Pope’s Footwashing & Nonidentical Repetition

Radical Orthodoxy sees the transmission of Christian tradition in terms of “non-identical repetition.” In The Word Made Strange (p 64) John Milbank speaks of “repetition with variety” (borrowed from the 18th century Bishop Lowth, who, against that other bishop, Warburton, argued for the primacy of speech over writing in the origins of language) in which a poet repeats the same poetic lines he has received, learned, and memorized from his predecessor bards … but with a “twist,” with a difference.

Even as the same lines are repeated, the poet adds a different emphasis, pairs a phrase with a novel facial expression, or  stresses different syllables of particular words differently than did his antecedent poet.

In this way the original poem, and mutatis mutandis the poem at every stage in the catena, is “pleonastic:” it contains within it the potential for an infinite variety of performances.

In his essay “A Christological Poetics” Milbank speaks of Christ as not only the sum total of the signifying chain or web of Hebrew theology poetically imagined in the Old Testament, but also as occupying a certain place, indeed an “originating place” (Michel de Certeau uses the phrase “inaugurating rupture”) in the chain.

So “on the night before he was betrayed” Jesus Christ performs and repeats the story of the passing over in Egypt but in a radically new way. This inaugurating rupture includes the  command to love one another along with the embodied example of washing his disciples’ feet, a performance which the church has been performing and re-membering for two millenia.

And so it is that when Pope Francis recently washed the feet of a Muslim female prisoner in the context of the Maundy Thursday Rites, he was performing the poem in a radically new way. Who knew that the pleonasm of Christ’s poesis on the night before he was betrayed would include this meaning? And who knows what potential meanings are yet still to come?

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Theories of Language: Derrida on Aristotle

Warning: this is a quite theoretical article, which many of my non-academic friends might find tedious!

In the first chapter of Of Grammatology, Derrida accuses Aristotle of launching the “metaphysics of presence” by positing a theory of language which Derrida thinks is critiqued and “shown up” by Sausurre’s theory of the sign. He cites Aristotle’s articulation in On Interpretation in which he says that even though language (speech and writing) is a matter of custom, the ideas of objects which people have in their minds are universal (and thus transparent to being).

Even though something in me wants to defend Aristotle, and even though Derrida is way too simplisitic in his accusation that the entire metaphysical tradition agrees with Aristotle here (counterexamples would be Augustine and Bonaventure, who appear to hold that all thought and perhaps all reality is mediated by language), I think that Derrida is correct in his critique of Aristotle here. Christian thinkers like Augustine and Bonaventure and John Milbank would (and do) agree with him. So would Mikhail Bakhtin.

Further Derrida is correct in his description of the tradition’s privileging of speech over writing.

In his explanation for why this is the case, however, he is wrong, or overly simplistic (again). Derrida misconstrues (as Pickstock shows in After Writing) the reasons why at least some streams of the tradition privilege speech over writing. It is not the assumption that speech gets us closer to a present subject which is the locus of metaphysical presence (how could such a possibility even be thought before Descartes?); it is rather that time has a certain priority over space, since time (as Plato says in the Timeaus) is a moving image of eternity. Time evokes (and particiatpes in?) eternity more than space does. Hence speech, which is time-bound, is prior to writing, which is space-bound.

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Supreme Ct. on Gay Marriage: First Response

First blush response on the proceedings of the Supreme Court proceedings of Hollingsworth vs. Perry (available here): it is  astonishing how feeble the arguments of Mr. Cooper (representing the State of California in its opposition to gay marriage) seem, in the face of Justice Sotomayor’s cross examinations.

I am not saying that I agree with Sotomayor; I am saying that, clearly, in contemporary American culture, secular reason (that is reason which excludes the relevance of theology, which presupposes revelation)  has the upper hand.  It’s as if you hear the premises of Mr. Cooper and think to yourself, “there’s no way that’s going to fly.”

As many of us have been saying for years, this is a process that is already set going at the founding of the United States.

The point here, for now, is that this decision is a clarion call for Christians clearly to recognize that the US Constitution, and the political principles which undergird it, while it has been a limited “force for good” in the world, is, at the end of the day (like all forms of heresy) no friend of the Christian Church.

I would feel guilty for spending time on this, were it not for the fact that I plan to write my term paper on Thomas Aquinas and Law on this very issue.

 

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Beer, _Purgatio_, & the End of Lent

Almost every day, I have the joy of talking to a Christ Church parishioner who comes up to me excitedly and tells me about a new beer they’ve discovered. Wow! What a wonderful and interesting life I get to live!

For the fifth Lent in a row, however, I decided once again to do the barely thinkable: I decided to give up all alcohol for Lent. This, year, however, I did something even more unheard of: I went “Eastern Orthodox style,” meaning that I continued my fast even on the Sundays in Lent! (Did you know that a faithful Orthodox Christian lives about 40% of each year, about 40% of his or her entire life, fasting in one form or another?)

