RadVo Conference: 2 quotations & a pic

Tomorrow I have the great joy & honor of speaking at a conference sponsored by the Communion Partners. Humbling and so exciting!

I have been laboring at my talk for a couple of weeks now, and in the main I am excited about it. Since, however, I missed the deadline for lining up audio-visual support prior to my talk, I am going to post two quotations, which I plan to use in my talk here.

… Prayer … is the chief context in which the irreducible threeness of God becomes humanly apparent to the Christian. It does so because—as one ceases to set the agenda and allows room for God to be God—the sense of the human impossibility of prayer becomes more intense (Rom 8:26), and drives one to comprehend the necessity for God’s own prior activity in it. Strictly speaking, it is not I who autonomously prays, but God (the HS) who prays in me, and so answers the eternal call of the “Father,” drawing me by various painful degrees into the newly expanded life of “Sonship.” There is, then, an inherent reflexivity in the divine, a ceaseless outgoing and return of the desiring God; and insofar as I welcome and receive this reflexivity, I find that it is the HS who “interrupts” my human monologue to a (supposedly) monadic God; it is the HS who finally thereby causes me to see God no longer as patriarchal threat but as infinite tenderness; but it is also the HS who first painfully darkens my prior certainties, enflames and checks my own desires, and so invites me ever more deeply into the life of redemption in Christ. In short, it is this “reflexivity in God” this Holy Spirit, that makes incarnate life possible.–Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self, 42.

If same-sex marriages are indeed to be equal in every way to heterosexual marriages, then all reference to the creation of humanity as male and female will have to be excised from the teaching and liturgy of the Episcopal Church. It is entirely in keeping with this logic that the traditional preface to the marriage rite has been dropped in the alternative marriage rite adopted at the General Convention. The church cannot be called the bride of Christ without causing offense, and the maleness of Jesus is inherently problematic for the new teaching.
Before coming to the 2018 convention, I had not heard the news that when Jesus returns we do not know how gender will be expressed, if at all, in the glorified humanity that will appear. Apparently, in the new creation cisgender identity will, along with every tear, be wiped away.
The theology and doctrine of the church are like pick-up sticks or, as our Roman Catholic brethren sometimes put it, “a seamless garment.” If you change one doctrine, there are a host of other doctrines that must be changed as well in order to be consistent and coherent. — Leander Harding, “Being Disarmed.”
Also, here‘s some pics of the NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. (My claim is that, if one meditates on the rings of Saturn as captured in these photographs, one can appreciate the plausibility of neoplatonism–that the most real things in the world are not physical–at a deeper level.)
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Human Parts, Wholes & Souls: Some Clarfications

This past Sunday at Christ Church South we had a really fun “Sunday School” (aka, “Christian Formation”) Class during the 10AM hour, right before the service of Holy Eucharist. Fun, and riveting. It was a lively discussion, and I admit that some of what I said, some of the “dopamine bombs” I dropped, may have caused a bit of confusion. Hence some clarification might be in order.

Let me back up a bit.

Last year at Christ Church South, 31 adults were confirmed (or received, or “reaffirmed”) into the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Way of following Christ. What a joy it is to “do life” and to walk with Christ, together with these brothers & sisters in Christ, these new friends who share in our Eucharistic community!

And yet, Christ Church (in Tyler, Texas) exists and functions in the midst of a particular cultural context. One dimension of that context is that East Texas is what you might call the “Bible Belt,” or a particular region in the “Bible Belt.” This means that the dominant cultural assumptions in East Texas are shot through and penetrated by (a watered down) conservative, Protestant life theology.

Now, this is not all bad. Even conservative, Protestant fundamentalists are sisters and brothers in Christ, and, as a fellow follower of Christ, I rejoice in our common fellowship in the Lord. To be sure, the purpose of this blog post is not to denigrate or to insult these fellow believers in any way.

And yet, in order for me to clarify a couple of points which came up in last Sunday’s class, I must differentiate my position from some convictions which are held in some quarters of the conservative, Protestant, evangelical world. There are two areas, in particular, which I have in mind: the relationship between the human soul and body, and the issue of dichotomy versus trichotomy vis-à-vis the human soul.

First, the human soul and its relationship to the human body. Now, I don’t have time to write an entire tome on this issue (nor do I desire to do so). The specific claim I made yesterday, in the context of robust discussion surrounding the question of what “happens” to the soul after the death of the individual human person, is that the Hebrew language—the language in which (what Christians call) the Old Testament was originally written—has no term for soul. (Ironically, during the liturgy, the congregation read Psalm 116:1-8 together, and in one of these versed the word “soul” is used!)

I do not deny that English translations of the OT employ the word “soul” to translate a certain Hebrew term. Nor am I arguing that such a move is an erroneous translation.

The Hebrew term which is often translated as “soul” is the Hebrew nephesh. As is often the case, here it is wise to go back to the beginning of our story, and to attend to the very first (or at least one of the first) instance(s) of this term in the Hebrew Bible. I have in mind Gen. 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The phrase “living creature” here is the Hebrew nephesh haya. (The term nephesh is the same term which pops up in Ps 116:8.)

Gen 2:7, by the way, is “riffed on” by Paul in 1 Cor 15:45: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Here Paul is saying that Christ is kind of like the “new and improved Adam.” Now, the word for “being” here is the Greek term psyche (as in “psychology,” the logos of the soul). Paul translates—or rather he quotes the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of—nephesh in Gen 2:7 as psyche.

Paul uses a Greek concept, that of the individual human soul, the psyche, to communicate the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures. This kind of thing happens all the time in the apostolic teaching of the apostles, contained in the NT. It is worth remembering that it is the Greek LXX which the apostles—including the Gospel writers—authoritatively quote.

But the point is that psyche is a Greek concept. It is different from the Hebrew nephesh, which really means something closer to “life” or “creature” or “living thing.”

This is what I mean when I claim that the Hebrew language—unlike Greek—contains no term for our concept of soul. There is an important point to grasp here, and it bears upon questions such as “what happens to the soul after one dies?” To “cut to the chase” in this brief blog post,  that the Hebrew Bible has no concept of the soul is a cautionary warning, in my opinion, that we ought to beware of certain overemphases on the idea of the soul “going to heaven” when one dies. This is especially true when it comes to the sustained stress of St. Paul, a brilliant first century Jewish thinker who understood the Greek mind and also sat at the feet of Gamaliel, precisely on the resurrection of the body, not least in 1 Cor 15, the very context in which he quotes Gen 2:7.

The second point of clarification has to do with trichotomy versus dichotomy.

