The Fecundity of Walter Ong

I am currently in the final stages of discerning a possible opportunity to begin doctoral work at the University of Dallas under the esteemed postmodern medievalist Phillip Rosemann. As a part of our ongoing dialogue designed to culminate in a final decision (mutually discerned) to apply to this program or not, Professor Rosemann invited me to read Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. In so doing he correctly perceived, on the basis of our discussions so far, a great interest on my part for texts and authors related to genealogy, or the intellectual developments which have led western society and culture down the road it has taken in particular toward secularism and modernity.

I must say that the Ong book is among the most original books I have read in a while in its fecundity and heuristic value, rivaling even Pierre Hadot’s work in its ability to shed light upon our cultural and intellectual predecessors, showing how they viewed the world and why.

Whereas much of Hadot’s work focuses on the “schools” of ancient philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.) and shows how they organically lead to major historical strands within Christianity, Ong takes as his point of departure the “pre-literate” culture makers of the Homeric poets and bards, whose description of the world, as is the case with all pre-literate (ie, oral) thought leaders, is decisively shaped and determined by the form of their discourse. In a world which knew nothing of writing (let alone an alphabet or still less moveable type and the printing press) their description of the world was cast in terms of formulaic units of text (eg, repeated patterns of subjects, verbs, and objects), repetition of events, epithets (eg, “crafty Odysseus,” “the wine-dark sea,” “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”). Just as important, their “genre” (to be horribly anachronistic) was epic narrative, which we would identify as closely related to poetry, given its conformity to strict patterns of meter or scansion.

This book reminds me of the phrase of Alfred North Whitehead who spoke of the “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” The explanatory power of Ong’s thesis (which builds on the work of, among others, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Milman Parry) to explain why the ancients described their world they way they did is staggering. For example, there is the simple matter of memory (a topic given ample attention by Ong). Why did the ancients rely so heavily of formulaic expressions, epithets and repetition in their rendition of important events? (Why, for example, is there so much repetition, say, in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 or in the Abraham cycle of the same book?) Why, further, did they not cast their reports in ways more amenable to the modern, “scientific” mindset? Before one delves into complex matters of historical development, there is the simple fact that they were just trying to remember the account being given. Think about life with no writing at all: of course “tools” such as repetition, formula, and epithet would be of great value. (Note that I am here presupposing that the Bible has an oral provenance which precedes its being committed to writing in the Hebrew language. This is an assumption shared by Ong.)

To take this a bit further, consider again the structure of the creation account of Genesis 1. Why is it structured in terms of six days? Given Ong’s thesis, it would be a great mistake not to include in one’s answer to this question that the communal guardians of the story were simply trying to remember an ancient narrative, to continue the story in the living memory of the people. This is the case regardless of whatever else one might want to argue about the creation story of Genesis 1, any account of Genesis 1 (seeking either to undermine it or to bolster its validity) must take these factors into account.

Briefly I want to list some other areas to which this book is particularly relevant:

I have already hinted at the area of Biblical criticism.

I have already alluded to the genealogical import of the book.

Plato. Ong highlights the deep ambiguity in Plato’s posture toward writing as opposed to orality: in the Republic he banishes poets from the city but then in the Phaedrus and elsewhere he extols the beauty and value of oral dialogue, complaining that writing will lead to a loss of memory.

Rhetoric. Ong shows how, paradoxically, rhetoric both presupposes writing (Aristotle could have never developed the loci communes without the mental structure afforded him by writing) and is eclipsed by (that especially intense form of) writing (known as alphabet-based moveable type). The Romantic movement, itself utterly dependent upon moveable type as well as a level of interiority which only a deeply literate culture could achieve, was the nail in the coffin of rhetoric.

Depth Psychology. In a fascinating discussion of Freud, Ong shows how the depth psychology which he spawned is utterly dependent upon literary developments which could only be achieved in a highly literate culture, for example the development of the round character. (The characters of oral narrative are by necessity “flat,” eg, Odysseus, Adam, Abraham.)

Derrida. In addition to interacting with Derrida’s reading of Plato viz a viz speech and writing (a crucial issue explored in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing), Ong masterfully, provocatively, and simply shows that what Derrida does is to downgrade oral discourse so that he does not have to deal with it. If orality is stricken with the metaphysics of presence, then Derrida is liberated to deal only with the written text, and to attempt to argue that the text is all there is. Page 162 is the best (and most concise) summary of Derrida I’ve seen.

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Soul Friends (Belonging before Believing)

I recently reviewed George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

The Celtic way of evangelism was all about bringing people into a new kind of community, through such practices as radical hospitality as well as “soul friends” (anamchara). Soul friends would engage the visitor or stranger in “the ministry of conversation,” and involvement in small groups of fellowship. In all these ways and more, the Celtic Christians practiced evangelism in a way which many “postmodern” Christians have come to embrace, that is, in recognition that many times “belonging precedes belief,” that before many people can begin to believe in Jesus, they must feel that they belong to a community of his followers.

This kind of evangelism, based in a ministry of hospitality, is (among other things) what we are doing in the Epiphany Community of Tyler.

