Posted on: May 22nd, 2024 Beyond Representation: Barfield on Participation & History (Saving Appearances #2)

Note: this piece is part of a larger series on Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances. For the first installment see here. Also for a youtube discussion of it see here.

In chapters IV through VI of Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield discusses how his four stages of representation (perception, figuration, alpha-thinking, and beta-thinking) give rise to a distinctive view of history and what philosophers in the wake of Plato call “participation.”

Chapter IV, “Participation,” involves a discussion about “contemporary primitive” and “historically early” man, in other words people, groups, & tribes, for example native American tribes (who believe in such realities as mana and waken (page 32), as well as totemic peoples. Barfield sides with the non-English sociologists such as Levi-Bruhl and Durkheim, who oppose those earlier, English sociologists such as Taylor (who wrote a book called Primitive Culture; see page 29).

The question of this chapter is: What led the these culturally “primitive” groups to worship totems, to attribute reality to non-physical, mystical forces such as mana and waken, etc.? What led them to embue nature with what we moderns would call “supernatural forces”?

Taylor’s view—which no doubt is the “default view” that (functioning in the mode of ideology, I’d argue) is dominant in the commonly held assumptions of most people in, say, the U. S.—is that such primitives engaged in the same kind of discursive reasoning as we modern western people do (that is, they engaged in alpha-thinking); this is why they held such “irrational” and “mystical” beliefs as alluded to above. In other words, they were seeking an intelligible cause for certain natural phenomena (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.), and the result of their inquiry was (supposedly) that these were due to “spiritual forces.”

Against this view, Levi-Bruhl and Durkeim want to say that, no: these people did not think like we do (in this alpha-thinking kind of way rehearsed above, which reasons from cause to effect) Rather, while seeing with the same eyes as we have, “they do not perceive with the same minds.” To translate this into Barfield’s distinctive vocabulary, they are practicing a different figuration. Not a different alpha-thinking (pace Taylor), but a different figuration.

What is the main difference between their figuration and ours? There are two. First, they experience an extra-sensory connection with the phenomena. Second, they are consciously aware of it. They are consciously aware (unlike us) of their active participation (i.e., of this extra-sensory connection) in the phenomena. (One more difference between them and us: they are not Kantians. That is they do not assume the phenomena are “inside of them.” No: they assume that they are “outside of them.”)

Three other quick notes about chapter IV. First, Barfield makes it clear, by way of his use of “attention” (page 30) that he is a phenomenological thinker. Second, Barfield thinks that the “totemic stage” he is treating in this chapter is “pre-mythical” (that is, myth for Barfield is already an early form of alpha-thinking). Third, he makes it clear that figuration is “pre-thought” and that it is recognition (page 34).

Moving now to Chapter V (“Pre-history”). The upshot of this chapter, exactly as the title states, is the way we think about the history of the cosmos prior to the emergence of human beings onto the scene. (Note that Barfield here is presupposing the truth of something like Darwinian evolution.) To project our own thinking (which, by the way, is alpha-thinking, since we moderns are habitually and characteristically unaware of figuration) onto the way the cosmos would have appeared to human beings, say, ten billion years ago, is the same mistake as that of Taylor, above. That is, if we are not justified in our assumption that “primitive” peoples (Sioux indians in North America, for example) see or recognize the world as we do, then we are not justified in privileging our own way of seeing over that of other peoples, in our putative description of, say, stellar evolution or the formation of the Atlantic ocean or the Amazon river (events which are purported to have taken place before the emergence of sentient beings on the evolutionary timeline).

Further, Barfield states (rather radically) that any description of such processes—his example is H. G. Wells’ Outline of History—necessarily “never occurred” (37) because there were no human beings (or, to be more precise, sentient beings) to constitute the phenomena. (There are no phenomena, by definition, independent of consciousness; there is only the “unrepresented.”)

He concludes the chapter by turning the tables on Francis Bacon (39). Bacon haughtily derides the idolatry of medieval thought: the idol of the cave, the idol of the tribe, etc. Yet, the situation of our idolatry, Barfield argues, is far worse than that which Bacon criticized: the nature and limits of our (new) idols has not been forgotten; the situation is far worse: they have never even been noticed. (What are our idols? From the context it seems like the answer is: the notional, mathematical models of modern physics.)

In Chapter VI Barfield claims that what distinguishes our phenomena from that of “original participators” is that we are not (we are no longer) aware that we are participating.

He also posits a new term: the “represented,” by which I think he means Platonic form. This is “whatever is correlative to the appearances or representations” (41).

Barfield states that a shift takes place at “the end of the nineteenth century” (43): this is when a certain scientific project (studying “the phenomena to the extent that they can be grasped as independent of consciousness”) ran out of steam. What gave rise to this last gasp? The “implication of the observer” back into the (observed) phenomena. (He must be talking about things like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the developments leading up to the double-slit experiment of 1927.)

Two final points in this chapter: 1) “Systematic alpha-thinking” began historically with Greek speculation about astronomy (43–4). There are good reasons (regularity among them) why they would assume that, unlike “sub-lunar phenomena,” the celestial bodies were independent of their consciousness. 2) We can see the evolution of consciousness in the “linguistic fossils” of such terms as λογος and νους. To project our assumptions about the meaning of these terms back onto ancient writers such as Plato, Aristotle, or the Bible is to fundamentally misunderstand these writers/texts.

