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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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: May 10th, 2012 Human Rights as a Sub-issue of the Gay Debate

My short summary of Alasdair John Milbank on human rights:

Prior to modernity, “rights” (Latin iura) were seen as the participation of persons in relationships of mutual, free associations in something objective. But with the advent of liberal political thought, rights become absolutely grounded in the subjective self in isolation from others. American political precedent is built upon these modern assumptions. Hence, “gay marriage” is perfectly rational in an American context which is built on the foundations of modern, liberal political thought.

I would add: if one is not prepared to challenge the foundations of American political theory (including the US Constitution), then one should not complain about gay civil “marriage.”

Two caveats here:

1. I do not mean to imply that the meaning of the word “marriage” (which is a sacrament of the Church) can be redefined. Indeed, I wonder why secular people even care about something called “marriage,” if not for financial reasons based in the tax code of the US. Thus, the church ought to disentangle itself from the state when it comes to marriage.

2. None of the above discussion applies to decisions within the Church with respect to issues around “homosexuality.”

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Posted on: December 14th, 2011 Statement of Intent (PhD Application)

In studying at the University of Dallas at the doctoral level, I hope to marshal the resources of the catholic western Christian tradition, particularly those of Aquinas but also Augustine, and bring them to bear on matters of contemporary thought.

I have come to see that the assumptions of today’s contemporary society are products of ideological forces which blow in the cultural “air” we breathe. These ideologies, in turn, are rooted respectively in a prior ontology. Hence, dealing with modern philosophy (genealogically or otherwise) is a matter of first importance. Identifying and understanding the arbitrary developments in the history of western thought which have given rise to these various ideologies, and pointing them out to others, becomes urgent.

I see three movements in the history modern philosophical thought in the west:

  1. The Cartesian attempt to found objective knowledge through the establishment of a stable subject.
  2. Kant’s building upon this foundation, giving rise to his “Copernican Revolution” in which the creation[*] becomes even more remote from the mind of man due to the conclusion that nothing of the creation can be known apart from the a priori structures of reality which imposed upon it by the knowing subject. (A subplot in this movement away from creation is the “second wave” of distancing in the thought of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, all of whom in their own ways posit forces external to the human subject which determine our assumptions, choices, and actions, and habits.)
  3. The postmetaphysical turn to language brings us up to the present moment, with dissident voices such as the neoHegelian Marxist Slajov Zizek resisting the likes of poststructuralist “hangers on” such as Judith Butler, the former attempting to bring us back to (a Hegelian) ontology.

To each of these chapters of the story, how would Thomas Aquinas respond? Where does he stand in opposition? In what ways does his thought affirm each movement, perhaps in a qualified way, perhaps with a “yes, but …”?

Of course, this effort on my part will require that I also (perhaps first) address issues surrounding the interpretation of Thomas himself. Is my current approach (imbibed from the font of Fergus Kerr and Henri de Lubac, filtered primarily through the prism of Radical Orthodoxy) the most compelling, the most comprehensive, the most historically attentive, the most theologically grounded?

For example, many people today have specific notions of their bodily self-image which are (arguably) empirically destructive (eg, perceptions of being fat or assumptions about sexual identity or practice). Where do these ideas and perceptions come from? They are not necessary; they are not (when scrutinized critically) obvious. This, it seems to me, is a significant “grain of truth” in the work of Judith Butler, for example. But what are the ideologies which hand us our self-images viz a viz our bodies?

Further, what are the ontologies in which these ideologies (and counter-ideologies) are rooted? This, it seems to me, is the first step in developing the resources to resist (some of?) these ideologies, and in this way to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:1-2).

My suspicion is that a non-foundationalist, yet deeply traditional, reading of St. Thomas would greatly help in this endeavor. Exactly how, however, I do not yet fully know.



[*] I intentionally use the theological term “creation” implying that philosophy without presupposing theology is a lost cause.

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Posted on: December 12th, 2011 _The Dharma Bums_ & Marxism

Basic to Marxist thought is “relations of production,” referring to the webs of relationships which people must enter into in order to (re)produce their means of life (survival). The Dharma Bums tries (among many other things) to highlight the possibility of living life outside of this web, outside of these relations of production.

For example, most of the bhikkhus in the book consciously try to minimize their need for income, material possessions, etc., in an effort to avoid dependence upon others for their survival.

