Posted on: October 17th, 2012 Imagination & the Emergence of Modernity (a “Taste”)

 

Lots of people in my life (especially my wife Bouquet) are making some big sacrifices so that I can work on my doctorate in philosophy at the University of Dallas (even as a remain a full-time, active priest at Christ Church in Tyler), and that is deeply humbling. From time to time I look for ways to give them a little “taste” of the sorts of things I am doing, the sorts of things they are sacrificing for.

This is a paper I wrote this week in a class entitled “Philosophy of Imagination” about the early modern “projection of experience” and “construction of a new science of nature.”

Is the story of the modern imagination basically, or even largely, that of a transformation from passive imitation to active creation? Certainly much of the literature in the field posits such a transition. Douglas Hedley notes as much when he writes that many “histories of the imagination … present a shift from conceiving the imagination as essentially representing or mimetic to the productive or creative model of the imagination in the modern period.”[1]

While, as I will argue, one does accurately perceive a shift in this direction, significant exceptions can be found: Plotinus’ construal of the imagination was fiercely creative, while that of Hobbes’ was notably passive.[2] Further, one should note that Aristotle does put forth a kind of notion of productive imagination, hinted at in  De Anima III.10 (though nowhere else).[3] These exceptions notwithstanding, such a development can indeed be traced from the premodern to the modern period, specifically seen in the Enlightenment rationalism embodied by Descartes and Kant. (Plato, for whom the immortality or the reincarnation of the soul [eg, Meno 81b ff] is an assumption underlying his doctrines of anamnesis and maieutic education, conforms to this overall pattern, and is not an exception to it.)

However it is one thing to assert this claim, which I do, and something else to give an account of it. Before attempting to do so, I offer two brief caveats.

The first regards the approach of the British Empiricists (Hume, Berkeley, Hobbes) to the imagination and images. While I do admit that their construal of the imagination lacks the productive element of the rationalists (Descartes and Kant), at the same time I think that they are reacting to the same underlying shifts which “force” or prompt the rationalists to begin innovatively to impute to the imagination productive powers. Put rather simply, for both the rationalists and the empiricists the emerging modern world loses “the imitated” (or “the imitatable”). With the nascent rise of a new physics, seen most acutely in the displacement of Aristotelian form-in-substance by more mathematic and mechanistic conjectures of nature (I’m thinking of the trajectory from Copernicus to Kepler / Descartes), there is now no longer anything, so to speak, worthy of imitation, for machines and corpuscles[4] and mathematical formula are not as compelling in their attractive sway as are their ancient and medieval predecessors. The Enlightenment rationalist tradition, beginning with Descartes and then bolstered by Kant’s reaction to Hume (ie, Kant’s need to “save the appearances”), responds to the emerging cosmological physics differently than does the empiricist tradition (for the representatives of whom it is simply the case that appearances alone remain); both parties, however, are reacting to the same developments.[5]   To suggest that the human person imitates a measureable machine is to suggest that she herself is something of a machine: the British empiricists show a willingness to embrace this conclusion; the continental rationalists react against it by rejecting it.[6]

A second caveat, necessary for the first: it is understandably tempting to see Aristotle as more closely resembling or foreshadowing the modern loss of participatory imitatio than Plato, but this is not necessarily the case. It is true that, for Plato, the participated (or the participatable) lies “outside of” the soul more than for Aristotle. Hence it seems that for Plato one participates in something (this is true both in the Meno and in the Republic), whereas for Aristotle it is more accurate to speak of a mutual participation occurring between the knower and the thing known. This mutual participation for Aristotle works according the dynamic of identity qua form: the knowing mind and the object known are identical qua form. We will address the impact of the loss of form later in this essay. For now, however, suffice to say that while Aristotle’s gnoseology is more “imminent” in some ways than that of Plato, it nevertheless is equally as eclipsed by modern shifts in the metaphysics of nature as is Plato’s. “Form,” for each respective ancient thinker, might be quite different, but both are equally distant from the “universal mathematical physics” of Kepler, which seems to have played a key role in birthing the new perspective of the likes of Descartes and Newton.[7]

With these caveats behind us, I will now do three things: I will demonstrate that the modern approach to images begins with much the same framework of psychology as pre-modern thought does (here we take Descartes as representative); I will then elaborate on the ways in which Descartes and Kant project experience and construct a scientia of nature which innovates the received, antique tradition; finally, I will attempt more precisely to account for why this development took place historically in the way that it did.

First, we see that the emerging modern approach to images begins with much the same framework of psychology (or “faculty theory”) as pre-modern thought does. For both approaches, it holds that:[8]

  • · The sensitive powers involve at least an awareness of aspects of things.
  • · The intellectual powers proper operate at the level of universal concepts, abstractions, and generalizations, whereas the sensitive powers deal with sensory aspects of individual things.
  • · The “thought-like” activity of animals (which seem to involve memory) such as a dog burying a bone, are (for medieval thinkers) closer to the external senses than to the intellect (locating them, hence, somewhere within the internal sensitive faculty).
  • · Cognitive psychology is predicated on the division of sensibles into common sensibles (aesthesis koine, which can be communicated to more than one sense organ) and proper sensibles (certain things can be perceived only by the eye, for example).
  • · Thinking about such behavior in nonrational animals provides an impetus for thinking more deeply (intus legere) about the internal sense powers of the animal, including of the rational animal.[9]
  • · The sense organs infallibly receive the proper sensibles, although the reasons for or the justification of this infallibility differ between, for example, Aristotle and Descartes.
  • · Both have “an ontologically grounded epistemology.” This is so (among other reasons) because of “the remnants of corporeal magnitude” in the phantasm, for both, for example, Aristotle and Descartes.

With these areas of commonality in mind, one now must acknowledge that premodern psychology (that is, premodern “faculty theory” employed in order to account for how the mind can truly know objects) is incompatible with the emerging modern physics, particularly insofar as the latter gives measurement, mathematics, and discreet units a much larger and more constitive role in nature. Because of this, the major approaches to psychology must needs change. Two developments, in particular, now take place: the projection of experience and the construction of a new scientia of nature.

“Projection of experience” refers to a description of how our minds are connected to the things of the world. We see the beginnings of a kind of projection of experience in Descartes who, in Rule XII of the Regulae, posits that the only objects or realities which the sense organs receive are the “purely material natures” of shape, extension, and motion, a move which requires that that the ingenium supply other features, such as color, to the “objects” of our daily experience. Nevertheless this projection intensifies dramatically with Kant, who now internalizes his version of the Descartes’ perceived natures as structural features within the knower and transcendental functions of the imagination.

All of this is a far cry from Aristotle, for whom the communication of form metaphysically and mutually integrates the soul (including the imagination) and the things perceived.  It is also a far cry from Plato, whose transcendent condition of possibility for knowledge (seen specifically in the sun analogy of the Republic) now becomes (for Kant) transcendental, for now knowledge is made possible not by that which transcends the mind (thus providing an excess of meaning in which the mind participates), but rather that which structures and conditions the mind and its powers and functions.

