche, one could consider, by way of analogy, the term “pluralism.” Pluralism can refer to either a cultural state of affairs (ie, that which is the case in a given culture) or to an ideology, or, for the purposes of this discussion, a philosophical doctrine.

Now, I want to raise the specter that something like this distinction b/t a state of affairs and a philosophical doctrine may well be operative in N’s thought. At the very least I’d argue that if one is not at least tempted at some point in his reading of N to entertain this possibility, then one is missing a crucial aspect of N.

In fact, I’d argue that something like this is the case for N’s notion of the “death of God.” I’d definitely argue that what is going on in this discourse of Nietzshe’s is more akin to a state of affairs than it is to a philosophical doctrine. To be clear, I don’t think that N is actually saying that God has died. He is saying that the philosophical and cultural currency of the reality of God (and all that it entails) is what has dies.

Further, this is a more radical reading of N than simply to hold that he is merely apsousing atheism. Why? Because is allows one to co-opt N for a very “Nietzschean” project: the critique of various reigning ideologies in our late capitalist culture which, while functionally “atheist,” are a least as bourgeois as form of “Christianity” which held sway in N’s day.

Now, I do think that N’s “God is dead” describes a certain state of affairs rather than an actual doctrine which N holds (a proposition dramatically strengthened if one holds that philosophical doctrines are by definition off-limits for N); however I do not necessarily think this is the case for his teaching on “values” as we find it in his genealogical works, and in particular Beyond Good and Evil.

Husserl & the Ideological Hegemony of “Science”

A friend recently pointed me to an article delivered by one Grant Franks at St. John’s College in the late 1990’s, which deals with the relationship between ancient thought and modern thought.

In the article, Franks discusses Edmund Husserl’s appraisal of the origins of modern science: “In the Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl argues that Descartes and Galileo—or more accurately, the scientific enterprise they launched—are responsible for the “most portentous upheavels” of twentieth century European civilization. Franks continues:

This lamentable situation has come about because of a dual expansion and contraction of the domain of scientific knowledge. The realm of science has grown insofar as the new methodical natural science claims to be a mathesis universalis, encompassing all possible knowledge. On the other hand, since the scientific demand for rigor cannot be imposed on all fields of human interest, whole regions of thought and inquiry—specifically all metaphysics and ethics—have been jettisoned and regarded as being unknowable, unscientific, and consequently uninteresting.

I’d argue that this denigration of metaphysics results in part from the novelty of one aspect of Descartes’ method of study as opposed to that of Aristotle. For the ancient Stagirite, the recommended approach to knowledge is to begin with what is most knowable to the human thinker, and to proceed from there to what is most knowable in itself. In this manner Aristotle advocates beginning with realities that the human mind can lay hold of, even if those objects of study (physical objects, concepts, texts, syllogisms, whatever) are somewhat hazy and vague. Try to grasp hold of the object, Aristotle advocates, and see if you can make progress with it, see if you can gain some sort of clearer insight.

For Descartes, however, this approach already gets off on the wrong foot. For him, human reason cannot even countenance an object unless it is clear and distinct, unless it is amenable to “clear and distinct ideas.” What could possibly be more clear and distinct that the numbers and objects of mathematics, now (by the 16th century) stripped down to their bare, instrumental “essentials”? (By “instrumental” I mean a notion of number stripped of all premodern numerological theory as advocated by such diverse parties as the Pythagoreans, Plato, neoplatonists such as Boethius, and Renaissance thinkers of various stripes. Now, for Descartes, numbers have absolutely no concrete content on their own; they are mere instruments which serve the purpose of conducting operations on nature. They are mere tools.)

Husserl advocates a return, for the purposes of this specific discussion, to Aristotle’s method of mathesis. In so doing he proves himself an ally to anyone interested in undermining the ideological hegemony of the modern “science” of the (post)modern West in our time.

Time Travel & Onto-theology

If time travel were possible then a conversation like this, between my 40-year old self and my 30-year old self, would also be possible.

40-yr-old Matt: “I like Hegel. He rescued metaphysics from horrid Kant.”

30-yr-old Matt: “I don’t believe in metaphysics.”

40-yr-old Matt: “Then you don’t believe in God.”