Near the end of the book when Ray goes to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest in order to work as a “fire-watchman,” he struggles initially at the need subserviently to submit to the orders of his supervisor at his new job at the “Parks and Wildlife” office. At this point in the story one begins to think that Ray is falling prey to the supposed violence of the relations of production. Not so, however: Ray is not enlisting in this new position out of a slavish need to survive, but rather as an excuse to meditate (as well as an attempted faithfulness to his friend / mentor, Japhy Smith).

At this level, then, one might see the Dharma Bums as providing an alternative to the Marxist insistence on the inevitability of the relations of production. However, upon deeper reflection sees that this is not the case. Most or all of the bhikkhus in the Dharma Bums come from a social / familial background of privilege: all are white and well educated. As Ann Douglas points out in her introduction, all are male. (Indeed, one pervasive criticism against Karouac many of his peers in this cultural milieu is their sexism.) Ray, for one, leans upon his mother & father for various forms of support. Something similar can no doubt be argued for in the case of Japhy.

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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 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: July 18th, 2011 Breaking Down the “Gay Issue”

Are you trying to figure out what you think about how to respond to the challenge which our “progressive,” modern, enlightenment culture poses to the church in terms of the gay rights movement?

Here are three (of many) sub-issues which must be studied and mastered. I suggest that when these issues are understood (when it comes to dealing with this issue within the church, not in terms of our secular culture and our modern nation-state) the “gay issue” to some extent dissolves and vanishes.

1. The “buffered self” versus the “porous self.” See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, and also here.

2. The rhetoric of individual, “human rights.” See Milbank’s article “Against Human Rights,” here.

3. The idolatrous, vicious character of market-driven determination of individual preference and identity construction. See William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed. Cavanaugh is also interviewed by Ken Myers here (much recommended).

Note that all three sub-issues above presuppose, on the “revisionist” side, a commitment to liberal philosophical individualism.

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Posted on: April 28th, 2011 “They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Last night I had some sweet time with my Bella, my seven year old daughter has who perhaps done more for my theology than anyone over the last few years. (See here and here.)

You see, Bella attends a private school locally which, while virtuous is so many ways (not least the truly rigorous education balanced with a good measure of fun and play) is populated with children and teenagers, who, quite frankly (and unlike what is the case at City School, where Bella attended in Austin), are on the upper-most rung of the socio-economic ladder.

Of course this is not all bad. We are unspeakably grateful for the opportunity to send our kids to All Saints, and often times money brings cultural richness. However, it does pose some real challenges.

Recently Bouquet and I have noticed that Bella is getting more pretentious, that her values are shifting a little, in some subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

Last night we spent some wonderful time in the backyard around our outside fire pit (it was cold last night in Tyler!) and talked about things like being rich and being poor, and how some Christians in the past (namely the Puritans) prayed that God would spare them from both extremes.

With that conversation ringing in my mind, I spent some time this morning in Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

The passage from Eagleton which really hit me aroused in me the intensity I often feel (I am tempted to use the word “anxiety,” but I believe that Jesus has risen from the dead!) when I think about Bella’s future in this culture of narcissism, nihilism, and non-sustainable consumerism.

It is difficult for me not to think that Bella (to say nothing of her own children) will grow up in the twilight of the western culture and civilization. Such cultural decline in the west is not bad, but it will be painful for many.

And it reminded me of a conversation she and I have had over the last couple of years about television, internet, and other forms of media. She has questioned Bouquet’s and my privleging of PBS over other television networks, including our decision not to purchase a version of cable TV service other than the bare minimum (which, by the way, we purchased for the sole reason of obtaining PBS, not available here without a basic cable package).

When explaining to her my suspicion and aversion to various forms of media and entertainment such as signing up for free videos from disneychannel.com, etc., she found one argument particularly compelling:

“They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Through email marketing, pop-up ads, irritating and vile commercials … they are just trying to sell you stuff.

I’m so grateful that she found this argument compelling, and it made her question and begin to “see through” the glitz and glamor of Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. Such attraction is full of illusion and deception, she began faintly to grasp.

Born in 1972, I still find it a rather novel concept that media entertainment is about profits, not art. And yet, this is more and more the case, and this is a part of the larger “narrative” I want to inculcate into my daughter.

If I were to take a month off to develop this narrative one text on which I would rely would be the following quotation from Eagleton, which reminds me that:

– Conservative American culture is frequently naively complicit in supporting some of the very worst tendencies and underlying forces in our culture, forces in which the principalities and the powers are utterly owning us. For example, the assumption that form and content are able to be separated without damaging content (examples: Wal-Mart, megachurches, contemporary music).