In contradistinction to “projection of experience,” I understand “the construction of a scientia of nature” to be more of an evaluative and recommended method of theory and practice by which we learn truths about nature.[10] This development is seen more clearly in Descartes, given his intense focus on method, and so here I focus on him. In Descartes we see the transfiguration of an ancient approach into something similar-but-different, for Aristotilian form (that which is communicated to the intellect) becomes for Descartes a kind of abstracted “image” consisting of simple natures such as extension and shape.

At this point one must pause and mention Plato’s Meno, the text of which literally displays two-dimensional figures not totally unlike those found in Rule XII Descartes’ Regulae. The two sets of images, however, are fundamentally different. For in the Meno they serve as an imaginative work of creation employed to pedagogical purposes. In Descartes, however, they are his literal representation (albeit loosely affirmed) of the corporeal impression received by the sense organs.

While it is important to note that proportionality is included in the respective authors’ deployment of their respective sets of images, the additional salient point for the purposes of this paper is that Descartes’ representation is a kind of preliminary step toward his further developed mathematical rules which he lays out in subsequent works. Like the images of the Regulae (but unlike Socrates’s images in the Meno), these mathematical units are the actual constituents of reality, the actual stuff which of which nature is, for Descartes, composed. It follows, then, that if we are to understand, and indeed to master, nature, we must employ highly sophisticated, mathematical tools. These Descartes attempts to give us in his later works.

My final consideration in this paper is a remark about how this shift comes about historically.[11] My suggestion is that it comes about because of a loss of confidence in the power of words to denominate things in the world. That is, the genealogy of this modern shift is inescapably connected with late medieval nominalism.

Aristotle says that “nature is what happens, or almost always happens” (De partibus animalium 663b 27ff).[12] Notice the complete lack of concern, typically premodern, for whether we know things. Aristotle takes it for granted that we do … but why? He takes it for granted for a reason different than that of the medievals such as Thomas. For them the doctrine of creation, a theological doctrine rooted in divine revelation, is the guarantee that words have meaning. But Aristotle’s reason for indifference to skepticism has more to do with something like a kind of coherence theory. David Charles writes that for Aristotle,

Terms such as “man” or “gold” have their significance because they signify a distinct natural kind whenever they are coherently uttered. They could not retain their significance and apply to a different object or a different kind…. Aristotle developed his metaphysical theory of substance and essence to answer this question and thus to underwrite and legitimize his account of names.[13]

What lies between Aristotle and Descartes historically is late medieval nominalism, frequently and correctly associated with William of Ockham. Thus begins a loss in the confidence that universals are real things. If this confidence begins to fade, then it becomes much easier to negate the older metaphysics.[14]   Indeed if Aristotle’s metaphysics[15] are posited because words have meaning, then the emerging shift, rooted in skeptical mistrust of sense perception, approaches logical necessity.

In conclusion, I do think that, in terms of the construal of the imagination, a certain shift has taken place from a more imitative posture to a more productive stance, both in terms of the projection of experience and the construction of a science of nature. We can see this double development in Descartes and its extension and intensification (specifically with regard to the former) in Kant’s transcendental idealism. The primary driver in this shift has to do with emergent developments in physics, current at the time of these thinkers, especially insofar as these developments reconstitute nature and thereby eclipse the metaphysics of their antique predecessors.

 

Works Cited

 Charles, David. “Aristotelianism,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Gaukroger, Stephen. “Corpuscularism” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Hedley, Douglas. Living Forms of the Imagination (New York: T&T Clark, 2008).

Feyerabend, Paul. “The history of the philosophy of science,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Sepper, Dennis L. Descartes’s Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking (Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1996).

Turner, Denys. “On Denying The Right of God: Aquinas On Atheism And Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20:1 January 2004.

Stephenson, Bruce. Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).



[1] Douglas Hedley, Living Forms of the Imagination (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 16.

[2] Living Forms, 18, 51. In fact, as we shall see, the British Empiricism can be seen as a significant exception to this rule.

[3] I note that, as Sepper points out in a class lecture, that Aristotle’s approach here is far from a fully developed creative aesthetics of the imagination.

[4] I employ this term because some philosophers argue that Descartes was a “corpuscularist,” a claim the analysis of which lies beyond the scope of this paper. See Stephen Gaukroger’s entry “Corpuscularism” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 178.

[5] Hence, they are, in Aristotelian terms, “opposite sciences” which are really “one and the same” in terms of their common genus. Aristotle: “Eadem est scientia oppositorum,” Peri Hermeneias, 6, 17a 33–35. I am indebted to Denys Turner for this insight. Denys Turner, “On Denying The Right of God: Aquinas On Atheism And Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20:1 January 2004.

[6] This rejection, in turn, places the burden of proof, so to speak, upon the rationalists to account for how the mind can know the things of the world, which also entails the (now questionable) affirmation of the existence of such things (contra Berkeley).

[7] See Bruce Stephenson, Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).

[8] This material is taken from Dennis L. Sepper, Descartes’s Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking (Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1996), 14ff.

[9] Cf Descartes’ Meditation IV in his Meditations on First Philosophy.

[10] Though I hasten to add that both this projection and this construction are imaginative acts of poiesis.

[11] To specify what is perhaps already obvious, I take this account to be genealogical in nature.

[12] Paul Feyerabend, “The history of the philosophy of science,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 851.

[13] David Charles, “Aristotelianism,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 53.

[14] This metaphysics, it must be stated (though space prohibits elaboration), includes not just form-in-substance but also a four-fold (as opposed to the modern one-or-two-fold) account of causation.

 

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Posted on: August 20th, 2012 Naked Bodies, “Feelings,” & the Buffered Self

In his A Secular Age Catholic Canadian analytic philosopher Charles Taylor gives a detailed genealogical account of the rise of “the buffered self” (ie, an experience of personal subjectivity in which one’s fundamental identity is fixed, walled-off from external forces such as ghosts, black magic, peer pressure, and social convention, and which is seen as the result of one’s own self-disciplined character formation; the opposite of the buffered self is “the porous self”).

Taylor’s account is detailed and multi-faceted. Much of it concerns the emerging “rage for order” which we see in Latin Europe in the early medieval period, together with the concomitant shift from ethical “praxis” to ethical “poesis” — ie, a shift away from the older idea (which we find in the classical tradition of moral virtue — that we can nurture character through the practice of working out our inherent, god-given human telos, to the idea that we can impose an external ideal upon the human person and through discipline … not unlike, according to Taylor, to the modern scientific approach to exploiting the natural resources of the earth).

However I want to focus specifically on Taylor’s account of our relationship with the body and the culturally constructed ways of experiencing it, or “disciplining” it, which begin to emerge sometime around 1500. What emerged gradually is what Taylor calls “the disengaged, disciplined stance to self.” (A Secular Age, 136)

The stance is “disciplined” in the ways I allude to above. The goal is to impose an ethical ideal upon the human person, much as the goal of a black smith is to impose an external ideal (for example, a sword) upon a formless piece of metal. (Influential here are Stoicism, Descartes, and the “Christian” neo-Stoic Lypsius.)