30-yr-old Matt: “I don’t believe in ‘the god of the philosophers.'”

40-yr-old Matt: “Then you don’t believe in the “god” of, say, the Cappadocian Fathers, and so you don’t believe in the Trinity.”

30-year-old Matt: “Well … hmmm … let me think about that.”

Peregrination, Friendship, & Subjectivity

Warning: this post is intended only for philosophy geeks, or those who’d like to become philosophy geeks.

A dear friend, with whom I have been traveling the Christian journey of faith seeking understanding for two decades, asked me to explain how I understand what Kierkegaard means when he says that the human subject is infinitely negative. So here goes:

Hegel writes, “[t]his Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity.” (Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, § 18)

Twenty years ago in a course on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I was deeply struck by the phrase, in connection with Kierkegaard, “infinite, negative subjectivity.” Turns out, however, I had no idea, metaphysically speaking, what it actually meant.

But I think I’m getting it now.

It is helpful for me to start with a Parmenidean insight. Parmenides, in absolute denial of the meaningfulness or the value of sense experience, states that being must necessarily be one, since nonbeing is not able to be countenanced. That is, it is not the case that multiple object exists, since in this case a kind of nonbeing would obtain: the A is not B. The horse is not the giraffe, and so on.

The cup on my desk is not the same as the pen on my desk. As cup, it is not pen. That is to say, with respect to the (essence of the) pen, the cup is not. It is “negative” with respect to the pen.

But as Dr. Wood said in class recently, it is not of the cup’s essence that it be “negative” with respect to every other object. (That is, the cup has a definite, individuated determination.) However, for “human awareness” (Dr. Wood’s words), this negativity is of its essence. That is, subjective consciousness has no essence other than it is not this or that or the pen or the cup or Socrates. (Unlike the cup, it has no definite, individuated determination.) It has no essence in this sense. It is empty. And yet, we deny that it does not exist. It does exist, also that it has no essence other than infinite negation.

One last note: this is (the logical outworking of) Cartesian subjectivity; it is the subjectivity which Foucault (along with Nietzsche) rejects.

Bonaventure, Philosophy, & Theology

What is theology, and what is faith? We in the 21st century West live in an emotivistic culture which is worse than clueless about these things.

For most people in our culture, faith has to do with feelings or private, emotional preferences. “I believe in a God that would never get angry;” “I feel like I don’t really need to go to church;” etc.

But for our premodern forbears in the West, faith is a means to knowledge which compliments and is complemented by reason. Faith is what accepts and grasps the content of revelation, and thus serves as the basis for theology, which applies the tools of rational thought and discourse to the content of revelation, for example, the idea that God is three distinct Persons in one unified substance (or the doctrine of the Trinity).

For a premodern thinker such as St. Bonaventure, there is no sharp dichotomy between faith and reason as there is for us moderns who have ripped and rent the two apart. A good “case study” in this arena is the way Bonaventure allows theology to undermine the neoplatonist theory of divine emanation.

Now a good premodern neoplatonist would follow Plotinus in his view that the world is a necessary emanation from God. Only problem is, this view flies in the face of Christian orthodoxy which asserts an ontological distinction between God and God’s creation. Orthodox Christians are not pantheists, and yet pantheism is where neoplatonic emanationism straightaway leads.

As Peter Spotswood Dillard shows in his helpful _A Way into Scholasticism_, however, Bonaventure does not simply dismiss the idea of divine emanation. He is a good neoplatonist, and he thinks that the idea that God, as Being Itself and the Superexcellent Good, necessarily emanates his being, that God’s being and goodness are superabundantly effusive, is a tenant of proper reason.

And yet Bonaventure holds not only that the world’s being lacks goodness in comparison to God (a non sequitur for standard neoplatonic emanationism), but also that the existence of the world is not necessary. In light of his neoplatonist commitments, what, for the Seraphic Doctor, gives?

Not his commitment to divine emanation, but rather his determination of that in which the emanations consist. For they consist not first and foremost in the creation / world / universe, but rather in the in extra emanations of the Son and the Spirit:

Therefore, unless there were eternally in the highest good a production which is actual and consubstantial, and a hypothesis as noble as the producer–and this is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–unless these were present, [God] would by no means be the highest good because [God] would not diffuse [God’s self] to the highest degree.

