Hegel & Theology

What is the relationship between philosophy and theology? In a very real sense, the burning desire to answer this question for myself was one of my primary motivations for entering a PhD program in philosophy at a Catholic institution, studying under a renowned thinker who, sometimes I am tempted to think, is a theologian posing as a philosopher. To my mind such an academic posture is perfectly suited for our contemporary cultural moment in the West.

However before one can answer this question, one must first be as clear as possible on the meaning of the terms “philosophy” and “theology.” Here’s my stab at such requisite clarity. Theology is the rational interpretation and development of the content of revelation; philosophy is the ordered system of sciences, in both its Aristotelian and Hegelian incarnations, extending from the supreme principle of theos / Geist on the one hand, to the most propaeduetically incipient or elementary principle(s) of logic on the other. (Note: God / theos / Geist is a constitutent element for both ancient thought [Aristotle]  and (post)modern thought [Hegel].)

In the third part of his “system” entitled “The Philosophy of Geist,” Hegel writes:

In order to elucidate for ordinary thinking this unity of form and content present in the mind, the unity of manifestation and what is manifested, we can refer to the teaching of the Christian religion. Christianity says: God has revealed himself through Christ, his only begotten son. Ordinary thinking straightway interprets this statement to mean that Christ is only [ital. mine] the organ of this revelation, as if what is revealed in this manner were something other than the source of the revelation. But in truth this statement properly means that God has revealed that his nature consists in having a Son, i.e., in making a distinction within himself, making himself finite, but in his difference remaining in communion with himself, beholding and revealing himself in the Son, and that by this unity with the Son, by his being for himself in the other, he is absolute mind or spirit, so that the Son is not the mere organ of the revelation, but is himself the content of the revelation. (Hegel, Philosophy of Spirit, tr. Wallace & Miller, 1971, §383)

Preliminary construal of the relationship between philosophy and theology (as defined above and to be developed later): they are symbiotically or reflexively related, such that each is the condition of possibility for the other.

That is, there neither is nor can be philosophy without theology, nor theology without philosophy.

(Note: this view, it seems to me right now, requires that we regard Aristotle as a recipient of revelation. Kinda crazy.)



MacIntyre on Nietzsche on Homer(ic characters)

On page 129 on of After Virtue (2nd ed.) MacIntyre writes:

Here again it is clear that Nietzsche had to mythologize the distant past in order to sustain his vision. What Nietzsche portrays is aristocratic self-assertion; what Homer [portrays are] the forms of assertion proper to and required by a certain role. The self becomes what it is in heroic societies only through its role; it is a social creation, not an individual one. Hence when Nietzsche projects back on to the archaic past his own nineteenth-century individualism, he reveals that what looked like an historical inquiry was actually an inventive literary construction.

Good point. This does not necessary invalidate Nietzsche’s project, but it demands that here (as also with Heidegger on Aristotle) one be clear on the artistic nature of it.


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!



God: not (numerically) One

Geek alert: only theology & philosophy nerds should read this post. (It is a distillation of one swath of my study project for comprehensive exams.)

In Question 11 of the Prima Pars of Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, he treats the question of the unity of God.

In this particular section of his “Treatise on God” (usually considered to be questions 2 – 26 of the Prima Pars), he makes statements which, “by good and necessary inference” allow the reader to conclude that God is not numerically one.

But to see this, one must first take a quick plunge into the way that the ancients thought about number, for upon this way of thinking, Thomas is wholly dependent.

Two quick points to make here: 1. that “one” is convertible with being; 2. that “the numerical one” is different from “the one that is convertible with being.”

First, that oneness is convertible with being. Thomas, in question 3 of the Summa, adumbrates the simplicity of God: that God’s existence is his essence, and that God has no (non-metaphorical) predicate that is not also his essence. If we can say “God is good,” for example, then it is necessarily true that God is goodness. So also for “one,” “beautiful,” “real,” etc. [By the way, an interesting corollary of this doctrine is that we can be sure that, in a meaningful sense, God is not angry. See this post.]

Because God is simple in this way, it is impossible that he exists “through another,” which is the medieval (and ancient) way of saying that he is uncaused. But if he is uncaused, then must be necessary. Right: God does not exist contingently, like material beings, but rather necessarily. (Note: Averroes believed that a) material beings, i.e., the celestial bodies, exist necessarily; b) that effects, like Plotinus’ Nous and the heavenly bodies, can exist necessarily. Thomas disagrees with him, agreeing with Avicenna that spatial extension is convertible with contingency.)

All of this means that God is what you might call “full being.” Or “Being itself.” Or “Being as Such” (as long as, by that last denomination, you don’t mean “Being in General:” shame on you, Francisco Suarez).

Now, if you like Thomas Aquinas then you also have to like Parmenides (at least in a qualified way). Thomas, like Plato & Aristotle before him, gives Parmenides a qualified “high five” for his insight that being must be one. If two things exist (Aristotle & Thomas would say, “… exist in the full and proper sense”), that is, then this necessarily implies “privation,” or what Parmenides calls “non-being” (if for no other reason than that “A” is not “B.”).

But … what do we (or does Parmenides) mean here by “one?” Thomas think, in Article 1 of Question 11, that he means “undividability.” That is, the one thing that exists cannot be “sliced and diced” such that you can chop A in half and get two A’s, two of the same thing. This is how being must needs be for Parmenides: undividible.

One more point. In this article Thomas also teaches (following Avicenna) that this kind of oneness is different from numerical oneness. The latter, he thinks, would imply an actual numeric infinity (off limits for him), and would “add something” to God in the same way that white “adds something” to the substance of Socrates.