It was Charles Schofield, associated with the history of Dallas Theological Seminary, in the notes of his Schofield Study Bible, who did much to popularize the idea that the human person consists of three fundamental “parts:” body, soul, and spirit. I am confident that Pentecostal and charismatic emphasis on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit also plays into this, along a separate but related trajectory of thought and Christian culture. The result: most folks in East Texas just assume this position—that the human person is trichotomous—to be true.

And yet, none of the church fathers held this view. Neither did Thomas Aquinas. Neither did CS Lewis. Now, maybe Schofield and the Pentecostals are correct, and the weight of premodern Christian tradition is wrong … but I seriously doubt it.

The truth, in my opinion, is that there are many “parts” to the soul: spirit, heart, mind, will, memory, imagination, etc. But this does not undermine the fact that, in its most fundamental constituent parts, the human person is dichotomous, having only two parts: body and soul. Just as the body has many “subparts” (head, neck, torso, kneecap, eardrum), so does the soul (will, memory, etc.).

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How Hegel’s Wrong

In the oral component of my comprehensive exams in my PhD program (about 15 months ago), one of my examiners (in fact, my dissertation advisor, a man who cares deeply about theology) asked me if I regard Hegel as a heretic, and if so, why.

I said yes, but stammered out some half-baked reason as to why (something about hubris).

Thanks to some recent reading, however, in connection with my dissertation, I have identified two ways in which Hegel errs (nevermind, for now, the language of heresy).

First, something about Hegel’s God. William Desmond and Joseph Ratzinger have provided (or help me to come up with) some good wording. Hegel’s thinking about God leaves no room for overdetermination. That is, Hegel’s God is not truly an “other,” much less a sovereign, supernatural, totally transcendent other. He is totally grasped by Geist. Now, we must remember that the Geist which grasps God is God … but it is also human Geist, and so Hegel does think, at the end of the day, that man / human being / Hegel himself can grasp the concept of God, without remainder, that Geist’s concept of God fully captures the reality that is God.

And, as Desmond says in his book Hegel’s God, if that is how Hegel thinks of God, then it is not God (the God of Christianity) that he is thinking about.

Second, Hans Georg Gadamer, a thinker I’m finally getting around to appreciating (again, through dissertation research). Now Gadamer thinks–and I totally agree–that everything a particular person thinks is historically conditioned. That is, all of our thought takes place within a historical horizon. Further, even though much of the philosophical or hermeneutic task is to “lay bare” the features of this horizon of thought, we can nevertheless never fully do so. Hence, “our hermeneutic situation can never be made completely transparent to us.” Amen.

But that’s also precisely the problem with Hegel: he thinks that he has so risen above his historical thought horizon that it is completely transparent to him.

So, on these two fronts–one theological, one philosophical or hermeneutic–Hegel is “zero for two.”

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Verstand & Dianoia (in Bavaria)

I am having the most amazing time today in my room here at the Priesterseminar in Regensburg (though it is not completely free of various kinds of turmoil).

For years, I have noticed how the work or the process of dianoia is inherently taxing. It’s a ton of work. Not just that, but also it is stressful to the soul in a subtle way. For example, reading a dense text, or doing some kind of logical (or mathematical) proof, or learning a new language. It is the same kind of disturbing tedium involved in reading an owner’s manual when trying to assemble or repair some kind of appliance, such as a chainsaw, or searching Google to try to figure out how to do something on your computer such as editing a PDF or inserting the symbol for the currency Euro into a Word document.

Now, in my PhD coursework I became convinced that the opposite of this dianoia is in a certain sense what I call “intellect” or “nous” or “Verstand.” (CS Lewis has a relevant section in The Discarded Image; Also Plato’s divided line in Book VII [?] of the Republic.) For me perhaps the best way to characterize it is a “the moment of recognition.” It is when you have an “aha” experience and, either for the first time or in an act of remembering, you “see” something.

During my time in Munich, studying at the Goethe Institute, I was constantly oscillating between dianoia and Verstand. There were times in which I felt like I was existentially “in the weeds of William James’ ‘blooming buzzing confusion.’” During these times, for example, as I was trying to figure out the proper case ending for a dative masculine definite article, or trying to translate a paragraph containing many unknown words which I would then have to look up in the dictionary, I was unable—so it felt—to recognize anything. It was hell. But then, at other times I would have flashes of insight, recognition, in which I would suddenly “see” something, grasp something: a sentence from my instructor’s mouth, the dialogue of a video, etc. It was Heaven.

This whole dynamic—emerging from the blooming buzzing confusion into the state of recognition—has always reminded me of some scenes from the Matrix, just after Thomas Anderson’s celebral plug is pulled, and he slides down the tubular portals of existential chaos. By the end of the movie, though, not only can he dodge bullets; he can also kick the ass of the bad guy “on the back of his hand,” almost as if he is resting. This process is also, surely, closely akin to what certain thinkers mean by “waking up” or even becoming conscious.

When recently reading Nathan Jennings’s book, Liturgy and Reality (and discussing some things with him), and also while reading Returning to Reality and Bonaventure’s Hexaëmeron, I realized that, one of the riveting things about Verstand is that is occurs both before and after dianoia. (Actually, now that I think about it, I had realized this far earlier, since I have tried to teach this dynamic in various philosophy classes at UTT.)

The struggle for achieving the post-dianoetic Verstand—what Whitehead called “the simplicity on the far side of complexity”—is really the heart of my dissertation writing process. The goal of the difficult process of research is to achieve a vision of Ratzinger’s Bonaventure, for everything to “fall into place,” for the dissertation to “write itself.” I do think that this will happen—it has already begun to happen and it has happened in smaller-scale ways.

This pattern of dianoia—nous–dianoia characterizes:

  • the exit and return structure of neoplatonism & Bonaventure;
  • Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle;
  • “Meno’s Paradox” regarding anamnesis & searching;
  • Augustine’s divine illumination theory (exemplified in Bonaventure’s account of the creation of intellectual light on Day 1 in the Hexaëmeron).

This reality of Verstand, or Intellect, is also crucially related to faith, how Christian intellectuals historically have thought about faith. Faith is a kind of a recognition. It is the grasping of a gift, a word, a message, a vision … which originates not from one’s own mind or resources. It is not reason. Reason’s role—for example in both dogmatic and fundamental theology—is to take these gift-messages, and to work on them. To examine them, to string them together or synthesize them. To strive to approach “far-side” recognitions of simplicity. But the first move, that of Verstand, is the simple reception of the message, the recognition of it. This is the (the work of the) intellecus fidei.

On a more personal note: what I realized today in my Priesterseminar room is that, I can rest, very deeply, by engaging in Verstand, in particular the “pre-dianoia” Verstand. What I was doing was simply meditating on the Inhalt of a compilation of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. Even though I had to look up some words (such as “Vergänglicheit,” transcience) I felt like I was in heaven! Surely this is very closely related to the heart of true meditation, Christian meditation. Like the cow chewing the cud.

