Posted on: August 1st, 2022 Hosea, Gomer, & “Sex Workers”

Sometime over the last few months, I have discovered a kindred spirit in the person of Mark Vernon. I have never met Mark (I’ve only interacted with him very briefly online), but through his youtube videos & his books (one book, rather, for I’ve not yet gotten to the others), I can tell that he is channeling something that resonates with my own views/interests/posture. (Sidenote: it was our shared interest in the work of David Bentley Hart that allowed Mark to emerge on my “radar screen.”)

The book in question, The Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness (a bit of an unfortunate title, I admit, as it evokes Dan-Brown type images of conspiracy and underground, possibly new-agey plots), is a gem not simply because of the way it applies the thought of Owen Barfield (dear friend of Lewis & Tolkien, whom they both regarded as the most intelligent of the three), but also because of one particular focus it has by way of a “shift” in (what Vernon thinks of as) spiritual consciousness: that of the eighth-century prophets of Israel, Amos and Hosea in particular.

For it just so happens that in my Episcopal parish we have been reading “the Bible in one year” (thanks, Nicky Gumbel!) and discussing it in our Sunday morning Christian Formation Class, that last couple of weeks focusing on the minor prophets of Jonah, Amos, and Hosea.

Allow me to quote the upshot of Vernon’s point about these prophetic shifts in posture:

Looking back, we can say that the genius of the eighth-century prophets was to intuit that, amidst the anxieties of the age, a new consciousness of themselves and God was unfolding. What Amos and Hosea, in particular, were beginning to realize was that, as the monarchy failed, the nature of the covenant must change. It would no longer be held in the pooled identity of the kingly theocratic order. People would need to come to know Yahweh’s presence in a different way. Only, at this stage, it was entirely unclear in what way.

Vernon, Secret History, 23.

Now, in our Formation Class yesterday morning, we had an interesting discussion about Gomer, the prostitute whom God commanded Hosea to marry. One good friend (extremely thoughtful) in the discussion suggested that I should refer to Gomer as a “sex worker,” I suggestion which I received with open appreciation. However, reading the Vernon book is causing me to reconsider, for he rightly points out that “Gomer … was a sacred prostitute in the cult of Baal.” Unlike a “sex worker” that we might find the twenty-first century West, this woman is not working for a wage. Rather, she is enmeshed in a system of religious power. While a sex worker has (or ought to have, according to some, myself probably included) the same kind of autonomy, the same rights, as any other worker in a secular, capitalist society, Gomer is, quite plainly, a religious slave.

This slave also turns out to be a symbol that the Hebrew Bible uses to make a point about the new thing that God is doing in his history with his people: the deepening of a relationship starkly different from those having to do with the traditional deities of that age. This relationship is one of the heart, one of love. It is a relationship with God uncountenanced within the context of what Barfield calls “original participation.”

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Posted on: July 13th, 2022 Urban Culture & Newman’s “Daimonia”

Given that, quite soon, I’ll be relocating from one city (Tyler, TX) to another (Austin, TX), I’ve been thinking, pondering quite a bit about the difference between the two cities.

For example, you’d love Tyler if you like gated communities, country clubs, racial segregation, monster pick up trucks, Walmart, high school football games, guns, and hunting. Oh, and Trump.

… You’d love Tyler if you like gated communities, country clubs, racial segregation, monster pick up trucks, Walmart, high school football games, guns, and hunting. Oh, and Trump.

In Austin it could not be more different. Very few of my friends in Austin are members of country clubs, for example (even the ones who are worth many millions of dollars, or more). One friend of mine literally took a vow to avoid Walmart for the rest of his life. Have I ever heard of anyone attending a high school football game in Austin? Despite the fact that Friday Night Lights was filmed a couple of blocks away from our house in Austin, and admitting that my “station in life” might have something to do with this … no, no I have not.

All that to say, the ethos, the quality, the character, of the two cities are as different as can be. Which leads me to this quotation by John Henry Newman, suggesting that one explanation for such differences might be something in the spiritual realm:

... besides the host of evil spirits, I considered that there was a middle race, daimonia, neither in heaven, nor it hell; partially fallen, capricious, wayward; noble or crafty, benevolent or malicious, as the case might be. These beings gave a sort of inspiration or intelligence to the races, nations, and classes of men. Hence the action of bodies politic and associations, which is often so different from that of individuals who compose them. hence the character and instincts of states and governments, of religions communities and communions. I thought these assemblages had their life in certain unseen Powers. My preference of the Personal to the Abstract would naturally lead my to this view. I thought it countenanced by the mention of "the Prince of Persia" in the Prophet Daniel; and I think I considered that it was of such intermediate beings that the Apocalypse spoke, in its notice of "The Angels of the Seven Churches."

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: Norton, 1968), 35–6.