Lots of neoplatonist assumptions packed into that dense statement, but the upshot is that, if God does not produce an emanation which contains the fullness of being just as God does, then God is not the highest good … then God is not God. Hence, for Bonaventure, God must produce an emanation which is maximally existent (if I can use that word).

The upshot for my argument, then, is that what we are witnessing here is theology / revelation / faith “messing with” or altering or qualifying or positioning philosophy / universally-valid-premises / reason. Not only does the orthodox repudiation of pantheism motivate Bonaventure to deny the world as a necessary emanation of God’s very being, but so does the revelation of the Holy Trinity. Since the Father “necessarily” emanates the Son (i.e., the Father’s nature is to do this), we don’t need to regard the world as a necessary, divine emanation in order to honor what Bonaventure regards as the rational truths of neoplatonism.

Faith and reason, theology and philosophy, are here working in tandem. Both are subjected to rational discourse and rational procedures. Both work together in us to produce in us the fullness of knowledge.

Bonaventure & “Affective Experience”

In Bonaventure’s _The Soul’s Journey into God_, the Seraphic Doctor offers a regimen for how the soul can come to mirror God, a suggested path for what this might look like.

In this context he says that such an achievement “is more a matter of affective experience [of the inner senses] than rational consideration.”

What might this affective experience of the inner senses mean? What is “inner sense,” anyway?

Without getting too bogged down in pre-modern faculty theory, recall that Aristotle and his medieval followers believed in a faculty of the soul called the “common sense.” This faculty or power is what allows a person to coordinate various sensory input. For example, consider an ice cube. If one holds the ice cube in her hand, she perceives by the sense of touch that it is cold, but she _also_ perceives by vision that it is grey in color, and cubical in shape. But how does she know that the cold thing and the cubical thing are one and the same thing? She knows this, thanks to the work of the inner sense power called the common sense.

Now, although for some early modern thinkers such as Descartes the common sense receives its input prior to the work of the memory and the imagination, for scholastic thinkers such as Thomas and Bonaventure, the common sense is situated _after_ the memory and the imagination. What this means is that the work of his faculty is not limited to the coordination of various sense stimuli, coming from diverse organs of the outer sense (e.g. eyes and skin). Rather, the common sense also imbues the object of thought with qualities supplied by memory and imagination. Surely it is here, in the memory and the imagination, where the “affections” which Bonaventure stresses, originate.

I thought of an example. Suppose you had a bit too much to drink last night. Suppose you drank a bit too much vodka, and you are a bit hung over. Suppose, further, that you just finished a 7 mile morning run, and you are very thirsty. You look up and you see two bottles, both containing clear liquid. For the purpose of this analogy assume that neither bottle has a label on it. You know that one bottle contains vodka, and the other one water.

Notice that the sensory input coming from you eyes as they gaze upon the different bottles is identical. That is, the eyes perceive no difference between the liquid contained in the two bottles: in both cases it is clear and colorless. Yet when you focus on the bottle of vodka you are repulsed, and when you focus on the bottle of water, you are so attracted to it that your mouth waters, impelling you finally to pick up the bottle, open the lid, and gulp down its contents.

What accounts for the difference between your different perceptions of the two bottles of clear, colorless liquid? It is not your vision or any other external sense power. The difference is “affective:” your perception is altered by the “inner sense power,” the “faculty” of “common sense,” which combines features of the two liquids, supplied by the memory and the imagination, with your visual perception of them.

Episcopal GC 2015 – Is Anyone Listening?

As an Episcopal priest serving in Texas, I am well acquainted with something like political whiplash. Or perhaps it could be better described as ideological schizophrenia.

On the one hand, I minister in a national Church which tends to line up with the views expressed on or sometimes even On the other hand, I serve in a local context in which if one dare question the reigning assumptions of Fox News, his or her status as a good American is now deeply suspect.

This is the vantage point from which I observe the goings on at General Convention in Salt Lake City. I pray for my bishops, that they will somehow discern the mind of Christ, and for the clergy and lay delegates from our diocese, that they will have discernment and serve faithfully.