Hence, for Thomas (and for me) God is one, but God is not numerically one.




Thomas, Eternal World, & Comps

Geek alert: this post is intended only for theology / philosophy nerds!

I have various motives for blogging; any particular blog post might be motivated by any number of things. Sometimes, as in the current case, I am motivated to blog by the urgent need to remember something, especially in its details and with textual evidence. The need to remember it, and the desire to discuss it with others, partly in order to remember it.

I turn my attention to the issue of the eternity (or the infinite temporal duration) of the world, an urgent issue in the medieval context of thought–the very phase of the history of philosophy in which my comps study partner and I are engaged–because of the intersection in this period  between religions (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) on the one hand, and the (re)discovery of Aristotle on the other.

Clearly, as attested in _De Caelo_ II.1, Aristotle believed in the infinite temporal duration of the cosmos (both past and future), in particular of the heavenly bodies and their circular motion.

How do the religious thinkers of the medieval period respond to this philosophical position, presumably held to be based on reason alone? I will focus only on two: Averroes and Aquinas.

Averroes’ position is that, since philosophy trumps other modes of knowledge (namely, religion / “dialectic” and rhetoric / poetry), it is true, based on demonstrative knowledge, that the universe has always existed. (In fact in his _Incoherence of the Incoherence_ he argues that the matter of the celestial bodies is co-eternal with God, and that infinite temporal duration in the past is amenable to reason due to the circular nature of the celestial motion which it measures or with which it is coextensive: for Averroes nothing is pernicious about an infinite regress as long as it is “circular,” as long as it contains elements in the “chain” which precede and follow themselves.)

As Marquette philosopher Richard Taylor explains in this podcast, Averroes does not quite hold to the “double truth” theory that used to be the accusation leveled against 13th century members of the University of Paris Arts Faculty such as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, but, still, he somehow manages to “affirm” both the eternality of the world and the Muslim version of the doctrine of the creation of the world, at “time zero.” He affirms the former as a philosopher and for philosophers, and the latter as a religious / legal scholar for religious folks and the people for whom he legislates.

Although, technically, this might not be a version of “double truth,” thanks be to God that this is not the approach which St. Thomas takes on this perennial issue. Rather, assuming (as he elsewhere argues) that we know some things by faith and other things by reason, he maintains that, although there is, based on reason alone, nothing irrational about Aristotle’s view, nevertheless it is an article of faith (or an object of faith), that the world as created by God has an absolute beginning in time, before which point it (along with everything else, including time) did not exist. (See Summa I.46.2.)

A few additional points about Thomas’ stance in all of this.

  1. Near the end of his “On the Eternality of the World,” Thomas does clarify that “nothing can be co-eternal with God, because nothing can be immutable save God alone,” thus indicating that, apparently on the basis of reason alone, the celestial bodies are not eternal. (Yes, apparent contradictions abound in such thorny issues.)
  2. This is also the context in which he clarifies that ex nihilo–as in, creatio ex nihilo–is simply a negation: “not created out of anything.”
  3. In the Summa Contra Gentiles II.37 he clarifies that “one could conceive of the universe as always existing yet totally dependent upon its creator: if the act of creating is inherently instantaneous, then there is no need that God temporally precede the universe to be its creator.” See David Burrell, “Aquinas and Islamic and Jewish Thinkers,”in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleanor Stump (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1193), 72-3.
  4. In the above context of the Summa Theologiae (I.46.2), Thomas is at pains to make it clear why we Christians must state plainly that the temporal beginning of the world is an “article of faith,” and not an object of reason:

And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate the what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.

An admonition applicable to fundamentalists of all ages!


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.


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.)





Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.



Notes on Nominalism: a Brief Genealogy

At the most basic level possible, there are three “moments” in the development of late medieval nominalism, which one nust appreciate in order to grasp this historical, intellectual phenomenon.

First, consider the 219 Condemnations of Bishop Etienne Tempier in 1277, the background of which is the ecstatic and extreme embrace of the newly discovered Aristotle, by members (all clergy) of the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris in the 13th century. Certain of these faculty members were so taken with Aristotelian philosophy (mediated to them by Arabic philosophy, such as Averroes) that they began to regard philosophy as a vastly superior discipline (and, indeed, way of life) to theology. Central to this stream of thought, for the purposes of our argument here, is the necessity that things in the world are the way they are. That is, for Aristotle (and indeed for Plotinus) God does not freely create; rather he serves as the First Cause of the world in a way that seems to involve a kind of necessity. The primum mobile (or for Plotinus, the first emanation) moves and exists simply because that is how things are, given the nature of god and given the nature of the world. Given the rigorous, scientific superiority of the Stagirite, such a view only made sense, or so it seemed to Siger of Brabant and his colleagues in the Arts Faculty. Other convictions held by the Arts Faculty, in addition to this one, include: the eternality of the world, the singularity of the intellect in all men, and the denial of the freedom of the will.

It is in drastic opposition to such thinking that Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, drafted the Condemnations of 1277. The motivation here was to stomp out the secular rationalism of the Arts Faculty, together with the this-worldly thought of Thomas Aquinas, to the extent that he sided with them. Tempier and his supporters (many of whom were Franciscans and members of the Theology Faculty) hoped to eradicate, in the words of Etienne Gilson, the kind of “polymorphic naturalism” which Siger of Brabant and his colleagues were advocating, together with their emphasis on “the rights of pagan nature against Christian nature, of philosophy against theology, of reason against faith” (Kerr, After Aquinas, 13).

Sadly, this move to condemn and censor ended up having the very opposite effect.

