PhD App: Intellectual Autobiography (rough draft)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Breaking Down the “Gay Issue”

Are you trying to figure out what you think about how to respond to the challenge which our “progressive,” modern, enlightenment culture poses to the church in terms of the gay rights movement?

Here are three (of many) sub-issues which must be studied and mastered. I suggest that when these issues are understood (when it comes to dealing with this issue within the church, not in terms of our secular culture and our modern nation-state) the “gay issue” to some extent dissolves and vanishes.

1. The “buffered self” versus the “porous self.” See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, and also here.

2. The rhetoric of individual, “human rights.” See Milbank’s article “Against Human Rights,” here.

3. The idolatrous, vicious character of market-driven determination of individual preference and identity construction. See William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed. Cavanaugh is also interviewed by Ken Myers here (much recommended).

Note that all three sub-issues above presuppose, on the “revisionist” side, a commitment to liberal philosophical individualism.

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Rob Bell’s _Love Wins_ in retrospect

So in my effort to review every chapter of Rob Bell’s _Love Wins_ I only succeeded in blogging about four of the chapters (although I did read the whole book).

This effort of mine took place in the context of a discussion group here in Tyler centered on the book, and on the issues raised by the book.

The discussions of this group of friends has enabled me to hit upon a “simplicity on the far side of complexity,” which, in some ways is what this blog is about in its entirety.

I’m not at all sure if believe in the salvation of _individuals_ at all. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure if I even believe in the _existence_ of individuals!)

What I DO believe in (sometimes this is the only thing I believe in) is THE CHURCH of Jesus Christ. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

I believe that this community of members of the Body of Christ is the New Humanity, and in that sense, which I think is biblical and ancient (though not modern, not secular, and not “scientific”), I am a “universalist” in the sense that it is this “new human race” that God is saving.

I strongly suspect that this is how St. Paul thought;  I am certain that this is how a great many church fathers (Ireneaus, Origen, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa) thought.

I think that Rob Bell is sort of “groping” toward something like this way of thinking, and this is why, on the whole, I really appreciate (and largely agree with) _Love Wins_.

Now, this is actually a radically different worldview from what most people hear about or think about or consider to be “Christian,” but, really, this is where I am coming from, and I think this is rooted in the tradition.

It is from this perspective that I have trouble at times with concepts such as “heaven” and “hell” in the normal way people speak of such things.

If human beings are actually not “individuals” but rather (as John Zizioulas thinks) members of community (that is, without relational community we literally do not exist … exactly like the persons of the Trinity, which I suppose is my “starting point” for all thought) … then it makes no sense to speak of “going to heaven [or hell] when you die.”

Rather, what makes ALL KINDS of sense is to speak of “new creation,” and “new heavens and new earth,” which is actually what the New Testament (along with NT Wright) does in fact speak of, if only people would actually read it.

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Gay Issues & Red Tories: Blond & Milbank

The recent announcement of the Obama administration has rekindled my focus on the explicitly political dimension of Radical Orthodoxy and indeed the Gospel.

I continue to hold that the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Defence of Marriage Acts is logically consistent with the political philosophy (secular as it is) undergirding the US Constitution (this makes me a “liberal”), but on the other hand that the breakdown of the traditional family will plunge our secular society into social fragmentation and chaos (this makes me a “conservative”).

Hat tip to my friend Collins Aki, who pointed me to this (for more see here):

Radical Orthodoxy seeks to revive a credal Christianity that was progressively obscured from the late Middle Ages onwards, and it makes that recovered Christian vision the basis of a systematic critique of modern, secular society. “Modernity,” Milbank has said, “is liberalism, liberalism is capitalism and capitalism is atheism.” The problem with secular liberalism, for proponents of Radical Orthodoxy, is that, in removing God, it loses any grip on the notion of objective moral truth. Secularism leads to nihilism, because it leaves “worldly phenomena” such as morality “grounded literally in nothing”.

Milbank is convinced that Blond’s latest incarnation as a political thinker is continuous with his earlier identity as a theologian, and that Red Toryism is merely the “political translation” of Radical Orthodoxy. “Part of Radical Orthodoxy’s argument,” he tells me, “is that since the 1960s a kind of non-liberal left has faded away somehow, and what you’ve got now is a left that increasingly defines itself in terms of secular liberalism. We argue that if you want to criticise liberal capitalism, you’ve got to realise that this is the form that secularity will take. Capitalism gets rid of the sacred. If there’s no sacred, everything will be commodified. We argue that you need to re-enchant the world if you are to criticise or modify capitalism.”