This is what I want to do with the Psalms, in multiple languages. This is what I want to do in the presence of God, with my heart, at the deepest level of my “ontological conscience,” openly, purely, freely, sensitively, listening.

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Desire above Reason (and Desire)

Any any student of philosophy knows, Plato and Aristotle both had accounts the human soul such that the soul can be seen as consisting of three basic “parts.” What’s more, even though the two renditions differ in important ways, in each case the respective thinker argues that, in some sense, human reason is “above” desire. That is, both Plato and Aristotle think that the flourishing of the human individual involves some kind of “program” in which reason’s  proper role is to somehow manage, control, oversee, or discipline human desire in all its manifold variety.

It has taken me a long time to grasp a certain way in which this picture, nevertheless, gets “tweaked” in an important way, at least by the mainstream neoplatonist tradition, and I’m shocked that I have not explicitly blogged about this before.

According to neoplatonism, and in particular Christian neoplatonism, while it is true in terms of traditional “faculty theory” that it is the  job of rationality to keep human desire in check, what’s equally true is that there is an additional kind of “desire” which is “above” both psychic faculties of reason (logos; ratio) and desire (horexis; epithumia; thumos). (Somewhat related to this is this.)

Now, why does all this matter, and why should you care? Two reasons: mythos and mysticism.

First, mythos. More and more, I’m convinced that for the Christian mythos is privileged over logos. That is, it is the Christian story into which we as Christians are called super deeply to delve. With the Feast of the Ascension ringing in my imagination (and its amazing collect), it is truly mind blowing to affirm that Christ ascended into the clouds, and then continued to rise beyond the ability of the disciples to see. Where did he go? The answer to this question, it seems to me, stumps rationality. And yet, it makes for a really good story, which is a way of saying that mythos is closely connected to desire. It is myth, over and over again throughout Christian intellectual history (according to folks like Bonaventure and CS Lewis) which supremely is able to stimulate (and satisfy?) Christian desire.

Second, mysticism. My nifty nutshell “definition” of a mystic is one who is convinced that God wants us to experience God. Not primarily to think about him, but to experience him. If this is the case, if the mystic is correct, then the central role of desire in the Christian life, occupying a position even superior to that of reason, is a very big deal.

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Truth Relativized (by time)

Are human beings sinful by nature?

According to philosophers and theologians, this question is an anthropological one, one which many traditional Christians (with a “low anthropology”) will readily answer in the affirmative.

However, if one affirms the innate sinfulness of humanity in this way, one is overlooking a crucial development of history (and thus of temporality). For surely any theologian worth her salt would not deny that man’s sinfulness is the result of what Christians call “the Fall.” But what is the Fall if not an event which (in some sense) has taken place in the world in and through time, an event which (in some sense) has come into being at a specific point in time, but which has no effect at all on the state of affairs which preceded it?

In other words, one can, with at least as much theological integrity, hold that human being is not sinful by nature, insofar as when God created man in his pre-lapsarian state, he was utterly righteous, utterly just, completely devoid of any defect at all.

Now, what is the point of all this, and why bring it up? I am attempting to write a doctoral dissertation on Joseph Ratzinger’s book The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure, in which the Pontiff Emeritus holds that, for the Seraphic Doctor, the logos of history is “first philosophy” (my wording, my gloss). For Ratzinger’s Bonaventure, that is, one cannot know truth, one cannot know what is real, apart from the revelation of certain “events” and their meanings–events which purportedly have taken place in the course of the history of the world. For example, that “in the fullness of time [Lat. plenitudo temporis] God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4).

It seems clear to me that this position–held by Ratzinger’s Bonaventure–is a version of philosophical historicism. It is an example, that is, of the intellectual position which holds that “being gives itself in time,” that, when it comes to human knowing, there are no “timeless truths” or “permanent things,” that one cannot know what is real apart from temporal events and developments, and their valid interpretations. (What constitutes such validity is beyond the scope of this brief article, as indeed is the question “what is time?”.)

The question “are human beings sinful by nature?” is a helpful “prompt” for reflecting on the temporality’s necessity for truth.

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Deep Anamnesis (in an age of Secularism)

Perhaps there are two kinds of people in the world: those who sense that reality is mystical and cannot seem to shake this intuitive feeling, and those who don’t.

Of the latter type, think of a secular thinker (Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins) who stands up and simply says, “There is no evidence for God.”

The former type, however, is not simply someone who has a new-agey sensibility. Rather, mystics are those who, among other things, remind us that we have forgotten. That is, a mystic is someone who respects the role of memory, or anamnesis.

Saying Morning Prayer this morning (Book of Common Prayer, p. 75), I prayed “Canticle 16,” the Song of Zechariah (BCP, 92), and a couple of things hit me afresh. About halfway through the song appear the lines

free to worship Him without fear / holy and righteous in his sight / all the days of our life.

According to great religious traditions of the West, from Christianity, Islam, & Judaism all the way to the mystery religions of the ancient near eastern Levant, and including the Pythagorean-influenced Platonism that in many ways forms a backdrop to the thought of the Church Fathers (for example), mankind or the human race was primordially positioned in relationship with God, already “worshiping Him without fear.” Whether this is articulated in terms of the Garden of Eden or the prenatal vision of the Platonic Forms, the primordial origin of humanity is one of communion with God.

Well, then, why don’t we modern, western people have any sense of this today? After all, I can’t see God, and there appears to be no evidence for him, or so it seems.

And the answer to this question, coming from the quarters of the the mystical religious traditions mentioned above, is, quite simply, that we have forgotten.

In Collation XV of the Hexaëmeron, speaking of the creation of the world in six days, Bonaventure writes:

The first age, resembling infancy, runs from Adam to Noah…. The first day symbolizes the first time, when light and knowledge were given to man; and this is infancy, which is erased by oblivion. So it is with everything that was done until the time when the Flood wiped out every animal except those that were named by Noah.

Bonaventure is arguing that, when it comes to the reality of God and our experience of God, we have forgotten.

If this is true, then centrally at issue in the religious (and philosophical) life is the task of remembering, recollecting, anamnesis. Hence,  the Song of Zechariah, again:

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.

What is this mystical experience? Among other things it is the realization that, “Oh, yeah, now I remember, now I get it…. we were created for communion with God … and by grace and faith and all of God’s gifts (reason, creation, Scripture), that is exactly where we find ourselves, right now.”

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Liturgy, Theology, & Economy

In his book Liturgy and Theology: Reality and Economy, Nathan Jennings argues for a connection between the liturgy of the Church and that culturally ineradicable activity of human civilization known as “economics.” The liturgy, in short, at every “level” of reality (God, cosmos, church, family, individual human body) is economy … an economy of not of transaction, but of gift exchange.

