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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambrose & Augustine:  redefining the boundary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calvin & Suarez: Restoring the Balance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: July 8th, 2020 Hösle on Luther’s post-Reformational Germany

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

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


[1] This is a plural noun.

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Posted on: July 4th, 2020 Redeeming the Modern Myth of Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: January 25th, 2020 Comps, Avicenna, & Necessary Being

For almost five years now, I’ve been teaching intro to philosophy classes at UT Tyler. Lots of fun; I love it: working hard to try to get nineteen year olds (by now not living with mom & dad & thus “out there in the real world”) to question their assumptions. (Of course before you can question your assumptions you first must be aware of them, and also to identify them.) I call it “corrupting the youth.”

For the last couple of semesters, I’ve been introducing the class with a discussion of Heraclitus (or, really, Cratylus: “all is flux”) and Parmenides (“Being is all there is, period.”), with a view to putting their two views in dialectic, a concept we then discuss in earnest.

Early on in the semester, while trying to articulate what Parmenides means by “being,” I introduce the distinction between contingent being (I usually hold up my wrist watch, and talk about how it exists contingently, in that it depends on all sorts of things for its existence: factories, laws, workers, various kinds of metal, etc.) and necessary being.

This leads to a discussion of divine simplicity, or how (for a great swath of thinkers from Parmenides to Aristotle to Augustine to Aquinas to CS Lewis) being, which is ultimately described only negatively (or apophatically), is actually, it turns out, God (the protestations of the anti-ontotheologians notwithstanding).

Where did I learn all this? Two sources: David Bentley Hart’s book Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, but also my study regimen for my comprehensive examinations, part of my PhD work at the University of Dallas. When studying Avicenna, I became conscious that he is the one, historically, to state the doctrine of necessary being (in terms of simplicity) clearly.

For years now, I’ve been wanting to “drill down on this,” to make sure I have it all straight, and to be able to cite some sources in support of my understanding. To wit, this article by Olga Lizzini, in which she states the following:

… Avicenna deduces the properties of what is in itself necessarily existent. The first is being uncaused. It is in fact “evident” … that the necessary has no cause: to have a cause means literally to exist by virtue of something else, and what exists by virtue of itself cannot exist by virtue of another…. Other properties [of necessary being] are are attributable to a being necessary in itself: unity, simplicity, and then non-relativity, immutability, non-multiplicity and non-association with anything other than itself.

Notice how all the terms are negations: uncaused, non-relativity, immutable, etc.

Is Avicenna, also, the one who makes it clear that, if contingent things exist, then there must be (a) necessary being that exists? I don’t know, but I assume that he is, and I want to find out soon.

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Posted on: April 14th, 2018 Truth, Justice, & Historicism

“The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” — Dr. Cornel West.

Depending on how seriously one wants to take this claim, it could be taken as an example of the veracity of philosophical historicism, that truth (or being) gives itself in and through time.

How so?

From a Christian perspective suffering is the result of what theologians call “the fall of humanity.” Were it not for the fall, there would be no suffering. But the fall is a temporal development, some kind of event (regardless of how “literally” one wants to take it) which takes place in and through time.

To put it as tersely as possible: no fall, no suffering; no suffering, no truth.

The fall leads to suffering, and the acknowledgment of suffering is a necessary condition for truth (in our fallen world).

That such philosophical historicism presupposes a premise of theology (which itself relies on revelation, or that which exceeds what unaided natural reason can discover) should not worry us: such is the case for all legitimate philosophical historicism.

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Posted on: July 20th, 2017 Nihilism & Theology (D. Bentley Hart)

“So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear and unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history.” — David Bentley Hart, _The Reason for God_, 293.
 
So true. This is what I am constantly trying to get my undergraduate students to see. Before they can even be open to theology and religion (Christian or otherwise), they first must question their “ordinary” modes modes of understanding. They must first become skeptics. They must first become nihilists.
This is why Socrates was such a gadly, attempting to “corrupt the youth,” to get the young, future politicians of Athens to question authority, to question their assumptions, to question to the status quo.
 
This is why John Milbank says that “theology is a hair’s breadth from nihilism.”
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Posted on: March 14th, 2017 How to talk about the Benedict Option (Prolegomena)

Which of the following visions for humanity is more accurate, more true, more desirable: A or B?

A: “Human beings are meant to enjoy deep, relational, holistic communion with one another.”

B: “Human beings are meant to co-exist with one another through the mechanisms of tolerance.”

How should we discuss Rod Dreher’s proposal of the Benedict Option? Even before the book is widely analyzed, I predict that most of the discussions will take place at a level that is unhelpfully superficial. People will talk about, for example, whether Christianity is “for the culture,” or “against the culture” employing the categories bequeathed by the 2oth century liberal Protestant Richard Niebuhr.   Yet few will dig deeper, and question the assumption that both of those stances share: that Christianity (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is separable from culture in the first place. The real need is to question the assumption that the Body of Christ (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is ever, in reality, acultural.