The practical, political differences between Blond and his former teacher – Milbank identifies himself as a man of the left – are less significant than their shared commitment to this theological vision. “Phillip has always seen himself as a Tory, whereas for me the political resources lie in a Christian socialist tradition,” Milbank says.”

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Anglican1000 Conference: some modest thoughts

A couple of friends have asked me to share my thoughts about this conference.

Anglican1000 is a yearly church planting conference (which just ended) which was held at Christ Church Plano, a parish in the northern suburbs of Dallas which left the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas a few years ago. (The rector, David Roseberry, who planted the church in the mid-1980’s and grew it to become the largest parish in the entire Episcopal Church when it exited that church body, then led the church into the Anglican Mission in the Americas, and then subsequently changed affiliations to the ACNA.)

Some thoughts:

1. Praise God for the missional energy and excitement which is spreading in this group. The planting of biblically-based local churches can only be good.

2. It was kind of a surreal experience, on the other hand, being in the midst of a group of folks who are forming a reactionary or alternative church body, in opposition to a more liberal one. This was the air in which I lived and moved and had my being for about a decade in the Presbyterian Church in America, including several years as a pastor. The temptation for such a new body to define themselves against the “apostasizing ones” is absolutely undeniable, as is the potential arrogance and self-congratulation which go along with that.

3. It was also surreal to hear Tim Keller in this group. Keller’s rich, nuanced, thoughtful, culturally savvy theological engagement (which I have been studying for a decade) was soaked up by them like parched desert soil soaking up a shower of life-giving rain.

4. I noticed a tendency in the group (there were perhaps 500 church planters and other interested parties in attendance) to push for a more confessional Anglicanism, something I had known about previously at a more theoretical level from Dr. Philip Turner, who has argued against a confessional framework against Stephen Noll from Trinity School for Ministry. Several folks with whom I spoke explicitly argued for this, the need for a more confessional commitment as something that will bind the church together in unity. I continue to think, however, that this is not classically Anglican, and, quite frankly, that this makes this group tantamount to the PCA (especially since one can find great liturgies all throughout the PCA).

5. Connected to #4 above, this conference has deepened my commitment to catholic liturgical practice as the only way the Church can withstand the onslaught of modernity. (To play devil’s advocate for a moment, the strongest argument against this posture is the global south: that is, a non-liturgical christianity could well outlast and outflank modern secularism by continuing to take root in Africa and other 2/3 worlds countries, which then continue to bring this evangelical faith back to the post-Christian west.) It is clear that for these Anglican brothers and sisters at this conference, it is not the liturgy which binds the church together in unity. As a result one sees wildly divergent ways of worshipping among the church plants and a longing for a more robust commitment to confessional standards.

5. I did attend one workshop during the conference put on by a group in New England (led by Bishop Bill Murdoch) that is embodying a “new monastic” way of practicing intentional community that was truly encouraging, motivating, and inspiring. God willing, I will implement some of these practices in my ministry, and the worshipping community that God is forming, in Tyler.

All in all, I am grateful to God for doing a new thing in this group, and that “denominational” disputes cannot stop the work of God in the world. However, as a liturgical catholic Christian who embraces a “communion ecclesiology” (along the lines of Rowan Williams, Radical Orthodoxy, the Windsor Report, and John Zizioulas) who enjoys the oversight of a godly bishop, I am glad I am not directly numbered among them.

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The Multigendered Body of Christ

Inspired by a recent Facebook post from my friend Cynthia Nielsen I am reminded of an amazing passage by Graham Ward in his Cities of God (tied for the best book I read in 2010).

The body of Christ is a multigendered body. Its relation to the body of the gendered Jew does not have the logic of cause and effect. This is the logic which lies behind those questions, ‘Can a male saviour save women.’ This is the logic of Hegel’s description of the relationship between God and the Church.

As one who disagrees with Ward at the end of the day on same sex issues in the church, I nevertheless find his logic here compelling.

In fact I often think of Ward and this book during the service of Holy Communion, at the altar rail during the Distribution of the Elements. Frequently I will give a consecrated wafer to a woman saying, “The Body of Christ for you, my sister,” but then, before I finish that phrase, I am now giving a wafer to a man, calling him “sister.” It is a powerful reminder / suggestion to me, enacted during the liturgy, of the way sex and gender are deconstructed in the church.