The stance is “disengaged” in that there emerges a separation between the “self” on the one hand, and a “certain modes of intimacy … and bodily functions” on the other (A Secular Age 137). This disengagement from certain bodily functions gives us an utterly concrete case of the rise of the buffered self.

Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth. A book of 1558 tells us that it is not a “very fine habit” when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell. People are told not to defecate in public places. (138)

Taylor also documents the practice of the aristocracy regarding nakedness. It would not be uncommon, just before this period, for a duchess or baroness to expose her naked body to a servant, for one would feel shame while naked only in the presence of someone of a higher rank. “Kings would dress in the company of their courtiers; they would even sit on the “chaise-percee” [a commode chair] in company.” (140)

From here naked exposure and open bodily functions move to becoming taboo outside of a small circle of intimate relations. But this expectation is not “natural,” not written into the foundation of the universe, not a matter of natural law. Rather, it is learned and culturally conditioned. Taylor situates this development within the shift in early modernity to a more disciplined stance, in which the “true self” (that which is totally incorporeal in the human being, a kind of “ghost in the machine”) is distanced from and seeks to suppress or hide all exposure and contact to undisciplined, raw nakedness and unrefined creaturely performances.

This distancing or buffering goes hand in hand with a shift in how we understand “intimacy,” which here comes to refer to the dimension of shared feeling. This sense of intimacy “is part of our modern concept … in an age where the having of certain profound and intense feelings comes to be seen as central to human fulfillment. At this point in Western history, Taylor writes, “We are on the road to our contemporary age, where creating a harmonious household, having children, carrying on the line, no longer define the point of marriage, but this finds its main goal in an emotional fulfillment which is identified as one of the central human goods.” (141)

I think that this absolutization of feelings plays a central role in the inability of our contemporary western society to produce human beings who can successfully raise children (to allude to Stanley Hauerwas). That is, this absolutization of feelings, which plays a key role in the rise of the modern buffered self, is deeply relevant to the issues of divorce and “same sex unions,” two intimately connected issues, even if only the latter is currently under public discussion (within the church and without).

As an example, I appeal to  the rhetoric in a video of Bishop Gene Robinson (appearing on “Frost Over the World,” in conversation with the more traditional Anglican priest Lynda Rose) who appeals to his feelings and to some “inner core” of the identity of gay and lesbian people.

Please note, I find much of what Bp. Robinson says, but I’m trying to isolate one facet here of the gay issue — the absolutization of the “feelings” of the buffered self — and I think that his discourse is a good example of this. This “inner core” of (experience-derived) identity is, all too often, presented as inviolable, and it seems to trump scripture, tradition, and reason.

 

 

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Posted on: June 27th, 2012 Eagleton on the “new historicism”

It is a familiar truth that the last thing which historicisms are usually prepared to place under any historical judgement is their own historical conditions. Like many a postmodern form of thought, it implicitly offered as a universal imperative — the imperative, for example, not to universalize — what could fairly easily be seen, from some way off, as the historically peculiar situation of a specific wing of the Western left intelligentsia. Perhaps it is easier in California to feel that history is random, unsystematic, directionless, than in some less privileged places in the world — just as it was easier for Virginia Woolf to feel that life was fragmentary and unstructured than it was for her servants. New historicism hsa produced some critical commentary of rare boldness and brilliance, and challenged many an historical shibboleth; but its rejection of any macro-historical schemes is uncomfortably close to commonplace conservative thought, which has its own political reasons for scorning the idea of historical structures and long-term trends. – Literary Theory (2nd ed.), 198

In this assessment of the “new historicism” (ie, philosophers and cultural critics, mainly American, who are writing in the wake of Foucault) Eagleton points out not only how such particular strands of “leftism” are irresponsibly non-self-critical, but also how the post-political ethos of such movements (unlike that of earlier versions of critical cultural theory) ends up reinforcing the political status quo.

While I deeply respect Eagleton’s old fashioned insistence (faithful, as he ever is, to Marx) on political criticism which must practically serve to bolster the plight of the working poor, at the same time I regard this reinforcement of the status quo as containing large grains of goodness.

Why? Because, in relativizing or undermining the older movements of political criticism (ie, Marxist-influenced thinkers down through the immediate predecessors to Foucault and Derrida) “postmodern” movements such as the “new historicism” have the effect of opening up an “aporetic space” for the church / theology, which were not as apparent before. As important as social justice is for the world and for the West, it pales in comparison to the potential cultural acknowledgment of the validity of theological thought within that ongoing political discussion called the Western tradition.

This does not mean that “late capitalism” is good; it means that social justice is a penultimate concern.

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Posted on: April 16th, 2012 Jeremy Taylor & Gay Issues

Yesterday in my Christian Formation class at Christ Church I made the case that the Bible is not as clear as I used to think on matters of “homosexuality.” Next week I will argue, however, on the basis of Romans 1 as well as the “narrative arc of Scripture,” in harmony with the consensus of catholic tradition, that same sex practice should not be sanctioned by the Church.

Hence, same sex issues are on my mind & heart today. It is in that context that I read this morning in my personal study time this excerpt from Jeremy Taylor‘s A Sermon on the Marriage Ring:

Nothing can sweeten felicity itself but love. But, when a man dwells in love, then the breasts of his wife are pleasant as the droppings of the hill of Hermon, her eyes are fair as the light of Heaven, she is a fountain sealed, and he can quench his thirst and ease his cares, and lay his sorrows down upon her lap, and can retire home to his sanctuary and refectory and his gardens of sweetness and chaste refreshments. No man can tell, but he that loves his children, how many delicious accents make a man’s heart dance in the pretty conversation of those dear pledges; their childishness, their stammering, their little angers, their innocence, their imperfections, their necessities, are so many emanations of joy and comfort to him that delights in their persons and society.

But he that loves not his wife and children feeds a lioness at home, and broods over a nest of sorrows; and blessing itself cannot make him happy; so that all the commandments of God enjoining a man to “love his wife” are nothing but so many necessities of capacity and joy. She that loves is safe, and he that loves is joyful. Love is a union of all things excellent; it contains in it proportion and satisfaction, and rest and confidence.

Could an analogous sermon be preached at a same sex “wedding?” Hard (for me) to imagine. Perhaps my horizons need to be broadened? I’m open. Skeptical, but open.

I also was reminded this morning that Taylor staunchly resisted the “pro-divorce” views of that Presbyterian Puritan John Milton.

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Posted on: November 26th, 2011 The Three Comings of Christ (Advent, 2011)

Have you ever noticed how, in the Christian Faith, so many things come in “three’s”? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Peter, James, and John.  Faith, hope, and love.

Another “Trinitarian triad” which is especially relevant at this point in our church year is found in the Memorial Acclamation of our Eucharistic Prayer:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

I’ve long reflected on our confession of this “triple event” in terms of Advent, a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ. (Note that, in Latin, the verb venire means “ to come,” and the prefix ad means “to” or “toward.”) It points, I think, to the reality of the three “comings” of Christ, all of which require our preparation. Christ came; Christ comes; Christ will come again.

