Aristotle from 30K ft. (for comps)

I’m thankful to have a smart and virtuous colleague with whom to study for comps (one “hurdle” in my PhD program in philosophy), which as of right now I am planning to take in March of 2017.

My colleague asked me to try to articulate a broad summary of Aristotle, sort of from “the 30,000 foot view.” Here’s my stab at this challenge:

For Aristotle all of reality is in the process of becoming, except that he would not quite put it that way, in those Platonic terms. “Process,” yes, but “becoming,” no.

Rather, from the point of departure supplied by Parmenides, he’d say that all reality is in the process of moving or developing (out of potency) into full act, full energeia.

This is true in all three disciplines he adumbrates: his natural philosophy, his metaphysical / theological philosophy, and his ethical philosophy. This cosmic process culminates in the work of the Unmoved Mover, who “moves” the rest of the cosmos by final causality, and it forms the basis for his ethico-politics in that the latter provides the conditions of possibility for the highest human activity/energeia: contemplation of the divine.
There is one gaping exception to this “rule” / pattern, however: the historical realm. For Aristotle, that is, there is zero development historically, absolutely no growth or progress toward some kind of telos in historical terms, for the cosmos as a whole or indeed for mankind within it. It’s not that he entertains this idea and then rejects it by arguing against it. Rather, it seems never to have occurred to him. For him, time is a mere accident of history (Physics IV), animals and human beings die and materially decay, and all of this has continued and will continue from and to infinity.

It is as if the Unmoved Mover is forever holding a carrot above the cosmos, and the cosmos is forever striving to reach the goal, but always already in the end failing, falling short. (The most compelling candidate for “success” in this striving would be that realm above the moon, that of the celestial bodies, perhaps the most outer sphere of them, with their quasi-unchanging and perfect circular motion.)

In the lower sphere, the realm of “nature” where things can be rationally penetrated and articulated only “on the whole and for the most part,” the closest approximation of the perfection / simplicity of the UM is the philosopher in contemplation, an activity (actus / energeia) uniquely related to eudaimonia, which he describes in glowing, metaphysical, divine terms at the very end of the Ethics.




Plato, Patriotism, & the Polis

One of Plato’s dialogues which I assign for my undergraduates is also a text appearing on my upcoming comps exams at UD: the Crito.

In it, Socrates’ friend pleads with him to escape (with the friend’s own help) from the prison where he is being held. Time is of the essence: the one month grace period (resulting from a sacred season of non-violence and mercy toward convicts) is about to end.

In the end, Socrates turns down his friend’s persuasive offer to rescue him and spare his life. Why? There are many detailed reasons and arguments that Socrates gives, including that to escape death would be to renig on an agreement that he had implicitly or tacitly made with city (a kind of social contract). But for me the most compelling motive for Socrates’ resistance has to do with a kind of patriotism, which for Socrates, is constitutive of his identity.

For Socrates, that is, no longer to be Athenian is to be no longer Socrates. There is not such thing as non-Athenian Socrates. For him, the political community to which he belongs is so important that it makes him who he is. For him, the political community is prior to the individual.

Sometimes, this kind of “priority of the corporate” is true for modern people (for example, members of a street gang such as the Crips or the Bloods, or members of extremely tight-knit families, such as the Sopranos family in the HBO series of the same name from a decade ago), but even then it is almost never a political community which takes precedence, thus forming the identity of the individual.

And even though I do sometimes say that I am Texan before I am American, neither of these political entities hold the same sway for me as Athens did for Socrates.

To my mind this leads in as straight line to the sole political community which truly is constitutive of human identity, and only one from which alienation seems worse than death itself: the Church of Jesus Christ.

Reformed Theology, Stoicism, & Virtue Ethics

In my transition from Reformed evangelicalism to a more catholic tradition of Christianity, one constant source of consternation which has plagued me for years (almost two decades) has to do with the “senior Ethics” course I had at Westminister Theological Seminary. In this class, which was supposed to prepare soon-to-be-ordained pastors with a basic grasp of ethical theory, all of the emphasis was on Scripture and the Law of God. The word “virtue” did not appear on the syllabus.

Now, I don’t want to go overboard here. I do have respect for the professor of this course as well as for the author of the primary text we studied (alongside the Bible): The Ten Commandments by J. Douma (undoubtedly a brilliant Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at The Theological University in Kampen in the late 20th century).

However, what I am prepared to say, with the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre ringing in my head, is that such an approach to ethics is more Stoic than Christian. In chapter 13 of After Virtue, MacIntyre explains how the Stoic approach to moral philosophy differed starkly with that of Aristotelianism. For the latter, virtue is the rational discernment of the natural human telos (which of course for Aristotle is also thoroughly cultural), and the cultivation of human desires, habits, feelings, dispositions in such a way as to form the human being into the kind of person who acts virtuously. For Stoicism, by contrast, what matters is the individual will, and its embrace of an externally existing law.

MacIntyre  goes on to argue that here as always philosophy is rooted in a prior socio-political context: the displacement of the Greek city-state by the Macedonian regime and then the Roman imperium serves to bolster the Stoic stance, since any communal agreement and embrace of the common good for man now becomes more problematic.

So it is that Stoicism “sets a pattern for all those later European moralities that invoke the notion of law as central in such a way as to displace conceptions of the virtues” (MacIntrye, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 169).

“What about Judaism?” one might ask. Does it not make the law (the Torah of God) central, apparently in agreement with Stoicism? MacIntyre quite insightfully provides a response to this objection: one reason why Stoicism was unable to occupy an even more dominant role in Western culture is that it was “outnarrated” by an “even sterner morality of law, that of Judaism.”

With this insight I completely agree, and would only add the following conjecture. There must be something within Judaism which allows for the inculcation of the virtues (even if this amounts to a marginalization of law). Surely that “something” is its historicism (which MacIntrye’s thought correctly connects with the notion of narrative or story), which in turn allows it to be developed into Christianity (by way of tradition), which in turn had additional resources which allowed it to embrace classical thought, including that of Aristotelian moral philosophy.

So it is that I am prepared to say that my Senior ethics class at Westminster, seventeen years ago, was more Stoic than Christian. (To Westminster’s credit, it itself supplied me with at least one tool to help me realize this: in the Old Testament Department we were constantly reminded that the Torah of Yahweh is fundamentally different from western and especially modern notions of law, not least in that the former is deeply woven together with the story of Israel, and God’s faithfulness to her.)