Aristotle wrote long ago that “knowledge of opposites is one and the same,” by which he means that two opposing species of intellectual positions often reduce down to the same common genus. Keynsian economists and members of the “Austrian School” both agree on a fundamental shared principle: the validity of political economy. But what if it is precisely this underlying assumption, this common genus, which needs to be questioned?

I will never forget a conversation which I had with a Tibetan Buddhist in the mid 1990’s. I was an undergrad  at U.T. Austin, and I was dialoging with a new friend of Asian descent. As an evangelical who had tacitly inherited a sort of “common sense realism” view of the world, I was asking him about what he regarded as true and false. But the discussion, over and over again, hit a brick wall. Since he would not, even from the very beginning, acknowledge my distinction between “true” and “false,” we hit one dialogical roadblock after another. More recently I found myself sitting on a bench in discussion with a practicioner of Harikrishna … and although the intervening two decades did supply me with more wisdom and better conversation skills than I had as a college sophomore, nevertheless I was reminded all over again of the stark contrast, the fundamental divide, between the Eastern and Western worldviews, or visions of reality.

It is no coincidence that religions such as Buddhism and Harikrishna are far more accepted in our American culture today than they were in the late 20th century. Part of their new plausability, I think, is that they are radically counter-cultural. People realize that our flattened out, “disenchanted” secular lives are neither sustainable nor desirable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or to quote Seal (thus dating myself yet again), “We’re never gonna survive … unless we get a little crazy.”

The teachings of Jesus, and the apostolic commitments of his followers about the Body of Christ vis-a-vis the systems of Ceasar, are crazy and strange at root. Dreher is operating out of a conviction that when one grasps the Faith aright, it is “made strange.”

It is precisely its “crazy” counter-culturalism which draws me to Rod Dreher’s vision. Many of us share the conviction, pace David Brooks, that Christianity is also, at root, radically counter-cultural. (Does this mean we can no longer go to Starbucks or that we are obliged to opt out of Netflix or boycott SXSW? No, not necessarily.)

Yet David Brooks and many others assume a tacit agreement, an easy compatibility, between secular, political liberalism on the one hand and the Christian religion on the other. (So much so that some can speak of “American civil religion,” and some even still regard it as a viable option.) Of course this assumption is not prima facie absurd: after all, both Locke and Jefferson were good Anglicans.

But it is precisely this assumption which needs to be questioned. It is an assumption laid bare by books such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, John Milbank’s 1991 Theology and Secular Theory, and Charles Taylor’s 2007 A Secular Age. (These books, with balanced, rigorous erudition, reveal how deeply the disease has penetrated, just how deep the rabbit hole goes.) All three resonate with the strange reality of  the “two cities” which Augustine develops in his magisterial City of God. Brooks, in opposition to all four, sees an easy compatibility between the City of God and the City of Man. At the very least all sides should admit that he stands in deep opposition to St. Augustine. St. Augustine, whose strangeness rivals that of a Tibetan Buddhist, from a modern American perspective.

It is this assumption of easy compatibility which David Brooks (like Niebuhr before him) holds in his article and adopts from a secular vantage point, but never questions.

I’d argue that historic, catholic Christianity differs from modern secularism kind of like harikrishna differs from common sense realism: they operate on entirely different registers of reality.

What would it look like to question this assumption of the validity of modern secularism? For starters, it could look like asking the the above question, Which is more desirable for humanity: A or B?

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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+
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Posted on: January 4th, 2017 God is not Angry

In a previous post, I wrote:

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.

Now given the doctrine of divine simplicity, the same move can be made with respect to anger. That is, if God is angry, then it necessarily follows that God is anger itself.

From here it follows that if God is not anger itself, then it is not the case that God is angry.

Now I’ve never known of a theologian willing to claim that God is anger itself. And there are many reasons for this, not least that this would “reify” or “hypostasize” anger, giving it an ultimate, uncreated ontological status completely independent of the Fall (of man & angels).

But do you see what’s going on? Since we know that it is not the case that God is anger itself, it necessarily follows that God is not angry.

Does Scripture (and the liturgy) speak of “the wrath of God?” Yes, it does. However, it is important to keep that strain of thought in its proper (marginal) place. It is true only in a distant and radically derivative sense. (I need to think more about this.)

One last note: notice that all of this presupposes the simplicity of God. In other words, it assumes the classical doctrine about God that, in particular, he is in no way subject to temporality (pace the likes of that “open theist” Greg Boyd and that “process theologian” Alfred North Whitehead and all their respective followers), which is wholly and completely a created thing. Otherwise, this line of thinking, which demonstrates that God is not angry, fails.

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Posted on: November 10th, 2016 Catastrophe & Clarity

For the last couple of days, ever since the election of Donald Trump to the office of President, I have felt like a character out of a Walker Percy novel. Whether Binx Boling in The Moviegoer or Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman is more apropos does not matter. In either case, the character gains a certain clarity from an impending (or presently occurring) crisis.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Nothing clarifies the mind like one’s impending death?” The dynamics of these characters’ lives is not far from that sentiment. Truly, Binx and Will could be called–to borrow a Percian phrase–“last gaspers.”