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Posted on: April 6th, 2024 Beyond Sexual Difference (a brief statement)

When God made the Human on “day 6,” the Human was not a mammal.

When the Human sinned, he descended into the nature (or essence) of a mammal; he became a rational animal.

But prior to this, he had a different nature. According to I Cor 15, it was like unto the nature of an angel.

Upon falling into this mammalian nature, human beings began to behave like animals. In particular they began to propagate their species by way of sexual reproduction. This sexual reproduction, then, is part and parcel with death, biological death. Prior to the fall, there was no (involuntary) death on the part of the Human. Hence no need to propagate. Gregory of Nyssa is quite clear about this in On the Making of Man.

Also part and parcel with death and sexual reproduction (and hence of the fall) is sexual difference. Prior to the fall there was no sexual differentiation, which is why Jesus says in Mt 19 that in heaven there will be no giving & receiving in marriage, and which is why Paul encourages his readers in Corinth to imitate him in his celibacy. Realizing this—that the eschatological status of humanity is a return to its creational, Edenic state—Christians from very early on began to conceive of the Christian life as a life of virginity, a life lived beyond the economy of the sin-produced death of the animal kingdom. (Aristophanes’ myth in Plato’s Symposium, then, contains large grains of truth, as certain church fathers realized.)

For these premodern Christian virgins, the fully divine life  of the human person in Christ was to be lived (perhaps not exclusively) beyond sexual difference.

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Posted on: March 23rd, 2024 Courage & the Stable “Subject”

For years I’ve grappled with the question/issue of whether the human being—not one’s body, but one’s soul, or what modern folks sometimes refer to as the “subject”—has a stable form or not.

For example Alasdair McIntyre writes about “man as a functional concept.” This is one version, I think, of affirming that human beings have (something of) a fixed nature. On MacIntyre’s side (in super broad strokes, also limited to modern culture): Hegel (hence Marx), most “conservatives.” In opposition we have Nietzsche & Foucault (to name just two thinkers about whom I have a modicum of understanding), as well as the existentialists, for whom “existence precedes essence.”

I want just to register one little “data point” in favor of the stable soul/subject/essence/identity: courage. I do firmly believe that courage is the baseline virtue. That is, all the other virtues (moderation, prudence, justice, as well as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love) are off limits to the human being who lacks courage/fortitude.

We cannot alter or bypass or deny this reality … and what that means is that there is some kind of structure, some kind of givenness, some kind of stability or fixed essence, to the human being or subject.

Now, is that all there is to say? By no means! This little indication of “fixed structure” leaves much to be determined. To name just two examples: deification and autopoiêsis (which are related, by the way).

Deification. The vocation of human beings is to become divine (which might sound resonant with “fixed nature”), but the only pathway to this destination is paved with the necessity of human freedom. In other words there is not deification part from the free choice, the free decision, in a thousand different ways, of the human being.

Autopoiêsis. Following thinkers like Hadot & Foucault, but also so many Christians monastics down through the centuries (from Evagrius to Merton), human beings are called to relate to themselves artistically. We have the ability, the calling, the drive, to create something out of ourselves. To live our lives as a project of becoming something beautiful, disciplined, strong, and (again) god-like.

So these—deification and autopoiêsis—are qualifications (while, strangely, also serving as confirmations) of the basic point above that there is something fixed about human nature, namely that courage is the doorway to, the necessary condition for, the other virtues.

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Posted on: January 25th, 2024 Chrysostom as a “Single-Speed Guy”?

For about three-and-a-half decades now I have had a dear friend and theological soulmate named Nathan. He & I have literally been conversing for 35 years on philosophy, theology, the Bible, culture, and more.

One of the many many common “foundations” we share is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which came out in 2007 and wh we have both read. In that book one of Taylor’s nifty intellectual nuggets is his language of “one-speed” (or “single speed”) and “two-speed.” In brief, “single speed” Christians or thinkers hold (or assume) that all Christians are called to live a life of radical, uncompromising holiness, whereas “two speed” advocates think that some Christians (namely monks and nuns) are called to a higher (in some sense) standard, that they are obliged to live a life that is in some sense more radical, less enmeshed in the messiness of the world, more wholly and singularly devoted to God strictly speaking, in contrast to, say, all the ways that the Reformers taught that God is mediated to us in the everyday life of the world (vocation, sex/marriage, & children, for example).

Now, am I one speed or two speed? Not sure. (As Nathan has recently suggested, I think, some folks in our Anglican patrimony—for example Jeremy Taylor and George Herbert—could perhaps be considered “one-and-a-half speed”.) Suffice to say that I am currently “pushing back” on (what I perceive to be) Nathan’s simple two-speed posture.

OK, that leads me to the following quotation (featured in Michel Foucault’s mind-blowing Confessions of the Flesh: Volume IV of the History of Sexuality) from St. John Chrysostom:

For ought the man who lives in the world to have any advantage over the monk, save only the living with a wife? In this point he has allowance, but in others none, but it is his duty to do all things equally with the monk.[1]

Wanting to resist any oversimplification, I am nevertheless led to ask: “Does this not make it seem like Chrystostom is a “one speed guy”?


[1] Foucault, Hist of Sex IV, 194b. Chrysostom, 7th Homily on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 7; Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life, III, 14.v.