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Posted on: June 21st, 2022 O’Donovan’s Genealogy of Christendom

Despite the fact that I disagree (quite strongly) with its conclusion pertaining to the liberal tradition of political philosophy, Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations is an invaluable book.

Among its most conspicuous strengths, in my view, is its clear articulation of (what I call) the historia salutis of God’s people, and how, prior to any kind of grasp of a given political regime—say, the rule of the judges in the Old Testament, the monarchy of Jerusalem, the exile, or the restoration period—one must first attend to the distinctive character of each respective epoch. In other words, the character of each regime—together with one’s evaluation of it—is conditioned by the historical situation in which it took place. One is tempted, even, to venture that for O’Donovan, history is something like “first philosophy.” With all of this I am deeply impressed, and in profound agreement.

A second strength of the book—and this forms the bulk of this essay—is what I will call his “genealogy of Christendom.” How could one possibly know how to think about and to assess the role of the Church in modern western society/culture without closely attending to the various iterations, the various ways in which the relation between what I will often call “the priest” (that is, the Papacy, the Episcopacy, the Church) and “the king” (the emperor of the Roman Empire, the German tribal kings in the fifth and sixth centuries, the civil magistrate during the time of the Reformation, the modern nation state)? Each of these shifts traces the development which leads to our set of assumptions today, for example assumptions about the separation between church and state.

Before I rehearse the details of the genealogy, I want to emphasize two helpful points O’Donovan makes:

First, of the three roles/vocations/ministries/modes that we can discern in the way that the God of Israel implements his rule in the Old Covenant—“salvation,” “judgement,” and “inheritance”—only one falls under the appropriate ministry of “the king” after Christ: that of judgement. Salvation and inheritance (a rather complicated notion which for O’Donovan includes both the promised land of Israel, including how that is reconfigured in the New Covenant, for example in Romans 8, as well as the Torah of Israel, also reconfigured in the New Covenant) remain under the purview of the Church founded by Christ and the apostles.

Second, the specific destiny to which “the king”—the rulers, the civil magistrate—is called in the epoch of the of Church is (in O’Donovan’s language) is to disappear. That is, now that King Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father and has been seated on his throne at the right hand of the Father—an event complex he calls “the exaltation”—all other earthly kings are called to cede authority to him, to King Jesus.

I’d like to register a quick paradox here on this last point of O’Donovan’s (about the exaltation of Christ and the disappearance of the rulers): on the one hand, O’Donovan’s radical claim about the Christ’s exaltation & enthronement—that he really is the one true King of the world—commands respect and admiration. On the other hand, though, this radical claim itself forms the intriguing basis for his embrace of liberal democracy (or to use a term closer to his own idiom, liberal constitutionalism): uniquely in the liberal arrangement, he thinks, what one sees is that the rulers truly have, to a striking degree, disappeared. Insofar as constitutional regimes in the West have rooted authority in the peoples’ discernment of the will of God (note: not “in the people themselves, or in the will of the people”) they have succeeded in working out the inevitable vocation and destiny of politics in the west: to make the rulers—kings, autocrats, feudal lords—vanish, thus ceding authority to King Jesus.

It is, as I say, an intriguing claim. So much so that I wish it were true. And, had I read the book when it was published in the 1990’s, perhaps I’d have embraced it. Yet with the post-liberal cultural chaos we’ve witnessed over the last couple of decades—chaos which could be summed up by the word “nationalism”—I’m left unconvinced. (Alas, O’Donovan fails, in the main, to anticipate the rise of such neofascist waves.) That, plus the apparent comfort O’Donovan has with capitalism, give me extreme pause.

And yet, the rigor (including meticulous historical rigor) of the book do not fail to impress. Hence the following genealogy (with my own tweaks), crucial to any understanding of Christendom and political liberalism:

Eusebius of Caesaria: the “rout of the demons.” Standing on the Milvian Bridge, as it were, witnessing the emergence of a Christian, Constantinian political order, Eusebius’ attitude could be summarized as “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” (O’Donovan, 197). Eusebius identified the fulfilment of “the prophesies which pointed to a universal reign of God” as “the creation of a single empire” (198). For Eusebius, that is, “faith has become sight.” The victory of King Jesus (Col 2:15) has now begun to spill over, to be implemented, in the hic et nunc.

Ambrose & Augustine:  redefining the boundary.

Ambrose, who forced Emperor Theodosius II to do penance before him in the snow, clearly sees “the king” as subordinate to “the priest.” (Somewhat against the grain of O’Donovan, I see a deep continuity here between Eusebius and Ambrose.)  While Ambrose does hold that it is the special prerogative of “the king” to exercise judgement, he also believes that the church maintains the right “to judge the judge” (O’Donovan, 200–201).

