How to talk about the Benedict Option (Prolegomena)

Which of the following visions for humanity is more accurate, more true, more desirable: A or B?

A: “Human beings are meant to enjoy deep, relational, holistic communion with one another.”

B: “Human beings are meant to co-exist with one another through the mechanisms of tolerance.”

How should we discuss Rod Dreher’s proposal of the Benedict Option? Even before the book is widely analyzed, I predict that most of the discussions will take place at a level that is unhelpfully superficial. People will talk about, for example, whether Christianity is “for the culture,” or “against the culture” employing the categories bequeathed by the 2oth century liberal Protestant Richard Niebuhr.   Yet few will dig deeper, and question the assumption that both of those stances share: that Christianity (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is separable from culture in the first place. The real need is to question the assumption that the Body of Christ (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is ever, in reality, acultural.

Aristotle wrote long ago that “knowledge of opposites is one and the same,” by which he means that two opposing species of intellectual positions often reduce down to the same common genus. Keynsian economists and members of the “Austrian School” both agree on a fundamental shared principle: the validity of political economy. But what if it is precisely this underlying assumption, this common genus, which needs to be questioned?

I will never forget a conversation which I had with a Tibetan Buddhist in the mid 1990’s. I was an undergrad  at U.T. Austin, and I was dialoging with a new friend of Asian descent. As an evangelical who had tacitly inherited a sort of “common sense realism” view of the world, I was asking him about what he regarded as true and false. But the discussion, over and over again, hit a brick wall. Since he would not, even from the very beginning, acknowledge my distinction between “true” and “false,” we hit one dialogical roadblock after another. More recently I found myself sitting on a bench in discussion with a practicioner of Harikrishna … and although the intervening two decades did supply me with more wisdom and better conversation skills than I had as a college sophomore, nevertheless I was reminded all over again of the stark contrast, the fundamental divide, between the Eastern and Western worldviews, or visions of reality.

It is no coincidence that religions such as Buddhism and Harikrishna are far more accepted in our American culture today than they were in the late 20th century. Part of their new plausability, I think, is that they are radically counter-cultural. People realize that our flattened out, “disenchanted” secular lives are neither sustainable nor desirable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or to quote Seal (thus dating myself yet again), “We’re never gonna survive … unless we get a little crazy.”

The teachings of Jesus, and the apostolic commitments of his followers about the Body of Christ vis-a-vis the systems of Ceasar, are crazy and strange at root. Dreher is operating out of a conviction that when one grasps the Faith aright, it is “made strange.”

It is precisely its “crazy” counter-culturalism which draws me to Rod Dreher’s vision. Many of us share the conviction, pace David Brooks, that Christianity is also, at root, radically counter-cultural. (Does this mean we can no longer go to Starbucks or that we are obliged to opt out of Netflix or boycott SXSW? No, not necessarily.)

Yet David Brooks and many others assume a tacit agreement, an easy compatibility, between secular, political liberalism on the one hand and the Christian religion on the other. (So much so that some can speak of “American civil religion,” and some even still regard it as a viable option.) Of course this assumption is not prima facie absurd: after all, both Locke and Jefferson were good Anglicans.

But it is precisely this assumption which needs to be questioned. It is an assumption laid bare by books such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, John Milbank’s 1991 Theology and Secular Theory, and Charles Taylor’s 2007 A Secular Age. (These books, with balanced, rigorous erudition, reveal how deeply the disease has penetrated, just how deep the rabbit hole goes.) All three resonate with the strange reality of  the “two cities” which Augustine develops in his magisterial City of God. Brooks, in opposition to all four, sees an easy compatibility between the City of God and the City of Man. At the very least all sides should admit that he stands in deep opposition to St. Augustine. St. Augustine, whose strangeness rivals that of a Tibetan Buddhist, from a modern American perspective.

It is this assumption of easy compatibility which David Brooks (like Niebuhr before him) holds in his article and adopts from a secular vantage point, but never questions.

I’d argue that historic, catholic Christianity differs from modern secularism kind of like harikrishna differs from common sense realism: they operate on entirely different registers of reality.