“Integralist Thomism” … in Aristotle

In opposition to “two-tier Thomists” (or neoThomists) who, in an effort resist the onslaught of modernity, maintain a strict separation between nature and grace, “integralist Thomists” such as John Milbank & David Bentley Hart think, following thinkers such as Henri de Lubac, that the separation between nature and grace, the natural and the supernatural, is permeable and always-already deconstructed.

In this same spirit I appeal to Aristotle, who in Nicomachean Ethics X.7 (line 1177b 25ff), writes:

[The life of contemplation] would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue [i.e., that which is characteristically human]. So if the intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with the intellect is divine as compared with a human life.

The Stagirite continues in this vein for several more lines, arguing that there is something divine in human beings, and so we should strive for the divine life, strive for what is “beyond us.”

So it is that, several hundred years before the advent of the Gospel, Aristotle was already striving toward the thought that grace is packed into nature, or that nature, in and through the human being, inevitably leads beyond itself to the divine.

Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.


Tears & Laughter, Plato & Christ

At the end of Plato’s _Symposium_,

… the faithful Aristodemus … falls off into a drunken sleep, but awakens to find Agathon, Socrates, and Aristophanes having a discussion, with only Socrates fresh and in full possession of his powers (223B-D). Socrates is forcing the two poets to agree that it would be possible for a man to be both tragedian and comedian, which each resists because Agathon regards tears as highest and Aristophanes regards laughter as highest, and they are opposites. For them there is no mean between the two that is as high as the two extremes. Socrates says that philosophy is such a mean and that a mixture of laughter and tears is the way to define man. Practically, Socrates is telling them that their two arts must be combined in order to depict him. This is the formula for the Platonic dialogues and perhaps for Shakespeare’s plays. The other two nod away, and one is never sure whether Socrates could not persuade them. It is with this doubt that the dialogue ends. (Allan Bloom, “The Ladder of Love,” in Plato, _Symposium_, ed. Seth Bernardete, 170.)

Socrates defines man in terms of “a mixture of laughter and tears.” Chesterton, who said that the wise man has comedy in his head and tragedy in his heart, would surely agree.

When it comes to classical Greek philosophy, my firm conviction is that the best way to view it is as a “propaeduetic of the Gospel,” as Clement of Alexandria held. When one reads the ancients’ texts for themselves, one is struck over and over by the ways in which the themes and teachings foreshadow themes in the New Testament.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more clear, however, than in the above quotation about tears and laughter, tragedy and comedy. Socrates says not only that they go together, but that they go together in the life of man. This is a suggestive pointer to, an intriguing foreshadowing of, the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

The Paschal Mystery is Good Friday (with all its pain and blackness) plus the Easter Feast (with all its luminosity and joy). It is the death of Christ, and his surprise resurrection on the third day after. It is tragedy plus comedy.

What’s more, in places like Rom 5:12-21 and I Cor 15:45-47 St. Paul argues that Christ is the “second _anthropos_ and the last _adam_.” He is the New Man, the Renewed Humanity. Socrates, then, is vindicated, for it is in the life of this most true human that we behold the Paschal Mystery. Death and life, sadness and joy, tragedy and comedy.

Conversion & Time in Plato & Aristotle
What are main differences between Plato & Aristotle? Too many to name. Certainly, if you held a gun to my head and made me answer, the difference in literary genre would be near the top of my list.
However, I’m struck by the issue of conversion. In Plato we are presented with no less that four conversions on the part of Socrates: one in the _Parmenides_, one in the _Symposium_, one in the _Apology_, and one in the _Phaedo_.
One would be hard pressed to find an emphasis on the issue of conversion in the work of Aristotle.
Perhaps this is related to another deep difference between the two: Socrates’ approach to reality is diachronic, taking place in and through time, giving rise to epiphanies, retractions, and insights. For the Stagirite, however, one can approach reality only within the frame of the system; his stance, therefore, is intractably synchronic.

Diotima, Participation, & the Forms

One surprise which I have encountered over the past four years at my current institution is fairly widespread resistance, among the philosophy faculty, to regarding Plato’s forms as ontological or metaphysical realities which exist independently from the mind, to which we (or to which lovers of wisdom) have access by way not simply of knowledge by way of participation.

This has been a source of consternation to me because so many of my leading intellectual lights, among them members of a theological / philosophical movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, regard the forms in precisely this way.

I think that Diotima’s speech in the _Symposium_ is the clearest and best “prooftext” (other than perhaps the “Seventh Letter”) in Plato’s corpus for arguing that the Forms are independent metaphysical realities in which the lover of wisdom is to participate erotically and contemplatively.

Further, partly due to the non-diological character of the Symposium, it is hard (I think) to argue that Plato’s Socrates (who recites the speech) is being ironic or anything other than straightforward in this context.

Things Thomistic: Sacra Doctrina vs. Scientia Divina

In the thought of Thomas Aquinas, what is the difference between these two terms? The answer to this question, above all, is quite complicated.

First off, as Philipp Rosemann shows in his article “Sacra Pagina or Scientia Divina?” Thomas, in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, as well as in his de facto disavowal of the Sentences (that is, his abandonment of the Sentences as a way to do theology, which abandonment precipitated his development of a more distinctively Thomistic method which comes to expression in the Summa Theologiae) radically updates the accepted mode of doing theology to a much more scientific mode of inquiry. Indeed in his Sentences commentary, Thomas emphasizes the need for certainty in theological thought as well as that such thought be explicitly regarded as a “discipline,” the end of which is knowledge of scientia (Philipp Rosemann, “Sacra Pagina or Scientia Divina?” 60). These two emphases—certainty and disciplina—are distinctively Aristotelian notes which now come to mark Scholastic theology, thanks to Thomas.

In this sense, the transition which Thomas accomplishes on the heels of the Lombard may be regarded as Scientia Divina, as Rosemann shows. The stress is on “scientia” here. What kind of scientia is it? Answer: it is a divine science, a knowledge of divine things.

