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.

 

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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).

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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.

 

 

 

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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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[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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“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.”

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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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“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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Descartes, Nature, & Imagination (Abstract)

The following is the abstract of the paper I will be submitting at the “On the Soul” Conference this summer at Oxford.

Mathesis Newly Imagined:

Descartes’ Univocal Construal of Nature

In Plato’s Republic Socrates cannot speak of city without, virtually in the same breath, speaking of soul. In his ethical works Aristotle takes the same approach by weaving culture and nature together: “The human being is by nature a political animal;” “Every city exists by nature;” and so on. So it is that the mainstream of the premodern tradition saw nature as culturally construed, but in a way in that is symbiotically related to culture in a mutually dependent way.

This classical approach to physico-politics is not only metaxological in this way: it is also highly imaginative. Thinkers from Aristotle to Coleridge not only constitute nature with explicitly imaginative features, but they freely admit to doing this. For Aristotle nature emerges with the intuitive recognition of a certain proportion between self and creature, of soul in the animals familiar to his everyday experience. Hence the self is like, for example, a bird, and nature is always already soulishly imagined. For Coleridge, nature is God’s creation, or the imaginatively invested analogue of the techne of the imago dei.

Then we have Descartes, arriving on the scene in the 17th century. In his Le Monde Descartes reimagines nature in two innovative ways: he imposes the requirement of a priori systematizability, and he reduces matter to the mathematically amenable corpuscular.

In this paper I demonstrate how, in these two moves and in the flattened out mathematical schema they support, Descartes collapses nature and culture in his newly minted mechanistic construal of the world, in a move which is the equal opposite of that of the sophistic separation of the two, as described in a recent article by John Milbank (“The Politics of the Soul”). When the mutual coinherence of nature and culture is denied, the result is a vicious oscillation between identity and separation.

I will also establish that Descartes’ final articulation of nature, unlike that of Aristotle and Coleridge, univocally and reductively lacks any appeal to the imaginative faculty of the soul. For Descartes we don’t need imagination to conceive of the world, though this does not imply that imagination is not a means to Descartes’ end, whether acknowledged or not.

Finally I show, with the help of Jean-Luc Marion and Pierre Hadot, how this reductive collapse, together with the novel doctrine of the potentia absoluta dei which enables it, issues in a cosmology which is wholly and merely theoretical, in which there is no reason to think that it describes the world which actually exists. Do we want to talk about a world that actually exists? If so, I will argue, then as a first step we must admit and embrace the constitutive necessity of the imagination in any construal of physics or cosmology.

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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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MacIntyre on Correspondence Theory

In his Whose Justice, Whose Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre exposes a common and deep seated fallacy by which the disagreements between modern and nonmodern thinkers are destructively exacerbated.

It is often claimed that the “correspondence theory of truth” is the opposing alternative to the “coherence theory of truth” in which what counts for truth is the logical consistency between (sets of) propositions. Indeed, this is one of very first lessons in philosophical thinking, I vividly recall, which I received in my undergraduate studies.

On this schema it is usually claimed that the correspondence theory of truth sees truth as obtaining when propositions about the world link up to and “correspond with” the facts of the world.

But this presentation of the issues, both for those who embrace such a “correspondence” view (usually people who are thought of as “conservatives”) and those who reject it (today, often  people who identify as “postmodern relativists”), is an arbitrary development which took root in the seventeenth century. In this era certain thinkers began to think of “facts” as things in the world which are absolutely independent of human language, a view utterly foreign to previous thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas (and, indeed, Cornelius Van Til, who taught that there are “no brute facts”). For these thinkers (possibly excepting Van Til) truth is formulated in terms of adequation mentis ad rem (“the adequation of the mind to the thing”).

For them, it is not propositions which “line up with” the things of the world, but rather the knowing mind, which is — or is not — “adequated” to the things of the world. Language, then, is always, already constitutive of both the knowing mind and the things of the world.

