On Socrates’ not fearing Death

As anyone who has read Plato’s Apology knows, at one point during his trial Socrates argues that it is irrational to fear death, because no-one really knows what happens to one after death.

This has never made sense to me. “But,” I’ve always mentally protested in response to Socrates’ point, “surely this ignorance is not a reason not to fear death. After all, if anything is worthy of fear, is not a prime candidate for such fear precisely the unknown?”

I still think that my objection is valid. However, I have had some leisure today to focus a bit more deeply on this issue, and it now seems to me that Socrates does have a good point.

What he is actually doing, one could argue, is clarifying the precise kind of fear it is rational to have in the face of death: not fear of “burning in hell” or whatever the ancient equivalent to that is (since we lack knowledge about this), but rather, precisely, fear of the unknown.

Fear of the unknown, that is, is quite different in character than fear of something like pain or eternal suffering. Likewise, it calls for different therapies or remedies. One such remedy was explored 2500 years after Socrates himself died: that of Heidegger.

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Nihilism & Theology (D. Bentley Hart)
“So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear and unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history.” — David Bentley Hart, _The Reason for God_, 293.
 
So true. This is what I am constantly trying to get my undergraduate students to see. Before they can even be open to theology and religion (Christian or otherwise), they first must question their “ordinary” modes modes of understanding. They must first become skeptics. They must first become nihilists.
This is why Socrates was such a gadly, attempting to “corrupt the youth,” to get the young, future politicians of Athens to question authority, to question their assumptions, to question to the status quo.
 
This is why John Milbank says that “theology is a hair’s breadth from nihilism.”
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Mystical Ecstasy & Alyosha’s Mini-arc

I am grateful to be the recipient of a world-class education in the history of Western thought at the University of Dallas’ Institute of Philosophic Studies, where I was initiated headlong into many of the great classical texts of the Western canon, many of which I had never before read, including Hesiod’s Theogony, Dante’s Comedia, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, just to name a few.

The final class in this sequence of core courses is “Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky,” in which we read (among other texts) The Brothers Karamazov. Or, were supposed to have read.

I confess publicly, and for the first time, that I simply did not (have time to) read this very long tome that semester. Such is the life of a full-time priest, working in a city 90 miles away from his academic institution, to which he was commuting (during the period of his coursework) on average twice per week.

The guilt from such an omission was almost unbearable, and it is a miracle that I got through that course (one of three grad courses I was taking at the time). Which might be why I firmly resolved to make The Brothers Karamazov the first major text I would read, once I had successfully gotten both coursework and comprehensive exams under my belt. Hence, I am reading it now, and what a stimulating read it is!

One feature of the text to which my attention has been drawn is the structure of Book Seven, entitled, “Alyosha.” Breifly, I summarize this structure, this narrative arc of character development, as follows:

  • §1, “Odor of putrefaction.” Here, Alyosha stumbles spiritually at the scandalon of religious scorn and hypocritical gloating on the part of a certain religious faction. Basically, there is a party of monks at Alyosha’s monastery who despise the holy starets, Father Zosima (Alyosha’s beloved mentor and father in the faith), and who longs for his downfall and ruination. Of course the members of this faction, led by one Father Therapon, have their religious justifications. But it is this religious scorn, and not the absence of a certain hoped-for miracle (the lack of deterioration of the now deceased Father Zosima’s remains) which causes Alyosha to spiral downward into a tailspin of spiritual and emotional blackness.
  • §2, “Here’s an opportunity.” Enter Rakitin, that “careerist seminarian” who embodies the worst kind of sanctimonious, fraudulent bigotry. Rakitin stumbles upon Alyosha just as the former has been laid low emotionally, and is literally lying on the ground near a tree, trying to get his head screwed back on straight, attempting to recover from the emotional blow dealt by those who have been publicly denigrating Zosima, in light of his death and decomposition. Rakitin skillfully takes advantage of Alyosha, tempting him to “act out” and give in to his incipient anger and woundedness. First, Rakitin tempts Alyosha with food (sausage), then drink (vodka), then sex (the intriguing and beautiful prostitute Grushenka). Alyosha, in a state of weakness, gives in to his seducer Rakitin.
  • §3, “A spring onion.” In the rooms of Grushenka, who seems to be deeply taken and captivated by the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers Alyosha (who is pretty much the same age as the seductress), the narrator employs the image of a spring onion to symbolize the wonderful effects of love for the other. Grushenka narrates a Russian fable involving the giving of an onion from one person to another, and how this small act of kindness can save a person from Hell. Grushenka, who knows full well that she is a grave sinner who stands guilty before God and man, testifies that she knows the joy of giving a spring onion to someone in need. Alyosha, who up to this point has been tight-lipped and awkward in Grushenka’s room, immediately recognizes her humility and this spiritual seed of life to which she has born witness. And it is just this, this brilliant flash of grace flowing from the heart and lips of this humble sinner, this shard of love born of true poverty of spirit, which revives the stricken Alyosha, acting as a sort of “smelling salt” which quickens him to return to his true spiritual nature. Finally, his head is screwed back on straight, and he has now come to his senses.
  • §4, “Cana of Galilee.” Now that Alyosha has been restored to his true self by the (unintended) ministrations of Grushenka, he is now liberated truly to enjoy God and life. Returning to the monastery, he encounters the saintly Father Païsy, who continues to read the Gospels over Father Zosima’s open coffin, as he has been doing for hours and hours. Slowly Alyosha falls into a peaceful sleep and experiences a vivid dream about Jesus and Mary at the wedding of Cana, even as the words of John 2 proceed from the mouth of the venerable monk. Alyosha, asleep before the remains of his loving mentor even while remaining on his knees, is now awash in the mystical, peaceful vision of Christ he is now experiencing. Eventually he awakes, and the lines which follow are among the most arresting I have ever read:

[Alyosha’s] soul, brimming with ecstasy, was yearning for freedom, for wide open spaces. Overhead, stretching into infinity, was the heavenly dome, full of silent, shimmering stars. From the zenith to the horizon stretched the forked outlines of the faintly visible Milky Way. A cool, silent, motionless night had enveloped the earth. The white towers and gilded cupolas of the monastery church gleaned in the sapphire light. The splendid autumn flowers in the bed around the house were dormant for the night. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens. The mystery of the earth appeared to reach out to the starts. Alyosha stood gazing. Suddenly he fell to the ground, as though stunned.

