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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: August 1st, 2022 Hosea, Gomer, & “Sex Workers”

Sometime over the last few months, I have discovered a kindred spirit in the person of Mark Vernon. I have never met Mark (I’ve only interacted with him very briefly online), but through his youtube videos & his books (one book, rather, for I’ve not yet gotten to the others), I can tell that he is channeling something that resonates with my own views/interests/posture. (Sidenote: it was our shared interest in the work of David Bentley Hart that allowed Mark to emerge on my “radar screen.”)

The book in question, The Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness (a bit of an unfortunate title, I admit, as it evokes Dan-Brown type images of conspiracy and underground, possibly new-agey plots), is a gem not simply because of the way it applies the thought of Owen Barfield (dear friend of Lewis & Tolkien, whom they both regarded as the most intelligent of the three), but also because of one particular focus it has by way of a “shift” in (what Vernon thinks of as) spiritual consciousness: that of the eighth-century prophets of Israel, Amos and Hosea in particular.

For it just so happens that in my Episcopal parish we have been reading “the Bible in one year” (thanks, Nicky Gumbel!) and discussing it in our Sunday morning Christian Formation Class, that last couple of weeks focusing on the minor prophets of Jonah, Amos, and Hosea.

Allow me to quote the upshot of Vernon’s point about these prophetic shifts in posture:

Looking back, we can say that the genius of the eighth-century prophets was to intuit that, amidst the anxieties of the age, a new consciousness of themselves and God was unfolding. What Amos and Hosea, in particular, were beginning to realize was that, as the monarchy failed, the nature of the covenant must change. It would no longer be held in the pooled identity of the kingly theocratic order. People would need to come to know Yahweh’s presence in a different way. Only, at this stage, it was entirely unclear in what way.

Vernon, Secret History, 23.

Now, in our Formation Class yesterday morning, we had an interesting discussion about Gomer, the prostitute whom God commanded Hosea to marry. One good friend (extremely thoughtful) in the discussion suggested that I should refer to Gomer as a “sex worker,” I suggestion which I received with open appreciation. However, reading the Vernon book is causing me to reconsider, for he rightly points out that “Gomer … was a sacred prostitute in the cult of Baal.” Unlike a “sex worker” that we might find the twenty-first century West, this woman is not working for a wage. Rather, she is enmeshed in a system of religious power. While a sex worker has (or ought to have, according to some, myself probably included) the same kind of autonomy, the same rights, as any other worker in a secular, capitalist society, Gomer is, quite plainly, a religious slave.

This slave also turns out to be a symbol that the Hebrew Bible uses to make a point about the new thing that God is doing in his history with his people: the deepening of a relationship starkly different from those having to do with the traditional deities of that age. This relationship is one of the heart, one of love. It is a relationship with God uncountenanced within the context of what Barfield calls “original participation.”

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Posted on: May 26th, 2022 A Psalmic “Koan”

In my morning prayer time today (in Psalm 119), I came across the following two lines:

  • “I have sworn to keep your … judgements.” (Ps 119:106)
  • “O LORD … teach me your … judgements.” (Ps 119:108)

Now, what is going on here? How can the Psalmist—or you or I—presume to be able to keep God’s judgements (v 106) when we need to be taught what they are (and hence clearly do not even know what they are)?

Now, there’s obviously a whole lot going on here … and I am by no means trying to cast aspersions upon the Psalm or to suggest any incoherence.

If anything is undermined here, it is any facile presumption that keeping God’s judgements, being faithful to him, is a straightforward or obviously clear endeavor.

What are the judgements of the LORD? The koan-like character of these lines reminds us that knowing them is the task of a lifetime. Yes, we must commit ourselves to faithfulness, but even as we do that, and with God’s grace, more is unfolded to us. More is revealed.

In the Christian life, there is no easy compliance.

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Posted on: April 1st, 2022 Deep Hope within the Episcopal Church

It is easy to get discouraged in the Episcopal Church for a whole variety of reasons. Yet, these two videos (this one and this one)—which, somehow, had escaped my notice—are so, so good.