Note: one key issue in the configuration of the relationship between “the priest” and “the king” is the issue of temporality versus spatialization. O’Donovan wisely sees the exilic period (as opposed to the Davidic/Jerusalem monarchy) as the paradigmatic configuration for the time after Christ, for it makes clear that the reign of God is an age to come. That is, its relationship to earthy rule/rulership is one of temporality, as opposed to the situation during the monarchy, in which the two reigns were superimposed onto one another such that the two rules are seen to occur within the same shared sphere. (One advantage of O’Donovan’s approach here is that it implies a full respect for the anti-kingship polemical strains we see, for example, in the book of Judges.)

O’Donovan also points out (on the other hand) the sense in which Ambrose does begin ever so slightly to see a kind of “shared sphere” of authority between priest and king: “a king bears the image of God, a bishop the image of Christ” (O’Donovan, 101). Although this quotation is not from Ambrose but rather from one (fourth century) Ambrosiaster, it nevertheless articulates the view from this perspective: yes, priest oversees king, but, to put it simply and directly, the king is beginning to “share the same space/sphere” as the priest.

Augustine, in turn, takes this dual spatial configuration and intensifies it. The two cities are seen as comingled, and the net effect, for our purposes, is to undermine the “victory of Christ’s exaltation” that we see Eusebius pointing to.

Gelasius: two rules. While Augustine said that “two loves made two cities,” Gelasius now says that “Two there are by whom this world is ruled as princes.” Hence he intensifies the shared sphere aspect of the configuration even further.

With the substitution of one word (“Two there are by whom the church is ruled”) Gelasius then crosses a line, subtly but really. From this point on the “notional distinction between the two societies is gone.” “One can no longer say that the Christian emperor ruled qua civil society but not qua heavenly city.” Now, the emperor rules the church directly. This separation now turns into an agonistic battle in which “priest” & “king” vie for superiority, as they argue: which should take priority, the temporal or the spiritual?

The “Gregorian Reforms”: the Supremacy of Spiritual Authority. O’Donovan ably narrates the attempt (a successful attempt, no less) of this reform (not unlike two others: the Mendicant movement of the thirteenth century and the anit-Erastianism of the sixteenth-century Calvinist and Tridentine [Suarezian] reforms, Cf. 196) to re-establish priestly/ecclesial supremacy over that of the king.

Here, the church is bolstered to make it competitive with the civil magistrate. The church now needs an elaborate structure of government supporting it” (O’Donovan, 205). There is a hardening of the principle that the spiritual must have rule over the secular. Rivalry with the civil rulers “on their own turf.” Both “natural law” and “salvation history” (“civilizational progress”) are appealed to for justification (O’Donovan, 206). Yet, the jurisdiction of these papalists was “not that of empire.” Wow: all property rights are now exercised in the authority of the pope, who now owns all property (O’Donovan, 206).

Marsilius of Padua & Luther: the Authority of the Word Alone.

With the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 13th [actually the 12th] cent., the contrast between “nature” & “grace” becomes a big deal, and of course “grace wins” (duh: who has the power, at first?). But, in a dynamic wh mirrors philosophy in general, the long-term effect here is the eventual triumph of nature over grace…. That’s how compelling Aristotle was (and also the nature of subversion, how “the underdog always wins”).

Franciscan row over “absolute poverty” (O’Donovan, 207). “From the ideal of absolute poverty it seemed to follow [like pulling a thread in a garment] that the church could play no role in society” (O’Donovan, 207). The long-term result: an attempt to formulate a concept of authority based on the authority of the word (the Word of God) alone” (O’Donocan, 207). The most important upshot: the idea that “Gospel truth has its own distinct authority,” unrelated to coercion/force.”

“With this distinction b/t different kinds of authority we suddenly confront some … modern dilemmas.” For an insightful list of examples, see 208.

“Both Lutheran and Anglican Reformers founded their view of church-state relations on this distinction of authority into disparate kinds” (O’Donovan, 209).Yet Luther’s apparent revival of Augustine’s “two kingdoms” duality “turns out to be an ideal one, requiring zwei Regimente to reinforce at a practical/functional level the zwei Reiche.” (O’Donovan, 209). Luther also converts the spiritual/secular distinction into inner/outer. Luther was influenced by “the king’s two bodies,” a medieval lawyers’ distinction.

Calvin & Suarez: Restoring the Balance.

“The Marsilian pattern, having triumphed at the Reformation, steadily lost ground thereafter. To recover equilibrium, rather than to stress the difference, was the chief object of the later sixteenth century and shaped the final phase of Christendom” (O’Donovan, 209–10). (Note: I think that what O is here implying is that, in the previous phase of “the authority of the word alone” what actually occurred is a lopsided power that was arrogated to the “the king,” to the civil magistrate.)

Suarez (and Vitoria, both members of the Salamanca school) advocated a position with the following planks:

The secular power was deemed “supreme in its own order.”

