Posted on: January 5th, 2021 Language, Reality, & “Awoman”

On Sunday, January 3, 2020 U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (at the time serving provisionally as the chaplain of the House), ended a prayer offered on behalf of the House not with the traditional “Amen,” but rather with “Awomen.”

However well-intentioned Cleaver may have been in that moment, I’m reminded of the words of Cyril O’Regan, discussing Hans Urs von Balthassar’s rejection of a traditional theological maxim—a litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy—put forth my Vincent de Lérins (a maxim rejected by Joseph Ratzinger as well, and hence by the official posture of the Second Vatican Council):

Lérin’s definition [was] in danger of denying the symbolic nature of all language with respect to the divine and promoting the view that doctrine is adequate to the mystery to which it refers. (Tracey Rowland, Benedict XVI: a Guide for the Perplexed, 55.)

Believe me, I’m not expecting Mr. Cleaver to grasp the deep import of O’Regan’s words here, but if one wants an actual, serious, theological rationale for rejecting the foolish revision of theological language (in legion of its forms), this is a good starting point.

In short, advocates for the revision of traditional theological language, more often than not, are laboring under the illusion that such language—especially in liturgical contexts—are univocal or “literal.”

But they were never intended to be.

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Posted on: December 22nd, 2020 Ratzinger, Fichte, & the Rejection of Revelation

After I defended my dissertation (on Ratzinger’s Habilitationsschrift, the Theology of History in St. Bonaventure) in July of 2020, I began to see the need to situate the future Pontiff’s thought within deeper currents of German philosophy. It is extrememely plausible to see his defense of Bonaventure as motivated by the need to respond to contemporary developments about the nature of time and history (for example, the thought of Heidegger, which, one might say, conceives of being as something like Plato’s becoming), even though Ratzinger himself roots his concerns in the Protestant fascination (de riguer at the time) with Heilsgeschichte (e.g., Oscar Cullman’s Christ in Time).

That a central concern for Ratzinger in his Habilation research was Bonaventure’s surprising notion of revelation is an initial hint or suggestion that, indeed, Ratzinger is in some kind of dialogue with these antecedent currents of German thought of the early proponents of so-called German idealism.

In this post I want to rehearse a point about the Kantian (and Fichtean) rejection of revelation. On page 46, Kaplan quotes Fichte, who “raises the possibility that creation might be a revelation.”

“Indeed to the extent that [through such an empirical process] it were possible to have […] a knowledge of God, of our dependence upon him, and that certain duties resulted from this knowledge […] and to the extent that one could view God as the purpose of the creation of the world, one could believe for a moment that the entire system of appearances could be viewed as a revelation.”

But Fichte dismisses this possibility as soon as he raises it. Why? Because (as Kaplain states) “theoretical reason has no capacity to know the noumenal world.”

And why, in turn, is this?

It is because of the merely tangential role God plays in Kant’s and Fichte’s system. For Kant God is never evoked or even countenanced in the First Critique. That is, for Kant’s system of thoeretical reason, God is regarded as completely unnecessary. Kant’s theoretical system, then, assumes a methodological atheism.

God becomes a crucial plank in Kant’s thought, only with the moral philosophy of practical reason (the Second Critique). As Günter Meckenstock puts it (Kaplain 179 n 38) the concept of God is “bound to the apodictic validity of the moral and rational ethical law.” As Kaplain puts it on 44, “God is posulated as a being who makes the world of nature and of morality correspond.” You see, while the phenomenal world for Kant cannot affect the noumenal world (that is, the free will of the human person), the noumenal can and does affect the phenomenal. But in order for this to be compelling (since it cannot be observed), we need God to serve as a kind of placeholder or guarantor.

In other words, in his elaborate attempt to safeguard the freedom of the will (in the face of the Newtonian suggestion that all of nature follows fixed, mathematical laws), Kant must invoke the concept of God as a placeholder. For Kant the human will must be autonomous, following its own free choices and determinations, and in no way conditioned by external factors or laws. Heteronomy bad, autonomy good.

But this God, this role for God in human knowing or the grasp of truth about the world, is a far, far cry from God as creator, who has made a world which somehow reveals him (Ps 19:1). This “god” is a mere corollary of practical reason, since for Kant (and Fichte) theology is done only after practical philosophy (see Kaplan 47ff.).

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Posted on: December 12th, 2020 Milbank, Bonaventure, & History/Eschatology

“Thus time for Bonaventure … begins and ends in God.”—John Milbank, “There’s Always One Day,” in Theologies of Retrieval, ed. Darin Sarisky (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 24.

So claims John Milbank, and I agree with his read of Bonaventure here (despite my qualms with what I left out in the above ellipsis: the word “literally”). My dissertation is an sustained attempt, during which I stumble upon and share many epiphanies, to defend Bonaventure’s stance regarding temporality. I try, that is, to show how—given certain hermeneutical planks, ancient and modern, propounded by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Heidegger, Ricœur, Gadamar, Péguy, and Pickstock—one needs to say that time begins and ends in God. If, that is, we are to make sense of history.

A fundamental premise, following Ricœur, Péguy, and Pickstock, is that history, pace Aristotle, must be regarded as a story or (to use the ancient Greek term) a mythos.

Why is this the case? It has something to do, among other reasons, with the structure of human mind, a structure which—as Augustine shows with his point about the Psalm in Confessions XI—is, in an important sense, irreducibly temporal.

Resisting, however, any hint of process theology, I deny that time is “in” God. Instead, as Plato has it in the Timaeus, time is a moving image of (God’s) eternity. Don’t forget: nothing is more real than an image. This created movement which is time, then, is really and truly a participation in God’s movement, “of one piece” with it.

