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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Anyone Remember Stephen Covey? (Technique, Disclipline, & Happiness)

Few books have I read more than three times. One of them is certainly Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. Another, however, is a book I poured over in college, not so much because, like Mere Christianity, it deeply fed my soul, but rather because it was a real challenge (at the time) to know quite what to make of it. The book was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by the Mormon Stephen Covey. Not only did my Navigators “discipler” invite me to read this book with him, but later I read it as member of a small team of missionaries in Mexico City with Campus Crusade for Christ.

One of the things that always sort of blew my mind when discussing the book with people (and I’ve had similar experiences in other contexts) is the ease with which people apparently implemented the book’s principles and techniques. Years later, in retrospect, I now realize that what was so intriguing to me about the book was the counterfeit nature of its technique: in an inchoate way I was noticing how technique is a cheap copy of true discipline, true ascetical practice.

For example, one of the little “exercises” (actually more like a “task”)  you are supposed to do, in implementing the first principle (“Begin with the end in mind”)  is to craft a purpose statement not just for your business or your educational program of study, but for your life. Wow. That’s a really tall order. I remember that for many folks their life’s purpose statement had to do with the laudable intention of helping other people.

Now it’s not my aim to create a mission statement for my life in this blog post. Rather, as I was driving into class today I was asking myself, “Now, why are you doing a PhD again?” What I realized is that doing a PhD in philosophy actually allows me to reflect more deeply on what it is that, as a pastor, I think I am (supposed to be) doing.

Am I supposed to be making people feel better? Am I supposed to be solving their problems for them? Am I supposed to be dispensing “truth” into their minds?

And the answer gradually came to me: ultimately, I’m undertaking this crazy academic endeavor which requires tons of sacrifice on the part of many loved ones because I sense that my vocation is to convince people that if they will worship God with their whole lives, then they will achieve “happiness,” or what Aristotle calls eudaimonia and what St. Thomas calls beatudo. If they worship God they will begin to participate in a way of living which is truly “supernatural” and mystical.

Now there are lots of barriers to this goal, lots of “plot complications” in getting people to see the truth and importance of this claim. My studies allow me to “bone up” and to become proficient in dealing with some of these complications or barriers.

For example, there is the barrier of thinking that the way we know things is through the assimilation of information. People think that if they only had the right information, then they could implement the right strategies, take the right steps, and all would be well. And here we are, again, back to the issue of technique versus discipline.

I hope to come back to this later, but for now, I note that technique is individualistic and immanently contained, as if the outcome was totally dependent upon one’s own actions. Discipline, however, is necessarily communal and merely a preparation for the grace of God to flow into our lives.

 

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Theories of Language: Derrida on Aristotle

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

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

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

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

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

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Beer, _Purgatio_, & the End of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why St. Augustine?

I wrote this short piece for my church newsletter, the Crucifer.

For my Christian Formation class this Spring, we are studying the Confessions of St. Augustine. I thought I’d take a few minutes and explain why we have decided to look at this magisterial work. I can think of three reasons which have motivated this decision.

First, the Confessions narrates a story about exit and return. You see I frequently have parents and grandparents from Christ Church approach me with heavy hearts, burdened by the perceived lack of interest in spiritual things on the part of their children and grandchildren. In fact, even in my previous denomination (a very evangelical denomination) studies have shown dramatic trends of young adults leaving the church, a new reality leading to the sobering realization that even the most evangelical denominations in the US are declining numerically.

And yet, on page 298 of our Prayer Book, it states that the bond which God establishes in baptism is indissoluble. Which means that those who, like the prodigal son of Luke 15, journey far away from God’s people into what St. Augustine calls “the region of dissimilarity” can be prayed for, with the expectation that they will return. (This primeval pattern of exitus et reditu runs deep throughout the western tradition, beginning with Odysseus’ journey in the Odyssey and can even be seen in God the Son’s journey from and back to his eternal Father.) It is just this kind of prayer which St. Augustine’s godly mother, Monica, engaged in for decades. At times it looked hopeless, and yet Augustine’s is a story of eventual return to the God who calls us home, thanks to the fervent and persevering prayers of his faithful mother.