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Posted on: January 25th, 2024 Freedom & the Law of the LORD (Ps 139)

For the last several years I have had a growing love and appreciation for Psalm 139, a psalm dedicated to the extolment of God’s law. If I had to articulate one reason for this growing attraction, I’d say that it (the Psalm) compels me to admit that aligning my will, my imagination, my life with the “things of God” is the path to true fulfillment, to the satisfaction of my desires.

Over the last couple of mornings, as I’ve meditated on Psalm 139, the longest Psalm in the Old Testament (I pray the Psalms according to the 30-day cycle in the Book of Common Prayer), I’ve noticed a deep connection between God’s law (do keep in mind that the Hebrew noun for law is torah, תורה) on the one hand and freedom on the other.

Now, the BCP Psalter does not use the word “freedom”; it uses the term “liberty.”

Two verse in particular:

  • Ps 119:32—”I will run the way of your commandments / for you have set my heart at liberty.”
  • Ps 119:45—”I will walk at liberty / because I study your commandments.”

Now, freedom or liberty are what you might call “abstract concepts.” They are not “physical things”; they are not characterized or constituted by matter or materiality, and the thing about the ancient Hebrew is (as thinkers such as Owen Barfield and Mark Vernon have been convincing/reminding me) that it is not very abstract. So when I went to my Bible software (and its built-in lexicons) to look at the Hebrew noun (and cognate forms) for this word that gets translated “liberty,” I was both surprised and not surprised to find that it means “wide” or “broad” (as the two pics below indicate).

In other words, following God’s law infuses our lives with liberality (which is the older and better, more original meaning of the word “liberal”). It makes us free. It enlarges our hearts and minds. It makes us great-souled (megapsychikos).

Is there much (or at least something) that is “lost in translation” between the Hebrew, and the English used in the BCP? No doubt that there is. But is a happy loss, a happy (if messy) (mis)translation.

For liberality, freedom, liberty, is nothing if it is not wide, broad, and spacious.

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Posted on: January 4th, 2024 Against Mainline Protestantism

For at least a quarter of a century, the phrase “mainline Protestantism” has given given me the heebyjeebies.

When I hear that phrase, I come close to throwing up in my mouth a little bit.

The last thing in the world I want is to be a minister in a “mainline Protestant denomination.” The very existence of “denominations” is from the pit of Hell.

I want more than anything to be a minister, a priest, a presbyter, in the Catholic tradition.

Now, I love the Reformers. Well, I don’t always love them … but I do insist that they have a role. They bear witness to something important, even if the Reformation was a necessary evil, a mixed bag, full of destructive and demonic impulses and instincts which, after the fact, have polluted western culture and can never be healed or remedied.

Calvin’s idea of our mystical union with Christ and his pneumatic Eucharistic theology are needed and are both biblical and beautiful. Luther’s Christian existentialist psychology reminds us that without Christ—and Christ alone—we are truly fucked, and is, properly understood, balm to the weary and afflicted soul.

And the Anglican Reformers, especially Cranmer & Hooker! They are the gold standard of Christian theology and spirituality, even if they are largely, even mainly, “Reformational.”

So, I’m down with being a certain kind of alternative Protestant. OK, yes.

The best term for this is the term “Anglican.”

But mainline Protestant? No thanks.

If you were to ask me: “Matt, you have to choose between being a ‘white evangelical’ and a ‘mainline Protestant,'” I’d run away in horror.

In short, I’m not a mainline Protestant. I refuse to be that.

I’m a Catholic Christian, a Reformed Catholic.

I’m Anglican, baby.

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Posted on: December 4th, 2023 Why run? (Derek Olsen, Discipline, & Contemplation)

In the afterword to his thoughtful (and highly recommended) book Inwardly Digest: the Prayer Book as a Guide to a Spiritual Life, Derek Olsen returns to one of the most common themes that runs through the entire book: running.

Olsen, you see, is committed to the activity of long-distance running. This is a commitment to which I deeply relate, as a 51-year old, life-long runner myself.

And yet, Olsen’s description of his practice of running differs slightly (though crucially) from my own.

Olsen says that his “big picture goal” is “to enjoy good health with his family for as long as he can.”

To many ears, this will sound like a laudable goal, and yet for me it rings hollow, or shallow.

For some deep reason I will not delve into now, neither health nor family strike me as profound enough. They are not profound enough a reason to meditate.

Oh, wait: I forgot to say that for me, running is a form of meditation. I think of it as “praying with my body.” It’s an occasion for me to listen deeply to my breathing, to observe the different hues of the light based on (among other factors) the position of the sun in the sky, to ponder fragments of Scripture, to confront my limits, to be present to my feelings (“good” or “bad,” pleasurable or painful).  

Yet, while meditation is all of these things, it is more than just those. In a long tradition of spiritual thought and practice, I believe that meditation is the activity—the activity par excellence—of becoming divine. In the Orthodox tradition this is called deification or theosis, and it goes all the way back at least to Aristotle.

Aristotle who wrote in both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Metaphysics that contemplation is that unique, human activity which promotes and nurtures the divinity that is within us. Why is contemplation unique and (in an important sense) superior? For Aristotle it has to do with its connection to final causality, or purpose. What is the purpose of contemplation? Not anything external. This activity is performed for no external reason/end/goal/purpose, but always and only for its own sake.

My running, then, is connected to my attempt to practice contemplation or meditation. This activity, which is also a longing for communion with God, is vastly superior to family or health.

For me, running is not done primarily for family or heath (though these penultimate reasons are good, and sometimes do show up in my motivation).