And yet, it is important to note that Thomas would also regard Aristotle’s own systematic thinking about God—the same kind of thinking which Aristotle displays in Book Lambda of the Metaphysics, with its treatment of the cause of being, which cause Aristotle refers to as theos—as also satisfying the requirement of scientia divina. (In fact, Thomas would likely regard this as the paradigmatic form of such thinking!) Of note here is that the former—Thomas’ revision in light of the Sentences—explicitly traffics in the language and thematic motifs of revelation, while the latter—Arisotle’s theology in the Metaphysics—does not. Nevertheless, I argue that Thomas would regard both as “scientia divina.” It’s just that one relies on revelation, and one does not.

As opposed to Thomas’ notion of scientia divina, his conception of sacra doctrina seems to be different. At the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae, he asks if, besides philosophical studies (here Thomas is thinking of Aristotelian disciplines such as the Physics and the Ethics), any further teaching (Lat. doctrina) is required. Of course, he answers the question in the affirmative, ultimately emphasizing the importance of that which lies beyond reason:

It was necessary for human salvation that there should be a teaching revealed by God, besides the philosophical studies investigated by human reason. First, because humanity is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of reason. According to Isaiah 66:4, “eye has not seen, O God, without you, what things you have prepared fro those that love you.” But the end must first be known by people who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Therefore it was necessary for the well-being of humanity that certain truths that exceed human reason should be made known by divine revelation. (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1.1, as appearing in F.C. Bauerschmidt, Holy Teaching, 32.)

Thomas, then, is arguing that a different kind of teaching, in addition to philosophical teaching, is necessary. What kind of teaching? Holy teaching: sacra doctrina.

To sum up, then. The main differences between scientia divina and sacra doctrina are:

  • the former highlights the notion of rigorous, scientific systematicity, whereas the latter does not have this emphatically in view.
  • The former may or may not rely on divine revelation, whereas the latter definitely does.
  • the latter refers to the activity of teaching (the kind of thing that happens in a classroom), where as the former not necessarily.
  • Lastly, since Aristotelian “theology” (as it appears for example in Bk. VI Lambda with the ocurrance of “theologia” at line 1026a 19 and the identification of this discipline as “first philosophy” in 1026a 31) does count as scientia divina for Thomas, one should remember that all separate substances (and not just God) fall into this category as well. In contrast to this, while sacra doctrina would of course take in within its purview the same “separated substances”—how often to the Scriptures speak of angels?—it would also treat other things in the world as well: mountains, rivers, bread, wine, land, offspring, etc. In this sense, then, sacra doctrina is much broader than scientia divina, which either brackets or “subalternates” the realm, for example, of the natural, and hence is much more specific.

Notes on Nominalism: a Brief Genealogy

At the most basic level possible, there are three “moments” in the development of late medieval nominalism, which one nust appreciate in order to grasp this historical, intellectual phenomenon.

First, consider the 219 Condemnations of Bishop Etienne Tempier in 1277, the background of which is the ecstatic and extreme embrace of the newly discovered Aristotle, by members (all clergy) of the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris in the 13th century. Certain of these faculty members were so taken with Aristotelian philosophy (mediated to them by Arabic philosophy, such as Averroes) that they began to regard philosophy as a vastly superior discipline (and, indeed, way of life) to theology. Central to this stream of thought, for the purposes of our argument here, is the necessity that things in the world are the way they are. That is, for Aristotle (and indeed for Plotinus) God does not freely create; rather he serves as the First Cause of the world in a way that seems to involve a kind of necessity. The primum mobile (or for Plotinus, the first emanation) moves and exists simply because that is how things are, given the nature of god and given the nature of the world. Given the rigorous, scientific superiority of the Stagirite, such a view only made sense, or so it seemed to Siger of Brabant and his colleagues in the Arts Faculty. Other convictions held by the Arts Faculty, in addition to this one, include: the eternality of the world, the singularity of the intellect in all men, and the denial of the freedom of the will.

It is in drastic opposition to such thinking that Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, drafted the Condemnations of 1277. The motivation here was to stomp out the secular rationalism of the Arts Faculty, together with the this-worldly thought of Thomas Aquinas, to the extent that he sided with them. Tempier and his supporters (many of whom were Franciscans and members of the Theology Faculty) hoped to eradicate, in the words of Etienne Gilson, the kind of “polymorphic naturalism” which Siger of Brabant and his colleagues were advocating, together with their emphasis on “the rights of pagan nature against Christian nature, of philosophy against theology, of reason against faith” (Kerr, After Aquinas, 13).

Sadly, this move to condemn and censor ended up having the very opposite effect.

But to see this, and how it leads to the intellectual movement known as late medieval nominalism, one must first appreciate the distinction between the potentia ordinate dei and the potentia absoluta dei, which did not originate with Duns Scotus, but which is definitively formulated by him and registered by him as a controlling feature of theology.[1] In his Ordinatio I.44, Scotus applies the distinction to “every agent acting intelligently and voluntarily that can act in conformity with a right law, but does not have to do so of necessity”. (Henri Veldhuis, “Ordained and Absolute Power,” 225). Scotus conceives of the the difference between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta in terms of Heiko Oberman’s ‘canonistic interpretation’: “potentia ordinata means ‘it can act in conformity with a right law’; potentia absoluta means ‘it can act beyond or against such a right law’. (ibid.)

What becomes normative in this way of thinking about creation is God’s absolute will which is grounded or conditioned upon no prior determination whatsoever, but rather radically “free” and arbitrary. There is no basis upon which we can have any kind of rational insight into God’s actions. And while (as Pieper concedes) this emphasis on God’s freedom is a much needed corrective to the necessarianism of the Arts Faculty, it serves, at the end of the day, not to re-unite faith and reason, but to drive them even further apart. Not only did the arguments of theology (including, admittedly, Thomistic theology) fail to meet Scotus’ heightened standards of rigor (modeled on Oxford-style mathematics), thereby creating a sense of theological skepticism, but also, since God’s acts are radically “free” and arbitrary, rooted solely in the radical spontaneity of his inscrutable will, there is no way to think scientifically (or systematically) about God’s actions in history, since they could—and indeed at any moment can and might be—be wholly otherwise.

(It is interesting in this context to think of Aristotle’s rendition of the intellectual virtues in Book VI of the Ethics, with its discussion of the objects of to logistikon as those things which “admit of being otherwise.” Also note that Scotus is assuming a notion of freedom which is merely negative and nonteleological. For him to say that God is free is not to insist that God is always fully realizing his telos–and thus is absolutely “pure act”–but rather to hold that “God can do anything he wants.”)