I read of the actions and results of General Convention: a march against gun violence, a canonical redefinition of Holy Matrimony, a likely move to divest allocations from certain ideologically offensive funds.

Whether I agree on these issues is totally irrelevant to this article, as is my admission that many in Texas need to hear aspects of the Episcopal Church’s views on these issues.

The question I’m asking is: “is anyone listening?” Yes, many of the major news outlets, traditional and online, will carry the stories. But does anyone in my local ministry context—the folks our community is reaching out to in evangelism—really care?

What is interesting is that, while most of these contacts—the people we believe God is calling to come and taste our Anglican way of being Christian—are quite happy to be living in a “red state,” many of them are not. A good percentage are for gay marriage, against the alleged “right” to bear arms. But both groups are attending our events at church and our evangelistic parties and venues out on the town and at people’s homes: crawfish boils, film nights, pub gatherings, bible studies, service projects.

These people—on the left and on the right—are nothing if not cynical about the church. Many of them walked away from the church, from “organized religion,” years ago. And yet, they are responding to our invitations. They are hanging out with a peculiar group of people (our church community) who love the Body of Christ. They are being drawn in, as if by a “good infection” (to quote CS Lewis).

And now for some more good news. You see, in my local ministry context, we have earned the trust of the community; we have been granted the “right” to minister in ways public (news interviews, interfaith efforts, initiatives for the poor, multi-church conferences) and private (counseling sessions, hospital visits, visits to incarcerated folks). People in our city trust us “on the ground.” They know that we love them, that we love Jesus, and that we are committed to serving our neighbors.

So the ones who would roll their eyes (at best) at the news coming out of Salt Lake City trust us and open themselves up to us anyway, and the ones who would give their Twitter feed a “high five” as the news rolls out of Utah, even if they were to pay attention … these people let us into to their lives, not because they agree with the developments of G.C. They do so, rather, because of something more local, more embodied, more important: a lived encounter with the love of Christ.

Episcopal GC ’15 – Catholic or Ideological?

The state in which I live and from which I hail is not a “blue state.” And within this red state of which I am a bona fide native, my local community is a crimson dot.

Now, many of my fellow denizens in this concentration of crimson culture consider me a “liberal.” They are quite wrong, and as I tell them frequently, “when you are more conservative than St. Paul you have a serious problem.” There is a world of difference, I tell these friends to my right, between a conservative and one who cherishes and believes in tradition. To quote GK Chesterton, “I am a democrat because I believe that my dead ancestors deserve a vote.”

Now there has been talk at General Convention this year about “what to do with the conservatives” who remain in the Episcopal Church. Michael Curry, for example, points to his track record in North Carolina as a precedent for how he might interact with traditionalist Anglicans at home and around the Communion.

Will the new Presiding Bishop continue to purge conservatives from our ranks, or will he (alas no female candidates are under consideration this election cycle) enact policies, precedents, and attitudes which will allow and encourage them to stay?

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey once quipped: “the opposite of Catholic is not Protestant; it is schismatic.” I would suggest one could also hold that the opposite of Catholic is ideological. Any church which claims to embody the catholic faith, then, must resist ideology in all its forms. She must resist the temptation to organize the life of the church around any issue or issues that are not agreed on by all Christians, and made explicit by the great creeds of the Church. She must resist the temptation to exclude those who agree with the majority of the tenets of the catholic faith, but at the same time maintain disagreements on sub-catholic issues, regardless of how emotionally provocative those issues are.

Theologian John Milbank says that the Church is “real social space.” Like an English pub or a coffee house or a neighborhood park, it is a community which transcends differences of ideology. In this community one belongs not because he is conservative or liberal, gay or straight, Boomer or Millennial, Republican or Democrat, but instead simply because she has been baptized into the faith of Jesus Christ.

This ecclesial posture is not optional; it is foundational to the identity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. What do we do with the conservatives, then? We affirm, enjoy, and implement our unity within the Body of Christ with them, overcoming every barrier and distinction which in the world only create divisiveness and fragmentation.

Funky Eastertide: What Goes Down Must Come Up

The window of time between Ascension and Pentecost (about a 10 day period) is interesting. I call it “Funky Eastertide.” Christ has ascended, but the Holy Spirit has not yet descended. What is the meaning of Easter during this time?