He did not know why he was embracing the earth. He could not explain to himself why it was that he wanted to kiss it with such abandon. To kiss the whole of it, and yet he kept kissing it as he wept and sobbed, drenching it with his tears, and passionately swearing to love it, to love it forever and ever. ‘Drench the earth with the tears of thy joy, and love these thy tears….’ These words echoed in his soul. What was he weeping about? Oh, in the ecstasy he was weeping even for those stars which shone upon him from infinity, ‘and he was not ashamed of his passion.’ It was as though the threads of all God’s countless worlds had converged in his soul, and it quivered upon contact with these distant worlds. He wished to forgive everyone for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself but for others. ‘They would then ask forgiveness for me,’ were the words that echoed in his mind. But with each passing moment, he became distantly, almost palpably aware, that something as firm and immutable as the vault of heaven was entering his soul. An idea seemed to be taking possession of his mind, and it would be for his whole life and for eternity. He fell to the ground a weak adolescent, but when he rose to his feet he was a hardened warrior for life, and he recognized this in a flash of ecstasy. And never, never in his whole life, would Alyosha be able to forget this moment. ‘Someone visited my soul on that occasion,’ he would repeat later, firmly believing his own words.

Three days later he left the monastery, in accordance with the instruction of his deceased starets, to ‘go out into the world.’

What to make of this trajectory, culminating in these haunting words of mystical ecstasy? I can think of six things.

  1. This book, in the context of Dostoevsky’s larger story, is a wonderful example of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ, makes us more fully human. To quote St. Irenaeus, “The Glory of God is the human being, fully alive.” Christians are / ought-to-be more fully alive than anyone else, and this vignette points to that fact.
  2. Alyosha, when faced with fierce temptations, did not give in. Why did he not give in? Only because he was rescued by love, the love of the sinful prostitute Grushenka. Still, what would have happened had he slept with her? Would he have experienced the joy of hearing the Gospel flow from the lips of Fr. Païsy? I doubt it. There is something about not ruining the story which makes for spiritual elation, once the temptations have subsided.
  3. Suffering leads to ecstasy, and this ecstasy involves the passions. This vignette is an “argument” for privileging the passions over reason, even while admitting the necessity of the latter.
  4. I find it interesting that, in Dostoevsky’s rendition of Alyosha’s experience here, we find an emphasis on the whole: the cosmic dimensions of salvific reality. God is way bigger than we normally realize. So is Christ. So is the cosmos.
  5. Alyosha’s mystical experience leads to and includes gospel reconciliation. We find him deeply impacted by the idea of forgiveness, which I think is probably the primary theme of this entire book.
  6. This kind of experience, which entails a movement from adolescence to adulthood, leads to full maturity in Christ (see Eph 4:13).

All in all, this is a riveting chunk of text, one that will stay with me (I dare say) for the rest of my life!

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Reason & Desire in Dostoevsky
When I read / assess a thinker, I’m always asking the question: does he or she  privilege reason, or does he or she privilege thumos / desire? (I am thinking here of the tripartite schemas of the human soul, according to Aristotle and Plato.)
For example, I’m pretty convinced now that while Thomas privileges reason, Bonaventure privileges desire.
Reading _the Brothers Karamazov_, it is pretty clear that Dostoevsky privileges desire.
For example, consider the comments from the narrator on Alyosha, who, having just left the monastery in despair, is struggling with the way certain religious figures in the monastery are gloating over the “premature” putrefaction of Father Zosima’s remains:
… I am glad my young hero did not turn out to be too rational at such a moment, since there will always be plenty of opportunity for an intelligent person to employ his intellect, but if love did not hold sway in his heart at such an exceptional moment, would it ever do so? – Part III, Bk. 7, §2, “Here’s an opportunity.”
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On Unicorns: why Actuality precedes Possibility

This (slightly embarrassing) article is inspired by section II of David Bentley Hart’s chapter entitled “Being (Sat)” in his The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. It is intended for philosophy and theology geeks alone.

In his book Metaphysics: the Invention of Hierarchy, Adrian Pabst lays blame at the feet of several late medieval thinkers (chief among them Gilbert of Porreta) for departing from traditional metaphysical thought with their suggestion that possibility is prior to actuality. According to Pabst’s narration, this move is part and parcel with detaching the existence of things in the world from the existence of God, and the essence of things from the existence of those same things.

In an attempt to keep this blog post as pithy as possible, let me just say that one reason it is difficult for us moderns to “wrap our heads” around the massive historical import of this move of Gilbert’s is that the assumptions behind it have become as “natural” to us as the air that we breathe. That is, the priority of possibility has attained in our culture the status of unquestionable ideology. After all, take the example of a unicorn. It seems as obvious as the nose on your face to assume that, of course, we can speak of a unicorn without needing to affirm its existence. Here is a clear example, it is easy to assume, of the priority of possibility over actuality, of essence over existence.

And for a season in my intellectual pilgrimage, this issue of unicorns presented real and difficult problems for me, so much so that for a while I wanted to argue that unicorns must actually exist somehow; otherwise we’d not be talking about them. I felt that this position was required in order to maintain the priority of actuality over possibility.

Alas, however, no such positing is necessary, and I have since come to agree with what Thomas Aquinas would say: we have no reason to think that unicorns actually exist because no one has ever actually seen one.

Well, one might argue, if they don’t exist, but we can still talk about them, then does this not suggest the priority of possibility over actuality, of essence over existence?

And the answer (in my opinion) is: not at all. All of our talk of unicorns manifestly does presuppose the actuality of … something. Not of unicorns, granted. But has anyone ever spoken of a unicorn while not relying on the notion of a horse? A horse, mind you, which actually does exist.

And not just a horse. No one, further, has ever spoken of a unicorn without, well, without speaking. That is, without depending on the actual existence of those human artifacts called words (or, as Derrida calls them, graphemes and phonemes). Again, graphemes and phonemes that actually exist, and which must be interacted with for any thought about unicorns (or anything else at all) to occur.