First and foremost it is an opportunity to pray, to long for God, to touch ultimate reality deep down inside myself.

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Posted on: September 5th, 2023 DBH & the Paradoxical, Transcendental Structure of _Geistliche_ Reality

I’m almost finished re-reading David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, and near the end of the penultimate chapter (on bliss) he stresses the “transcendental structure” involved in our human interactions with reality, in our experience of the world.

Our experience, that is, of spiritual reality, since all reality is spiritual. And yet, I choose “geistliche” instead of spiritual, for that latter adjective in English has many sad connotations. I do not mean to conjure up sentimental “mountain top” experiences of spiritual “high’s,” nor do I wish to evoke feelings associated by praise & worship music or “Precious Moments” figurines or Thomas Kincaid paintings.

Rather, I mean the reality of the mind, the way that we humans experience, process, interpret the world around us, including all the assumptions that condition the way we “see” the world—what Owen Barfield might call “collective representations.” Geistliche, from the German Geist.

But how is the human experience “transcendental”? Well, before I answer that, let’s take “paradoxical.” The human experience of the world is paradoxical, according to DBH, in that the world, or reality, never actually delivers to us what we seek. It never fully gives us what we seek in terms of the rational desire for knowledge, in terms of the ethical desire for goodness, or in terms of the aesthetic desire for beauty (spiritual or geistliche realities, all). I might long for full and final knowledge or to have an experience of beauty that consummates my desire, but these desiderata are always, in the final analysis, elusive. And what this means, in turn, is that they are not the ultimate thing(s) we are striving to find or to have or to grasp. No: to quote C. S. Lewis’ “The Weight of Glory,” they “are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited….”

Our desire for them, that is, is paradoxical: it is never fully satisfied in this world.

But it, or the context in which it occurs, is also transcendental in its structure. What does this mean? It means that, without this never-fully-satisfied desire, this never-finished quest for that which is beyond all we can find or achieve or experience, we would never strive for anything at all. We would never seek out a lover. We would never read a book or engage in a research project or scientific experiment; we would never lift a finger to grab a glass of water or a snifter of Belgian ale.

God, or being, or goodness, or beauty, is “that without which not.” God is the condition of the possibility for any other striving: for knowledge, for justice, for beauty. God, and our desire for God, is transcendental.

In sum, our “spiritual” experience of reality (intellectual, ethical, esthetic) is both paradoxical and structurally transcendental.

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Posted on: August 9th, 2023 Protected: The Sun & the God Trunk: a Community “By Which”

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Posted on: August 1st, 2023 The Narrow Way

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:13-14.

As a recovering evangelical/fundamentalist, it is so easy for me to hear this passage as saying, “The majority of the human race is going to hell; a few elect folks, however, will make it down the narrow path to salvation.”

Yet, what if Jesus has something else in mind? Granted, the passage itself does explicitly make a statement about “numbers.” But it can also be read with a different emphasis. This narrow gate, this difficult and treacherous way: what if it is something like the pilgrimage of those Hobbits as they make their way, in The Lord of the Rings, from the Shire to their ultimate destination (Mordor, where the ring will finally be destroyed)?

Time and time again in that story, the weak, fearful little Hobbits are making their way along a steep, rocky mountain trail, or through a dark wood densly packed with Orcs and all manner of evil creatures, or though a boggy marsh populated by the dead.

Truly, the “way” or the path of these pilgrims is difficult. Oftentimes it is literally quite narrow. At a non-literal level, it is “narrow” in the sense that their odds of success are quite slim indeed.

But they pass along that winding, dangerous path. They do indeed, time and time again, choose to walk through the “narrow gate.”

For me, this reminds me so very much of my life, my ministry, my family, my parish, my own journey to find “salvation,” or the integral shalom of God.

So often, the way seems treacherous. The odds of “success” are apparently scant. Any vision of a victorious outcome is well-nigh impossible. And yet, Christ beckons us down precisely this road, this narrow pathway.

The point is not about numbers, quantities of people who will perish or succeed. The point is about the treacherous narrowness of the path itself, and about how the Lord delights in our Hobbit-like efforts courageously to put one foot in front of the other, journeying toward the light, in hopes not simply of “victory” or “success,” but that Christ will see us through (much like Gandalf in LOTR often swoops in and “saves the day”).

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Posted on: July 21st, 2023 New Testament on Christ & Angels

I have now realized that when the NT stresses that in the Incarnation God did not become an angel, it might mean: “God did not become like pre-lapsarian Adam (with an angelic body, a zoê body), but rather like *fallen* Adam (w/o sin of course), with an animal (bios) body.”

It’s possible that, my whole life, I’ve been misunderstanding this point. The NT is not talking about what premodern thinkers call “intelligences,” or about creatures like Michael the Archangel … but rather like God’s image in the garden.

Much of my current work is on Gregory of Nyssa (thanks, DBH) and his view that sexual difference in Eden is in some sense the result of (God’s foreknowledge of man’s sin/fall). Much of Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol 4 (published 5 yrs ago in French) is related to this.

If this is so, then it certainly makes sense of conundra such as Lk 20:35-6, 1 Cor 15:42ff, & 1 Cor 7:1.

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Posted on: July 13th, 2023 Barfield’s 4 Stages of Representation (Saving Appearances #1)

In his book Saving the Appearances that “last Inkling” Owen Barfield lays out four stages in the process of that human activity of the mind which he calls “representation.”