And yet one more step is needed to grasp the full import of late medieval and early modern nominalism: the shift from Duns Scotus to William of Ockham. Compared to Ockham, Scotus is still somewhat “conservative:” for him God’s actions are still constrained by a sense of “ordinateness.” God, that is, can by definition act only in ways that are ordinate. (By the way, we must rebuke Scotus for being inconsistent here: if this is a constraint on God’s “freedom,” then why not other aspects of his nature?) William of Ockham leaves such constraints in the dustbin of irrelevance. Ockham’s God is so arbitrary that at any moment the creation could sink back into oblivion. This way of thinking leads to grave consequences for philosophy, producing and hardening what Dilthey called “the atheism of scientific thinking.” Indeed Joseph Pieper writes that Ockham’s “principle of God’s arbitrary freedom” leads to the gravest of consequences. For Ockham

[m]an cannot do anything but cling to the purely factual, which in no way must be as it is: to search for meaning and coherence is not “real,” but at most may exist in our thoughts; singular facts alone are “real”; this actual factuality, however, can neither be calculated nor investigated nor deduced, but only experienced; knowledge exists only as direct encounter with concrete reality. (Pieper 149)

And so it is that, for modern thinkers, nothing in nature (contra Aristotle; see Ethics VI) is necessarily the way that it is. That is, an oak tree can have a nature / form / essence other than that of an oak tree (and still remain fully and in every sense what it is). This is the basic assumption of Heidegger. If correct, it renders any kind of coherent knowledge of the world impossible.

All because of the Condemnation of 1277, and the Arts scholars against whom it reacted.



[1] Indeed Etienne Gilson suggests that the condemnation of 1277 serves as the historical condition of the possibility for Scotus’ thought: “we could guess that the doctrine of Duns Scotus was conceived after the condemnation of 1277.” Piper, Scholasticism, 144.



Athanasius & Difference

One area of thought in which I am perpetually trying to make progress is what you might call the philosophy of the body. Not only is this theme related to the gender politics of our contemporary cultural moment, but it also sheds light on the difference between the basic assumptions held by analytic philosophers (rooted historically in British Empiricism) and continental philosophers (owing a strong debt to Hegel & German idealism through Nietzsche and Heidegger).

Various texts which have shaped my thinking over the years include Judith Butler, _Bodies that Matter_ and Peter Brown, _The Body in Society_ (especially his chapter on Origen). It is much to my chagrin, therefore, that, only very recently have I followed CS Lewis’ advice to focus especially on “old books” and finally turned by attention to St. Athanasius’ _On the Incarnation_.

I am surprised to find that Athanasius’ emphasis is actually not on the body as such, at least not in the way I had hoped. Some quick lessons I’ve learned:

  • Athanasius, time and time again, quotes Holy Scripture to ground his positions.
  • He sees the Incarnation almost totally within the context of the sacrificial death of Christ. (He is very “Reformed” in that way.)
  • By “body of Christ” he means not just the soma typicon which walked the dusty streets of Palestine, ran the lathe over the wood, and was nailed to a cross, but also the corpus verum, or the body of Christ, post-Pentecost, the body of believers who trust in Christ. (He also speaks of the cosmos as a body in section 41.)

What interests me for the purposes of this little piece, however, is something he says in the first section after the Prologue. Speaking in the context of creation, Athanasius contrasts his own Christian view with that of pagan philosophers. Before dealing with the thought of Plato, he mentions in particular “the Epicureans:”

Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts. For if all things came into being spontaneously and without providence, as they claim, all things would necessarily have simply come into being and be identical without difference. Everything would have been as a single body, sun or moon….

So in opposition to the view of the atomists (Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, who taught that the only things that really exists are atoms and void, and that the emergence of “the appearances” in the world is due to the random, chance-driven activity of the swerve), Athanasius argues that if this were the case, then all that exists would be: one thing. Channeling the spirit of Parmenides Athanasius, I take it, is arguing that if the principle of the world as we experience it is random and “spontaneously generated,” then all that would exist is something like what William James called a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” and of course there would be no rational mind to be confused by it. “Everything,” he writes, “would have been a single body.”

What is interesting here is that Athanasius thinks that it is the divine logos, pre-existent in a disembodied way, that accounts for the differences in the world. Only the divine logos, for him, accounts for intelligible order in the world.

I wish I could interview Athanasius and ask him why he thinks this. In my imaginary interview with him, he connects language to concepts (by way of definition), and he argues that without concepts human beings would discern no intelligible difference in the world. So the issue becomes “whence concepts?” and Athanasius’ answer is the divine logos.

Boethius for our Time

What an encouraging article by Anthony Esolen (scholar of Dante and of Lucretius, and of much else besides). Thanks, Theresa Kenney!

First, in addition to much helpful background and commentary, there is this Boethian wisdom (for anyone struggling with “why bad things happen to good people”):

But virtuous men are tried by God, for their good.  God protects some who are weak by giving them only good fortune.  He gives to some virtuous men the most terrible trials, that they may emerge victorious and shine as exemplars for their fellow men.  He gives an easy life to some vicious men, that penury may not prompt them to crimes even worse; or he may, as severe punishment, withhold from them the reversals that might prompt them to repent.  We do not know and cannot know what God may intend in his special providence for any individual.

Then there is this:

Boethius was the one man most responsible for bequeathing classical learning to the West, to survive the Dark Ages to come, until the Medieval world should burst forth in its wonderful light.  Yet I think that the Consolation may be meant for us now in a special way.  The barbarians are back.  Humane learning is forgotten or despised.  The Church is buffeted, while the gargoyles of the age caper and make mouths and laugh.  I imagine that the Gothic keepers of the jail cracked their jokes too.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kept faith to the end.  No one honors or even remembers his accusers; but the Catholics of Lombardy honored and remembered him straightaway: Saint Severinus.  His bones rest in the cathedral of Pavia, where the bones of Saint Augustine also lie.

It is better for us to wait with that man in his cell, than to enjoy all of the vast earth among men gone mad, quite mad.  God give us the courage to do so!

Perhaps what I love most about all this is that it allows a Christian (Esolen might argue “a Catholic”) to “keep calm” in the midst of the “culture wars,” even while admitting that western culture is crumbling. (I am likely more willing than Esolen, more in line with Radical Orthodoxy, to admit the “upside” to such crumbling, but it is still quite sad, possibly even tragic.)