“The pope could not challenge the act of any secular (!) ruler for reasons lying within the ruler’s sphere of justice” (O’Donovanm, 210).

Vitoria said that “so long as a thing is not incompatible with the salvation of souls and religion, the pope’s office is not involved.”

“Political order was founded solely on the basis of Natural Law, and existed no less validly among pagans.”

Note how so much of this is founded upon a pernicious, scholastic division of nature and grace.  

The Calvinists. In response to the Erastian reforms (wh took power & influence from the church & handed it to the magistrate), the Calvinists were looking “to claim back the church’s social space.” Yet in so striving, they do not seem to want the church to be able to wield power over the state. Rather, with the “power” of church discipline, the consistory had a strong influence over society, especially if the ruler was a member of the church, and especially given the local jurisdiction of the consistory in each particular city-state (canton?).

Much to digest in this brief genealogy. In my next post I plan to offer some conclusions.

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Posted on: May 26th, 2022 A Psalmic “Koan”

In my morning prayer time today (in Psalm 119), I came across the following two lines:

  • “I have sworn to keep your … judgements.” (Ps 119:106)
  • “O LORD … teach me your … judgements.” (Ps 119:108)

Now, what is going on here? How can the Psalmist—or you or I—presume to be able to keep God’s judgements (v 106) when we need to be taught what they are (and hence clearly do not even know what they are)?

Now, there’s obviously a whole lot going on here … and I am by no means trying to cast aspersions upon the Psalm or to suggest any incoherence.

If anything is undermined here, it is any facile presumption that keeping God’s judgements, being faithful to him, is a straightforward or obviously clear endeavor.

What are the judgements of the LORD? The koan-like character of these lines reminds us that knowing them is the task of a lifetime. Yes, we must commit ourselves to faithfulness, but even as we do that, and with God’s grace, more is unfolded to us. More is revealed.

In the Christian life, there is no easy compliance.

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Posted on: April 8th, 2022 Roland in Moonlight

I’ve long resonated with the Benedictine maxim “Always we begin again.” After three decades of passionate struggle to touch the profoundest mysteries of philosophy and theology, alas, I still at times feel lost at sea. I’m pretty sure that Socrates (even in old age) would have felt the same.

The Preacher (Qoheleth) channeled a similar spirit in the book of Ecclesiastes when he said “Of the making (or reading) of books there is no end.” Indeed, the finite time allotted to man is dwarfed by the number of books I desire to read.

Enter David Bentley Hart’s Roland in Moonlight. Not unlike the that of the intellectual biography, there is something about the genre of this book (intellectual fiction?) that I find quite helpful. Helpful in clarifying or confirming certain basic “hunches” that I’ve had, but seen only hazily.

For example, Roland’s (note: Roland is a dog!) discussion of recognition on page 31 is only the second instance of a rigorous thinker articulating “what I have thought” about recognition (the first being Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity). That this discussion also employs the term “eidetic” only adds to my cognitive rest.

So then, intellectual biography and intellectual fiction: these are two genres I find quite helpful in clarifying and especially confirming certain emerging convictions of mine which I nevertheless grasp only hazily, often doubting the solidity of my footing.

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Posted on: April 1st, 2022 Deep Hope within the Episcopal Church

It is easy to get discouraged in the Episcopal Church for a whole variety of reasons. Yet, these two videos (this one and this one)—which, somehow, had escaped my notice—are so, so good.

In the first one Ellen Davis speaks of Scripture as that which prompts God’s people to begin to imagine and speak in primordially refreshing ways.

In the second one Bishop Curry refers to the sacrament of Holy Eucharist as “the sacrament of unity,” that which can heal our deepest estrangements.

Therein lies my hope, in this fragmenting, VUCA culture. Thanks be to God!

(I’m grateful to the Society of Scholar-Priests for the role they played, I think, in making these vids a reality.)

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Posted on: January 18th, 2022 Running & Hexis

Like a lot of folks, I grew up with a parent who frequently emphasized to us kids the importance of habits, both good (like brushing your teeth) and bad (like picking your finger nails).

Habit. Its meaning seems obvious: some repeated action that ends up become second nature, or perhaps—to invoke a contentious adjective—rote. That word “rote” connotes something unthinking and lifeless, mindlessly habitual.

I suppose that many in the West have assumed they grasp the sense of “habit” ever since Thomas Aquinas, following older Latin translations of Aristotle (William of Moerbeke?), made habit a bedrock virtue of Christian maturity. The term they used, habitus, was their Latin translation of choice for the Stagirite’s original hexis.

But is hexis, in Aristotle’s mind and usage, really what we mean by “habit,” with it connotations of static lifelessness? With Joe Sachs, I think not. Sachs, in his introduction to his English translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, writes

… what defines hexis is that it is not a passive state but an active condition, a way in which we hold ourselves, having taken hold deliberately of the feelings and dispositions that are in us merely passively….