Second, the Confessions narrates the story of a man who was living in, and interacting with, a highly pluralistic culture. The young Augustine was passionate in his search for truth, a search which would take him through the Stoicism of Cicero,  then through the dualism of Manicheanism,[*] then through neo-Platonic philosophy, and finally to the eventual landing point of Christian theology. What is interesting, however, is that Augustine believed that both Cicero and Neoplatonism were redolent with God’s truth. He considered Cicero a “righteous pagan,” and neoplatonism as a prologue to the Gospel. In fact, Augustine’s last words were a quotation of Cicero!

This situation could not be more relevant to our own time, and to the lives of many Christ Church folks (and to their friends and loved ones) as they make their way in a highly pluralistic world in which we constantly face such influences as the rise of neo-paganism, a cultural development which will only intensify in our increasingly connected global information age.

Finally,  the Confessions is a story which deals, in a brutally honest way, with the disturbing and often perplexing nature of human desire. In fact, this is perhaps the most interesting point of all for me personally. Why, do you think, Augustine eventually rejected these competing world views and eventually embraced the Good News of Jesus Christ? It was not simply because he found them to be rationally less compelling than the Christian story. Rather, it was because he continually failed to live up to the ethical and moral standards which they taught. Stoicism, Manicheanism, and Neoplatonism all commended lifestyles of the highest moral caliber, and Augustine simply could not live up.

Not until he dealt with his desires (for sex, for food and drink, for fame) could he finally begin to live a life of satisfaction and coherence. As he prays near the beginning of the Confessions: “Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”



[*] The heretical system of Manicheanism was dualistic in that it taught that good and evil are equally ultimate in the universe.

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Fleshing Out (& In) the Three-Fold Body of Christ

Every once and and while, when I am presiding at the altar during the service of Holy Eucharist, I will have a flash of insight into what’s really going on sacramentally, liturgically, ritually.

A couple of Sundays ago I was celebrating Rite I and I sort of had a conversation with a good friend echoing in my mind. We had been discussing the three-fold Body of Christ, or the Corpus Christi Triplex, which, for example, de Lubac discusses in his Catholicism.

My friend, who is transitioning from the Presbyterian pastorate to priesthood in the Episcopal Church (in New York City), was interrogating me about the relative importance of the mystical body (rightly understood, the consecrated bread) versus the true body (rightly understood, the gathered community of the baptized), and especially about the insistence by Radical Orthodoxy of the identification of the true body (corpus verum) with the gathered community of the baptized.

Serving at the altar that Sunday morning, it hit me: the bread (corpus mysticum) is subordinate to the people (corpus verum) simply because it is assimilated into the bodies, into the lives, of the people. The purpose of the bread is directed toward the people. The people are the fulfillment, the destination, the telos, of the bread.  (I think that William Cavanaugh on Augustine probably originally planted this seed in my mind several years ago.)

It was a simple insight, but profound.

 

 

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This Present Moment

Renowned Zen master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thick Nhat Hanh is perhaps the greatest teacher of Zen Buddhism of our time. In You are Here the preface begins in this way:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.

In this simple statement is the essence of Buddhist practice. You can build a satisfying and fruitful life on it. You can help yourself and others. You can experience the world as pure and joyful. You can even become enlightened.

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing out.

… You [can] discover how far this simple act of mindfulness can take you….. You [can] learn how Buddhist meditation will help you to harness your natural insight, wisdom, compassion, and so transform your life and benefit those around you.

For a practitioner of Zen meditation, the point of this “breathing meditation” is to be fully present in the present moment. Not to be plagued by guilt about the past, not to be anxious about the risks of the future, but to be fully present, right here and now.

In his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot shows how the members of early Christian monasticism inherited and “baptized” the spiritual practices which were shot throughout the “neo-Platonist” movement of the centuries before and after Christ. Philosophers such as Proclus and Plotinus, as well as the “schools” of the Stoics and Epicureans, would work to attain a kind of inner peace, using three spiritual exercises in particular: meditation on one’s own death, examination of conscience, and breathing exercises to attain full presence in the present moment.

Both Zen and Christian contemplation (I think, for example of James Finley’s excellent book Christian Meditation) are saying, “Don’t waste your life. Don’t be everywhere but here. Open your eyes to the mysterious beauty that is all around you in the ordinary, miraculous world. Train yourself to be so calm (as expressed in the phrase “mind like water”) that you can “hear” the still, small voice of God.

“Be still,” the Psalmist writes, “and know that I am God.”