– Subtle mistakes at the beginning of the Enlightenment in the west are now rearing their full-grown, ugly heads, with demonic furor. (example: the nation-state is now a merely surveillance organization to promote the untrammeled profitability of global capitalism.)

– This narrative (which one might call post-modern) of resisting worldliness through a recognition of the baselessness of consumerism needs to be developed more and more rigorously families and churches, such that it is foundational to how we think and live. That is, only the church has the resources to withstand and resist the onslaught of late capitalist nihilism which will continue to come down the pike, until, to adapt a phrase from the late Neil Postman, we entertain and consume ourselves to death.

– Bouquet and I need to work hard to develop real, authentic relationships between our family and those who are economically struggling.

… the chief threat to enlightened values today springs not from feng shui, faith healing, postmodern relativism, or religious fundamentalism. As usual, it springs from some of the fruits of Enlightenment itself, which has always been its own worst enemy. The language of Enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy. The economic individualism of the early, enlightened middle classes has now spawned into the vast corporations which trample over group and individual rights, shaping our destinies without the slightest popular accountability. The liberal state, founded among other things to protect individual freedom, has burgeoned in out time into the surveillance state. Scientific rationality and freedom of inquiry have been harnessed to the ends of commercial profit and weapons of war. One vital reason why the United States has declared open-ended war on terror is to ensure a flow of open-ended profits for a large number of its corporations. An enlightened trust in dispassionate reason has declined to the hiring of scholars and experts to disseminate state and corporate propaganda. Freedom of cultural expression has culminated in the schlock, ideological rhetoric, and politically managed news of the profit-driven mass media.

Rational or enlightened self-interest brings in its wake the irrationality of waste, unemployment, obscene inequalities, manipulative advertising, the accumulation of capital for its own sake, and the dependence of whole livelihoods on the random fluctuation of the market. It also brings with it colonialism and imperialism, which scarcely sit easily with enlightened values. Political individualism, intended to safeguard us from the insolence of power, results in a drastic atrophying of social solidarities. The vital Enlightenment project of controlling Nature, which frees us from being the crushed and afflicted victims of our environment, has resulted in the wholesale pollution of the planet. In claiming the world as our own, we find that we have ended up possessing a lump of dead matter. In asserting our free spirits, we have reduced our own bodies to pieces of mechanism. – Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, p 71 – 72.

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Posted on: February 26th, 2011 Gay Issues & Red Tories: Blond & Milbank

The recent announcement of the Obama administration has rekindled my focus on the explicitly political dimension of Radical Orthodoxy and indeed the Gospel.

I continue to hold that the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Defence of Marriage Acts is logically consistent with the political philosophy (secular as it is) undergirding the US Constitution (this makes me a “liberal”), but on the other hand that the breakdown of the traditional family will plunge our secular society into social fragmentation and chaos (this makes me a “conservative”).

Hat tip to my friend Collins Aki, who pointed me to this (for more see here):

Radical Orthodoxy seeks to revive a credal Christianity that was progressively obscured from the late Middle Ages onwards, and it makes that recovered Christian vision the basis of a systematic critique of modern, secular society. “Modernity,” Milbank has said, “is liberalism, liberalism is capitalism and capitalism is atheism.” The problem with secular liberalism, for proponents of Radical Orthodoxy, is that, in removing God, it loses any grip on the notion of objective moral truth. Secularism leads to nihilism, because it leaves “worldly phenomena” such as morality “grounded literally in nothing”.

Milbank is convinced that Blond’s latest incarnation as a political thinker is continuous with his earlier identity as a theologian, and that Red Toryism is merely the “political translation” of Radical Orthodoxy. “Part of Radical Orthodoxy’s argument,” he tells me, “is that since the 1960s a kind of non-liberal left has faded away somehow, and what you’ve got now is a left that increasingly defines itself in terms of secular liberalism. We argue that if you want to criticise liberal capitalism, you’ve got to realise that this is the form that secularity will take. Capitalism gets rid of the sacred. If there’s no sacred, everything will be commodified. We argue that you need to re-enchant the world if you are to criticise or modify capitalism.”