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Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism (II)

In the second half of the book Hunter turns his attention to the ways and means of Celtic evangelism, and how such strategies might inform the way the church of the 21st century does evangelism in a western culture which is increasingly “post-Christian” (even here in Tyler … recall the Tyler Rose Marathon which was scheduled last year on a Sunday morning, a civic decision inconceivable a mere decade ago).

Hunter focuses on various ways in which the great Celtic missionaries (specifically Patrick, Columba, Aidan, and Cuthbert) and their communities planted and nurtured the Gospel in their respective pagan mission fields.

First, the Celtic communication of the Gospel took very seriously the ethos of the Gospel communicator (be it St. Patrick or the larger community of Celtic Christians), the pathos of the receiving communities, and the logos of the Gospel message. Patrick himself set the standard for a compelling ethos by providing the “authentic sign” (a phrase coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson) of risking danger and personal loss. Aidan continued this authentic Gospel witness by his lifestyle of selfless giving and his complete disinterestedness in material security. Additionally, the unique pathos of the Celtic people shaped the way Patrick and his followers shaped the Gospel message. The indigenous emotional intensity of the Celtic peoples, as well as their sensual way of approaching life molded the ways in which Patrick and his followers embodied and presented of the truth of Christ, as witnessed in the vibrant poetry and art which flourished in Celtic Christian culture. The logos of the Gospel to the Celts included aspects of biblical truth which would resonate powerfully with the imaginative Celts. For example, the former slave Patrick frequently spoke of how Jesus is the “ransom” price used to “purchase” the freedom of slaves … a different emphasis than the more “Roman” stress upon guilt and innocence.

“I have decided, after long deliberation about the English people … that the idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God. When the people see that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to … [worship] the true God.”

This directive from St. Gregory the Great, sent to his missionaries in Canterbury in the 6th century, captures well (even though written by a “Roman” leader!) a second Celtic aspect of evangelism: the instinct to built upon, rather than to destroy, the religious instincts of the people to whom they were bringing the good news about Jesus Christ. Citing the examples of the Celtic fascination with the number three, their practice of human sacrifice accompanying their obsession with death, of their deep sense of the divine presence within nature Hunter clearly shows how the ancient missionaries to the Celts built upon, rather than simply dismissed, many of the deep seeded drives, desires, and instincts of the Celtic people.

Finally, Hunter imaginatively speculates about the “Celtic future of the Christian movement in the West.” The upshot of this part of the book is that the contemporary church in the West must seek to understand and to befriend “the host of New Barbarians [who] substantially populate the West once again.” As we do that, and as we creatively adapt the ways in which our ancient mothers and fathers incarnated the Gospel to an analogous people in an analogous age, we will, by the grace of God, see “tens of millions risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them.”

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Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism (I)

George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism, published by Abingdon Press in 2000, builds on Thomas Cahill’s provocative How the Irish Saved Civilization, traces the roots of the establishment of the Celtic Church first among the Celts in Ireland by the Romanized Briton St. Patrick; then among the Picts in Scotland by the Celt St. Columba (using the monastic community of Iona as a missionary base); then among the newly arrived Angles and Saxons (think of the Rescript of Honorius, beginning the abandonment of Britain by the Roman military in 410) in now pagan England by St. Aidan (the monastery of Lindisfarne this time serving as the base of missionary operations). Finally, under the leadership of St. Columbanus, the Celtic way of practicing the faith was extended to many corners of the now “barbarianized” continent as well.

Unique features of the Celtic Church, according to Hunter, include the refusal to separate “lay people” and “clergy” for the purposes of doing ministry (resonating with Fr. David’s recent emphasis on the “grassroots origins” of the English Church and by extension of the Celtic Church); the wholistic nature of Celtic monasteries (they were more like cities, teeming with all sorts of economic, cultural, and religious activity, complete with families and children, as opposed to the standard picture of austerity and solitary reverence we get from more “Roman” monasteries); and the evangelistic practice of “belonging before believing.”

It is with this last feature of the Celtic Church (the idea that, both in the ancient world of the pagans as well as in our increasingly post-Christian world of the West, many people must belong to a community of Jesus followers before they are able to believe) that Hunter begins to apply the wisdom of this missionary movement to the (post)modern Western Church in our day.

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Diognetus: the Jesus Way (in the 2nd century)

Hmm. I really thought that I had put the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus on my blog a few years ago.

I’m going to read this in my sermon tomorrow as an example of how every particular story will produce a particular life style. This is the life style of the Jesus story. (What is compelling about the Jesus story is not its uniqueness, as Rob Bell argues here, but rather – among other things – the way of life it engenders.)

Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. The do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.

 

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Ancient Therapies & Human Suffering

In his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot writes

In the view of all philosophical schools [Epicureanism, Stoicism, the
Schools of Plato and Aristotle, the Skeptics and the Cynics] mankind’s
principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the
passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are
prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated
by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a
therapeutic of the passions. Each school had its own therapeutic
methods, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound
transformation of the individual’s mode of seeing and being. The object
of spiritual exercises is to bring about this transformation. (p 83)

A clear subtext of Hadot’s work is the analogous ways of functioning
between these ancient schools on the one hand, and the church (or
perhaps more specifically, monasteries) on the other.