Unicorns, then, don’t exist. Thanks to the work of the human (productive) imagination, we can still talk about them … but not without relying on a whole host of real things which, unlike unicorns, actually do exist.

Essence, then, is seen to require existence, and actuality is (for now, at least) still required for anything at all to be possible.

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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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Medieval Roots of Biblical Typology

Nerd alert: this post is intended for theology geeks only!

In so many ways I’m grateful for the education I received in my MDiv program at Westminster Theological Seminary. However, one qualm I have: WTS’ consistent presumption of a-historicity. That is, it tends to deny that its primary doctrinal emphases (most of which I am totally “down with”) are rooted in a particular history.

Case in point. In the biblical departments there was much (extremely valuable) emphasis on biblical typology.

For decades I’ve wondered, “Does this idea have any historical precedence in medieval thought?” Now I know that it does:

All the mysteries of Scripture treat of Christ with his Body…. This is the meaning of Augustine in his book on the City of God.

So writes Bonaventure in Hexaemeron XV,[1] thus indicating that for him, Augustine’s primary mode of exegesis is an example of a figura sacramental, and not of the allegorical or spiritual sense of Scripture (that is, the “four-fold sense”).

Basically Augustine is doing typological exegesis, and not “spiritual” exegesis, according to Bonaventure. Hence, we can say that Westminster’s emphasis on biblical typology almost certainly has a historical dependence on Augustine. The fact that at least one medieval author (Bonaventure) explicitly acknowledges Augustine as exegeting in a non-“allegorical” way makes this clear.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure, tr. Zachary Hayes, O.F.M. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1989), 10.

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God: Never Unmediated
What follows is adapted from an email I sent to a friend, who asked a question
about the “pagan” influences in the Bible (the Old Testament).

Dear Stephanie (not my friend’s real name),

Sorry for the late response.

I’m so glad you are asking about the “difficulty” of the Bible containing lots of material which seems to be influenced by “pagan” cultures. I feel like I’ve spent two decades trying to get ppl to ask questions like this, but most of the time ppl are just kind of like half-dead zombies with glazed over eyes!

Look, there are two things I want to say to you.

1. Your assumption, the assumption, that true biblical revelation must be free of cultural influence is not only wrong, but it is part of why we modern evangelicals are so fucked up.

2. When the Bible “retells the same stories,” it always does so “with a twist.” It tells the same stories that its ANE (ANE=”ancient near eastern”) neighbors told … but always with a “special twist.”

So, two points: 1) stupid assumptions, and 2) twist.

So here goes on point #1. Why on earth wd we think that, for example, if the creation story (better: creation stories, since there are 2 in Genesis, and others all throughout the OT) is “true,” it must be totally unique? Was Jesus totally “unique?” No! He spoke Aramaic, just like his neighbors. He was influenced by all sort of cultural assumptions, “ideologies” (to use your term), habits, mores, etc. Jesus and the Bible did not “pop out of heaven” as if they were totally non-inculturated. In fact, the God of the Bible has never operated that way: the God of the Bible always works through ordinary means, both natural (eg, evolution) and cultural.

In fact, it is the Muslim faith (don’t get me wrong: I like Islam a lot!!) that sees Holy Scripture as unmediated. Literally, the Koran was supposedly dictated directly to the Prophet Mohammed. Downloaded into his brain, like that scene in the Matrix where Neo “learns” jiu jitzu.  Not so with the Christian Bible. It is always both the word of God and the word of man. It is both mysteriously divinely inspired, and the product of human language, human imagination, human creativity, human research (see Luke 1:1-4). The Bible is ALWAYS MEDIATED, always enculturated, never direct and unmediated, as if it fell out of heaven, straight from God.

In this, it is like Jesus: fully God, yes, but also fully human. (This it he point of Peter Enns’ book Incarnation and Inspiration, which I can lend you.)

So if our Bible is fully human, why would be expect it to be unaffected by cultural influences?

What stupid assumption, shared BOTH by secular, liberal anti-Christian fundamentalists like Bill Mahar, and Bible Belt fundamentalists like 99% of East Texas churches. I say, a pox on both their houses.

A much better approach is that of CS Lewis. He thought that if the Noah story has a lot of material in common with the Epic of Gilgamesh, then, cool! That strengthens, not weakens, the likelihood that it is true!

Point 2. The Bible tells the same stories with a twist.

The point of the twist is always to “further the agenda” (often a political agenda!) of portraying Yahweh as the “top god.” That is, the OT stories (the creation, the flood, the Exodus, the Torah) are tendentious. They have a tendenz; they have an agenda. They are basically saying to the Babylonions: “Your god Marduk is a joke. Check out our god, Yahweh. He does not create in the same low-grade way that your god does: our God creates by speaking! Our God Yahweh is the one true God, the Maker of Heaven & Earth!” (On Marduk & Enuma Elish, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/En%C3%BBma_Eli%C5%A1)

Same with the Torah of Moses. I think that the “twist” has to do with prostitution, which uniquely in Israel was outlawed, such that men were legally forbidden to treat unmarried young girls / women as mere tools or objects of pleasure. At the end of the day this has to do with marriage as an icon of the love between Yahweh & Israel. Very different from Babylon & other neighbors, where prostitution was legally regulated, and young girls were the property of their owners.

But, yes, the Torah of Moses is very similar to the Code of Hammurabi. Praise God that we was at work through that code (broken though it was), just as He was at work in the thought of pre-Christian philosophers like Plato & Aristotle before the advent of the Divine Logos, “in the fullness of time.” (Without their thought, we’d have no Doctrine of the Trinity!)

Hope this helps! Keep asking questions, and please hang out with fellow questioners & travelers!

Peace,

Matt+
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Cindy Crawford, Anselm, & Comps

Geek alert: this essay will be of no interest to anyone other than philosophy & theology enthusiasts.

A decade ago I was infatuated by “critical theory.” These days, not so much. I’ve become much more straightforwardly orthodox, agreeing with Chesterton on “the romance of orthodoxy” (embodied, for example in his quip that “the act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice”).