There is no extra-linguistic realm from which the knowing mind can judge the truth or falsity of language propositions. Rather, the way in which truth advances is through the ongoing, multi-generational work of tradition(s), in which subsequent generations reflect upon the thought of previous generations, in light of new developments (culturally, corporately, etc.) which pose challenges to previously held doctrines.

 

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St. Augustine’s Basilica of Peace
On the architecture and the spatial layout of the Basilica Pacis (Basilica of Peace) at Hippo, where St. Augustine ministered, William Harmless writes,
Its ruins were excavated in the 1950’s, and its floor plan – 41 yards long, 20 yards wide – makes it one of the largest churches uncovered in Roman North Africa. It lay on the outskirts of town, away from the central marketplace with its old pagan temples. The first thing one would have noticed upon entering Augustine’s church was the flicker of flames from small oil lamps, filling the interior with a golden glow. The basilica’s floor, like that of many ancient churches, was inlaid with bright-colored mosaics. There were no pews. The congregation stood, men on one side, women on the other. Services could draw packed audiences. “The great numbers,” Augustine once noted, “crowd right up the walls; they annoy each other by the pressure and almost choke each other by their overflowing numbers.” The altar, unlike that found in medieval and many modern churches, stood in the center of the nave and was surrounded by wood railings. At the basilica’s far end [east end, I am guessing] was a semi-circular apse, lined with stone benches where the presbyters sat. At the apse’s center, slightly elevated, was the bishop’s seat (cathedra). From here Augustine presided and preached.
– Harmless, William, S.J. Augustine in his own Words Washington, DC: Catholic UP, 2010.
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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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“Brother Ass:” St. Francis & this Mortal Body

I thought I had something on my blog about this, but I guess I don’t.

Gotta love St. Francis. This is from http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/francis.htm.

Because the body was meant to carry burdens, to eat scantily and coarsely, and to be beaten when sluggish or refractory, Francis called it Brother Ass. When, early in his new life, he was violently tempted, he threw himself naked into a ditch full of snow. Again when tempted like Benedict he plunged into a briar patch and rolled about until he was torn and bleeding. Yet before he died he asked pardon of his body for having treated it so cruelly; by that time he considered excessive austerities wrong, especially if they decreased the power to labor. He had no use for eccentricity for its own sake. Once when he was told that a friar so loved silence that he would confess only by signs, his comment was, “That is not the spirit of God but of the Devil, a temptation, not a virtue.”

Francis was reverently in love with all natural phenomena—sun, moon, air, water, fire, flowers; his quick warm sympathies responded to all that lived. His tenderness for and his power over animals were noted again and again. From his companions we have the story of his rebuke to the noisy swallows who were disturbing his preaching at Alviano: “Little sister swallows, it is now my turn to speak; you have been talking enough all this time.” We hear also of the birds that perched attentively around when he told them to sing their Creator’s praises, of the rabbit that would not leave him at Lake Trasymene, and of the tamed wolf of Gubbio—all incidents that have inspired innumerable artists and story tellers.

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Imagination & the Emergence of Modernity (a “Taste”)

 

Lots of people in my life (especially my wife Bouquet) are making some big sacrifices so that I can work on my doctorate in philosophy at the University of Dallas (even as a remain a full-time, active priest at Christ Church in Tyler), and that is deeply humbling. From time to time I look for ways to give them a little “taste” of the sorts of things I am doing, the sorts of things they are sacrificing for.

This is a paper I wrote this week in a class entitled “Philosophy of Imagination” about the early modern “projection of experience” and “construction of a new science of nature.”