It has truly been an amazing experience. Not only have I lost ten pounds without changing a single additional variable. Not only am I sleeping better. Not only is my budget that much closer to being responsible. But, in addition to all of that, my prayer life has improved, and that is what I want to talk to write about in this blog post.

St. Augustine, in Book VII of the Confessions, has a life-changing epiphany when he “discovers” the “books of the Platonists,” or what today we would call the “neoPlatonists.” From those books he learns that God is “simple:” without body, without spatiality, not subject to time or to change. But also from those books he begins to incorporate an ancient insight of mysticism (shared, again, by the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy): that God reveals himself to the human soul in an experience which many mystics (including St. Augustine) call “divine illumination” or the “divine light.”

Now, when Augustine or someone like Symeon the New Theologian or indeed the neoPlatonist Plotinus speaks of this divine light, they always stress the importance of purity. In fact, neoplatonism injected into the stream of Christian tradition, inherited by the ancient monastics, the three-fold way of purification – illumination – unification.

Think about this “purification” like this. The human soul / mind / heart is like a multi-layered onion. You might think of the outermost layer of the onion as the noise which floods into our ears daily in the car, at home, in the coffee shop, or wherever. Beneath that external noise we have the many distracting thoughts which occupy our mind. Beneath that layer are the concerns and worries of our life (finances, health, etc.). Deepest of all one might find a painful and disturbing layer of damage caused, for example, by hurtful words spoken or things experienced in our childhood.

All of these “layers” essentially serves as distractions or barriers to the experience of the “divine light” of God in our innermost being. The goal of purification, then, not unrelated to the fasting of Lent, is to rid ourselves of the noise, to rid ourselves of the distractions of life.

This Lent I’ve experienced something of this purificaton, more this year than ever before. My “theology of the fruit of the vine” has not changed! I believe in myrth, conviviality, and feasting! I still wear beer t-shirts (even during Lent!). Young people still gather on my front porch after church and enjoy new, riveting beverages.

But my heart and mind are also captivated by the benefits of living without strong drink. It is a very small price to pay for deeper intimacy with my Lord.

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No, I’m not “fine” (Lent)

Back in the day, when I was a little crazier than I am today, I preached a sermon at Emanuel Presbyterian Mission, a multi-ethnic church plant in which I was a founding co-pastor, in which I said this:

 When you walk up to me and ask me, “How are you doing?” don’t expect me say, “Just fine.” I’m not “just fine.” I’m worse than that, and I’m better than that. In fact, when you come up and ask me how I’m doing, don’t be surprised if I respond, “I’m dying and being resurrected.”

Turns out that this sermon created quite a reaction in our young and growing diverse congregation, and from that point onward, when someone would approach a member of our community and ask them how they were doing, it was not uncommon to hear, “I’m dying and being resurrected … it’s the only way to fly.”

The gospel lesson from this last Sunday (Lent III), Luke 13:1-9, is an unusual passage. There are a great number of passages in the four gospels which are intended to encourage the downtrodden, the comfort the afflicted, and to encourage the down and out. Indeed we have a Lord who is constantly drawn to the outcast, whose heart beats to lift up the lowly.

But the Gospel lesson for Lent III (in Year C) is no such passage. If you are feeling discouraged today, this passage is not for you, for this passage (one of a small number of such passages in the Gospels) is aimed at the upbeat, the successful, those who are meeting their goals.

Jesus looks at these people, and tells them to repent. What?! Repent from what? These folks are not like the woman caught in adultery (John 8) who is suffering some rather nasty consequences of her sin. These people have not robbed a bank; they have not even kicked the cat or uttered a four letter word!

So why does Jesus Christ tell them to repent? In this passage we realize that sin is not breaking the rules. When one breaks the rules (whether it in terms of drink, sex, anger, or whatever), this is a mere symptom of something deeper. It is this “something deeper” from which we are called to repent. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Sin is the attempt to build my life on any foundation other than God.” It is from this tendency that we are called to repent.

And, indeed, this is the point of Lent. Lent is the practice of weaning ourselves off of our dependence on false foundations. Lent is about repenting as a way of life, in the spirit of Martin Luther, the first of whose famous 95 Theses was “All of life is repentance.”

I’m reminded of what Richard Foster shared with some of us in his talk at the Renovation Tyler conference this last weekend. First thing in the morning, he lies on the ground, facing upward. He spreads his arms out in the cruciform shape of the cross, and recites Galatians 2:20 out loud:

 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered himself up for me.

What a powerful way to learn repentance not just when we are feeling down and desperate but in every day, every moment, of our lives.

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