First, you have “perception.” This is, very simply, the activity of our sense organs (eyes, ears, etc.) by which they receive or take in external stimuli: in the case of touch, matter, and in the case of hearing, sound. The upshot here, as Barfield explains in Chapter II, is that we hear and touch neither “particles” or “the unrepresented” nor actual things like dogs, chairs, or ambulance sirens. A corollary here is that when we take ourselves to hear a ambulance siren or a thrush singing, we are employing not just our ears, but many other dimensions of who we are in addition, such as memory, imagination, etc.

Second, there is “figuration.” Figuration is the mental activity by which we identify or recognize a thing in the world—a dog, a chair, a thrush singing. Figuration, Barfield says, “is all that is in the representation which is not sensation.” (25) Again, while we hear not a thrush singing, but rather mere sound, we perceive or recognize or “figurate” an actual thrush. In the process we are using faculties in addition to mere sense perception strictly speaking: again, psychical powers such as memory and imagination.

Third, Barfield coins a novel term, “alpha-thinking,” to describe a certain process involving thinking about the objects or things we “figurated” above. We are not now recognizing a dog or a chair; we are now thinking about it “objectively,” assuming it to be outside of ourselves. We are studying it. We are investigating its relations to other things in the world, including causes and effects. Barfield calls this “theoretical thinking,” but he also notes that it need not be systematic. Modern natural science, then, would be a kind of alpha-thinking, but the latter is not limited to the former. Thomas Aquinas calls this componendo et dividendo, and another label would be “discursive thinking.” (On the third segment of “Plato’s Line” at the end of Book VI of the Republic, Plato calls this dianoia.)

Finally, we have Barfield’s final stage of representation, and his second neologism, “beta-thinking,” involving self-conscious reflection upon ourselves (our own minds), and our (and our minds’) relationship to other things and activities. Barfields says that disciplines such as physiology, psychology, and philosophy are the ones that engage in beta-thinking.

Is it not tantalizing that Barfield includes physiology in this list? I think Barfield is a bit sloppy here, for I seriously doubt that there are any significant number of physiologists, working, say, in university departments, who are engaged in self-reflective thought about the relationship of, say, knee joints to the mind. Rather, virtually all physiologists, it seems to me, engage in the same kind of thinking, alpha-thinking, that chemists engage in.

At the same time, however, I think that there is a good and crucial instinct—a non-Kantian instinct—here in Barfield’s thought. What is going on, I imagine, is that Barfield is assuming, following traditional Christian theological anthropology, that we are our bodies. On this traditional view, which is also Aristotelian, we human beings are our bodies, and we are our souls. Hence, when the physiologist examines a knee joint, she is, in fact, engaging in self-reflection, because she is engaging in an examination of what and who we are: our bodies.

I think that Foucault would like this, for he suggests that we humans are “empirico-transcendental doublets,” that is, that we are both able and unable to think about ourselves. We can treat ourselves just like any other object, that is, empirically. This is what the physiologist is doing per Barfield (even if no actual physiologists know they are doing this). This remains true even if, or even in light of the fact that, we are, also, in some sense, unable to view our minds as an empirical object since it is with our very minds that we are engaging in this activity of examination at all.

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Posted on: May 29th, 2023 Carl Trueman on the L & the G

Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is an impressive book from which I have learned much. His use of the theoretical tools of Philip Rieff, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor is laudatory. His genealogical narration, starting with Rousseau and the English Romantics and continuing with Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and the “New Left” thinkers of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse is quite illuminating.

I have serious reservations about the book, which I will spell out soon.

For now, though, I just want to offer some thoughts on Trueman’s work, near the end of the book, on the “L” of lesbianism, the “G” of gay advocacy, and, most importantly, their marriage as the first two letters/causes in the political coalition of (as Trueman has it) LGBTQ+.

In Chapter 10, “The Triumph of the ‘T,'” itself nestled within Part 4, “The Triumphs of the Revolution,” Trueman offers some valuable insights into the history of political activism on the part of lesbian and gay people in the second half of the twentieth century. His thoughts on Adrienne Rich (and her 1980 article “Cumpulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”) and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective of the early 1970’s are quite valuable.

Trueman succeeds, in other words, in showing the initial tensions between the L and the G.

But where he fails—his effort to demonstrate how and why the L and the G eventually locked arms in common cause—is equally as noteworthy. He repeatedly affirms that the core of their solidarity is a sense of shared victimhood. He narrates the history of the Stonewall Inn riots and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.

He succeeds, in my opinion, in showing that these events were exploited by gay men to appeal to a sense of victimhood. But he does not really provide any evidence for his claim that somehow these crises paved a way for lesbians to enter into the political rhetoric of victimhood, thereby uniting with gay men in common cause over and against the forces of oppression.

His thesis makes sense, but his marshaling of evidence in support of it is lacking.

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Posted on: May 22nd, 2023 Either/Or: Levinson vs. Machen

For better and for worse, my theological mind is the product (to some extent) of Westminster Theological Seminary, founded in reaction to the “liberalization” of Princeton Seminary, by J. Gresham Machen (and others) in the 1920’s.

Machen most famous book, perhaps, bears the title Christianity and Liberalism. In it he lays down a stark “either/or”: you can be a Christian, or a liberal, but not both. In this stark, antithetical opposition, you must choose sides: are you a Christian, or are you a liberal?