Still, I remain convinced that one “critical” theorist necessary for understanding our cultural moment is Jacques Lacan. And though I don’t understand him (yet), I am trying. Which is why I am reading Slavoj Zizek’s How to Read Lacan, and how, in turn, I stumbled upon the following anecdote (which Zizek calls a “low-grade joke”) with which I want to begin this blog post:

 [Once upon a time there was] a poor peasant who, having suffered a shipwreck, finds himself on an island, with, say, Cindy Crawford. After having sex with him, she asks how it was; his answer is, great, but he still has one small request to complete his satisfaction–could she dress herself up as his best friend, put on trousers and paint a moustache on her face? He reassures her that he is not a secret pervert, as she will see once she has granted the request. When she does, he approaches her, gives her a dig in the ribs, and tells her with the leer of male complicity: “You know what happened to me? I just had sex with Cindy Crawford!”

In the joke (the old-fashioned heterosexual promiscuity of which assuages my conscience, thus permitting me to include it in a publicly read blog post), the poor peasant has had an experience which he regards as profound, and which he must share; today I feel the same way.

My experience, however, unlike that of the peasant in the joke, is not a cheap and illicit one. Rather it has to do with the tortuous ardor that is studying for comps. This prerequisite for progressing on to my PhD dissertation often feels a curse, but then at other times (like this morning) it feels an exilerating blessing.

Here’s why. This morning it has finally “clicked” with me, after two and a half decades, what St. Anselm of Canterbury is “up to” in his works the Monologion and the Proslogion. In the closet of my study I have a 3-ring binder containing pages upon pages of class notes which I took in Philadelphia, in seminary, in 1998, on Anselm. (All these years later I realize more than ever that Dr. Claire Davis of Westminster Seminary is a brilliant man.) Yet, when I was in the class, or indeed when I tried to read Louis Mackey’s essay entitled “Grammar and Rhetoric in the Proslogium,” I was groping around in the dark.

I’d like to argue that what Anselm is doing, both in the Monologion and in the Proslogion, is tantamount to what Boethius is doing in his Theological Tractates, his opuscula sacra.[1] As Joseph Pieper suggests,[2] we find a description of this kind of rational thought in Thomas’ introduction to Boethius’ De Trinitate:

… just as our natural knowledge begins with the knowledge of creatures obtained by the senses, so the knowledge imparted from above begins with the cognition of the first Truth bestowed on us by faith. As a result the order of the procedure is different in the two cases. Philosophers, who follow the order of natural knowledge, place the sciences of creatures before the science of God, that is to say, natural philosophy before metaphysics, but theologians follow the opposite path, placing the consideration of the creator before that of creatures.[3]

Of note is the fact that both natural philosophers and theologians have knowledge of God, although this knowledge is delivered in different ways. For the natural philosopher, this knowledge of the divine (or of metaphysics) proceeds on according to Aristotle’s ordering of the sciences, proceeding from “that which is most knowable to us” to “that which is most knowable in itself.”

For the theologian, however, it is as if this heuristic process is short-circuited in a good way. The progressive ladder of scientific spheres is eclipsed, and the knower arrives immediately at the end of the sequence, having received, by the gift of faith, the knowledge of God. (Note that this knowledge of God, bestowed by grace through faith, has particular content, and is received by the intellectus fidei, that faculty which recognizes and grasps the deliverances of faith. In this sense it is structurally similar to the second-to-the-bottom position in Plato’s divided line: pistis. Part of what is in view here is that the content of faith, for premoderns like St. Thomas, does not stand in opposition to knowledge, but rather is a kind of knowledge.)

In contrast to the natural philosopher, then, the theologian begins at the end. He takes God—note that here the God of Scripture and Christian Tradition is taken to be identical to the theos of natural reason—as given, and then proceeds to attend to what follows logically from that point forward.

Anselm performs this method 500 years after Boethius himself had performed it, and it is described aptly in the Augustinian phrases fides quarens intellectum and credo ut intelligam.

In his Scholasticism, Joseph Pieper clearly thinks that Anselm carried his project too far, falling prey to the temptation of rationalism, and I don’t disagree with this diagnosis. Nevertheless, I also agree with Pieper’s final appraisal, namely that Anselm’s method is a kind of historically necessary “experiment” which tries to “test” certain “possibilities:”

On these grounds Anselm’s approach may have been a necessary first step from which ultimately Thomas’ balanced view would later be developed: that necessary reasons cannot demonstrate the tenets held by faith, but can show that they are not contrary to reason; and that such a use of the wisdom of the world is not a mixing of the wine (of theology) with the water (of reason), but should rather be called a changing of water into wine.[4]

[1] Joseph Pieper, Scholasticism, tr. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1984), 36-37. Pieper describes Boethius’ project as “the rational examination of dogma.” Note that the last sentence of Utram Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus de Trinitate substantialiter praedicentur is an admonition to the later Pope John I to “join faith to reason” (“fidem, si poteris, rationemque conjunge”).

[2] Pieper, Scholasticism, 62.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Faith, Reason, and Theology, Questions I – IV of his Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, tr. Armand Maurer (Rome: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1987), 3-4.

[4] Pieper, Scholasticism 62, citing Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate, 2.1 ad. 5 and 2.3 ad 5.

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Christ Praying in Men: the Atmosphere of Prayer

“But yet I would be able, after not so many months, to realize what was there, in the peace and the strength that were growing in me through my constant immersion in this tremendous, unending cycle of prayer, ever renewing in its vitality, its inexhaustible, sweet energies, from hour to hour, from season to season in its returning round. And I, drawn into that atmosphere, into that deep, vast universal movement of vitalizing prayer, which is Christ praying in men to His father, could not help but begin at last to live, and to know that I was alive. And my heart could not help but cry out within me: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. Let my speech be acceptable to Him: but I will take delight in the Lord.” — Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Orlando: Harcourt, 1998), 331.

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Reformed Theology, Stoicism, & Virtue Ethics

In my transition from Reformed evangelicalism to a more catholic tradition of Christianity, one constant source of consternation which has plagued me for years (almost two decades) has to do with the “senior Ethics” course I had at Westminister Theological Seminary. In this class, which was supposed to prepare soon-to-be-ordained pastors with a basic grasp of ethical theory, all of the emphasis was on Scripture and the Law of God. The word “virtue” did not appear on the syllabus.

Now, I don’t want to go overboard here. I do have respect for the professor of this course as well as for the author of the primary text we studied (alongside the Bible): The Ten Commandments by J. Douma (undoubtedly a brilliant Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at The Theological University in Kampen in the late 20th century).