But to see this, and how it leads to the intellectual movement known as late medieval nominalism, one must first appreciate the distinction between the potentia ordinate dei and the potentia absoluta dei, which did not originate with Duns Scotus, but which is definitively formulated by him and registered by him as a controlling feature of theology.[1] In his Ordinatio I.44, Scotus applies the distinction to “every agent acting intelligently and voluntarily that can act in conformity with a right law, but does not have to do so of necessity”. (Henri Veldhuis, “Ordained and Absolute Power,” 225). Scotus conceives of the the difference between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta in terms of Heiko Oberman’s ‘canonistic interpretation’: “potentia ordinata means ‘it can act in conformity with a right law’; potentia absoluta means ‘it can act beyond or against such a right law’. (ibid.)

What becomes normative in this way of thinking about creation is God’s absolute will which is grounded or conditioned upon no prior determination whatsoever, but rather radically “free” and arbitrary. There is no basis upon which we can have any kind of rational insight into God’s actions. And while (as Pieper concedes) this emphasis on God’s freedom is a much needed corrective to the necessarianism of the Arts Faculty, it serves, at the end of the day, not to re-unite faith and reason, but to drive them even further apart. Not only did the arguments of theology (including, admittedly, Thomistic theology) fail to meet Scotus’ heightened standards of rigor (modeled on Oxford-style mathematics), thereby creating a sense of theological skepticism, but also, since God’s acts are radically “free” and arbitrary, rooted solely in the radical spontaneity of his inscrutable will, there is no way to think scientifically (or systematically) about God’s actions in history, since they could—and indeed at any moment can and might be—be wholly otherwise.

(It is interesting in this context to think of Aristotle’s rendition of the intellectual virtues in Book VI of the Ethics, with its discussion of the objects of to logistikon as those things which “admit of being otherwise.” Also note that Scotus is assuming a notion of freedom which is merely negative and nonteleological. For him to say that God is free is not to insist that God is always fully realizing his telos–and thus is absolutely “pure act”–but rather to hold that “God can do anything he wants.”)

And yet one more step is needed to grasp the full import of late medieval and early modern nominalism: the shift from Duns Scotus to William of Ockham. Compared to Ockham, Scotus is still somewhat “conservative:” for him God’s actions are still constrained by a sense of “ordinateness.” God, that is, can by definition act only in ways that are ordinate. (By the way, we must rebuke Scotus for being inconsistent here: if this is a constraint on God’s “freedom,” then why not other aspects of his nature?) William of Ockham leaves such constraints in the dustbin of irrelevance. Ockham’s God is so arbitrary that at any moment the creation could sink back into oblivion. This way of thinking leads to grave consequences for philosophy, producing and hardening what Dilthey called “the atheism of scientific thinking.” Indeed Joseph Pieper writes that Ockham’s “principle of God’s arbitrary freedom” leads to the gravest of consequences. For Ockham

[m]an cannot do anything but cling to the purely factual, which in no way must be as it is: to search for meaning and coherence is not “real,” but at most may exist in our thoughts; singular facts alone are “real”; this actual factuality, however, can neither be calculated nor investigated nor deduced, but only experienced; knowledge exists only as direct encounter with concrete reality. (Pieper 149)

And so it is that, for modern thinkers, nothing in nature (contra Aristotle; see Ethics VI) is necessarily the way that it is. That is, an oak tree can have a nature / form / essence other than that of an oak tree (and still remain fully and in every sense what it is). This is the basic assumption of Heidegger. If correct, it renders any kind of coherent knowledge of the world impossible.

All because of the Condemnation of 1277, and the Arts scholars against whom it reacted.



[1] Indeed Etienne Gilson suggests that the condemnation of 1277 serves as the historical condition of the possibility for Scotus’ thought: “we could guess that the doctrine of Duns Scotus was conceived after the condemnation of 1277.” Piper, Scholasticism, 144.




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.



The Tyranny of the Exception

I suppose that working on a PhD at a (somewhat) traditionalist Roman Catholic university has made me more “conservative.” But the deeper reason beneath that development, it seems clear to me, is simply that I have learned so much more (than I had known as one reared in secular and evangelical institutions), particularly historically.

In this blog post (which has been simmering for about a half decade or more) I hope to highlight a basic difference (a difference, perhaps, in disposition or orientation) between the premodern mind and the modern, western mind. It has to do with the role that exceptions (or exceptions to the rule) play in our thinking.

First, consider a basic, very elemental, structure or “pattern” laid down by Aristotle. Aristotle, to put it very simply, would say that it is the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. (He talks this way in the Metaphysics and the Physics.) The “purpose” or “end” (Greek telos), that is, of the acorn is the fully developed oak tree. The oak tree is the “fully active” version of the acorn. The acorn, in turn, is a “potential oak tree.” (This way of thinking relies on the Aristotelian metaphysical distinction between potency and act.)

Now, Aristotle perfectly realized that not all acorns successfully develop into fully formed oak trees. As did St. Thomas, who follows Aristotles’s reasoning here without exception. But it would never have occurred to either of them to conclude, on the basis of the failure of some acorns to develop into oak trees, that it is not the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. Rather, they understood that this accomplishment occurs “for the most part,” that is, not 100% of the time. They understood that nature (or natural philosophy) is “messy” and does not comply with our rational, scientific systems in the same way that, say, mathematics does. (As an example of Aristotle’s thinking about things that are true “for the most part,” see Nicomachean Ethics I.3, together with his word of caution that accompanies them.)

