Notes on sin, death, sacrifice (a brief sketch)

If there is a contradiction between modern evolution and orthodox Christian theology, it goes something like this:

Christianity (the biblical story) says that humans die (and suffer disease) only because of sin (e.g., Rom 8:10). But evolution says that animal and biological death was a necessary condition for the evolutionary emergence of the human being.

This seems like a contradiction (or something like it), because in order for both the biblical story and evolution to be true, one must must hold that without sin, a death-filled process led up to the emergence of a creature who was never going to die, who was never “intended” to die.

Unless. Unless what my friend Nathan Jennings implies in his book Liturgy and Theology is true. For there he suggests that what God has always wanted (and had always wanted) from humanity is sacrifice, including self-sacrifice. Just as Paul in Rom 12 urges Christians to “present your bodies as living sacrifices,” so also Adam (not intended merely literally) was always supposed to lay down his life in sacrifice to God (and others?). Then and only then, could God raise the human up (or resurrect the human) to an even higher kind of life.

(Nathan develops this idea, among other ways, in terms of the significance of the creation of the human on Day 6, and making some connections about eating.)

If this is right, then it means that we can have both evolution and the biblical story, for death has always been part of God’s plan. For lower creatures, it was part of the process leading up to Adam; for Adam (or humans) it was intended to be in the form of pre-resurrection self-sacrifice.

In conclusion, then, we can say that what the Fall (or the entrance of sin into the world) brings about not death, not even human death. Rather, it brings about involuntary human death.

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Hösle on Luther’s post-Reformational Germany

The following lines are so interesting that I cannot but quote them in full:

In his great study Die europäischen Revolutionen[1] Eugen Rosenstock–Huessy (1888–1973), one of the last German universal scholars in the humanities and social sciences, spoke of a “princely revolution” in connection with the Reformation. The formation of religiously autonomous small states with their own local universities (whereas the U. of Paris had been a European university) and an officialdom devoted to the sovereign and enjoying great prestige was one of the most important results of the German Reformation. In the seventeenth century, as in the Middle Ages, England got along with only two universities, but this did not in the least hinder its rise to become the economically and politically most advanced nation in Europe, while German had about forty universities, despite its late adoption of the institution. Princes and professors/pastors/officials were the pillars of the new order, and while the princes disappeared in 1918, Germany is still basically, even in its Catholic areas, a professors-and-officials state such as exists nowhere in the world. Although on most questions Lutheranism occupies a middle position between the Catholic Church and the Reformed denominations that freed themselves from medieval ideas much more decisively than Luther did, there is one issue one which Calvinism stands closer to Catholic doctrine than does Lutheranism, namely the right of resistance, to which both Catholicism and Calvinism cling. Luther, by contrast, radically rejects this right, and however much he believes he is authorized by Scripture to reject the right to resist (Romans 13), seen from the outside it is clear that this rejection is the price he had to pay for the protection of the princes. The peculiar combination of freedom of conscience with an insistence on subservience, even to unjust rule, long remained one of the distinguishing marks of Lutheranism in Germany. —Vittorio Hösle, A Short Hist of German Philosopy, 30.


[1] This is a plural noun.

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Redeeming the Modern Myth of Progress

What if the progress myth of secular modernity is correct, at least in large part?

I’m now wondering if, entertaining the possibility that, after the advent of the Gospel, there is something inevitable about the development of history, about the “rational” unfolding of historical progress.

Not inevitably in the sense of the absolutely necessary, but rather in the sense of an implicit logic. If one were to develop this claim, one would need to articulate an appropriate understanding of the following three dynamics:

  • The propaedeutic of the Gospel, or the legacy of classical Greek thought as the handmaiden (ancilla) of philosophy. The idea here is that the relationship between Greek philosophy (especially that of the logos) and the early (that is, apostolic and patristic) interpretation of the events of Jesus of Nazareth is not random or aleatory. Rather the former sets the stage for the latter; the latter fulfills the former in an analogous way that it fulfills the Hebrew scriptures of (what Christians call) the Old Testament, to wit:
  • The nature of the progress from Old Covenant (in Israel) to New Covenant (in Christ). Of course, this is what the New Testament is about in its fundamental nature. It grapples with the question, “How can we, members of the community constituted by Jesus Christ, remain in continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures, or the religious traditions of our ancestors (the Torah, circumcision, Temple worship, etc.)? How can we follow Jesus of Nazareth, and, at the same time, maintain our identity as faithful Jews? In the teachings of Jesus (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel), in Paul’s letters (his privileging of spirit over letter), and in the book of Hebrews we find a clear insistence that, while the New is faithful to the Old, it is, at the same time and in some sense, better.
  • The outgrowth of (what I will call) universal spirit from the seeds of Christian theology/culture. This is the most difficult claim to develop of the three, and yet it is nonnegotiable. For when it comes to the rise of modern science, the distinction between church and state, the ideal of self-governance rooted in individual freedom, and the respect of human rights, in every case it is clear that these developments grow out of the soil of Christianity. Not, admittedly, Christianity in the abstract or in pristine isolation. We should fully concede that in the West Christianity is “corrupted”: by influences of the Roman empire, by pagan thought, by heresies, etc. And yet, the soil is Christian soil. The growth of these institutions and ideals would not exist but for the prior historical condition of Christianity. Christianity implies modern science, for creation links up with our rational minds (given the imago dei). It leads to the ideal of a state which is not simply identical to or a container for the church, for it is born from the soil of martyrdom at the hands of coercive power. It leads to self-rule, for the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into all truth, baptism is the great equalizer, and the Gospel is “no respecter of persons.” It implies the respect of human rights, because each person has dignity, being created in the image of God, as well as being the object of the sacrificial love of Christ in his crucifixion.

The point is that, in light of these three dymanics (perhaps there are additional ones), one can affirm a kind of intelligible development in the history of Western civilization, given the advent of the Gospel. This is the fundamentally valid insight of Hegel (and Joachim of Fiori), and it has led to the modern notion of the myth of progress.