What I want to do, very briefly, in this little post is simply to point out that, in this claim, Nathan is following a venerable pattern in the history of Christian thought. In fact, this pairing, this sequence of “theology, then economy,” shows up in none other than the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. In his Aquinas’s Summa: Background, Structure, and Reception, Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P. writes:

This division [of the Summa] into two parts retrieves a distinction that is familiar to the Fathers of the Church between ‘theology’–the consideration of God in himself: Trinitarian theology–and “economy”–the work of God as it is accomplished in time, that is, salvation history. In fact, this is what the Prologue at the beginning of the Summa (Ia q. 2) announces: Thomas’ intention is to transmit doctrine concerning God, first as he is in himself (which is the object of questions 2 through 43 of the First Part); then as he is the principle and end of all things (this covers the rest of the word–not only the first, but also the Second and Third Parts).

 

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Secular Eschatology?

Other than Aristotle’s (and Nietzsche’s) “eternal recurrence of the same,” there is no such thing as a merely secular eschatology.

That is all.

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Truth, Justice, & Historicism

“The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” — Dr. Cornel West.

Depending on how seriously one wants to take this claim, it could be taken as an example of the veracity of philosophical historicism, that truth (or being) gives itself in and through time.

How so?

From a Christian perspective suffering is the result of what theologians call “the fall of humanity.” Were it not for the fall, there would be no suffering. But the fall is a temporal development, some kind of event (regardless of how “literally” one wants to take it) which takes place in and through time.

To put it as tersely as possible: no fall, no suffering; no suffering, no truth.

The fall leads to suffering, and the acknowledgment of suffering is a necessary condition for truth (in our fallen world).

That such philosophical historicism presupposes a premise of theology (which itself relies on revelation, or that which exceeds what unaided natural reason can discover) should not worry us: such is the case for all legitimate philosophical historicism.

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Yearning for Justice

This morning (Monday, February 19, 2018) is one of those mornings when my head is still spinning from the previous Sunday, that is, yesterday. You could say “my head is still spinning” or “my brain is fried.” You see, the work of pastoral ministry, the privilege to serve in this way, is as precious a gift as I can imagine. And yet, it is A LOT of work (blood, sweat, and tears)! Five services yesterday, scores of conversations / “life stories” with individual folks, two sermons, untold needs of people texting & messaging (some of whom are truly in dire straits). A wise priest once told me, in all seriousness, that a typical Sunday of active pastoral ministry is the equivalent of a 40-hour work week. What a joy, and what a burden. Throw into the mix the joyful responsibility of daddyhood and husbandom, and truly, it makes one’s head spin.

I suppose one reason for my heightened sense of being stretched today is the intensity of this past week: not just Ash Wednesday, but Diocesan Council (Thursday through Saturday, in beautiful Waco, Texas).

Ah, Diocesan Council.

I can tell you that, for me, every year this gathering is mainly an encouragement. I love seeing friends new and old. I (usually) love hearing the Bishop’s vision. Often Council is something of a mixed bag, though, and I suppose this year was no exception, for I witnessed, yet again, a tendency to reduce to the role of a priest (or, indeed, a Christian) to that of a “Social Justice Warrior” (SJW).

And yet, justice is a huge part of what we are called to as the Body of Christ. After a long day of Council presentations geared toward motivating us clergy and lay leaders to engage in social justice warfare (along the lines of community organizing and “Black Lives Matter”) I found myself sitting around the dinner table with trusted allies in ministry. One colleague wisely reminded us that, in the New Testament, the term for “justice” is the same exact term as that of “righteousness.” In the other words, in the mind of the apostles, there is no distinction between “righteousness” and “justice.” This is a truth which progressive SJW’s would do well to heed.

And yet, the kind of racial reconciliation on display at Council truly stirs up a deep yearning for justice within me. It is what my church planting (and yes, community organizing) work in Austin during my 30’s was all about. It is why, together with key leaders of Christ Church, I cannot give up on working with the Episcopal Health Foundation’s office of Congregational Engagement to bring holistic justice to Smith County, fraught with challenges though this work be.

Finally, it is why I’ve been so deeply encouraged by a recent development within our college ministry, which I would like to share with you, dear reader. Thanks to one deeply engaged leader in our parish, the leadership of our Episcopal College Community recently had a ground-breaking lunch with a leader of Texas College (among others). Then, this past Friday, Ian Hyde (our Christ Church College Missioner) along with Mr. Uriah Johnson (one of our gifted lay leaders, involved as both a youth mentor and a college mentor), met again with this Texas College representative, along with one of her local leaders. So, now, the ball is rolling with Texas College, a historically black college here in Tyler. God willing, this will bear fruit, resulting in many Kingdom centered relationships of love with our neighbors in North Tyler.

If that happens (and I’m full of biblical hope that it will), it will be an answer to a long and passionately held yearning for justice, indeed.

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Seeing the Spirit (in Saints’ Faces)

According to Rowan Williams, Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky taught that “the Holy Spirit is that which you see shining in the faces of the saints.”

Seeing the Holy Spirit. Hmmm….

As I find myself asking, “Nice, but can you really see it (the Holy Spirit)?” it occurs to me that this question epitomizes what, for me, philosophy is all about.

Because, for me, the question, “Can I see the Holy Spirit in the faces of the saints?” or “Can I see the Body of Christ in the consecrated host at the altar in Holy Communion?” is structurally similar (identical?) to the question, “Can I see a cup in a bit of porcelain matter?” or “Can I see a wave within a blob of aquatic matter?”

I am a member of that school of thought, following Aristotle (and Plato), which thinks that, in order to recognize any object whatsoever which I see in front of me, I must first have logos. I must first have a concept of “Holy Spirit” or “Body of Christ” or “cup” or “wave.” What I “see” (recognize) is pre-informed by what I know or think.

Otherwise, the world, in the words of William James, is a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” (Which is not far from what Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer before him, thought.)

Without logos, there is no such thing as object.

But where does this “logos,” this concept, this “secret knowledge” … where does it come from? Imagined in the Christian neoplatonist tradition as divine illumination, this is the real and beautiful mystery.

So, you see, it is tough (at least for us moderns) to be confident that you see the Holy Spirit in the faces of the saints, admittedly. But it is also tough (at least for us moderns) to believe that you see a cup in a hunk of porcelain. And when you realize that, it becomes easier, more plausible, to be confident in seeing the Holy Spirit, or the Body of Christ.

Thanks be to God that the logos became matter.

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Psalm 1 (Gender, Justice, Disenchantment)

Last Sunday the psalm appointed for the day (according to my church’s lectionary) was Psalm 1, which begins like this: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked….”