If these schools were able to provide a measure of therapy to suffering
people through the transformation of their whole persons, how much more
the church, to whom has been given “the Spirit without measure” as
John’s Gospel says.

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Questioning our Worship (IX): “Baptism: why water, why babies?”

This is part 9 of a 10-part series.

When you hear the word “salvation,” what do you think of?

Many modern people, both in the church and out, imagine (in a way quite foreign to the thought world of the Bible) “salvation” to be some sort of mystical “zapping” of the soul such that, after the magic “zapping,” one now has an unbreakable and unquestionable connection to God.

On the contrary, however, when a first century Jewish person imagined “salvation,” he or she would have thought of images very earthy and mundane: lots of flowing wine, the fatted calf roasting on the altar, lots of children and grandchildren running around, good land to live on and to work, justice and mercy and material blessing for the poor and the outcast. One thinks of shalom, embodied life in the Kingdom of God.

It should therefore come as no surprise that, when it comes to “salvation” in the church of Jesus Christ (who, after all, was a first century Jew), such blessing comes to us through ordinary means: the vibrating vocal cords of a preacher, printed words on a page, bread and wine.

Baptism is a case in point. When God chose to create a rite to ingraft us into the community of God’s people, he chose water as a primary means to do so. Why?

There are too many reasons to list, but a perusal of the “Thanksgiving over the Water” in our baptismal rite (BCP 306) is a good place to start.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.

Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage

in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus

received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy

Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death

and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

Water is central to the creation story, the exodus story, the Jesus story … therefore it is central to our salvation story.

But now for a more taxing question: why do we baptize infants, in addition to adults?

In my Christian Formation class at Christ Church, we are discussing four arguments for infant baptism:

1. The argument from redemptive history: we perform this rite because an analogous rite was performed in the old covenant: circumcision.

2. The argument from ordinary means: if salvation is not a zapping in the heart, but rather comes to us through ordinary means, then this practice makes sense.

3. The argument from corporate solidarity: scripture teaches that salvation is primarily a “community thing,” and only secondarily and “individual thing,” so infant baptism should be seen in that framework, as a way of bringing a little one into the community of God’s people.

4. The argument from prevenient grace: if God chooses us before we choose him (as 1 John 4:19 seems to imply), then it makes sense that we have a ritual which gives expression to that fact, as infant baptism surely does.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.

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Where did “Halloween” Come From?

Happy (early) All Saints Eve!

Enjoy this excellent article by James Jordan on the origins of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve:

Concerning Halloween

James Jordan

It has become routine in October for some Christian schools to send out letters warning parents about the evils of Halloween, and it has become equally routine for me to be asked questions about this matter.

“Halloween” is simply a contraction for All Hallows’ Eve. The word “hallow” means “saint,” in that “hallow” is just an alternative form of the word “holy” (“hallowed be Thy name”). All Saints’ Day is November 1. It is the celebration of the victory of the saints in union with Christ. The observance of various celebrations of All Saints arose in the late 300s, and these were united and fixed on November 1 in the late 700s. The origin of All Saints Day and of All Saints Eve in Mediterranean Christianity had nothing to do with Celtic Druidism or the Church’s fight against Druidism (assuming there ever even was any such thing as Druidism, which is actually a myth concocted in the 19th century by neo-pagans.)

In the First Covenant, the war between God’s people and God’s enemies was fought on the human level against Egyptians, Assyrians, etc. With the coming of the New Covenant, however, we are told that our primary battle is against principalities and powers, against fallen angels who bind the hearts and minds of men in ignorance and fear. We are assured that through faith, prayer, and obedience, the saints will be victorious in our battle against these demonic forces. The Spirit assures us: “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly” (Romans 16:20).

The Festival of All Saints reminds us that though Jesus has finished His work, we have not finished ours. He has struck the decisive blow, but we have the privilege of working in the mopping up operation. Thus, century by century the Christian faith has rolled back the demonic realm of ignorance, fear, and superstition. Though things look bad in the Western world today, this work continues to make progress in Asia and Africa and Latin America.

The Biblical day begins in the preceding evening, and thus in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. Christmas Eve is most familiar to us, but there is also the Vigil of Holy Saturday that precedes Easter Morn. Similarly, All Saints’ Eve precedes All Saints’ Day.

The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: On October 31, the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.

What is the means by which the demonic realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thinks the devil really looks like this; the Bible teaches that he is the fallen Arch-Cherub. Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us. (The tradition of mocking Satan and defeating him through joy and laughter plays a large role in Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is a Halloween novel.)

The gargoyles that were placed on the churches of old had the same meaning. They symbolized the Church ridiculing the enemy. They stick out their tongues and make faces at those who would assault the Church. Gargoyles are not demonic; they are believers ridiculing the defeated demonic army.

Thus, the defeat of evil and of demonic powers is associated with Halloween. For this reason, Martin Luther posted his 95 challenges to the wicked practices of the Church to the bulletin board on the door of the Wittenberg chapel on Halloween. He picked his day with care, and ever since Halloween has also been Reformation Day.

Similarly, on All Hallows’ Eve (Hallow-Even – Hallow-E’en – Halloween), the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ – we have NO FEAR!