What would it look like to question this assumption of the validity of modern secularism? For starters, it could look like asking the the above question, Which is more desirable for humanity: A or B?

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“Theos” as Conceptual Idol? (a 3-fold response)

This little essay, a practice exercise for my upcoming PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy & theology geeks, and for them alone!

For at least four decades now, one strain or type of “postmodern” theologian (such as Jack Caputo) has been arguing, following Martin Heidegger, that any purported conception of God, but especially any used by the (western) metaphysical tradition, is inherently idolatrous. In this regard, Caputo is also channeling the spirit of his friend Jacques Derrida (d. 2004), insofar as both the Gentile Catholic Caputo and the Jewish Derrida root their critiques in an allegedly biblical “idoloclasm.”

As I see it, there are three valid responses to this criticism, which show that our intellectual conceptions of God are not necessarily idolatrous.

  1. First one can argue that the best renditions of philosophico-theological accounts of God proceed on the basis of a kind of Pseudo-Dionysian apophaticism. That is, when thinkers from Augustine to Thomas (and one could possibly throw Aristotle into this list, albeit anachronistically, perhaps) develop their accounts of God in a philosophical or theological register, they are essentially saying what God is not. They are making denials about God. For example, with regard to the Aristotelian (and neoplatonist) point that God is “pure act,” one could argue that this is really another way of saying that God does not at all admit of any kind of potentiality, including and especially the potentiality of materiality.
  2. Second one could appeal to biblical revelation, which does two relevant things. First, it claims that God is being or “has” being (Exodus 3:15, inter alia), a claim which then gives license to the interpreter to imagine God, to describe God, to think God (conceptually). Second, though, Scripture itself develops multiple images of God which no one, not even the most hard core iconoclast, has regarded as idolatrous. Examples: God as a pillar of fire in the Old Testament; God as a dove descending on Jesus in the New Testament. I suppose one could even place Christ himself in this context: the incarnation establishes a new economy of images.
  3. Third one can appeal Thomas Aquinas’ the logic of divine naming, which he includes in his “Five Ways” in Summa Theologiae (prima pars, Question II). On this view, God’s naming works such that even terms or concepts such as “first mover” or “first cause” do actually refer to God. This position is ably represented by Denis Turner, for example here. (That Thomas thinks this, it seems to me, indicates something inscrutably profound about his thinking about God. Somehow, God is accessible both to natural human reason and to divinely bequeathed faith.)

In conclusion, however, one should also respond to this Derridian / Heideggerian point with salutary gratitude. Idolatry, for anyone purporting to stand within a biblical or theological tradition, is a real thing, and a pernicious problem. One must repent; one must be on guard. And yet, on the basis of the three responses above, I think we can legitimately disagree with Caputo / Derrida / Heidegger.

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Modern Metaphysics, Morphed

This article, an exercise in my preparation for PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy and theology geeks, and them alone.

How does the meaning of the term “metaphysics” change from the premodern to the modern period?

As good a place as any to begin is Book VIII chapter 6 of Augustine’s City of God, where Augustine rehearses:

  1. The priority of simple being over all non-simple being.
  2. Because (unlike body and soul) simple being is beyond degree(s of comparison), it is that by which any apprehension of beauty is judged. Hence simple being must be a or the “primary form” that exists in the mind.

Two quick notes about this summary rendition of things. First, Augustine here builds upon Aristotle’s work of prôtê philosophia (subsequently named The Metaphysics) which conceives of the unmoved mover (which, as “that which is most knowable in itself,” is the ultimate pedagogical destination of Aristotle’s entire programmic “order of learning” or hierarchy of sciences, beginning with the Organon) as pure, fully “actualized” being, pure energeia. No matter, no potency at all can be said to be in God. Hence, for the Stagirite theos is utterly simple (haplax). Second, it is instructive, as we juxtapose this way of thinking with modern thought, to remember Avicenna’s determination of simple being as necessary, and complex being as contingent. Although not all pre-modern thinkers—Plotinus and Averroes come to mind—agree with this characterization, it is still conveniently helpful to regard all material, spatio-temporal being as contingent, for the pre-modern mind.