I want to call attention to that first pronoun, the grammatical subject of the first sentence, “they,” for this translation is not a literally accurate rendering of the original Hebrew, which says, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked….” Rather, the committee of scholars who decided to render the Hebrew ha ish (“the man”) by way of a gender neutral pronoun in English, “they.”

Many biblical scholars of Psalms hold that Psalm one, in the original context of the Hebrew Scriptures, was extremely important, in that it gave its readers (who were also worshippers, since the Psalter is something like the original hymnbook of the covenant community of God’s people) an imaginative portrait of the ideal Israelite, that is, of the Messiah, of whom King David—who, in the ancient Hebrew imagination, was a type or a kind of foreshadowing of the Messiah. Together, with Psalm 2, Psalm 1 stands at the head of the entire Psalter, and (among other things) says to the reader / worshipper: “When the Messiah comes, he will keep his heart pure; he will not participate in unjust schemes; he will be stable and trustworthy … and, just to give you a picture of what that is like, look at King David.” (Of course, the Psalter “knows” full well about David’s sin, and that is part of the point: we are to “look past” David to the true Messiah.)

This is what our king is like. He is the source of our hope and peace and security. He is the one in and from whom my identity ultimately derives. He is the one after whom we are to pattern our lives, in mimetic love.

But notice what happens when the “he” at the beginning of the Psalm is transformed into “they.” This “they” which departs from the original “ha ish” not just in terms of gender (it is no longer masculine), but also in terms of number (it is no longer singular). Suddenly, the Psalm is no longer about a great king, an imaginatively construed messiah-like figure who is supposed to be the object of our contemplation. Suddenly, the Psalm is reduced to a mere moralistic formula for us to follow. It is as if it is now saying, “Do you want to be happy? Then do these things, and don’t do these other things.”

A formula which, of course, is true as far as it goes, but which is still a far cry from the original intent of the Psalm.

Am I saying that gender neutral pronouns are never to be implemented? No.

Am I saying that Psalm 1 is more applicable to males than to females? Obviously not.

What I am saying is that language (and translation) matters. It shapes our thinking. It forms our assumptions. By the providence of God, our thoughts are constrained by “the prison house of language.” We should admit that in making this shift, God’s people have lost something important.

Something which is no longer mysterious, no longer beautiful, no longer transcendent. Now, as thinkers like Henri de Lubac and Charles Taylor would say, things have become immanent and disenchanted.

Is it worth it? Is the justice which has been upheld in this re-translation worth the loss of mystical enchantment? Or perhaps might there be a better way?

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Ratzinger & Tradition

As I continue to press on in my dissertation research, investigating Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (the English translation of a major section of his Habilitationschrift, or “second dissertation”), one important issue I’m attending to is how he thinks about tradition. This is because, like history itself (as well as eschatology), tradition is a phenomenon constituted by time.

In his memoirs entitled Milestones (first published in Italian in 1997), the then future Pontiff writes that during his theological studies at Munich (prior to his doctorate),

‘Tradition’ was what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner, the patrologist from Würzburg … had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was unknown before the fifth century; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to ‘apostolic tradition.’ And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand ‘tradition’ strictly as the handing down of fixed formulas and texts. This was the position that our teachers represented. But if you conceive of ‘tradition’ as the living process by which the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could not grasp (cf. John 16:12-13), then subsequent ‘remembering’ (cf. John 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word. But such a perspective was still quite unattainable by German theological thought.

The conception of tradition which Ratzinger here articulates is quite compatible with his presentation of St. Bonaventure’s logos of history as he (Ratzinger) articulates it in his Habilitationschrift. In that work Ratzinger’s Bonaventure parts company in significant ways with the eschatologically innovative Joachim of Fiori, yet all the while giving the Calabrian monk a qualified “high five” with respect to his provocative vision of a future:  a kind of democratized sapientia nulliformis, a community of wise humans who peacefully enjoy an unmediated vision of God.

My claim here is that Ratzinger’s conception of tradition as an open “remembering” of content previously unacknowledged is a necessary condition for his endorsement of Bonaventure’s innovative Joachimite eschatology.

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Hooker: Scripture, Reason, & Tradition

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues against the benefit of writing (as opposed to oral speech), saying that written manuscripts undermine true understanding, and serve merely as a kind of “sub-memory” (hypomene). Be that as it may, this is precisely how I sometimes use my blog, as a location or a platform on which to store bits of text which I think will benefit me later.

This blog post is an example of such a use, and it contains a quotation and four paragraphs on Richard Hooker. (http://www.pbsusa.org/2009/08/19/scripture-tradition-and-reason-hookers-supposed-3-legged-stool/)

What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever ( Laws, Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39,8-14).

We notice that he speaks of Scripture, reason and the voice of the Church, and in that order.

Hooker differs from the Puritans (Presbyterians) of his day in the relation of Scripture and reason. He is much nearer to Thomas Aquinas than to say Walter Travers or Thomas Cartwright or even to John Calvin or Theodore Beza. All these men agree that the Scripture delivers to us knowledge from God and that this knowledge is not available anywhere else in a world infected by sin. That knowledge pertains unto the identity of God as a Trinity of Persons, the Incarnation of the Second Person, our Lord Jesus Christ, the nature and means of salvation, the Christian hope and the mystery of the Church.

But Hooker departed from many of his fellow Elizabethans, especially the Puritans, in asserting that Scripture does not destroy nature but perfects it, that Scripture presupposes reason and requires its use and that Grace presupposes nature. For Hooker reason was God’s greatest gift to human beings, enabling them to understand God’s plan for the whole of reality, to situate themselves within it and to specify proper moral forms of human activity. This approach to Reason is rather different than that which is attached to the modern expression “Scripture, tradition and reason,” where reason is separated from Scripture and seems to be that understanding of reason’s place that we find in modern philosophy since the Enlightenment and the work of Immanuel Kant.

By “the voice of the Church” he meant the major decisions of ecumenical councils and of national churches which relate to important matters on which Scripture is silent or only supplies hints – e.g., the structure and content of Liturgy in terms of Rites and Ceremonial. These rules are morally and spiritually binding on Christians, part of the Christianity to which they are attached by providence and grace. They are not things indifferent left to the individual conscience.

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Beauty for its Own Sake: Eating & Eucharist

Have you ever asked yourself, “What is good, and how can I know?”

In Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle teaches (according to Joe Sachs) that there are three “levels” of goodness: utility, pleasure, and beauty (in that order).

Let’s apply this hierarchy to the human activity of eating. I find that people eat for different reasons.

