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.

Share Button

Filed under: Bible, Book Notes (& articles, too), History / Genealogy, political theology | Comments Off on O’Donovan’s Genealogy of Christendom

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.  

Share Button

Filed under: History / Genealogy, political theology, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Pope Gregory VII’s _Reformatio_ (Tom Holland’s _Dominion_)

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)

Share Button

Filed under: Dissertation, History / Genealogy, liturgical theology, philosophy, Radical Orthodoxy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Christian Nihilim: the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

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.).

Share Button

Filed under: Dissertation, History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Ratzinger, Fichte, & the Rejection of Revelation

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.

Share Button

Filed under: Dissertation, History / Genealogy, Me / Us, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Milbank, Bonaventure, & History/Eschatology

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.

Share Button

Filed under: Book Notes (& articles, too), History / Genealogy, philosophy, political theology, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Hösle on Luther’s post-Reformational Germany

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.

Share Button

Filed under: History / Genealogy, philosophy, political theology, Radical Orthodoxy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Redeeming the Modern Myth of Progress

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.

Share Button

Filed under: Bible, Dissertation, History / Genealogy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on NT Wright on History & Eschatology

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.”

Share Button

Filed under: Dissertation, History / Genealogy, liturgical theology, philosophy, Radical Orthodoxy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Milbank on Theurgic Neoplatonsim

Posted on: March 5th, 2019 Augustine’s Confessions I: Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.25.

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

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

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

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.26.

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

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


Augustine, Confessions, I.xv.24

And again:

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

Augustine, Confessions, I.xviii.28
Share Button

Filed under: Dissertation, History / Genealogy, Me / Us, philosophy, Radical Orthodoxy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Augustine’s Confessions I: Notes

Posted on: March 5th, 2019 Dissertation Progress & Outline

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

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

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

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

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


Share Button

Filed under: Dissertation, History / Genealogy, philosophy, Radical Orthodoxy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Dissertation Progress & Outline

Posted on: January 15th, 2019 Open to History (Christian Neoplatonism)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share Button

Filed under: Book Notes (& articles, too), Dissertation, History / Genealogy, Radical Orthodoxy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Open to History (Christian Neoplatonism)

Posted on: January 14th, 2019 Kierkegaard, Repetition & History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share Button

Filed under: Book Notes (& articles, too), Dissertation, History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Kierkegaard, Repetition & History

Posted on: January 10th, 2019 BCP Psalter Notes (Translations & Traditions)

The aim of this blog post is, after fumbling around with this issue for the better part of two decades, to document something of the history of the Psalms of David, as they appear in the present addition of the American Book of Common Prayer (1979).

Speaking of the Psalms, have you ever wondered why, in some presentations of the psalter, the versification differs from that of other renderings? (For example, in the English Standard Version–beloved of evangelical believers–Psalm 7 has seventeen verses, but in the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims, eighteen.) Along the way, I will account for that discrepancy (at least in part), as well.

As a traditional Anglican (at least aspirationally), I can say that the Psalms are a foundational part of my life. They feature prominently in virtually every Episcopal worship service. They form the core of the Daily Office. They are the staple of my devotional practice. For any scholar or thinker interested in the historical context of poetry in the history of Western culture (as I, again, aspire to be), the Psalms are an important instance of this literary genre.

Hence, my motivation to produce this brief article.

As Marion Hatchett narrates in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book (see especially pp. 55-–3), the history the BCP Psalter begins before the first ever English Prayer Pook popped into existence in 1549. It was in 1535 that Miles Coverdale translated the Psalms for the newly minted English translation of Holy Writ called quite simply the Great Bible. It is this translation of the Psalms (revised by Coverdale in 1539) which was included in Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book.

As Hatchett points out, however, this psalter was (in the venerable words of Fight Club) actually something of a “copy of a copy of a copy.” It translated the Latin Vulgate’s translation of the Greek Septuigint’s translation of the original Hebrew. So it is that the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637 opted in favor of the groundbreaking King James Version of the Psalms instead, as this iteration leapfrogged directly back to the original Hebrew itself.