As CS Lewis well understood (see his Discarded Image) we need Boethius today more than ever.


The Tyranny of the Exception

I suppose that working on a PhD at a (somewhat) traditionalist Roman Catholic university has made me more “conservative.” But the deeper reason beneath that development, it seems clear to me, is simply that I have learned so much more (than I had known as one reared in secular and evangelical institutions), particularly historically.

In this blog post (which has been simmering for about a half decade or more) I hope to highlight a basic difference (a difference, perhaps, in disposition or orientation) between the premodern mind and the modern, western mind. It has to do with the role that exceptions (or exceptions to the rule) play in our thinking.

First, consider a basic, very elemental, structure or “pattern” laid down by Aristotle. Aristotle, to put it very simply, would say that it is the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. (He talks this way in the Metaphysics and the Physics.) The “purpose” or “end” (Greek telos), that is, of the acorn is the fully developed oak tree. The oak tree is the “fully active” version of the acorn. The acorn, in turn, is a “potential oak tree.” (This way of thinking relies on the Aristotelian metaphysical distinction between potency and act.)

Now, Aristotle perfectly realized that not all acorns successfully develop into fully formed oak trees. As did St. Thomas, who follows Aristotles’s reasoning here without exception. But it would never have occurred to either of them to conclude, on the basis of the failure of some acorns to develop into oak trees, that it is not the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. Rather, they understood that this accomplishment occurs “for the most part,” that is, not 100% of the time. They understood that nature (or natural philosophy) is “messy” and does not comply with our rational, scientific systems in the same way that, say, mathematics does. (As an example of Aristotle’s thinking about things that are true “for the most part,” see Nicomachean Ethics I.3, together with his word of caution that accompanies them.)

The modern mind is quite different. To cite an example of the “default tendency” of the modern mind which I am trying to diagnose in this article, consider the (admittedly, ecclesiastically “intramural”) issue of infant baptism. I could not begin to count the number of times people have registered their opposition to the catholic practice of infant baptism in the church to me on the basis of the exception. “Richard Dawkins,” a good friend of mine likes to say, “was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, and just look at him,” implying that Dawkins disproves that the “nature” of baptism is to bring baptizands into a life of Christian faith. We know that infant baptism is not a valid or true doctrine, so this reasoning goes, because it does not always “work.” This way of thinking, I’d argue, is analogous to the point about the acorn not successfully growing into an oak tree: the exception does not undermine the “nature” of the thing in question.

Exhibit B: sex and the presence in nature of hermaphrodites, or biologically ambiguous genitalia in infants, children, and adults. Yes, the Scriptures speak of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). (They also speak, in the same context, of a binary division between “land animals” and “sea creatures,” but one would be on shaky ground to hold on this basis that they intend to reject the existence of amphibians.) I am certain that the ancient Hebrews were aware of ambiguous genitalia. But, again, nature is messy and “for the most part.”

Does the exception here refute the rule or the “nature” of the thing, that “male” and “female” are valid ways of describing what we find in nature, or what actually is in nature? No more than the stunted acorn does.

(Does my position here make me an “essentialist?” No, because of this, and also because when a Christian speaks of “nature,” she will in the next breath speak of “creation.” But that is a topic for a later blog post.)



Ministry, Margin, & Gleaning

The Old Testament from Last Sunday (the 5th Sunday of Easter) struck me deeply.

Here is a common experience for this preacher: after having spent (on Saturday and very early Sunday morning) hours of study, prayer, thought, and rhetorical preparation for my sermon in the 11:05 Epiphany Eucharist, I find myself sitting in the chancel pew in the Christ Church nave at the 7:30 Eucharist on Sunday morning. I’ve been focusing intently on my sermon, with its particular emphases rooted in a particular text, but now it is time to worship the Living God.

The faithful lay reader begins with the Old Testament lesson, and I begin to notice a different theme, a different image, a different tone than the one(s) I have been pounding home in my own sermon prep. Even though it often barely registers the first time through, this is the first nudge from the Holy Spirit that God is way bigger than I forgetfully assume. Then Father David (or Father Keith) mounts the pulpit. A typical experience is that those faint images from the lay reader’s voice–which had barely registered–are then handled deftly and persuasively by the preacher, and I am left undone. Often times tears begin to roll down my face.

I had been focusing on X, but it was Y which the Holy Spirit wanted to press into my bones. It is not that X was bad or unworthy; it is simply that God is bigger than my heart/mind, and I that am not in control.

I don’t remember what X was for me last Sunday; but I do remember Y.

Y was: gleaning. From Leviticus 19.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.

What are the ways I tend to “strip the vineyard bare?” What are the ways I forget about margin? The margin which allows me to work less, which allows others to thrive? I think about my car, my body, my family, my ministry.

I don’t want to romanticize ancient Israel’s practice of gleaning, and I am still prayerfully listening to what this might mean. But I do want to become so mature in Christ (Eph. 4:13) that I have some good stuff left over. That I am not continually “spent,” so that others can enjoy. That I remember that while hard work is good, it is not ultimate. My hard work is an act of obedience and worship, but at the end of the day, God must grant the harvest. God must make things grow. God must make everything OK.

Not reaping to the edges of our metaphorical (or literal) fields is an action, a little ritual, which reminds us that our hard work, our astute planning, our laborious attention, is penultimate at best.

Maybe the Pentateuch knows that for most of us, “workaholism” is a bigger danger than laziness, or that we have a tendency to oscillate between the two, or that most of us assume the paradigm of “working for our salvation.” And so it wisely gives us a golden mean for which to strive: not too little work, and not too much.

May God help me, and all of us, to become more like an ancient Israelite in this way, and less like a 21st century, capitalist-individualist American. May God help me, and all of us, to practice in our lives the ancient wisdom of gleaning.



Intersubjective Ecclesiology

Today I experienced the Episcopal Church (in my diocese, the Diocese of Texas) at its best.  Today a small army of saints was newly confirmed and received, the Gospel of the Risen Christ was clearly preached, and the Kingdom of God was extolled and celebrated.

All this leads me to reflect on my church, and my place in it.