I don’t have the resources to check the historical origins of all Halloween customs, and doubtless they have varied from time to time and from Christian land to Christian land. “Trick or treat” doubtless originated simply enough: something fun for kids to do. Like anything else, this custom can be perverted, and there have been times when “tricking” involved really mean actions by teenagers and was banned from some localities.

We can hardly object, however, to children collecting candy from friends and neighbors. This might not mean much to us today, because we are so prosperous that we have candy whenever we want, but in earlier generations people were not so well o_, and obtaining some candy or other treats was something special. There is no reason to pour cold water on an innocent custom like this.

Similarly, the jack-o’-lantern’s origins are unknown. Hollowing out a gourd or some other vegetable, carving a face, and putting a lamp inside of it is something that no doubt has occurred quite independently to tens of thousands of ordinary people in hundreds of cultures worldwide over the centuries. Since people lit their homes with candles, decorating the candles and the candle-holders was a routine part of life designed to make the home pretty or interesting. Potatoes, turnips, beets, and any number of other items were used.

Wynn Parks writes of an incident he observed: “An English friend had managed to remove the skin of a tangerine in two intact halves. After carving eyes and nose in one hemisphere and a mouth in the other, he poured cooking oil over the pith sticking up in the lower half and lit the readymade wick. With its upper half on, the tangerine skin formed a miniature jack-o’-lantern. But my friend seemed puzzled that I should call it by that name. `What would I call it? Why a “tangerine head,” I suppose.’” (Parks, “The Head of the Dead,” The World & I, November 1994, p. 270.)

In the New World, people soon learned that pumpkins were admirably suited for this purpose. The jack-o’-lantern is nothing but a decoration; and the leftover pumpkin can be scraped again, roasted, and turned into pies and muffins.

In some cultures, what we call a jack-o’-lantern represented the face of a dead person, whose soul continued to have a presence in the fruit or vegetable used. But this has no particular relevance to Halloween customs. Did your mother tell you, while she carved the pumpkin, that this represented the head of a dead person and with his soul trapped inside? Of course not. Symbols and decorations, like words, mean different things in different cultures, in different languages, and in different periods of history. The only relevant question is what does it mean now, and nowadays it is only a decoration.

And even if some earlier generations did associate the jack-o’-lantern with a soul in a head, so what? They did not take it seriously. It was just part of the joking mockery of heathendom by Christian people.

This is a good place to note that many articles in books, magazines, and encyclopedias are written by secular humanists or even the pop-pagans of the so-called “New Age” movement. (An example is the article by Wynn Parks cited above.) These people actively suppress the Christian associations of historic customs, and try to magnify the pagan associations. They do this to try and make paganism acceptable and to downplay Christianity. Thus, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, etc., are said to have pagan origins. Not true.

Oddly, some fundamentalists have been influenced by these slanted views of history. These fundamentalists do not accept the humanist and pagan rewriting of Western history, American history, and science, but sometimes they do accept the humanist and pagan rewriting of the origins of Halloween and Christmas, the Christmas tree, etc. We can hope that in time these brethren will reexamine these matters as well. We ought not to let the pagans do our thinking for us.

Nowadays, children often dress up as superheroes, and the original Christian meaning of Halloween has been absorbed into popular culture. Also, with the present fad of “designer paganism” in the so-called New Age movement, some Christians are uneasy with dressing their children as spooks. So be it. But we should not forget that originally Halloween was a Christian custom, and there is no solid reason why Christians cannot enjoy it as such even today.

“He who sits in the heavens laughs; Yahweh ridicules them” says Psalm 2. Let us join in His holy laughter, and mock the enemies of Christ on October 31.

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Augustine on _Totus Christus_

From Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John:

Then let us rejoice and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members: the whole man is he and we… The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. Head and members, what is that? Christ and the Church (In. Io. XXI.8).

Thanks, David Thomas.

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Nigeria & Eliza Griswold’s _The 10th Parallel_

About a month ago I heard a podcast of “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross in which she interviewed both Eliza Griswold, daughter of former Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, as well as Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and 2010 Blandy Lecturer at the Seminary of the Southwest.

Sharlet has an article in this month’s Harper’s on homosexuality in Uganda called “Straight Man’s Burden” which is interesting reading.

After hearing the interview I purchased the book and started reading, largely to prepare myself for the upcoming visit to Christ Church Tyler of the Most Reverend Benjamin Kwashi, an Anglican archbishop in Nigeria. (God willing, I also have the amazing opportunity, at the Archbishop’s request, to travel to Nigeria next summer with a group from Christ Church.)

I plan to blog on this book over the next few days. For now, here’s a great quotation (from page 11):

Today’s typical Protestant in an African woman, not a white American man. In many of the weak states along the tenth parallel, the power of these religious movements is compounded by the fact that the “state” means very little here; governments are alien structures that offer their people almost nothing in the way of services or political rights. This lack is especially pronounced where present-day national borders began as nothing more than lines sketched onto colonial maps. Other kinds of identity, consequently, come to the fore: religion above everything – even race or ethnicity – becomes a means to safeguard individual and collective security in this world and the next one.

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A Collect for St. Augustine …

… whose feast day is today.

“Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

– From Lesser Feasts & Fasts

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_Cities of God_: Communities of Desire (ch 5)

I think (I hope) I might be reaching “a simplicity on the far side of complexity,” that is, a grasp of the big picture of what Ward is saying and doing in this book.