To what catastrophe do I refer in my own life? I am talking about the above mentioned election of a tyrannical thug to the office of U.S. president. It is crisis of the highest magnitude, even if, like a molotov cocktail, it might end up providing a much-needed rupture within a system that is badly broken.

The clarity which this catastrophe has brought in my own life is as follows. I render it in the form of a (more or less real) dialogue between me and a good friend, “N.”

Me: I feel like the election has allowed me to “put my finger on” perhaps the main reason why I’m drawn to the Roman Catholic Church, and will probably, at the very least, die Catholic. It is this: I currently have (almost) no “ideological” comrades in my church. There is not a significant community in my church to whom I can look and say “we are united in being ‘for the world, against the world.'”

N: That is okay. Ideology is mere opinion. As Anglican / Episcopal Christians who are also presbyters in the Church,  we are united in something thicker than ideas. We perform the divine service!

Me: Ah, yes! Thanks for reminding me of what is so easy to forget! Keep saying stuff like that to me please, bro. I do get it, and agree. But it’s so damn hard sometimes. But I do need to say that I do not regard Catholic Social Teaching as a mere ideology. And I guess that’s what I have in mind. It’s possible that I need to be in a church where I am in solidarity with others who uphold Catholic Social Teaching. Against the modern left, and against the modern right.

N: We have a similar catholic social teaching extending back to Richard Hooker. Let’s re-own that together.

My friend has a really good point. We Episcopalians (who are, of course, also Anglicans) do have a steady stream of social thought which finds a foundational  starting point in Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and which flows like an underground current through many and diverse thinkers such as John Neville Figgis, William Temple, F.D. Maurice, Kenneth Kirk, William Stringfellow, John Hughes, Rowan Williams, and many others.

Why is it, then, that this tradition, this stream of social thought, is so little known, much less understood? Why is it that when you do a Google search on “Anglican Social Teaching,” hardly one hit even registers? Things are not much better when you search on “Anglican Social Theology.”

Hence, my moment of clarity. (We will see if I still have it a year or so, when I finish my PhD.) I am actively thinking about, praying about, and discussing with trusted friends who are mature in habit, heart, and mind, the possibility of launching an endeavor after I finish my PhD.

After all, if our Anglican tradition is worth belonging to, then it is worth developing, fighting for, “living into,” and commending to a hurting world which in so many ways has lost its way.

I am prayerfully considering starting, even while remaining a humble parish priest, an NGO / “think tank” / community of research and promulgation, a project to inculcate Anglican social teaching within our crumbling Western culture. This endeavor would include a community of prudent scholars who would  develop and catalogue that body of Anglican social thought which exhibits the poverty of the modern partisan left and the modern partisan right.  If I said that the last page of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where he speaks of “waiting for a new St. Benedict,” together with the “Benedict Option” which takes this single page as a source of inspiration, were not ringing in my head and heart as a faint source of inspiration, I’d be lying.

Hence, my decision yesterday to purchase the domain name anglicansocialteaching.org.

Prayerfully, we shall see what happens. For now, I’m enjoying the clarity.

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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.)

 

 

 

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Posted on: November 28th, 2015 Trump, Marwa Balker, & Identity Politics

In this story, CNN.com reports on an “open letter” (in the form of a Facebook post) by California college-student Muslim Marwa Balker.

Ms. Balker is responding to the recent, deplorable comments by Donald Trump on the Muslim community in the United States.

Obviously Trump is an idiot. It is, however, Ms. Balker’s comments which I think need to be examined, precisely because the ideology they display is much more insidious, as proven by the fact that CNN holds her comments up as an example of model political speech.

Addressing Mr. Trump, Balker states: “Being Muslim does not make me any less American than you are.” That this statement seems natural and noble is obvious to anyone living in Western society in the 21st century.

However, one of my leading theological / philosophical lights, Michel de Certeau (sort of the Christian version of Michel Foucault) would say that Balker is reducing the difference of another to the same, to a false identity.

She is attempting to constitute one thing (American identity, identity as a U.S. citizen) as the whole. Certainly Trump is performing a different version the same attempt; of course “radical Islam” tries to do the same; admittedly the Church historically has been guilty of the same project.

For de Certeau, however (as articulated in his article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”) this move, this strategy, is not authentically Christian. de Certeau would call this “a false universalism that functions as a mask.”

When I say that I am a Christian first, a Texan second, and an American third, this is the sort of issue I am trying to allude to.

Ms. Balker is plainly an American first and a Muslim second. My stance, on the contrary, is that the only possible universalism is that of the “concrete universal” (Heidegger), in which difference is not eclipsed but lived with and engaged. Authentic Christianity, that is, life within the Body of Christ, really does make such an approach possible. The Christian church is the only (possible) concrete universal I know of.

As de Certeau points out, the existence of the four Gospels demonstrates the founding importance of admitting intractable difference: the Gospel of Mark is not saying the same thing as the Gospel of John.

Theology, as Milbank says, is (or can be) the “discourse of nonmastery.”

Modern liberal political philosophy, of the kind that Ms. Balker has swallowed uncritically, cannot make this claim; nor does it want to.