Enter Descartes, who changes things at the most fundamental level possible. The short version of things is that metaphysics is now cast in terms of res cogitans and res extensa. But that dichotomy lies at the far end of a series of moves which change the course of intellectual history precisely in their details.

Those crucial “details” begin with a move which I will characterize as: grounding the sciences in the irreducibility of the individual subject. Descartes agrees with Aristotle on the importance of “that which is most known or knowable[*] in itself,” but for Descartes, who thinks he’s doubted everything that can be, can no longer regard this “thing” to be God. Further, it is still for him—as also for Aristotle—this recursivity or reflexivity which alone can ground scientia. What, then, is the locus of this reflexivity? No longer nous noeôs, it is now: subject and object. The latter grounds the former and the former grounds the world.

No longer, then, is science—as was the case from Aristotle through the Scholastics—an ordered system of intellectual disciplines, each of which depends upon the former epistemologically (or pedagogically), and upon the subsequent ontologically. Now, with the birth of the modern, they are considered to be (grounded in) a reflexive relationship between subject / observer and object / observed.

So, if “metaphysics” refers to that which is beyond the natural (which, for Descartes is collapsed with culture, the domain of human poiêsis and technê), the that which is beyond is the human subject, res cogitans.

True, Descartes believes in God and math, but these things are arrived at and secured only after he convinces himself that the subject, the cogito, exists. Plus, while the subject is known for Descartes, God and math are for him likely objects of mere belief. (They are moments of his “way out,” back out into the world, subsequent to his “movement inward,” which hits “rock bottom” at the point at which he cannot doubt the existence of his self.)

Finally, it must be said that this metaphysical shift which we see in Descartes is not the end of a development, but only the beginning: thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Kant, Bergson and Husserl build on this foundation, in their various and unique ways. Just one example would be Husserl’s redefinition of “absolute being” (also for Bergson) and “dependent being.” According to Dermot Moran,

Husserl maintains that consciousness cannot be thought away in such an experiment and hence must be understood as having “absolute being” whereas reality has to be understood as dependent being. In this section [§49] Husserl styles the world of pure consciousness as “immanent being” and as absolute. (Dermot Moran, “Foreward,” in Edmund Husserl, Ideas (… ), xxiii.

[*] in Greek these two participles are morphologically identical.

 

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Platonic Forms (a feeble attempt)

What, for Plato, are the forms? Nothing could be more difficult than to answer this question: even Augustine, who certainly knew Plato much much better than I, dumurs in attempting to “nail” Plato “down:” after all, “he emulated … the well known practice of his master Socrates … of concealing his own knowledge of opinion.” (City of God VIII.4)

So, then, what follows is the best I can do in stammering toward some kind of sketchy impression of Plato’s doctrine of the forms.

Many interpreters of Plato, including Aristotle, who followed the truth over his friend, take Platonic forms to be mental concepts. And, one can see a certain plausibility in this interpretation, especially based on the early dialogues, such as the Euthyphro, where the form of “piousness” is considered in the context of a discussion on genus and species, and in the Phaedo, where equal sticks and stones are said to be equal, due to the reality of some form of equality. In the former case it can be said that genus and species are, in fact, mental concepts, and in the latter case one can say that mathematical type entities seem to be mental concepts, as well.

So, is this the answer? For Plato, are the forms simply mental concepts?

Not quite, for beginning in the middle dialogues, including the Republic, the Symposium, and the Phaedrus, the Good seems to be a mysterious reality, in which the human soul participates. This is construed in diverse ways, but in each case the Good is transcendent and elusive while nonetheless characterized as a kind of desiridatum for which the human mind strives. In the Republic one thinks of the Good which lies above the divided line, and hence above the rational intellect simply speaking. Since the entire logic of the divided line proceeds on the basis of participation (with the lower realm of appearances “participating” in the upper realm of rationality), it makes sense to see rational nous, or indeed the whole soul or the whole person, as participating, striving to participate, in the good, into which it is “wooed” or even seduced.