The modern mind is quite different. To cite an example of the “default tendency” of the modern mind which I am trying to diagnose in this article, consider the (admittedly, ecclesiastically “intramural”) issue of infant baptism. I could not begin to count the number of times people have registered their opposition to the catholic practice of infant baptism in the church to me on the basis of the exception. “Richard Dawkins,” a good friend of mine likes to say, “was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, and just look at him,” implying that Dawkins disproves that the “nature” of baptism is to bring baptizands into a life of Christian faith. We know that infant baptism is not a valid or true doctrine, so this reasoning goes, because it does not always “work.” This way of thinking, I’d argue, is analogous to the point about the acorn not successfully growing into an oak tree: the exception does not undermine the “nature” of the thing in question.

Exhibit B: sex and the presence in nature of hermaphrodites, or biologically ambiguous genitalia in infants, children, and adults. Yes, the Scriptures speak of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). (They also speak, in the same context, of a binary division between “land animals” and “sea creatures,” but one would be on shaky ground to hold on this basis that they intend to reject the existence of amphibians.) I am certain that the ancient Hebrews were aware of ambiguous genitalia. But, again, nature is messy and “for the most part.”

Does the exception here refute the rule or the “nature” of the thing, that “male” and “female” are valid ways of describing what we find in nature, or what actually is in nature? No more than the stunted acorn does.

(Does my position here make me an “essentialist?” No, because of this, and also because when a Christian speaks of “nature,” she will in the next breath speak of “creation.” But that is a topic for a later blog post.)




Once upon a time, there were no secularists(?)

Very interesting (and encouraging) discussion in my Intro to Philosophy course yesterday.

One admirable student objected to my statement that prior to, say, 500 years ago, all human civilizations were inherently religious, and that thus there were no secularists prior to that time, by saying: “How do you know?”

To which I responded: “I know because the conditions which are necessary for secularism to be thought were not in place, or real, or existent, until around 500 years ago.”

In an effort to give an example or an analogy, I argued that something similar could be said of “conservatives” (since prior to Edmund Burke no one had reacted to the historically particular project of the French Revolution) and homosexuals (since prior to the late 19th century “homosexual” as a “scientific” category had not yet been invented).

I realized later that another example might be “environmentalist.” I’d argue that prior to 250 years ago there were no environmentalists. The conditions which have made this movement possible–which have made it possible for environmentalism to be “a thing”–were not yet in place.

Teaching undergrads is helping me to “bone up” on my Christian historicism.


A Certain Distinction in Nietzsche

To introduce a certain way of thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche, one could consider, by way of analogy, the term “pluralism.” Pluralism can refer to either a cultural state of affairs (ie, that which is the case in a given culture) or to an ideology, or, for the purposes of this discussion, a philosophical doctrine.

Now, I want to raise the specter that something like this distinction b/t a state of affairs and a philosophical doctrine may well be operative in N’s thought. At the very least I’d argue that if one is not at least tempted at some point in his reading of N to entertain this possibility, then one is missing a crucial aspect of N.

In fact, I’d argue that something like this is the case for N’s notion of the “death of God.” I’d definitely argue that what is going on in this discourse of Nietzshe’s is more akin to a state of affairs than it is to a philosophical doctrine. To be clear, I don’t think that N is actually saying that God has died. He is saying that the philosophical and cultural currency of the reality of God (and all that it entails) is what has dies.

Further, this is a more radical reading of N than simply to hold that he is merely apsousing atheism. Why? Because is allows one to co-opt N for a very “Nietzschean” project: the critique of various reigning ideologies in our late capitalist culture which, while functionally “atheist,” are a least as bourgeois as form of “Christianity” which held sway in N’s day.

Now, I do think that N’s “God is dead” describes a certain state of affairs rather than an actual doctrine which N holds (a proposition dramatically strengthened if one holds that philosophical doctrines are by definition off-limits for N); however I do not necessarily think this is the case for his teaching on “values” as we find it in his genealogical works, and in particular Beyond Good and Evil.


Husserl & the Ideological Hegemony of “Science”

A friend recently pointed me to an article delivered by one Grant Franks at St. John’s College in the late 1990’s, which deals with the relationship between ancient thought and modern thought.

In the article, Franks discusses Edmund Husserl’s appraisal of the origins of modern science: “In the Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl argues that Descartes and Galileo—or more accurately, the scientific enterprise they launched—are responsible for the “most portentous upheavels” of twentieth century European civilization. Franks continues:

This lamentable situation has come about because of a dual expansion and contraction of the domain of scientific knowledge. The realm of science has grown insofar as the new methodical natural science claims to be a mathesis universalis, encompassing all possible knowledge. On the other hand, since the scientific demand for rigor cannot be imposed on all fields of human interest, whole regions of thought and inquiry—specifically all metaphysics and ethics—have been jettisoned and regarded as being unknowable, unscientific, and consequently uninteresting.

I’d argue that this denigration of metaphysics results in part from the novelty of one aspect of Descartes’ method of study as opposed to that of Aristotle. For the ancient Stagirite, the recommended approach to knowledge is to begin with what is most knowable to the human thinker, and to proceed from there to what is most knowable in itself. In this manner Aristotle advocates beginning with realities that the human mind can lay hold of, even if those objects of study (physical objects, concepts, texts, syllogisms, whatever) are somewhat hazy and vague. Try to grasp hold of the object, Aristotle advocates, and see if you can make progress with it, see if you can gain some sort of clearer insight.