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Posted on: September 11th, 2015 Nietzsche & “Family Values”

When was the last time you heard a pastor or a conservative politician in America invoke the notion of “traditional family values”? Examples of this kind of rhetoric abound, and one quick example is this.

Question: if 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could hear someone (a pastor, a politician, a “think tank”) invoke this rhetorical phrase, what would he say? I’m pretty sure he’d say: “I won!”

In his editorial introduction to Nietzsche’s _Beyond Good and Evil_, Rolf Peter Hortsmann provides the following summary of three Nietzschean bedrock convictions as expressed in this book (pp xvi – xvii):

  1. “Life is best conceived of as a chaotic dynamic process w/o any stability or direction.”
  2. We have no reason whatsoever to believe in any such thing as the “sense” or “value” of life, insofar as these terms imply the idea of an “objective” or “natural” purpose of life.
  3. Human life is “value-oriented” in its very essence – that is, w/o adherence to some set of values or other, human life would be virtually impossible.

Commenting on this summary, Hortsmann continues: “Where the first conviction is supposed to state an ontological fact, the second is meant to be an application of the ontological point to the normative aspects of human life in particular. The third conviction, though somewhat at odds with the first two, is taken by Nietzsche to reveal a psychological necessity.”

Values, then, are for Nietzsche a way of coping with the senselessness of life.

Now, as Allan Bloom states in this lecture, no-one in the United States talked about “values” before Nietzsche; he introduced this language and rhetoric into our culture. Why, then, do conservative, evangelical Christians adopt a category which has as its foundation atheistic nihilism? Why do they speak of “values,” as in “traditional, family values”?

The answer to that question is complicated, but for me the most penetrating analysis would have to deal with the fact that evangelicalism, in addition to its frequent historical ignorance, long ago jettisoned the Church’s traditional language of the objective Good which is mediated by and embodied in the formation of virtue. It has become a thinly-veiled secularism.

If you lose the language and tradition of virtue (and by the way “virtue” was totally absent from my senior-year ethics class at a prominent Evangelical seminary in the year 2000; instead we focused entirely on “what the Bible teaches”), then you lose any objective basis for morality. And if you lose that, then right-and-wrong devolve into something like preference.

“My tribe’s ‘preference’ over yours:” this is not far from today’s culture wars. That the partisans in this struggle often resort to bullying and might-makes-right tactics (on both sides, including the “Christian Right”) is yet another symptom of the underlying source of the illness: that modern American evangelicalism has “given away the farm” to secularism.

 

 

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Posted on: January 10th, 2015 “Meritocracy:” Hypocrisy.

This past semester (Fall of 2014) in my Christian Formation Class at Christ Church, we participated in a class called “‘Dearly I Love Thee:’ Poetry & the Anglican Way” in which we considered the lives and work of several Anglican poets from Mary Sidney Herbert down through W.H. Auden.

I’ve always wondered about poets, in particular how they are “formed:” is their creative output more about nature than nurture? A popular view of poetry might assume so (and so did I for years) but over the years I have begun to sense that actually most Western poets are also steeped in history, literature, language (e.g. Greek and Latin), philosophy, and ancient intellectual “practices” such as the trivium and the quadrivium. Doing a christian formation class on such poets served (as all my classes do) as an opportunity to educate myself more.

One issue that kept coming up as we progressed historically from the 16th century to the 2oth was the historical development of popular democritization of literature, related to what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) discusses in terms of the “flattening out” of social space into “one speed.”

It’s a  familar story, one that gets worked into our psyches even from pop media and social media: hierarchy good, mass culture bad. Familiar, yes, but with noteworthy divergences including Marx, Nietzsche on the “left” and Leo Strauss on the “right.” Oh, and of course Plato, who in The Republic argues for the rule of wisdom (and the Philosopher King), over and against the likes of democracy, aristocracy, and timocracy.

Timocracy? Less familiar to us (as evidenced by the nonrecognition of my computer “spell checker”), but one of main political options for Plato. Timocracy means “rule by honor,” and is that system of politics by which the honorable rule. (We will “bracket” the issue of who gets to decide who the honorable are.)

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously reference timocracy outside of academic discussions of ancient texts. But most of us are, however, familiar with a similar concept: meritocracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. once quipped: “Let us judge a person not on the basis of his skin color, but on the content of his character.”

In last semester’s poetry class, discussing Eliot and Auden, one member of the group casually mentioned (as if it were a matter of obvious fact) that, in the 20th (and 21st) centuries, we no longer live in a hierarchy, but in a meritocracy.

Really? The latin verb mereo means “to deserve, to be entitled to” and meritocracy is a political arrangement in which those who “rule,” those who succeed, those to find themselves at the top of the political and social pecking order, have arrived at that pinnacle not by family pedigree (hierarchical aristocracy), not by “might makes right,” not by wisdom (philosophical rule), not by virtue of citizenship alone (democracy), but by virtue of their own merit. Their own meritoriousness. The powerful are at the top because they have earned it, because they deserve it.