Of course what I’m saying here presupposes the theology of the Three-fold Body of Christ, promulgated among others by Henri de Lubac.

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Come Back, Anne

I’m saddened by the news of Anne Rice’s departure from the church.

Perhaps if she had the same view of the church that Graham Ward articulates in his CIties of God or that Rowan Williams describes in his recent work on Dostoevski, she would be slower to take her ball and go home.

Trust me, I know that living with people in the church with whom you disagree is difficult. But the church is an irreducible feature of the Christian life. It is an icon of God, that is, a participation in God, who is a community. It is the Body and Bride of Christ, such that to reject her is to reject him.

What the church is not, much to the chagrin of Anne Rice, is an “organized religious institution.” Not, that is, unless secular reason is our primary vantage point. Of course secular reason and secular culture (founded upon the former) will view the church as an “organized religious institution.”

But this is to view the church through a secular lens. An equally rational approach, however, would be to look at secularity through lens of the church and her scriptures. This is equally rational, but much more beautiful, much more mysterious, much more fruitful.

Christian community, centered on God’s Word and the breaking of bread in fellowship (yes, even with people who might make my skin crawl) is a — some would say thesine qua non of following Jesus and knowing God.

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_Cities of God_: Church as Erotic Community (ch 6)

In this chapter, the key point has to do with the nature of desire or eros.

In addition to reducing eros down to sexual desire (see previous post) secular modernity roots desire in an economy of lack or scarcity. So the reason I want something (a cup of coffee, a new pair of jeans, a relationship with another person) is that I lack this thing.

This economy of lack presupposes that the things of this world (including relationships and other people) are posessions to be controlled and consumed.

Christianity’s understanding of desire, however, is not at all rooted in this economy of lack. This understanding, which seems so foreign to our fallen and modern minds, begins with St. Paul’s situating the Church as in Christ, Christ being both the source of all things as well as the consummation of all things. If I am a member of the church (Ward’s “We”) then I am in Christ, there there is absolutely nothing that I lack. (I know this by faith which of course is penetrated through & through by reason.)

If this is true, then lack or privation which Augustine (as well as Hegel) connects to evil cannot be the source of my desire.

What, then, is the source of my desire? Here, as well as elsewhere, is where human language fails. Perhaps we can say that my desire is stimulated by my participation in God, or perhaps we can say that I desire the Other simply because the Father desires the Son (and vice-versa, throwing the Holy Spirit in the mix, too).

Or perhaps you could say what my wife and I have always said to each other in answer to the question “Why do you love me?” The only answer which satisfies the questioner is “No reason.”

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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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_Cities of God_: 2 Quotations from Greg of Nyssa

I am realizing that Graham Ward’s Cities of God is, among other things, a postmodern retelling of the theology (or perhaps, more accurately, the christology, which includes for him the doctrine of creation as well as that of the church) of Gregory of Nyssa.

He who sees the Church looks directly at Christ…. The establishment of the Church is the re-creation of the world…. A new earth is formed, and it drinks up the rains that pour down upon it … but it is only in the union of all the particular members that the beauty of Christ’s body is complete (Nyssa, On the Making of Man, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds) Gregory of Nyssa, Dogmatic Treatises etc. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979, 13, 1049B – 1052A).

… and again:

[The Church, the Spouse of Christ] is wounded by a spiritual and fiery dart of eros. For agape that is strained to intensity is called eros (ibid, 13, 1048A).

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_Cities of God_: Transcorporeality

Ward points out in chapter 3, “The Ontological Scandal,” that, much to the chagrin of the likes of Bertrand Russell and all other empiricist types, materiality (don’t forget that Ward is theologizing, or philosophizing, about bodies in this book) is transient.

That is, it arrives in the mode of a gift. It is not static; it cannot be stockpiled; it cannot be commodified and transactionalized.

Rather (and here is where secular postmodernists such as Derrida have trouble making affirmations), it exists in the mode of gift, “continually in a state of being gifted to us, animated by God” (89). That is, “nature cannot be natural without the Spirit informing it at every point” (88).

Consistent with this view is Gregory of Nyssa’s view that the materiality of creation is literally an energeia of God, a mode of Trinitarian dynamis, or power. For more on the energies of God, see here.

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_Cities of God_: Two Views of Language

In Graham Ward’s _Cities of God_ he does a good job (see chapter 3, “The Ontological Scandal”) of distinguishing between two kinds of speaking & “naming.”