The practical, political differences between Blond and his former teacher – Milbank identifies himself as a man of the left – are less significant than their shared commitment to this theological vision. “Phillip has always seen himself as a Tory, whereas for me the political resources lie in a Christian socialist tradition,” Milbank says.”

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Posted on: February 5th, 2011 Importing the World into the Church

The Eucharist is, quite literally, a re-membering of the body of Christ. His scarred, fish-eating resurrection body (known in the ancient church as the soma typicon or “typological body”) which hung on the cross, becomes the living members of his true body (corpus verum), you and me.

Theologians call this “participation,” but as is painfully obvious, there quite simply are no words to describe this. In a way which transcends the “one flesh union” of my wife and me, we quite simply are members of Christ. We are his body. We are his body for the world and for the world’s life. Which is why the Eucharist involves a third body as well: what the ancients knew as the “mystical body:” the corpus mysticum. This bread, together with the wine, imports the world into the church: the world of harvesting, the world of threshing, the world of trade and commerce, the world of civilized humanity created as God’s image-bearing cultivators of his good world.

And so, do you see? As members of his body, we are enacting the world’s true culture and civilization. We are brining about the new world of the living, victorious Christ.

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Posted on: October 23rd, 2010 Islamophobia at Fox News?

Until this last week I had not heard of “Tell Me More” or Tell Me More’s “Barbershop” discussion on NPR. Now, though, I’m a fan.

This discussion in particular, about the Juan Williams incident, was riveting for me, and I only wish I had time to gather my sisters, parents, and wife into a room to discuss it. (Pub club in Austin would be another desireable dialogue community for this one.)

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Posted on: October 9th, 2010 Bp. Tom defends Archbp. Rowan

Yet again, it seems to me that NT Wright has spoken profoundly and faithfully to a listening world, which is asking good and difficult questions, but which seems to resist the depth of truth which the church (at its best) offers.

Listen to then Bishop of Durham discuss and defend Archbishop Rowan Williams (and many other things besides) in the face of a round of questions which makes assumption after assumption with which then Bishop Wright gently takes issue.

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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 12th, 2010 The City of the Living God

It was deeply satisfying to preach this sermon.

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Posted on: June 11th, 2010 _Cities of God_: Church as Erotic Community (ch 6)

In this chapter, the key point has to do with the nature of desire or eros.

In addition to reducing eros down to sexual desire (see previous post) secular modernity roots desire in an economy of lack or scarcity. So the reason I want something (a cup of coffee, a new pair of jeans, a relationship with another person) is that I lack this thing.

This economy of lack presupposes that the things of this world (including relationships and other people) are posessions to be controlled and consumed.

Christianity’s understanding of desire, however, is not at all rooted in this economy of lack. This understanding, which seems so foreign to our fallen and modern minds, begins with St. Paul’s situating the Church as in Christ, Christ being both the source of all things as well as the consummation of all things. If I am a member of the church (Ward’s “We”) then I am in Christ, there there is absolutely nothing that I lack. (I know this by faith which of course is penetrated through & through by reason.)

If this is true, then lack or privation which Augustine (as well as Hegel) connects to evil cannot be the source of my desire.

What, then, is the source of my desire? Here, as well as elsewhere, is where human language fails. Perhaps we can say that my desire is stimulated by my participation in God, or perhaps we can say that I desire the Other simply because the Father desires the Son (and vice-versa, throwing the Holy Spirit in the mix, too).

Or perhaps you could say what my wife and I have always said to each other in answer to the question “Why do you love me?” The only answer which satisfies the questioner is “No reason.”

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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: June 8th, 2010 _Cities of God_: 2 Quotations from Greg of Nyssa

I am realizing that Graham Ward’s Cities of God is, among other things, a postmodern retelling of the theology (or perhaps, more accurately, the christology, which includes for him the doctrine of creation as well as that of the church) of Gregory of Nyssa.

He who sees the Church looks directly at Christ…. The establishment of the Church is the re-creation of the world…. A new earth is formed, and it drinks up the rains that pour down upon it … but it is only in the union of all the particular members that the beauty of Christ’s body is complete (Nyssa, On the Making of Man, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds) Gregory of Nyssa, Dogmatic Treatises etc. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979, 13, 1049B – 1052A).

… and again:

[The Church, the Spouse of Christ] is wounded by a spiritual and fiery dart of eros. For agape that is strained to intensity is called eros (ibid, 13, 1048A).