It is hard, nay, impossible, to do this in a life full of distraction and worry. Both Zen, and the more comprehensive Christian tradition of contemplative prayer create a path, a way, a Tao, for one to get more in touch with self, world, and God.

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Benedict’s Rule: Children vs. “Hired Hands”

In her commentary on The Rule of St. Benedict, Joan Chittister writes,

To be a member of a Roman family, the family whose structures Benedict understood, was to be under the religious, financial, and disciplinary power of the father until the father died, whatever the age of the children. To be disinherited by the father was to be stranded in a culture in which paid employment was looked down upon. To be punished by him was to lose the security of family, outside of which there was no security at all. To lose relationship with the father was then, literally, to lose one’s life [italics mine]. Chittister, OSB, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 2008), 21.

There is a connection here with the story of the “prodigal son,” from Luke 15. In that passage the to-be-inherited-land which is coveted by both sons is referred to as “bios,” or the Greek word for biological life.

The implications here for the manifold biblical teaching on “inheritance” (Gen 48:6; Nu 16:14; Nu 18:23; Dt 15:4; Ps 16:6; Eph 1:11; Col 1:12; Heb 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4) are vast. (Too vast for me to begin to write about here!)

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Eagleton on the “new historicism”

It is a familiar truth that the last thing which historicisms are usually prepared to place under any historical judgement is their own historical conditions. Like many a postmodern form of thought, it implicitly offered as a universal imperative — the imperative, for example, not to universalize — what could fairly easily be seen, from some way off, as the historically peculiar situation of a specific wing of the Western left intelligentsia. Perhaps it is easier in California to feel that history is random, unsystematic, directionless, than in some less privileged places in the world — just as it was easier for Virginia Woolf to feel that life was fragmentary and unstructured than it was for her servants. New historicism hsa produced some critical commentary of rare boldness and brilliance, and challenged many an historical shibboleth; but its rejection of any macro-historical schemes is uncomfortably close to commonplace conservative thought, which has its own political reasons for scorning the idea of historical structures and long-term trends. – Literary Theory (2nd ed.), 198

In this assessment of the “new historicism” (ie, philosophers and cultural critics, mainly American, who are writing in the wake of Foucault) Eagleton points out not only how such particular strands of “leftism” are irresponsibly non-self-critical, but also how the post-political ethos of such movements (unlike that of earlier versions of critical cultural theory) ends up reinforcing the political status quo.

While I deeply respect Eagleton’s old fashioned insistence (faithful, as he ever is, to Marx) on political criticism which must practically serve to bolster the plight of the working poor, at the same time I regard this reinforcement of the status quo as containing large grains of goodness.

Why? Because, in relativizing or undermining the older movements of political criticism (ie, Marxist-influenced thinkers down through the immediate predecessors to Foucault and Derrida) “postmodern” movements such as the “new historicism” have the effect of opening up an “aporetic space” for the church / theology, which were not as apparent before. As important as social justice is for the world and for the West, it pales in comparison to the potential cultural acknowledgment of the validity of theological thought within that ongoing political discussion called the Western tradition.

This does not mean that “late capitalism” is good; it means that social justice is a penultimate concern.

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Liturgy & “the Linguistic Turn” of the 20th Century

In his Literary Criticism Terry Eagleton summarizes (as he alone can do) broad swaths of intellectual development by writing:

The hallmark of the “linguistic revolution” of the 20th century from Saussure to Wittgenstein to contemporary literary theory, is the recognition that “meaning” is not something that is simply “expressed” or “reflected” in language: it is actually produced by it.

For several years now I have been preaching that the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for liturgy and doctrine or belief.

This epiphany, for me a kind of “liturgical turn,” is a preeminent reason why I needed to leave evangelicalism (in my case, conservative Presbyterianism, which certainly thinks that liturgy should express right belief instead of form or produce right belief) and move to a thoroughly liturgical, sacramental tradition.

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Jeremy Taylor & Gay Issues

Yesterday in my Christian Formation class at Christ Church I made the case that the Bible is not as clear as I used to think on matters of “homosexuality.” Next week I will argue, however, on the basis of Romans 1 as well as the “narrative arc of Scripture,” in harmony with the consensus of catholic tradition, that same sex practice should not be sanctioned by the Church.