An example comes from my decades-long experience of long-distance running. While on a long run, say 10 or 12 miles, I embrace a variety of postures and attitudes. For example, I frequently give myself “permission” to run slowly. (In fact, sometimes I will see how slow I can possibly run, in a runner’s version of the “slow cooking” movement.) Other times I run at a very comfortable pace. Sometimes I sprint. But sometimes

I try to hold a moderate pace, maybe for a specific number of minutes, or perhaps for a specific distance. For me this is probably just under an eight-minute-per-mile pace. When I do that—not exactly “pushing myself to the limit,” but also not lackadaisically “coasting”—what am I doing? I’m “holding myself” actively in a certain, constant state. It requires intentionality; it requires exertion. And if one engages in this activity for months, years, decades, it can become kind of, sort of, automatic, although never simply passive.

When I run in this way, I often meditate on Aristotle’s notion of hexis.

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Posted on: August 17th, 2021 Pope Gregory VII’s _Reformatio_ (Tom Holland’s _Dominion_)

What Tom Holland, in his Dominion, is showing me is that, prior to Gregory VII (formerly Hildebrand), it was the Holy Roman Emperor who “held together” (or served as a locus of unity) between the Church and the ruling power(s) of the lands. In times past, the HRE had both deposed and appointed popes.

But all that changed with the emergence of Gregory the VII (who believed that “the Pope is permitted to depose emperors,” 227), who essentially took power away from the HRE of the time (Henry IV). The net effect of this was to “divide and conquer” the HRE and his power … so after this “Lands that had long existed in the shadow both of the vanished order of Rome, and of the vastly wealthier, more sophisticated Empires on their Eastern flank, had been set at last upon a distinctive course of their own.” (230).

In Holland’s view, this is a hugely important moment, building the concepts of Augustine such as the saeculum, in the development between the secular and the profane. Gregory’s “reforms” went a long way toward establishing in the West the distinction between church and state.  

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Posted on: August 10th, 2021 Running thru the Tough Times (as a Priest)

When I was in seminary (the second time, as an Episcopalian, not the first time, as a Presbyterian) a wise priest counseled us students: “You will find it quite helpful in your ministry always to have three important relationships: one with a therapist, one with a confessor, and one with a spiritual director.”

Strong words. Words which, received with mild skepticism back then, I embrace and affirm today. Nevertheless, I have not always lived up to them, for rarely over my two decades of ordained ministry have I had relationships with all three types of counselor at the same time.

What I have had during the past two decades (and before) is the gift of running.

While I doubt that I have another marathon in me, and while the Texas summer months always threaten to derail me (I admit it), running remains a lifeline for me. This is true in general, but it has been more especially true lately, over the past year-and-a-half (ish).

Is it just me, or have the last eighteen months or so seen a level of anxiety previously unknown? Granted, the pandemic is not World War II or the Great Depression, but there’s no doubt that it has brought with it a kind of malaise and dread which even those previous trials did not exude.  

During it all (I include not the pandemic in isolation, but the multitude of effects it has wrought) I have run.

For me running is not a form of exercise; it’s a way of being present with myself.

Running is like contemplative prayer. Nay, it is contemplative prayer. In it I come face to face with my fears, my anxieties, my guilt, my obsessions, my sins, my worries.

Just as in contemplative prayer, on my runs, I’m confronted with all of these “enemies” (to use the language of the Psalms, for example, in Ps 59:1). They just “pop up” in my head and heart, accusing me, tormenting me. It’s quite a problem, in the heat of the moment. Our secular world’s solution? Distraction (usually by way of entertainment or social media) or escape (often through drugs or alcohol, or, less destructively, medication).

But for beings who would be spiritual, there is a better way.

“The way out is the way through,” says the old Buddhist maxim.

Running is my main way of “going through.” Through the pain, through the fear, through the anxiety.

Christ undergirds this image, for his “way out” was the ultimate “way through.” Through the cross, through death, to indestructible life.

I have a feeling that, in my struggles with anxiety, I am not alone. (Indeed, I know that I’m not: I’m a pastor, and I know my sheep!) What are your ways of coping, of dealing with the onslaught, especially during the pandemic? I’d sincerely like to know. (Email me!)

“The way out is the way through.” Thanks be to God for the “throughness” of the cross!

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Posted on: August 3rd, 2021 Who may dwell in your tabernacle?

The purpose of this short post is simple: to articulate how and why the Psalms speak of Jesus Christ.

While all of the Psalms are christocentric—in fact according to the Book of Hebrews Jesus is the one who sings the Psalms—Psalm 15 is a particularly apt example, for it requires a kind of perfection in order for one to experience God’s presence.