For Descartes, however, this approach already gets off on the wrong foot. For him, human reason cannot even countenance an object unless it is clear and distinct, unless it is amenable to “clear and distinct ideas.” What could possibly be more clear and distinct that the numbers and objects of mathematics, now (by the 16th century) stripped down to their bare, instrumental “essentials”? (By “instrumental” I mean a notion of number stripped of all premodern numerological theory as advocated by such diverse parties as the Pythagoreans, Plato, neoplatonists such as Boethius, and Renaissance thinkers of various stripes. Now, for Descartes, numbers have absolutely no concrete content on their own; they are mere instruments which serve the purpose of conducting operations on nature. They are mere tools.)

Husserl advocates a return, for the purposes of this specific discussion, to Aristotle’s method of mathesis. In so doing he proves himself an ally to anyone interested in undermining the ideological hegemony of the modern “science” of the (post)modern West in our time.


Bonaventure, Philosophy, & Theology

What is theology, and what is faith? We in the 21st century West live in an emotivistic culture which is worse than clueless about these things.

For most people in our culture, faith has to do with feelings or private, emotional preferences. “I believe in a God that would never get angry;” “I feel like I don’t really need to go to church;” etc.

But for our premodern forbears in the West, faith is a means to knowledge which compliments and is complemented by reason. Faith is what accepts and grasps the content of revelation, and thus serves as the basis for theology, which applies the tools of rational thought and discourse to the content of revelation, for example, the idea that God is three distinct Persons in one unified substance (or the doctrine of the Trinity).

For a premodern thinker such as St. Bonaventure, there is no sharp dichotomy between faith and reason as there is for us moderns who have ripped and rent the two apart. A good “case study” in this arena is the way Bonaventure allows theology to undermine the neoplatonist theory of divine emanation.

Now a good premodern neoplatonist would follow Plotinus in his view that the world is a necessary emanation from God. Only problem is, this view flies in the face of Christian orthodoxy which asserts an ontological distinction between God and God’s creation. Orthodox Christians are not pantheists, and yet pantheism is where neoplatonic emanationism straightaway leads.

As Peter Spotswood Dillard shows in his helpful _A Way into Scholasticism_, however, Bonaventure does not simply dismiss the idea of divine emanation. He is a good neoplatonist, and he thinks that the idea that God, as Being Itself and the Superexcellent Good, necessarily emanates his being, that God’s being and goodness are superabundantly effusive, is a tenant of proper reason.

And yet Bonaventure holds not only that the world’s being lacks goodness in comparison to God (a non sequitur for standard neoplatonic emanationism), but also that the existence of the world is not necessary. In light of his neoplatonist commitments, what, for the Seraphic Doctor, gives?

Not his commitment to divine emanation, but rather his determination of that in which the emanations consist. For they consist not first and foremost in the creation / world / universe, but rather in the in extra emanations of the Son and the Spirit:

Therefore, unless there were eternally in the highest good a production which is actual and consubstantial, and a hypothesis as noble as the producer–and this is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–unless these were present, [God] would by no means be the highest good because [God] would not diffuse [God’s self] to the highest degree.

Lots of neoplatonist assumptions packed into that dense statement, but the upshot is that, if God does not produce an emanation which contains the fullness of being just as God does, then God is not the highest good … then God is not God. Hence, for Bonaventure, God must produce an emanation which is maximally existent (if I can use that word).

The upshot for my argument, then, is that what we are witnessing here is theology / revelation / faith “messing with” or altering or qualifying or positioning philosophy / universally-valid-premises / reason. Not only does the orthodox repudiation of pantheism motivate Bonaventure to deny the world as a necessary emanation of God’s very being, but so does the revelation of the Holy Trinity. Since the Father “necessarily” emanates the Son (i.e., the Father’s nature is to do this), we don’t need to regard the world as a necessary, divine emanation in order to honor what Bonaventure regards as the rational truths of neoplatonism.

Faith and reason, theology and philosophy, are here working in tandem. Both are subjected to rational discourse and rational procedures. Both work together in us to produce in us the fullness of knowledge.


Bonaventure & “Affective Experience”

In Bonaventure’s _The Soul’s Journey into God_, the Seraphic Doctor offers a regimen for how the soul can come to mirror God, a suggested path for what this might look like.

In this context he says that such an achievement “is more a matter of affective experience [of the inner senses] than rational consideration.”

What might this affective experience of the inner senses mean? What is “inner sense,” anyway?

Without getting too bogged down in pre-modern faculty theory, recall that Aristotle and his medieval followers believed in a faculty of the soul called the “common sense.” This faculty or power is what allows a person to coordinate various sensory input. For example, consider an ice cube. If one holds the ice cube in her hand, she perceives by the sense of touch that it is cold, but she _also_ perceives by vision that it is grey in color, and cubical in shape. But how does she know that the cold thing and the cubical thing are one and the same thing? She knows this, thanks to the work of the inner sense power called the common sense.

Now, although for some early modern thinkers such as Descartes the common sense receives its input prior to the work of the memory and the imagination, for scholastic thinkers such as Thomas and Bonaventure, the common sense is situated _after_ the memory and the imagination. What this means is that the work of his faculty is not limited to the coordination of various sense stimuli, coming from diverse organs of the outer sense (e.g. eyes and skin). Rather, the common sense also imbues the object of thought with qualities supplied by memory and imagination. Surely it is here, in the memory and the imagination, where the “affections” which Bonaventure stresses, originate.

I thought of an example. Suppose you had a bit too much to drink last night. Suppose you drank a bit too much vodka, and you are a bit hung over. Suppose, further, that you just finished a 7 mile morning run, and you are very thirsty. You look up and you see two bottles, both containing clear liquid. For the purpose of this analogy assume that neither bottle has a label on it. You know that one bottle contains vodka, and the other one water.