Is the story of the modern imagination basically, or even largely, that of a transformation from passive imitation to active creation? Certainly much of the literature in the field posits such a transition. Douglas Hedley notes as much when he writes that many “histories of the imagination … present a shift from conceiving the imagination as essentially representing or mimetic to the productive or creative model of the imagination in the modern period.”[1]

While, as I will argue, one does accurately perceive a shift in this direction, significant exceptions can be found: Plotinus’ construal of the imagination was fiercely creative, while that of Hobbes’ was notably passive.[2] Further, one should note that Aristotle does put forth a kind of notion of productive imagination, hinted at in  De Anima III.10 (though nowhere else).[3] These exceptions notwithstanding, such a development can indeed be traced from the premodern to the modern period, specifically seen in the Enlightenment rationalism embodied by Descartes and Kant. (Plato, for whom the immortality or the reincarnation of the soul [eg, Meno 81b ff] is an assumption underlying his doctrines of anamnesis and maieutic education, conforms to this overall pattern, and is not an exception to it.)

However it is one thing to assert this claim, which I do, and something else to give an account of it. Before attempting to do so, I offer two brief caveats.

The first regards the approach of the British Empiricists (Hume, Berkeley, Hobbes) to the imagination and images. While I do admit that their construal of the imagination lacks the productive element of the rationalists (Descartes and Kant), at the same time I think that they are reacting to the same underlying shifts which “force” or prompt the rationalists to begin innovatively to impute to the imagination productive powers. Put rather simply, for both the rationalists and the empiricists the emerging modern world loses “the imitated” (or “the imitatable”). With the nascent rise of a new physics, seen most acutely in the displacement of Aristotelian form-in-substance by more mathematic and mechanistic conjectures of nature (I’m thinking of the trajectory from Copernicus to Kepler / Descartes), there is now no longer anything, so to speak, worthy of imitation, for machines and corpuscles[4] and mathematical formula are not as compelling in their attractive sway as are their ancient and medieval predecessors. The Enlightenment rationalist tradition, beginning with Descartes and then bolstered by Kant’s reaction to Hume (ie, Kant’s need to “save the appearances”), responds to the emerging cosmological physics differently than does the empiricist tradition (for the representatives of whom it is simply the case that appearances alone remain); both parties, however, are reacting to the same developments.[5]   To suggest that the human person imitates a measureable machine is to suggest that she herself is something of a machine: the British empiricists show a willingness to embrace this conclusion; the continental rationalists react against it by rejecting it.[6]

A second caveat, necessary for the first: it is understandably tempting to see Aristotle as more closely resembling or foreshadowing the modern loss of participatory imitatio than Plato, but this is not necessarily the case. It is true that, for Plato, the participated (or the participatable) lies “outside of” the soul more than for Aristotle. Hence it seems that for Plato one participates in something (this is true both in the Meno and in the Republic), whereas for Aristotle it is more accurate to speak of a mutual participation occurring between the knower and the thing known. This mutual participation for Aristotle works according the dynamic of identity qua form: the knowing mind and the object known are identical qua form. We will address the impact of the loss of form later in this essay. For now, however, suffice to say that while Aristotle’s gnoseology is more “imminent” in some ways than that of Plato, it nevertheless is equally as eclipsed by modern shifts in the metaphysics of nature as is Plato’s. “Form,” for each respective ancient thinker, might be quite different, but both are equally distant from the “universal mathematical physics” of Kepler, which seems to have played a key role in birthing the new perspective of the likes of Descartes and Newton.[7]

With these caveats behind us, I will now do three things: I will demonstrate that the modern approach to images begins with much the same framework of psychology as pre-modern thought does (here we take Descartes as representative); I will then elaborate on the ways in which Descartes and Kant project experience and construct a scientia of nature which innovates the received, antique tradition; finally, I will attempt more precisely to account for why this development took place historically in the way that it did.