Hence, same sex issues are on my mind & heart today. It is in that context that I read this morning in my personal study time this excerpt from Jeremy Taylor‘s A Sermon on the Marriage Ring:

Nothing can sweeten felicity itself but love. But, when a man dwells in love, then the breasts of his wife are pleasant as the droppings of the hill of Hermon, her eyes are fair as the light of Heaven, she is a fountain sealed, and he can quench his thirst and ease his cares, and lay his sorrows down upon her lap, and can retire home to his sanctuary and refectory and his gardens of sweetness and chaste refreshments. No man can tell, but he that loves his children, how many delicious accents make a man’s heart dance in the pretty conversation of those dear pledges; their childishness, their stammering, their little angers, their innocence, their imperfections, their necessities, are so many emanations of joy and comfort to him that delights in their persons and society.

But he that loves not his wife and children feeds a lioness at home, and broods over a nest of sorrows; and blessing itself cannot make him happy; so that all the commandments of God enjoining a man to “love his wife” are nothing but so many necessities of capacity and joy. She that loves is safe, and he that loves is joyful. Love is a union of all things excellent; it contains in it proportion and satisfaction, and rest and confidence.

Could an analogous sermon be preached at a same sex “wedding?” Hard (for me) to imagine. Perhaps my horizons need to be broadened? I’m open. Skeptical, but open.

I also was reminded this morning that Taylor staunchly resisted the “pro-divorce” views of that Presbyterian Puritan John Milton.

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Lent & Learning the Language of Virtue

On Tuesdays at Christ Church during Lent we have been considering “The Virtuous Life: Learning to Love like Jesus,” a series rooted in I Corinthians 13.

In what the speakers have talked about I would venture that much more has been said about “love” than about “virtue.” I would suggest that there are several reasons for this, but one reason is that we think we know a thing or two about love, but when it comes to virtue (that ancient and medieval teaching about character formation) we are (to some extent, anyway) at a loss.

We live in a culture which has totally lost sight of this ancient tradition of virtue. Even in most quarters of the Church today we have basically no clue as to how someone like Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas (or, indeed, someone like St. Paul) would answer the question “How is Christian character actually formed in a person?”

Indeed, even in my senior ethics class at the evangelical seminary I attended to become a minister, the word “virtue” went unmentioned. Instead, the focus was on “What do the Scriptures teach about morality?” Now, that is a good question, but even when one figures that out, one is still left with the question, “OK, but how?”

How can I put God’s Ways into practice? Because sometimes I know the right thing to do, but I don’t do it. And it’s funny how I’ve noticed the same tendency in my children! We are well intentioned, but actually doing the right thing is something totally different.

To take matters a level deeper, the goal of Christian virtue is actually not even about “doing the right thing.” Much more important is the goal and the practice of becoming the right kind of person. The kind of person who can live well in this world and (therefore) in the world to come.

For these reasons and more I am grateful for our Neighborhood Groups at Christ Church where we are intentionally forming communities where virtue can be learned. So much of the work here (to allude to Dallas Willard and his disciple James Bryan Smith, whose book The Good & Beautiful God we are reading in our groups) has to do not only with “switching out our narratives” but also with adopting a new set of practices and disciplines.

Because without new disciplines, there can be no new habits. And without new habits, there can be no new virtue.

NT Wright gives a powerful illustration of virtue in his book After You Believe. On January 15, 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 flew into a large flock of geese, some of which were sucked into the jet engines of the plane, causing it to lose all power and hence to plunge downward toward the densely populated Bronx, New York. Captain Chesley Sullenburger III had less than two minutes to take action which would save the lives of hundreds of people. The problem is that with less than 120 seconds, there is not enough time to consult a pilot manual, to ask advice from your copilot, or even to formulate a plan. Good thing Capt. Sullenburger had formed unbreakable habits during his decades of flying. In less than two minutes he had to flip dozens of switches, disengage the auto pilot feature, get the nose of the plane down for maximum gliding, and perform dozens of other moves which eventually enabled the plane to land safely along the Hudson River, thus saving hundreds of lives.

Not everyone will be put in such a situation, but we are all faced, eventually, with tests of our character. When that time comes, virtuous habits are what God graciously uses to save us, and to save the day.

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Gender & Sex: Femininism

First, a couple of notes.

1. One can hear the audio recording of the beginning of this class (most of which is actually a review of the previous class on Ancient Near Eastern Sex Practices & Regulations), here.

