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

Which of the following visions for humanity is more accurate, more true, more desirable: A or B?

A: “Human beings are meant to enjoy deep, relational, holistic communion with one another.”

B: “Human beings are meant to co-exist with one another through the mechanisms of tolerance.”

How should we discuss Rod Dreher’s proposal of the Benedict Option? Even before the book is widely analyzed, I predict that most of the discussions will take place at a level that is unhelpfully superficial. People will talk about, for example, whether Christianity is “for the culture,” or “against the culture” employing the categories bequeathed by the 2oth century liberal Protestant Richard Niebuhr.   Yet few will dig deeper, and question the assumption that both of those stances share: that Christianity (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is separable from culture in the first place. The real need is to question the assumption that the Body of Christ (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is ever, in reality, acultural.

Aristotle wrote long ago that “knowledge of opposites is one and the same,” by which he means that two opposing species of intellectual positions often reduce down to the same common genus. Keynsian economists and members of the “Austrian School” both agree on a fundamental shared principle: the validity of political economy. But what if it is precisely this underlying assumption, this common genus, which needs to be questioned?

I will never forget a conversation which I had with a Tibetan Buddhist in the mid 1990’s. I was an undergrad  at U.T. Austin, and I was dialoging with a new friend of Asian descent. As an evangelical who had tacitly inherited a sort of “common sense realism” view of the world, I was asking him about what he regarded as true and false. But the discussion, over and over again, hit a brick wall. Since he would not, even from the very beginning, acknowledge my distinction between “true” and “false,” we hit one dialogical roadblock after another. More recently I found myself sitting on a bench in discussion with a practicioner of Harikrishna … and although the intervening two decades did supply me with more wisdom and better conversation skills than I had as a college sophomore, nevertheless I was reminded all over again of the stark contrast, the fundamental divide, between the Eastern and Western worldviews, or visions of reality.

It is no coincidence that religions such as Buddhism and Harikrishna are far more accepted in our American culture today than they were in the late 20th century. Part of their new plausability, I think, is that they are radically counter-cultural. People realize that our flattened out, “disenchanted” secular lives are neither sustainable nor desirable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or to quote Seal (thus dating myself yet again), “We’re never gonna survive … unless we get a little crazy.”

The teachings of Jesus, and the apostolic commitments of his followers about the Body of Christ vis-a-vis the systems of Ceasar, are crazy and strange at root. Dreher is operating out of a conviction that when one grasps the Faith aright, it is “made strange.”

It is precisely its “crazy” counter-culturalism which draws me to Rod Dreher’s vision. Many of us share the conviction, pace David Brooks, that Christianity is also, at root, radically counter-cultural. (Does this mean we can no longer go to Starbucks or that we are obliged to opt out of Netflix or boycott SXSW? No, not necessarily.)

Yet David Brooks and many others assume a tacit agreement, an easy compatibility, between secular, political liberalism on the one hand and the Christian religion on the other. (So much so that some can speak of “American civil religion,” and some even still regard it as a viable option.) Of course this assumption is not prima facie absurd: after all, both Locke and Jefferson were good Anglicans.

But it is precisely this assumption which needs to be questioned. It is an assumption laid bare by books such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, John Milbank’s 1991 Theology and Secular Theory, and Charles Taylor’s 2007 A Secular Age. (These books, with balanced, rigorous erudition, reveal how deeply the disease has penetrated, just how deep the rabbit hole goes.) All three resonate with the strange reality of  the “two cities” which Augustine develops in his magisterial City of God. Brooks, in opposition to all four, sees an easy compatibility between the City of God and the City of Man. At the very least all sides should admit that he stands in deep opposition to St. Augustine. St. Augustine, whose strangeness rivals that of a Tibetan Buddhist, from a modern American perspective.

It is this assumption of easy compatibility which David Brooks (like Niebuhr before him) holds in his article and adopts from a secular vantage point, but never questions.

I’d argue that historic, catholic Christianity differs from modern secularism kind of like harikrishna differs from common sense realism: they operate on entirely different registers of reality.

What would it look like to question this assumption of the validity of modern secularism? For starters, it could look like asking the the above question, Which is more desirable for humanity: A or B?