“LORD, who may dwell upon your holy hill?” Who can rest in your peace and enjoy your presence?” Only she who is blameless. Only the one who speaks the truth in a completely authentic manner. Only one who never gives into the temptation of wrongful financial gain.

Who has done these things? Absolutely no one.

Who has done these things, has kept the law blameless, from the heart? No one. No one, that is except for the man Jesus Christ.

So who may enjoy God’s presence? Who is the one for whom God’s temple is open and available? Only Jesus Christ … and those who are found in him, who are united to him by faith, who are members of his body, having been buried with him in death, and raised with him in newness of life.

Why may enjoy the life-giving presence of God? Those who are mystically in Christ.

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Posted on: February 8th, 2021 Christian Nihilim: the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

One of my favorite John Milbank quotations is: “Christianity is a hair’s breadth from nihilism.”

And in my Introduction to Philosophy class I begin the entire class with a discussion of Parmenides and Heraclitus, Heraclitus who said that “All is flux,” and that “You can’t step in the same river twice.” (Cratylus, as we discuss in the class, “one ups” Heraclitus by insisting that “you cannot step in the same river even once,” and in this way his view is like “Heraclitus on steroids.”)

This view of Heraclitus is one of radical transience, in contradistinction to Parmenides, who insists that all is stable being. For Heraclitus, reality is fundamentally unintelligible, “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (in the words of Williams James). So much so that you cannot even point to items in the world, since there are no items to point to (hence we can say that, for Heraclitus, or more precisely, for Cratylus, the world is utterly non-indexible). There is also, by the way, no finger with which to point.

In this ontology of radical transience, we are reminded of the blooming, buzzing confusion of Genesis 1:2, just before Elohim brings order, form, and beauty out of the chaos: “and the earth was formless and void (tôhu vbôhu), and darkness was over the surface of the deep.” Especially when read through the lens of Church Fathers such as Augustine, we see here the truth of Heraclitan nihilism. A truth which Plato and Aristotle both honored, the latter with his notion of prime matter (hulê prima), about which the only affirmation the Staggirite can make is that it is spatially extended.

Do you doubt, dear reader, that such a nihilistic vision is, really and truly, included in the Christian approach to reality?

I stumbled upon it yet again this morning, in my daily reading of the Psalms of David:

LORD, let me know my end and the number of my days,

so that I may know how short my life is.

You have given me a mere handful of days,

and my lifetime is nothing in your sight;

truly, even those who stand erect are like a puff of wind.

We walk about like a shadow,

and in vain we are in turmoil;

we heap up riches and cannot tell who will gather them.

With rebukes for sin you punish us;

like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us;

truly, everyone is but a puff of wind.

Psalm 39:5–7; 12 (Book of Common Prayer)

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Posted on: January 21st, 2021 Schelling, Augustine, Remembering

Grant Kaplan on Schelling: “The Urmensch adam was ‘connected with the divine consciousness’ and ‘in immediate communion [Gemeinschaft] with the creator.’”[1]

One could, and should, spend costly time and effort of thought trying to imagine, to imaginatively discover, what this “immediate communion” with God—this direct and surely intimate relationship between man and God—was like.

I have often used as a sermon illustration the image of my daughters running to me after getting home from work, unlocking the front door, running up to me, jumping up onto me, screaming: “Daddy! Daddy! You’re home!” This, to me, is a dim intimation of what such intimate, loving communion with God must have been like in the Garden of Eden.

For Augustine (as a good Platonist), this is the primal memory which determines man more than any other. The pilgrimage of the Christian life, for him, is the process of recollecting, uncovering, getting back into touch with, this primal memory of communion with God in the garden.

For the Psalmist (especially in Psalms such as Ps 119, and within that especially in sections such as He, Waw, Zayin, Heth, and Teth), this is the point of the law, of meditating on God’s law day and night, with one’s “whole heart,” Ps. 119:34, 58 (BCP). To meditate on God’s torah, I have come to believe, is, at the deepest level, to dwell on God’s words to Moses (and the people of Israel) in Exodus 19:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,

How I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now therefore if you obey my voice and keep my covenant,

You shall be my treasured possession out of the all the peoples.

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be to me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.

It seems to me that here, we see God’s heart for humanity. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Scripture, we get a glimpse of the direct, intimate communion between God and man in the Garden.   


[1] Kaplan, Answering the Enlightenment 86a.

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Posted on: January 5th, 2021 Language, Reality, & “Awoman”

On Sunday, January 3, 2020 U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (at the time serving provisionally as the chaplain of the House), ended a prayer offered on behalf of the House not with the traditional “Amen,” but rather with “Awomen.”