Many people are familiar with the saying “What goes up must come down.”

Fewer, however, have deeply meditated on the upward & downward motion which pervades the Christian narrative. For example, only after Christ is “lifted up” on the cross is he then is he lowered down into the depths of the earth, into Hades or Sheol, which many interpret as a kind of descent into Hell. And then, three days later, he is up again, risen victorious, for his disciples and (according to 1 Corinthians 15) a great multitude of 500 to see.

Now I am not one of those Episcopalians who thimks think that Eastern religions such as Buddhism are something we Christians should emulate. However, it does seem to me that this “down – up” pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ constitutes two halves of a larger whole, kind of like the pattern of the yin and yang. They are stitched together, metaphysically, so to speak. You can’t have one without the other. They infuse and saturate each other with meaning.

This down – up pattern has been given the name of “Paschal Mystery” by the Church: what goes down must come up. And what comes up must first have gone down. Without death there is no resurrection life. Without the dark night there can be no sunrise. Without pruning no beautiful rose blossoms.

But as we think about the feasts Ascension and Pentecost, it seems to me that there is something of a “yin-yang” pattern here, as well. Another “up – down” reality which is worthy of contemplation. In the Ascension Christ ascended up into the heavens and vanished from our view. Why did he do this? Why did he go up?

In John 16:7 Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless I go away the Paraclete will not come to you.” Unless he leaves, that is, the Holy Spirit will not be poured down upon all flesh. In a similar vein in John’s resurrection story when Mary Magdalene tries to hold on to her risen Lord, he rebukes her saying, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). It is as if he is saying, “Mary, don’t try to tie me down; I must go up. It is good for you and for the world that I go up. Only if I go up, can something even better come down.”

We who benefit from the entirety of the Christian canon realize that this “something better” is the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured down onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost. This Spirit, St. Paul tells us, is “the Spirit of the Lord” himself (2 Cor 3:17) and the Book of Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit as “The Spirit of the Lord.” That is, when the Spirit descended onto the Church, it was also Christ himself descending onto the Church, coming down and entering our hearts in a fresh, new, powerful way.

Without the downward descent of Good Friday, there can be no victorious burst of Easter resurrection. Without the upward vanishing of Ascension, there can be no downward outpouring of the Spirit of Life.

So here’s a “homework assignment.” The next time you are at church, look for this “up down” imagery in the liturgy. How many times in the Liturgy are things of various kinds elevated and or brought down?

Everything from the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts / we lift them up unto the Lord”) to the manual actions of the Presider at the Table (notice how many times things are elevated or raised) contributes to this pattern in our lives. Look for it. Study it. It is worthy of contemplation.

Sex, Desire, & Bodies

I am currently in a graduate “reading group” on Michel Foucault, and it is in that context that I have been thinking much about sexuality, desire, and bodies.

In addition I just watched a fascinating (and deeply convicting and encouraging) documentary put out by (an organization within) the Catholic Church on which makes the point that for the Christian tradition human desire is something which is disordered but able to be transformed. (To put this in the language of Reformed theology, human desire is good, fallen, and redeemed / redeemable in Christ.)

I heartily agree.

With these matters rumbling around in my head, a personal definition of “sexuality” occurred to me on my morning run today. What is sexuality? It is the human desire for human bodies.

We can speak (without falling into Cartesian dualism) in terms of the subject of this desire and the object of this desire.

The subject is the human being, which is necessarily embodied. It is necessarily embodied because the definition of “human” is “rational animal,” and following Boethius in his ordering of the sciences contained in his De Trinitate, an animal (falling under the rubric of natura or in Greek physis) is “inseparable from [its] material [body], either in thought or in reality. “In thought” means that the definition of something (in this case an animal) necessarily includes the notion of embodiedness or materiality. Here “animal” stands in opposition to other beings such as triangles (which as geometric objects are separable from material in thought) and “intelligences” or angels, or the soul, or God (which are separable in both thought and reality).

So, the subject of sexual desire and sexual activity is a human being, an animal, necessarily embodied.

What, then, is the object? While the subject of the desire is a human being, the object of the desire is the body of a human being.