First, Christ came. He came to our hurting and broken world 2000 years ago as baby boy, born to a young teenage girl in Palestine. He came to an afflicted people, in desperate need of something, someone, to put their hope in. This first coming, when the God-man walked upon the pages of historical time and space, is something catholic Christians actively re-member every year in Advent. We relive it, we reimagine it, we prepare for it. When it comes to this, the “first coming” of Christ, what is going on is that we are preparing for the remembrance of a past event (not unlike the annual preparation for one’s wedding anniversary).

But, second, Christ comes. Every Eucharist, every time the Word is read, in fact every moment of our lives, God in Christ approaches us in loving relationship. This is true on so many levels we scarcely have time or space to discuss it. In my Christian formation class this year during Ordinary Time we spent many weeks discussing and practicing a form of prayerful reading called lectio divina, and this is why: Christ is always present, and yet the challenge and need is for us to develop and cultivate an awareness of that presence. Hence, we pray. We meditate. We contemplate. We wait. We listen. “Be still,” the Psalms instruct, “and know that I am God.”

Finally, Christ will come again. This we confess at every Eucharist in the words of the Nicene Creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” No man knows the hour, and few should claim to know the manner, but that he will return, we are absolutely certain. And though the details are hazy, we are told that he will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thes 5:2) Therefore, St. Paul admonishes, “let us not sleep, as others do, but keep awake, and be sober.” (1 Thes 5:5) Sounds like preparation to me.

All of this reminds me of a quotation from Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: “We imagine the past, and we remember the future.” The past, the first coming of Christ, is an event which renews and redeems the world, simultaneously bringing Israel’s story (for us, the Old Testament) to its anticipated climax. It is no ordinary event. It is the “axis mundi,” the pivot of history. It is, at the same time, the climax of our story, yours and mine. When we read about God’s people in the Old Testament, we are reading about our community, our selves. This is an event we are imaginatively to re-inhabit.

The future, in turn, is something we “remember,” for we have already been told how it will end. Putting aside all of those dense, thick commentaries on the Book of Revelation for a moment, we do see in the last two chapters of our Story a renewed community, celebrating the ultimate victory of God and his Lamb. We know, in other words, “who wins” in the end, and we know that our destiny is sure: to rest in and to enjoy our Three Person God forever with all his Saints.

We imagine the past; we remember the future. In so doing we are enabled more and more to live fully into the present moment, in which Christ comes to us continually and without reservation.

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Posted on: November 17th, 2011 Christian Nation? The Founders on Religion

I highly recommend James Hutson’s book of quotations, The Founders on Religion.

Reading it I realized (or rather, was reminded) that, of the six most influential founders of the US (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington), two were Unitarians (Adams and Jefferson), and one was a deist (James Madison), one was an all-out nonbeliever / non churchgoer (Franklin).

That leaves only two of the six as remotely resembling the historic Christian faith. (Note: of these six, four were Episcopalian!)

Is it any wonder that the landscape of American Christianity (to say nothing of the Episcopal Church!) today is so muddled? The more things change….

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Posted on: October 15th, 2011 Rob Bell on Truth

From Velvet Elvis:

Truth always leads to more truth. Because truth is insight into God, and God is infinite, and God has no boundaries or edges. So truth always has layers and depth and texture. It’s like a pool that you dive into and you start swimming toward the bottom and soon you discover that no matter how hard and fast you swim downward, the pool keeps getting deeper. The bottom will always be out of reach.

Good stuff. To many modern (ie, fundamentalist … both  “conservative-fundamentalist” and “revisionist-fundamentalist) ears, this will be unpalatable. But to those who love the patristic tradition, it is profoundly correct (albeit stated in a contemporary manner).

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Posted on: October 1st, 2011 Hauerwas on Evangelicals & “Making Christianity Up”

“Too often, American Christians think that they get to make Christianity up, but it is received.”

“As a Christian, I have no private life. That Jesus is Lord is going to make my life quite dysfunctional in relation to a good deal of American practice.”

Statements like these clarify my mind, and motivate me to press on in the same direction my pastoral ministry has been going for over a decade now. Statements like these are on offer regularly by Stanley Hauerwas, for example, here.

This is another good one, too. In this one Hauerwas states that, all too often, Evangelicals think that Christianity consists solely of the Bible and “now” … totally omitting 2000 years of history.

Wow. Having been in Tyler, TX for a year now, my mind is blown by the extent to which so many of the Christian folk around here (and these are evangelicals I am talking about) don’t even meet that deficient standard. Would that they valued the Bible!! I bet three times a week I hear a well-meaning Christian (whether they know I am a pastor or not) walk up to me and say, “God told me __________.”

“God told me to move to Tyler to start a ministry.” (That one, unsolicited, was two days ago, spoken by a complete stranger, in the park while I was pushing my three year old in a swing.)

“God told me to tell you that ________.” (This one happens about once a month, often from another Christian leader in Tyler.)

(I could go on, but I’m starting to feel kind of guilty and embarrassed.)

When it comes to theses statements I think, “OK, maybe.”

I don’t want to be a mere skeptic when talking with brothers and sisters. However, I’m pretty sure that 99% of the time this statement is based not on Scripture, not on deep intimacy with God such that one can “hear” God “speak,” but rather on self-interested emotion(alism).

 

 

 

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Posted on: September 17th, 2011 Tourist or Participant? (Religious Art & the Church)

At the gracious invitation of the Tyler Museum of Art, I recently gave a lecture there entitled “Christians Then & Now: Religious Art and the Christian Church.” This event was held in conjunction with the exhibit, “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

Abstract: “When it comes to approaching Christian art, there are really two different approaches. The first is the approach of the spectator, the tourist, someone viewing the art from the outside, as if the art were an object, an inert item. That is one approach, and it is an approach which I am going to suggest is connected with what one thinker calls ‘the disenchantment of the modern world.’ The other approach is that of the participant, the member, the one who belongs. What I suggest is that that approach … might have something to do with the ‘re-enchantment’ of the postmodern world.”

You can podcast the talk here.

(Note: the audio quality on the first couple of minutes is not great. My apologies.)

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Posted on: September 6th, 2011 Prayer: a life-long conversation with God

What follows is the statement of purpose for my Christian Formation class at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Tyler, Texas which will be offered in the Fall of 2011.

A conversation requires two parties, whose roles alternate between speaker and listener.

The firm conviction out of which this Christian Formation class on prayer is based is that prayer, according to Scripture and Tradition, is intended to be a conversation or a dialogue between us and God.

All too often well-meaning Christians today assume that prayer is, by definition, solely a matter of the Christian talking to God instead of talking with God, instead of engaging in a conversation with God. And yet, the Scriptures are clear: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10) implies a listening posture of silence. That God is “a still, small voice” (cf 1 Kings 19:12) suggests that God speaks to his people, but that in order to hear him we must be quiet, refusing to let our own “noise” (literal and otherwise) drown out his voice.

In this class we will be asking the question “What is prayer?” and we will see that there are a great many answers to that question. For example, Sister Benedicta Ward, SLG (Anglican Order of the Sisters of the Love of God) writes that, for the desert fathers, “prayer was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day; it was a life continually turned toward God.”