One view, what we might call the “speech of man,” represented by the likes of the early Wittgenstein and British Empiricism, thinks that, through our language, we have direct control of the things of this world. (This presupposes all kinds of things, such as that our perception links up with discreet objects, which in turn presupposes an atomistic view that reality is primarily composed of discreet units of stuff, of matter. Both of these assumptions are at odds with Christian theology.)

The other view, which we might call “the speech of God,” is that we are creatures of God who speak not because we are in control of anything (or even that we know what we are doing) but rather because we are always already in a prior relationship with God and his creation. We speak and name because we cannot help it, in terms of efficient causality. We speak and name because we are images of a relational and speaking God, in terms of formal causality.

Two implications, both of which are key to Ward’s theology:

1. The “hermeneutic ontologies” of postmodern, continental philosophy (Vittimo, Derrida, Foucault, et al) seem to have much more in common with the Christian view than with the former view.

2. The latter, Christian view has a much greater openness to the “ontological scandal” prompted by Jesus when, gesturing toward a loaf of bread, he says, “This is my body.”

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_Cities of God_: _permixtarum_

I continue to be so grateful for the theological movement known as Radical Orthodoxy. It has scratched my postmodern itches, and given me a theology to believe in, especially as an Anglican / Episcopal priest.

One way in which this kind of theology in general, and Graham Ward in particular, encourages me is to remind me to be theologically humble and nonjudgemental, embracing the weakness and contingency of my own, and my church’s, theological claims about God and the world.

As is the case for theology in general, Radical Orthodoxy has its more traditional types, and its more revisionist types. Graham Ward, author of _Cities of God_, is clearly of the latter ilk.

And yet, I have long thought that there are two types of theological revisionists or theological subversives: those subverting from a position which is essentially outside the tradition, and those subverting from a position inside the tradition. I would rather not name the names of those (even within my own church) who fall into the first category, but Graham Ward, I think, falls in to the latter. Along with the likes of Origen and de Lubac, Ward’s sources of subversion are truly theological, and not secular.

To wit:

A holographic presence of St. Augustine permeates these pages [the pages of Cities of God] whispering of the two loves [amores] of which only one is holy, the other impure [immundus], the other sociable [socialis], the other self-centered [privatus] (Augustine). He whispers also of the two places in which these two amorous desires operate “the course of the two cities, the one heavenly and the other earthly, which are mingled together [permixtarum] from the beginning down to the end. Of these the earthly one has made for herself false gods whom she must worship by making sacrifice; but she who is heavenly and a pilgrim on earth does not make false gods, but is herself made by the true God of whom she herself must be the true sacrifice. Yet both alike either enjoy temporal good things, or are afflicted by temporal evils, but with diverse faith, diverse hope, diverse love, until they must be separated by the last judgement, and each must receive her own end, of which there is no end. About these ends of both we must now treat.” (Augustine, de civitate dei , Bk. XVIII

What a quotation. By the way, this quotation reminds me that the difference between Augustine’s two cities (the heavenly and the earthly, of God and of man), is not “good” and “bad” or “holy” and “evil” or “natural” and “gracious,” but rather “faithful / holy” and “fallen.” The point is that you cannot say that the City of Man is bad, since it is rather only fallen, potentially and in principle redeemed. It also falls short only to emphasize that the City of Man is natural, since as Augustine knew, the natural is always already charged, suffused, receptive to, divine grace.

The problem with the Roman Empire, the problem with the American Empire, is not that it is bad or natural, but rather that it is fallen.

Another thing. The heavenly city merely sojourns as a pilgrim on earth not because the earth is bad, or because the earth is going to “burn,” but rather because earth has yet to find her destiny as fully and finally permeated by that realm where God is fully present, that is, heaven. (NT Wright’s theology of overlapping dimensions: God’s and man’s.) To be a stranger on earth is, strictly speaking, to be a stranger on the earth which is not yet fully united to God’s realm. That is, it is to await the day when our earthly dwelling will also, fully and finally, be our heavenly dwelling.

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_Cities of God_: Analogical Worldview

In Graham Ward’s _Cities of God_, which after many years I finally have the leisure to focus on in an extended way (I’m on vacation in Seattle), he is forwarding what he calls the “analogical worldview.” Among other things, this perspective – shared by the Augustinian Christian tradition as well postmodern theorists such as Lacan, Foucault, Slajov Zizek, and the Jesuit Michel de Certeau – sees the things of this world (airplanes, bodies, hospitals, trees), as (a) text(s) which (like all texts) are culturally produced. As texts they call for interpretation.