First, we see that the emerging modern approach to images begins with much the same framework of psychology (or “faculty theory”) as pre-modern thought does. For both approaches, it holds that:[8]

  • · The sensitive powers involve at least an awareness of aspects of things.
  • · The intellectual powers proper operate at the level of universal concepts, abstractions, and generalizations, whereas the sensitive powers deal with sensory aspects of individual things.
  • · The “thought-like” activity of animals (which seem to involve memory) such as a dog burying a bone, are (for medieval thinkers) closer to the external senses than to the intellect (locating them, hence, somewhere within the internal sensitive faculty).
  • · Cognitive psychology is predicated on the division of sensibles into common sensibles (aesthesis koine, which can be communicated to more than one sense organ) and proper sensibles (certain things can be perceived only by the eye, for example).
  • · Thinking about such behavior in nonrational animals provides an impetus for thinking more deeply (intus legere) about the internal sense powers of the animal, including of the rational animal.[9]
  • · The sense organs infallibly receive the proper sensibles, although the reasons for or the justification of this infallibility differ between, for example, Aristotle and Descartes.
  • · Both have “an ontologically grounded epistemology.” This is so (among other reasons) because of “the remnants of corporeal magnitude” in the phantasm, for both, for example, Aristotle and Descartes.

With these areas of commonality in mind, one now must acknowledge that premodern psychology (that is, premodern “faculty theory” employed in order to account for how the mind can truly know objects) is incompatible with the emerging modern physics, particularly insofar as the latter gives measurement, mathematics, and discreet units a much larger and more constitive role in nature. Because of this, the major approaches to psychology must needs change. Two developments, in particular, now take place: the projection of experience and the construction of a new scientia of nature.

“Projection of experience” refers to a description of how our minds are connected to the things of the world. We see the beginnings of a kind of projection of experience in Descartes who, in Rule XII of the Regulae, posits that the only objects or realities which the sense organs receive are the “purely material natures” of shape, extension, and motion, a move which requires that that the ingenium supply other features, such as color, to the “objects” of our daily experience. Nevertheless this projection intensifies dramatically with Kant, who now internalizes his version of the Descartes’ perceived natures as structural features within the knower and transcendental functions of the imagination.

All of this is a far cry from Aristotle, for whom the communication of form metaphysically and mutually integrates the soul (including the imagination) and the things perceived.  It is also a far cry from Plato, whose transcendent condition of possibility for knowledge (seen specifically in the sun analogy of the Republic) now becomes (for Kant) transcendental, for now knowledge is made possible not by that which transcends the mind (thus providing an excess of meaning in which the mind participates), but rather that which structures and conditions the mind and its powers and functions.

In contradistinction to “projection of experience,” I understand “the construction of a scientia of nature” to be more of an evaluative and recommended method of theory and practice by which we learn truths about nature.[10] This development is seen more clearly in Descartes, given his intense focus on method, and so here I focus on him. In Descartes we see the transfiguration of an ancient approach into something similar-but-different, for Aristotilian form (that which is communicated to the intellect) becomes for Descartes a kind of abstracted “image” consisting of simple natures such as extension and shape.

At this point one must pause and mention Plato’s Meno, the text of which literally displays two-dimensional figures not totally unlike those found in Rule XII Descartes’ Regulae. The two sets of images, however, are fundamentally different. For in the Meno they serve as an imaginative work of creation employed to pedagogical purposes. In Descartes, however, they are his literal representation (albeit loosely affirmed) of the corporeal impression received by the sense organs.

While it is important to note that proportionality is included in the respective authors’ deployment of their respective sets of images, the additional salient point for the purposes of this paper is that Descartes’ representation is a kind of preliminary step toward his further developed mathematical rules which he lays out in subsequent works. Like the images of the Regulae (but unlike Socrates’s images in the Meno), these mathematical units are the actual constituents of reality, the actual stuff which of which nature is, for Descartes, composed. It follows, then, that if we are to understand, and indeed to master, nature, we must employ highly sophisticated, mathematical tools. These Descartes attempts to give us in his later works.

My final consideration in this paper is a remark about how this shift comes about historically.[11] My suggestion is that it comes about because of a loss of confidence in the power of words to denominate things in the world. That is, the genealogy of this modern shift is inescapably connected with late medieval nominalism.