Yet while I’m arguing that the myth of progress is (in some sense) correct and valid, nevertheless it must be drastically emended in one particular regard: the relationship between Christianity and secular modernity. For centuries the common assumption has been that secularism will win out over Christianity. This, precisely, is the one false tenant of the modern progress myth, for what has become evident in our time is that secular modernity (in its current iteration) cannot resist the temptation to eat itself, to self-destruct. One need only to point to the incommensurate agendas of identity politics (the outgrowth of liberal political theory cum late capitalism), to the destruction of our natural habitat globally, to the futility of technological innovation devoid of meaning. Of course, this self-destructive tendency, too, grows out of Christian soil. Indeed it may be the case that Christianity also eats itself; but if so it does so in a fecund way that is ultimately life-giving.

Yet what is far from clear is that secular modernity will, in the end, triumphantly root out the Christian religion or the Eucharistic community. While the counter claim is beyond the scope of this present essay, at the very least one can see that Christianity’s demise at the hands of secularism is far less certain than the three developments sketched above. (Appeal to the owl of Minerva here might be an appropriate riposte.) The claim, in the end, relies upon the self-destruction of secular modernity: who can possibly doubt that? And after its demise? What then? Surely the continued presence of the Christian church in its wake does not unduly tax the imagination.

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Premodern Human “Perfection”

I grew up in a wonderful family with a mom and a dad who loved each other, loved Christ, and were healthy in the sense that they were always repenting, always striving to be more faithful to Christ and to each other.

And yet … it was, in truth, a fundamentalist family. So some of the thematics would frequently emerge were, well, distinctive to that culture.

One example. A frequent tirade on the part of my father against “sinless perfection.” Apparently some Christians believed that it was possible to live a life in total utter obedience to God, with not a single shred of sin in one’s life. (Frequently my dad identified the precise target of his ire as followers of John Wesley and the occasional Baptist “Arminian.”) One interesting case study in this context was C. S. Lewis: while my family in general revered him with awestruck admiration (which, to this day, I still do), at times he seemed to imply a high view of “Christian perfection.”

What?!? Did he not get Luther’s point about semper justus et peccator?

It turns out—or so I’d argue these several decades later—that here as elsewhere Lewis was actually faithfully channeling a deep current of Catholic sensibility.

For premodern thinkers of the kind that Lewis strove to represent—thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas—”perfection” has a connotation somewhat different from my dad’s apparent grasp of it. It really begins with the notion of telos, since in Greek “perfect” is teleotês. It really just means a substance (in Aristotle’s technical language) doing its “work” so as to fulfill its purpose. When an acorn successfully becomes an oak tree, it is teleotês; it is fulfilling its purpose. Same for when a car gets you from point A to point B.

Yet no one in the premodern world would say that that acorn or the car is “perfect” in every respect. After all, the air conditioner in the car might be broken. Yet, if it gets you to point B, it is fulfilling its telos, and in that sense is “perfect.”

Now for most premodern thinkers after Aristotle, human beings are like acorns and automobiles: they have an objective purpose. (This is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “functional concept.”) Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, or “happiness.” He thinks, and Aquinas and C. S. Lewis agree, that humans are able to achieve happiness (in some sense).

One example of many would be St. Thomas’ Summae Theologiae, I-II, Q. 71 A. 1. There he states that

Virtue implies … a disposition whereby the subject is well disposed according to the mode of its nature: wherefore the Philosopher says (Phys. VII.17) that virtue is a disposition of a perfect thing to that which is best, and by “perfect” I mean that which is disposed according to its nature.

Note the way he speaks of perfection in this passage.

Does this make them “Arminian”? Not at all: it just means that the imagined something different from what we do when they thought of perfection.

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Theology Necessary for Philosophy

In an insightful article on Bonaventure’s Hexaëmeron, Junius Johnson writes:

Bonaventure believes that human understanding in its natural state ought to be able to arrive at the contemplation of God as the first principle. This is Bonaventure’s version of natural theology. Yet philosophy recognizes that to attain this [ultimate] science the virtues are necessary. And so natural reason must be exercised in the exemplary and Cardinal virtues. At this point it looks as if the text is progressing directly to understanding elevated by contemplation, and yet this is the 4th vision, not the second. The problem is that, because of the fall, the virtues are not able to reach their end apart from grace. But the knowledge that the human soul is fallen and the consequent knowledge that the effect must be healed and satisfaction made before the virtues can be truly exercised cannot be reached by reason, but requires faith. Understanding endowed by nature thus naturally arrives at the second vision, understanding elevated by faith.[1]  

This is a clear and succinct argument for how and why philosophy needs theology. If the emergence of something like contemplation (I’m thinking here of Bk. X, ch. 7 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) is native to the very endeavor of philosophy, then theology is required. Why? Because contemplation requires virtue (as even the philosophers admit), which is why this topic appears only at the end of the Ethics. And yet, for someone like Bonaventure, after the fall full virtue (or the virtue required for the purposes of this discussion, at least) is off-limits to the human being, apart from “theological givens/gifts” such as grace, revelation, and faith.

By the way, I see an analogy in St. Thomas with this line of Bonaventurian thinking, in the Angelic Doctor’s treatment of sapientia in the Summa Theologiae. There he treats wisdom twice, in two different contexts: not only is it an intellectual virtue (in line with Ethics VI) that applies science or scientific thinking to the highest causes/realities (I-II, 57.2), but it is also a divine gift (II-II, 45.3). The upshot here is that full sapientia—surely part and parcel with ultimate contemplation—requires grace.

[1] Junius Johnson, ““Unlocking Bonaventure: the Collationes in Hexaëmeron as Interpretive Key,” The Thomist 83 (2019): 277–94, at 286.

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St. Thomas & “what the heart desires”

I remember, sometime in the mid 1990’s (when I was an undergrad at UT Austin), hearing R. C. Sproul say that, for Thomas Aquinas (one of Sproul’s intellectual “heroes”), reason takes precedence over desire. This statement really caught my attention, and I can honestly say that I’ve been pondering it for two and a half decades. (Side note: while in seminary at Westminister Theological Seminary, where the approach to apologetics is determined by Cornelius Van Til, I realized that Van Til’s “presuppositional apologetics” would like not agree with Thomas here, although what’s more likely is that proponents of that “school” have rarely thought about this issue, sadly.)

Fast forward to about three years ago, when, in a YouTube video, I heard Ashley Null make the following statement (also, I think, in his book on Cranmer’s doctrine of repentance), credited to Phillip Melancthon:

What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

Now, at a certain level I really like this statement. It resonates: our desires (including our sinful or illicit desires) are so often “justified” in retrospect by our “rational mind.” We “go after” what we want, and then we justify it ex post facto. At a basic level, that strikes me as a profoundly accurate assessment of the human condition after the fall. (My friends at Mockingbird ministries, Ashley Null included, would certainly agree.) The fallen human being is radically characterized, that is, by the libido dominandi. Truth.