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

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

Sorry for the late response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Matt+
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God is not Angry

In a previous post, I wrote:

Thomas, in question 3 of the Summa, adumbrates the simplicity of God: that God’s existence is his essence, and that God has no (non-metaphorical) predicate that is not also his essence. If we can say “God is good,” for example, then it is necessarily true that God is goodness. So also for “one,” “beautiful,” “real,” etc.

Now given the doctrine of divine simplicity, the same move can be made with respect to anger. That is, if God is angry, then it necessarily follows that God is anger itself.

From here it follows that if God is not anger itself, then it is not the case that God is angry.

Now I’ve never known of a theologian willing to claim that God is anger itself. And there are many reasons for this, not least that this would “reify” or “hypostasize” anger, giving it an ultimate, uncreated ontological status completely independent of the Fall (of man & angels).

But do you see what’s going on? Since we know that it is not the case that God is anger itself, it necessarily follows that God is not angry.

Does Scripture (and the liturgy) speak of “the wrath of God?” Yes, it does. However, it is important to keep that strain of thought in its proper (marginal) place. It is true only in a distant and radically derivative sense. (I need to think more about this.)

One last note: notice that all of this presupposes the simplicity of God. In other words, it assumes the classical doctrine about God that, in particular, he is in no way subject to temporality (pace the likes of that “open theist” Greg Boyd and that “process theologian” Alfred North Whitehead and all their respective followers), which is wholly and completely a created thing. Otherwise, this line of thinking, which demonstrates that God is not angry, fails.

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Catastrophe & Clarity

For the last couple of days, ever since the election of Donald Trump to the office of President, I have felt like a character out of a Walker Percy novel. Whether Binx Boling in The Moviegoer or Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman is more apropos does not matter. In either case, the character gains a certain clarity from an impending (or presently occurring) crisis.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Nothing clarifies the mind like one’s impending death?” The dynamics of these characters’ lives is not far from that sentiment. Truly, Binx and Will could be called–to borrow a Percian phrase–“last gaspers.”

To what catastrophe do I refer in my own life? I am talking about the above mentioned election of a tyrannical thug to the office of U.S. president. It is crisis of the highest magnitude, even if, like a molotov cocktail, it might end up providing a much-needed rupture within a system that is badly broken.

The clarity which this catastrophe has brought in my own life is as follows. I render it in the form of a (more or less real) dialogue between me and a good friend, “N.”

Me: I feel like the election has allowed me to “put my finger on” perhaps the main reason why I’m drawn to the Roman Catholic Church, and will probably, at the very least, die Catholic. It is this: I currently have (almost) no “ideological” comrades in my church. There is not a significant community in my church to whom I can look and say “we are united in being ‘for the world, against the world.'”

N: That is okay. Ideology is mere opinion. As Anglican / Episcopal Christians who are also presbyters in the Church,  we are united in something thicker than ideas. We perform the divine service!

Me: Ah, yes! Thanks for reminding me of what is so easy to forget! Keep saying stuff like that to me please, bro. I do get it, and agree. But it’s so damn hard sometimes. But I do need to say that I do not regard Catholic Social Teaching as a mere ideology. And I guess that’s what I have in mind. It’s possible that I need to be in a church where I am in solidarity with others who uphold Catholic Social Teaching. Against the modern left, and against the modern right.

N: We have a similar catholic social teaching extending back to Richard Hooker. Let’s re-own that together.

My friend has a really good point. We Episcopalians (who are, of course, also Anglicans) do have a steady stream of social thought which finds a foundational  starting point in Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and which flows like an underground current through many and diverse thinkers such as John Neville Figgis, William Temple, F.D. Maurice, Kenneth Kirk, William Stringfellow, John Hughes, Rowan Williams, and many others.

Why is it, then, that this tradition, this stream of social thought, is so little known, much less understood? Why is it that when you do a Google search on “Anglican Social Teaching,” hardly one hit even registers? Things are not much better when you search on “Anglican Social Theology.”

Hence, my moment of clarity. (We will see if I still have it a year or so, when I finish my PhD.) I am actively thinking about, praying about, and discussing with trusted friends who are mature in habit, heart, and mind, the possibility of launching an endeavor after I finish my PhD.

