Open to History (Christian Neoplatonism)

Please ignore this post, unless you are interested in my doctoral dissertation, or are predisposed to matters relating to philosophy and theology. 

In my dissertation I am trying to show that, in our current cultural milieu in the twenty-first century West, philosophy is dependent upon theology, for reasons having to do with history.

Like Josef Pieper’s The End of Time, Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity compellingly suggests or argues that, in a unique way, Christian Neoplatonism is hospitable to history. That is, there is something about Christian Neoplatonism which–unlike other philosophical approaches–does not exclude history from philosophical consideration.

In chapter 4 (“The Repeated Sign”) of the book, Pickstock seamlessly transitions, with no apparent difficulty, from a discussion of ontology to a discussion of history, or what I call historiology.

In fact, on the basis of this chapter, we can say that, for Christian Neoplatonism, unlike many or most other philosophical approaches (inimical to history), the logos of history is no more problematic than the logos of entities in the world, or ontology. Why is this?

It has to do with the Forms, which Pickstock also describes as (closely related to) the “imagined double” of any given thing, including the universe or world as a whole. If any given apple is, at the same time, not-another-apple and also not-a-tomato (entities which are wholly imagined or remembered), its intelligibility hinges on this imagined double, and this kind of reasoning is no less applicable to the world as a whole.

And since the world, or nature, is a meta-indexical whole (that is, it does not point to some other item in the world; it is “beyond indicating”), the question emerges: does its meaning reside in or rely on some higher, or other, reality? That is, if the world is beautiful, then it must rely on some notion or idea or reality of beauty which is not itself contained in or constrained by the world. So, either it is not beautiful, or its beauty depends on some higher reality (in which case its meaning does rely on a “higher” reality).

But what Pickstock implies–and here is the point–is that the apple and the world are no different than, say, the history of the French Revolution. Just as the apple is intelligible only because of the alternative apple or the non-apple, so also the set of “real” space-time, physical events which led to the overthrow of the Ancien Régime in France near the end of the eighteenth century are only intelligible on the basis of an imagined history, that is, an imagined narrative.

(The same applies to the history of the individual self, as Kierkegaard suggests in Repetition by appeal to the “shadow-existences” which one plays in the theater of one’s own self-imaginings. See Repetition 154–5.)

As for the apple, so also for the French Revolution (or any other historical development). This is the case for Christian neoplatonism, but not for modern, secular, alternative philosophical approaches. Christian Neoplatonism confidently embraces a philosophy of history, but other approaches (from Aristotelianism to Kantianism) cannot.

Hence, history is no longer off limits to the philosophical quest for truth.

Hence, we can once again remain open to history, willing to consider attentively whatever it has to say to us.

When we do that, we are confronted by certain parameter-shifting considerations, having to do with creation, fall, incarnation, resurrection, and new creation (or apokatastasis, the redemption of all things).

And now we are doing theology (founded, as it is, on a particular history). It is theology that is here informing our philosophic quest.

Philosophy, then, is here dependent upon theology. Why? Because of the difference that history makes.

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Kierkegaard, Repetition & History

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

In Soren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Repetition, the “author” / protagonist / narrator Constantine Constantius performs an unusual kind of experiment. Nostalgically recalling a past trip to Berlin (from Copenhagen), he begins to wonder if he could replicate such an experience again. He means this literally, and so he decides to try to repeat the trip exactly has it happened before, complete with every sensation, impression, thought, pleasure, pain, etc. The question with which this philosophical novel opens, then, is: Is repetition possible?

The answer, it turns out, is no. But as the Constantine tells his larger story, which involves a “young man” enmeshed in a botched love affair strikingly similar in all its details to that of the “historical” Soren Kierkegaard, we realize a deeper philosophical truth. While identical repetition is not possible, it turns out that, at another level, nonidentical repetition is nevertheless not only possible, but absolutely necessary.

In Catherine Pickstock’s treatment of this Kierkegaardian theme (in her 2014 Repetition and Identity, especially chapter 5, “The Repeated Self”), she puts it like this, channeling the spirit of Charles Péguy: in order for a thing to be (or for an event to occur) it must occur twice, and this in all sorts of senses. As a banal example, take an ordinary object in the world such as a tree: in order for it to be a tree at all, it must also be perceived or conceived in the intellect. This intellectual event—the perception or conception, or indeed imaginary anticipation or memory—is the “doubling” of the object.