By the way, this latter perspective is ratified by almost all modern thought: one thinks of Soren Kierkegaard and David Hume, the latter of whom said, “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any office but to serve and obey them.” (Alasdair MacIntyre has a nice treatment of all this in After Virtue.)

Thanks to Nicholas Lombardo for this connection with Hume.

And yet, in my research for a book chapter on Aquinas’ view of anger, I’m realizing that St. Thomas, on this issue, really delivers the goods, and is superior, in my opinion, to Melanchthon, Hume, and Kierkegaard (and even St. Bonaventure, who here as elsewhere can be viewed as an incipient, prototypical forebearer of these modern strains of anthropology).

On Thomas’ account (as he has it in the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae, Question 82 on the will), the intellect does take precedence over the will in the specific sense that the human person always seeks happiness and hence always seeks (albeit frequently in misdirected, sinful ways) the good. But in order for the human person (that is, the will, or the desire/appetite) to seek the good, he first must recognize the good, and this is an intellectual activity which performed by the mind. So, yes: intellect is priviledged over desire in this specific sense.

Yet in another way, the will leads and directs the intellect, since, as Thomas says, the will is “in charge” of every “active faculty” in the animal (rational or otherwise). I take this latter point to mean that, when I decide to focus on or to “intend” a tree as an object of my attention or to a memory of the past (or any other “object”), it is the will which makes this “choice.”

And so, I draw two conclusions from all this. First, I’m confident that any disagreement between these two schools is more “smoke than light,” that at bottom all (for the most part) would potentially agree. Thomas would say (and does say) that sometimes our desires are not guided by reason (or at least are irrational in some ways), and even that in our disordered, sinful state we sometimes rationally justify our own sin. Yes, he’d agree to that.

But I also think that his posture is the superior one, since it does full justice to the basic metaphysical principle that all creatures pursue their telos: rocks, oak trees, elephants, and humans. But in our case, that telos is to seek happiness, beatudo, eudaimonia. And that is a rational activity (since we are rational animals).

Besides, it is nihilistic to absolutize the libido dominandi, surely.  

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NT Wright on History & Eschatology

NT Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures are well worth grappling with, as is the book-form version of the same, History and Eschatology. While I take issues with his historiographical methodology (wh is a bit too positivistic), I think that his presentation of the actual view of first century Jewish thought is absolutely superb.

If we ask the question, “What is history, and what are its contents?” then the Christian can start with St. Paul & the Gospel writers (that is, the apostolic teaching of the NT itself).

But before we can ask, “What do the NT writers think history and its contents are?” we must investigate the historically conditioned character of their minds.

Ah, but before we can ask about the historically conditioned character of their minds, we must first ask about the historically conditioned character of our minds (that is, of the minds of modern interpreters, especially those who practice historical-critical method of biblical interpretation).

There are, then, three levels of history in view in NT Wright’s lecture series (and his book History and Eschatology):

  • the history which conditions the modern mind (which NTW rightly describes in terms of Epicureanism);
  • the history which conditioned the ancient (first century) mind (predominantly, at least in this lecture series/book, second Temple Judaism with its biblical themes of Temple, Sabbath, & Image);
  • the history which those ancient writers took to be real and determinative: the redemptive history—which is always already eschatological—of God’s covenant people.

After each of these investigations has been made, it is theoretically possible finally to ask: Can we ourselves adopt the apostles’ same position on history, namely the embrace of the historia salutis as narrated in Scripture? The striking reality is that, given many strands of postmodern theory (themselves neoplatonic in inspiration) this latter possibility is (in the spirit of Ricœur’s “after the desert of criticism we long to believe again”)  actually quite plausible and attractive.

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Milbank on Theurgic Neoplatonsim

In the introduction to Gregory Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul, John Milbank lays the foundation for his insistence—an insistence which is part and parcel of his genealogical method—on the distinction between the “Iamblichan/Proclan” stream of Neoplatonism versus that of Plotinus. I here want to rehearse his argument in my own words, and to articulate why it matters.

The Plotinian error which Milbank wants to rebuff (since orthodox Christian theology rebuffs it) is its denial that matter is able (in the terms of John of Damascus) to “work [one’s] salvation.” Milbank thinks that the ultimate source of this Plotinian error/denial is its view of (what I will call) “diminished emanation,” or the notion that as the emanations of the One exit and disperse themselves out into the material world, less and less of the divine is communicated as the series, or hierarchy, continues.

In contrast to this view of “diminished emanation,” the Iamblichan account of things sees the One as fully communicating itself to the lower level. Now, the One does this, in Milbank’s terms, “impossibly.” That is, there is something supremely paradoxical about this complete self-giving (which one can see in the Christian theological insistence that the son is ontologically equal with the Father): it assumes or implies absolutely no continuity between the first element (the Father/the One) and second (the Son/Nous). That is, it is totally discrete, totally “free.” Put it another way: the second element has no claim on the first; it (the second element) is completely “suspended” from the first. While in one sense (the level of grace?) the two elements are related by conjunction, in another sense (the level of nature?) they are related by total disjunction (contra Plotinus); they are totally discrete.

Why is this “giving” impossible? It is because of the “simple nature” of the first element. That the Father is “simple” means that it cannot share itself, “by nature.” (This is what Milbank means by “absolute reserve,” xvi.) It is, to use the neoplatonic terminology, “imparticipable.”

Yet the first element does give himself to the son, even though this giving is “impossible.” Good thing, too (the impossibility): otherwise, it would not be “the entire substance” which is communicated. In other words, if the giving is not impossible (due to simplicity), then the giving ends up being diminished. It is precisely because of this “impossible giving” that the Father is able to give himself completely to the Son.

Now, one corollary of this total discreteness, this radical disjunction (by nature) is that the second element is unable to “rebound” back to the first element. Unless. Unless it does so through a third element. It is this third element which participates (as in participans), rendering the second element participated. And yet, while this third element “rebounds” to the second, it also rebounds to the first. And since it is the whole “self” which the higher communicates to the lower, this means (to use Trinitarian language) that the Son does participate in the Father, but only through the Spirit, the gift of the Spirit.