After all, if our Anglican tradition is worth belonging to, then it is worth developing, fighting for, “living into,” and commending to a hurting world which in so many ways has lost its way.

I am prayerfully considering starting, even while remaining a humble parish priest, an NGO / “think tank” / community of research and promulgation, a project to inculcate Anglican social teaching within our crumbling Western culture. This endeavor would include a community of prudent scholars who would  develop and catalogue that body of Anglican social thought which exhibits the poverty of the modern partisan left and the modern partisan right.  If I said that the last page of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where he speaks of “waiting for a new St. Benedict,” together with the “Benedict Option” which takes this single page as a source of inspiration, were not ringing in my head and heart as a faint source of inspiration, I’d be lying.

Hence, my decision yesterday to purchase the domain name anglicansocialteaching.org.

Prayerfully, we shall see what happens. For now, I’m enjoying the clarity.

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Reformed Theology, Stoicism, & Virtue Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Trump, Marwa Balker, & Identity Politics

In this story, CNN.com reports on an “open letter” (in the form of a Facebook post) by California college-student Muslim Marwa Balker.

Ms. Balker is responding to the recent, deplorable comments by Donald Trump on the Muslim community in the United States.

Obviously Trump is an idiot. It is, however, Ms. Balker’s comments which I think need to be examined, precisely because the ideology they display is much more insidious, as proven by the fact that CNN holds her comments up as an example of model political speech.

Addressing Mr. Trump, Balker states: “Being Muslim does not make me any less American than you are.” That this statement seems natural and noble is obvious to anyone living in Western society in the 21st century.

However, one of my leading theological / philosophical lights, Michel de Certeau (sort of the Christian version of Michel Foucault) would say that Balker is reducing the difference of another to the same, to a false identity.

She is attempting to constitute one thing (American identity, identity as a U.S. citizen) as the whole. Certainly Trump is performing a different version the same attempt; of course “radical Islam” tries to do the same; admittedly the Church historically has been guilty of the same project.

For de Certeau, however (as articulated in his article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”) this move, this strategy, is not authentically Christian. de Certeau would call this “a false universalism that functions as a mask.”

When I say that I am a Christian first, a Texan second, and an American third, this is the sort of issue I am trying to allude to.

Ms. Balker is plainly an American first and a Muslim second. My stance, on the contrary, is that the only possible universalism is that of the “concrete universal” (Heidegger), in which difference is not eclipsed but lived with and engaged. Authentic Christianity, that is, life within the Body of Christ, really does make such an approach possible. The Christian church is the only (possible) concrete universal I know of.

As de Certeau points out, the existence of the four Gospels demonstrates the founding importance of admitting intractable difference: the Gospel of Mark is not saying the same thing as the Gospel of John.

Theology, as Milbank says, is (or can be) the “discourse of nonmastery.”

Modern liberal political philosophy, of the kind that Ms. Balker has swallowed uncritically, cannot make this claim; nor does it want to.

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Nietzsche & “Family Values”

When was the last time you heard a pastor or a conservative politician in America invoke the notion of “traditional family values”? Examples of this kind of rhetoric abound, and one quick example is this.

Question: if 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could hear someone (a pastor, a politician, a “think tank”) invoke this rhetorical phrase, what would he say? I’m pretty sure he’d say: “I won!”

In his editorial introduction to Nietzsche’s _Beyond Good and Evil_, Rolf Peter Hortsmann provides the following summary of three Nietzschean bedrock convictions as expressed in this book (pp xvi – xvii):

  1. “Life is best conceived of as a chaotic dynamic process w/o any stability or direction.”
  2. We have no reason whatsoever to believe in any such thing as the “sense” or “value” of life, insofar as these terms imply the idea of an “objective” or “natural” purpose of life.
  3. Human life is “value-oriented” in its very essence – that is, w/o adherence to some set of values or other, human life would be virtually impossible.

Commenting on this summary, Hortsmann continues: “Where the first conviction is supposed to state an ontological fact, the second is meant to be an application of the ontological point to the normative aspects of human life in particular. The third conviction, though somewhat at odds with the first two, is taken by Nietzsche to reveal a psychological necessity.”

Values, then, are for Nietzsche a way of coping with the senselessness of life.