Aristotle says that “nature is what happens, or almost always happens” (De partibus animalium 663b 27ff).[12] Notice the complete lack of concern, typically premodern, for whether we know things. Aristotle takes it for granted that we do … but why? He takes it for granted for a reason different than that of the medievals such as Thomas. For them the doctrine of creation, a theological doctrine rooted in divine revelation, is the guarantee that words have meaning. But Aristotle’s reason for indifference to skepticism has more to do with something like a kind of coherence theory. David Charles writes that for Aristotle,

Terms such as “man” or “gold” have their significance because they signify a distinct natural kind whenever they are coherently uttered. They could not retain their significance and apply to a different object or a different kind…. Aristotle developed his metaphysical theory of substance and essence to answer this question and thus to underwrite and legitimize his account of names.[13]

What lies between Aristotle and Descartes historically is late medieval nominalism, frequently and correctly associated with William of Ockham. Thus begins a loss in the confidence that universals are real things. If this confidence begins to fade, then it becomes much easier to negate the older metaphysics.[14]   Indeed if Aristotle’s metaphysics[15] are posited because words have meaning, then the emerging shift, rooted in skeptical mistrust of sense perception, approaches logical necessity.

In conclusion, I do think that, in terms of the construal of the imagination, a certain shift has taken place from a more imitative posture to a more productive stance, both in terms of the projection of experience and the construction of a science of nature. We can see this double development in Descartes and its extension and intensification (specifically with regard to the former) in Kant’s transcendental idealism. The primary driver in this shift has to do with emergent developments in physics, current at the time of these thinkers, especially insofar as these developments reconstitute nature and thereby eclipse the metaphysics of their antique predecessors.

 

Works Cited

 Charles, David. “Aristotelianism,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Gaukroger, Stephen. “Corpuscularism” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Hedley, Douglas. Living Forms of the Imagination (New York: T&T Clark, 2008).

Feyerabend, Paul. “The history of the philosophy of science,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Sepper, Dennis L. Descartes’s Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking (Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1996).

Turner, Denys. “On Denying The Right of God: Aquinas On Atheism And Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20:1 January 2004.

Stephenson, Bruce. Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).



[1] Douglas Hedley, Living Forms of the Imagination (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 16.

[2] Living Forms, 18, 51. In fact, as we shall see, the British Empiricism can be seen as a significant exception to this rule.

[3] I note that, as Sepper points out in a class lecture, that Aristotle’s approach here is far from a fully developed creative aesthetics of the imagination.

[4] I employ this term because some philosophers argue that Descartes was a “corpuscularist,” a claim the analysis of which lies beyond the scope of this paper. See Stephen Gaukroger’s entry “Corpuscularism” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 178.

[5] Hence, they are, in Aristotelian terms, “opposite sciences” which are really “one and the same” in terms of their common genus. Aristotle: “Eadem est scientia oppositorum,” Peri Hermeneias, 6, 17a 33–35. I am indebted to Denys Turner for this insight. Denys Turner, “On Denying The Right of God: Aquinas On Atheism And Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20:1 January 2004.

[6] This rejection, in turn, places the burden of proof, so to speak, upon the rationalists to account for how the mind can know the things of the world, which also entails the (now questionable) affirmation of the existence of such things (contra Berkeley).

[7] See Bruce Stephenson, Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).

[8] This material is taken from Dennis L. Sepper, Descartes’s Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking (Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1996), 14ff.

[9] Cf Descartes’ Meditation IV in his Meditations on First Philosophy.

[10] Though I hasten to add that both this projection and this construction are imaginative acts of poiesis.

[11] To specify what is perhaps already obvious, I take this account to be genealogical in nature.

[12] Paul Feyerabend, “The history of the philosophy of science,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 851.

[13] David Charles, “Aristotelianism,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 53.

[14] This metaphysics, it must be stated (though space prohibits elaboration), includes not just form-in-substance but also a four-fold (as opposed to the modern one-or-two-fold) account of causation.