I am a traditional Christian. I am in a real sense deeply catholic, committed to the teaching of the apostles. And yet, my church–the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Texas–seems (to my mind) to be drifting away from that foundation in some important ways.

Am I tempted to leave this church, to walk away and find greener pastures elsewhere, more doctrinally faithful to the apostles? Yes, I am.

And yet, what I am compelled to admit after today–a day of rich fellowship and joyful love with the saints–is that I can no more walk away from my church than I can walk away from myself.

Why would I say such a thing? I say it because this church is my very self.

In this lecture David Bentley Hart argues (at about the 19-minute mark) that the traditional doctrine of eternal damnation in hell presupposes something like Cartesian subjectivity. That is, to think that my loved ones can burn eternally in hell but that I can remain free and clear of those flames assumes that my soul is “buffered” (to invoke Charles Taylor’s) terminology, and this, in turn, is something like Descartes’ (or Kant’s) notion of the individual subject.

But this is not Christian. To view the soul or the human self in a way which resonates with Christian assumptions is to recognize that my soul is formed by, in, and with others. My soul is the product of a whole web of influences, personalities, convictions, perspectives which I did not invent, but rather which I inherited from others. That is, my soul is enmeshed with the souls of many others. My soul is not distinct, but “porous.” It overflows into the souls of others and vice-versa.

To embrace this is to embrace intersubjectivity.

My soul is intersubjectively enmeshed with the souls of countless others. But chiefly among these “countless others” are those with whom I share Christ’s body and blood week in and week out. Chiefly those with whom I am “one body”–the Body of Christ–in the most concrete ways possible. In the most basic, visible ways possible.

I am talking about my church. The visible Body of Christ with whom I am in communion. The Diocese of Texas. This is the community of souls with whom my soul is enmeshed.

I might not “agree” with the majority. Praise God! I get to demonstrate that the love of Christ is not conditioned by agreement, but is bigger and deeper!

I can no more leave these saints than I can leave myself. Literally.

Lunging into the Future

It is no secret that we in 21st century America are living through a time of extreme upheaval. To point this out now borders on extreme banality. Yet as a quick example of what I am talking about consider a recent study:

Millennials[*] are less religiously affiliated than ever before. According to the 2012 Pew Research Center report, “Nones on the Rise,” nearly one in three do not belong to a faith community and of those, only 10% are looking for one. Though many millennials are atheists or agnostics, the majority are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality, with many falling back on the label ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’. The General Social Survey of 2014 shows that the disaffiliation trend is only growing.[†]

If one still doubts that the American cultural landscape is shifting immediately before our eyes and directly under our feet, one only need to watch any of the four recent Republican Presidential debates, all of which are easily available on line. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches (in his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) that prudence requires right desire, and yet the presumptive presidential frontrunner of the Republican party today uses words in public speech which I would discipline either of my daughters for using. Chaos is ensuing.

In the midst of these cataclysmic shifts, what of the local Body of Christ? Is she simply another item in a long list of “institutions” which will have crumbled and disintegrated 100 years from now? Not according to Scripture: “for the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Not, in addition, to what we are seeing at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas. For here, we find a community of believers that is straining and pushing, prudentially, into the future. I want very simply to list several dimensions in which Christ Church is adapting with the times (not simply like a thermometer, but more closely akin to a thermostat):

  1. Evangelism & Newcomer Ministry: we are removing barriers for folks visiting our church.
  2. Worship: we are drawing & “wooing” people into the richness of our sacramental tradition.
  3. The Brotherhood of Saint Andrew: we will infuse it with a small army of new, excited men.
  4. A Christ Church App: we will soon launch a platform for “Christ Church Global”[‡] to communicate more efficiently.
  5. The Christ Church South Altar Guild: we are raising up and training leaders to perform this crucial ministry, in conjunction with our Altar Guild who serves our downtown community.
  6. Forming an Executing Committee and broad-based Launch Team for Christ Church South: as we “ramp up” to Opening Sunday, we will sow the seeds and position ourselves wisely in the community in all sorts of ways.

When it comes to church, it is no longer true that “if you build it they will come.” However, it will always be true that human beings (who are spiritual by nature) will be drawn irresistibly into the love of Christ when it is embodied by a healthy, sacrificial community of Jesus.

Anyone remember the original “creation mandate” given to the Man and the Woman in the Garden of Eden? “Fill the earth and take dominion of it.” This is what we are doing here at Christ Church, Tyler Texas. We are not simply lunging into the future. Humbly and by the grace of God, we are co-creating it.

[*]Roughly defined, a millennial is one who was between the ages of 18 and 34 in the year 2015.

[†] This study can be found here:

[‡] My new term for Christ Church Downtown plus Christ Church South.

Once upon a time, there were no secularists(?)

Very interesting (and encouraging) discussion in my Intro to Philosophy course yesterday.

One admirable student objected to my statement that prior to, say, 500 years ago, all human civilizations were inherently religious, and that thus there were no secularists prior to that time, by saying: “How do you know?”

To which I responded: “I know because the conditions which are necessary for secularism to be thought were not in place, or real, or existent, until around 500 years ago.”

In an effort to give an example or an analogy, I argued that something similar could be said of “conservatives” (since prior to Edmund Burke no one had reacted to the historically particular project of the French Revolution) and homosexuals (since prior to the late 19th century “homosexual” as a “scientific” category had not yet been invented).

I realized later that another example might be “environmentalist.” I’d argue that prior to 250 years ago there were no environmentalists. The conditions which have made this movement possible–which have made it possible for environmentalism to be “a thing”–were not yet in place.

Teaching undergrads is helping me to “bone up” on my Christian historicism.

Faith becoming Sight

I have been meditating lately on Psalm 48:8: “As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

You see, faith is a “hearing thing”: it comes to us, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 10:17, “by hearing.” His reminder that “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) confirms the same point. Yet even though all this is true, and even though the book of Hebrews reminds us that “faith … is the conviction of things unseen,” nevertheless Psalm 48:8 presents us with the opposite perspective.

Yes, faith is a “hearing thing,” and, yes, we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Nevertheless Psalm 48:8 reminds us that, in addition to all that, God desires that the contents of our faith also become visible. “As we have heard, so have we seen” means that the oracles of God, the promises of God, have now become manifest in the “real world,” the world of our sense perception, laid bare for all to see, to the glory of God. There is a time and a place for this, too. The heart of a Christian longs to see the things of faith become visible. The follower of Christ longs for the Kingdom of God—the reign of God—to become palpably present in the daily lives of men, women, and boys and girls. When this happens, faith has “become sight;” the word of God has become visible, palpable, seen.