Now, as Allan Bloom states in this lecture, no-one in the United States talked about “values” before Nietzsche; he introduced this language and rhetoric into our culture. Why, then, do conservative, evangelical Christians adopt a category which has as its foundation atheistic nihilism? Why do they speak of “values,” as in “traditional, family values”?

The answer to that question is complicated, but for me the most penetrating analysis would have to deal with the fact that evangelicalism, in addition to its frequent historical ignorance, long ago jettisoned the Church’s traditional language of the objective Good which is mediated by and embodied in the formation of virtue. It has become a thinly-veiled secularism.

If you lose the language and tradition of virtue (and by the way “virtue” was totally absent from my senior-year ethics class at a prominent Evangelical seminary in the year 2000; instead we focused entirely on “what the Bible teaches”), then you lose any objective basis for morality. And if you lose that, then right-and-wrong devolve into something like preference.

“My tribe’s ‘preference’ over yours:” this is not far from today’s culture wars. That the partisans in this struggle often resort to bullying and might-makes-right tactics (on both sides, including the “Christian Right”) is yet another symptom of the underlying source of the illness: that modern American evangelicalism has “given away the farm” to secularism.

 

 

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“Meritocracy:” Hypocrisy.

This past semester (Fall of 2014) in my Christian Formation Class at Christ Church, we participated in a class called “‘Dearly I Love Thee:’ Poetry & the Anglican Way” in which we considered the lives and work of several Anglican poets from Mary Sidney Herbert down through W.H. Auden.

I’ve always wondered about poets, in particular how they are “formed:” is their creative output more about nature than nurture? A popular view of poetry might assume so (and so did I for years) but over the years I have begun to sense that actually most Western poets are also steeped in history, literature, language (e.g. Greek and Latin), philosophy, and ancient intellectual “practices” such as the trivium and the quadrivium. Doing a christian formation class on such poets served (as all my classes do) as an opportunity to educate myself more.

One issue that kept coming up as we progressed historically from the 16th century to the 2oth was the historical development of popular democritization of literature, related to what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) discusses in terms of the “flattening out” of social space into “one speed.”

It’s a  familar story, one that gets worked into our psyches even from pop media and social media: hierarchy good, mass culture bad. Familiar, yes, but with noteworthy divergences including Marx, Nietzsche on the “left” and Leo Strauss on the “right.” Oh, and of course Plato, who in The Republic argues for the rule of wisdom (and the Philosopher King), over and against the likes of democracy, aristocracy, and timocracy.

Timocracy? Less familiar to us (as evidenced by the nonrecognition of my computer “spell checker”), but one of main political options for Plato. Timocracy means “rule by honor,” and is that system of politics by which the honorable rule. (We will “bracket” the issue of who gets to decide who the honorable are.)

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously reference timocracy outside of academic discussions of ancient texts. But most of us are, however, familiar with a similar concept: meritocracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. once quipped: “Let us judge a person not on the basis of his skin color, but on the content of his character.”

In last semester’s poetry class, discussing Eliot and Auden, one member of the group casually mentioned (as if it were a matter of obvious fact) that, in the 20th (and 21st) centuries, we no longer live in a hierarchy, but in a meritocracy.

Really? The latin verb mereo means “to deserve, to be entitled to” and meritocracy is a political arrangement in which those who “rule,” those who succeed, those to find themselves at the top of the political and social pecking order, have arrived at that pinnacle not by family pedigree (hierarchical aristocracy), not by “might makes right,” not by wisdom (philosophical rule), not by virtue of citizenship alone (democracy), but by virtue of their own merit. Their own meritoriousness. The powerful are at the top because they have earned it, because they deserve it.

Is contemporary America a meritocracy?

No way. My problem is not simply that this view is inaccurate. It is that, which is not to deny the qualified, relative virtue of our time over and against previous (pre-Enlightened) regimes and civilizations. It is, of course, better that voting rights not be distributed according to gender or race than that they are so distributed. Thank God for such progress. And one should freely admit that a poor person lacking social advantage can “make it” in today’s America much more easily than, say, in feudal Europe.