2. The reason I chose to talk about feminism in a Christian Formation class: it can serve as a precedent for talking about same sex marriage type issues. That is, feminism is basically a discussion we have already had in our culture. I think that the Church in the main “dropped the ball” in that discussion (mainly simply by not engaging). Not only is it useful to review previous public debates about sex & gender as a precedent, but (particularly when it comes to the “third wave” of feminism) the issues in both “debates” are very similar.

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class

“Feminism”

Sun, March 18, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

I. First Wave.

  • A. Representative Figure: Dorothy Sayers (Are Women Human?).
  • B. Main cause / agenda: basic recognition that women are not property.
  • C. Example: suffrage.

II. Second Wave.

  • A. Representative Figure: Gloria Steinem.
  • B. Main cause / agenda: Political Organization into a Movement-based “Special Interest Group.” (Note: this might have much to do with the rise of electronic media in the 20th century.)
  • C. Example: the Equal Rights Amendment.

III. Third Wave: Pushing the View that Gender is Constructed.

  • Representative Figure: Judith Butler (Gender Trouble).
  • Main cause / agenda: to promote the view that gender (identity) is constructed socially and linguistically.
  • Example: the rise of widespread acceptance of trans-gender as a viable and healthy “lifestyle choice.”

Q: what is right about this view?

Q: Construction vs. Abstraction and the role of language in culture making.

“Assymetrical Reciprocity?” Discussion.

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_The Dharma Bums_ & Marxism

Basic to Marxist thought is “relations of production,” referring to the webs of relationships which people must enter into in order to (re)produce their means of life (survival). The Dharma Bums tries (among many other things) to highlight the possibility of living life outside of this web, outside of these relations of production.

For example, most of the bhikkhus in the book consciously try to minimize their need for income, material possessions, etc., in an effort to avoid dependence upon others for their survival.

Near the end of the book when Ray goes to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest in order to work as a “fire-watchman,” he struggles initially at the need subserviently to submit to the orders of his supervisor at his new job at the “Parks and Wildlife” office. At this point in the story one begins to think that Ray is falling prey to the supposed violence of the relations of production. Not so, however: Ray is not enlisting in this new position out of a slavish need to survive, but rather as an excuse to meditate (as well as an attempted faithfulness to his friend / mentor, Japhy Smith).

At this level, then, one might see the Dharma Bums as providing an alternative to the Marxist insistence on the inevitability of the relations of production. However, upon deeper reflection sees that this is not the case. Most or all of the bhikkhus in the Dharma Bums come from a social / familial background of privilege: all are white and well educated. As Ann Douglas points out in her introduction, all are male. (Indeed, one pervasive criticism against Karouac many of his peers in this cultural milieu is their sexism.) Ray, for one, leans upon his mother & father for various forms of support. Something similar can no doubt be argued for in the case of Japhy.

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PhD App: Intellectual Autobiography (rough draft)

Dear scholarly friends, I would invite your critique and assessment of this, below, as a part of my application to begin PhD studies in the Fall of 2012. Thanks in advance.

Had one asked me in the early 1990’s why I wanted to study philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Texas I probably would have responded (having been raised in a fundamentalist environment but having cut my teeth in high school on CS Lewis) with an answer having to do with wanting defend the truth of the Bible.

At some point, however, during my junior year of college, in the middle of Louis Mackey’s class on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I began to realize that my entire paradigm of truth and reality needed reframing. Up to that point I had assumed (or been taught to think) that “the good guys” where those who, like Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, could be construed as affirming some theory of “absolute truth” … which meant that the “bad guys” were the detractors of absolute truth: those evil “relativists.”

What Mackey’s class showed me is that, in fact, both “absolutism” and “relativism” are human constructs, and, as such, are open to deconstruction. That is, both are susceptible to relativization in light of what Kierkegaard calls the Absolute Paradox. Both are equal and opposite instances of a false dichotomy, what Aristotle calls “contrary propositions within a common genus.” For this (at the time) 21-year old Texan, this was an earth-shattering realization, one which would serve as a “litmus test” for all subsequent philosophical and theological considerations.

My desire to “defend the truth of the Bible,” in other words, overlooked the necessity of interpretation as itself an issue. My stance was too simplistic.

In exposing this false dichotomy Professor Mackey (author of Kierkegaard: a Kind of Poet and Peregrinations of the Word: Essays in Medieval Philosophy) showed me the power of “tertium quid thinking.” As for relativism and absolutism so also for socialism and capitalism, idealism and realism, liberalism and conservatism, etc. In this way Mackey set me up perfectly for the study of both Reformed theology and Radical Orthodoxy, and by the end of his class I knew that was I needed to do next was to study theology.

At Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the late 1990’s I was immersed in the biblical texts (in Greek and Hebrew) and in the venerable, rigorous tradition of Reformed theology. It was there and then that I began deeply to reflect on the relationship between diachronism and synchronism, between the “messiness” of biblical testimony and systematic theology, between God’s unfolding actions in history and God’s extra-temporal life. I am forever grateful for the Reformed emphasis on covenant as a structuring device for the relationship between God and God’s people. To this day I stand in deep respect of Calvin, while at the same time distancing myself from (historic) Presbyterianism’s affirmation of Augustine’s “soteriology” over his “ecclesiology.” Even at Westminster I was beginning to see that ecclesiology (and therefore liturgy and sacrament) are central.

Both in terms of covenant and ecclesiology I began to discern a certain priority of the corporate over the individual. John Zizioulias and others convinced me that, in fact, there is so such thing as a solitary human individual, but that, rather, we are all persons, by definition structured for relationship and community.

Near the end of my time at Westminster I was introduced to Radical Orthodoxy. Both as a non-fundamentalist critique of secular modernity and as a “non-identical repetition” of ancient and medieval tradition (most notably Augustine and Aquinas), this movement continues to display the necessary resources to move theology into the post-Christendom future, thereby creating the conditions (to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre) for a new Saint Benedict-like culture which could provide a beautiful and compelling alternative to the secular, market-driven nihilism of our disenchanted world.

Most of my grappling with Radical Orthodoxy has occurred in the context of pastoral ministry, thinking about the church’s role in the world we inhabit. I am convinced that what the world needs to see is a community whose life has been made more human by Christ. This involves what Milbank describes as “a more incarnate, more participatory, more aesthetic, more erotic, more socialized, even a more ‘Platonic’ Christianity.”

Over the decade (roughly) since seminary, I have stayed fresh intellectually, not only in an intentional effort to remain viable in light of desired PhD work, but also simply because it is the only way I know to live. I must be reading; I must be learning; I must be dialoging with others. Hence, in the intervening period since my M.Div. I have learned two classical languages (I find that language learning provides one with a certain heuristic insight into all sorts of connections in a way that few other endeavors do). I have studied at an Episcopal seminary as a part of my transition from Presbyterianism into Holy Orders as a Priest. I have read MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Milbank, Hadot, Foucault, Marion, Zizek, Peter Candler, and Judith Butler, along with many others. I have interacted, in person and electronically, with renowned scholars and movement leaders. All along the way, I have blogged, not so much to reach others but for my own cognitive wellbeing. My blog has proven a powerful way for me to process my thoughts, to chronicle my journey, and to interact with others who are grappling with similar issues.

Finally, I must stress my liturgical formation in the catholic tradition, particularly as a priest at the altar. If Catherine Pickstock is correct that, at the end of the day, liturgical language “saves” all human language, then surely the practice of the liturgy is paramount. Serving at the altar, performing the liturgy, celebrating the Eucharist over the last year has habituated my total person in deep and mysterious ways. It has allowed me to participate in the ecstatic life of God not only with my mind but also with my body. Liturgical language is “system” of signs performed in and with our bodies.

If Pierre Hadot is correct that – for an important stream of tradition which weaves its way from the pre-Socratics, through Plato and Aristotle, through Neo-platonism (Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblicus), and finally into the Church (East and West, ancient and medieval) – philosophy is “a way of life,”  then truly to be a philosopher commits one to concrete habits, material practices, and spiritual exercises. This, then, is the philosophico-liturgical life into which I have been called, from which I explore the world, and in which I continue my journey of fides quarens intellectum.

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Christian Nation? The Founders on Religion

I highly recommend James Hutson’s book of quotations, The Founders on Religion.

Reading it I realized (or rather, was reminded) that, of the six most influential founders of the US (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington), two were Unitarians (Adams and Jefferson), and one was a deist (James Madison), one was an all-out nonbeliever / non churchgoer (Franklin).

That leaves only two of the six as remotely resembling the historic Christian faith. (Note: of these six, four were Episcopalian!)

Is it any wonder that the landscape of American Christianity (to say nothing of the Episcopal Church!) today is so muddled? The more things change….

