Book Note: Hunting the Divine Fox (Capon)

Despite the fact that I’ve spent a grand total now of about 90 minutes reading from two different Robert Capon books, I can tell that he is a good writer. Two important samples:

Answering theological questions [I might change this to: “discussion theological topics”] is like trying to straighten up a totally unmade bed: The only way to do the job is to strip the problem all the way down to its basic elements and start again from the beginning. Unfortunately, most inquirers–like most bed wetters–are in such a rush to get results that they simply make a casual pass at the lumpy dilemma in front of them and then cover it over with any tattered theological bedspread they can put a hand to.” (Preface)

And again:

For after all, only a fool of a lover ever tries to change his beloved; it is only after we have lost the thread of our love that we start giving orders and complaining about life styles. For as long as we follow it faithfully, it is always a matter of, “I could never have invented you; how should I know how to change you?” Outrage at the beloved is possible, of course. But in a wise lover, it is never outrage at anything but the beloved’s destruction of herself. Inconvenience, pain, sleeplessness–even rejection–are nothing. The beloved is all. (38)

 

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Desire above Reason (and Desire)

Any any student of philosophy knows, Plato and Aristotle both had accounts the human soul such that the soul can be seen as consisting of three basic “parts.” What’s more, even though the two renditions differ in important ways, in each case the respective thinker argues that, in some sense, human reason is “above” desire. That is, both Plato and Aristotle think that the flourishing of the human individual involves some kind of “program” in which reason’s  proper role is to somehow manage, control, oversee, or discipline human desire in all its manifold variety.

It has taken me a long time to grasp a certain way in which this picture, nevertheless, gets “tweaked” in an important way, at least by the mainstream neoplatonist tradition, and I’m shocked that I have not explicitly blogged about this before.

According to neoplatonism, and in particular Christian neoplatonism, while it is true in terms of traditional “faculty theory” that it is the  job of rationality to keep human desire in check, what’s equally true is that there is an additional kind of “desire” which is “above” both psychic faculties of reason (logos; ratio) and desire (horexis; epithumia; thumos). (Somewhat related to this is this.)

Now, why does all this matter, and why should you care? Two reasons: mythos and mysticism.

First, mythos. More and more, I’m convinced that for the Christian mythos is privileged over logos. That is, it is the Christian story into which we as Christians are called super deeply to delve. With the Feast of the Ascension ringing in my imagination (and its amazing collect), it is truly mind blowing to affirm that Christ ascended into the clouds, and then continued to rise beyond the ability of the disciples to see. Where did he go? The answer to this question, it seems to me, stumps rationality. And yet, it makes for a really good story, which is a way of saying that mythos is closely connected to desire. It is myth, over and over again throughout Christian intellectual history (according to folks like Bonaventure and CS Lewis) which supremely is able to stimulate (and satisfy?) Christian desire.

Second, mysticism. My nifty nutshell “definition” of a mystic is one who is convinced that God wants us to experience God. Not primarily to think about him, but to experience him. If this is the case, if the mystic is correct, then the central role of desire in the Christian life, occupying a position even superior to that of reason, is a very big deal.

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Truth Relativized (by time)

Are human beings sinful by nature?

According to philosophers and theologians, this question is an anthropological one, one which many traditional Christians (with a “low anthropology”) will readily answer in the affirmative.

However, if one affirms the innate sinfulness of humanity in this way, one is overlooking a crucial development of history (and thus of temporality). For surely any theologian worth her salt would not deny that man’s sinfulness is the result of what Christians call “the Fall.” But what is the Fall if not an event which (in some sense) has taken place in the world in and through time, an event which (in some sense) has come into being at a specific point in time, but which has no effect at all on the state of affairs which preceded it?

In other words, one can, with at least as much theological integrity, hold that human being is not sinful by nature, insofar as when God created man in his pre-lapsarian state, he was utterly righteous, utterly just, completely devoid of any defect at all.

Now, what is the point of all this, and why bring it up? I am attempting to write a doctoral dissertation on Joseph Ratzinger’s book The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure, in which the Pontiff Emeritus holds that, for the Seraphic Doctor, the logos of history is “first philosophy” (my wording, my gloss). For Ratzinger’s Bonaventure, that is, one cannot know truth, one cannot know what is real, apart from the revelation of certain “events” and their meanings–events which purportedly have taken place in the course of the history of the world. For example, that “in the fullness of time [Lat. plenitudo temporis] God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4).

It seems clear to me that this position–held by Ratzinger’s Bonaventure–is a version of philosophical historicism. It is an example, that is, of the intellectual position which holds that “being gives itself in time,” that, when it comes to human knowing, there are no “timeless truths” or “permanent things,” that one cannot know what is real apart from temporal events and developments, and their valid interpretations. (What constitutes such validity is beyond the scope of this brief article, as indeed is the question “what is time?”.)

The question “are human beings sinful by nature?” is a helpful “prompt” for reflecting on the temporality’s necessity for truth.

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Deep Anamnesis (in an age of Secularism)

Perhaps there are two kinds of people in the world: those who sense that reality is mystical and cannot seem to shake this intuitive feeling, and those who don’t.

Of the latter type, think of a secular thinker (Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins) who stands up and simply says, “There is no evidence for God.”

The former type, however, is not simply someone who has a new-agey sensibility. Rather, mystics are those who, among other things, remind us that we have forgotten. That is, a mystic is someone who respects the role of memory, or anamnesis.

Saying Morning Prayer this morning (Book of Common Prayer, p. 75), I prayed “Canticle 16,” the Song of Zechariah (BCP, 92), and a couple of things hit me afresh. About halfway through the song appear the lines

free to worship Him without fear / holy and righteous in his sight / all the days of our life.

According to great religious traditions of the West, from Christianity, Islam, & Judaism all the way to the mystery religions of the ancient near eastern Levant, and including the Pythagorean-influenced Platonism that in many ways forms a backdrop to the thought of the Church Fathers (for example), mankind or the human race was primordially positioned in relationship with God, already “worshiping Him without fear.” Whether this is articulated in terms of the Garden of Eden or the prenatal vision of the Platonic Forms, the primordial origin of humanity is one of communion with God.

Well, then, why don’t we modern, western people have any sense of this today? After all, I can’t see God, and there appears to be no evidence for him, or so it seems.

And the answer to this question, coming from the quarters of the the mystical religious traditions mentioned above, is, quite simply, that we have forgotten.

In Collation XV of the Hexaëmeron, speaking of the creation of the world in six days, Bonaventure writes:

The first age, resembling infancy, runs from Adam to Noah…. The first day symbolizes the first time, when light and knowledge were given to man; and this is infancy, which is erased by oblivion. So it is with everything that was done until the time when the Flood wiped out every animal except those that were named by Noah.

Bonaventure is arguing that, when it comes to the reality of God and our experience of God, we have forgotten.

If this is true, then centrally at issue in the religious (and philosophical) life is the task of remembering, recollecting, anamnesis. Hence,  the Song of Zechariah, again:

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.

What is this mystical experience? Among other things it is the realization that, “Oh, yeah, now I remember, now I get it…. we were created for communion with God … and by grace and faith and all of God’s gifts (reason, creation, Scripture), that is exactly where we find ourselves, right now.”

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