Indeed, prayer is so many things. And yet, the core conviction here is that as modern Christians we have lost the art, the practice, the holy discipline and comfort of listening for God. We are too busy, too anxious, too impatient, too distracted. And in the process of all this frenetic activity, we lose the joy of intimacy with the living God who speaks.

What should we do? It was the theoretical vision of John Calvin, and the practical vision of Thomas Cranmer, that all Christians were called to live the life of prayer which, in times past, was restriced to the monastery. That is part of the answer.

For the more of the answer we will listen to the wisdom of contemporary Christian leaders who have been particularly profound in their approach to prayer-as-listening. Among the writers and writings which have influenced me in this regard, and to whom we will be attentive in this class are:

  • Peter Kreeft, Prayer: The Great Conversation and Prayer for Beginners
  • James Finley, Christian Meditation
  • Henri Nouwen, various
  • Thomas Keeting, various

Join us this fall, as we consider how to listen for the voice of God in our daily lives.

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Posted on: August 30th, 2011 The Fecundity of Walter Ong

I am currently in the final stages of discerning a possible opportunity to begin doctoral work at the University of Dallas under the esteemed postmodern medievalist Phillip Rosemann. As a part of our ongoing dialogue designed to culminate in a final decision (mutually discerned) to apply to this program or not, Professor Rosemann invited me to read Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. In so doing he correctly perceived, on the basis of our discussions so far, a great interest on my part for texts and authors related to genealogy, or the intellectual developments which have led western society and culture down the road it has taken in particular toward secularism and modernity.

I must say that the Ong book is among the most original books I have read in a while in its fecundity and heuristic value, rivaling even Pierre Hadot’s work in its ability to shed light upon our cultural and intellectual predecessors, showing how they viewed the world and why.

Whereas much of Hadot’s work focuses on the “schools” of ancient philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.) and shows how they organically lead to major historical strands within Christianity, Ong takes as his point of departure the “pre-literate” culture makers of the Homeric poets and bards, whose description of the world, as is the case with all pre-literate (ie, oral) thought leaders, is decisively shaped and determined by the form of their discourse. In a world which knew nothing of writing (let alone an alphabet or still less moveable type and the printing press) their description of the world was cast in terms of formulaic units of text (eg, repeated patterns of subjects, verbs, and objects), repetition of events, epithets (eg, “crafty Odysseus,” “the wine-dark sea,” “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”). Just as important, their “genre” (to be horribly anachronistic) was epic narrative, which we would identify as closely related to poetry, given its conformity to strict patterns of meter or scansion.

This book reminds me of the phrase of Alfred North Whitehead who spoke of the “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” The explanatory power of Ong’s thesis (which builds on the work of, among others, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Milman Parry) to explain why the ancients described their world they way they did is staggering. For example, there is the simple matter of memory (a topic given ample attention by Ong). Why did the ancients rely so heavily of formulaic expressions, epithets and repetition in their rendition of important events? (Why, for example, is there so much repetition, say, in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 or in the Abraham cycle of the same book?) Why, further, did they not cast their reports in ways more amenable to the modern, “scientific” mindset? Before one delves into complex matters of historical development, there is the simple fact that they were just trying to remember the account being given. Think about life with no writing at all: of course “tools” such as repetition, formula, and epithet would be of great value. (Note that I am here presupposing that the Bible has an oral provenance which precedes its being committed to writing in the Hebrew language. This is an assumption shared by Ong.)

To take this a bit further, consider again the structure of the creation account of Genesis 1. Why is it structured in terms of six days? Given Ong’s thesis, it would be a great mistake not to include in one’s answer to this question that the communal guardians of the story were simply trying to remember an ancient narrative, to continue the story in the living memory of the people. This is the case regardless of whatever else one might want to argue about the creation story of Genesis 1, any account of Genesis 1 (seeking either to undermine it or to bolster its validity) must take these factors into account.

Briefly I want to list some other areas to which this book is particularly relevant:

I have already hinted at the area of Biblical criticism.

I have already alluded to the genealogical import of the book.

Plato. Ong highlights the deep ambiguity in Plato’s posture toward writing as opposed to orality: in the Republic he banishes poets from the city but then in the Phaedrus and elsewhere he extols the beauty and value of oral dialogue, complaining that writing will lead to a loss of memory.

Rhetoric. Ong shows how, paradoxically, rhetoric both presupposes writing (Aristotle could have never developed the loci communes without the mental structure afforded him by writing) and is eclipsed by (that especially intense form of) writing (known as alphabet-based moveable type). The Romantic movement, itself utterly dependent upon moveable type as well as a level of interiority which only a deeply literate culture could achieve, was the nail in the coffin of rhetoric.

Depth Psychology. In a fascinating discussion of Freud, Ong shows how the depth psychology which he spawned is utterly dependent upon literary developments which could only be achieved in a highly literate culture, for example the development of the round character. (The characters of oral narrative are by necessity “flat,” eg, Odysseus, Adam, Abraham.)

Derrida. In addition to interacting with Derrida’s reading of Plato viz a viz speech and writing (a crucial issue explored in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing), Ong masterfully, provocatively, and simply shows that what Derrida does is to downgrade oral discourse so that he does not have to deal with it. If orality is stricken with the metaphysics of presence, then Derrida is liberated to deal only with the written text, and to attempt to argue that the text is all there is. Page 162 is the best (and most concise) summary of Derrida I’ve seen.

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Posted on: July 13th, 2011 Soul Friends (Belonging before Believing)

I recently reviewed George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

The Celtic way of evangelism was all about bringing people into a new kind of community, through such practices as radical hospitality as well as “soul friends” (anamchara). Soul friends would engage the visitor or stranger in “the ministry of conversation,” and involvement in small groups of fellowship. In all these ways and more, the Celtic Christians practiced evangelism in a way which many “postmodern” Christians have come to embrace, that is, in recognition that many times “belonging precedes belief,” that before many people can begin to believe in Jesus, they must feel that they belong to a community of his followers.

This kind of evangelism, based in a ministry of hospitality, is (among other things) what we are doing in the Epiphany Community of Tyler.

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Posted on: July 13th, 2011 Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism (II)

In the second half of the book Hunter turns his attention to the ways and means of Celtic evangelism, and how such strategies might inform the way the church of the 21st century does evangelism in a western culture which is increasingly “post-Christian” (even here in Tyler … recall the Tyler Rose Marathon which was scheduled last year on a Sunday morning, a civic decision inconceivable a mere decade ago).

Hunter focuses on various ways in which the great Celtic missionaries (specifically Patrick, Columba, Aidan, and Cuthbert) and their communities planted and nurtured the Gospel in their respective pagan mission fields.