Some people eat merely for nutrition. I call this approach to eating “the food-as-fuel” approach. Fitness freaks in the 1990’s who advocate a diet of mainly rice cakes, runners who eat “runners goo” to maintain energy levels on a long run, or weight-lifters who consume whey as a means to increase muscle mass: these are all forms of eating as utility. Here one eats as a means to some other end, an extrinsic end: weight loss, added muscle mass, etc.

Others east for pleasure. For Aristotle, this motive is superior to utility, for eating for pleasure is an activity which is a means to an end which is intrinsic to the activity itself. Here one eats because food is delicious and tasty. One drinks, for example, because beer is pleasurable. The Christian tradition gives Aristotle a “high five” for advocating pleasure, and arguing not only that it is good, but that it is better than mere utility.

Finally, however, we come to what, for Aristotle, is the most noble level of the good: beauty. You see, body builders eat for utility; hedonists and “foodies” eat for pleasure. But there is one other group of people, one other “tribe,” which consists of folks who eat not for utility and not for pleasure, but for beauty.

Beauty itself.

This tribe is called the Christian Church, the Eucharistic community, the people of God. When we feast on the body and blood of Christ at the Table where Christ is the host and we are the guests, where God and man at table are sat down, we eat not for utility, not for pleasure, but for beauty.

Elsewhere in the Ethics Aristotle teaches that beauty is, in essence, completion. It is that of which nothing is lacking, nothing is needed. In the harmony of all its parts, it is complete and perfect. It is for this that Christians eat at the holy altar. Here, we eat not to get more physical energy, and not because the elements taste so good. Rather, it is here that the cosmos is completed in all its parts: God and man, heaven and earth, nature and supernature.

All of this is included in the ritual of Holy Eucharist, when we chew on and swallow the Word made flesh, and injest his body and blood. Not by ourselves, but with each other.

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Elvis or the Beatles? Paul’s Cosmic Anthropology

For years I have said, in various contexts and to various audiences, that for the New Testament writers, there are only two kinds of humans: Jews and Gentiles. This, for them (being good first century Jews), is how humanity is carved up. (Yes, one can “slice & dice” it at a finer level: in addition to Jew & Gentile, you also have other political demographic types such as Barbarian & Scythians, etc.—see Col 3:11.)

If this sounds to you like a scene from Quinton Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction, where Uma Thurman’s character interviews John Travolta’s character with questions like “Are you an Elvis person or a Beatles person?” (although, technically, she never asks him this question), then you are onto something.

Nowhere is this division of the human race into two fundamental types, Jew and Gentile (or sometimes stated as “Jew and Greek”) more apparent than in Gal 2:15-16:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

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“Heals over Head”–Fr. Greg Boyle

We are all part of a movement to put first things recognizably first. This movement is about heals over head. It is far easier for [an organization] to compile of menu of services … than it is to create a community of tenderness, a community so loving and so welcoming that everyone feels like they are wearing a parachute. A place, a geography, where we all decide to make a decision to live in each others’ hearts.—Father Greg Boyle, Founder & Director, Homeboy Industries.

I’ve heard plenty of speeches in my day, but the words above constitute what is for me perhaps the most moving “oratory experience” I’ve ever had.

This speech was the culmination, or the final plenary event, of a two-day conference at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles which I had the honor and joy of attending this past week, together with two dear friends, D.G. Montalvo and David Dickerson. We were attending this event at the invitation of the Episcopal Health Foundation of the Diocese of Texas, in hopes that it would benefit us here at Christ Church as we partner with the E.H.F. in hopes of increasing the holistic peace and justice of our community.

Allow me to unpack the most salient phrases in the snippet above. First, “recognizably first.” When Fr. Greg uttered these words, it “cut me to the quick.” In other words, I became deeply convicted of the need, not just to state that justice is a priority for us at Christ Church (including Christ Church South), but to make that priority recognizable, visible, clear. It must be obvious to anyone who visits us on Sunday morning that we are a community where Christ binds us together: not class, not race, not affinity.

Second, “heals over head.” I could talk about this one for hours. A huge part of my “spiritual / intellectual biography” is the issue of “reason vs. desire”: which is privileged? For Aristotle it is reason’s job to discipline the human being’s passions and desires. And yet, Christian Neoplatonism responds (I’m painting with insanely broad brush strokes here) by pointing to a “higher” kind of desire which, in turn, woos, summons, and directs reason itself. Father Greg is clearly one who affirms the priority of desire / feeling / passion over reason. Hence, “heals over head.” In the same vein he stresses that “a community tenderness is harder [and more important] than a menu of services.” In other words, for Fr. Greg, nothing can be more important than love (which, after all, is a kind of desire). Nothing can be more important than relationship, intimacy, “living in each others’ hearts.” This is the foundation of Homeboy. Good thing, too, since this is also the foundation of the Kingdom of God.

Last phrase to unpack: “parachutes [instead of backpacks].” Father Greg’s goal is to make the “homies” among whom he lives and works feel like they are wearing parachutes, and not backpacks. At first I was not sure what he meant by this. It was either David or DG who helped me “get it.” A parachute softens one’s landing; a burdensome backpack, in contrast, only weighs one down all the more. The goal here is to facilitate a soft landing, for any homie who is falling to the ground. Soft landings, instead of crashing & burning.

How is this facility accomplished? Only by a community which put first things recognizably first. Only by a community in which the members truly live in each others’ hearts. Only by a community of tenderness which privileges healing over headiness, and gives people parachutes and not heavy burdens of condemnation.

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Rigorous Honesty: Ps 139 & Truth-telling

The first paragraph of ch. 5 (“How it Works”) of Bill W.’s Alcoholics Anonymous is riveting and crucial:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to the program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

If I ask myself, “am I (constitutionally) capable of being honest with myself?” … well, that is not an easy question for me to answer. I think I am … but I also think it is important for me to open myself up to the possibility of self-deception.

Enter Psalm 139, verse 6: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”

When I cultivate an awareness of God, of the Holy Spirit, deep within me, it allows me to be honest with myself. It allows me to sit in silence and not need to pretend to be anything. Instead of pretending to be something, I can simply be. I can be comfortable with myself.

Because in that moment, who am I trying to impress? The Holy Spirit? That would be really dumb. I can simply be, simply sit in silence, with my feelings, with my body, with my sense perception, with a biblical passage or a word or a mantra echoing in my heart.

Now, sitting in silent meditation is not the only way to cultivate rigorous honesty. And if this practice occurs in a vacuum, cut off from other spiritual practices, it will be especially “ineffective.” Really, I think that the progress which results from meditation has to do with presence. When I practice being present in presence of the Holy Spirit in silent meditation, it gives me the “spiritual muscles” to be present with others: my spiritual director, my sponsor, my wife, my friends, my parishioners, complete strangers I encounter on the street, etc.

But it all begins, and ends, with rigorous honesty.