Ward lays out six “shared characteristics” of “the analogical worldview:”

1. All human knowledge is culturally conditioned / mediated / embedded.

2. Human knowledge consists only in interpretation, not ontological claims. It does not claim to explain or even to describe.

3. Human knowledge, therefore, is indeterminate and open-ended.

4. There is no ideology-free zone.

5. Human beings have an “identity” which is open-ended and in flux.

6. Ontology is seen as “weak” or “hermeneutical,” as opposed to “a strong ontology of being as true identity.”

I love these six characteristics and am in full agreement with them, but I want to point out how they are all negative, or rooted in a hermeneutics of suspicion and finitude. That is, they are not actually theologically constructive. For that, Ward needs to be supplemented (as they do by him) by Milbank and Pickstock, who offer a theology of participation (rooted in neoplatonism) which “grounds” this analogical worldview in constructive, affirming, positive, cataphatic ways.

Put another way, in these six characteristics, Ward is making a much needed deconstructive move, but much more is needed than just this. The tradition, as non-identically repeated by Radical Orthodoxy, provides this “much more,” it seems to me.

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Gospel is Politics (again)

Graham Ward concludes his Cities of God with this paragraph:

We constitute and continue to prepare for what the Psalmist in Psalm 107 calls a “city of habitation.” The city of habitation gathers out of every land, receives those spirits who have sunk, rescues the troubled from their distress, satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. We make visible a theological statement about embodied redemption. The body on the street of [Austin] accuses me, calls out, not like the blood of Abel, for vengeance, but like the blood of Christ for justice, for a new relationality. Alone I have no answer to give to my accuser. I cannot begin to conceive how I alone can change the economic, the political and the cultural promotion of social atomism. And I am as seduced by the next person by the bright new goods in the tastefully lit windows — the calls to how I should look, should dress, should accumulate, should spend, should protect my own best interests. The theologian’s task cannot be one which provides the solutions. The matrices of power — economic, cultural, and historical — that brought about and continue to produce alienation, solipsism, incommensurate and unequal differences, are complex. The theologian’s task is to keep alive the vision of better things — of justice, salvation, and the common good — and work to clarify the world-view conducive to the promotion of those things. As such, the theologian prophesies, amplifying the voice of the accuser. But the theologian is also mother, brother, friend, lover, son, child, church member, neighbor, cousin, taxpayer, resident, colleague. Alone I have no answer to give to my accuser, and because of his or her own silence, his or her own degradation, then I can pass by and, muttering an apology, pat my pockets of loose change. But something in me dies with such a denial. And so I must find a way not to be alone before that accusation. I must find a way of not being paralysed by the accusation, and frozen into the condition of being permanently accused. I must speak. I must respond. I must not be afraid of the differences. And I must find a way of joining with those who are also ashamed. There is the beginning: the reappropriation of analogical relations, the delineation of a theological cosmology, the constitution of cities of God, the recognition that I only belong to myself insofar as I belong to everyone else — insofar as I have been given to this situation, in this context, with these questions, and this task saeculum saeculorum. Given, thank God, by God, in God, suspended….

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Postmodern Critical Augustinianism

My notes from John Milbank’s “Postmodern, Critical Augustinianism,” found in his The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009).

  1. Christian Theology is no more justifiable, no more rationally vindicated, than any other narrative or system. Thus theology is in full agreement with intellectual postmodernism, which is about a “thoroughgoing perspectival historicism” which sees all perspectives as “a strategy of power.”
  2. Note: “thoroughgoing perspectival historicism,” with which Milbank agrees, also relativizes all modern science, and all historical criticism (as someone like Dale Martin is quick to point out).
  3. So is this undecideability all that can be posited? Not quite: the difference between the nihilism implied by infinite, equally valid perspectives and Christian theology (which always lives the possibility of achieving an internal suspicion of “notions of definably fixed essences in its approaches to human beings, to nature, to community, and to God”) is that nihilism’s perspectival historicism necessarily enshrines conflict (Milbank’s “agonistics”), whereas Christian theology, rooted as it is in the practice and community of the church and in the Trinity, actually subsumes and incorporates difference. (Of course, in this way, the community of the church images the diverse community of Father, Son, and HS.)
  4. What makes this approach “Augustinian” for Milbank is the former’s analogy to music which we find in De Musica. Theology is “musical” in that the coordination of difference into a beautiful, harmonious whole. Also memory is key to music, since the various notes & parts only “work together” as we remember the notes & parts which give way to other notes & parts.
  5. What makes Christian theology interesting and perhaps different, however, is that it “can only be explicated by Christian liturgical practice:” “… The Christian God may no longer be thought of as first seen, but rather as a God first prayed to, first imagined, first inspiring certain actions….”
  6. Therefore, the only ultimate “foundation” for Christianity is (the liturgical practice of) its community, the church.
  7. Other than this, there is absolutely no superior validity or justification for Christianity, given modernity’s understanding of rationality.