However, what I am prepared to say, with the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre ringing in my head, is that such an approach to ethics is more Stoic than Christian. In chapter 13 of After Virtue, MacIntyre explains how the Stoic approach to moral philosophy differed starkly with that of Aristotelianism. For the latter, virtue is the rational discernment of the natural human telos (which of course for Aristotle is also thoroughly cultural), and the cultivation of human desires, habits, feelings, dispositions in such a way as to form the human being into the kind of person who acts virtuously. For Stoicism, by contrast, what matters is the individual will, and its embrace of an externally existing law.

MacIntyre  goes on to argue that here as always philosophy is rooted in a prior socio-political context: the displacement of the Greek city-state by the Macedonian regime and then the Roman imperium serves to bolster the Stoic stance, since any communal agreement and embrace of the common good for man now becomes more problematic.

So it is that Stoicism “sets a pattern for all those later European moralities that invoke the notion of law as central in such a way as to displace conceptions of the virtues” (MacIntrye, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 169).

“What about Judaism?” one might ask. Does it not make the law (the Torah of God) central, apparently in agreement with Stoicism? MacIntyre quite insightfully provides a response to this objection: one reason why Stoicism was unable to occupy an even more dominant role in Western culture is that it was “outnarrated” by an “even sterner morality of law, that of Judaism.”

With this insight I completely agree, and would only add the following conjecture. There must be something within Judaism which allows for the inculcation of the virtues (even if this amounts to a marginalization of law). Surely that “something” is its historicism (which MacIntrye’s thought correctly connects with the notion of narrative or story), which in turn allows it to be developed into Christianity (by way of tradition), which in turn had additional resources which allowed it to embrace classical thought, including that of Aristotelian moral philosophy.

So it is that I am prepared to say that my Senior ethics class at Westminster, seventeen years ago, was more Stoic than Christian. (To Westminster’s credit, it itself supplied me with at least one tool to help me realize this: in the Old Testament Department we were constantly reminded that the Torah of Yahweh is fundamentally different from western and especially modern notions of law, not least in that the former is deeply woven together with the story of Israel, and God’s faithfulness to her.)

 

 

 

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Diotima, Participation, & the Forms

One surprise which I have encountered over the past four years at my current institution is fairly widespread resistance, among the philosophy faculty, to regarding Plato’s forms as ontological or metaphysical realities which exist independently from the mind, to which we (or to which lovers of wisdom) have access by way not simply of knowledge by way of participation.

This has been a source of consternation to me because so many of my leading intellectual lights, among them members of a theological / philosophical movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, regard the forms in precisely this way.

I think that Diotima’s speech in the _Symposium_ is the clearest and best “prooftext” (other than perhaps the “Seventh Letter”) in Plato’s corpus for arguing that the Forms are independent metaphysical realities in which the lover of wisdom is to participate erotically and contemplatively.

Further, partly due to the non-diological character of the Symposium, it is hard (I think) to argue that Plato’s Socrates (who recites the speech) is being ironic or anything other than straightforward in this context.

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Athanasius & Difference

One area of thought in which I am perpetually trying to make progress is what you might call the philosophy of the body. Not only is this theme related to the gender politics of our contemporary cultural moment, but it also sheds light on the difference between the basic assumptions held by analytic philosophers (rooted historically in British Empiricism) and continental philosophers (owing a strong debt to Hegel & German idealism through Nietzsche and Heidegger).

Various texts which have shaped my thinking over the years include Judith Butler, _Bodies that Matter_ and Peter Brown, _The Body in Society_ (especially his chapter on Origen). It is much to my chagrin, therefore, that, only very recently have I followed CS Lewis’ advice to focus especially on “old books” and finally turned by attention to St. Athanasius’ _On the Incarnation_.

I am surprised to find that Athanasius’ emphasis is actually not on the body as such, at least not in the way I had hoped. Some quick lessons I’ve learned:

  • Athanasius, time and time again, quotes Holy Scripture to ground his positions.
  • He sees the Incarnation almost totally within the context of the sacrificial death of Christ. (He is very “Reformed” in that way.)
  • By “body of Christ” he means not just the soma typicon which walked the dusty streets of Palestine, ran the lathe over the wood, and was nailed to a cross, but also the corpus verum, or the body of Christ, post-Pentecost, the body of believers who trust in Christ. (He also speaks of the cosmos as a body in section 41.)

What interests me for the purposes of this little piece, however, is something he says in the first section after the Prologue. Speaking in the context of creation, Athanasius contrasts his own Christian view with that of pagan philosophers. Before dealing with the thought of Plato, he mentions in particular “the Epicureans:”

Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts. For if all things came into being spontaneously and without providence, as they claim, all things would necessarily have simply come into being and be identical without difference. Everything would have been as a single body, sun or moon….

So in opposition to the view of the atomists (Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, who taught that the only things that really exists are atoms and void, and that the emergence of “the appearances” in the world is due to the random, chance-driven activity of the swerve), Athanasius argues that if this were the case, then all that exists would be: one thing. Channeling the spirit of Parmenides Athanasius, I take it, is arguing that if the principle of the world as we experience it is random and “spontaneously generated,” then all that would exist is something like what William James called a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” and of course there would be no rational mind to be confused by it. “Everything,” he writes, “would have been a single body.”

What is interesting here is that Athanasius thinks that it is the divine logos, pre-existent in a disembodied way, that accounts for the differences in the world. Only the divine logos, for him, accounts for intelligible order in the world.

I wish I could interview Athanasius and ask him why he thinks this. In my imaginary interview with him, he connects language to concepts (by way of definition), and he argues that without concepts human beings would discern no intelligible difference in the world. So the issue becomes “whence concepts?” and Athanasius’ answer is the divine logos.

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Boethius for our Time

What an encouraging article by Anthony Esolen (scholar of Dante and of Lucretius, and of much else besides). Thanks, Theresa Kenney!