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Baptism & Richard Dawkins

In eight short days I will have the staggering privilege of initiating (at least) five precious human beings created in God’s image into the holy community of the Body of Christ through the mysterious waters of Holy Baptism. (How the cosmos arranged itself to allow for this state of affairs is beyond me.)

Now, I have been intrigued by baptism for quite a while. In fact, if I were to make a list of the top ten reasons I left evangelical Christianity for the Anglican Way (embodied in the Episcopal Church, in the Diocese of Texas), somewhere on that list would be baptism. In particular, the teaching about Baptism contained in the Book of Common Prayer, on page 298 of which we read:

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body of the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.

Thanks be to God that, in my mid thirties, I finally found a community of people who believe this crazy teaching. Crazy, but necessary.

Necessary, that is, if secularism is not true, not the “be all and end all.” Necessary if God is real and there is more to existence than “matter and energy.” Necessary if real truth and beauty are grounded in a metaphysical reality which transcends human wants and needs.

Necessary, but crazy. Why “crazy”? Because it flies in the face of so much “evidence.”

I mean, just look (as a good friend of mine would say) at Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, who was of course baptized in the Church of England as an infant, but who as an adult has attacked the Christian faith as vociferously as anyone in modern history.

What about him? Surely, my friend argues, he is proof that baptism is not some ontologically real and efficacious transformation that grafts one permanently into the life of God … right?

Well, what if that’s not right? What if we take page 298 of the BCP at face value? What if, since Richard Dawkins was baptized many decades ago with water and the Holy Spirit, God has “sealed [him] by the Spirit in baptism, and marked [him] as Christ’s own forever,” as the Celebrant confesses in the actual service of Holy Baptism in the Episcopal Church? What if, on the basis of this sealing and marking, together with all that they entail, and together with the context in which they find their larger meaning, God has promised to bring Richard Dawkins finally back to himself, at some point and in some way which right now is unclear to us?

After all, it seems to me, the alternative is untenable. For if Baptism (together with all that it entails, and together with the larger context in which it finds its meaning) does not save, then secularism is the case, and we Christians should, finally, put all this religion stuff and “God talk” to sleep.

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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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Mystical Ecstasy & Alyosha’s Mini-arc

I am grateful to be the recipient of a world-class education in the history of Western thought at the University of Dallas’ Institute of Philosophic Studies, where I was initiated headlong into many of the great classical texts of the Western canon, many of which I had never before read, including Hesiod’s Theogony, Dante’s Comedia, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, just to name a few.

The final class in this sequence of core courses is “Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky,” in which we read (among other texts) The Brothers Karamazov. Or, were supposed to have read.

I confess publicly, and for the first time, that I simply did not (have time to) read this very long tome that semester. Such is the life of a full-time priest, working in a city 90 miles away from his academic institution, to which he was commuting (during the period of his coursework) on average twice per week.

The guilt from such an omission was almost unbearable, and it is a miracle that I got through that course (one of three grad courses I was taking at the time). Which might be why I firmly resolved to make The Brothers Karamazov the first major text I would read, once I had successfully gotten both coursework and comprehensive exams under my belt. Hence, I am reading it now, and what a stimulating read it is!

One feature of the text to which my attention has been drawn is the structure of Book Seven, entitled, “Alyosha.” Breifly, I summarize this structure, this narrative arc of character development, as follows:

  • §1, “Odor of putrefaction.” Here, Alyosha stumbles spiritually at the scandalon of religious scorn and hypocritical gloating on the part of a certain religious faction. Basically, there is a party of monks at Alyosha’s monastery who despise the holy starets, Father Zosima (Alyosha’s beloved mentor and father in the faith), and who longs for his downfall and ruination. Of course the members of this faction, led by one Father Therapon, have their religious justifications. But it is this religious scorn, and not the absence of a certain hoped-for miracle (the lack of deterioration of the now deceased Father Zosima’s remains) which causes Alyosha to spiral downward into a tailspin of spiritual and emotional blackness.
  • §2, “Here’s an opportunity.” Enter Rakitin, that “careerist seminarian” who embodies the worst kind of sanctimonious, fraudulent bigotry. Rakitin stumbles upon Alyosha just as the former has been laid low emotionally, and is literally lying on the ground near a tree, trying to get his head screwed back on straight, attempting to recover from the emotional blow dealt by those who have been publicly denigrating Zosima, in light of his death and decomposition. Rakitin skillfully takes advantage of Alyosha, tempting him to “act out” and give in to his incipient anger and woundedness. First, Rakitin tempts Alyosha with food (sausage), then drink (vodka), then sex (the intriguing and beautiful prostitute Grushenka). Alyosha, in a state of weakness, gives in to his seducer Rakitin.
  • §3, “A spring onion.” In the rooms of Grushenka, who seems to be deeply taken and captivated by the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers Alyosha (who is pretty much the same age as the seductress), the narrator employs the image of a spring onion to symbolize the wonderful effects of love for the other. Grushenka narrates a Russian fable involving the giving of an onion from one person to another, and how this small act of kindness can save a person from Hell. Grushenka, who knows full well that she is a grave sinner who stands guilty before God and man, testifies that she knows the joy of giving a spring onion to someone in need. Alyosha, who up to this point has been tight-lipped and awkward in Grushenka’s room, immediately recognizes her humility and this spiritual seed of life to which she has born witness. And it is just this, this brilliant flash of grace flowing from the heart and lips of this humble sinner, this shard of love born of true poverty of spirit, which revives the stricken Alyosha, acting as a sort of “smelling salt” which quickens him to return to his true spiritual nature. Finally, his head is screwed back on straight, and he has now come to his senses.
  • §4, “Cana of Galilee.” Now that Alyosha has been restored to his true self by the (unintended) ministrations of Grushenka, he is now liberated truly to enjoy God and life. Returning to the monastery, he encounters the saintly Father Païsy, who continues to read the Gospels over Father Zosima’s open coffin, as he has been doing for hours and hours. Slowly Alyosha falls into a peaceful sleep and experiences a vivid dream about Jesus and Mary at the wedding of Cana, even as the words of John 2 proceed from the mouth of the venerable monk. Alyosha, asleep before the remains of his loving mentor even while remaining on his knees, is now awash in the mystical, peaceful vision of Christ he is now experiencing. Eventually he awakes, and the lines which follow are among the most arresting I have ever read:

[Alyosha’s] soul, brimming with ecstasy, was yearning for freedom, for wide open spaces. Overhead, stretching into infinity, was the heavenly dome, full of silent, shimmering stars. From the zenith to the horizon stretched the forked outlines of the faintly visible Milky Way. A cool, silent, motionless night had enveloped the earth. The white towers and gilded cupolas of the monastery church gleaned in the sapphire light. The splendid autumn flowers in the bed around the house were dormant for the night. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens. The mystery of the earth appeared to reach out to the starts. Alyosha stood gazing. Suddenly he fell to the ground, as though stunned.