With Elizabeth’s revision of the BCP in 1662, the conservative voices prevailed, however: while agreeing to adopt to the KJV (or, as it is known on the other side of the pond, the Authorized Version) for the Epistles and Gospel lessons for the Sunday lections, they nevertheless insisted on retaining Coverdale’s rendering of the Psalms.

In astonishing fact, this trend has remained in force until the present day. The 1979 American book itself retains Coverdale’s psalms, albeit in heavily redacted form, so as to conform it much more closely to the original Hebrew.

And finally to the point about versification discrepancy. While Coverdale’s original work was based on the Latin, he nevertheless was more “Hebraic”—more “renaissance humanistic” as opposed to “medieval traditional”—in some ways. For example, he opted against the LXX’s move to render the incipits of the Psalms as the first verse of any given Psalm. Take, for example, Psalm 7, the first verse of which in the ESV is “O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge….” In contrast to this, the LXX has this line (in Greek) as verse two. Most Catholic bibles follow this tradition, whereas most Protestant ones (including Coverdale & the BCP) don’t.

So in some ways Coverdale was quite de rigeur for his time, and in another ways quite antiquated.

(One final issue: how did the versification of the Psalter come about in the first place? To this question I will perhaps address a future blog post.)

Share Button

Filed under: Bible, History / Genealogy, liturgical theology | Comments Off on BCP Psalter Notes (Translations & Traditions)

Posted on: July 24th, 2018 How Hegel’s Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share Button

Filed under: Comps Notes, Dissertation, History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on How Hegel’s Wrong

Posted on: July 14th, 2018 Verstand & Dianoia (in Bavaria)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This pattern of nous–dianoia–nous characterizes:

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

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

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

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

Share Button

Posted on: October 28th, 2017 Ratzinger & Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

Share Button

Filed under: Dissertation, History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Ratzinger & Tradition

Posted on: May 31st, 2017 On Unicorns: why Actuality precedes Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share Button

Filed under: Book Notes (& articles, too), History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on On Unicorns: why Actuality precedes Possibility

Posted on: February 18th, 2017 Hegel & Theology

What is the relationship between philosophy and theology? In a very real sense, the burning desire to answer this question for myself was one of my primary motivations for entering a PhD program in philosophy at a Catholic institution, studying under a renowned thinker who, sometimes I am tempted to think, is a theologian posing as a philosopher. To my mind such an academic posture is perfectly suited for our contemporary cultural moment in the West.

However before one can answer this question, one must first be as clear as possible on the meaning of the terms “philosophy” and “theology.” Here’s my stab at such requisite clarity. Theology is the rational interpretation and development of the content of revelation; philosophy is the ordered system of sciences, in both its Aristotelian and Hegelian incarnations, extending from the supreme principle of theos / Geist on the one hand, to the most propaeduetically incipient or elementary principle(s) of logic on the other. (Note: God / theos / Geist is a constitutent element for both ancient thought [Aristotle]  and (post)modern thought [Hegel].)

In the third part of his “system” entitled “The Philosophy of Geist,” Hegel writes:

In order to elucidate for ordinary thinking this unity of form and content present in the mind, the unity of manifestation and what is manifested, we can refer to the teaching of the Christian religion. Christianity says: God has revealed himself through Christ, his only begotten son. Ordinary thinking straightway interprets this statement to mean that Christ is only [ital. mine] the organ of this revelation, as if what is revealed in this manner were something other than the source of the revelation. But in truth this statement properly means that God has revealed that his nature consists in having a Son, i.e., in making a distinction within himself, making himself finite, but in his difference remaining in communion with himself, beholding and revealing himself in the Son, and that by this unity with the Son, by his being for himself in the other, he is absolute mind or spirit, so that the Son is not the mere organ of the revelation, but is himself the content of the revelation. (Hegel, Philosophy of Spirit, tr. Wallace & Miller, 1971, §383)

Preliminary construal of the relationship between philosophy and theology (as defined above and to be developed later): they are symbiotically or reflexively related, such that each is the condition of possibility for the other.

That is, there neither is nor can be philosophy without theology, nor theology without philosophy.