My dad & I have a long-standing argument over the question, “Is the world getting better & better, worse & worse, or something else?” It is easy, especially for Christians in the West today, to think that the world is getting worse & worse. However, what Ward (along with other practitioners of theological genealogy) shows is that the state of affairs we have today (I am thinking, for example, of rampant and dominating consumerism, and its many destructive effects) is really just a point on the trajectory of certain developments which have been happening for centuries now within modernity.

A few such developments are key to Ward’s thesis: the reduction of eros down to libidinal desire; the reduction of real community to transaction, then to imagination, then to virtualness.

These trends, along with the Hegelian and Freudian belief that the “nuclear family” is the building block of civilization, are all at work to produce the situation in which we find ourselves today: a culture in which we are determined in almost every way and at almost every level by the capitalistic marketplace which endlessly stimulates our desires, promising satisfaction but never delivering. (Worst of all, it is this dynamic which grounds most postmodern forms of community, or vestiges of community.)

However, what if we are at a “late point” in the history of these trajectories? For example, Ward shows how transactional community (seen clearly in the commodification culture of the Industrial Revolution) has led to imaginary community (ie, the formation of community, for example, in the modern nation state around nothing but the imagined belief that we are a real community), which has led to the virtual community which characterizes life today.

Well, what will this lead to? It is easy to see this as the last phase in modernity’s long project of the destruction of true community. If so, then that is good news, and perhaps we could say that, in this narrow sense, the world is getting better and better (or something like that).

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_Cities of God_: The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ

In this chapter / essay (chapter 4) Ward rehearses five movements of displacement, narrated in the Gospel stories, of the body of Jesus (we are here speaking of the soma typicon): the transfiguration (which shows that bodies can be transfigured), the institution narrative of the Eucharist (which shows that bodies can be transposed), the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension (in which Christ’s body is expanded to fill the entire church and cosmos).

I really appreciate Ward’s critique, in light of his “nyssan” cosmology of materiality, of Calvin’s view of the Eucharist, presupposing as it does the spatial location of the body of Jesus in heaven.

What Ward is doing, quite rivetingly, is starting with Christology and then developing from there a Christian cosmology. If Christ’s body is somehow iconic or paradigmatic of all creation (Col 1:15; Eph 1:10, 22-3) then this makes sense. And, as I have been saying Ward has a precedent in this effort in Gregory of Nyssa.

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Bishop Wright on Virtue

Followers of Bishop NT Wright (among whom I count myself, since he was a primary reason I left the PCA to become an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Texas) will know that his third (and final?) book in the series which began with Simply Christian which was then followed up with Surprised by Hope is called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, and is, among other things, the good bishop’s treatment of the Christian tradition of virtue.

This is good news, since (in my opinion) one of the most urgent tasks for the church in terms of its current vocation in our nihilistic culture of consumeristic emotivism is training the people in virtue, closely related to what the ancient church called paideia.

For a briefer taste of what Bishop Tom is up to here, check out this video lecture, given at Fuller Seminary a few months ago.

Here are some of my notes on this lecture:

For Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) which is our telos as human beings, is not something that “just happens” naturally. In fact, it is something which must be intentionally chosen, and then repeatedly put into practice, such that they eventually become “second nature.”

Nothing in this is inconsistent with how God graciously saves us and sanctifies us. As Reformed theology has always insisted, sanctification is synergistic.

NTW’s three proposals:

1. Rehabilitate virtue within Christian discourse, as opposed to Enlightenment and Romantic thought.

2. “Rethinking Aristotle into a Christian Key.” The eschatological vision of “new heaven & new earth” allows us to reframe Aristotle’s theory in a new and creative way, which other virtue thinkers have yet to grasp. Reframes “ethics” (as opposed to rules or consequence calculations, that is, deontology and utlitarianism / consequentialism) within the a theology of stewardship of creation. Substitute NH&NE (“new heavens & new earth”) & resurrection for eudaimonia.

a. The telos is the NH&NE, inauged by Jesus, and completed in the future.

b. This telos is achieved thru the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus.

c. Christian living in the present consists in anticipating the NE&NE through the Spirit-led practice of the acquiring of the theological virtues of faith, hope & love wh transcend & strengthen the cardinal virtues. These sustain our present existence which already reflect God’s healing & victory & glory of the future world. A true anticipation.

3. This challenges the church in such a way to sustain the mission to which it is called.

Pelonias in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”

Nobody knows the language of virtue as their mother tongue, but we do glimpse that country from afar from time to time, we pick up hints about how its language works, what patterns of brain & body are needed. The more we practice that language, the more easily familiar it will be.

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A Brief History of Translation: _arsenokoitai_

It is now clear to me that, in fact, there has been a significant shift in the translation of this Greek term in I Cor 6:9 and in I Tim 1:10. Wyclif’s translation in 1380 is “thei that don lecherie with men” (Webster’s definition of “lechery” is “free indulgence of lust; selfish pleasure”). Tyndale (1534), Coverdale (1535), Cranmer (1539), the Geneva Bible (1557), the KJV (1611), and the ASV (1901) render it “abusers of themselves with [the] mankind.”