However well-intentioned Cleaver may have been in that moment, I’m reminded of the words of Cyril O’Regan, discussing Hans Urs von Balthassar’s rejection of a traditional theological maxim—a litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy—put forth my Vincent de Lérins (a maxim rejected by Joseph Ratzinger as well, and hence by the official posture of the Second Vatican Council):

Lérin’s definition [was] in danger of denying the symbolic nature of all language with respect to the divine and promoting the view that doctrine is adequate to the mystery to which it refers. (Tracey Rowland, Benedict XVI: a Guide for the Perplexed, 55.)

Believe me, I’m not expecting Mr. Cleaver to grasp the deep import of O’Regan’s words here, but if one wants an actual, serious, theological rationale for rejecting the foolish revision of theological language (in legion of its forms), this is a good starting point.

In short, advocates for the revision of traditional theological language, more often than not, are laboring under the illusion that such language—especially in liturgical contexts—are univocal or “literal.”

But they were never intended to be.

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Posted on: December 22nd, 2020 Ratzinger, Fichte, & the Rejection of Revelation

After I defended my dissertation (on Ratzinger’s Habilitationsschrift, the Theology of History in St. Bonaventure) in July of 2020, I began to see the need to situate the future Pontiff’s thought within deeper currents of German philosophy. It is extrememely plausible to see his defense of Bonaventure as motivated by the need to respond to contemporary developments about the nature of time and history (for example, the thought of Heidegger, which, one might say, conceives of being as something like Plato’s becoming), even though Ratzinger himself roots his concerns in the Protestant fascination (de riguer at the time) with Heilsgeschichte (e.g., Oscar Cullman’s Christ in Time).

That a central concern for Ratzinger in his Habilation research was Bonaventure’s surprising notion of revelation is an initial hint or suggestion that, indeed, Ratzinger is in some kind of dialogue with these antecedent currents of German thought of the early proponents of so-called German idealism.

In this post I want to rehearse a point about the Kantian (and Fichtean) rejection of revelation. On page 46, Kaplan quotes Fichte, who “raises the possibility that creation might be a revelation.”

“Indeed to the extent that [through such an empirical process] it were possible to have […] a knowledge of God, of our dependence upon him, and that certain duties resulted from this knowledge […] and to the extent that one could view God as the purpose of the creation of the world, one could believe for a moment that the entire system of appearances could be viewed as a revelation.”

But Fichte dismisses this possibility as soon as he raises it. Why? Because (as Kaplain states) “theoretical reason has no capacity to know the noumenal world.”

And why, in turn, is this?

It is because of the merely tangential role God plays in Kant’s and Fichte’s system. For Kant God is never evoked or even countenanced in the First Critique. That is, for Kant’s system of thoeretical reason, God is regarded as completely unnecessary. Kant’s theoretical system, then, assumes a methodological atheism.

God becomes a crucial plank in Kant’s thought, only with the moral philosophy of practical reason (the Second Critique). As Günter Meckenstock puts it (Kaplain 179 n 38) the concept of God is “bound to the apodictic validity of the moral and rational ethical law.” As Kaplain puts it on 44, “God is posulated as a being who makes the world of nature and of morality correspond.” You see, while the phenomenal world for Kant cannot affect the noumenal world (that is, the free will of the human person), the noumenal can and does affect the phenomenal. But in order for this to be compelling (since it cannot be observed), we need God to serve as a kind of placeholder or guarantor.

In other words, in his elaborate attempt to safeguard the freedom of the will (in the face of the Newtonian suggestion that all of nature follows fixed, mathematical laws), Kant must invoke the concept of God as a placeholder. For Kant the human will must be autonomous, following its own free choices and determinations, and in no way conditioned by external factors or laws. Heteronomy bad, autonomy good.

But this God, this role for God in human knowing or the grasp of truth about the world, is a far, far cry from God as creator, who has made a world which somehow reveals him (Ps 19:1). This “god” is a mere corollary of practical reason, since for Kant (and Fichte) theology is done only after practical philosophy (see Kaplan 47ff.).

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Posted on: December 12th, 2020 Milbank, Bonaventure, & History/Eschatology

“Thus time for Bonaventure … begins and ends in God.”—John Milbank, “There’s Always One Day,” in Theologies of Retrieval, ed. Darin Sarisky (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 24.

So claims John Milbank, and I agree with his read of Bonaventure here (despite my qualms with what I left out in the above ellipsis: the word “literally”). My dissertation is an sustained attempt, during which I stumble upon and share many epiphanies, to defend Bonaventure’s stance regarding temporality. I try, that is, to show how—given certain hermeneutical planks, ancient and modern, propounded by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Heidegger, Ricœur, Gadamar, Péguy, and Pickstock—one needs to say that time begins and ends in God. If, that is, we are to make sense of history.

A fundamental premise, following Ricœur, Péguy, and Pickstock, is that history, pace Aristotle, must be regarded as a story or (to use the ancient Greek term) a mythos.