The Father gives himself to the Son, impossibly. The Son gives himself to the Father, by giving himself to (and through) the Spirit.

The upshot of all this is that, for Milbank’s Iamblichus (and Auustine, and John Damascene) matter—the “bottom” or last of hte series—is able to “rebound”—as the Spirit does—back upward. It can, thus, work to bring about our salvation (since it, for the Damascene, “is filled with divine energy and grace”).

In sum, it is the paradox of the “impossible giving” which allows Christian theology (utterly biblical, also seen clearly in Denys) to affirm both “descent all the way down” and “participation all the way up.”

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Peterson on Church & Prayer

This paragraph from Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor is so good I must quote it in full.

I remembered a long-forgotten sentence by George Arthur Buttrick, a preacher under whom I sat for a year of Sunday … sermons while in seminary: “Pastors think people come to church to hear sermons. They don’t; they come to pray and to learn to pray.” I remembered Anselm’s critical transition from talking about God to talking to God. He had written his Monologion, setting forth the proofs of God’s existence with great brilliance and power. It is one of the stellar theological achievements in the West. Then he realized that however many right things he said about God, he had said them all in the wrong language. He re-wrote it all in [the] Proslogion, converting his Language II [discursive language] into Language I [the language of intimacy]: first person address, an answer to God. The Proslogion is theology as prayer.

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Augustine on passionately returning to God

This section of the Confessions (XII.ix.10) blows my mind (not least b/c it occurs in nestled within a rigorous interrogation of the cosmology presented by the Book of Genesis).

May the truth, the light of my heart, not my darkness, speak to me. I slipped down into the dark and was plunged into obscurity. Yet from there, even from there, I loved you. “I erred and remembered you” (Ps 118:76). “I heard your voice behind me” (Ezek 3:12) calling me to return. And I could hardly hear because of the hubbub of the people who know no peace. Now, see, I am returning hot and panting to your spring. Let no one stand in my path. Let me drink this and live by it. May i not be my own life. On my own resources I lived evilly. To myself I was death. In you I am recovering life. Speak to me, instruct me. I have put faith in your books. And their words are mysterious indeed.

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Kierkegaard & “Recollecting Forward”

At one point in his Repetition, Kierkegaard says that repetition is “recollection forward.” (By “recollection” here he means Platonic anamnesis.)

I’ve always struggled a bit with his notion, but recently in a coffee shop I had a little breakthrough. For some reason, after I purchased my coffee, I had to wait for about fifteen minutes for it to be ready. But I noticed that this delay did not irritate me at all.

Waiting for the coffee for about fifteen minutes did not bother me at all, whereas, on the other hand, I have noticed that if I have to sit in a meeting without coffee, even for a shorter period than fifteen minutes, it can feel like sheer hell. (I really hate doing certain activities without coffee: meetings, reading, working in my office, for example.)

Why is this? Why is it that, in the coffee shop I was not irritated by my lack of coffee, but in a meeting of shorter duration I almost always am?

The explanation is quite simple. It has to do with anticipation. In the coffee shop, while I was reading Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity, I was not feeling irritated because I knew that my coffee was coming. There is something about anticipation which changes everything, and not only makes the interval of waiting OK, but also in some way is even better than having the real thing / experience itself.

I suspect that, even for Kierkegaard not all repetition is recollection forward, but only some. Perhaps, then, “recollection forward” is this: anticipation.

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Augustine’s Confessions I: Notes

I’m currently rereading Augustine’s Confessions (for the third or fourth time), this time as part of the larger project that is my doctoral dissertation.

Lots going on in Book I. I want to give a quick list of some important themes, and then focus in particular on two: his way of overcoming destructive desires, and his “hermeneutic of suspicion” of the pagan Greek religious deities.

First, the quick list. Augustine introduces several themes which will emerge later in the book, including: the role of memory in the pursuit of God, language acquisition in infants, the pejorative nature of custom (Latin mos: see esp. xvi.25), his opposition to capital punishment, his deferred baptism (xi.17–18) his own identity as both sinner and victim, seeds of grace in the early years of his life.

One riveting theme, however, which I have not noticed in the past: his way of reading the pantheon of Greek deities, and the religious “system” in which they appear. In addition to reiterating his view that the Greek gods are veiled demonic, evil spirits, Augustine actually claims in this early book that a prime motivation for ancient pagan mythology is the need, on the part of the powerful, to justify their own immorality and corruption, particularly their sexual immorality:

Have I not read … of Jupiter, at once both thunderer and adulterer? Of course the two activities cannot be combined, but he was described as to give an example of real adultery defended by a fictitious thunderclap acting as a go-between.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.25.

Here Augustine is participating in the great philosophical work of demythologization, adding his voice to the likes of Xenophanes and Plato before him. As for both predecessors, so also for Augustine: after ridding ourselves of pernicious myth, there is still a substratum of legitimate myth, good and proper myth remaining underneath. It is not the case for any of these demythologizers that once we dispel bad myth we are left with “science” or “pure reason” completely without remainder.

What is the real truth about ancient pagan myth? It underwrites and legitimizes the (sexual) immorality of those in power. “If Zeus can do it, then so can I,” says in effect, not only the likes not only of Homer but also of Terence:

But what a god ([Terence] says)! He strikes the temples of heaven with his immense sound. And am I, poor little fellow, not to do the same as he? Yes indeed, I have done it with pleasure.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.26.

The second point of interest, coming from Book I, is the way Augustine deals with his illicit desires. Far from trying to beat down his lusts, he counters them with a stronger desire, a joyful aching, for God:

Bring to me a sweetness surpassing all the seductive delights which I pursued. Enable me to love you with all my strength that I may clasp your hand with all my heart.


Augustine, Confessions, I.xv.24

And again:

Even at this moment you are delivering from this terrifying abyss the soul who seeks for you and thirsts for your delights (Ps. 41:3), whose heart tells you ‘I have sought your face; your face, Lord, will I seek’ (Ps. 26:8).

Augustine, Confessions, I.xviii.28
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Dissertation Progress & Outline

As of today, I am probably about one-third finished with my PhD dissertation in philosophy, which I am completing under the direction of Philipp Rosemann at Maynooth University (the National University of Ireland). As of a couple of weeks ago, my examiners for this project will be John Milbank and William Desmond. For more on all this, see here.