 

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Naked Bodies, “Feelings,” & the Buffered Self

In his A Secular Age Catholic Canadian analytic philosopher Charles Taylor gives a detailed genealogical account of the rise of “the buffered self” (ie, an experience of personal subjectivity in which one’s fundamental identity is fixed, walled-off from external forces such as ghosts, black magic, peer pressure, and social convention, and which is seen as the result of one’s own self-disciplined character formation; the opposite of the buffered self is “the porous self”).

Taylor’s account is detailed and multi-faceted. Much of it concerns the emerging “rage for order” which we see in Latin Europe in the early medieval period, together with the concomitant shift from ethical “praxis” to ethical “poesis” — ie, a shift away from the older idea (which we find in the classical tradition of moral virtue — that we can nurture character through the practice of working out our inherent, god-given human telos, to the idea that we can impose an external ideal upon the human person and through discipline … not unlike, according to Taylor, to the modern scientific approach to exploiting the natural resources of the earth).

However I want to focus specifically on Taylor’s account of our relationship with the body and the culturally constructed ways of experiencing it, or “disciplining” it, which begin to emerge sometime around 1500. What emerged gradually is what Taylor calls “the disengaged, disciplined stance to self.” (A Secular Age, 136)

The stance is “disciplined” in the ways I allude to above. The goal is to impose an ethical ideal upon the human person, much as the goal of a black smith is to impose an external ideal (for example, a sword) upon a formless piece of metal. (Influential here are Stoicism, Descartes, and the “Christian” neo-Stoic Lypsius.)

The stance is “disengaged” in that there emerges a separation between the “self” on the one hand, and a “certain modes of intimacy … and bodily functions” on the other (A Secular Age 137). This disengagement from certain bodily functions gives us an utterly concrete case of the rise of the buffered self.

Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth. A book of 1558 tells us that it is not a “very fine habit” when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell. People are told not to defecate in public places. (138)

Taylor also documents the practice of the aristocracy regarding nakedness. It would not be uncommon, just before this period, for a duchess or baroness to expose her naked body to a servant, for one would feel shame while naked only in the presence of someone of a higher rank. “Kings would dress in the company of their courtiers; they would even sit on the “chaise-percee” [a commode chair] in company.” (140)

From here naked exposure and open bodily functions move to becoming taboo outside of a small circle of intimate relations. But this expectation is not “natural,” not written into the foundation of the universe, not a matter of natural law. Rather, it is learned and culturally conditioned. Taylor situates this development within the shift in early modernity to a more disciplined stance, in which the “true self” (that which is totally incorporeal in the human being, a kind of “ghost in the machine”) is distanced from and seeks to suppress or hide all exposure and contact to undisciplined, raw nakedness and unrefined creaturely performances.

This distancing or buffering goes hand in hand with a shift in how we understand “intimacy,” which here comes to refer to the dimension of shared feeling. This sense of intimacy “is part of our modern concept … in an age where the having of certain profound and intense feelings comes to be seen as central to human fulfillment. At this point in Western history, Taylor writes, “We are on the road to our contemporary age, where creating a harmonious household, having children, carrying on the line, no longer define the point of marriage, but this finds its main goal in an emotional fulfillment which is identified as one of the central human goods.” (141)

I think that this absolutization of feelings plays a central role in the inability of our contemporary western society to produce human beings who can successfully raise children (to allude to Stanley Hauerwas). That is, this absolutization of feelings, which plays a key role in the rise of the modern buffered self, is deeply relevant to the issues of divorce and “same sex unions,” two intimately connected issues, even if only the latter is currently under public discussion (within the church and without).

As an example, I appeal to  the rhetoric in a video of Bishop Gene Robinson (appearing on “Frost Over the World,” in conversation with the more traditional Anglican priest Lynda Rose) who appeals to his feelings and to some “inner core” of the identity of gay and lesbian people.