In the first one Ellen Davis speaks of Scripture as that which prompts God’s people to begin to imagine and speak in primordially refreshing ways.

In the second one Bishop Curry refers to the sacrament of Holy Eucharist as “the sacrament of unity,” that which can heal our deepest estrangements.

Therein lies my hope, in this fragmenting, VUCA culture. Thanks be to God!

(I’m grateful to the Society of Scholar-Priests for the role they played, I think, in making these vids a reality.)

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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: August 3rd, 2021 Who may dwell in your tabernacle?

The purpose of this short post is simple: to articulate how and why the Psalms speak of Jesus Christ.

While all of the Psalms are christocentric—in fact according to the Book of Hebrews Jesus is the one who sings the Psalms—Psalm 15 is a particularly apt example, for it requires a kind of perfection in order for one to experience God’s presence.

“LORD, who may dwell upon your holy hill?” Who can rest in your peace and enjoy your presence?” Only she who is blameless. Only the one who speaks the truth in a completely authentic manner. Only one who never gives into the temptation of wrongful financial gain.

Who has done these things? Absolutely no one.

Who has done these things, has kept the law blameless, from the heart? No one. No one, that is except for the man Jesus Christ.

So who may enjoy God’s presence? Who is the one for whom God’s temple is open and available? Only Jesus Christ … and those who are found in him, who are united to him by faith, who are members of his body, having been buried with him in death, and raised with him in newness of life.

Why may enjoy the life-giving presence of God? Those who are mystically in Christ.

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Posted on: February 8th, 2021 Christian Nihilim: the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

One of my favorite John Milbank quotations is: “Christianity is a hair’s breadth from nihilism.”

And in my Introduction to Philosophy class I begin the entire class with a discussion of Parmenides and Heraclitus, Heraclitus who said that “All is flux,” and that “You can’t step in the same river twice.” (Cratylus, as we discuss in the class, “one ups” Heraclitus by insisting that “you cannot step in the same river even once,” and in this way his view is like “Heraclitus on steroids.”)

This view of Heraclitus is one of radical transience, in contradistinction to Parmenides, who insists that all is stable being. For Heraclitus, reality is fundamentally unintelligible, “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (in the words of Williams James). So much so that you cannot even point to items in the world, since there are no items to point to (hence we can say that, for Heraclitus, or more precisely, for Cratylus, the world is utterly non-indexible). There is also, by the way, no finger with which to point.

In this ontology of radical transience, we are reminded of the blooming, buzzing confusion of Genesis 1:2, just before Elohim brings order, form, and beauty out of the chaos: “and the earth was formless and void (tôhu vbôhu), and darkness was over the surface of the deep.” Especially when read through the lens of Church Fathers such as Augustine, we see here the truth of Heraclitan nihilism. A truth which Plato and Aristotle both honored, the latter with his notion of prime matter (hulê prima), about which the only affirmation the Staggirite can make is that it is spatially extended.

Do you doubt, dear reader, that such a nihilistic vision is, really and truly, included in the Christian approach to reality?

I stumbled upon it yet again this morning, in my daily reading of the Psalms of David:

LORD, let me know my end and the number of my days,

so that I may know how short my life is.

You have given me a mere handful of days,

and my lifetime is nothing in your sight;

truly, even those who stand erect are like a puff of wind.

We walk about like a shadow,

and in vain we are in turmoil;

we heap up riches and cannot tell who will gather them.

With rebukes for sin you punish us;

like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us;

truly, everyone is but a puff of wind.

Psalm 39:5–7; 12 (Book of Common Prayer)

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Posted on: January 21st, 2021 Schelling, Augustine, Remembering

Grant Kaplan on Schelling: “The Urmensch adam was ‘connected with the divine consciousness’ and ‘in immediate communion [Gemeinschaft] with the creator.’”[1]

One could, and should, spend costly time and effort of thought trying to imagine, to imaginatively discover, what this “immediate communion” with God—this direct and surely intimate relationship between man and God—was like.