(Note: this view, it seems to me right now, requires that we regard Aristotle as a recipient of revelation. Kinda crazy.)

 

Share Button

Filed under: Comps Notes, Dissertation, History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Hegel & Theology

Posted on: January 25th, 2017 MacIntyre on Nietzsche on Homer(ic characters)

On page 129 on of After Virtue (2nd ed.) MacIntyre writes:

Here again it is clear that Nietzsche had to mythologize the distant past in order to sustain his vision. What Nietzsche portrays is aristocratic self-assertion; what Homer [portrays are] the forms of assertion proper to and required by a certain role. The self becomes what it is in heroic societies only through its role; it is a social creation, not an individual one. Hence when Nietzsche projects back on to the archaic past his own nineteenth-century individualism, he reveals that what looked like an historical inquiry was actually an inventive literary construction.

Good point. This does not necessary invalidate Nietzsche’s project, but it demands that here (as also with Heidegger on Aristotle) one be clear on the artistic nature of it.

Share Button

Filed under: Comps Notes, History / Genealogy, philosophy | Comments Off on MacIntyre on Nietzsche on Homer(ic characters)

Posted on: January 10th, 2017 God: Never Unmediated

What follows is adapted from an email I sent to a friend, who asked a question
about the “pagan” influences in the Bible (the Old Testament).

Dear Stephanie (not my friend’s real name),

Sorry for the late response.

I’m so glad you are asking about the “difficulty” of the Bible containing lots of material which seems to be influenced by “pagan” cultures. I feel like I’ve spent two decades trying to get ppl to ask questions like this, but most of the time ppl are just kind of like half-dead zombies with glazed over eyes!

Look, there are two things I want to say to you.

1. Your assumption, the assumption, that true biblical revelation must be free of cultural influence is not only wrong, but it is part of why we modern evangelicals are so fucked up.

2. When the Bible “retells the same stories,” it always does so “with a twist.” It tells the same stories that its ANE (ANE=”ancient near eastern”) neighbors told … but always with a “special twist.”

So, two points: 1) stupid assumptions, and 2) twist.

So here goes on point #1. Why on earth wd we think that, for example, if the creation story (better: creation stories, since there are 2 in Genesis, and others all throughout the OT) is “true,” it must be totally unique? Was Jesus totally “unique?” No! He spoke Aramaic, just like his neighbors. He was influenced by all sort of cultural assumptions, “ideologies” (to use your term), habits, mores, etc. Jesus and the Bible did not “pop out of heaven” as if they were totally non-inculturated. In fact, the God of the Bible has never operated that way: the God of the Bible always works through ordinary means, both natural (eg, evolution) and cultural.

In fact, it is the Muslim faith (don’t get me wrong: I like Islam a lot!!) that sees Holy Scripture as unmediated. Literally, the Koran was supposedly dictated directly to the Prophet Mohammed. Downloaded into his brain, like that scene in the Matrix where Neo “learns” jiu jitzu.  Not so with the Christian Bible. It is always both the word of God and the word of man. It is both mysteriously divinely inspired, and the product of human language, human imagination, human creativity, human research (see Luke 1:1-4). The Bible is ALWAYS MEDIATED, always enculturated, never direct and unmediated, as if it fell out of heaven, straight from God.

In this, it is like Jesus: fully God, yes, but also fully human. (This it he point of Peter Enns’ book Incarnation and Inspiration, which I can lend you.)

So if our Bible is fully human, why would be expect it to be unaffected by cultural influences?

What stupid assumption, shared BOTH by secular, liberal anti-Christian fundamentalists like Bill Mahar, and Bible Belt fundamentalists like 99% of East Texas churches. I say, a pox on both their houses.

A much better approach is that of CS Lewis. He thought that if the Noah story has a lot of material in common with the Epic of Gilgamesh, then, cool! That strengthens, not weakens, the likelihood that it is true!

Point 2. The Bible tells the same stories with a twist.