Here, perhaps, is the beginning of a new and truly postmodern ontology: an ontology of fiction. Hence, regardless of Milbank’s take on Bonaventure’s alleged “literalism,” time’s beginning and end in God, while absolutely real, is anything but literal.

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Posted on: December 9th, 2020 Thoughts on Self-awareness

For my entire adult life, I have loved to run, mainly long distances. Currently I am running about 30 miles per week. 30 miles a week of prayer, silence, solitude, breathing, taking in the light, listening to and for God.

Especially for my long runs, I will occasionally drive to White Rock Lake in Dallas (about 75 miles away from my home in East Texas), where there is a lovely running path encircling the lake. On a cool winder day with blue skies and sunshine, it is truly glorious.

I’ve been running around the lake for about 7 or 8 years now … nowadays about once a month (but in a previous stage of life I’d do it more like once a week). Lately—the last five or six times—I have noticed a cyclist who whizzes past me (and every other runner and walker on the trail) who, near the top of his lungs, yells out, with loud Texas drawl “HOWDY! GOOD MORNIN’!” This is something I have “noticed”—how could one not notice?—or, rather, something with which I have been confronted, almost in the form of an audible assault.

I am sure that this man is well-intentioned. Yet his blaring, booming “greeting” is also, at least for me, somewhat irritating.

This man—I am confident in asserting—lacks self-awareness.

What is self-awareness?

I do not have a technical definition in mind to share with you. And yet, having thought about this for over a decade now, I believe that I do grasp the essence of it. Self-awareness is the sensitivity one develops, the ability to see that certain of their actions—actions which are purportedly for the benefit of another—are actually performed for their own benefit, in order somehow to make themselves feel better.

Conversely a lack of self-awareness manifests itself when one fails to see this, to perceive this, to appreciate this.

When I was a small boy my dad (whom I love dearly, beyond words) used to put his hand on my head and rub my hair, drastically re-arranging it. “Good boy,” he’d say, as he rocked my head back and forth, turning my blond locks into a tussle of messiness. Then, with a couple more pats on the head (as if I were a canine), he’d say again: “Good boy.”

Now, I love my dad! He (like the cyclist) was well-intentioned, in a way. And yet … as he expressed or emoted his feeling of affection for me, did he really have my own good in view?

Or the cyclist: as he whizzes past the runners and belts out his morning greeting for all of Dallas to hear, is he truly motivated by a desire for the good of his neighbor?

Or, rather, is he actually doing something, performing an action, somehow for the benefit on himself? (Perhaps to call attention to himself, perhaps to be able to think or feel better about himself?)

I see this same tendency in myself frequently. Even with my dog or my cat—to return to the issue of semi-fierce caressing of hair or fur—I sometimes think, “Am I doing this for their good, or is this supposed to make me feel better?”

Even if the latter is my true motivation, it is good, at least, to be aware of it.

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Posted on: November 13th, 2020 The Psalmist goes “meta”

Have you ever heard a theologian say something like the following:

It’s not that God is beautiful; God is beauty itself.

It’s not that God is good; God is goodness itself.

It’s not that God is true; God is truth itself.

When the theologian speaks this way, the theologian has gone “meta.”

I once heard a sermon in which Tim Keller does not say that Jesus revolutionizes the economy, or that Jesus revolutionizes politics or that Jesus revolutionizes marriage. No. Instead what Keller says is that Jesus revolutionizes revolution. When Keller said this, he went “meta.”

In a similar way, in Psalm 68 the Psalmist goes “meta.” In verse 18 of that Psalm (BCP), he says,

You have gone up on high and led captivity captive.

He does not say, “You have led the terrorist captive,” or “You have led the enemy captive,” or “You have led the Pharaoh captive.” No. Instead, the Psalmist goes “meta,” saying, “You have led captivity captive.”

Best of all, St. Paul quotes this “meta statement” in Eph 4:8, applying it to the victory of Christ in the Ascension:

When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”

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Posted on: July 10th, 2020 Notes on sin, death, sacrifice (a brief sketch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: July 8th, 2020 Hösle on Luther’s post-Reformational Germany

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

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


[1] This is a plural noun.

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Posted on: July 4th, 2020 Redeeming the Modern Myth of Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: July 3rd, 2020 Premodern Human “Perfection”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the way he speaks of perfection in this passage.

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

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Posted on: July 3rd, 2020 Theology Necessary for Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: June 9th, 2020 St. Thomas & “what the heart desires”

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Nicholas Lombardo for this connection with Hume.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: April 16th, 2020 NT Wright on History & Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: April 13th, 2020 Milbank on Theurgic Neoplatonsim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: April 9th, 2020 Dissertation Lecture

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

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Posted on: March 21st, 2020 Peterson on Church & Prayer

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

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

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Posted on: February 20th, 2020 Augustine on passionately returning to God

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

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

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Posted on: January 25th, 2020 Comps, Avicenna, & Necessary Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: January 8th, 2020 Peregrinatio Discussion Group

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

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

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

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

Please read the Chadwick translation of the Confessions.

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

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Posted on: January 2nd, 2020 Enns: God, stories, children

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

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Posted on: November 21st, 2019 Tim O’Malley on Contemplation

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

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

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

Good stuff. Thanks be to God!

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Posted on: November 21st, 2019 Coakley, Theology, & Wigan Pier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: September 4th, 2019 End of the World (my own positions)

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

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

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

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Posted on: August 14th, 2019 Hebrews 11 & “a heavenly country.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: May 3rd, 2019 Kristeva’s Western Metaphysical Destiny

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

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

Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity, 171–2.
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Posted on: May 2nd, 2019 Kierkegaard & “Recollecting Forward”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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