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Posted on: June 5th, 2010 _Cities of God_: Transcorporeality

Ward points out in chapter 3, “The Ontological Scandal,” that, much to the chagrin of the likes of Bertrand Russell and all other empiricist types, materiality (don’t forget that Ward is theologizing, or philosophizing, about bodies in this book) is transient.

That is, it arrives in the mode of a gift. It is not static; it cannot be stockpiled; it cannot be commodified and transactionalized.

Rather (and here is where secular postmodernists such as Derrida have trouble making affirmations), it exists in the mode of gift, “continually in a state of being gifted to us, animated by God” (89). That is, “nature cannot be natural without the Spirit informing it at every point” (88).

Consistent with this view is Gregory of Nyssa’s view that the materiality of creation is literally an energeia of God, a mode of Trinitarian dynamis, or power. For more on the energies of God, see here.

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Posted on: June 5th, 2010 _Cities of God_: Two Views of Language

In Graham Ward’s _Cities of God_ he does a good job (see chapter 3, “The Ontological Scandal”) of distinguishing between two kinds of speaking & “naming.”

One view, what we might call the “speech of man,” represented by the likes of the early Wittgenstein and British Empiricism, thinks that, through our language, we have direct control of the things of this world. (This presupposes all kinds of things, such as that our perception links up with discreet objects, which in turn presupposes an atomistic view that reality is primarily composed of discreet units of stuff, of matter. Both of these assumptions are at odds with Christian theology.)

The other view, which we might call “the speech of God,” is that we are creatures of God who speak not because we are in control of anything (or even that we know what we are doing) but rather because we are always already in a prior relationship with God and his creation. We speak and name because we cannot help it, in terms of efficient causality. We speak and name because we are images of a relational and speaking God, in terms of formal causality.

Two implications, both of which are key to Ward’s theology:

1. The “hermeneutic ontologies” of postmodern, continental philosophy (Vittimo, Derrida, Foucault, et al) seem to have much more in common with the Christian view than with the former view.

2. The latter, Christian view has a much greater openness to the “ontological scandal” prompted by Jesus when, gesturing toward a loaf of bread, he says, “This is my body.”

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Posted on: June 3rd, 2010 _Cities of God_: _permixtarum_

I continue to be so grateful for the theological movement known as Radical Orthodoxy. It has scratched my postmodern itches, and given me a theology to believe in, especially as an Anglican / Episcopal priest.

One way in which this kind of theology in general, and Graham Ward in particular, encourages me is to remind me to be theologically humble and nonjudgemental, embracing the weakness and contingency of my own, and my church’s, theological claims about God and the world.

As is the case for theology in general, Radical Orthodoxy has its more traditional types, and its more revisionist types. Graham Ward, author of _Cities of God_, is clearly of the latter ilk.

And yet, I have long thought that there are two types of theological revisionists or theological subversives: those subverting from a position which is essentially outside the tradition, and those subverting from a position inside the tradition. I would rather not name the names of those (even within my own church) who fall into the first category, but Graham Ward, I think, falls in to the latter. Along with the likes of Origen and de Lubac, Ward’s sources of subversion are truly theological, and not secular.

To wit:

A holographic presence of St. Augustine permeates these pages [the pages of Cities of God] whispering of the two loves [amores] of which only one is holy, the other impure [immundus], the other sociable [socialis], the other self-centered [privatus] (Augustine). He whispers also of the two places in which these two amorous desires operate “the course of the two cities, the one heavenly and the other earthly, which are mingled together [permixtarum] from the beginning down to the end. Of these the earthly one has made for herself false gods whom she must worship by making sacrifice; but she who is heavenly and a pilgrim on earth does not make false gods, but is herself made by the true God of whom she herself must be the true sacrifice. Yet both alike either enjoy temporal good things, or are afflicted by temporal evils, but with diverse faith, diverse hope, diverse love, until they must be separated by the last judgement, and each must receive her own end, of which there is no end. About these ends of both we must now treat.” (Augustine, de civitate dei , Bk. XVIII

What a quotation. By the way, this quotation reminds me that the difference between Augustine’s two cities (the heavenly and the earthly, of God and of man), is not “good” and “bad” or “holy” and “evil” or “natural” and “gracious,” but rather “faithful / holy” and “fallen.” The point is that you cannot say that the City of Man is bad, since it is rather only fallen, potentially and in principle redeemed. It also falls short only to emphasize that the City of Man is natural, since as Augustine knew, the natural is always already charged, suffused, receptive to, divine grace.