Notice that the sensory input coming from you eyes as they gaze upon the different bottles is identical. That is, the eyes perceive no difference between the liquid contained in the two bottles: in both cases it is clear and colorless. Yet when you focus on the bottle of vodka you are repulsed, and when you focus on the bottle of water, you are so attracted to it that your mouth waters, impelling you finally to pick up the bottle, open the lid, and gulp down its contents.

What accounts for the difference between your different perceptions of the two bottles of clear, colorless liquid? It is not your vision or any other external sense power. The difference is “affective:” your perception is altered by the “inner sense power,” the “faculty” of “common sense,” which combines features of the two liquids, supplied by the memory and the imagination, with your visual perception of them.


Sex, Desire, & Bodies

I am currently in a graduate “reading group” on Michel Foucault, and it is in that context that I have been thinking much about sexuality, desire, and bodies.

In addition I just watched a fascinating (and deeply convicting and encouraging) documentary put out by (an organization within) the Catholic Church on which makes the point that for the Christian tradition human desire is something which is disordered but able to be transformed. (To put this in the language of Reformed theology, human desire is good, fallen, and redeemed / redeemable in Christ.)

I heartily agree.

With these matters rumbling around in my head, a personal definition of “sexuality” occurred to me on my morning run today. What is sexuality? It is the human desire for human bodies.

We can speak (without falling into Cartesian dualism) in terms of the subject of this desire and the object of this desire.

The subject is the human being, which is necessarily embodied. It is necessarily embodied because the definition of “human” is “rational animal,” and following Boethius in his ordering of the sciences contained in his De Trinitate, an animal (falling under the rubric of natura or in Greek physis) is “inseparable from [its] material [body], either in thought or in reality. “In thought” means that the definition of something (in this case an animal) necessarily includes the notion of embodiedness or materiality. Here “animal” stands in opposition to other beings such as triangles (which as geometric objects are separable from material in thought) and “intelligences” or angels, or the soul, or God (which are separable in both thought and reality).

So, the subject of sexual desire and sexual activity is a human being, an animal, necessarily embodied.

What, then, is the object? While the subject of the desire is a human being, the object of the desire is the body of a human being.

Why the body and not something else, such as the soul or the mind or the attention of a human being? Because there are other names for each of these desires, for example, companionship, love, kononia, friendship, and the like.

How does this definition of sexuality relate to the traditional notion of eros? I do not know, but perhaps I will turn to that question in the near future.



Burrell on Islam

According to David Burrell the Five Pillars of Islam are:

  1. Confessing that God is one and that Muhammad is God’s prophet (the shahada);
  2. Communal ritual prayer, five times daily;
  3. Fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, which ends with …
  4. … an annual obligatory almsgiving;
  5. For those able to do so, making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

(Earlier this week I had lunch in Tyler (Texas) with a new Muslim friend, and he confirmed the accuracy of this list.)

Burrell, whose successful career as an academic theologian took something of a detour a couple of decades ago when he made it his personal mission to educate himself as deeply as possible in the area of Islam, makes some compelling points in this article which Christians and seculars alike in the United States would do well to heed.

First, and this is a major theme in Burrell’s work, is that historically the connections between medieval Christianity and Muslim thought were intimate and productive:

… many Western medieval thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas, reached out to understand Islamic thinkers, especially to learn from their philosophical reflections. That out reach … reflects the fact that the Islamic cultural renaissance in tenth-century Baghdad had anticipated the touted medieval Renaissance in the West by a full two centuries. While Europe was passing through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture in what we call the Middle East was at its peak. Medieval thinkers in the West learned their astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy from the East, and its practitioners were Muslims.

Why this intimate and productive connection? Burrell shows that it is due to the confession of (the first part of) the shahada: “God is one.” This implies that “all-that-is comes forth freely from God, and that all power in the universe is God’s power, however much we may be impressed with our own. But the relation of the universe to the One on whom it depends so utterly and so intimately is quite beyond our capacity to understand, short of a ‘mystical unveiling.’” So a shared commitment to the doctrine of creation is what binds Islam and Christianity together, at least historically (for someone like Thomas Aquinas).

The ineffability of God’s relationship to the creation, though, leads to another feature of Islam which Burrell helpfully points out: for Islam “… orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.” This orthopraxy is deeply communal:

In Islam, individual rights are decidedly subordinated to the well-being of the community, with the consequent effect on the various roles the community assigns to its members. It is here that the image of Islam can chafe Western sensibilities, especially in those Western societies that combine a so-called rights doctrine with a capitalist consumer culture. Yet just as personal affluence usually buys a relative dispensation from communal obligations–a fact even Islamic society has not avoided–we can readily imagine why Islam is so attractive to those members of a society who taste little of its affluence and privilege. In those sectors of our own society where the spirit of capitalism is most starkly displayed in the lucrative but destructive commerce of drug dealing, the communal bonds of Islam and its inherent discipline offer not only welcome protection but a protest against a dominant ideology that has marginalized entire sectors of society in the name of individual rights and economic success. In its communal life, Islam affords a genuine alternative to a liberal society’s libertarian drift, and to the illusory freedom it touts, a freedom utterly beholden to powerful interest groups. If the phrase “common good” has ceased to function in our standard political vocabulary, it needs to become embodied in integral communities. In the United States, Islam has emerged as a viable one in our midst. Islam is the fastest growing faith worldwide, and in recent years has made striking advances in North America, particularly in the United States among African-Americans.

Burrell has several other compelling points in this article, but for me this one hits most deeply, for how could a Christian possibly disagree that, in the midst of a fragmenting culture in which entire cities and neighborhoods are left to rot in the cold, Islam embodies a welcome option in favor of peace, in favor of biblical shalom.