First, the Celtic communication of the Gospel took very seriously the ethos of the Gospel communicator (be it St. Patrick or the larger community of Celtic Christians), the pathos of the receiving communities, and the logos of the Gospel message. Patrick himself set the standard for a compelling ethos by providing the “authentic sign” (a phrase coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson) of risking danger and personal loss. Aidan continued this authentic Gospel witness by his lifestyle of selfless giving and his complete disinterestedness in material security. Additionally, the unique pathos of the Celtic people shaped the way Patrick and his followers shaped the Gospel message. The indigenous emotional intensity of the Celtic peoples, as well as their sensual way of approaching life molded the ways in which Patrick and his followers embodied and presented of the truth of Christ, as witnessed in the vibrant poetry and art which flourished in Celtic Christian culture. The logos of the Gospel to the Celts included aspects of biblical truth which would resonate powerfully with the imaginative Celts. For example, the former slave Patrick frequently spoke of how Jesus is the “ransom” price used to “purchase” the freedom of slaves … a different emphasis than the more “Roman” stress upon guilt and innocence.

“I have decided, after long deliberation about the English people … that the idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God. When the people see that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to … [worship] the true God.”

This directive from St. Gregory the Great, sent to his missionaries in Canterbury in the 6th century, captures well (even though written by a “Roman” leader!) a second Celtic aspect of evangelism: the instinct to built upon, rather than to destroy, the religious instincts of the people to whom they were bringing the good news about Jesus Christ. Citing the examples of the Celtic fascination with the number three, their practice of human sacrifice accompanying their obsession with death, of their deep sense of the divine presence within nature Hunter clearly shows how the ancient missionaries to the Celts built upon, rather than simply dismissed, many of the deep seeded drives, desires, and instincts of the Celtic people.

Finally, Hunter imaginatively speculates about the “Celtic future of the Christian movement in the West.” The upshot of this part of the book is that the contemporary church in the West must seek to understand and to befriend “the host of New Barbarians [who] substantially populate the West once again.” As we do that, and as we creatively adapt the ways in which our ancient mothers and fathers incarnated the Gospel to an analogous people in an analogous age, we will, by the grace of God, see “tens of millions risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them.”

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Posted on: July 13th, 2011 Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism (I)

George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism, published by Abingdon Press in 2000, builds on Thomas Cahill’s provocative How the Irish Saved Civilization, traces the roots of the establishment of the Celtic Church first among the Celts in Ireland by the Romanized Briton St. Patrick; then among the Picts in Scotland by the Celt St. Columba (using the monastic community of Iona as a missionary base); then among the newly arrived Angles and Saxons (think of the Rescript of Honorius, beginning the abandonment of Britain by the Roman military in 410) in now pagan England by St. Aidan (the monastery of Lindisfarne this time serving as the base of missionary operations). Finally, under the leadership of St. Columbanus, the Celtic way of practicing the faith was extended to many corners of the now “barbarianized” continent as well.

Unique features of the Celtic Church, according to Hunter, include the refusal to separate “lay people” and “clergy” for the purposes of doing ministry (resonating with Fr. David’s recent emphasis on the “grassroots origins” of the English Church and by extension of the Celtic Church); the wholistic nature of Celtic monasteries (they were more like cities, teeming with all sorts of economic, cultural, and religious activity, complete with families and children, as opposed to the standard picture of austerity and solitary reverence we get from more “Roman” monasteries); and the evangelistic practice of “belonging before believing.”

It is with this last feature of the Celtic Church (the idea that, both in the ancient world of the pagans as well as in our increasingly post-Christian world of the West, many people must belong to a community of Jesus followers before they are able to believe) that Hunter begins to apply the wisdom of this missionary movement to the (post)modern Western Church in our day.

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Posted on: June 4th, 2011 Diognetus: the Jesus Way (in the 2nd century)

Hmm. I really thought that I had put the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus on my blog a few years ago.

I’m going to read this in my sermon tomorrow as an example of how every particular story will produce a particular life style. This is the life style of the Jesus story. (What is compelling about the Jesus story is not its uniqueness, as Rob Bell argues here, but rather – among other things – the way of life it engenders.)

Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. The do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.

 

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Posted on: June 1st, 2011 Ancient Therapies & Human Suffering

In his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot writes

In the view of all philosophical schools [Epicureanism, Stoicism, the
Schools of Plato and Aristotle, the Skeptics and the Cynics] mankind’s
principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the
passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are
prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated
by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a
therapeutic of the passions. Each school had its own therapeutic
methods, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound
transformation of the individual’s mode of seeing and being. The object
of spiritual exercises is to bring about this transformation. (p 83)

A clear subtext of Hadot’s work is the analogous ways of functioning
between these ancient schools on the one hand, and the church (or
perhaps more specifically, monasteries) on the other.

If these schools were able to provide a measure of therapy to suffering
people through the transformation of their whole persons, how much more
the church, to whom has been given “the Spirit without measure” as
John’s Gospel says.

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Posted on: May 20th, 2011 Questioning our Worship (IX): “Baptism: why water, why babies?”

This is part 9 of a 10-part series.

When you hear the word “salvation,” what do you think of?

Many modern people, both in the church and out, imagine (in a way quite foreign to the thought world of the Bible) “salvation” to be some sort of mystical “zapping” of the soul such that, after the magic “zapping,” one now has an unbreakable and unquestionable connection to God.

On the contrary, however, when a first century Jewish person imagined “salvation,” he or she would have thought of images very earthy and mundane: lots of flowing wine, the fatted calf roasting on the altar, lots of children and grandchildren running around, good land to live on and to work, justice and mercy and material blessing for the poor and the outcast. One thinks of shalom, embodied life in the Kingdom of God.

It should therefore come as no surprise that, when it comes to “salvation” in the church of Jesus Christ (who, after all, was a first century Jew), such blessing comes to us through ordinary means: the vibrating vocal cords of a preacher, printed words on a page, bread and wine.

Baptism is a case in point. When God chose to create a rite to ingraft us into the community of God’s people, he chose water as a primary means to do so. Why?

There are too many reasons to list, but a perusal of the “Thanksgiving over the Water” in our baptismal rite (BCP 306) is a good place to start.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.

Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage

in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus

received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy

Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death

and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

Water is central to the creation story, the exodus story, the Jesus story … therefore it is central to our salvation story.

But now for a more taxing question: why do we baptize infants, in addition to adults?

In my Christian Formation class at Christ Church, we are discussing four arguments for infant baptism:

1. The argument from redemptive history: we perform this rite because an analogous rite was performed in the old covenant: circumcision.

2. The argument from ordinary means: if salvation is not a zapping in the heart, but rather comes to us through ordinary means, then this practice makes sense.

3. The argument from corporate solidarity: scripture teaches that salvation is primarily a “community thing,” and only secondarily and “individual thing,” so infant baptism should be seen in that framework, as a way of bringing a little one into the community of God’s people.

4. The argument from prevenient grace: if God chooses us before we choose him (as 1 John 4:19 seems to imply), then it makes sense that we have a ritual which gives expression to that fact, as infant baptism surely does.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.

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Posted on: October 29th, 2010 Where did “Halloween” Come From?

Happy (early) All Saints Eve!

Enjoy this excellent article by James Jordan on the origins of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve:

Concerning Halloween

James Jordan

It has become routine in October for some Christian schools to send out letters warning parents about the evils of Halloween, and it has become equally routine for me to be asked questions about this matter.