Here is the outline for my dissertation, the (partial) title of which is “Ratzinger’s Bonaventure & the Mythopoiêsis of History”:

  • Chapter 1: the Sitz im Leben of each thinker (Bonaventure and Ratzinger).
  • Chapter 2: the Aristotelian positioning of narrative poiêsis in relation to two other modes of discourse: science and history. As a discourse in between, mythos metaxologically mediates the difference between epistêmê and historia.
  • Chapter 3: the structural position of intellectus in the work of Bonaventure and Ratzinger, and its connection to narrative or mythos.
  • Chapter 4: the role of desire, or affective disposition, in Bonaventure and Ratzinger, and its connection to narrative or mythos.
  • Chapter 5:  the narratival interpenetration of mind or thought, on the one hand, and history on the other, in Bonaventure and Ratzinger.

In the introduction and statement of method (found here), I introduce several key themes, including:

  • mythos/story/narrative.
  • the historical manifestations of science.
  • the pattern of exit and return.
  • the philosophical importance of desire, or the existential register of affect.
  • history and time as the life-blood of theology.


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Open to History (Christian Neoplatonism)

Please ignore this post, unless you are interested in my doctoral dissertation, or are predisposed to matters relating to philosophy and theology. 

In my dissertation I am trying to show that, in our current cultural milieu in the twenty-first century West, philosophy is dependent upon theology, for reasons having to do with history.

Like Josef Pieper’s The End of Time, Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity compellingly suggests or argues that, in a unique way, Christian Neoplatonism is hospitable to history. That is, there is something about Christian Neoplatonism which–unlike other philosophical approaches–does not exclude history from philosophical consideration.

In chapter 4 (“The Repeated Sign”) of the book, Pickstock seamlessly transitions, with no apparent difficulty, from a discussion of ontology to a discussion of history, or what I call historiology.

In fact, on the basis of this chapter, we can say that, for Christian Neoplatonism, unlike many or most other philosophical approaches (inimical to history), the logos of history is no more problematic than the logos of entities in the world, or ontology. Why is this?

It has to do with the Forms, which Pickstock also describes as (closely related to) the “imagined double” of any given thing, including the universe or world as a whole. If any given apple is, at the same time, not-another-apple and also not-a-tomato (entities which are wholly imagined or remembered), its intelligibility hinges on this imagined double, and this kind of reasoning is no less applicable to the world as a whole.

And since the world, or nature, is a meta-indexical whole (that is, it does not point to some other item in the world; it is “beyond indicating”), the question emerges: does its meaning reside in or rely on some higher, or other, reality? That is, if the world is beautiful, then it must rely on some notion or idea or reality of beauty which is not itself contained in or constrained by the world. So, either it is not beautiful, or its beauty depends on some higher reality (in which case its meaning does rely on a “higher” reality).

But what Pickstock implies–and here is the point–is that the apple and the world are no different than, say, the history of the French Revolution. Just as the apple is intelligible only because of the alternative apple or the non-apple, so also the set of “real” space-time, physical events which led to the overthrow of the Ancien Régime in France near the end of the eighteenth century are only intelligible on the basis of an imagined history, that is, an imagined narrative.

(The same applies to the history of the individual self, as Kierkegaard suggests in Repetition by appeal to the “shadow-existences” which one plays in the theater of one’s own self-imaginings. See Repetition 154–5.)

As for the apple, so also for the French Revolution (or any other historical development). This is the case for Christian neoplatonism, but not for modern, secular, alternative philosophical approaches. Christian Neoplatonism confidently embraces a philosophy of history, but other approaches (from Aristotelianism to Kantianism) cannot.

Hence, history is no longer off limits to the philosophical quest for truth.

Hence, we can once again remain open to history, willing to consider attentively whatever it has to say to us.

When we do that, we are confronted by certain parameter-shifting considerations, having to do with creation, fall, incarnation, resurrection, and new creation (or apokatastasis, the redemption of all things).

And now we are doing theology (founded, as it is, on a particular history). It is theology that is here informing our philosophic quest.

Philosophy, then, is here dependent upon theology. Why? Because of the difference that history makes.

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Kierkegaard, Repetition & History

Note: this post is intended for philosophy & theology geeks only!

In Soren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Repetition, the “author” / protagonist / narrator Constantine Constantius performs an unusual kind of experiment. Nostalgically recalling a past trip to Berlin (from Copenhagen), he begins to wonder if he could replicate such an experience again. He means this literally, and so he decides to try to repeat the trip exactly has it happened before, complete with every sensation, impression, thought, pleasure, pain, etc. The question with which this philosophical novel opens, then, is: Is repetition possible?

The answer, it turns out, is no. But as the Constantine tells his larger story, which involves a “young man” enmeshed in a botched love affair strikingly similar in all its details to that of the “historical” Soren Kierkegaard, we realize a deeper philosophical truth. While identical repetition is not possible, it turns out that, at another level, nonidentical repetition is nevertheless not only possible, but absolutely necessary.

In Catherine Pickstock’s treatment of this Kierkegaardian theme (in her 2014 Repetition and Identity, especially chapter 5, “The Repeated Self”), she puts it like this, channeling the spirit of Charles Péguy: in order for a thing to be (or for an event to occur) it must occur twice, and this in all sorts of senses. As a banal example, take an ordinary object in the world such as a tree: in order for it to be a tree at all, it must also be perceived or conceived in the intellect. This intellectual event—the perception or conception, or indeed imaginary anticipation or memory—is the “doubling” of the object.

A key point which Pickstock brings out is has to do with spatial points and temporal instances. Such “entitities” don’t really exist in the world in some sense, and yet our minds supply them, in some sense co-constructing our space-time reality by means of them. Indeed, they supply them by necessity. That is, without these mentally supplied points and instances, all things run together; every thing flows into and out of every other thing, in a kind of Heraclitan flux. Even to say “the cup is here and the napkin is there” requires the presence of such mentally supplied points. Such points, then, are (in Pickstock’s terms) fictive. It is Zeno of Elea who originally expounded such truths. On this point both the Eleatics and Heraclitus agree: such points (and instances) don’t really exist at all. Pickstock’s point (with Kierkegaard and Péguy—and Gilles Deleuze) is that without them, the world is unintelligible.