A key point which Pickstock brings out is has to do with spatial points and temporal instances. Such “entitities” don’t really exist in the world in some sense, and yet our minds supply them, in some sense co-constructing our space-time reality by means of them. Indeed, they supply them by necessity. That is, without these mentally supplied points and instances, all things run together; every thing flows into and out of every other thing, in a kind of Heraclitan flux. Even to say “the cup is here and the napkin is there” requires the presence of such mentally supplied points. Such points, then, are (in Pickstock’s terms) fictive. It is Zeno of Elea who originally expounded such truths. On this point both the Eleatics and Heraclitus agree: such points (and instances) don’t really exist at all. Pickstock’s point (with Kierkegaard and Péguy—and Gilles Deleuze) is that without them, the world is unintelligible.

We have seen that … pure thinghood is devoid of … ontological content, and, yet, that, without these null divisions [of point and moment], there would be no coherent entities and no coherent events. Similarly, they are devoid of meaning-content and signify nothing, being empty even of sound and fury. And yet, without them, there would be no meaningfully distinct entities and no significant or distinguishable events. (Pickstock, Repetition & Identity, 76)

Let us now take this train of thought one step further, extending it to the realm of history and the logos of history. As for points and moments, so also for fictional narratives in general. The only way the human intellect can articulate (put into words) a historical event, occurrence, period, or epoch is by way of some kind of narrative. And at one level the narrative is fictive: like points and instances, in some sense it is not real. And yet, without it, historical accounting or articulation is literally impossible. Narratives are to history what points are to spacial reality.

The narrative fiction, then, is another instance of this intellectual doubling, and without it no logos of history, indeed no graphê  of history, is possible. For history—in any form—to happen once, it must indeed happen twice. It must be repeated.

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Bird Box, “Deaths of Despair,” & the Gospel

It’s been eight decades since Albert Camus dropped the famous bombshell in the playground of Western culture that the only “serious philosophical question” left for us to ponder is: why not suicide?

What was in 1940 a radical, subversive scandal (and not just in 1940: I remember reading the Stranger, mesmerized, on the campus of UT Austin in a beautiful, melancholy courtyard, during a tumultuous rainstorm in 1995) is, near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, well, mainstream, bourgeoisie, maybe even blah.

Hence Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Ways to Die. Hence a 2015 National Academy of the Sciences report that, for the first time in a century, the mortality rate among “middle aged, white Americans” was on the rise, due to suicide and other “deaths of despair.” Hence the 2016 film “Suicide Squad” (with the sequel planned for later this year). Today, suicide is not edgy and dopamine-producing; if anything it’s banal.

But if its banal, its definitely not pleasant to watch. If one is in doubt about this claim, one only has to watch the 2018 Netflix hair-raiser Bird Box, starring, among others Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich.

Pleasant, no. But disturbing to the point of provoking existential self-examination, yes. There is so much about this film to discuss, but in this brief piece I’d like simply to address one aspect of the film, one assumption that it makes (this being your requisite spoil alert).

In the film, during which one suicide after another takes place, the viewer learns that the motivation behind each decision to end it all lies the root reality of fear and regret. Some quality of the evil “something” which victim after victim sees triggers within them the hyper-intensified memory of something beyond traumatizing, some kind of anguish (remembered or imagined) too agonizing to bear. With dreadful tears of dread, one character after another decides to end it all, with absolutely zero regard for who might suffer from their loss or who might witness the tragedy.

Indeed, the salient assumption in the film is that a typical human life lived in Western society will eventually be filled with such traumatic regret or horror. That is, after spending decades of one’s life in the cesspool of human civilization, the typical adult life (or soul) will be so saturated with guilt, fear, and despair that eventually, and given the right triggers, the thought of continuing to live becomes tortuously unbearable.

The film presupposes, that is, not simply that human life is not worth living, but that it is a given that, in the main and over time, normal human fear, shame, and guilt will accrue to the point of no return and no redemption. (It’s kind of like an alternative version on the level of the individual, of the dark, negative assumptions of modern philosophy at the level of the political.)

This assumption on the film’s part explains the role of the two small children (“Boy” and “Girl”) in the narrative. Since they they have only lived in the hellish wasteland of humanity for a mere four or so years, they have up to this point in their lives accrued a far smaller amount of emotional baggage of the heart, in comparison to their middle aged counterparts. Hence they are able to do things and perform tasks which older characters cannot.