In the introduction to his 1985 Sinai & Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible, Jon Levenson displays a completely different attitude. Describing a situation in which premodern Jewish exegetes of the Hebrew Bible were faced with problems (even contradictions) in the text, Levinson writes:

In the great work of post biblical Judaism, the Talmud, for example, one rabbi doubts that Moses wrote the last eight verses of the Torah on the grounds that he could not have written about his own death and burial. The retort is immediately offered that it was not Moses but God who composed these verses. Moses wrote them down in tears. The revealing point is that the … position [that] assumes that a commitment to tradition does not require the Jew to ignore empirical evidence in the name of an increasingly blind faith. One wonders where the Talmudic sage who voiced the doubt would have stood in the modern dispute, when so much more evidence against mosaic authorship has been developed. In any event doubts or ambivalence about Mosaic authorship of the Torah and a host of other traditional beliefs appear on occasion in medieval commentaries which the tradition accepts. Even the possibility of scribal error in the text of the Torah as it reaches us seems to have occurred to some of the great rabbinic exegetes. It is surely the case that a few of them were willing to entertain the notion that the plain sense of a verse can contradict the normative law (halakhah) which the Talmudic rabbis derived from it. In instances of this sort, what is interesting and possibly enlightening for the modern situation is that awareness of the contradiction does not seem to have dampened the exegetes commitment either to the observance of halakhah or to the exposition of the plain sense of scripture. This would imply that Jewish tradition includes a form of biblical scholarship which is more than mere repetition, rearrangement, or extension of data known through the tradition itself. Tradition, so understood, will include novelty, even contradiction. It will not be fossilized, but vital, growing, and to a certain extent, changing.

John Levinson, Sinai & Zion, 6–7.

Now, this posture of Levinson’s—which resonates quite well with the recent emphasis of David Bentley Hart in his Tradition and Apocalypse—stands in stark contrast to that of J. Gresham Machen. It is, quite simply, vastly superior, not least in its admission that tradition (which here would include the Bible which is always already interpreted) is manifold and diverse, riddled with inconsistencies. (Here we remember that our faith is not in the Bible or in any tradition, but rather in the Lord Jesus Christ.)

To put it simply, you can have Levinson and Hart, or you can have Machen. For me, the choice is clear.

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Posted on: February 13th, 2023 God as Double-Negation

It is well-known in philosophy & theology circles that, for thinkers such as Pseudo-Dionysius and his followers (such as Thomas Aquinas), we cannot know or say what God is; we can only know or say what God is not. This approach to thinking about God is known as negative, or apophatic, theology.

For example:

  • God is not embodied.
  • God is not material (or materially constituted).
  • God is not spatially extended.
  • God is not subject to change.
  • God is not subject to temporality.

But what I learned by teaching Intro to Philosophy to undergrads for a number of years (especially when teaching Parmenides, the first metaphysician in the West) is that each of those negated predicates (“embodied,” “subject to change,” etc.) is itself a version of finite being, that is to say, a reality that is already negated.

In fact everything we see around us is finite. If it were not finite, we’d not be able to see it … or (more precisely) there’d be no “it” to see. The infinite reality would not be recognizable as a chair, a tree, an iphone, a mitochondria, a human being, or anything else. It would not be recognizable at all, for there would be nothing to recognize. In order to recognize anything at all, the object in question must have limits. For example, a pencil does not extend to infinity in any direction. The matter that constitutes it is bounded. Bounded at the point, bounded at the end of the eraser, bounded all along the sides. It is (in part) by virtue of these boundaries that we can recognize the pencil as a pencil.

Everything in the world that we can sense by way of vision, hearing, etc., is like the pencil. Every thing in the world is an instance of finite being. Every thing in the world is always already “negated.”

But not God. God is infinite, in-finite, not finite, not bounded or limited.

God is doubly negated.

God is no thing in the world; God is being itself.

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Posted on: January 2nd, 2023 Thoughts on Political Philosophy

Although I have big time criticisms of a book I am reviewing for the Genealogies of Modernity site, it has nevertheless clarified some extremely basic issues for me. My erstwhile ignorance of these issues leads me, in turn, to reflect back upon the nature of my intellectual formation over the past 3+ decades.

So, what I did not clearly see (til reading this book, Redeeming the Law of Nature by Simon P. Kennedy) is that for early modern thinkers like Hobbes (whom I read in grad school) and Locke (whose political thought I have, to this day, never actually read), natural rights are native to the “state of nature.” The state of nature, in turn, is ruled by the so-called natural law or law of nature (now reduced drastically from Thomas’ version to little more than self-preservation), which unfortunately is neither observed nor enforced.

This is what leads to the need for civil government: “Civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature,” says Locke. (Kennedy, 148)

In my review I will argue, pace Kennedy, that the shift from Thomistic natural law to something non-participatory and voluntaristic (including Calvin) is way more important than any other factor in this decline, and also that it is wrong to oppose “divine origin” and “human origin” as Kennedy does.

Still, this book has clarified much basic material for me, which is more than I can say for either my secular (philosophy) undergrad or my Reformed masters-level (theological) education. (Sadly, in my Ph D program I was deluged by Straussiasm, which did nothing but murkify my mental waters.)

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Posted on: December 1st, 2022 Stable but not Bougie

About five months ago I decided to become the rector (i.e., senior pastor) of a funky, urban parish (i.e., church) in East Central Austin.