Is contemporary America a meritocracy?

No way. My problem is not simply that this view is inaccurate. It is that, which is not to deny the qualified, relative virtue of our time over and against previous (pre-Enlightened) regimes and civilizations. It is, of course, better that voting rights not be distributed according to gender or race than that they are so distributed. Thank God for such progress. And one should freely admit that a poor person lacking social advantage can “make it” in today’s America much more easily than, say, in feudal Europe.

But to claim that those at the top today are there because they deserve it smacks of hypocracy. It is to ignore not only that the playing field is still not level, and to assign a moral inferiority to those who have not made it. I’d be willing to bet that most of the people who think we live in a meritocracy already find themselves at the top.

Perhaps worst of all, it smacks of rugged invidualism, in arrogant denial that any good gifts in my life (including honor and “merit”) are just that: gifts.

At the end of the day, I hope not to be judged by the content of my character. If that happens, I’m screwed. Instead, I will repent and strive to grow in faithfulness to Christ. And be thankful and humble for the gifts I’ve been given.

 

 

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Posted on: August 19th, 2014 If I don’t control my appetites …

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will end up drunk in a ditch on the side of the road.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will get type two diabetes and probably die of cancer at an early age.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, eventually my wife will leave me and I will lose my ministry and my kids will grow up damaged and dysfunctional.

All of this (and more) I believe. After all, “… the fruit of the Spirit is … self-control….” (Gal 5:22-3).

But if one wants to control her appetites, then maybe it would be a tad helpful to know what an appetite actually is. (For appetites manifestly are not controlled by “trying harder.”)

Enter Thomas Aquinas, who has some very interesting things to say about appetite and the larger issue of desire.

By the way, as an Anglican priest I’d be remiss not to mention that our Book of Common Prayer is replete with references to desire, not least the Collect for Purity: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Indeed, desire is what the Christian life is all about. (John Piper gets this right with his “Christian Hedonism,” in my opinion, albeit in a truncated way which leaves much to be desired — no pun intended.)

For example Thomas insists that, though all people do not choose God, all people do nevertheless desire God.

He also teaches that if a thing exists, then it has appetite. So rocks have appetite, as do trees, earthworms, chimps, human beings, angels (what Thomas sometimes, in a more metaphysical mode, calls “intelligences”), even God himself. Appetite is the tendency that a thing has to “complete” itself, to strive for its telos.

For Thomas the appetite, like the external sense organs of eye, ear, nose, etc., are passive. They require an object if they are to be “activated.” But the object required to activate or to “ignite” the appetite is no ordinary object. It is a fusion of various “inputs,” the result of a chain of psychic steps which include sense impression, synthesis by the common sense, and “intention.”

What, you ask, is an “intention?” For Thomas an intention is a kind of psychic apprehension (performed in nonrational animals by natural instinct, and in humans by the evaluative faculty known as the vis cogatitiva) by which an object is imbued with self interest. That is, a lamb grasps by natural instinct that a lion is a threat; a human being (who happens to be an entrepreneur) grasps that a market opportunity will create wealth which will lead to creaturely comfort.

More on appetite forthcoming. For now, if you want to control your appetites, perhaps you should know what they are, and how they work.

For more, see Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, ch. 1.)

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Posted on: July 12th, 2014 Milbank on the Ethics of Plato’s _Republic_

Notes on Milbank’s Remarks at “Faith and Secularism: the Moral Resourcing of the Nation,”

held at Westminster Abbey in London, Nov. 12, 2012.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KpRvK9UgbU

As opposed to the tradition of virtue ethics, modern ethical theories tend to reduce down to deontological (ie, Kantian) approaches or utilitarian ethics. The former privilege freedom, particularly freedom of choice, and the corresponding importance of “human rights” construed in merely negative terms. The latter sees ethical goods as fundamentally measurable, and so the evaluation of political policies and so on reduces down to units of stuff.

Virtue ethics on the other hand insists that these things don’t really make us happy, they don’t really lead to human flourishing. Instead, the virtue tradition of Plato and Aristotle says that the kinds of activities that constitute our flourishing are contemplation of the divine, participation in the political life of the city, and the enjoyment of friendship.

Another key distinction between virtue ethics on the one hand and modern approaches on the other is that the latter focus on the performance of individual acts, whereas the former focus on the kind of character produced by a life lived over time.

Utilitarianism leads to an emphasis on auditing managerial solutions to ethics, while freedom-based approaches imply that as long as something is not against the law, it is fine.

Both Milbank and Hobbs agree on all of this. Yet Milbank thinks that Hobbs’ advocacy of a return to the ethical approach of Plato is “odd,” given the fact that in a pluralistic society which has been radically shaped by a) perceived violence stemming from the so-called wars of religion, and b) the concomitant banishment of the transcendent from all public discourse there is no way to adjudicate the different perspectives advocated in society, no way to agree on the common good or what humans are for (much less the wise means to achieve that end).

Hence, Milbank is arguing, a real return to Plato is mutually exclusive with secularism. For Plato, that is, religion, or the desire for the good / the true / the beautiful which is above reason and thus “guides reason,” is inseparable from his ethics. A return the Platon, Milbank suggests, involves a return to religion.