I want to point to two examples of “faith becoming sight.” The first is Promise Academy, located in the building of New Days Community Church in North Tyler, near the corner of Broadway and Gentry. At this brand new school, in its very first year, the promises of God and the longing of God’s people are becoming visible. Here, at Promise Academy, hope is being provided for a handful of little ones (right now, the school only consists of Kindergarten; God willing, first grade will be added next year). At this school, a small number of mainly black and Hispanic kindergartners are learning how they are fearfully and wonderfully made, how God’s ways are the best ways, how trust and obedience in the God who loves them will bear fruit in their lives. All this is becoming visible: in their facial expressions, in the life of their families, in the physical beauty and orderliness of their lives (both in the classroom and out).[*]

My second example is a very different one, but one no less breathtaking: Christ Church South. The groundbreaking ceremony we experienced last week … this, too, is an example of “faith becoming sight:” a new Temple for the worship of God is being erected right in front of us! A new House of Prayer for all people and for a burgeoning community of friends in faith is being raised up, for all the world to see. Not only is God’s creation being transfigured from glory to glory, but sacred, sacramental space is being consecrated and set apart. Fr. David’s “message” at the perimeter of the construction sight “nailed it:” just imagine how many generations of lives will be impacted for the cause of Christ and the sake of the Kingdom.

All this in a contemporary world wracked by division, addiction, and heartache. A sign of visible hope, a leading indicator of Gospel victory. By the grace of God alone.

“As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”


[*] To learn more about Promise Academy, please visit

Anglican Primates 2016 (my thoughts)

This last week the Anglican Primates Meeting occurred in Canterbury, and the meeting has attracted much attention.

For background, see here and here.

Two thoughts (since folks have been asking me):

  1. This is a welcome development, because for the Episcopal Church to think that we can “have our cake and eat it, too” is a travesty. What the primates did is to send a signal to the Episcopal Church that certain decisions  we have made having to do with marriage and its redefinition will now bring about certain consequences. We will now no longer be able to tell our global partners in ministry to “bugger off” and that we are going to do our own thing, and still expect that we will be able to be “warm and fuzzy” with them. We can no longer do that. This is a good thing, because in any real relationship, actions have consequences. Show me a relationship in which actions do not have consequences, and I will show you a superficial relationship, which isn’t really real.
  2. It just became a lot easier to imagine a time in the near future when the Episcopal Church will not be part of the Anglican Communion.

As always, the thought of Ephraim Radner in this area is worth considering, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

Incurvatus in se

In one of his earlier works, the Lectures on the Romans, Martin Luther drew on highlights from Augustine to introduce theology to an extraordinary image for understanding the experience of being a sinner. ‘Scripture,’ Luther tells us, ‘describes man as so curved in upon himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.’ (Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 345, see also pp. 291-92). What Luther means is  (i) that despite our best efforts to get beyond ourselves, to love and serve others to the best of our ability, human beings find it impossible to escape the gravity well of self-interest, and (ii) we are often unconscious of this fact, even as it in fact drives our behavior. Luther quotes Jeremiah 17:9: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt–who can understand it?’

— Quoted from The Mockingbird, vol. 6, p. 35.

Epiphany & the Strange Gift

What is the strangest birthday gift you have ever received?

What if someone gave you the gift of a tombstone for your birthday? How about a coffin?

As I said in a sermon on the 4th floor this past Sunday, if one is in their 20’s, with decades of life in front of them, they might interpret such a gift as a bizarre joke. But if you are in your 70’s or 80’s, with only a few more years of this life to look forward to, then such a present would surely provoke distress and offense.

As Fr. David hinted from the Christ Church pulpit this last Sunday, the gift of myrrh—gifted by the three Magi to the baby Jesus on that day long ago—is a strange gift indeed. A spice or ointment used for embalming the dead, it points directly to the death of this Baby. Here in the presence of the Mother of God, it foreshadows the cross of Christ, the arrow which will pierce her own heart (Luke 2:35).

There is so much going on in Matthew’s presentation of these exotic Magician-Kings from the East. In addition to the foreshadowing of the cross, this story also startles us into the realization that Christ came to form a new global community, a new international family, composed not just of Jews and Gentiles, but also of “civilized” and “barbarian.” For not only were these three strange pilgrims not religious authorities; not only where they not rank-and-file Jewish worshippers; they weren’t even Roman citizens. They were literally from the edges of the earth, from way outside “the grid.” And yet in Matthew’s story they are the first to bow down and worship the Jewish Messiah.

These are just a couple of reasons why, for me, the Epiphany is my favorite feast of the Church. A couple of reasons why, too, we named our new community within Christ Church “the Epiphany Community.”

As we observe the final Epiphany (January 6) before launching Christ Church South, I am full of awe and excitement. Awe that God has been faithful; excitement for the coming season of mission and ministry.

I am mindful that the mission of Gospel love in the world is unstoppable. As we continue to commend the love of Christ to all kinds of folks in Tyler and East Texas, God will bless our efforts, even though the results will not look like what we expect. It will be an astonishing surprise.

Here, too, we find a clue from Matthew’s story in chapter 2 of his Gospel. Imagine what was going on in Mary and Joseph’s hearts and minds that night. They have finally found a place to lay their weary bodies. A firm bed from which to enter into the travail of childbirth. At this point Mary and Joseph have literally had their world turned upside down, and their heads are spinning. They don’t “know which way is up.” Neither would I, had I experienced all of that: the visitations from the angels, the unexplainable pregnancy, the near divorce, the forced migration. Surely they were on the brink of a nervous breakdown or worse.

And then, after the crying newborn has been safely delivered, as Mary’s pain and discomfort finally recedes, they look up, and what do they see? An astonishing surprise. A multitude of shepherds surrounding three strange Kings from the East, bowing down to worship their child, bearing lavish gifts of grace and abundance.

At that moment, their struggling trust was vindicated, and they knew that God powerfully at work in their lives. It was wild. It was crazy. It was uncontrollable. But it was from the Lord.

As it was for them on that first Epiphany, so may it be for us in ours.

Happy New Year!