The “individual human rights” of our democratic, late-capitalist, American culture are killing us. In a culture characterized by Fifty Shades of Grey, in which neighborhoods in your own city are dominated by pimps and meth dealers, Islam is at the very least a welcome “co-belligerent” (to use an old phrase coined by Francis Schaeffer).


Foucault’s Quest for Pure Nature

The following quotation, from James Miller’s 1993 biography The Passion of Michel Foucault, confirms my suspicion that, after all is said and done, Foucault is still a kind of essentialist with respect to human nature.

Foucault suggests that behind the ‘deceptive surfaces’ of modern society lurks a human ‘nature metamorphosized in depth by the powers of a counter-nature.’ Containing, as it does, ‘the passage from life to death,’ the ‘great interior labyrinth,’ like Sade’s Castle of Murders, organizes a space proper to ‘modern perversity.’ ‘A cage,’ the labyrinth ‘makes of man a beast of desire’; a tomb,’ it ‘weaves beneath states a counter-city’; a diabolically clever invention, it is designed to unleash ‘all the volcanos of madness,’—threatening to destroy ‘the oldest laws and pacts.’

– James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 146-47 (The quotations within the quotation are mainly from Foucault’s [1962] article “Un si cruel savoir.)

Foucault is committed to the task, that is, of “peeling back” all cultural (humanly produced, whether intentional or not) influences, definitions, “historical aprioris,” etc. so as to arrive at the authentically human, at the authentic self. The procedure for such self transformation is connected to his talk of transgressing all limits and hence the necessity of cultivating for oneself various kinds of “limit experiences” (alcohol, fainting, exhaustion, heady literary effects of certain kinds of fiction, torture a la the Marquis de Sade, and–Foucault’s personal favorite–sado-massochism).

Once these limits are transgressed–and this is especially true for the absolute self-imposed limit experience of suicide–then one is finally free of all cultural constraints and is in touch with one’s “true self.”

Now, granted, this is not an example of traditional essentialism, where one identifies an object as a fixed instance of some genus or type of thing, hence having a fixed definition and classification. Nevertheless, there is a distinctively modern drive in Foucault to arrive at a final destination, a purely natural Ur reality, untrammeled by human culture, where one is free to be what one “truly is” (even if one is dead). (Note: it is clear to me in this context that the overall project of Derrida, who would never jump on Foucault’s metaphysical bandwagon here, is superior to Foucault’s.)

Contrast this zeal for pure nature with orthodox Christian theology, for which there is not brute nature and no brute human nature. For Scripture and tradition man is always-already conditioned and constrained by logos / language / culture / habit / politics,  by relationship with a logos-uttering God who is himself a community of persons.

For Christian theology there is no need to “peel back” all linguistic shaping, for there is no possibility of doing so.





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.







[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 ….


“Gender Fluid:” Men, Women, Elves & Dwarves

Near the end of (the film version of) Tolkien’s _The Return of the King_, at the final battle outside the dark gates of Mordor, the dwarf Gimli looks up at elf Legolas and says (something like), “I never thought I’d fight my last battle shoulder to shoulder with an elf, of all creatures!” To which Legolas replies, “How about with a friend?”

The category of “friend,” to Legolas’ (and Tolkien’s) way of thinking “runs deeper” than the demographic categories of “dwarf” and “elf.”

According to two Eastern Orthodox practitioners deeply committed for forming and nurturing virtuous Christians who can overcome their destructive passions by the grace of God in Christ, Saint Maximus the Confessor would say something similar … except that in this case the binary opposition is not “elf and dwarf” but rather “male and female.” Likewise the ground of unity that binds erstwhile antagonists together in a deeper unity, is not “friend,” but rather “priest.”

Maleness and femaleness in the thought of St. Maximus (thinking in the context of the Genesis 1 story and its development throughout the biblical narrative), is relativized by priesthood.

This, further, fits nicely into the ancient patristic conviction that “male” and “female” (what we late moderns would call “gender”) are fluid categories. Each one of us, that is, contains streams and dimensions of our soul (and our bodies) which are both “male” (such as the driving or insensive power) and “female” (such as the desiring power).

I might be more characterized by “maleness” than my wife is, but these are relative terms, and not at all fixed, static, or absolute.

Facebook has recently updated its “gender preferences” to include the category “gender fluid.” Odd though it may sound, such a development is consistent with ancient patristic theology, and, strictly speaking, a deeply traditional Christian, even on issues of sexual morality, could adopt this gender “preference” on her Facebook profile with complete theological integrity. Strictly speaking, all Chrisitans should.

I’m wondering, finally, if Facebook would be willing to add one more gender option: “priest.”


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/


“So, What’s your Dissertation About?”

The following is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, The Crucifer.

It happened again this week, just like it does every week.


Once again this week a dear friend in Christ and parishioner at Christ Church asked me about the academic side of my life. Often the form this question takes is “So, when do you finish up?”


What a joy it is to be engaged in real relationships within the body of Christ, and yet it is slightly awkward to explain to folks “Well, basically, it’s going to be a long time til I finish, especially since I just started the program a year ago.” Words cannot express the deep gratitude I have to the good people of Christ Church for enduring with me this long journey.


The form the question often takes, however, is, “So, what’s your dissertation about?” That’s how it happened this last week. So, I thought I’d take a few of paragraphs in the current issue of the Crucifer to articulate some thoughts about, and plans for, my doctoral dissertation.


I want to write about late medieval nominalism, which I regard – I’m just gonna come out and say it – as a bad thing.