Why is this the case? It has something to do, among other reasons, with the structure of human mind, a structure which—as Augustine shows with his point about the Psalm in Confessions XI—is, in an important sense, irreducibly temporal.

Resisting, however, any hint of process theology, I deny that time is “in” God. Instead, as Plato has it in the Timaeus, time is a moving image of (God’s) eternity. Don’t forget: nothing is more real than an image. This created movement which is time, then, is really and truly a participation in God’s movement, “of one piece” with it.

Here, perhaps, is the beginning of a new and truly postmodern ontology: an ontology of fiction. Hence, regardless of Milbank’s take on Bonaventure’s alleged “literalism,” time’s beginning and end in God, while absolutely real, is anything but literal.

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Posted on: December 9th, 2020 Thoughts on Self-awareness

For my entire adult life, I have loved to run, mainly long distances. Currently I am running about 30 miles per week. 30 miles a week of prayer, silence, solitude, breathing, taking in the light, listening to and for God.

Especially for my long runs, I will occasionally drive to White Rock Lake in Dallas (about 75 miles away from my home in East Texas), where there is a lovely running path encircling the lake. On a cool winder day with blue skies and sunshine, it is truly glorious.

I’ve been running around the lake for about 7 or 8 years now … nowadays about once a month (but in a previous stage of life I’d do it more like once a week). Lately—the last five or six times—I have noticed a cyclist who whizzes past me (and every other runner and walker on the trail) who, near the top of his lungs, yells out, with loud Texas drawl “HOWDY! GOOD MORNIN’!” This is something I have “noticed”—how could one not notice?—or, rather, something with which I have been confronted, almost in the form of an audible assault.

I am sure that this man is well-intentioned. Yet his blaring, booming “greeting” is also, at least for me, somewhat irritating.

This man—I am confident in asserting—lacks self-awareness.

What is self-awareness?

I do not have a technical definition in mind to share with you. And yet, having thought about this for over a decade now, I believe that I do grasp the essence of it. Self-awareness is the sensitivity one develops, the ability to see that certain of their actions—actions which are purportedly for the benefit of another—are actually performed for their own benefit, in order somehow to make themselves feel better.

Conversely a lack of self-awareness manifests itself when one fails to see this, to perceive this, to appreciate this.

When I was a small boy my dad (whom I love dearly, beyond words) used to put his hand on my head and rub my hair, drastically re-arranging it. “Good boy,” he’d say, as he rocked my head back and forth, turning my blond locks into a tussle of messiness. Then, with a couple more pats on the head (as if I were a canine), he’d say again: “Good boy.”

Now, I love my dad! He (like the cyclist) was well-intentioned, in a way. And yet … as he expressed or emoted his feeling of affection for me, did he really have my own good in view?

Or the cyclist: as he whizzes past the runners and belts out his morning greeting for all of Dallas to hear, is he truly motivated by a desire for the good of his neighbor?

Or, rather, is he actually doing something, performing an action, somehow for the benefit on himself? (Perhaps to call attention to himself, perhaps to be able to think or feel better about himself?)

I see this same tendency in myself frequently. Even with my dog or my cat—to return to the issue of semi-fierce caressing of hair or fur—I sometimes think, “Am I doing this for their good, or is this supposed to make me feel better?”

Even if the latter is my true motivation, it is good, at least, to be aware of it.

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Posted on: November 13th, 2020 The Psalmist goes “meta”

Have you ever heard a theologian say something like the following:

It’s not that God is beautiful; God is beauty itself.

It’s not that God is good; God is goodness itself.

It’s not that God is true; God is truth itself.

When the theologian speaks this way, the theologian has gone “meta.”

I once heard a sermon in which Tim Keller does not say that Jesus revolutionizes the economy, or that Jesus revolutionizes politics or that Jesus revolutionizes marriage. No. Instead what Keller says is that Jesus revolutionizes revolution. When Keller said this, he went “meta.”

In a similar way, in Psalm 68 the Psalmist goes “meta.” In verse 18 of that Psalm (BCP), he says,

You have gone up on high and led captivity captive.

He does not say, “You have led the terrorist captive,” or “You have led the enemy captive,” or “You have led the Pharaoh captive.” No. Instead, the Psalmist goes “meta,” saying, “You have led captivity captive.”

Best of all, St. Paul quotes this “meta statement” in Eph 4:8, applying it to the victory of Christ in the Ascension:

When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”

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Posted on: July 10th, 2020 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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Posted on: July 8th, 2020 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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Posted on: July 4th, 2020 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 for 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 the latter 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 for 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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Posted on: July 3rd, 2020 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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Posted on: July 3rd, 2020 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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Posted on: June 9th, 2020 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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Posted on: April 16th, 2020 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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Posted on: April 13th, 2020 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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