Anglicanism, “Missions” & the Bible Belt

Ah, the joys of being an Episcopal priest in the Bible Belt. Never shall its thrill wane, I suspect.

The latest wave of joy springs from a conversation with a man who works closely with me in ministry under the aegis our local Episcopal parish. He and I both have a good friend who is a kind of “missionary,” among many kinds of missionaries in East Texas. (Surely we in East Texas boast the highest per capita density of missionaries in the US.)

Our friend finds it objectionable and offensive that our Episcopal Church has no foreign missions pastor or committee or budget.

At a certain level, that makes sense. After all, I too grew up in an evangelical, Bible Belt culture. I vividly remember the first time I ever put money into an offering plate at my family’s Bible church: two silver dollars, after a slide-show missionary presentation, to support a missionary working on the other side of the globe.

However, there are many good reasons why Episcopal Churches, in the main, do not have these kinds of structures. Today I mention only two: historical consciousness and global communion.

First, historical consciousness. Ever wondered why most Roman Catholic churches in American don’t have “missions pastors?” Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they don’t see themselves as the “Mother Ship” of their church, which after all was established 2000 years in Rome. And I’m not referring to Rome, Texas.

American Roman Catholic churches see themselves as the mission field, themselves as the result of missionary efforts (from the other side of the Atlantic, not to it). The real missionary control center of the Catholic Church is in Rome, or perhaps in the headquarters / cathedral of each diocese, but not at the local church. Only American evangelicals (and some mainline Protestant liberals) see America as the Mother Ship, the sending center from which the conversion of the heathen issues forth.

Secondly, and related, global communion. How does one explain the shocking and horrendous fact that virtually no American Episcopal Church raises up and sends missionaries to, for example, Nigeria? Maybe it is because Nigeria has 25,000,000 Anglicans who love and worship Jesus. That’s more than twelve times the amount in the states. And while the numbers vary, similar things could be said about Japan, the Middle East, and Asia.

The American Episcopal Church is one of 38 global Anglican provinces, among whom are numbered the Church of Kenya, the Church of Australia, the Church of the Southern Cone in South America. Should we be sending missionaries to those countries? In the main the Anglican tradition has answered questions like this in the negative. In fact, historically Anglicans have refused to send missionaries to lands that already have a Christian presence. (So for example, there have never been Anglican missionaries in Russia.)

To my mind, there are two fundamentally different ways of being Christian. There is the American Evangelical way (based in many assumptions which are typically American), and there is the historical catholic way (with many habits, convictions, and quirks rooted in the past). This issue of foreign missions is a case in point.



Blog Update – 12/1/15

I have made a couple of changes to the “pages” section of my blog. I have deleted the obsolete page “Philosophico-theological notebook,” and replaced it with what seems to me to be a much more relevant page, “crucial vocab.” My first entry in this new page: my “definition” of “science.” I hope to use this page as a place to “point” people to so that we can “be on the same page” when using specific terms in discussion.

My blog, 8+ years after its inception, remains valuable to me. (And, based on anecdotal conversations with real people as well as the “widget” I use to monitor the traffic, people actually read it.) I turned off the comments functionality a few months ago, and this was a wise move, I think. (Folks can comment on Facebook.)

Upcoming posts this month (hopefully):

  • How prudentia or practical wisdom is like shock absorbers.
  • On “ruducing difference to the same.”
  • Pixar vs. St. Thomas on emotions.
  • Philosophy and Theology: the difference history makes (has made).
  • “Authenticity” and “hypocrisy.”

Gay Marriage & Assimilation

In his article “How is Christianity thinkable today?” Michel de Certeau provides a lucid statement about what might be called “alterity,” that is, the question of how one deals with the Alter, the other. The other who is Muslim, the other who is racist, the other who is gay. It matters not here who the other is.

He shows, very simply, that there are two ways of making the other disappear: you can simply (try to) exclude them, or you can assimilate or reduce them into a version (or a subset) of the same.

Here is why, if I were a gay man, I would oppose “gay marriage” in the United States. Surely it assimilates gay people into the category of “married people.” This is a reduction of two different groups–groups that need each other precisely because they are different–to a single, univocal element.

It effaces and eclipses difference by reducing everything to the same. By arbitrarily redefining marriage, we have homogenized our political culture: now (more than before) we are all the same.

And the result, of course, is that we are far more manipulatable by the state.

Trump, Marwa Balker, & Identity Politics

In this story, reports on an “open letter” (in the form of a Facebook post) by California college-student Muslim Marwa Balker.

Ms. Balker is responding to the recent, deplorable comments by Donald Trump on the Muslim community in the United States.

Obviously Trump is an idiot. It is, however, Ms. Balker’s comments which I think need to be examined, precisely because the ideology they display is much more insidious, as proven by the fact that CNN holds her comments up as an example of model political speech.

Addressing Mr. Trump, Balker states: “Being Muslim does not make me any less American than you are.” That this statement seems natural and noble is obvious to anyone living in Western society in the 21st century.

However, one of my leading theological / philosophical lights, Michel de Certeau (sort of the Christian version of Michel Foucault) would say that Balker is reducing the difference of another to the same, to a false identity.

She is attempting to constitute one thing (American identity, identity as a U.S. citizen) as the whole. Certainly Trump is performing a different version the same attempt; of course “radical Islam” tries to do the same; admittedly the Church historically has been guilty of the same project.

For de Certeau, however (as articulated in his article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”) this move, this strategy, is not authentically Christian. de Certeau would call this “a false universalism that functions as a mask.”

When I say that I am a Christian first, a Texan second, and an American third, this is the sort of issue I am trying to allude to.

Ms. Balker is plainly an American first and a Muslim second. My stance, on the contrary, is that the only possible universalism is that of the “concrete universal” (Heidegger), in which difference is not eclipsed but lived with and engaged. Authentic Christianity, that is, life within the Body of Christ, really does make such an approach possible. The Christian church is the only (possible) concrete universal I know of.

As de Certeau points out, the existence of the four Gospels demonstrates the founding importance of admitting intractable difference: the Gospel of Mark is not saying the same thing as the Gospel of John.

Theology, as Milbank says, is (or can be) the “discourse of nonmastery.”

Modern liberal political philosophy, of the kind that Ms. Balker has swallowed uncritically, cannot make this claim; nor does it want to.