First, in addition to much helpful background and commentary, there is this Boethian wisdom (for anyone struggling with “why bad things happen to good people”):

But virtuous men are tried by God, for their good.  God protects some who are weak by giving them only good fortune.  He gives to some virtuous men the most terrible trials, that they may emerge victorious and shine as exemplars for their fellow men.  He gives an easy life to some vicious men, that penury may not prompt them to crimes even worse; or he may, as severe punishment, withhold from them the reversals that might prompt them to repent.  We do not know and cannot know what God may intend in his special providence for any individual.

Then there is this:

Boethius was the one man most responsible for bequeathing classical learning to the West, to survive the Dark Ages to come, until the Medieval world should burst forth in its wonderful light.  Yet I think that the Consolation may be meant for us now in a special way.  The barbarians are back.  Humane learning is forgotten or despised.  The Church is buffeted, while the gargoyles of the age caper and make mouths and laugh.  I imagine that the Gothic keepers of the jail cracked their jokes too.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kept faith to the end.  No one honors or even remembers his accusers; but the Catholics of Lombardy honored and remembered him straightaway: Saint Severinus.  His bones rest in the cathedral of Pavia, where the bones of Saint Augustine also lie.

It is better for us to wait with that man in his cell, than to enjoy all of the vast earth among men gone mad, quite mad.  God give us the courage to do so!

Perhaps what I love most about all this is that it allows a Christian (Esolen might argue “a Catholic”) to “keep calm” in the midst of the “culture wars,” even while admitting that western culture is crumbling. (I am likely more willing than Esolen, more in line with Radical Orthodoxy, to admit the “upside” to such crumbling, but it is still quite sad, possibly even tragic.)

As CS Lewis well understood (see his Discarded Image) we need Boethius today more than ever.

 

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If I don’t control my appetites …

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will end up drunk in a ditch on the side of the road.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will get type two diabetes and probably die of cancer at an early age.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, eventually my wife will leave me and I will lose my ministry and my kids will grow up damaged and dysfunctional.

All of this (and more) I believe. After all, “… the fruit of the Spirit is … self-control….” (Gal 5:22-3).

But if one wants to control her appetites, then maybe it would be a tad helpful to know what an appetite actually is. (For appetites manifestly are not controlled by “trying harder.”)

Enter Thomas Aquinas, who has some very interesting things to say about appetite and the larger issue of desire.

By the way, as an Anglican priest I’d be remiss not to mention that our Book of Common Prayer is replete with references to desire, not least the Collect for Purity: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Indeed, desire is what the Christian life is all about. (John Piper gets this right with his “Christian Hedonism,” in my opinion, albeit in a truncated way which leaves much to be desired — no pun intended.)

For example Thomas insists that, though all people do not choose God, all people do nevertheless desire God.

He also teaches that if a thing exists, then it has appetite. So rocks have appetite, as do trees, earthworms, chimps, human beings, angels (what Thomas sometimes, in a more metaphysical mode, calls “intelligences”), even God himself. Appetite is the tendency that a thing has to “complete” itself, to strive for its telos.

For Thomas the appetite, like the external sense organs of eye, ear, nose, etc., are passive. They require an object if they are to be “activated.” But the object required to activate or to “ignite” the appetite is no ordinary object. It is a fusion of various “inputs,” the result of a chain of psychic steps which include sense impression, synthesis by the common sense, and “intention.”

What, you ask, is an “intention?” For Thomas an intention is a kind of psychic apprehension (performed in nonrational animals by natural instinct, and in humans by the evaluative faculty known as the vis cogatitiva) by which an object is imbued with self interest. That is, a lamb grasps by natural instinct that a lion is a threat; a human being (who happens to be an entrepreneur) grasps that a market opportunity will create wealth which will lead to creaturely comfort.

More on appetite forthcoming. For now, if you want to control your appetites, perhaps you should know what they are, and how they work.

For more, see Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, ch. 1.)

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Everything’s Doing It: Being’s Appetite

Nicholas E. Lombardo, O.P. does a great job of showing how, for Thomas, human psychology is rooted in metaphysics. To see this one need only to note that in ST I 5 the Angelic Doctor establishes that being is convertible with the good (everything that exists is good, and vice-versa), and that the good is that which is desirable, or “appetible.”

Hence all existing things, and not just animals (rational or otherwise) are characterized by desire or appetite: they all strive toward their perfection / fulfilment / telos.

As Lombardo rightly concludes: “Consequently, for Thomas, all being is ecstatic.” (Lombardo, _Logic of Desire_, 26).

Prior to reading this book, had someone asked me, “Why, for Thomas, is all being ecstatic?” I probably would not have known what to say. In fact, last semester I read deeply in John Wippel’s The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas, and while I do recall his emphasis that being is “pure act,” I don’t recall him connecting being’s activity or ecstasis specifically to desire or appetite.

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Thomistic Brain Science? (Initial Thoughts)

From the perspective of theological anthropology, what should one make of contemporary “brain science?” That is, when you are at a conference and the scientific expert is locating various human activities (fear, abstract thinking, anger, etc.) in various specific parts of the brain, is this coherent from a theological point of view?

It is tempting for me (as a traditionalist Christian) to say, “No, because abstract thinking, for example, is not spatially located.” (You see, I am not a material reductionist; I believe in an immaterial soul, at least in human beings.)

But wait. This is where Thomas comes in. Thomas would distinguish between, say, fear on the one hand, and “universal reason” on the other.  For Thomas, the former _is_ spatially localizable, since nonrational animals fear (fear is a passion, which results when the animal’s sense appetite is moved by the perception of an intention), and the (nonrational) animal psyche (and all psychic powers of the nonrational animal) is corporeal without remainder (Lombardo, _Logic of Desire_ 24).

However, for Thomas “abstract thinking,” or what he would call “universal reason” occurs only in rational animals, and is an activity which takes place in and through the immaterial intellect, which is thus not spatially localizable.

However, does it necessarily follow from this claim that “universal reason” is unrelated to local parts of the brain? I don’t think so. It may well be the case that a specific part of the brain is necessary for universal reason to take place. (After all, the same thing can be said for the external senses, which are spatially localizable.)

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Scratching Where it Itches: What is Emotion?

I am interesting in showing the modern provenance of the contemporary idea of emotion, demonstrating its innovative character as a rupture from premodern accounts of human experience rooted in Aristotle’s view of the soul and the tradition of virtue.

In his The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, Nicholas E. Lombardo, OP gives a brief account of the development of thinking about emotion in recent modernity.