In 1946 the RSV changed to “sexual perverts” and in 1973 the NIV translates it as “homosexual offenders.”

Dale B. Martin rightly describes this shift from a “reference to an action that any man [I would say “any person”] might well perform … to a perversion, either an action or a propensity taken to be self-evidently abnormal and diseased.” (Sex and the Single Savior, ch 3)

I think it is horrible to say that male-female sex & sexual desire is “normal,” while (fe)male-(fe)male sex & sexual desire is “abnormal.” This is not a theological statement. What is a theological statementis to say that male-female sex & sexual desire is creational in the sense of God’s creation-intent, while (fe)male-(fe)male sex & sexual desire is anti-creational, in the sense that, as a result of the fall, it runs counter to God’s creational intent.

Thus, I think that this 20th century shift in the translation of this term is deplorable, since it buys into the late 19th century view (documented by Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality) that same-sex attraction is a disease. It is wrong to allow such secular assumptions to creep into our translation of the Church’s sacred text(s).

 

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_Sex & the Single Savior_: Historical-Critical Method

 

This year (2010) I am redoubling my efforts to better develop (and justify) my convictions on same-sex issues. In addition to that, I strongly suspect that part and parcel with this process is a deeper grasp of the nature of Scripture in the Christian Tradition.

Therefore, I am reading Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior (2006) with great interest. Martin identifies himself as both a “reader-response” theorist and as a post-structuralist. He thus roots himself within two schools of thought from which I have learned much over the years, and which I think ought to be incorporated into theology in a non-reductive way. That is, theology ought to be open (as Radical Orthodoxy is) to both of these ways of thinking without granting them complete hegemony over Scripture, turning it into something which they alone can define and describe. For example, reader response theory rightly points out the role of the reader’s (or the community of readers’) interpretation for meaning. However to reduce the meaning of the text down to just this aspect (thus ignoring authorial intent and the text itself) does violence to meaning.

When it comes to the biblical hermeneutics of historical criticism, whereas I would want to recognize the legitimacy of this approach as a part of the total meaning of the text (seeing a pre-modern precedent in the sensus literalis), Martin wants to discard it completely.

Only thus can Martin deny that Scripture affirms the immorality of same-sex practice, which is one of the central goals of his book.

 

Martin rejects all attempts to justify the use of this hermeneutic approach theologically. For example, he rejects the argument that, due to the historical nature of the Christian religion (seen for example in the doctrine of the Incarnation), historical criticism is necessary or helpful for determining the meaning of a text.

That God took on flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazereth is unverifiable by historical study, says Martin. And I agree with him on this. However, the point of the historical – critical method (rightly used) is not to verify the claims of Scripture or theology. This would be to subsume theology under the standards of modern science. Rather, the historical – critical method is rightly used to shed light upon the original meaning of a text (be it author’s intent or original audience’s understanding).

So the Incarnation’s unverifiability (and resultant unfalsifiability) by the canons of modern scientific study is irrelevant to the validity of the use of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation.

For Origen, by way of contrast, the meaning of the terms employed by the ancient author (or authors, or redactor(s)) is helpful for understanding the original meaning of the text. This is not at all to say that the sensus literalis, was the most important sense for someone like Origen. On the contrary, Martin rightly points out that this is not the case. However, it is a crucial aspect of the full meaning of the text, and it is also first in order of sequence, serving as a foundation for other senses such as the allegorical sense.

Nothing Martin says in this book undermines such an approach.

 

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Luther on Predestination

I have been trying to relocate this Luther quotation for years, ever since my dad originally showed it to me from a service leaflet from his church, The Falls Church (Episcopal). It is vintage Luther.

When a man begins to discuss predestination, the temptation is like an inextinguishable fire; the more he disputes, the more he despairs. Our God is opposed to this disputation, and accordingly he has provided against it in baptism, the Word, the sacraments, and various signs. In these we should trust and say: “I am baptized; I believe in Jesus Christ; what does it concern me, whether or not I am predestined?” He has given us ground to stand on, that is, Jesus Christ, and through him we may climb to heaven. He is the one way and the gate to the Father. But when we begin in the devil’s name to build first on the roof above, scorning the ground, then we fall!…. I forget all that Christ and God are, when I get to thinking about this matter, and come to believe that God is a villain. We ought to remain by the Word, in which God is revealed to us and salvation offered, if we believe it. Moreover, in trying to understand predestination, we forget God, we cease to praise and we begin to blaspheme. In Christ, however, are hid all treasures; without him none may be had. Therefore we should give no place whatever to this argument concerning predestination.

A couple of thoughts about this:

1. The part about Christ, through whom we may climb to heaven, being the one way and the gate to the Father reminds me of a quotation I read recently by Hugh of St. Victor: “We travel to God along the road of God.”

2. For me this quotation of Luther’s vindicates the attempts of the “Federal Vision” folks in my former church, the PCA, in their attempts to develop a theology and practice which emphasizes visible means (evoked by the word “covenant”) over an undue stress on God’s election.

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Advent & Spiritual Sobriety

Why is it that Advent is not merely a time of mirthful exuberance? After all, the event we are anticipating and waiting for – the birth of Jesus – is a happy event.