We have seen that … pure thinghood is devoid of … ontological content, and, yet, that, without these null divisions [of point and moment], there would be no coherent entities and no coherent events. Similarly, they are devoid of meaning-content and signify nothing, being empty even of sound and fury. And yet, without them, there would be no meaningfully distinct entities and no significant or distinguishable events. (Pickstock, Repetition & Identity, 76)

Let us now take this train of thought one step further, extending it to the realm of history and the logos of history. As for points and moments, so also for fictional narratives in general. The only way the human intellect can articulate (put into words) a historical event, occurrence, period, or epoch is by way of some kind of narrative. And at one level the narrative is fictive: like points and instances, in some sense it is not real. And yet, without it, historical accounting or articulation is literally impossible. Narratives are to history what points are to spacial reality.

The narrative fiction, then, is another instance of this intellectual doubling, and without it no logos of history, indeed no graphê  of history, is possible. For history—in any form—to happen once, it must indeed happen twice. It must be repeated.

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Bird Box, “Deaths of Despair,” & the Gospel

It’s been eight decades since Albert Camus dropped the famous bombshell in the playground of Western culture that the only “serious philosophical question” left for us to ponder is: why not suicide?

What was in 1940 a radical, subversive scandal (and not just in 1940: I remember reading the Stranger, mesmerized, on the campus of UT Austin in a beautiful, melancholy courtyard, during a tumultuous rainstorm in 1995) is, near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, well, mainstream, bourgeoisie, maybe even blah.

Hence Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Ways to Die. Hence a 2015 National Academy of the Sciences report that, for the first time in a century, the mortality rate among “middle aged, white Americans” was on the rise, due to suicide and other “deaths of despair.” Hence the 2016 film “Suicide Squad” (with the sequel planned for later this year). Today, suicide is not edgy and dopamine-producing; if anything it’s banal.

But if its banal, its definitely not pleasant to watch. If one is in doubt about this claim, one only has to watch the 2018 Netflix hair-raiser Bird Box, starring, among others Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich.

Pleasant, no. But disturbing to the point of provoking existential self-examination, yes. There is so much about this film to discuss, but in this brief piece I’d like simply to address one aspect of the film, one assumption that it makes (this being your requisite spoil alert).

In the film, during which one suicide after another takes place, the viewer learns that the motivation behind each decision to end it all lies the root reality of fear and regret. Some quality of the evil “something” which victim after victim sees triggers within them the hyper-intensified memory of something beyond traumatizing, some kind of anguish (remembered or imagined) too agonizing to bear. With dreadful tears of dread, one character after another decides to end it all, with absolutely zero regard for who might suffer from their loss or who might witness the tragedy.

Indeed, the salient assumption in the film is that a typical human life lived in Western society will eventually be filled with such traumatic regret or horror. That is, after spending decades of one’s life in the cesspool of human civilization, the typical adult life (or soul) will be so saturated with guilt, fear, and despair that eventually, and given the right triggers, the thought of continuing to live becomes tortuously unbearable.

The film presupposes, that is, not simply that human life is not worth living, but that it is a given that, in the main and over time, normal human fear, shame, and guilt will accrue to the point of no return and no redemption. (It’s kind of like an alternative version on the level of the individual, of the dark, negative assumptions of modern philosophy at the level of the political.)

This assumption on the film’s part explains the role of the two small children (“Boy” and “Girl”) in the narrative. Since they they have only lived in the hellish wasteland of humanity for a mere four or so years, they have up to this point in their lives accrued a far smaller amount of emotional baggage of the heart, in comparison to their middle aged counterparts. Hence they are able to do things and perform tasks which older characters cannot.

The burden of this modest post is not to take issue with this assessment: it does seem plausible—a mere logical consequence, even—in today’s secular, nihilistic world.

Rather, I’d like to remind my readers, and above all myself, that there is a better way. It is called the way of the Gospel. The way of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The astonishing thing about the Christian Gospel is that it does not live in fear (much less in denial) of the horror of the very real tragedies that exist within us and outside of us. On the contrary: Psalm 88 is utterly devoid of redemption, as is the service of Good Friday (for example, in the Book of Common Prayer). There is a time and a place for horrific, gut-wrenching grieving. Christians are not shiny-happy people.

And yet, when a believer embraces the dark side of reality within her and without, what does she find? She finds God. A Deity of Despair. A Lord of Languish. A Christ, anguishing and then dead, pinned and afixed like a tortured specimen, on a Roman torture device called the cross.

This is the better way, for in the life one who has been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20), this gruesome darkness is not the end, but the beginning. (For him, in this limited sense despair can be delicious, as Martin Luther taught.) As the story goes, Christ did not remain on the cross or in the tomb.

The senseless suffering, guilt, and pain, it turns out, is not the end. Yet it absolutely must serve as the beginning. The beginning of a new life, victorious over despair.

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Priesting from the Between

What follows is a talk I recently gave at a conference in Dallas. 

I. Ministering from the Middle: the Dangers of Priesthood.

I want to begin today with a quick story, a story about my wife Bouquet and my 15-year old daughter Bella. That’s right: Bella is 15 years old, which means that she is in the throes of puberty, right in the middle of those glorious teenage years.

In all seriousness, she is a wonderful, blossoming, young woman, full of love, humility, and kindness. And yet, there is one area of real disagreement with her mother: piano lessons. After about eleven straight years of nonstop piano lessons, Bella really wants to quit piano lessons. There’s only one problem: her mother / my wife.

Her mother / my wife … who is also my best friend, my closest advocate, and … someone with whom I don’t really look forward to crossing swords. And yet, I also see where Bella is coming from. And so, here I am, caught in the middle.

And speaking of being caught in the middle, that’s actually a feeling / position that I’m fairly well acquainted with. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m a middle child, but I always seem to find myself … in the middle. When I was a church planter in urban Austin in the early “aughts,” I found myself in the middle of the “Mother Church” / “Sending Church” on the one hand, and the church plant—that rag tag group of misfits who were newcomers and outsiders to the tradition—on the other. So many messy issues. From the point of view of the Mother Church: “why do the kids cry in church so often?” “When will these new members finally start carrying their weight financially?” … And from the perspective of the church plant community: “Why are the elders so cold and standoffish? Why won’t they let us do such and such? Why are they so uptight and controlling?”