A key issue in thinking about this is: what role does the body play?

William James, “What is an Emotion?” 1884 – “Our natural way of thinking about … emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily perception. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.

So for James an emotion is the feeling of a perception-induced bodily change, not a mental affection that gives rise to a “bodily perception.”

James identification of emotion as bodily feeling has antecedents in Hume’s theory of the passions.

Although critics of James’ view (such as Walter Cannon) emerged, emotion-as-bodily-feeling was convenient to behaviorism (with its “purposeful avoidance of interior phenomena”) and logical positivism (with its “reduction of ethics to irrational emotivism”). On this view emotions are regarded as “physiological and nonrational,” and hence have little to do with philosophy.

But eventually Anglo-American philosophy began to shift toward a cognitive account of emotion, with the publication of Errol Bedford’s “Emotions” in 1957. Bedford argues that “emotions have a cognitive dimension that theories of emotion as pure feelings cannot explain.” 11

Then Anthony Kenney publishes an article in which he argues that emotions are “intentional,” that is, “directed toward definite objects.” Next: George Pitcher argues that emotions are interior sensations, contra Hume and James. After the subsequent work of Magda Arnold and the emergence of a new interest in cognition in philosophy and psychology, “cognitive accounts of emotion have since become dominant.”

This is true for Martha Nussbaum and Robert Solomon. Solomon maintains that emotions are inner judgements, while Nussbaum has developed a “neo-Stoic ‘cognitive-evaluative’ view, according to which emotions are forms of evaluative judgment that ascribe to certain things and persons outside one’s control great importance for a person’s own flourishing.” Bodily feeling, thinks Nussbaum, sometime accompanies emotion but is not essential to it.

Which of the two views: the more body-centered one of James & company, or the more cognitive one of Solomon / Nussbaum, is more Christian, more consistent with a Christian anthropology? That (among other things) is what I’m hoping to find out.

 

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Lewis, Milton, & Solid “Spirits”

In _The Great Divorce_, Lewis’ heavenly beings – incredibly solid & blindingly bright – are called “spirits.” They stand in stark contrast to the less-than-fully-real, spectral travelers from the cosmic omnibus, newly arrived into the realm of the Real, who are called “ghosts.”

This metaphysical nomenclature is medieval, biblical, & correct, & hints at Lewis’ proper criticisms of Milton’s idea of material angels, expressed in his _Preface to Paradise Lost_.

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Mysticism & Temperament

There is a common assumption that mystics are born, not made. That they just appear in the the world with a certain calm, peaceful kind of temperament or natural disposition. As if the main ingredient in learning to tap into the deep wells of reality is a naturally tranquil life of the soul.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. I am convinced that the best mystics are the temperamentally addicted, afflicted, bi-polar, anxious, ADD, and vicious.

For starters, take the Buddha. Did he live a life of smooth tranquility prior to enlightenment? On the contrary, his story bears witness to the kind of turmoil that (necessarily?) precedes true spiritual peace: exclusion, isolation, fear, doubt, struggle.

Exhibit B: St. Bernard of Clairveaux. In his introduction the life of Bernard, Jean LeClerq emphasizes that Bernard’s temperament was competitive, vindictive, arrogant (due to his profound giftedness), and harsh. Yet, in the crucible of his many years of ascetic experience, his egotistical self gave way, and was transormed into to something sweet and beautiful … something strangely unique with its own distinct and savory flavor, as only a true saint of the Church can be. For Bernard, writes LeClerq, misery called unto mercy.

Finally, consider Thomas Merton, and the story he narrates in his autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain. Anyone who has read it will know that Merton was an arrogant, lustful, self-centered prick … by nature. But over time, and with many struggles, God transformed him into the kind of man who could write mystical prayers and passages like the world has never known. And who could tell the story of his transformation — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with honesty and humility.

So, what kind of person makes a good mystic? What kind of person, more than anyone else, ought to begin the practice of meditation? Not the calm. Not the serene. Not the self-controlled. On the contrary, show me a mystic who has plumbed the mysterious depths, and I will show you someone whom, almost certainly, was previously an unvirtuous ball of filth and fear who could barely make it through the day.

Real spiritual peace never comes easy. True mystics have had to “fight for it.” And that is very good news.

 

 

 

 

 

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Ascension: the Fluid Body of Christ

I’ve been thinking about the Feast of the Ascension (celebrated this year on May 29) lately. The Prayer Book’s collect for Ascension reads:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ

ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:

Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his

promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end

of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and

reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory

everlasting.  Amen.

How do you think about the Ascension of Christ?

I think that, in the contemporary church, there are three different ways of thinking about this redemptive-historical event. First, most people are just confused. After all, it seems so weird that Jesus would start floating up into the sky, eventually transcending the ability of the disciples to see him.

Second, however, and better, many people assume that Jesus is going “up to heaven.” That is understandable, but this view is definitely strengthened when coupled with the idea that Jesus is ascending to his throne, which is “in heaven,” at the right hand of his father.

A third view, suggested by the liturgical calendar itself, is that when Jesus ascends, he is going away in order to send down the Holy Spirit onto the Church on the day of Pentecost. (Indeed the collect of the day on the seventh Sunday of Easter, after Pentecost, might encourage this view, with its petition to God to “send us the Holy Spirit to comfort us.”)

Notice, however, what the collect for Ascension above actually says: Jesus ascended that he might fill all things. I cannot help but think that this is sacramental language. Remember the ancient dictum which is utterly scriptural: “Christ is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ.” It is this Church with whom “he abides … on earth … until the end of the ages.”

Why did Christ ascend to a transcendent “place,” why did he ascend into a transcendent mode of being? Precisely so that he could fill all things. When his body disappears, it becomes all things. It saturates all things. All things in a mystical way become charged with divine presence. Not only does this point to the eacharistic elements as tokens of all creation, but it also suggests that all material creatures are divine. As the fathers of the church said, “When Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, he sanctified all water.”

I know that this is a strange thing to think about. But our collect for Ascension invites us to think about it, and to meditate on it. Christian truth is indeed strange. Strange and beautiful.

Note: this article is inspired partly by Graham Ward’s chapter “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ” in his Cities of God. See also here.