Conclusions:

  1. Gospel is politics.
  2. Christian practice is prior to Christian theory.
  3. Any attempt to ground Christian theology (over and against any other perspective) which loses sight of 1 & 2 is doomed to fail from the start.
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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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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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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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Christianity & “Contamination”

Arnold I. Davidson (U. Chicago), in his introduction to the thought of the magisterial intellectual historian Pierre Hadot, summarizes a major theme of Hadot’s thought as “contamination.” (Philosophy as a Way of Life 4). Contamination is the idea that, seemingly from the very beginning of Christian doctrine, any “pristine” forms of thought quickly – if not immediately – get synthesized and meshed with “non-Christian” ideas, from such various sources as Greek mystery religions, ancient mythologies, neoplatonic philosophy, etc.

Davidson points out that for schools of thought such as Aristotelianism, Platonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism, this kind of “contamination” is a real problem.

But not so for Christianity, at least not in the same way. Why not? Because Christianity, from the very beginning, is always already contaminated. Just read Paul’s writings (and his life and times in Acts) in the NT. Christianity is already, just a couple of decades after the death of Christ, messily interacting with Judaism. And Paul opts, time and time again, for pragmatic ways and means: circumcising Timothy, taking on Jewish vows (in Acts, he does this not once but twice, the second time explicitly to show his Jewish detractors just how Jewish he is), etc. But, even prior to this, the Incarnation itself is already “contaminated.” God contaminates himself by taking on human flesh. Indeed, this kind of messiness is always already packed into the essence of the Christian religion.

Pluralistic diversity is at the very center and foundation of the Christian religion (not to mention the Christian God). May the denizens of pluralistic secularism come home to the true pluralistic community of the members of the body of Christ in the eucharistic community of the church.

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The Two Types of Tradition

There are two kinds of tradition which play important roles in the life of the church for the world.

First, there is (oral) “Tradition,” which, as St. Basil says, refers primarily to the handing down of ritual actions in the liturgical worship of the church. This kind of tradition is of course in theory subject to Scripture, though it is hard to imagine how it could “contradict Scripture.” On the other hand, there is a sense in which this kind of tradition is prior to Scripture in that, since time immemorial, it has conditioned the public reading of Scripture in specific, proscribed ways. The public reading of Scripture, in other words, is embedded or enfolded within this ritual action which is the church’s liturgy. (Scripture itself refers to this kind of Tradition.)

Second, a very different type of tradition is what Alisdair MacIntyre (and others) have described in the following terms (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue p 221):

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

In this latter sense tradition is an ongoing dialogue that takes place over large periods of time within particular communities.

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Peter Rollins & Liturgy

I have a great deal of respect for Peter Rollins. Both of his two recent books are provocative and stimulating. What I appreciate about him is that he brings his knowledge of “postmodern” theory (Zizek, Derrida, Levinas, and others) to bear on Christian theology. Rightly so.

However, when it comes to what I regard as “the great divide” in the Church and in Christianity, Peter Rollins falls clearly on one side.

One side says that our worship is an expression of our theology and our convictions. The other side says that worship is something that we simply inherit from the past (as tradition or in Greek paradosis, ie, “handing down”) and then (yes, critically) reflect on that received tradition and ask questions like “In light of this way of worshiping, what can we realize about God and creation?”

Rollins clearly lands of the former side. Which means that he, along with, perhaps, the rest of the “emergent movement,” thinks that worship is, at the end of the day, an expression of our theology.

I disagree. I, along with the bulk of the catholic tradition in both the east and the west, think that “the law of worship is the law belief.” Lex orandi, lex credendi. Our theology flows from our worship, and not vice-versa.

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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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