“Halloween” is simply a contraction for All Hallows’ Eve. The word “hallow” means “saint,” in that “hallow” is just an alternative form of the word “holy” (“hallowed be Thy name”). All Saints’ Day is November 1. It is the celebration of the victory of the saints in union with Christ. The observance of various celebrations of All Saints arose in the late 300s, and these were united and fixed on November 1 in the late 700s. The origin of All Saints Day and of All Saints Eve in Mediterranean Christianity had nothing to do with Celtic Druidism or the Church’s fight against Druidism (assuming there ever even was any such thing as Druidism, which is actually a myth concocted in the 19th century by neo-pagans.)

In the First Covenant, the war between God’s people and God’s enemies was fought on the human level against Egyptians, Assyrians, etc. With the coming of the New Covenant, however, we are told that our primary battle is against principalities and powers, against fallen angels who bind the hearts and minds of men in ignorance and fear. We are assured that through faith, prayer, and obedience, the saints will be victorious in our battle against these demonic forces. The Spirit assures us: “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly” (Romans 16:20).

The Festival of All Saints reminds us that though Jesus has finished His work, we have not finished ours. He has struck the decisive blow, but we have the privilege of working in the mopping up operation. Thus, century by century the Christian faith has rolled back the demonic realm of ignorance, fear, and superstition. Though things look bad in the Western world today, this work continues to make progress in Asia and Africa and Latin America.

The Biblical day begins in the preceding evening, and thus in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. Christmas Eve is most familiar to us, but there is also the Vigil of Holy Saturday that precedes Easter Morn. Similarly, All Saints’ Eve precedes All Saints’ Day.

The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: On October 31, the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.

What is the means by which the demonic realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thinks the devil really looks like this; the Bible teaches that he is the fallen Arch-Cherub. Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us. (The tradition of mocking Satan and defeating him through joy and laughter plays a large role in Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is a Halloween novel.)

The gargoyles that were placed on the churches of old had the same meaning. They symbolized the Church ridiculing the enemy. They stick out their tongues and make faces at those who would assault the Church. Gargoyles are not demonic; they are believers ridiculing the defeated demonic army.

Thus, the defeat of evil and of demonic powers is associated with Halloween. For this reason, Martin Luther posted his 95 challenges to the wicked practices of the Church to the bulletin board on the door of the Wittenberg chapel on Halloween. He picked his day with care, and ever since Halloween has also been Reformation Day.

Similarly, on All Hallows’ Eve (Hallow-Even – Hallow-E’en – Halloween), the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ – we have NO FEAR!

I don’t have the resources to check the historical origins of all Halloween customs, and doubtless they have varied from time to time and from Christian land to Christian land. “Trick or treat” doubtless originated simply enough: something fun for kids to do. Like anything else, this custom can be perverted, and there have been times when “tricking” involved really mean actions by teenagers and was banned from some localities.

We can hardly object, however, to children collecting candy from friends and neighbors. This might not mean much to us today, because we are so prosperous that we have candy whenever we want, but in earlier generations people were not so well o_, and obtaining some candy or other treats was something special. There is no reason to pour cold water on an innocent custom like this.

Similarly, the jack-o’-lantern’s origins are unknown. Hollowing out a gourd or some other vegetable, carving a face, and putting a lamp inside of it is something that no doubt has occurred quite independently to tens of thousands of ordinary people in hundreds of cultures worldwide over the centuries. Since people lit their homes with candles, decorating the candles and the candle-holders was a routine part of life designed to make the home pretty or interesting. Potatoes, turnips, beets, and any number of other items were used.

Wynn Parks writes of an incident he observed: “An English friend had managed to remove the skin of a tangerine in two intact halves. After carving eyes and nose in one hemisphere and a mouth in the other, he poured cooking oil over the pith sticking up in the lower half and lit the readymade wick. With its upper half on, the tangerine skin formed a miniature jack-o’-lantern. But my friend seemed puzzled that I should call it by that name. `What would I call it? Why a “tangerine head,” I suppose.’” (Parks, “The Head of the Dead,” The World & I, November 1994, p. 270.)

In the New World, people soon learned that pumpkins were admirably suited for this purpose. The jack-o’-lantern is nothing but a decoration; and the leftover pumpkin can be scraped again, roasted, and turned into pies and muffins.

In some cultures, what we call a jack-o’-lantern represented the face of a dead person, whose soul continued to have a presence in the fruit or vegetable used. But this has no particular relevance to Halloween customs. Did your mother tell you, while she carved the pumpkin, that this represented the head of a dead person and with his soul trapped inside? Of course not. Symbols and decorations, like words, mean different things in different cultures, in different languages, and in different periods of history. The only relevant question is what does it mean now, and nowadays it is only a decoration.

And even if some earlier generations did associate the jack-o’-lantern with a soul in a head, so what? They did not take it seriously. It was just part of the joking mockery of heathendom by Christian people.

This is a good place to note that many articles in books, magazines, and encyclopedias are written by secular humanists or even the pop-pagans of the so-called “New Age” movement. (An example is the article by Wynn Parks cited above.) These people actively suppress the Christian associations of historic customs, and try to magnify the pagan associations. They do this to try and make paganism acceptable and to downplay Christianity. Thus, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, etc., are said to have pagan origins. Not true.

Oddly, some fundamentalists have been influenced by these slanted views of history. These fundamentalists do not accept the humanist and pagan rewriting of Western history, American history, and science, but sometimes they do accept the humanist and pagan rewriting of the origins of Halloween and Christmas, the Christmas tree, etc. We can hope that in time these brethren will reexamine these matters as well. We ought not to let the pagans do our thinking for us.

Nowadays, children often dress up as superheroes, and the original Christian meaning of Halloween has been absorbed into popular culture. Also, with the present fad of “designer paganism” in the so-called New Age movement, some Christians are uneasy with dressing their children as spooks. So be it. But we should not forget that originally Halloween was a Christian custom, and there is no solid reason why Christians cannot enjoy it as such even today.

“He who sits in the heavens laughs; Yahweh ridicules them” says Psalm 2. Let us join in His holy laughter, and mock the enemies of Christ on October 31.

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Posted on: October 11th, 2010 Augustine on _Totus Christus_

From Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John:

Then let us rejoice and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members: the whole man is he and we… The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. Head and members, what is that? Christ and the Church (In. Io. XXI.8).

Thanks, David Thomas.

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Posted on: September 27th, 2010 Nigeria & Eliza Griswold’s _The 10th Parallel_

About a month ago I heard a podcast of “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross in which she interviewed both Eliza Griswold, daughter of former Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, as well as Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and 2010 Blandy Lecturer at the Seminary of the Southwest.

Sharlet has an article in this month’s Harper’s on homosexuality in Uganda called “Straight Man’s Burden” which is interesting reading.

After hearing the interview I purchased the book and started reading, largely to prepare myself for the upcoming visit to Christ Church Tyler of the Most Reverend Benjamin Kwashi, an Anglican archbishop in Nigeria. (God willing, I also have the amazing opportunity, at the Archbishop’s request, to travel to Nigeria next summer with a group from Christ Church.)