The problem with the Roman Empire, the problem with the American Empire, is not that it is bad or natural, but rather that it is fallen.

Another thing. The heavenly city merely sojourns as a pilgrim on earth not because the earth is bad, or because the earth is going to “burn,” but rather because earth has yet to find her destiny as fully and finally permeated by that realm where God is fully present, that is, heaven. (NT Wright’s theology of overlapping dimensions: God’s and man’s.) To be a stranger on earth is, strictly speaking, to be a stranger on the earth which is not yet fully united to God’s realm. That is, it is to await the day when our earthly dwelling will also, fully and finally, be our heavenly dwelling.

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Posted on: June 3rd, 2010 _Cities of God_: Analogical Worldview

In Graham Ward’s _Cities of God_, which after many years I finally have the leisure to focus on in an extended way (I’m on vacation in Seattle), he is forwarding what he calls the “analogical worldview.” Among other things, this perspective – shared by the Augustinian Christian tradition as well postmodern theorists such as Lacan, Foucault, Slajov Zizek, and the Jesuit Michel de Certeau – sees the things of this world (airplanes, bodies, hospitals, trees), as (a) text(s) which (like all texts) are culturally produced. As texts they call for interpretation.

Ward lays out six “shared characteristics” of “the analogical worldview:”

1. All human knowledge is culturally conditioned / mediated / embedded.

2. Human knowledge consists only in interpretation, not ontological claims. It does not claim to explain or even to describe.

3. Human knowledge, therefore, is indeterminate and open-ended.

4. There is no ideology-free zone.

5. Human beings have an “identity” which is open-ended and in flux.

6. Ontology is seen as “weak” or “hermeneutical,” as opposed to “a strong ontology of being as true identity.”

I love these six characteristics and am in full agreement with them, but I want to point out how they are all negative, or rooted in a hermeneutics of suspicion and finitude. That is, they are not actually theologically constructive. For that, Ward needs to be supplemented (as they do by him) by Milbank and Pickstock, who offer a theology of participation (rooted in neoplatonism) which “grounds” this analogical worldview in constructive, affirming, positive, cataphatic ways.

Put another way, in these six characteristics, Ward is making a much needed deconstructive move, but much more is needed than just this. The tradition, as non-identically repeated by Radical Orthodoxy, provides this “much more,” it seems to me.

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Posted on: April 6th, 2010 Gospel is Politics (again)

Graham Ward concludes his Cities of God with this paragraph:

We constitute and continue to prepare for what the Psalmist in Psalm 107 calls a “city of habitation.” The city of habitation gathers out of every land, receives those spirits who have sunk, rescues the troubled from their distress, satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. We make visible a theological statement about embodied redemption. The body on the street of [Austin] accuses me, calls out, not like the blood of Abel, for vengeance, but like the blood of Christ for justice, for a new relationality. Alone I have no answer to give to my accuser. I cannot begin to conceive how I alone can change the economic, the political and the cultural promotion of social atomism. And I am as seduced by the next person by the bright new goods in the tastefully lit windows — the calls to how I should look, should dress, should accumulate, should spend, should protect my own best interests. The theologian’s task cannot be one which provides the solutions. The matrices of power — economic, cultural, and historical — that brought about and continue to produce alienation, solipsism, incommensurate and unequal differences, are complex. The theologian’s task is to keep alive the vision of better things — of justice, salvation, and the common good — and work to clarify the world-view conducive to the promotion of those things. As such, the theologian prophesies, amplifying the voice of the accuser. But the theologian is also mother, brother, friend, lover, son, child, church member, neighbor, cousin, taxpayer, resident, colleague. Alone I have no answer to give to my accuser, and because of his or her own silence, his or her own degradation, then I can pass by and, muttering an apology, pat my pockets of loose change. But something in me dies with such a denial. And so I must find a way not to be alone before that accusation. I must find a way of not being paralysed by the accusation, and frozen into the condition of being permanently accused. I must speak. I must respond. I must not be afraid of the differences. And I must find a way of joining with those who are also ashamed. There is the beginning: the reappropriation of analogical relations, the delineation of a theological cosmology, the constitution of cities of God, the recognition that I only belong to myself insofar as I belong to everyone else — insofar as I have been given to this situation, in this context, with these questions, and this task saeculum saeculorum. Given, thank God, by God, in God, suspended….

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