And by the way it’s pretty much the same in my current role. About 21 months ago Christ Church in Tyler, Texas opened the doors of a second campus, a second worshipping community called “Christ Church South.” Last fall over 30 adults were confirmed / received by the Bishop. A year before that, almost none of them could spell “Episcopalian.” The issues between the “established community” of Christ Church in Downtown Tyler on the one hand, and Christ Church South (the second campus) on the other are quite similar to the issues and dynamics I experienced in Austin … and once again I find myself smack dab, right in the middle. More often than not I see both sides. I get both sides. And I find myself called—in the sense of vocation—to mediate and to minister from the between.

And while I do have the conviction that, all things being equal, I need to support my wife over my daughter, and that that should be my “default position,” nevertheless I’d be lying if I denied that, well, I usually feel caught in the middle.

And, by the way, I am not complaining. Because you see, this position of “in between” is exactly where a priest is supposed to be situated. Biblically, it is the vocation of the prophet to stand above the people, to proclaim a message from God on high. In contrast to this, it is the special calling the priest to stand in between the people and God, and to advocate (through prayer) for the people, with dirt on one’s hands, in deep solidarity with the people.

Now I said I’m not complaining … but in all seriousness and candidness, well, the fact is that it is not easy, ministering from the middle, mediating from the between.

Another example of finding myself in the middle has to do with the sexual / identity gender wars which are raging in our culture and also in our Church (the Episcopal Church). At Christ Church South we have recently “lost” folks—folks have left the church community, both because we are (supposedly) too liberal and because we are (supposedly) too conservative. For some, we are too liberal because most folks in the community—including me at times—are openly critical of Trump, and we are too conservative b/c the leadership of Christ Church in Tyler—including myself—refuse to perform gay marriages.

And my first point today is that this position of being in the middle, ministering from the between … it’s dangerous, is it not? I mean, it’s so easy to lose ppl on both sides … or perhaps more importantly, it’s so easy to fear losing ppl on both sides.

And yet, I am convinced—at least in my better moments, perhaps my more sober[1] moments—that this kind of community—a community that mediates from the middle—is what the world truly needs.

Two quick caveats, BTW.

  1. By “middle,” I don’t mean “moderate”. I don’t think that Jesus or any of the apostles were simply moderates, and for me personally the thought of being moderate makes me wanna throw up in my mouth a little bit. By “middle,” or “in the between” or “from the between,”[2] I mean:
    1. a neither-nor position
    2. a both and position
    3. a tertium quid position that is “off the map/spectrum”
    4. a position able to hold different people / factions / parties together. Able to hold them together, or at least to hold out hope of holding them together.
  2. Secondly, there is a resonance here with what it means to be embodied, as in the body of Christ. Super briefly, did you know that for the Greeks, sight is primary; for the Hebrews hearing is primary; but for the Christians, touch is primary?
    1. Aristotle on how touch proves the soul;
    2. Christianity and touch, b/c of the Eucharist.

This way of ministering from the middle, priesting from the between, is not only difficult, it is also painful. My experience is that it is painful in similar ways that marriage is painful.

And yet, our world is (literally) dying for non-ideological community. You see, the Body of Christ is between “love of one’s own” (like Polemarchus in Book II of Plato’s Republic, or like the tribalism of Donald Trump) on the one hand, and ideological pseudo-community on the other. By ideological pseudo-community I mean something like a political party (where ppl hang out together b/c they agree on some positions), or something like a country club (the causes of association which sociologists can describe). But, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, the church is not like that at all—not like either of those forms of pseudo-community. Rather, it is like marriage and family.

Speaking of marriage, here’s a question for those of you who are married: do you always agree with your spouse? Do I always agree with my wife? She might say “We need to put our children in public schools,” and I might say, “No: we need to put them in Christian schools.” What if this disagreement turns out to be intractable? Do I then have right to look and her and say “I’m out”? Is it a faithful option for me to be like, “My way or the highway.” No, its not. Not, at least, if my marriage is to be a Christian one.

See, I think that the Church is like that. And that is the way I try to be a priest: to model that, to foster that, to allow God to bring that about. And no one said it would be easy.

And one of the reasons it isn’t easy is because this is the path which resists the temptation of control. As Sarah Coakley writes in her book God, Sexuality, and the Self (in a riff on John Milbank), “theology is the discourse of unmastery.”

Nowhere do I fear losing control more than with the issue of gay marriage in the church. Nowhere am I tempted to try to re-assert my own control of the situation than when it comes to issues around homosexuality and homosexuals in the church. If I do nothing else here at this conference, perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting me to make that specific confession. Gay issues scare the beJeezus out of me.

II. Ministering from the Middle: the Desire of the Priesthood.

And that leads me to my next point: not just the danger of the priesthood, but the desire of the priesthood. Not just the danger of the priesthood, but the allurement of the priesthood.

Because you see, when I confess this fear in my life, well, fear is an emotion. It is what premodern thinkers, including folks like Jonathan Edwards, would call an affection.

And rather than be in denial about such feelings and emotions and issues of the heart and passions, I actually believe God wants me to lead with them.

I’ve been an ordained presbyter in the church for almost two decades, and during that entire time when people come up to me on the street and ask, “Why did you decide to become a pastor?” my stock answer has always been, “Because I love books, and I love people.” But more recently I have been realizing that the priesthood, for me, is such a gift b/c it allows me to lead with the heart.

Here’s another confession for you. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I’ve always wanted ppl to think that I’m smart. Sadly for me, then, the one consistent piece of feedback I’ve always received as a priest is not “Father Matt, you are so smart.” Unfortunately for me, people just don’t very often tell me I’m super intelligent. But what they do tell me—this is consistent over a period of two decades—is that I’m passionate.

Being a priest is great becaus it allows one to lead with the heart. There aren’t very many other careers / vocations[3] that allow you to lead with the heart. But the priesthood does. Thanks be to God. What a reason to rejoice!

After all, CS Lewis says that the Faith is more “caught than taught” (that’s why he speaks of “the good infection.”) Aidan Kavanaugh says that the liturgy is not something that one learns, but rather that one is seduced into. This is why in our Episcopal College Community in Tyler, our ministry to University students, in our leadership meetings we talk about how we want to go “like this.” We want to live lives out of which the aroma of Christ wafts. We want our community to be on which smells like the body and blood of Christ.