The burden of this modest post is not to take issue with this assessment: it does seem plausible—a mere logical consequence, even—in today’s secular, nihilistic world.

Rather, I’d like to remind my readers, and above all myself, that there is a better way. It is called the way of the Gospel. The way of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The astonishing thing about the Christian Gospel is that it does not live in fear (much less in denial) of the horror of the very real tragedies that exist within us and outside of us. On the contrary: Psalm 88 is utterly devoid of redemption, as is the service of Good Friday (for example, in the Book of Common Prayer). There is a time and a place for horrific, gut-wrenching grieving. Christians are not shiny-happy people.

And yet, when a believer embraces the dark side of reality within her and without, what does she find? She finds God. A Deity of Despair. A Lord of Languish. A Christ, anguishing and then dead, pinned and afixed like a tortured specimen, on a Roman torture device called the cross.

This is the better way, for in the life one who has been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20), this gruesome darkness is not the end, but the beginning. (For him, in this limited sense despair can be delicious, as Martin Luther taught.) As the story goes, Christ did not remain on the cross or in the tomb.

The senseless suffering, guilt, and pain, it turns out, is not the end. Yet it absolutely must serve as the beginning. The beginning of a new life, victorious over despair.

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BCP Psalter Notes (Translations & Traditions)

The aim of this blog post is, after fumbling around with this issue for the better part of two decades, to document something of the history of the Psalms of David, as they appear in the present addition of the American Book of Common Prayer (1979).

Speaking of the Psalms, have you ever wondered why, in some presentations of the psalter, the versification differs from that of other renderings? (For example, in the English Standard Version–beloved of evangelical believers–Psalm 7 has seventeen verses, but in the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims, eighteen.) Along the way, I will account for that discrepancy (at least in part), as well.

As a traditional Anglican (at least aspirationally), I can say that the Psalms are a foundational part of my life. They feature prominently in virtually every Episcopal worship service. They form the core of the Daily Office. They are the staple of my devotional practice. For any scholar or thinker interested in the historical context of poetry in the history of Western culture (as I, again, aspire to be), the Psalms are an important instance of this literary genre.

Hence, my motivation to produce this brief article.

As Marion Hatchett narrates in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book (see especially pp. 55-–3), the history the BCP Psalter begins before the first ever English Prayer Pook popped into existence in 1549. It was in 1535 that Miles Coverdale translated the Psalms for the newly minted English translation of Holy Writ called quite simply the Great Bible. It is this translation of the Psalms (revised by Coverdale in 1539) which was included in Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book.

As Hatchett points out, however, this psalter was (in the venerable words of Fight Club) actually something of a “copy of a copy of a copy.” It translated the Latin Vulgate’s translation of the Greek Septuigint’s translation of the original Hebrew. So it is that the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637 opted in favor of the groundbreaking King James Version of the Psalms instead, as this iteration leapfrogged directly back to the original Hebrew itself.

With Elizabeth’s revision of the BCP in 1662, the conservative voices prevailed, however: while agreeing to adopt to the KJV (or, as it is known on the other side of the pond, the Authorized Version) for the Epistles and Gospel lessons for the Sunday lections, they nevertheless insisted on retaining Coverdale’s rendering of the Psalms.

In astonishing fact, this trend has remained in force until the present day. The 1979 American book itself retains Coverdale’s psalms, albeit in heavily redacted form, so as to conform it much more closely to the original Hebrew.

And finally to the point about versification discrepancy. While Coverdale’s original work was based on the Latin, he nevertheless was more “Hebraic”—more “renaissance humanistic” as opposed to “medieval traditional”—in some ways. For example, he opted against the LXX’s move to render the incipits of the Psalms as the first verse of any given Psalm. Take, for example, Psalm 7, the first verse of which in the ESV is “O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge….” In contrast to this, the LXX has this line (in Greek) as verse two. Most Catholic bibles follow this tradition, whereas most Protestant ones (including Coverdale & the BCP) don’t.

So in some ways Coverdale was quite de rigeur for his time, and in another ways quite antiquated.

(One final issue: how did the versification of the Psalter come about in the first place? To this question I will perhaps address a future blog post.)

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