Please note, I find much of what Bp. Robinson says, but I’m trying to isolate one facet here of the gay issue — the absolutization of the “feelings” of the buffered self — and I think that his discourse is a good example of this. This “inner core” of (experience-derived) identity is, all too often, presented as inviolable, and it seems to trump scripture, tradition, and reason.

 

 

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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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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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The Three Comings of Christ (Advent, 2011)

Have you ever noticed how, in the Christian Faith, so many things come in “three’s”? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Peter, James, and John.  Faith, hope, and love.

Another “Trinitarian triad” which is especially relevant at this point in our church year is found in the Memorial Acclamation of our Eucharistic Prayer:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

I’ve long reflected on our confession of this “triple event” in terms of Advent, a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ. (Note that, in Latin, the verb venire means “ to come,” and the prefix ad means “to” or “toward.”) It points, I think, to the reality of the three “comings” of Christ, all of which require our preparation. Christ came; Christ comes; Christ will come again.

First, Christ came. He came to our hurting and broken world 2000 years ago as baby boy, born to a young teenage girl in Palestine. He came to an afflicted people, in desperate need of something, someone, to put their hope in. This first coming, when the God-man walked upon the pages of historical time and space, is something catholic Christians actively re-member every year in Advent. We relive it, we reimagine it, we prepare for it. When it comes to this, the “first coming” of Christ, what is going on is that we are preparing for the remembrance of a past event (not unlike the annual preparation for one’s wedding anniversary).

But, second, Christ comes. Every Eucharist, every time the Word is read, in fact every moment of our lives, God in Christ approaches us in loving relationship. This is true on so many levels we scarcely have time or space to discuss it. In my Christian formation class this year during Ordinary Time we spent many weeks discussing and practicing a form of prayerful reading called lectio divina, and this is why: Christ is always present, and yet the challenge and need is for us to develop and cultivate an awareness of that presence. Hence, we pray. We meditate. We contemplate. We wait. We listen. “Be still,” the Psalms instruct, “and know that I am God.”

Finally, Christ will come again. This we confess at every Eucharist in the words of the Nicene Creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” No man knows the hour, and few should claim to know the manner, but that he will return, we are absolutely certain. And though the details are hazy, we are told that he will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thes 5:2) Therefore, St. Paul admonishes, “let us not sleep, as others do, but keep awake, and be sober.” (1 Thes 5:5) Sounds like preparation to me.

All of this reminds me of a quotation from Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: “We imagine the past, and we remember the future.” The past, the first coming of Christ, is an event which renews and redeems the world, simultaneously bringing Israel’s story (for us, the Old Testament) to its anticipated climax. It is no ordinary event. It is the “axis mundi,” the pivot of history. It is, at the same time, the climax of our story, yours and mine. When we read about God’s people in the Old Testament, we are reading about our community, our selves. This is an event we are imaginatively to re-inhabit.

The future, in turn, is something we “remember,” for we have already been told how it will end. Putting aside all of those dense, thick commentaries on the Book of Revelation for a moment, we do see in the last two chapters of our Story a renewed community, celebrating the ultimate victory of God and his Lamb. We know, in other words, “who wins” in the end, and we know that our destiny is sure: to rest in and to enjoy our Three Person God forever with all his Saints.

We imagine the past; we remember the future. In so doing we are enabled more and more to live fully into the present moment, in which Christ comes to us continually and without reservation.

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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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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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Hauerwas on Evangelicals & “Making Christianity Up”

“Too often, American Christians think that they get to make Christianity up, but it is received.”

“As a Christian, I have no private life. That Jesus is Lord is going to make my life quite dysfunctional in relation to a good deal of American practice.”

Statements like these clarify my mind, and motivate me to press on in the same direction my pastoral ministry has been going for over a decade now. Statements like these are on offer regularly by Stanley Hauerwas, for example, here.