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[Barth] + [Catholic Ecclesiology] = [Bonaventure]

According Joseph Ratzinger, for Bonaventure the Bible, strictly speaking, is not revelation, since revelation is veiled within the “swaddling clothes” of the written letter of the biblical text. Rather, revelation is achieved when the reader by faith penetrates past the literal sense into the allegorical, and gains a _visio intellectualis_, which includes a God-given understanding of the “letter” / images of the text.

Now, 15 years ago, studying the Bible and theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, this would have sounded Barthian to my non-medieval, non-historical ears. And I would have chafed against the implication (an implication which Ratzinger raises in this very context) that such a view of revelation opens the floodgates of theology to the charge of individualistic subjectivism.

Enter Bonaventure’s (and Ratiznger’s) catholic ecclesiology, specifically their unwillingness to separate Scripture from the church’s interpretation of Scripture: “… the deep meaning of Scripture in which we truly find the ‘revelation’ and the content of faith is not left up to the individual. It has already been objectified in part in the teachings of the Fathers and in theology so that the basic lines are accessible simply by the acceptance of the Catholic faith, which — as it summarized in the _Symbolum_ — is a principle of exegesis. Here we find a new insight into the identification of _sacra scriptura_ and _theologia_.” (Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, 66-67).

Hence the problem with Barth is not his denial of the text of Scripture as the Word of God, but rather modern Protestantism’s creeping individualism.

Oversimplified a bit, but still ….

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Becoming a “People of the Book”

This is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, “The Crucifer.”

If you were to walk down hallways of Christ Church, through the nave from the guild hall, you would come to my office, where, on the wall by my office door, you would see the sign: “Matt Boulter, Assist. Rector for Evangelism.” I still have to rub my eyes every time I see it; it seems too good to be true!

Though at times I feel that such a title is an impossibly huge title to fulfill, I do have a deep longing to bring people into Christian community, into a Christ-patterned way of life.

The Bible, oddly enough, is both a barrier to and a catalyst for such an endeavor. It represents both a challenge to and an opportunity for authentic evangelism.

It is a barrier and a challenge for folks on the outside of Christian community, who Christ calls to come and taste and see that the Lord is good. To enter into authentic relationship, leaving their tired isolation behind. This is because for most people in our world, the Bible is boring at best. At worst it is stifling or even oppressive.

I feel much sympathy for people who hold this view of Scripture, for they are simply imbibing the presentation of the Bible which they have been given.   All to often in our modern world (both outside the church and inside) the Bible is presented legalistically, sentimentally, or reductionistically.

Legalistically, as if the Bible were primarily a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” rules to follow in order to earn “brownie points” with an angry God. Sentmentally, as if the Bible were a kind of therapeutic self-help book whose main purpose is to fill our hearts with warm feelings of blissful affection. Reductionistically, as if the Bible were a book which attempts to give an accurate history of the world or of certain peoples. (On this last view, both those who affirm the Bible’s historical accuracy as well as those who deny it fail to realize that historical accuracy is modern preoccupation which is quite foreign to the original writers and readers.)

Instead, what I’m all about is giving folks a taste of a very different kind of Bible. I believe (together with the great majority of pre-modern saints) in a Bible which is a world unto itself. I believe in a Bible which prefigures this community called the Body of Christ. I believe in a Bible which requires a life-long journey of learning to live well in order to begin to understand. I believe in a Bible which I cannot master, but which masters me, ordering and centering my life on the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ.

I believe that the task of evangelism includes inviting people to reimagine the Bible, and the life which it narrates.

 To learn more about how our fathers and mothers in the faith regarded the Old and New Testaments, join Father Matt on the 3rd floor of Christ Church for his class “People of the Book: a Biography of the Bible,”or podcast the classes at http://fathermatt.libsyn.com/

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Golf and Frisbee Golf. And Church.

I have a certain affection for the East Porch at Willow Brook Country Club (thanks, Trey & Peyton!).

And yet, in my 41 years I have never really been much of a golfer.

I have, however, been thinking about golf today. Golf, and frisbee golf.

Let me back up and tell you a bit about my day. I spent a couple of hours this morning reading a book written by one of our speakers at this year’s Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference, a priest in the church who also teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, named Dwight Zscheile (pronounced like “Shylie”).

People of the Way is a thought provoking and sobering book. In the first couple of chapters alone Zscheile brings out such useful concepts as:

–    The “vernacular principle,” according to which we Episcopalians should embrace our rich heritage of “translating the church’s life into the language of the people,” a principle which might lead me to adopt terms such as “schedule” instead of “rota.”
–    The “benefactor paradigm,” according to which “those with power, privileges, and resources do good works on behalf of others, yet retain their superior status.” This paradigm stands in direct opposition to the way of Jesus. Tim Keller describes an opposite approach, one in which “the essence of the Kingdom is the giving away of power,” an approach much closer to what Zscheile recommends in his book.
–    “Strategic, managerial solutions” which we hope will “solve the church’s problems.” Zscheile writes that “Strategy operates from a posture of strength to remake one’s surroundings according to one’s own needs and desires.” Such ways and means, Zscheile suggests, are a thing of the past.

Much of the book is a serious and intense grappling with the Episcopal Church’s struggle to deal with its loss of “the legacy of establishment,” the golden age of the Anglican Church in America, which climaxed in the mid 1960’s, during which the Episcopal Church commanded respect and wielded influence in the surrounding culture.

As such, the book grapples with the issue of class. Zscheile forthrightly admits that, in the church’s zeal for “equal rights” (the most recent example of which is the fight for “full inclusion” of LGBT folks) we are still more “classist” than ever.

And now, back to my modest thought(s) about (frisbee) golf.

On my five mile run today in Lindsey Park I ran past some Frisbee golfers, probably in their early 20’s. They looked like they were having fun, clad with tattooes, smoking I-don’t-want-to-know-what, laughing, and drinking cheep beer in tin cans.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, despite the class difference between them and the denizens of the WBCC East Porch, what the two classes have in common runs much deeper than that which divides. Yes, I am thinking about the imbibing of beer. (!) But much more than that, both groups have a longing for community, an urge to connect, and a need for love and acceptance.

Is it possible to do church, to make Eucharist, with both groups? For the love of God and the world, I hope and pray that it is!

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