But to claim that those at the top today are there because they deserve it smacks of hypocracy. It is to ignore not only that the playing field is still not level, and to assign a moral inferiority to those who have not made it. I’d be willing to bet that most of the people who think we live in a meritocracy already find themselves at the top.

Perhaps worst of all, it smacks of rugged invidualism, in arrogant denial that any good gifts in my life (including honor and “merit”) are just that: gifts.

At the end of the day, I hope not to be judged by the content of my character. If that happens, I’m screwed. Instead, I will repent and strive to grow in faithfulness to Christ. And be thankful and humble for the gifts I’ve been given.

 

 

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If I don’t control my appetites …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Milbank on the Ethics of Plato’s _Republic_

Notes on Milbank’s Remarks at “Faith and Secularism: the Moral Resourcing of the Nation,”

held at Westminster Abbey in London, Nov. 12, 2012.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KpRvK9UgbU

As opposed to the tradition of virtue ethics, modern ethical theories tend to reduce down to deontological (ie, Kantian) approaches or utilitarian ethics. The former privilege freedom, particularly freedom of choice, and the corresponding importance of “human rights” construed in merely negative terms. The latter sees ethical goods as fundamentally measurable, and so the evaluation of political policies and so on reduces down to units of stuff.

Virtue ethics on the other hand insists that these things don’t really make us happy, they don’t really lead to human flourishing. Instead, the virtue tradition of Plato and Aristotle says that the kinds of activities that constitute our flourishing are contemplation of the divine, participation in the political life of the city, and the enjoyment of friendship.

Another key distinction between virtue ethics on the one hand and modern approaches on the other is that the latter focus on the performance of individual acts, whereas the former focus on the kind of character produced by a life lived over time.

Utilitarianism leads to an emphasis on auditing managerial solutions to ethics, while freedom-based approaches imply that as long as something is not against the law, it is fine.

Both Milbank and Hobbs agree on all of this. Yet Milbank thinks that Hobbs’ advocacy of a return to the ethical approach of Plato is “odd,” given the fact that in a pluralistic society which has been radically shaped by a) perceived violence stemming from the so-called wars of religion, and b) the concomitant banishment of the transcendent from all public discourse there is no way to adjudicate the different perspectives advocated in society, no way to agree on the common good or what humans are for (much less the wise means to achieve that end).

Hence, Milbank is arguing, a real return to Plato is mutually exclusive with secularism. For Plato, that is, religion, or the desire for the good / the true / the beautiful which is above reason and thus “guides reason,” is inseparable from his ethics. A return the Platon, Milbank suggests, involves a return to religion.

Religion, then, for Plato, is required to bring our passions and our thumos into order. Reason alone cannot do it. Morality is not simply a matter of self-control, with reason “being on top of the passions and thumos.”[1] Indeed, if morality were simply a matter of the hegemony of reason alone, that is the moral simply is the rational, then it would be perfectly moral (since it is perfectly rational) for a person to seek to amass as much power as he can. The pursuit of power is in this case perfectly reasonable and hence perfectly rational.

Rather, contemplation of the forms allows us to develop a sense of phronesis, by which we (intuitively?) know when and how to enjoy pleasure, to insist on our own honor & respect (including self-respect), etc. “There are no rules about this,” but rather it has to do with participating in something ineffable which we can hardly grasp. On this view religion has little or nothing to do with rules.

Not only can Plato not be rightly regarded as a “secular source of morality” but actually “there are no good secular sources for morality.”



[1] These being the three components of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul.

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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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Strange Table Fellows (Real Social Space)

One of the deepest joys & privileges of my life is the opportunity to oversee the work of planting and growing a college ministry on the campuses of Tyler, working hand-in-hand with Robert Finney. What we are beginning to see in this ministry is that, sometimes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes very strange “table fellows.”

In Acts 13 St. Luke gives us a beautiful image of the church at Antioch. He tells us that, among the leadership of this missional work, there was a striking degree of diversity. The elders of this church consisted of a hodge podge mix of folks from one end of the ideological / socio-economic spectrum to the other, including “Manean, a member of Herod the ruler,” on the one hand, all the way down to “Simeon who was called “Niger”). Note that “Niger” connotes dark skin, which meant then largely what it means now: not just social difference, but social inferiority. (This pecking order of dysfunctional brokenness seems to be well nigh universal: my wife Bouquet can tell you how, in her home country of Laos, lighter skin is highly favored, and I can verify that the same thing holds in Mexico.)