Speaking of seduction, in the Symposium we encounter divine Diotima, at whom the lover enjoys or delights in looking[1], Diotima here considered as the beloved. In addition to this, Diotima (according to Seth Bernardete in his commentary on the Symposium) completes Socrates’s life-long education, providing the third of his major breakthroughs or epiphanies (after the second sailing of the Phaedo and the Parmenidean realization, narrated in the first half of the Parmenides, that if the forms are knowable, they are knowable only by God), that all things participate in Beauty. On this scenario, the ultimate form is “Beauty” (there is room in Plato to argue that beauty is “convertible” with the Good), and all things participate in it, as illuminated reason is enabled to perceive.

Hence, a more plausible view, in opposition to form-as-mental-concept, is the view that Plato regards the Form(s) as participata, that in which all things—including the human mind—participate. For Plato, then, it is the Form(s) in which we live and move and have our being.

If ever there were an “extra-mental” reality, this is it.

 

[1] The Greek eidos is cognate with the verb for “to look,” also with the Latin video, whose first letter was originally a diagamma, yielding the Greek stem “id.”

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Phenomenological Reduction: a Theological Refutation?

Note: this article is intended for philosophy and theology nerds, and them alone!

I am suspecting that “the phenomenological reduction” is not possible when it comes to eating (an apple, or the consecrated Body of Christ, for example). It seems to work for vision, but not for eating. If I “bracket” the existence of the apple (while eating it), then am I not also led inextricably to “bracket” the existence of the tongue, teeth, throat, and stomach which touches them? They are “like objects,” after all. (Or something like that.)

Aristotle may have known this in advance, as evidenced by his words in _De Anima_ II.9-11. There he says that touch (which subsumes taste & smell, such that, ultimately, there are only 3 senses) “proves the existence of the soul” because for it alone among the senses is the “third thing” (required for sensation to work) the actual human body. (He is here assuming that since the body cannot be the thing which does the experiencing, the only option left is to say that the soul is the thing that does the experiencing.)

Which means that the body cannot be bracketed while eating, period. Which means that the apple cannot be bracketed. Which means that the phenomenological reduction does not work with respect to eating.

Which means objects exists.

No wonder Christians (as opposed to Greeks, who privilege vision, & Jews, who privilege hearing) privilege eating (and hence touch).

Grateful to John Milbank & Catherine Pickstock for their emphasis on the sensation of touch (in their book on Thomas Aquinas, Truth In Aquinas).

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“Second Sailing” as Proto-Phenomenology? Not quite.

Note: this post is intended only for philosophy & theology geeks!

In her chapter, “Introduction to the Phaedo,” Eva Brann helpfully illuminates what is going on in Plato’s “second sailing,” discussed in the Socratic dialogue of the same name. Just before Socrates shares his discovery of the second sailing with his interlocutors in the Phaedo, he pauses dramatically and reflects deeply within himself. Indeed, he seems to be signaling, what is at stake in this second sailing is “no trivial business:” he means to inquire into the very “cause of generation and destruction as a whole.”[1]

Socrates then proceeds to narrate an intellectual autobiography of sorts, emphasizing the unfruitfulness of his prior “inquiry into nature.” At first, he says, he would “give the most ordinary answers to explain generation and growth: a human being grows by eating and drinking and adding flesh.” Note that this explanation is merely physical, merely based on a kind of naïve visual observation with little attempt to inquire “behind” the surface level items of everyday experience. This is an “explanation” that functions at the level of “things bumping into each other,” the naïve, “physicalist” kind of explanation offered by the Presocratics of the Milesian School.

Brann continues to comment upon Socrates’ account of his intellectual development in the Phaedo by pointing out the importance of the young Plato’s self-narrated discovery of a claim put forward by Anaxagoras, that “Mind orders the world.” Despite the fact that Anaxagoras failed to apply this principle rigorously to his system, instead falling back upon the same superficial explanations of ancient physicalists such as Thales, this insight about mind would prove determinative for the young Socrates, according to his own account. For it was this inkling that allowed Socrates to move beyond merely physical explanations. His recourse? If one wise statement from a predecessor in the tradition—that is, if just one logos—could prove fruitful, why not search for others as well?