Advent is, to be sure, a time of joyful expectation, but it is not just that. It is much, much more. It is tinged, it is colored with a certain sense of “Lord, have mercy on me.” Why?

To realize why this is, consider the attitudes of the two main figures which Christians have associated with Advent for the last 1600 years. First, consider John the Baptist, known in the Eastern tradition as “John the Forerunner.”

Was John exuberantly excited about Jesus? I am sure that at one level he was, but the impression we get is that John was also deeply shaken by the coming of this Jesus. He said, “When he comes, I will not even to worthy to relate to him as a slave would to his master: I will not even be worthy to untie his sandals.” He echoed the cataclysmic picture painted by Isaiah, a picture which is breathless in its anticipation of justice and salvation, but which also senses the shaking of the foundations of everything we think we know. When this Messiah comes, he will turn our worlds upside down; he will cut us to the quick.

Profound joy, mixed with deep and sober penitence.

Consider the Virgin Mary. Was Mary excited about the Redeemer of her people whose arrival was imminent? I am sure that at one level she was. But she was also barreled over with penitent humility. “How can these things be? … Here I am, your slave; have your way with me, according to your word.” Sure Mary was prostrate as she uttered these words to St. Gabriel.

Why this sober aspect of Advent? Because, to paraphrase Rowan Williams, when Jesus comes into the world it is unplanned, overwhelming, making a colossal difference. It satisfies out deepest longings, but we don’t know what it will involve, other than risk and pain, along with the restoration.

And so we can respond to Jesus by saying “No, thanks. I prefer my own darkness,” or we can say “Yes, I will take you, along with the risk and the pain.”

Either way, this is sobering if not scary stuff.

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The Names of God: St. Thomas on How Language Works

“The Names of God” in the Summa Theologica (Section 1.13 / Question 13)

When Thomas speaks of the “names” (Lat. nomen) of God, he means the words we use to describe God, including his “attributes,” such as “good,” “wise,” etc. (not just biblical names such as “Lion” or “Rock”). In the first section (1.13.3) Thomas argues that some of the words we use do, in fact, refer to God literally. Unlike some words such as “rock” or “strong” which are metaphorical in that they posit an analogy between God and creation, other words such as “good” are literally referential of God, even though they, too, Thomas admits, are derived from our understanding of creatures.

Literal, yes, but univocal, no, for “no name belongs to God in the same sense that it belongs to creatures.” (69) The definition of “wisdom” is dependent upon its referent. So it does not mean the same thing when referring to God as it does when referring, say, to a serpent. (Since this is the case, it seems like Thomas does not believe in univocal language at all [not just with respect to God]).

(Section 1.13.5) Words of perfection describe something in God which preexists what they describe in creatures. In fact any term of perfection, when applied to a creature, refers to something independent of the creature. For example, to call a man “good” is to invoke the objective reality of “the good” which is totally independent of the man spoken of. Not so with God, however. When we say that God is good we are not invoking some standard which God is then compared to and subsumed under. Rather, what we are signifying is not distinct from God’s “essence, power, or existence.” (70) So “good” here is not univocal: it means something different, or at least something non-univocal, when applied to God vis a vis creatures.

However, “good” here is not (purely) equivocal, either. Otherwise, we would have no knowledge of God, for language of God would always be guilty of the fallacy of equivocation.[1] Rather, language about God is analogical, since it is neither univocal nor equivocal.

Analogy functions in two ways. First, many things (two or more) can have a “proportion” (relationship?) to a third thing. For example, “healthy” can refer to urine or medicine, because both are related to a third thing: the body. Second, two things can have a relationship to each other. For example, “healthy” can refer to medicine or to an animal, since these two things are related to one another directly (ie, without a third thing). Our language about God falls under this second category. The two “things” are creation and God, and they are related in terms of cause. The perfections in the cause “preexist in the most excellent way.” (71)

Hence Thomas’ arguments about language presupposes his argument about causation, that God is the cause of creation.

Not just words are univocal or non-univocal. Agents (ie, causes and effects) are, too, since “the non-univocal agent is the universal cause of the whole series.” (My “gloss” on this: Thomas is saying that the cause “contains” the whole series. Hence its “meaning” must contain the meaning of all the effects, or something like that.)

Thomas has been presupposing that language and causality themselves are analogous or somehow related, and he makes this pruspposition explicit near then end of this section: “[This universal agent ] can be called an analogous agent, in the same way that in predication all univocal predications are traced back to the first non-univocal analogous predication, which is being.” (72) Bauerschmidt puts it nicely: “Whatever we affirm in our language involves a logically prior affirmation of some sort of being.” (72)[2]

Analogical language lies between univocal language and equivocal language. Hence our language about God is true, although it still contains an element of non-fixedness or perhaps ambiguity.

I find it interesting that, throughout this entire discussion, Thomas is speaking about God as if God were not incarnate. I am not suggesting that this is inappropriate. However, it does seem that in the Incarnation opens up whole new possibilities between God and man. For now, in Jesus, there is not an analogy between God and man, but a unity or an identity.


[1] Question: Does Thomas think that language is prior to thought, ie, that no thought is possible apart from language, and that all thought is in effect linguistic? I don’t think he thinks this. What “camps” of thinkers historically have thought this? (Phenomenologists?)