The point of the twist is always to “further the agenda” (often a political agenda!) of portraying Yahweh as the “top god.” That is, the OT stories (the creation, the flood, the Exodus, the Torah) are tendentious. They have a tendenz; they have an agenda. They are basically saying to the Babylonions: “Your god Marduk is a joke. Check out our god, Yahweh. He does not create in the same low-grade way that your god does: our God creates by speaking! Our God Yahweh is the one true God, the Maker of Heaven & Earth!” (On Marduk & Enuma Elish, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/En%C3%BBma_Eli%C5%A1)

Same with the Torah of Moses. I think that the “twist” has to do with prostitution, which uniquely in Israel was outlawed, such that men were legally forbidden to treat unmarried young girls / women as mere tools or objects of pleasure. At the end of the day this has to do with marriage as an icon of the love between Yahweh & Israel. Very different from Babylon & other neighbors, where prostitution was legally regulated, and young girls were the property of their owners.

But, yes, the Torah of Moses is very similar to the Code of Hammurabi. Praise God that we was at work through that code (broken though it was), just as He was at work in the thought of pre-Christian philosophers like Plato & Aristotle before the advent of the Divine Logos, “in the fullness of time.” (Without their thought, we’d have no Doctrine of the Trinity!)

Hope this helps! Keep asking questions, and please hang out with fellow questioners & travelers!

Peace,

Matt+
Share Button

Posted on: January 3rd, 2017 God: not (numerically) One

Geek alert: only theology & philosophy nerds should read this post. (It is a distillation of one swath of my study project for comprehensive exams.)

In Question 11 of the Prima Pars of Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, he treats the question of the unity of God.

In this particular section of his “Treatise on God” (usually considered to be questions 2 – 26 of the Prima Pars), he makes statements which, “by good and necessary inference” allow the reader to conclude that God is not numerically one.

But to see this, one must first take a quick plunge into the way that the ancients thought about number, for upon this way of thinking, Thomas is wholly dependent.

Two quick points to make here: 1. that “one” is convertible with being; 2. that “the numerical one” is different from “the one that is convertible with being.”

First, that oneness is convertible with being. Thomas, in question 3 of the Summa, adumbrates the simplicity of God: that God’s existence is his essence, and that God has no (non-metaphorical) predicate that is not also his essence. If we can say “God is good,” for example, then it is necessarily true that God is goodness. So also for “one,” “beautiful,” “real,” etc. [By the way, an interesting corollary of this doctrine is that we can be sure that, in a meaningful sense, God is not angry. See this post.]

Because God is simple in this way, it is impossible that he exists “through another,” which is the medieval (and ancient) way of saying that he is uncaused. But if he is uncaused, then must be necessary. Right: God does not exist contingently, like material beings, but rather necessarily. (Note: Averroes believed that a) material beings, i.e., the celestial bodies, exist necessarily; b) that effects, like Plotinus’ Nous and the heavenly bodies, can exist necessarily. Thomas disagrees with him, agreeing with Avicenna that spatial extension is convertible with contingency.)

All of this means that God is what you might call “full being.” Or “Being itself.” Or “Being as Such” (as long as, by that last denomination, you don’t mean “Being in General:” shame on you, Francisco Suarez).

Now, if you like Thomas Aquinas then you also have to like Parmenides (at least in a qualified way). Thomas, like Plato & Aristotle before him, gives Parmenides a qualified “high five” for his insight that being must be one. If two things exist (Aristotle & Thomas would say, “… exist in the full and proper sense”), that is, then this necessarily implies “privation,” or what Parmenides calls “non-being” (if for no other reason than that “A” is not “B.”).

But … what do we (or does Parmenides) mean here by “one?” Thomas think, in Article 1 of Question 11, that he means “undividability.” That is, the one thing that exists cannot be “sliced and diced” such that you can chop A in half and get two A’s, two of the same thing. This is how being must needs be for Parmenides: undividible.

One more point. In this article Thomas also teaches (following Avicenna) that this kind of oneness is different from numerical oneness. The latter, he thinks, would imply an actual numeric infinity (off limits for him), and would “add something” to God in the same way that white “adds something” to the substance of Socrates.

Hence, for Thomas (and for me) God is one, but God is not numerically one.

 

 

Share Button

Filed under: Comps Notes, History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on God: not (numerically) One

Posted on: December 28th, 2016 Thomas, Eternal World, & Comps

Geek alert: this post is intended only for theology / philosophy nerds!