You see, the medieval period is fascinating because, on the one hand, it is an extension of the classical world (think Plato & Aristotle), but with the radical infusion of biblical revelation and the ongoing response to that revelation which is called theology (think the Church Fathers & St. Augustine). At same time, it is an anticipation, in seedling form, of the modern era, the age of secularism. (For example in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose various of the Franciscan monks are rightly portrayed as men of modern, scientific knowledge and critical thinking … men who deplore baseless superstition.) Hence my bourgeoning interest in things medieval: this period is the joint or nexus which, infused with biblical revelation, connects the classical world of antiquity to the secular world of modernity.  


Now, what about “nominalism?” What in the world is that? As the name implies, it has something to do with “names” (which for premoderns basically means “words”) and hence with language. In the development of late medieval nominalism a suspicion began to emerge that the words (and categories) we use to talk about the things in the world have no real connection to those things. Rather, they are sort of “made up” or “constructed.”


Now, that might seem hopelessly abstract to you, but consider a very pressing contemporary issue. Just this week Illinois (by no means a “blue state”) became the 19th state to opt for full recognition of “same-sex marriage.” Now, there are layers upon layer to the complicated and taxing issue of gay marriage, but one of them has to do with language. Is the word “marriage” simply a human construct? What about the words “male” and “female”, which appear in Genesis 2?


If we “made up” those terms and their meanings, then surely we can revise them. If they are merely humanly invented, then surely they can be humanly re-invented.


A late medieval nominalist, if he were consistent, would heartily affirm our culture’s current willingness to re-invent the meaning of terms which historically have been regarded as crucial to the underpinnings of the political well-being of society.


If we can trace the development of late medieval nominalism, however, then perhaps we can expose its false assumptions and its arbitrary moves. This, then, could go a long way to restoring the connection between our words and the things they refer to out there in world God made, his good creation which, while fallen, is redeemed in Christ.


Charles Taylor & the “Two Speeds”

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the issue of the “two speeds” in the church. That is, at least since the rise of monasticism & St. Benedict, there has been in the church a kind of distinction between the ordinary “lay people” (Lat. laicus) and the more “spiritually advanced” members of holy orders, religious and “secular.”

What Taylor is doing in this book is (among other things) giving a kind of genealogical account of what intellectual and cultural developments led to the kind of secular world in which we live, in which (for example) atheism seems more obvious to people than historic Christian faith. The question is “How did the secular world come to be?”

One of the developments which Taylor points to is the attempt on the part of various and sundry reform movements, particularly throughout the medieval period, to “flatten out” the various distinctions among “religious” people and the ordinary secular folk. Of course, a primary movement like this is the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Now anyone familiar with Taylor will know that he is not given to brash, unqualified positions. Rather, especially in a work like this one, he tries to be descriptive and nuanced. Thus it is at times a challenge to discern the precise role he imputes to such movements, let alone to detect his final evaluation of them.

And yet, it is difficult to resist the c0nclusion that such reform movements played a complicit role in the rise of the modern world, and to the extent, then, that this book is a subtle and complex critique of modern secularism, such movements are viewed with suspicion.

This account resonates with me. It is easy for me to lay much blame for the contemporary marginalization of theology and church at the feet of the Reformation in particular, although for many years I subscribed to the opposite view that the original Protestant movements (and subsequent communities which were loyal to them, such as British Presbyterianism) could be viewed as a kind of “counter-Enlightenment,” almost like a reformed & renewed version of medieval Christendom.

Yet this has not been my position for several years now, at least since my conversion to Anglicanism. I cannot now resist the temptation to view the 16th century Reformation as an essential ingredient of the rise of western modernity, and Taylor’s point about the Reformation’s attempt to flatten out the “two speeds” makes a lot of sense to me.

And yet, I do agree with John Milbank and others in Radical Orthodoxy that this is an example of a movement which – however destructive and ill-conducted – was in fact reaction against a real problem in the Catholic Church. That is, the ultimate cause or problem is, as always, within the Church’s “own house.” (Note that RO and similar movements are, when at their best, not just a critique of modern secularism but also of the conditions within the church and within Christendom which gave rise to modern secularism.)

In other words, even if Taylor is right to criticize the flattening out of the two speeds, it does not follow from this that the “dual speed arrangement” was legitimate in medieval Christian culture. Rather, the resources were always there in the Church, perhaps, to overcome this false dichotomy and to empower all the faithful to live the life of Christ to the fullest, in the deepest possible ways. (Two possible counterpoints would be what some would regard as the failure of halakhic Judaism, and Paul’s injunction to celibacy in I Cor 7.)

To this end, I appeal to Scripture, namely the Psalms and the “new covenant” which is described in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.

The psalms are replete with a celebration of delighting in the law of the LORD, and this certainly does not seem to be limited to some “higher class.” Rather, all people chanted such Psalms as Psalms 19 and 119 in the gathered assembly of the Temple (note that it is the simple who are made wise by the law in Ps 19:7):

Psa. 19:7       The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;

Psa. 119:1     Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD!
Psa. 119:18     Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.
Psa. 119:29     Put false ways far from me
and graciously teach me your law!
Psa. 119:34     Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Psa. 119:44     I will keep your law continually,
forever and ever…. (ESV)

In addition it is difficult for me to envision some kind of “remedial level” of spirituality as compatible with the “new covenant” language of Jeremiah 31, which implies a full penetration of intimate “cutting” in covenant with the Spirit of God.

“And they will not teach each other or say to one another ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Heb 8:11, quoting Jer 31:34, NRSV)

Seems like “one speed” to me.