Now, if I’m right about the priority of desire,[4] then one implication is that dead orthodoxy is not an option; it is to be avoided at all costs, like the plague.

OK, well how can we be orthodox w/o being dead? Well, I agree with Sarah Coakley’s answer: by contemplation. (Mysticism: the conviction that God wants us to experience God.)

… 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.

See, because contemplation leads us to lose control, it means that we become vulnerable. (Notice I did not say “exhibitionist.”)

  1. The priority of mythos (b/c it is correlated with desire, as CSL teaches in MBF).

A final point about contemplation / mysticism. Mysticism means not just that there is something beyond the physical, but also that the supernatural (which means “beyond the physical”) is more real. [rings of Saturn photo: now more than ever, the truth of neoplatonim just became much more plausible.] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality.

Put the whole thing a different way. We’ve been discussing the issue of desire. You know what the best word for desire is? Thumos. This is Plato’s favorite term for desire. But it is not a desire for external goods, or bodily goods (like when your leg itches and you scratch it, or the desire for food & drink). No: thumos is the desire for … something else.

Thumos is the desire to belong; the desire to be wanted; the desire for relational intimacy.

Sally Field Oscar Award speech (1985, Places in the Heart):

“I want to say thank you to you. I have not had an orthodox career, and more than anything I’ve wanted your respect. The first time I won an Oscar I did not feel it, but this time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now. You like me!”

And the crowd just goes crazy with applause. The kind of applause that Sally Field deeply deeply craves. The kind of applause that she, in this very speech, is admitting that she craves. 

Each one of us has what I call a “thumatic sweet spot,” where we desire and long to be touched. Not physically, of course, but spiritually.

And of course, thumos can also be warped & twisted. Our thumatic sweet spot can become an idol.

For an alcoholic, the thumatic sweet spot is not just romancing that first drink, but actually getting smashed. For an egomaniac narcissist, it is hearing words of affirmation all the time. For our Schnorkie* Janie, it is getting her belly rubbed while I make eye contact with her and say, “Good girl.”

But here’s the deal: the thumatic sweet spot is not bad. It’s how God made us. CS Lewis talks about it his essay “The Inner Ring.” In that essay he describes our need to “be one of the essential people” and “to be on the inside.”

What Sarah Coakley is saying in God, Sexuality, and the Self is that contemplative prayer is a way—I think she would say it is THE way—to satisfy one’s thumatic sweet spot. And I totally agree with her.

Each one of us has a “desire beneath the desire.” Beneath the alcoholic’s desire to change the way she feels through drink, she desires God. Beneath the narcisist’s desire to be affirmed and stroked all the time is his desire for God.

And this leads me to my third and final point (in addition to the danger of the priesthood and the desire of the priesthood): the open-endedness of the priesthood.

See, the priest gets to engage ppl in a process of satisfying their desire beneath the desire.

For me the very best part of the priesthood is that we get to come alongside others and lead them in this journey. We get to lead them, serve them, and submit to them. It is a journey of danger and a journey of desire. But the good news is that it is a journey into God. And that means that it is open-ended.

III. Ministering from the Middle: the Open-Endedness of the Priesthood (CONCLUSION)

This journey into God, this way of being Christians and human on the way … It’s more like an itinerary and less like a map. A life lived between origin and destination. One more story for you. Story about Burt & Ricky. [story abt danger, desire, & open-endedness]

  • I already mentioned that some ppl left Christ Church South b/c I am not prepared to perform gay marriages.
  • Well, Burt is a real leader in our community. Confirmed last fall; has found real community at CCS. He has found a family. His life has been transformed by Christ-in-community in ways that I don’t have time to discuss.
  • But here’s the deal: Burt’s brother is a married gay man. His mother is a married lesbian. Right now, he is struggling, b/c he wants to bring them to our church. He wants to share with them what he has found.
  • But he is worried that the church is not a safe space for them.
  • So what am I doing about this? Here’s what I’m doing: I invited Burt to read the Coakley book with Ricky, another friend of mine who is probably “orthodox” on gay issues, but also super open tempermentally, the kind of friend who immediately makes you feel safe.
  • Now, here’s my point: I do not know how this is going to end. Will Burt leave the church? Will I change my mind on gay marriage? Will there be totally different alternative that I cannot know imagine? All of those are real options.

See, in some ways, the situation is unworkable and intractable. But as we heard from Justin Welby last night, what do we do in situations that unworkable and intractable? 

We allow ourselves to be transformed. And, see, there’s the open-ended part, and there’s the contemplation part. Because what are we being transformed into?

We are being transformed into God, and that, friends, is a journey that never ends.


[1] By sober here I don’t mean “abstinent wrt to alcohol.”

[2] And this language of “the between” comes from an Irish catholic philosopher named William Desmond, whom I highly recommend.

[3] No, I’m not saying that “vocation” and “career” are synonymous.

[4] And that’s what I’ve been trying to convince you of for the last few minutes: the priority of desire, that in some sense, desire is more important, or more fundamental than reason. “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies or rationalizes.”

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Deleuze, Identity, & Difference

On page 50 of Repetition and Identity, Catherine Pickstock argues that for Deleuze, “all there is is being,” univocally construed. That is, when Deleuze looks at any two things—whether they be two BMW A3’s, or two molecules of carbon dioxide, or two galanthus nivalis flowers—he denies that they are really different. Differences “seek constantly to escape the trap” of … the “ontologically representational sphere.”

What is this ontologically representational sphere? It is the “sphere” in which human minds attempt to categorize things in the world in to genê and species.

It is as if each individual thing tries to convince the human mind: “Look at me! I’m utterly different and unique!” But Deleuze won’t fall for this “trap.” He looks at a galanthus nivalis and says, “Nope. You are just another instance of the same, another instance of the subfamily Amaryllidoideae. And so on and so on, until we arrive at that genus called “being.”

That stance illustrates what “univocally construed” means: Against Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas, and with the likes of Suarez (and Heidegger), Deleuze thinks that being is a genus, that being is univocal.

What Pickstock, for her part, is saying, is that it is this commitment to being as univocal which forces Deleuze, at the end of the day, to deny difference, or to resolve the tension between identity (sameness) and difference in favor of the former.

Thanks to theology, she thinks, we can see that being is complex or analogical, and thus that there is a better way, a way in which true difference is preserved, affirmed, and celebrated.

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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 nous–dianoia–nous 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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