This is another good one, too. In this one Hauerwas states that, all too often, Evangelicals think that Christianity consists solely of the Bible and “now” … totally omitting 2000 years of history.

Wow. Having been in Tyler, TX for a year now, my mind is blown by the extent to which so many of the Christian folk around here (and these are evangelicals I am talking about) don’t even meet that deficient standard. Would that they valued the Bible!! I bet three times a week I hear a well-meaning Christian (whether they know I am a pastor or not) walk up to me and say, “God told me __________.”

“God told me to move to Tyler to start a ministry.” (That one, unsolicited, was two days ago, spoken by a complete stranger, in the park while I was pushing my three year old in a swing.)

“God told me to tell you that ________.” (This one happens about once a month, often from another Christian leader in Tyler.)

(I could go on, but I’m starting to feel kind of guilty and embarrassed.)

When it comes to theses statements I think, “OK, maybe.”

I don’t want to be a mere skeptic when talking with brothers and sisters. However, I’m pretty sure that 99% of the time this statement is based not on Scripture, not on deep intimacy with God such that one can “hear” God “speak,” but rather on self-interested emotion(alism).

 

 

 

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Tourist or Participant? (Religious Art & the Church)

At the gracious invitation of the Tyler Museum of Art, I recently gave a lecture there entitled “Christians Then & Now: Religious Art and the Christian Church.” This event was held in conjunction with the exhibit, “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

Abstract: “When it comes to approaching Christian art, there are really two different approaches. The first is the approach of the spectator, the tourist, someone viewing the art from the outside, as if the art were an object, an inert item. That is one approach, and it is an approach which I am going to suggest is connected with what one thinker calls ‘the disenchantment of the modern world.’ The other approach is that of the participant, the member, the one who belongs. What I suggest is that that approach … might have something to do with the ‘re-enchantment’ of the postmodern world.”

You can podcast the talk here.

(Note: the audio quality on the first couple of minutes is not great. My apologies.)

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Prayer: a life-long conversation with God

What follows is the statement of purpose for my Christian Formation class at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Tyler, Texas which will be offered in the Fall of 2011.

A conversation requires two parties, whose roles alternate between speaker and listener.

The firm conviction out of which this Christian Formation class on prayer is based is that prayer, according to Scripture and Tradition, is intended to be a conversation or a dialogue between us and God.

All too often well-meaning Christians today assume that prayer is, by definition, solely a matter of the Christian talking to God instead of talking with God, instead of engaging in a conversation with God. And yet, the Scriptures are clear: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10) implies a listening posture of silence. That God is “a still, small voice” (cf 1 Kings 19:12) suggests that God speaks to his people, but that in order to hear him we must be quiet, refusing to let our own “noise” (literal and otherwise) drown out his voice.

In this class we will be asking the question “What is prayer?” and we will see that there are a great many answers to that question. For example, Sister Benedicta Ward, SLG (Anglican Order of the Sisters of the Love of God) writes that, for the desert fathers, “prayer was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day; it was a life continually turned toward God.”

Indeed, prayer is so many things. And yet, the core conviction here is that as modern Christians we have lost the art, the practice, the holy discipline and comfort of listening for God. We are too busy, too anxious, too impatient, too distracted. And in the process of all this frenetic activity, we lose the joy of intimacy with the living God who speaks.

What should we do? It was the theoretical vision of John Calvin, and the practical vision of Thomas Cranmer, that all Christians were called to live the life of prayer which, in times past, was restriced to the monastery. That is part of the answer.

For the more of the answer we will listen to the wisdom of contemporary Christian leaders who have been particularly profound in their approach to prayer-as-listening. Among the writers and writings which have influenced me in this regard, and to whom we will be attentive in this class are:

  • Peter Kreeft, Prayer: The Great Conversation and Prayer for Beginners
  • James Finley, Christian Meditation
  • Henri Nouwen, various
  • Thomas Keeting, various

Join us this fall, as we consider how to listen for the voice of God in our daily lives.

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