I have various motives for blogging; any particular blog post might be motivated by any number of things. Sometimes, as in the current case, I am motivated to blog by the urgent need to remember something, especially in its details and with textual evidence. The need to remember it, and the desire to discuss it with others, partly in order to remember it.

I turn my attention to the issue of the eternity (or the infinite temporal duration) of the world, an urgent issue in the medieval context of thought–the very phase of the history of philosophy in which my comps study partner and I are engaged–because of the intersection in this period  between religions (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) on the one hand, and the (re)discovery of Aristotle on the other.

Clearly, as attested in _De Caelo_ II.1, Aristotle believed in the infinite temporal duration of the cosmos (both past and future), in particular of the heavenly bodies and their circular motion.

How do the religious thinkers of the medieval period respond to this philosophical position, presumably held to be based on reason alone? I will focus only on two: Averroes and Aquinas.

Averroes’ position is that, since philosophy trumps other modes of knowledge (namely, religion / “dialectic” and rhetoric / poetry), it is true, based on demonstrative knowledge, that the universe has always existed. (In fact in his _Incoherence of the Incoherence_ he argues that the matter of the celestial bodies is co-eternal with God, and that infinite temporal duration in the past is amenable to reason due to the circular nature of the celestial motion which it measures or with which it is coextensive: for Averroes nothing is pernicious about an infinite regress as long as it is “circular,” as long as it contains elements in the “chain” which precede and follow themselves.)

As Marquette philosopher Richard Taylor explains in this podcast, Averroes does not quite hold to the “double truth” theory that used to be the accusation leveled against 13th century members of the University of Paris Arts Faculty such as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, but, still, he somehow manages to “affirm” both the eternality of the world and the Muslim version of the doctrine of the creation of the world, at “time zero.” He affirms the former as a philosopher and for philosophers, and the latter as a religious / legal scholar for religious folks and the people for whom he legislates.

Although, technically, this might not be a version of “double truth,” thanks be to God that this is not the approach which St. Thomas takes on this perennial issue. Rather, assuming (as he elsewhere argues) that we know some things by faith and other things by reason, he maintains that, although there is, based on reason alone, nothing irrational about Aristotle’s view, nevertheless it is an article of faith (or an object of faith), that the world as created by God has an absolute beginning in time, before which point it (along with everything else, including time) did not exist. (See Summa I.46.2.)

A few additional points about Thomas’ stance in all of this.

  1. Near the end of his “On the Eternality of the World,” Thomas does clarify that “nothing can be co-eternal with God, because nothing can be immutable save God alone,” thus indicating that, apparently on the basis of reason alone, the celestial bodies are not eternal. (Yes, apparent contradictions abound in such thorny issues.)
  2. This is also the context in which he clarifies that ex nihilo–as in, creatio ex nihilo–is simply a negation: “not created out of anything.”
  3. In the Summa Contra Gentiles II.37 he clarifies that “one could conceive of the universe as always existing yet totally dependent upon its creator: if the act of creating is inherently instantaneous, then there is no need that God temporally precede the universe to be its creator.” See David Burrell, “Aquinas and Islamic and Jewish Thinkers,”in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleanor Stump (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1193), 72-3.
  4. In the above context of the Summa Theologiae (I.46.2), Thomas is at pains to make it clear why we Christians must state plainly that the temporal beginning of the world is an “article of faith,” and not an object of reason:

And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate the what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.

An admonition applicable to fundamentalists of all ages!

Share Button

Filed under: History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Thomas, Eternal World, & Comps

Posted on: December 26th, 2016 Cindy Crawford, Anselm, & Comps

Geek alert: this essay will be of no interest to anyone other than philosophy & theology enthusiasts.

A decade ago I was infatuated by “critical theory.” These days, not so much. I’ve become much more straightforwardly orthodox, agreeing with Chesterton on “the romance of orthodoxy” (embodied, for example in his quip that “the act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice”).