Socrates describes this “moving beyond” in terms of a “turning away,” a forsaking his prior method of “direct” naïve observation for what he calls a “second sailing.” A fresh attempt to regroup, to start over, to turn away (albeit provisionally) from what the eyes see, to an investigation of what speech has in common with what those eyes see.[2] After all, one thing that eyes can never see is the very thing that Socrates initially stated as his goal: “the cause of generation and destruction as a whole,” whatever that might turn out to be.

How similar is this move to the procedure(s) which, twenty-four and centuries later, Edmund Husserl advocates under the banner of “phenomenology?” The short answer: very similar, indeed … but more different than similar.

To see resemblance, however, one must first appreciate that the procedure which Socrates enacts in his “second sailing” is actually composed of two, smaller-scale moves: first, he turns away; then he searches for something by means of words, by means of logoi.

What is fascinating is that, Husserl’s phenomenological procedure, has advocated and spelled out in his Ideas I, also involves not one fundamental move, but two.

And as is the case with Plato, the first move is a kind of turning away. Husserl writes:

We put out of action the … natural standpoint, we place in brackets whatever includes respecting the nature of Being: this entire natural world therefore which is continually “there for us”….[3]

How similar is this move to (the first moment of) Socrates’ move? From the quotation immediately above (together with its context) we know that Husserl’s move involves a turning away from a certain kind of naïve, “natural” assumption: that the things which we see “really” exist. But what is Socrates turning away from?

I decided that I must be careful not to suffer the misfortune which happens to people who look at the sun and watch it during an eclipse. For some of them ruin their eyes unless they look at its image in water or something of the sort. I thought of that danger, and I was afraid my soul would be blinded if I looked at things with my eyes and tried to grasp them with any of my senses. So I thought I must have recourse to conceptions and examine in them the truth of realities.[4]

Now, from this quotation we see that what both Plato and Husserl turn away from is a kind of naïve trust which assumes that things are in reality the way they appear to us by way of our vision. In this regard, it seems to me that Plato & Husserl are, in their “turn away,” doing the same thing.

Further, in a kind of intermediate move—a move between the moves—Socrates follows Husserl in emphasizing the importance of images, images which both thinkers affirm and advocate as an object of our focus. Plato seems to endorse the consideration of “image[s] in the water; in Husserl’s phenomenological reduction / ephochê he thinks that “a new region of being,” that of consciousness, comes into view, and within this region the mind attends rigorously not just to memories but also to “fantasies,” that is to say, to images.

Let me quickly register one pointed difference, however, in the two “turnings away.” Husserl makes it explicit in Ideas Part I, §32 that in the phenomenological reduction, one turns away not just from a kind of naïve dependence upon what one perceives by way of vision, but also from any kind of “theory” about the world or the things in the world. The world which we acknowledge, if only for the purpose of “setting in brackets,” is a world “free from all theory.”[5] So what one does here is to suspend the existence of the world, a process which includes provisionally denying or ignoring any kind of metaphysical scientific claim. The rejected world is “just the world as my senses take it in.” It is this world which is provisionally suspended, or assumed not to exist.

Now, one the one hand, Socrates can be said to turn away from this same world of appearance, and to suspend, reject, ignore, deny the theories of the world which he had previously been assuming. So far, Plato’s move matches Husserl’s. However, one must also recognize that Plato’s rejection of theory quickly gives way to an new entertaining of them, in the form of logoi, or wise opinions passed down primarily from his predecessors in the tradition. Secondly, and more fundamental, Socrates does not say that he is suspending or doubting or turning away from “the existence” of anything at all. I’d argue, in fact, that it is impossible to regard Socrates as doing this. Such a move occurs only after Descartes in the tradition, since prior to him there is an “ontological assuredness” (Cornelius Castoriadis) which characterizes all premodern thinkers. For them the question is never “Does anything at all exist?” but only “how does reality exist?”.