He did not know why he was embracing the earth. He could not explain to himself why it was that he wanted to kiss it with such abandon. To kiss the whole of it, and yet he kept kissing it as he wept and sobbed, drenching it with his tears, and passionately swearing to love it, to love it forever and ever. ‘Drench the earth with the tears of thy joy, and love these thy tears….’ These words echoed in his soul. What was he weeping about? Oh, in the ecstasy he was weeping even for those stars which shone upon him from infinity, ‘and he was not ashamed of his passion.’ It was as though the threads of all God’s countless worlds had converged in his soul, and it quivered upon contact with these distant worlds. He wished to forgive everyone for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself but for others. ‘They would then ask forgiveness for me,’ were the words that echoed in his mind. But with each passing moment, he became distantly, almost palpably aware, that something as firm and immutable as the vault of heaven was entering his soul. An idea seemed to be taking possession of his mind, and it would be for his whole life and for eternity. He fell to the ground a weak adolescent, but when he rose to his feet he was a hardened warrior for life, and he recognized this in a flash of ecstasy. And never, never in his whole life, would Alyosha be able to forget this moment. ‘Someone visited my soul on that occasion,’ he would repeat later, firmly believing his own words.

Three days later he left the monastery, in accordance with the instruction of his deceased starets, to ‘go out into the world.’

What to make of this trajectory, culminating in these haunting words of mystical ecstasy? I can think of six things.

  1. This book, in the context of Dostoevsky’s larger story, is a wonderful example of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ, makes us more fully human. To quote St. Irenaeus, “The Glory of God is the human being, fully alive.” Christians are / ought-to-be more fully alive than anyone else, and this vignette points to that fact.
  2. Alyosha, when faced with fierce temptations, did not give in. Why did he not give in? Only because he was rescued by love, the love of the sinful prostitute Grushenka. Still, what would have happened had he slept with her? Would he have experienced the joy of hearing the Gospel flow from the lips of Fr. Païsy? I doubt it. There is something about not ruining the story which makes for spiritual elation, once the temptations have subsided.
  3. Suffering leads to ecstasy, and this ecstasy involves the passions. This vignette is an “argument” for privileging the passions over reason, even while admitting the necessity of the latter.
  4. I find it interesting that, in Dostoevsky’s rendition of Alyosha’s experience here, we find an emphasis on the whole: the cosmic dimensions of salvific reality. God is way bigger than we normally realize. So is Christ. So is the cosmos.
  5. Alyosha’s mystical experience leads to and includes gospel reconciliation. We find him deeply impacted by the idea of forgiveness, which I think is probably the primary theme of this entire book.
  6. This kind of experience, which entails a movement from adolescence to adulthood, leads to full maturity in Christ (see Eph 4:13).

All in all, this is a riveting chunk of text, one that will stay with me (I dare say) for the rest of my life!

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Ascension: All things full of Christ

This time of the church year is a rich one. Here we are, nestled between Ascension (my favorite feast) and Pentecost. Why did Christ ascend?

In one sense, it was to bring the entire world back to the Father. In other sense, it was to pour the Holy Spirit out upon the Church and “all flesh” on the Day of Pentecost.

But there is another sense, as well. One of the two collects for the Ascension in the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” What does it mean to say that Christ, post-Ascension, now fills all things?

Well, I don’t know, but I do know that when you look at your brothers or sister in Church, you are looking at someone filled with Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that when you encounter a stranger on the street, especially if they are down and out or strung out, you are looking at someone filled with Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that the “bread” and the “wine” of Holy Eucharist are full of Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that the Church father said that when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, he sanctified all water.

I don’t know, but I do know that St. Gregory of Nyssa said that, when Jesus gestured toward some bread and said, “this is my body,” he could have just as easily gestured toward a tree branch and said the same thing.

I don’t know, but I do know that a life of prayer, meditation, and “sobriety” (1 Peter 4:7) can train, sensitize, and condition one to experience the mystical reality of God, mediated by and through the things of creation, which mediate the presence of Christ.

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On Unicorns: why Actuality precedes Possibility

This (slightly embarrassing) article is inspired by section II of David Bentley Hart’s chapter entitled “Being (Sat)” in his The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. It is intended for philosophy and theology geeks alone.

In his book Metaphysics: the Invention of Hierarchy, Adrian Pabst lays blame at the feet of several late medieval thinkers (chief among them Gilbert of Porreta) for departing from traditional metaphysical thought with their suggestion that possibility is prior to actuality. According to Pabst’s narration, this move is part and parcel with detaching the existence of things in the world from the existence of God, and the essence of things from the existence of those same things.

In an attempt to keep this blog post as pithy as possible, let me just say that one reason it is difficult for us moderns to “wrap our heads” around the massive historical import of this move of Gilbert’s is that the assumptions behind it have become as “natural” to us as the air that we breathe. That is, the priority of possibility has attained in our culture the status of unquestionable ideology. After all, take the example of a unicorn. It seems as obvious as the nose on your face to assume that, of course, we can speak of a unicorn without needing to affirm its existence. Here is a clear example, it is easy to assume, of the priority of possibility over actuality, of essence over existence.

And for a season in my intellectual pilgrimage, this issue of unicorns presented real and difficult problems for me, so much so that for a while I wanted to argue that unicorns must actually exist somehow; otherwise we’d not be talking about them. I felt that this position was required in order to maintain the priority of actuality over possibility.

Alas, however, no such positing is necessary, and I have since come to agree with what Thomas Aquinas would say: we have no reason to think that unicorns actually exist because no one has ever actually seen one.

Well, one might argue, if they don’t exist, but we can still talk about them, then does this not suggest the priority of possibility over actuality, of essence over existence?

And the answer (in my opinion) is: not at all. All of our talk of unicorns manifestly does presuppose the actuality of … something. Not of unicorns, granted. But has anyone ever spoken of a unicorn while not relying on the notion of a horse? A horse, mind you, which actually does exist.

And not just a horse. No one, further, has ever spoken of a unicorn without, well, without speaking. That is, without depending on the actual existence of those human artifacts called words (or, as Derrida calls them, graphemes and phonemes). Again, graphemes and phonemes that actually exist, and which must be interacted with for any thought about unicorns (or anything else at all) to occur.

Unicorns, then, don’t exist. Thanks to the work of the human (productive) imagination, we can still talk about them … but not without relying on a whole host of real things which, unlike unicorns, actually do exist.

Essence, then, is seen to require existence, and actuality is (for now, at least) still required for anything at all to be possible.

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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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