Still, I remain convinced that one “critical” theorist necessary for understanding our cultural moment is Jacques Lacan. And though I don’t understand him (yet), I am trying. Which is why I am reading Slavoj Zizek’s How to Read Lacan, and how, in turn, I stumbled upon the following anecdote (which Zizek calls a “low-grade joke”) with which I want to begin this blog post:

 [Once upon a time there was] a poor peasant who, having suffered a shipwreck, finds himself on an island, with, say, Cindy Crawford. After having sex with him, she asks how it was; his answer is, great, but he still has one small request to complete his satisfaction–could she dress herself up as his best friend, put on trousers and paint a moustache on her face? He reassures her that he is not a secret pervert, as she will see once she has granted the request. When she does, he approaches her, gives her a dig in the ribs, and tells her with the leer of male complicity: “You know what happened to me? I just had sex with Cindy Crawford!”

In the joke (the old-fashioned heterosexual promiscuity of which assuages my conscience, thus permitting me to include it in a publicly read blog post), the poor peasant has had an experience which he regards as profound, and which he must share; today I feel the same way.

My experience, however, unlike that of the peasant in the joke, is not a cheap and illicit one. Rather it has to do with the tortuous ardor that is studying for comps. This prerequisite for progressing on to my PhD dissertation often feels a curse, but then at other times (like this morning) it feels an exilerating blessing.

Here’s why. This morning it has finally “clicked” with me, after two and a half decades, what St. Anselm of Canterbury is “up to” in his works the Monologion and the Proslogion. In the closet of my study I have a 3-ring binder containing pages upon pages of class notes which I took in Philadelphia, in seminary, in 1998, on Anselm. (All these years later I realize more than ever that Dr. Claire Davis of Westminster Seminary is a brilliant man.) Yet, when I was in the class, or indeed when I tried to read Louis Mackey’s essay entitled “Grammar and Rhetoric in the Proslogium,” I was groping around in the dark.

I’d like to argue that what Anselm is doing, both in the Monologion and in the Proslogion, is tantamount to what Boethius is doing in his Theological Tractates, his opuscula sacra.[1] As Joseph Pieper suggests,[2] we find a description of this kind of rational thought in Thomas’ introduction to Boethius’ De Trinitate:

… just as our natural knowledge begins with the knowledge of creatures obtained by the senses, so the knowledge imparted from above begins with the cognition of the first Truth bestowed on us by faith. As a result the order of the procedure is different in the two cases. Philosophers, who follow the order of natural knowledge, place the sciences of creatures before the science of God, that is to say, natural philosophy before metaphysics, but theologians follow the opposite path, placing the consideration of the creator before that of creatures.[3]

Of note is the fact that both natural philosophers and theologians have knowledge of God, although this knowledge is delivered in different ways. For the natural philosopher, this knowledge of the divine (or of metaphysics) proceeds on according to Aristotle’s ordering of the sciences, proceeding from “that which is most knowable to us” to “that which is most knowable in itself.”

For the theologian, however, it is as if this heuristic process is short-circuited in a good way. The progressive ladder of scientific spheres is eclipsed, and the knower arrives immediately at the end of the sequence, having received, by the gift of faith, the knowledge of God. (Note that this knowledge of God, bestowed by grace through faith, has particular content, and is received by the intellectus fidei, that faculty which recognizes and grasps the deliverances of faith. In this sense it is structurally similar to the second-to-the-bottom position in Plato’s divided line: pistis. Part of what is in view here is that the content of faith, for premoderns like St. Thomas, does not stand in opposition to knowledge, but rather is a kind of knowledge.)

In contrast to the natural philosopher, then, the theologian begins at the end. He takes God—note that here the God of Scripture and Christian Tradition is taken to be identical to the theos of natural reason—as given, and then proceeds to attend to what follows logically from that point forward.

Anselm performs this method 500 years after Boethius himself had performed it, and it is described aptly in the Augustinian phrases fides quarens intellectum and credo ut intelligam.