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All Saints & The Greatest Pleasure on Earth

My wife (quite the Inklings scholar) reminds me that, while Tolkien wanted the circle of friendship between him, Lewis, and few others to remain small, Lewis wanted it to be large and expansive. It is tempting to want to read Anglican and Roman approaches to church into these postures.

Happy All Saints (the better to celebrate, I offer the following quotation)!

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles [Williams] is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a [specific kind of] joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true friendship is the least jealous of the loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend…. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in his own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. (The Four Loves)

Perhaps this is why Lewis, in another All Saints quotation, asks “Is any pleasure on earth so great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” (Letters of CS Lewis)

Perhaps, too, this is why ++Rowan Williams says that “It takes the whole Church to know the whole truth.”

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Becoming Like Jesus (Renovare & Spiritual Formation)

Note: this article is also on the Epiphany Tyler website.

Do you desire to be more holy? Do you have a longing to be more like Jesus?

My wife Bouquet is from a land locked country (Laos). I myself grew up in the Texas Panhandle, a region about as remote from the life of sea and sailing as I can possibly imagine. Therefore neither my wife nor I have much experience at all in sailing (although the idea of sailing quite intrigues me!).

When Canon John Newton (our Diocesan Canon for Lifelong Spiritual Formation) was at our parish a few weeks ago, he used an excellent analogy to describe the life of the Christian. He likened our spiritual life to sailing on the open sea. No matter how hard the captain of a vessel wishes that the wind would blow, there is absolutely nothing he can do to make it blow. So what does he do? The only thing he can do is to put of the sails, and create the right conditions for wind-propelled motion.

In the same way, Canon Newton reminded us, in our spiritual lives, we cannot force the Holy Spirit to do his work of transformation in our lives, changing us into the likeness of Christ. Rather all we can do is to “put up our sails” and let the Spirit blow. After all, it is the nature of the open sea for the wind to be blowing. It happens naturally, organically.

Now, of all the amazing speakers I heard at our diocesan clergy conference last week, none was more thought provoking, none more deeply encouraging, than Christopher Webb. Chris, the President of Renovare, spoke to us of the “means of grace.” After, all, in our office of Morning Prayer, we read “We bless thee for … the redemption of the world … the means of grace, and the hope of glory.”

What are these “means of grace?” Much like the action of “putting up our sails,” when we practice the means of grace (prayer, bible study, fellowship, worship, and various other disciplines) the wind of God, the breath of God, begins to move in our lives.

Webb clarified: “The means of grace are not disciplines that make us into more holy people. They are disciplines or practices that make our lives as open possible to the grace of God, so that we can stop trying to make ourselves into more holy people, and let God do it instead.”

Such is the deep, rich, practical theology behind spiritual formation. Would you like more of this? I have two invitations for you.

    1. Consider joining a Christ Church neighborhood group in the Spring. In those groups we will be going though the book of one of Chris Webb’s colleagues at Renovare: The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. These books are packed with wisdom and practical steps to make us more like Jesus. When read in community … sit back, and feel the Spirit blow.
    2. Consider attending (and bringing a friend or two!) my Christian Formation class on Sunday, November 13. The title of this event is  “Christian Spiritual Formation: Becoming Apprentices of Jesus – A Conversation with Fr. Matt and Lyle SmithGraybeal, the coordinator of Renovare, on small groups and the theology behindThe Good & Beautiful book series by James Bryan Smith.”

 

“Becoming Apprentices of Jesus.” This is what we are about at Christ Church, under the leadership of our Bishop and our Rector.

Our Sunday morning classes, our emerging small group ministry, our worship, our prayer, our fellowship … transformative means of grace which allow the Spirit “naturally” to blow through our lives!

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Rob Bell on Truth

From Velvet Elvis:

Truth always leads to more truth. Because truth is insight into God, and God is infinite, and God has no boundaries or edges. So truth always has layers and depth and texture. It’s like a pool that you dive into and you start swimming toward the bottom and soon you discover that no matter how hard and fast you swim downward, the pool keeps getting deeper. The bottom will always be out of reach.

Good stuff. To many modern (ie, fundamentalist … both  “conservative-fundamentalist” and “revisionist-fundamentalist) ears, this will be unpalatable. But to those who love the patristic tradition, it is profoundly correct (albeit stated in a contemporary manner).

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