And yet, here they both are in Antioch, both Manean and Niger, serving side by side as utter equals in Christ to build and extend the Reign of God in Jesus Christ.

Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller points out that we see something similar Acts 16, where the Gospel meets and redeems both a financially successful, single,  entrepreneurial woman named Lydia, and a slave girl being trafficked by her abusive pimp.

Sometimes you just have to laugh. Robert and I spent a few minutes “busting a gut” this week, just reflecting gratefully on the motley crew of young people God is bringing to us. Students from a frankly fundamentalist background who carry all sorts of assumptions about Christianity and the world, sitting right next to students who literally have never heard of King David or Abraham, and who flirt with alternative sexualities.

And yet I am utterly convinced that this is what ministry in this time and in this place must look like.

Theologian John Milbank calls it “real social space,” where you belong at the table, not because you agree on some issue (predestination, gay “rights,” vegetarianism, or whatever) but because you are made in God’s image and Christ Jesus shed his blood for you on the cross.

This is how the missionary activity of the apostolic era is portrayed in the Book of Acts; this is how it must be engaged in today, when the culture is in many ways remarkably similar to that of the Roman Empire of the first few centuries after Christ.

In our Epiphany College Community we are, by the grace of God, introducing students to “a new way of being Christian that is really, really old.”

 

 

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Sign of the Times: Reason:Faith::Bezos:Moon::Post:Times

In his 2006 Regensburg address, Pope Benedict XVI (controversially and polemically) diagnosed the malaise of the modern west in terms of the separation of faith and reason (theology / revelation and philosophy) a development which one can see beginning in Avicenna, but which really developed in the late medieval period.

It is difficult to imagine a more apt symbol of this split than the ownership of the two leading newspapers in the nation’s capital, the political center of the planet’s sole superpower.

The leading newspaper in the capital city of planet’s lone superpower is now controlled by a dot com and one Jeff Bezos. Can anyone doubt that zombies are right around the corner?

Which is worse: the Moonies (who control the _Washington Times_ or the MNC’s (multinational corporations)?

It is difficult to imagine a more apt symbol of contemporary America, and  its separation of the “rationalism” of the global “free market” on the one hand, and the fundamentalism of modern religion on the other.

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Supreme Ct. on Gay Marriage: First Response

First blush response on the proceedings of the Supreme Court proceedings of Hollingsworth vs. Perry (available here): it is  astonishing how feeble the arguments of Mr. Cooper (representing the State of California in its opposition to gay marriage) seem, in the face of Justice Sotomayor’s cross examinations.

I am not saying that I agree with Sotomayor; I am saying that, clearly, in contemporary American culture, secular reason (that is reason which excludes the relevance of theology, which presupposes revelation)  has the upper hand.  It’s as if you hear the premises of Mr. Cooper and think to yourself, “there’s no way that’s going to fly.”

As many of us have been saying for years, this is a process that is already set going at the founding of the United States.

The point here, for now, is that this decision is a clarion call for Christians clearly to recognize that the US Constitution, and the political principles which undergird it, while it has been a limited “force for good” in the world, is, at the end of the day (like all forms of heresy) no friend of the Christian Church.

I would feel guilty for spending time on this, were it not for the fact that I plan to write my term paper on Thomas Aquinas and Law on this very issue.

 

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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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Delighting in the Arcane

I recently stumbled across something which truly animated my soul (to dabble in prolixity). ‘Tis the following, one of “twenty-four theses of Radical Orthodoxy:”

As much as the secular, most pietisms are disliked since, as advocating the ‘spiritual’ they assume there is a secular. Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.

Wow. I’ve long sensed myself to be something of an evangelist. Not the kind, of course, that stands on the corner of a crowded and intersection and preaches at the volume of many decibels (though I have done that … recently!).

Rather, I’m the kind of evangelist who cannot conceive of pastoral ministry, or any other way of being human, apart from building communities of worship in which people come to participate in “real social space,” centered on Christ, belonging just because they, we, are human. (How Holy Baptism relates to this must be addressed in a separate post.)