Today is my three month anniversary. It has been a wild twelve weeks.

As I was telling a friend last night, I’ve experienced many shifts in my being: shifts in marriage, shifts in ministry, shifts in routine, shifts in identity.

Shifts can be like waves when you are swimming in the ocean. They can be turbulent and volatile.

In the midst of the shifts and waves, however, we can strive for stability, or that virtue so prized by the Benedictine monastic tradition, stabilitas.

For me this means praying/meditating, being in authentic relationships, sleeping sufficiently, exerting myself physically, and being present in my work (relationships, tasks, leadership, etc.).

Finally, stability is not bourgeois. One can be stable and bohemian. In fact, that’s the best way to fly.

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Posted on: November 11th, 2022 David Bentley Hart on Gender & Sexuality

About six years now I read a book that changed my life: The Experience of God: Being, Consiousness, and Bliss, by David Bentley Hart. (And not just mine: I know of several folks who, upon reading this book, actually made significant life decisions based on it.)

Since then I have followed him on his Substack (as much as I’m able). I have also read a couple of his other books, most recently his riveting and scintillating Roland in Moonlight, which I reviewed here.

More recently, through the reading of Michel Foucault’s posthumous, radically untimely released fourth (and final) volume of his History of Sexuality project (see here), I have become aware that the basic posture of the Eastern Church Fathers (and Mothers) diverges starkly from the dominant stance in the West on the issue of gender and sexuality, in particular their role or presence (or lack thereof) in creation. I have blogged about this latter issue here.

Well, it just so happens that the keynote speaker at my Diocese‘s clergy conference a couple of weeks ago was none other than DBH himself! (Thanks, Bishop Doyle!) His talk was an iteration of an earlier one he gave at my Alma Mater (Maynooth University) on Christian tradition and the future (this latter notion being the theme of clergy conference this year), and I could not resist the opportunity to ask him a question from the floor after his lecture. Here is the exchange:

Dr. Hart, it seems to me that you’ve written relatively little about issues of gender and sexuality, and so … I wonder if you could apply your talk to those issues? In particular I’m thinking about the fact that we need to allow the eschaton to shape our understanding of orthodoxy as much as the sacred deposit does and in light of what the Scriptures say (in Matthew 19 about how there is no “giving and receiving in marriage” in the eschaton). Also I’m thinking about people like Gregory of Nyssa and Eastern Fathers who say that there was no sexual difference in the garden. I just wondered if you could apply this vision of orthodoxy to the area of gender and sexuality.

—Matt Boulter

It’s interesting, isn’t it…. I mean, one of the things that happens in early modernity with the evermore literal acceptation started by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation is that readings like Gregory’s or Origen’s—things that remain possible well up into the fourteenth os fifteenth century, even, suddenly become forbidden. It then becomes just a set of positivistic oppositions….
 
… [T]here were actually these early church fathers who didn’t place the garden or the fall within history, and they didn’t believe that sexual hierarchy was inscribed into the eternal divine order of reality, but actually said shockingly antinomian things at times. These were actually the early generations of Christians.
 
For Gregory he speaks … of the acquisition of sexual difference as a kind of providential economy of creation for fallen spiritual beings, not because he is trying to erase or efface sexual difference. He just means that this is not what it means to be in the image of God, this is not therefore what it means to live the life of Christ. But how you appropriate Gregory or Origen in the present is hard to say, because the issues have shifted, haven’t they.
 
So, no, I have not written very much about it. I’m not very imaginative sometimes on certain topics, and don’t know how to go about bridging the questions of the fourth century and [those of the] twenty-first in a way that isn’t purely tendentious. But you are right: as long as we are stuck in … the modern dilemma of the purely fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and that has been the pattern now for 500 years—do you follow any of these arguments online where I am attacked for being a heretic for believing that God is love and other evil things like that?
 
You know, you can cite the church fathers on these issues, and be told that you are a heretic, because so remote is this other world of reading Scripture, that the very notion, not only that it can enter into the present, but that it even has any purchase in Christian history, just seems like pure nonsense to ppl who are funadmentalists, and among the fundamentalists I include not just the white evangelical fundamentalists, I mean a lot of the Thomists I know. They might not be six day creationists, but they read the Bible as a set of propositional algorithms for constructing social reality. They don’t read it as the inspired occasion of reading that requires interpretation, tact, speculative daring, and the sense that there is the law of love, and the law of the spirit, without which the text slays.
 
I wrote a translation of the New Testament. One of the translations for which I got attacked by a very good man was when I translated the verse as “the Spirit gives life, but the Scripture slays,” but that is actually what Paul is saying. The Scripture slays when it is just what is written on the page. “The Spirit gives life, but the letter slays.” What letter is he talking about? He’s talking about Torah there. Now he’s a pious Jew. He does not believe that the Torah is wrong, but he believes that it slays, when it is read under the veil without the Spirit.

—David Bentley Hart
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Posted on: August 24th, 2022 Foucault’s History of Sex (IV): the Formation of a New Experience

In his belated and eyebrow-raising fourth volume of his History of Sexuality—posthumously published three and a half decades after his death and against the expressed terms of his will—what does Foucault take himself to be doing?

It is difficult to know. Perhaps that is OK, since I am only three chapters in.

I’d like to interact with the material up through the end of chapter 3 (“The Second Penance”) of Part I (“The Formation of a New Experience”).