I plan to blog on this book over the next few days. For now, here’s a great quotation (from page 11):

Today’s typical Protestant in an African woman, not a white American man. In many of the weak states along the tenth parallel, the power of these religious movements is compounded by the fact that the “state” means very little here; governments are alien structures that offer their people almost nothing in the way of services or political rights. This lack is especially pronounced where present-day national borders began as nothing more than lines sketched onto colonial maps. Other kinds of identity, consequently, come to the fore: religion above everything – even race or ethnicity – becomes a means to safeguard individual and collective security in this world and the next one.

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Posted on: August 28th, 2010 A Collect for St. Augustine …

… whose feast day is today.

“Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

– From Lesser Feasts & Fasts

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Posted on: June 9th, 2010 _Cities of God_: Communities of Desire (ch 5)

I think (I hope) I might be reaching “a simplicity on the far side of complexity,” that is, a grasp of the big picture of what Ward is saying and doing in this book.

My dad & I have a long-standing argument over the question, “Is the world getting better & better, worse & worse, or something else?” It is easy, especially for Christians in the West today, to think that the world is getting worse & worse. However, what Ward (along with other practitioners of theological genealogy) shows is that the state of affairs we have today (I am thinking, for example, of rampant and dominating consumerism, and its many destructive effects) is really just a point on the trajectory of certain developments which have been happening for centuries now within modernity.

A few such developments are key to Ward’s thesis: the reduction of eros down to libidinal desire; the reduction of real community to transaction, then to imagination, then to virtualness.

These trends, along with the Hegelian and Freudian belief that the “nuclear family” is the building block of civilization, are all at work to produce the situation in which we find ourselves today: a culture in which we are determined in almost every way and at almost every level by the capitalistic marketplace which endlessly stimulates our desires, promising satisfaction but never delivering. (Worst of all, it is this dynamic which grounds most postmodern forms of community, or vestiges of community.)

However, what if we are at a “late point” in the history of these trajectories? For example, Ward shows how transactional community (seen clearly in the commodification culture of the Industrial Revolution) has led to imaginary community (ie, the formation of community, for example, in the modern nation state around nothing but the imagined belief that we are a real community), which has led to the virtual community which characterizes life today.

Well, what will this lead to? It is easy to see this as the last phase in modernity’s long project of the destruction of true community. If so, then that is good news, and perhaps we could say that, in this narrow sense, the world is getting better and better (or something like that).

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Posted on: June 9th, 2010 _Cities of God_: The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ

In this chapter / essay (chapter 4) Ward rehearses five movements of displacement, narrated in the Gospel stories, of the body of Jesus (we are here speaking of the soma typicon): the transfiguration (which shows that bodies can be transfigured), the institution narrative of the Eucharist (which shows that bodies can be transposed), the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension (in which Christ’s body is expanded to fill the entire church and cosmos).

I really appreciate Ward’s critique, in light of his “nyssan” cosmology of materiality, of Calvin’s view of the Eucharist, presupposing as it does the spatial location of the body of Jesus in heaven.

What Ward is doing, quite rivetingly, is starting with Christology and then developing from there a Christian cosmology. If Christ’s body is somehow iconic or paradigmatic of all creation (Col 1:15; Eph 1:10, 22-3) then this makes sense. And, as I have been saying Ward has a precedent in this effort in Gregory of Nyssa.

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Posted on: February 11th, 2010 Bishop Wright on Virtue

Followers of Bishop NT Wright (among whom I count myself, since he was a primary reason I left the PCA to become an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Texas) will know that his third (and final?) book in the series which began with Simply Christian which was then followed up with Surprised by Hope is called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, and is, among other things, the good bishop’s treatment of the Christian tradition of virtue.

This is good news, since (in my opinion) one of the most urgent tasks for the church in terms of its current vocation in our nihilistic culture of consumeristic emotivism is training the people in virtue, closely related to what the ancient church called paideia.

For a briefer taste of what Bishop Tom is up to here, check out this video lecture, given at Fuller Seminary a few months ago.

Here are some of my notes on this lecture:

For Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) which is our telos as human beings, is not something that “just happens” naturally. In fact, it is something which must be intentionally chosen, and then repeatedly put into practice, such that they eventually become “second nature.”

Nothing in this is inconsistent with how God graciously saves us and sanctifies us. As Reformed theology has always insisted, sanctification is synergistic.

NTW’s three proposals:

1. Rehabilitate virtue within Christian discourse, as opposed to Enlightenment and Romantic thought.

2. “Rethinking Aristotle into a Christian Key.” The eschatological vision of “new heaven & new earth” allows us to reframe Aristotle’s theory in a new and creative way, which other virtue thinkers have yet to grasp. Reframes “ethics” (as opposed to rules or consequence calculations, that is, deontology and utlitarianism / consequentialism) within the a theology of stewardship of creation. Substitute NH&NE (“new heavens & new earth”) & resurrection for eudaimonia.

a. The telos is the NH&NE, inauged by Jesus, and completed in the future.

b. This telos is achieved thru the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus.

c. Christian living in the present consists in anticipating the NE&NE through the Spirit-led practice of the acquiring of the theological virtues of faith, hope & love wh transcend & strengthen the cardinal virtues. These sustain our present existence which already reflect God’s healing & victory & glory of the future world. A true anticipation.

3. This challenges the church in such a way to sustain the mission to which it is called.

Pelonias in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”

Nobody knows the language of virtue as their mother tongue, but we do glimpse that country from afar from time to time, we pick up hints about how its language works, what patterns of brain & body are needed. The more we practice that language, the more easily familiar it will be.

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Posted on: January 1st, 2010 A Brief History of Translation: _arsenokoitai_

It is now clear to me that, in fact, there has been a significant shift in the translation of this Greek term in I Cor 6:9 and in I Tim 1:10. Wyclif’s translation in 1380 is “thei that don lecherie with men” (Webster’s definition of “lechery” is “free indulgence of lust; selfish pleasure”). Tyndale (1534), Coverdale (1535), Cranmer (1539), the Geneva Bible (1557), the KJV (1611), and the ASV (1901) render it “abusers of themselves with [the] mankind.”

In 1946 the RSV changed to “sexual perverts” and in 1973 the NIV translates it as “homosexual offenders.”

Dale B. Martin rightly describes this shift from a “reference to an action that any man [I would say “any person”] might well perform … to a perversion, either an action or a propensity taken to be self-evidently abnormal and diseased.” (Sex and the Single Savior, ch 3)

I think it is horrible to say that male-female sex & sexual desire is “normal,” while (fe)male-(fe)male sex & sexual desire is “abnormal.” This is not a theological statement. What is a theological statementis to say that male-female sex & sexual desire is creational in the sense of God’s creation-intent, while (fe)male-(fe)male sex & sexual desire is anti-creational, in the sense that, as a result of the fall, it runs counter to God’s creational intent.

Thus, I think that this 20th century shift in the translation of this term is deplorable, since it buys into the late 19th century view (documented by Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality) that same-sex attraction is a disease. It is wrong to allow such secular assumptions to creep into our translation of the Church’s sacred text(s).

 

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