[2] So this means, then, that unicorns exist in some sense. (In the mind?)

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The Trisagion

During Advent at St. Richard’s we will be using the hauntingly beautiful words and melody of the Trisagion (“Thrice Holy”) during the first portion of the service of the Word (ie, during the synaxis)  in our Eucharistic services.

Quoting from Howard Galley’s The Ceremonies of the Eucharist (p. 81):

The Trisagion is a text drawn from the entrance rite of the Byzantine liturgy. It became widely popular, and was taken into regular use by many other liturgies, both eastern and western. The chief exception is the Roman rite, in which it is used only on Good Friday. The present Prayer Book is the first Anglican liturgy to include it. The rubrics (p. 406) provide that it may be sung three times, which is recommended here, or antiphonally, which is the traditional western method….

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Verse & Quote of the Day

“O Lord, you know all my desires,

and my sighing is not hidden from you.” (Ps 38:9)

“God is not the kind of father who casts off sick and erring children; if he were, he would have no children.” – Martin Luther.

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John Calvin: Anti-ritual?

Peter Leithart, in Against Christianity (p 89), writes

… Calvin was fatally wrong in suggesting that [the Roman Church’s] Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual per se. Calvin notwithstanding, the redemptive-historical move that the New Testament announces is not from ritual to non-ritual, from an Old Covenant economy of signs to a New Covenant economy beyond signs. The movement instead is from rituals and signs of distance and exclusion (the temple veil, cutting of the flesh, sacrificial smoke ascending to heaven, laws of cleanliness) to signs and rituals of inclusion and incorporation (the rent veil, the common baptismal bath, the common meal)…. Rituals are as essential to the New Covenant order as to the Old; they are simply different rituals.

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Curate Camp & “Postmodernism”

I am encouraged by what I experienced this last Thursday and Friday at our monthly diocesan gathering of curates. One of my new curate friends was telling me that I should read some contemporary author on politics and natural rights theory, and while doing this I could tell that he had a very negative view of “postmodernism.” As I heard him talk, I asked if he was influenced by Francis Schaeffer, and sure enough, he is a big fan.

This is the same basic conversation I have been having for almost 15 years now, so I thought I would just state what I mean by “postmodernism.”

What I mean by it is simply antifoundationalism. It is basically the admission that the modern followers of Neitzche, including Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard, have successfully put forth a genealogical critique of modern (and therefore, secular) ethics, showing it to be grounded not in some ontological reality but rather in various versions of a will-to-power. This move is known as a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Now,  “good postmodernists” both agree with these post-Neitzcheans, and disagree with them. They agree that there is value in genealogy as a way to see where so many of the conditions of our time which seem to us as “self-evident truths” actually came from, but they disagree that this history is just a chain of arbitrary transitions. Rather history is a story of “constant, contingent shifts either toward or away from … the true human telos.” (Theology and Social Theory 279)

The good postmodernists agree in the validity of an ontology of difference, but this difference is not necessarily violent, not “equivocal at variance,” but rather rooted, ultimately, in the difference within the Trinity and therefore within humanity (as image of God). This difference, then, is, at its truest level, a harmonious difference.

These two presuppositions of secular postmodernism (genealogical historicism and an ontology of difference), therefore are embraced and modified by us “good postmodernists.” The third premise of secular postmodernism, which flows from the other two, and is utterly rejected by Christian theology, is ethical nihilism. This premise is more complicated, since almost none of the contemporary or recent neo-Nietzcheans actually embrace this nihilism. Actually, they sneak in, through the back door, an ahistorical Kantian self whose freedom must then be protected by someone … someone, that is, with power. Thus, for these neo-Nietzcheans, “the protection of the equality of freedom … collapses into the promotion of an inequality of power.” (Theology and Social Theory, 279)

By the way, there are planty of foundationalists in the Episcopal Church, but there are a whole, whole lot more in the PCA.

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Hooker, Herbert, & “Contemplative Pragmatism”

More from Rupert Shortt’s autobiography of Rowan Williams, Rowan’s Rule (p 346-7):

“Richard Hooker … thought that the ordering of the household of faith required what Rowan terms ‘contemplative pragmatism:’ ‘pragmatic’ because sin makes the Church more muddled than the tidy-minded are prepared to allow, but ‘contemplative’ as well, owing to the ‘hidden action of God beneath the generally unbroken surface of the world’s processes.’ Hooker habitually warned his hearers of what an inexact science theology is. As Rowan reminds us, George Herbert gave a similar warning about spiritual experience. In other words, there should be room in the Church for those hanging on by their fingertips, as well as for the firm in faith.”

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Candler on Participation & Representation

In his Theology, Rhetoric, and Manuduction, Peter Candler “defines” participation and representation (p. 34):

By ‘participation’ I refer to an ontological principle by which creatures ‘are’ by analogy to the way in which God ‘is,’ but also the notion that sacra doctrina is a kind of scientia which participates in God’s knowledge of himself, and is therefore not something superadded to God.

And again,

Representation … is a matter of immediate apprehension by virtue of an exterior sign, and is removed from the variables of time and human communities. As such, representation is the fundamental philosophical and theological strategy of modernity.

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