In his Scholasticism, Joseph Pieper clearly thinks that Anselm carried his project too far, falling prey to the temptation of rationalism, and I don’t disagree with this diagnosis. Nevertheless, I also agree with Pieper’s final appraisal, namely that Anselm’s method is a kind of historically necessary “experiment” which tries to “test” certain “possibilities:”

On these grounds Anselm’s approach may have been a necessary first step from which ultimately Thomas’ balanced view would later be developed: that necessary reasons cannot demonstrate the tenets held by faith, but can show that they are not contrary to reason; and that such a use of the wisdom of the world is not a mixing of the wine (of theology) with the water (of reason), but should rather be called a changing of water into wine.[4]

[1] Joseph Pieper, Scholasticism, tr. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1984), 36-37. Pieper describes Boethius’ project as “the rational examination of dogma.” Note that the last sentence of Utram Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus de Trinitate substantialiter praedicentur is an admonition to the later Pope John I to “join faith to reason” (“fidem, si poteris, rationemque conjunge”).

[2] Pieper, Scholasticism, 62.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Faith, Reason, and Theology, Questions I – IV of his Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, tr. Armand Maurer (Rome: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1987), 3-4.

[4] Pieper, Scholasticism 62, citing Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate, 2.1 ad. 5 and 2.3 ad 5.

Share Button

Posted on: August 23rd, 2016 Reformed Theology, Stoicism, & Virtue Ethics

In my transition from Reformed evangelicalism to a more catholic tradition of Christianity, one constant source of consternation which has plagued me for years (almost two decades) has to do with the “senior Ethics” course I had at Westminister Theological Seminary. In this class, which was supposed to prepare soon-to-be-ordained pastors with a basic grasp of ethical theory, all of the emphasis was on Scripture and the Law of God. The word “virtue” did not appear on the syllabus.

Now, I don’t want to go overboard here. I do have respect for the professor of this course as well as for the author of the primary text we studied (alongside the Bible): The Ten Commandments by J. Douma (undoubtedly a brilliant Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at The Theological University in Kampen in the late 20th century).

However, what I am prepared to say, with the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre ringing in my head, is that such an approach to ethics is more Stoic than Christian. In chapter 13 of After Virtue, MacIntyre explains how the Stoic approach to moral philosophy differed starkly with that of Aristotelianism. For the latter, virtue is the rational discernment of the natural human telos (which of course for Aristotle is also thoroughly cultural), and the cultivation of human desires, habits, feelings, dispositions in such a way as to form the human being into the kind of person who acts virtuously. For Stoicism, by contrast, what matters is the individual will, and its embrace of an externally existing law.

MacIntyre  goes on to argue that here as always philosophy is rooted in a prior socio-political context: the displacement of the Greek city-state by the Macedonian regime and then the Roman imperium serves to bolster the Stoic stance, since any communal agreement and embrace of the common good for man now becomes more problematic.

So it is that Stoicism “sets a pattern for all those later European moralities that invoke the notion of law as central in such a way as to displace conceptions of the virtues” (MacIntrye, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 169).

“What about Judaism?” one might ask. Does it not make the law (the Torah of God) central, apparently in agreement with Stoicism? MacIntyre quite insightfully provides a response to this objection: one reason why Stoicism was unable to occupy an even more dominant role in Western culture is that it was “outnarrated” by an “even sterner morality of law, that of Judaism.”

With this insight I completely agree, and would only add the following conjecture. There must be something within Judaism which allows for the inculcation of the virtues (even if this amounts to a marginalization of law). Surely that “something” is its historicism (which MacIntrye’s thought correctly connects with the notion of narrative or story), which in turn allows it to be developed into Christianity (by way of tradition), which in turn had additional resources which allowed it to embrace classical thought, including that of Aristotelian moral philosophy.

So it is that I am prepared to say that my Senior ethics class at Westminster, seventeen years ago, was more Stoic than Christian. (To Westminster’s credit, it itself supplied me with at least one tool to help me realize this: in the Old Testament Department we were constantly reminded that the Torah of Yahweh is fundamentally different from western and especially modern notions of law, not least in that the former is deeply woven together with the story of Israel, and God’s faithfulness to her.)

 

 

 

Share Button

Filed under: Bible, Book Notes (& articles, too), History / Genealogy, philosophy, political theology, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Reformed Theology, Stoicism, & Virtue Ethics