And yet I confess that I have always felt a certain tension between, on the one hand, this urge, this conatus, to commend a message and to invite into deeper community, and, on the other hand, my theology which resists the attempt to dumb anything down, to “be relevant,” or to make the Gospel easier or more palatable.

Hence my encouragement at the above quotation.

Suddenly it all makes sense. As CS Lewis reminds us, human beings are designed to praise and laud Something Bigger than Oneself, and this is necessarily a social phenomenon. We cannot sing the praises of a good film or a rich red wine by ourselves … at least not fully. We must tell someone else; we must share the experience.

And yet, the experience we must share must be “bigger than oneself,” lofty, grand, great, unattainable. It must be beautiful in mystery. It cannot be easily grasped or conveniently assimilated.

So it is that, paradoxically, the difficult, ineffable way of theology and the divine, advocated by such personae as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Rowan Williams, and those involved in Radical Orthodoxy lends itself most “naturally” to the zeal of the evangelist.

 

 

 

 

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Heresy, etymologically speaking

“Heresy.” It’s a dirty word, one that conjures up all sorts of gruesome images (most of them manufactured by Hollywood) of medieval brutes tightening the noose around the neck of some young, free-thinking, romantic rebel type.

Sadly, though, almost no one knows what the word actually means. Heresy is not, much to the chagrin of popular opinion, simply some “doctrine” or belief statement which “contradicts” the Bible or some creed or confession. Actually, one measure of Orthodoxy is that nothing can contradict it, for it affirms everything. Heresy, then, is not simply and unequivocally false, but rather it is always a “half-truth,” taking some element catholic faith and bending or twisting it.

Haireisis is the Greek term which means “choice.” Heresy is what happens when a person or a community looks at the full spectrum of catholic truth, and identifies one sliver of that truth (for example, the notion that the Incarnate Word is a human being, or that human reason has been impaired as a result of the fall of man), and then so emphasizes that particular “sliver” that all the other truths which provide its context get neglected or eclipsed.

In a recent post I claim that Bill O. is a heretic. What I mean is that Bill has rightly seen that what it means to be a Christian involves certain “truth claims,” for example the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” However, he so emphasizes this truth that other features of what it means to be a Christian are forgotten. All that matters is the propositions which one has in one’s mind, and these are essentially a matter of private preference.

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We’re all heretics, but Bill O. more so

In a recent “screaming match,” Bill O. claimed that “Christianity is a philosophy.”

What’s crazily ironic is that he is right, but not at all in the sense in which he means. What he means, it seems clear, is that Christianity is a belief system which functions at the level of ideas, and which is basically a set of private preferences which people have a “right” to express, given that (supposedly) the majority of Americans are still Christians in some abstract sense. At least this much can be gathered from this silly “interview,” linked to above.

What is ironic is that O’Reilly is spot on in stating that “Christianity is a philosophy,” at least according to Peter Leithart’s book _Against Christianity_, in which Leithart argues that what the apostles, whose words are recorded in the New Testament, were describing is not a belief system or worldview which one has in one’s head, but rather a set of commitments to Jesus as Lord which then binds one into a particular community of fidelity to one’s brothers and sisters. That is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ refers to a way of life, a set of commitments, and a particular community called “the body of Christ.”

Hence, Leithart is able to label “Christianity,” which (in Latin-based languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish) as an “-ism,” a gnostic-like heresy. Bill O., who technically is Roman Catholic, would thus be an adherent to this heresy.

None of this is actually that surprising, since the privatization of the Gospel is the heresy of our time. As such both of the talking heads in this interview participate in it.

I only have one real question from watching this video. It is pretty obvious me to that what motivates Bill O. to display his colorful antics (such as using the word “butt” as well as alluding cynically to his own exclamatory use of “Jesus Christ”) is the desire to boost ratings for the ultimate purpose of increased advertising profit. Hence he is in no way arguing in good faith, and should not be taken seriously. That is, Fox News is a pathetic cultural joke far less respectable than the kind of sophistry against which Plato and Aristotle combated.

Please note that I would say the same thing about msnbc, although one must admit that the latter is largely free of the hypocrisy which characterizes Fox.