Why the body and not something else, such as the soul or the mind or the attention of a human being? Because there are other names for each of these desires, for example, companionship, love, kononia, friendship, and the like.

How does this definition of sexuality relate to the traditional notion of eros? I do not know, but perhaps I will turn to that question in the near future.


Gospel for Doubters

It has been my great joy & privilege over the last few months to get to know Matt Magill of The Magills. My favorite Magills song by far is “Yes.”

Is there a love for me?

Can you deliver me?

Will you remember me?

Have you forgiven me?

The answer is always “yes.”

The answer is always “yes.”

If you’re askin’ … you’re already blessed.

What great news, especially for folks plagued by doubt & guilt.

Reminds me of Tim Keller: “A sense of God’s absence is a sign of his presence.”

And Thomas Merton: “Prayer is the desire to pray.”

And CS Lewis: “Do you doubt that you are one of the elect? Say your prayers, and rest assured that you are.”

And don’t forget Keller (again): we must learn to doubt our doubts.

Burrell on Islam

According to David Burrell the Five Pillars of Islam are:

  1. Confessing that God is one and that Muhammad is God’s prophet (the shahada);
  2. Communal ritual prayer, five times daily;
  3. Fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, which ends with …
  4. … an annual obligatory almsgiving;
  5. For those able to do so, making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

(Earlier this week I had lunch in Tyler (Texas) with a new Muslim friend, and he confirmed the accuracy of this list.)

Burrell, whose successful career as an academic theologian took something of a detour a couple of decades ago when he made it his personal mission to educate himself as deeply as possible in the area of Islam, makes some compelling points in this article which Christians and seculars alike in the United States would do well to heed.

First, and this is a major theme in Burrell’s work, is that historically the connections between medieval Christianity and Muslim thought were intimate and productive:

… many Western medieval thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas, reached out to understand Islamic thinkers, especially to learn from their philosophical reflections. That out reach … reflects the fact that the Islamic cultural renaissance in tenth-century Baghdad had anticipated the touted medieval Renaissance in the West by a full two centuries. While Europe was passing through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture in what we call the Middle East was at its peak. Medieval thinkers in the West learned their astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy from the East, and its practitioners were Muslims.

Why this intimate and productive connection? Burrell shows that it is due to the confession of (the first part of) the shahada: “God is one.” This implies that “all-that-is comes forth freely from God, and that all power in the universe is God’s power, however much we may be impressed with our own. But the relation of the universe to the One on whom it depends so utterly and so intimately is quite beyond our capacity to understand, short of a ‘mystical unveiling.’” So a shared commitment to the doctrine of creation is what binds Islam and Christianity together, at least historically (for someone like Thomas Aquinas).

The ineffability of God’s relationship to the creation, though, leads to another feature of Islam which Burrell helpfully points out: for Islam “… orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.” This orthopraxy is deeply communal:

In Islam, individual rights are decidedly subordinated to the well-being of the community, with the consequent effect on the various roles the community assigns to its members. It is here that the image of Islam can chafe Western sensibilities, especially in those Western societies that combine a so-called rights doctrine with a capitalist consumer culture. Yet just as personal affluence usually buys a relative dispensation from communal obligations–a fact even Islamic society has not avoided–we can readily imagine why Islam is so attractive to those members of a society who taste little of its affluence and privilege. In those sectors of our own society where the spirit of capitalism is most starkly displayed in the lucrative but destructive commerce of drug dealing, the communal bonds of Islam and its inherent discipline offer not only welcome protection but a protest against a dominant ideology that has marginalized entire sectors of society in the name of individual rights and economic success. In its communal life, Islam affords a genuine alternative to a liberal society’s libertarian drift, and to the illusory freedom it touts, a freedom utterly beholden to powerful interest groups. If the phrase “common good” has ceased to function in our standard political vocabulary, it needs to become embodied in integral communities. In the United States, Islam has emerged as a viable one in our midst. Islam is the fastest growing faith worldwide, and in recent years has made striking advances in North America, particularly in the United States among African-Americans.

Burrell has several other compelling points in this article, but for me this one hits most deeply, for how could a Christian possibly disagree that, in the midst of a fragmenting culture in which entire cities and neighborhoods are left to rot in the cold, Islam embodies a welcome option in favor of peace, in favor of biblical shalom.