The deepest point is this, it seems to me: that from which Socrates turns away is merely one theory of how things exist. Granted, it was the theory which he apparently had adopted, but by his day many rival theories were on the scene (Parmenidean monism, Pythagoreanism, etc.). That from which Husserl turns away (albeit provisionally), however, runs much deeper than any one of these ancient, inter-mural theories, one among which Socrates repudiates. The “natural attitude” seems to be universally assumed. Even Buddhist mystics and ancient Cynics assume the world to exist in the sense in which Husserl means. And yet, this is what Husserl calls into question.

Put it another way: Plato seeks “to inquire into the cause of generation and destruction as a whole;” he never calls that cause–which surely is (closely related to) being–into question. But this calling into question is the very thing that Husserl’s phenomenological epochê does do.

To conclude. In this sloppily-written short essay, I’ve noted some similarities & differences between Plato’s “second sailing” and Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. Let me state what, perhaps, is the most interesting similarity between the two moves: they both “pause and reflect deeply” within themselves. What Plato states briefly, though, and passes over quickly, Husserl, like his contemporary Henri Bergson, “stays with” and elongates. For these latter two phenomenologists, then, this move deep within turns out to be a much bigger deal.

 

 

[1] Eva Brann, “Introduction to the Phaedo,” in The Music of the Republic (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2011), 20.

2 Brann, “Introduction,” 22.

[3] Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, tr. W.R. Boyce Gibson (New York: Routledge, 2012), 59 (Part I, §32).

[4] Plato, Phaedo, 99d-e, from the Perseus Digital Library, URL = http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D99e

[5] Husserl, Ideas, 60.

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Lent: Commending the (Anglican) Faith

One part of my Christian journey which I have not spoken of very much ocurred as my tenure as an evangelical Presbyterian minister was drawing to a close. As much as I loved and still love that tradition, I knew that I needed to make a change. Why? Because with every fiber of my being I longed for a church which was more mysterious, more beautiful, more sacramental.

And so it is that, over a period of about a year, I had lunch with a priest in the Orthodox Church (a former Methodist minister). During that time I was exploring this ancient way of faith, which is so different from the church I grew up in, so different (you might say), from “your grandma’s church,” that it is barely recognizable.

To put it a different way, when you worship in an Orthodox church, it is almost like you are on another planet, in a different reality, in a different dimension. The worship is just so utterly foreign. From the perspective of a native Texan who grew up Baptist, it seems more like Hinduism than it does like “First Baptist.”

Therein lay its attraction. As the church in American & in the West continues its free fall of decline, I firmly believe that what people crave and long for is mystery. Something different from their normal, everyday experience. (Hence the sadness and pitifulness of the efforts of some churches to make their worship “relevant for modern people.” Yuck!) This is why so many people in western culture, for the last few decades now, have been flocking to Eastern religions, and even the popularity of yoga fits into this trend. Sadly, so many folks nowadays are totally ignorant of the historical rootedness, within Christianity, of “eastern” practices such as contemplation and mysticism.

Even though I ultimately opted for Anglicanism over Orthodoxy, these instincts have stayed with me, and this is where the liturgical and sacramental life of the church is such a gift for people today.

Nowhere is this more true or pertinent than in the liturgical seasons of the church year, and in particular during Lent. And this brings me to the main point of this Crucifer article: what a joy it is to witness the epiphanies which occur when “newcomers” discover our sacramental and liturgical life. When they discover it, begin to practice it, and go deeper into it. (The desire to see more of this kind of discovery is why we themed our college ministry, several years ago, “A New Way of Being Christian that is Very, Very Old.”)

Thanks be to God that dozens of individuals and families, right now, are coming to experience and appreciate and love the practice of Lent, that so many new folks attended our Ash Wednesday services this year, that over 30 adults at Christ Church South have expressed interest in Confirmation Preparation in the Fall, etc.

It is a joy to commend the Anglican Way to a culture which simply does not know. I remain convinced, today more than ever, that what our fragmenting culture needs, at the deepest level, is a connection to Jesus Christ which is stable, grounded, beautiful, communal, sacramental, and mysterious.

“A new way of being Christian that is very, very old!”

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