Religion, then, for Plato, is required to bring our passions and our thumos into order. Reason alone cannot do it. Morality is not simply a matter of self-control, with reason “being on top of the passions and thumos.”[1] Indeed, if morality were simply a matter of the hegemony of reason alone, that is the moral simply is the rational, then it would be perfectly moral (since it is perfectly rational) for a person to seek to amass as much power as he can. The pursuit of power is in this case perfectly reasonable and hence perfectly rational.

Rather, contemplation of the forms allows us to develop a sense of phronesis, by which we (intuitively?) know when and how to enjoy pleasure, to insist on our own honor & respect (including self-respect), etc. “There are no rules about this,” but rather it has to do with participating in something ineffable which we can hardly grasp. On this view religion has little or nothing to do with rules.

Not only can Plato not be rightly regarded as a “secular source of morality” but actually “there are no good secular sources for morality.”



[1] These being the three components of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul.

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Posted on: November 26th, 2013 “So, What’s your Dissertation About?”

The following is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, The Crucifer.

It happened again this week, just like it does every week.

 

Once again this week a dear friend in Christ and parishioner at Christ Church asked me about the academic side of my life. Often the form this question takes is “So, when do you finish up?”

 

What a joy it is to be engaged in real relationships within the body of Christ, and yet it is slightly awkward to explain to folks “Well, basically, it’s going to be a long time til I finish, especially since I just started the program a year ago.” Words cannot express the deep gratitude I have to the good people of Christ Church for enduring with me this long journey.

 

The form the question often takes, however, is, “So, what’s your dissertation about?” That’s how it happened this last week. So, I thought I’d take a few of paragraphs in the current issue of the Crucifer to articulate some thoughts about, and plans for, my doctoral dissertation.

 

I want to write about late medieval nominalism, which I regard – I’m just gonna come out and say it – as a bad thing.

 

You see, the medieval period is fascinating because, on the one hand, it is an extension of the classical world (think Plato & Aristotle), but with the radical infusion of biblical revelation and the ongoing response to that revelation which is called theology (think the Church Fathers & St. Augustine). At same time, it is an anticipation, in seedling form, of the modern era, the age of secularism. (For example in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose various of the Franciscan monks are rightly portrayed as men of modern, scientific knowledge and critical thinking … men who deplore baseless superstition.) Hence my bourgeoning interest in things medieval: this period is the joint or nexus which, infused with biblical revelation, connects the classical world of antiquity to the secular world of modernity.  

 

Now, what about “nominalism?” What in the world is that? As the name implies, it has something to do with “names” (which for premoderns basically means “words”) and hence with language. In the development of late medieval nominalism a suspicion began to emerge that the words (and categories) we use to talk about the things in the world have no real connection to those things. Rather, they are sort of “made up” or “constructed.”

 

Now, that might seem hopelessly abstract to you, but consider a very pressing contemporary issue. Just this week Illinois (by no means a “blue state”) became the 19th state to opt for full recognition of “same-sex marriage.” Now, there are layers upon layer to the complicated and taxing issue of gay marriage, but one of them has to do with language. Is the word “marriage” simply a human construct? What about the words “male” and “female”, which appear in Genesis 2?

 

If we “made up” those terms and their meanings, then surely we can revise them. If they are merely humanly invented, then surely they can be humanly re-invented.

 

A late medieval nominalist, if he were consistent, would heartily affirm our culture’s current willingness to re-invent the meaning of terms which historically have been regarded as crucial to the underpinnings of the political well-being of society.

 

If we can trace the development of late medieval nominalism, however, then perhaps we can expose its false assumptions and its arbitrary moves. This, then, could go a long way to restoring the connection between our words and the things they refer to out there in world God made, his good creation which, while fallen, is redeemed in Christ.

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Posted on: September 28th, 2013 Strange Table Fellows (Real Social Space)

One of the deepest joys & privileges of my life is the opportunity to oversee the work of planting and growing a college ministry on the campuses of Tyler, working hand-in-hand with Robert Finney. What we are beginning to see in this ministry is that, sometimes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes very strange “table fellows.”

In Acts 13 St. Luke gives us a beautiful image of the church at Antioch. He tells us that, among the leadership of this missional work, there was a striking degree of diversity. The elders of this church consisted of a hodge podge mix of folks from one end of the ideological / socio-economic spectrum to the other, including “Manean, a member of Herod the ruler,” on the one hand, all the way down to “Simeon who was called “Niger”). Note that “Niger” connotes dark skin, which meant then largely what it means now: not just social difference, but social inferiority. (This pecking order of dysfunctional brokenness seems to be well nigh universal: my wife Bouquet can tell you how, in her home country of Laos, lighter skin is highly favored, and I can verify that the same thing holds in Mexico.)

And yet, here they both are in Antioch, both Manean and Niger, serving side by side as utter equals in Christ to build and extend the Reign of God in Jesus Christ.

Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller points out that we see something similar Acts 16, where the Gospel meets and redeems both a financially successful, single,  entrepreneurial woman named Lydia, and a slave girl being trafficked by her abusive pimp.

Sometimes you just have to laugh. Robert and I spent a few minutes “busting a gut” this week, just reflecting gratefully on the motley crew of young people God is bringing to us. Students from a frankly fundamentalist background who carry all sorts of assumptions about Christianity and the world, sitting right next to students who literally have never heard of King David or Abraham, and who flirt with alternative sexualities.

And yet I am utterly convinced that this is what ministry in this time and in this place must look like.

Theologian John Milbank calls it “real social space,” where you belong at the table, not because you agree on some issue (predestination, gay “rights,” vegetarianism, or whatever) but because you are made in God’s image and Christ Jesus shed his blood for you on the cross.

This is how the missionary activity of the apostolic era is portrayed in the Book of Acts; this is how it must be engaged in today, when the culture is in many ways remarkably similar to that of the Roman Empire of the first few centuries after Christ.

In our Epiphany College Community we are, by the grace of God, introducing students to “a new way of being Christian that is really, really old.”

 

 

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Posted on: August 6th, 2013 Sign of the Times: Reason:Faith::Bezos:Moon::Post:Times

In his 2006 Regensburg address, Pope Benedict XVI (controversially and polemically) diagnosed the malaise of the modern west in terms of the separation of faith and reason (theology / revelation and philosophy) a development which one can see beginning in Avicenna, but which really developed in the late medieval period.

It is difficult to imagine a more apt symbol of this split than the ownership of the two leading newspapers in the nation’s capital, the political center of the planet’s sole superpower.

The leading newspaper in the capital city of planet’s lone superpower is now controlled by a dot com and one Jeff Bezos. Can anyone doubt that zombies are right around the corner?

Which is worse: the Moonies (who control the _Washington Times_ or the MNC’s (multinational corporations)?

It is difficult to imagine a more apt symbol of contemporary America, and  its separation of the “rationalism” of the global “free market” on the one hand, and the fundamentalism of modern religion on the other.

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Posted on: March 26th, 2013 Supreme Ct. on Gay Marriage: First Response

First blush response on the proceedings of the Supreme Court proceedings of Hollingsworth vs. Perry (available here): it is  astonishing how feeble the arguments of Mr. Cooper (representing the State of California in its opposition to gay marriage) seem, in the face of Justice Sotomayor’s cross examinations.

I am not saying that I agree with Sotomayor; I am saying that, clearly, in contemporary American culture, secular reason (that is reason which excludes the relevance of theology, which presupposes revelation)  has the upper hand.  It’s as if you hear the premises of Mr. Cooper and think to yourself, “there’s no way that’s going to fly.”

As many of us have been saying for years, this is a process that is already set going at the founding of the United States.

The point here, for now, is that this decision is a clarion call for Christians clearly to recognize that the US Constitution, and the political principles which undergird it, while it has been a limited “force for good” in the world, is, at the end of the day (like all forms of heresy) no friend of the Christian Church.

I would feel guilty for spending time on this, were it not for the fact that I plan to write my term paper on Thomas Aquinas and Law on this very issue.

 

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Posted on: February 19th, 2013 MacIntyre on Correspondence Theory

In his Whose Justice, Whose Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre exposes a common and deep seated fallacy by which the disagreements between modern and nonmodern thinkers are destructively exacerbated.

It is often claimed that the “correspondence theory of truth” is the opposing alternative to the “coherence theory of truth” in which what counts for truth is the logical consistency between (sets of) propositions. Indeed, this is one of very first lessons in philosophical thinking, I vividly recall, which I received in my undergraduate studies.

On this schema it is usually claimed that the correspondence theory of truth sees truth as obtaining when propositions about the world link up to and “correspond with” the facts of the world.

But this presentation of the issues, both for those who embrace such a “correspondence” view (usually people who are thought of as “conservatives”) and those who reject it (today, often  people who identify as “postmodern relativists”), is an arbitrary development which took root in the seventeenth century. In this era certain thinkers began to think of “facts” as things in the world which are absolutely independent of human language, a view utterly foreign to previous thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas (and, indeed, Cornelius Van Til, who taught that there are “no brute facts”). For these thinkers (possibly excepting Van Til) truth is formulated in terms of adequation mentis ad rem (“the adequation of the mind to the thing”).

For them, it is not propositions which “line up with” the things of the world, but rather the knowing mind, which is — or is not — “adequated” to the things of the world. Language, then, is always, already constitutive of both the knowing mind and the things of the world.

There is no extra-linguistic realm from which the knowing mind can judge the truth or falsity of language propositions. Rather, the way in which truth advances is through the ongoing, multi-generational work of tradition(s), in which subsequent generations reflect upon the thought of previous generations, in light of new developments (culturally, corporately, etc.) which pose challenges to previously held doctrines.

 

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Posted on: February 14th, 2013 Delighting in the Arcane

I recently stumbled across something which truly animated my soul (to dabble in prolixity). ‘Tis the following, one of “twenty-four theses of Radical Orthodoxy:”

As much as the secular, most pietisms are disliked since, as advocating the ‘spiritual’ they assume there is a secular. Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.