The “individual human rights” of our democratic, late-capitalist, American culture are killing us. In a culture characterized by Fifty Shades of Grey, in which neighborhoods in your own city are dominated by pimps and meth dealers, Islam is at the very least a welcome “co-belligerent” (to use an old phrase coined by Francis Schaeffer).

Zizek & Newman: “Believing at a Distance”

In his (admittedly highly eccentric) would-be defense of Christian orthodoxy, Slavoj Zizek chides us moderns for the chronological snobbery which strangely betrays our naive ignorance:

Was there … at any time in the past, an era when people directly ‘really believed?’ As Robert Pfaller demonstrated in Illusionen der Anderen, the direct belief in a truth that is subjectively fully assumed (“Here I stand!”) is a modern phenomenon, in contrast to traditional beliefs-through-distance, like politeness or rituals. Premodern societies did not believe directly, but through distance, and this explains, for instance, why Enlightenment critics misread ‘primative’ myths–they first took the notion that a tribe originated from a fish or a bird as literal direct belief, then rejected it as stupid, “fetishist,” naive. They thereby imposed their own notion of belief on the “primitivized” Other.

Now consider (Jaroslav Pelikan on) Newman:

By contrast with … the eagerness to be explicit about everything possible (in Lewis Carroll’s phrase, ‘to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast’), the tradition of orthodoxy, in Newman’s reading, had always observed a reverent restraint.

Pelikan goes on to point out that for Newman (or Newman’s reading of Church Fathers such as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus), in its precreedal history “the content of the apostolic tradition had remained secret” in important ways.

Here Zizek resonates with Pelikan’s Newman in their common indictment of the (post)modern tendency–on the part both of believers who embrace it and their cultured despisers who reject it but project it onto ancient people of faith–to posit direct, literal, irreverent and unrestrained belief.

Nobody ever, Zizek is arguing, believed like that. Hence his claim that “we believe today more than ever.”

Kool-Aid Institutional & Familial

For many traditional Episcopalians confirmation is somewhat normal. It is a familiar event, a familiar notion, a familiar thought. It is just something that one does in the course of one’s normal life. It is mainstream.

Indeed, what a blessing that for many this is the case. And yet for whole other large swaths of contemporary culture, nothing could be more bizarre and foreign than participating in a “special worship service” in which a man dressed in flamboyant robes with a pointy hat that looks like something from a comic book lays hands on you and claims to have brought you into …

… into what? Into an institution?

Now, I happen to believe that institutions are a good thing. Without institutions life unravels. Without institutions individuals are left exposed to the potentially oppressive manipulations of state power. Institutions are among the “mediating connections” that bind people together in society. All of this is very “meet and right.”

And yet, the specific characteristic that leaves many in our day with an anti-institutional taste in their mouths is that, all too often, the true motive for institutional activity is mere self-preservation. Why have a meeting? Why have a membership drive? Why raise money? Simply to promote the institution and its survival.

And so it is that, when scores of new friends from all across Tyler & East Texas (most of whom are “young” by Episcopal Church standards) have entered into the hallowed halls of Christ Church over the last three or four years to see what has been going on here, they are confronted by many and diverse aspects of an institutional life that it is foreign. There is a foreign hierarchy. There is a foreign vocabulary. There is a foreign, maze-like building. There are foreign gestures and traditions. There is a foreign ethos and culture. All of these foreign dimensions teeter on the brink of reinforcing the suspicion that one has just entered into … the bowels of an institutional monster.

And yet, there is so much more. You see, my mind is blown that people are “drinking our Kool-Aid.” But what they are drinking is not so much the new hierarchy and tradition and gestures. I do believe in all of that fantastic stuff, and I am confident that, over time, they will, too. But the main thing that folks are imbibing is not a new institution but a new family.

A new family that sticks together. A new family that is messy. A new family that is honest. A new family that does not agree on everything, but is absolutely committed to doing life together. A new family in which Christ is loved & served but not forced onto people. A new family where believing follows belonging.

All of this is both classically Anglican / Episcopalian and “postmodern.” It is “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

Our new members of Christ Church who confirmed last Sunday … for many of them they are joining not so much a new institution, but a new family.

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.)