My only real question is this: does Bill’s interlocutor (David Silverman, president of American Atheists), whose position is far more rational than Bill’s but equally partakes in the illusion of secular reason, take himself to be seriously engaging in public discourse? Or is he, too, self-consciously participating in the antics of ideological consumerism?

 

 

 

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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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Human Rights as a Sub-issue of the Gay Debate

My short summary of Alasdair John Milbank on human rights:

Prior to modernity, “rights” (Latin iura) were seen as the participation of persons in relationships of mutual, free associations in something objective. But with the advent of liberal political thought, rights become absolutely grounded in the subjective self in isolation from others. American political precedent is built upon these modern assumptions. Hence, “gay marriage” is perfectly rational in an American context which is built on the foundations of modern, liberal political thought.

I would add: if one is not prepared to challenge the foundations of American political theory (including the US Constitution), then one should not complain about gay civil “marriage.”

Two caveats here:

1. I do not mean to imply that the meaning of the word “marriage” (which is a sacrament of the Church) can be redefined. Indeed, I wonder why secular people even care about something called “marriage,” if not for financial reasons based in the tax code of the US. Thus, the church ought to disentangle itself from the state when it comes to marriage.

2. None of the above discussion applies to decisions within the Church with respect to issues around “homosexuality.”

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Statement of Intent (PhD Application)

In studying at the University of Dallas at the doctoral level, I hope to marshal the resources of the catholic western Christian tradition, particularly those of Aquinas but also Augustine, and bring them to bear on matters of contemporary thought.

I have come to see that the assumptions of today’s contemporary society are products of ideological forces which blow in the cultural “air” we breathe. These ideologies, in turn, are rooted respectively in a prior ontology. Hence, dealing with modern philosophy (genealogically or otherwise) is a matter of first importance. Identifying and understanding the arbitrary developments in the history of western thought which have given rise to these various ideologies, and pointing them out to others, becomes urgent.

I see three movements in the history modern philosophical thought in the west:

  1. The Cartesian attempt to found objective knowledge through the establishment of a stable subject.
  2. Kant’s building upon this foundation, giving rise to his “Copernican Revolution” in which the creation[*] becomes even more remote from the mind of man due to the conclusion that nothing of the creation can be known apart from the a priori structures of reality which imposed upon it by the knowing subject. (A subplot in this movement away from creation is the “second wave” of distancing in the thought of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, all of whom in their own ways posit forces external to the human subject which determine our assumptions, choices, and actions, and habits.)
  3. The postmetaphysical turn to language brings us up to the present moment, with dissident voices such as the neoHegelian Marxist Slajov Zizek resisting the likes of poststructuralist “hangers on” such as Judith Butler, the former attempting to bring us back to (a Hegelian) ontology.

To each of these chapters of the story, how would Thomas Aquinas respond? Where does he stand in opposition? In what ways does his thought affirm each movement, perhaps in a qualified way, perhaps with a “yes, but …”?

Of course, this effort on my part will require that I also (perhaps first) address issues surrounding the interpretation of Thomas himself. Is my current approach (imbibed from the font of Fergus Kerr and Henri de Lubac, filtered primarily through the prism of Radical Orthodoxy) the most compelling, the most comprehensive, the most historically attentive, the most theologically grounded?

For example, many people today have specific notions of their bodily self-image which are (arguably) empirically destructive (eg, perceptions of being fat or assumptions about sexual identity or practice). Where do these ideas and perceptions come from? They are not necessary; they are not (when scrutinized critically) obvious. This, it seems to me, is a significant “grain of truth” in the work of Judith Butler, for example. But what are the ideologies which hand us our self-images viz a viz our bodies?

Further, what are the ontologies in which these ideologies (and counter-ideologies) are rooted? This, it seems to me, is the first step in developing the resources to resist (some of?) these ideologies, and in this way to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:1-2).

My suspicion is that a non-foundationalist, yet deeply traditional, reading of St. Thomas would greatly help in this endeavor. Exactly how, however, I do not yet fully know.



[*] I intentionally use the theological term “creation” implying that philosophy without presupposing theology is a lost cause.

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_The Dharma Bums_ & Marxism

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

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

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

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

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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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