Wow. I’ve long sensed myself to be something of an evangelist. Not the kind, of course, that stands on the corner of a crowded and intersection and preaches at the volume of many decibels (though I have done that … recently!).

Rather, I’m the kind of evangelist who cannot conceive of pastoral ministry, or any other way of being human, apart from building communities of worship in which people come to participate in “real social space,” centered on Christ, belonging just because they, we, are human. (How Holy Baptism relates to this must be addressed in a separate post.)

And yet I confess that I have always felt a certain tension between, on the one hand, this urge, this conatus, to commend a message and to invite into deeper community, and, on the other hand, my theology which resists the attempt to dumb anything down, to “be relevant,” or to make the Gospel easier or more palatable.

Hence my encouragement at the above quotation.

Suddenly it all makes sense. As CS Lewis reminds us, human beings are designed to praise and laud Something Bigger than Oneself, and this is necessarily a social phenomenon. We cannot sing the praises of a good film or a rich red wine by ourselves … at least not fully. We must tell someone else; we must share the experience.

And yet, the experience we must share must be “bigger than oneself,” lofty, grand, great, unattainable. It must be beautiful in mystery. It cannot be easily grasped or conveniently assimilated.

So it is that, paradoxically, the difficult, ineffable way of theology and the divine, advocated by such personae as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Rowan Williams, and those involved in Radical Orthodoxy lends itself most “naturally” to the zeal of the evangelist.

 

 

 

 

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Posted on: December 26th, 2012 Heresy, etymologically speaking

“Heresy.” It’s a dirty word, one that conjures up all sorts of gruesome images (most of them manufactured by Hollywood) of medieval brutes tightening the noose around the neck of some young, free-thinking, romantic rebel type.

Sadly, though, almost no one knows what the word actually means. Heresy is not, much to the chagrin of popular opinion, simply some “doctrine” or belief statement which “contradicts” the Bible or some creed or confession. Actually, one measure of Orthodoxy is that nothing can contradict it, for it affirms everything. Heresy, then, is not simply and unequivocally false, but rather it is always a “half-truth,” taking some element catholic faith and bending or twisting it.

Haireisis is the Greek term which means “choice.” Heresy is what happens when a person or a community looks at the full spectrum of catholic truth, and identifies one sliver of that truth (for example, the notion that the Incarnate Word is a human being, or that human reason has been impaired as a result of the fall of man), and then so emphasizes that particular “sliver” that all the other truths which provide its context get neglected or eclipsed.

In a recent post I claim that Bill O. is a heretic. What I mean is that Bill has rightly seen that what it means to be a Christian involves certain “truth claims,” for example the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” However, he so emphasizes this truth that other features of what it means to be a Christian are forgotten. All that matters is the propositions which one has in one’s mind, and these are essentially a matter of private preference.

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Posted on: December 26th, 2012 We’re all heretics, but Bill O. more so

In a recent “screaming match,” Bill O. claimed that “Christianity is a philosophy.”

What’s crazily ironic is that he is right, but not at all in the sense in which he means. What he means, it seems clear, is that Christianity is a belief system which functions at the level of ideas, and which is basically a set of private preferences which people have a “right” to express, given that (supposedly) the majority of Americans are still Christians in some abstract sense. At least this much can be gathered from this silly “interview,” linked to above.

What is ironic is that O’Reilly is spot on in stating that “Christianity is a philosophy,” at least according to Peter Leithart’s book _Against Christianity_, in which Leithart argues that what the apostles, whose words are recorded in the New Testament, were describing is not a belief system or worldview which one has in one’s head, but rather a set of commitments to Jesus as Lord which then binds one into a particular community of fidelity to one’s brothers and sisters. That is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ refers to a way of life, a set of commitments, and a particular community called “the body of Christ.”

Hence, Leithart is able to label “Christianity,” which (in Latin-based languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish) as an “-ism,” a gnostic-like heresy. Bill O., who technically is Roman Catholic, would thus be an adherent to this heresy.

None of this is actually that surprising, since the privatization of the Gospel is the heresy of our time. As such both of the talking heads in this interview participate in it.

I only have one real question from watching this video. It is pretty obvious me to that what motivates Bill O. to display his colorful antics (such as using the word “butt” as well as alluding cynically to his own exclamatory use of “Jesus Christ”) is the desire to boost ratings for the ultimate purpose of increased advertising profit. Hence he is in no way arguing in good faith, and should not be taken seriously. That is, Fox News is a pathetic cultural joke far less respectable than the kind of sophistry against which Plato and Aristotle combated.

Please note that I would say the same thing about msnbc, although one must admit that the latter is largely free of the hypocrisy which characterizes Fox.

My only real question is this: does Bill’s interlocutor (David Silverman, president of American Atheists), whose position is far more rational than Bill’s but equally partakes in the illusion of secular reason, take himself to be seriously engaging in public discourse? Or is he, too, self-consciously participating in the antics of ideological consumerism?

 

 

 

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