What becomes fairly clear after the initial chapter—in which Foucault shows that Clement of Alexandria’s “sexual ethic” is mainly continuous with that of certain ancient Greek & Roman philosophers (Musionius Rufus, Athenagoras, Marcus Aurelius), but now democratized and shown to be consistent with God’s revealed logos—is that he is narrating something like a history/genealogy of modern subjectivity. He repeatedly points out how, both in the ancient Christian practice of baptism (chapter 2) and in that of penance (chapter 3) one sees the development of new ways of “the self relating to the self.” This involves various disciplines and practices, but for Foucault it is mainly a matter of speaking or manifesting or (best of all) doing “one’s own truth.”

At one point in chapter two he distinguishes between what one could regard as a spatialized subjectivity (which splits the self into subject and object; this is the focus of his discussion, in his The Order of Things, of the “empirico-transcendental doublet” stemming from Kant, of which he is highly critical) on the one hand, and a temporalized subjectivity on the other: “Metanoia doesn’t split the soul into one part that knows and another that must be known. It holds together, in the order of time, that which one no longer is and that which one is already….”

“That which one no longer is.” This phrase, it seems to me, emerges as the core of Foucault’s point in the book thus far. Both in baptism and in penance, one begins to see the development of an attitude toward the self—an attitude (almost certainly) previously unknown in human culture—of self-rupture. A way of adopting a new identity that breaks with the old one.

The last few lines of chapter 3 radiate in their sublimity:

The pentitant, says Saint Ambrose, must be that young man who comes back home, and the girl he had loved presents herself and says: Here I am, ego sum.  To which he replies: Sed ego non sum ego. A day will come, in the history of the penitential practice, when the sinner will have to present himself to the priest and verbally itemize his sins: ego sum. But in its early form, penance, at the same time a mortification and a veridiction, is the way of affirming ego non sum ego. The rites of exomologesis ensure that this rupture is produced.

Foucault, history of sexuality, vol iv, 78.

What does this history of subjectivity have to do with sexuality, though? Somehow, Foucault wants to trace a genealogy that produces our contemporary assumption (conviction?) that sexuality is the core of our identity. How does he do this, and does he succeed? I hope to answer those questions soon.

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Posted on: August 11th, 2022 Gregory of Nyssa on Human Sexual Difference

For Gregory of Nyssa, writing in his On the Making of Man, sexual difference is not simply a beneficent feature of the good creation God made, but rather is a result of the fall of the human race into sin. (More precisely it is the result of God’s foreknowledge of man’s fall.)

In §16 Greg is saying that, in Gen 1:27, we see something like a two-step process or dynamic or development. First, God created man in his image, with no sexual differentiation. Then, in a later step (or in some kind of derivative manner) God, “perceiving beforehand by his power of foreknowledge what, in a state of independence and freedom, is the tendency of the motion of man’s will,” introduced the distinction between male and female. [206] Yet, Gregory re-emphasizes, this distinction has no reference to the Divine Archetype.” [207] Rather it “is an approximation to the less rational nature.” (Here Greg is thinking of the irrational nature of “brutes.”” [205])

In §17 Gregory is arguing against some “adversaries” of his. Yet, for our purposes here, what he agrees on with his adversaries is far more important than what he disagrees with them on (namely, that, given the absence of procreation and marriage before the fall, had man not sinned, “human souls would not have existed in plurality” [209] and “the human race would have remained in the pair of the first-formed.” [209]

What does he agree with them on? Far more importantly, Gregory holds the common assumption with them that the original intention of God for his human creature(s) in paradise did not include sexual procreation or marriage. (Further, he implies that, along with the absence of these two features, sexual difference itself is absent.)

Now, what does this stance of Gregory’s imply for the sex(uality) and gender wars of our contemporary culture, including church culture, or the situation within the churches?

First, I must register one additional point. One of Gregory’s themes is that the cosmic eschaton (the final destiny of the human race and indeed all creation, named variously as “the beatific vision”; “deification”; “the new heavens and the new earth”) is correlated to the origin. We glimpse this insistence of Gregory’s not only in the title of §23 (“That he who confesses the beginning of the world’s existence must necessarily agree also as to its end”), but also in the inherent logic of his argument in §17, his rebuttal against his “adversaries.” Appealing to Jesus’ response to the Sadducees in Lk 20:35–6, that “in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage,” Gregory writes that:

Now the resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state; for the greace we look for is a certain return to the first life, bringing back again Paradise to him who was cast out from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of the angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, bringing back to Paradise him who was cast from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, and hence also our return to the ancient condition of our life is compared to the angels.

Saint gregory of nyssa, On the making of man tr. taken from vol 8 of The Nicene and post-nicene fathers (Brookline, MA: Paterikon, 2017), 209.

I hasten to add, in a preview of how I plan to develop this theme, that in his recent Tradition and Apocalypse, David Bentley Hart stresses that, what it means to be faithful to (the) Christian tradition is not simply to attend to the past (the Scriptures, the apostles, the church fathers, and the teachings and events therein), but also to the “future,” or rather to the final telos envisioned in those same events and writings. Not just the origin, but the eschaton.

Isn’t it interesting that, in the above text, Gregory of Nyssa is discussing both? In both, human beings are conceived of as sexless in some very real sense. What implications might this have for our contemporary struggles with sex & gender? To that question I hope to turn my attention very soon.

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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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