I have often used as a sermon illustration the image of my daughters running to me after getting home from work, unlocking the front door, running up to me, jumping up onto me, screaming: “Daddy! Daddy! You’re home!” This, to me, is a dim intimation of what such intimate, loving communion with God must have been like in the Garden of Eden.

For Augustine (as a good Platonist), this is the primal memory which determines man more than any other. The pilgrimage of the Christian life, for him, is the process of recollecting, uncovering, getting back into touch with, this primal memory of communion with God in the garden.

For the Psalmist (especially in Psalms such as Ps 119, and within that especially in sections such as He, Waw, Zayin, Heth, and Teth), this is the point of the law, of meditating on God’s law day and night, with one’s “whole heart,” Ps. 119:34, 58 (BCP). To meditate on God’s torah, I have come to believe, is, at the deepest level, to dwell on God’s words to Moses (and the people of Israel) in Exodus 19:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,

How I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now therefore if you obey my voice and keep my covenant,

You shall be my treasured possession out of the all the peoples.

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be to me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.

It seems to me that here, we see God’s heart for humanity. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Scripture, we get a glimpse of the direct, intimate communion between God and man in the Garden.   


[1] Kaplan, Answering the Enlightenment 86a.

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Posted on: January 5th, 2021 Language, Reality, & “Awoman”

On Sunday, January 3, 2020 U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (at the time serving provisionally as the chaplain of the House), ended a prayer offered on behalf of the House not with the traditional “Amen,” but rather with “Awomen.”

However well-intentioned Cleaver may have been in that moment, I’m reminded of the words of Cyril O’Regan, discussing Hans Urs von Balthassar’s rejection of a traditional theological maxim—a litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy—put forth my Vincent de Lérins (a maxim rejected by Joseph Ratzinger as well, and hence by the official posture of the Second Vatican Council):

Lérin’s definition [was] in danger of denying the symbolic nature of all language with respect to the divine and promoting the view that doctrine is adequate to the mystery to which it refers. (Tracey Rowland, Benedict XVI: a Guide for the Perplexed, 55.)

Believe me, I’m not expecting Mr. Cleaver to grasp the deep import of O’Regan’s words here, but if one wants an actual, serious, theological rationale for rejecting the foolish revision of theological language (in legion of its forms), this is a good starting point.

In short, advocates for the revision of traditional theological language, more often than not, are laboring under the illusion that such language—especially in liturgical contexts—are univocal or “literal.”

But they were never intended to be.

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Posted on: December 22nd, 2020 Ratzinger, Fichte, & the Rejection of Revelation

After I defended my dissertation (on Ratzinger’s Habilitationsschrift, the Theology of History in St. Bonaventure) in July of 2020, I began to see the need to situate the future Pontiff’s thought within deeper currents of German philosophy. It is extrememely plausible to see his defense of Bonaventure as motivated by the need to respond to contemporary developments about the nature of time and history (for example, the thought of Heidegger, which, one might say, conceives of being as something like Plato’s becoming), even though Ratzinger himself roots his concerns in the Protestant fascination (de riguer at the time) with Heilsgeschichte (e.g., Oscar Cullman’s Christ in Time).

That a central concern for Ratzinger in his Habilation research was Bonaventure’s surprising notion of revelation is an initial hint or suggestion that, indeed, Ratzinger is in some kind of dialogue with these antecedent currents of German thought of the early proponents of so-called German idealism.

In this post I want to rehearse a point about the Kantian (and Fichtean) rejection of revelation. On page 46, Kaplan quotes Fichte, who “raises the possibility that creation might be a revelation.”

“Indeed to the extent that [through such an empirical process] it were possible to have […] a knowledge of God, of our dependence upon him, and that certain duties resulted from this knowledge […] and to the extent that one could view God as the purpose of the creation of the world, one could believe for a moment that the entire system of appearances could be viewed as a revelation.”

But Fichte dismisses this possibility as soon as he raises it. Why? Because (as Kaplain states) “theoretical reason has no capacity to know the noumenal world.”

And why, in turn, is this?

It is because of the merely tangential role God plays in Kant’s and Fichte’s system. For Kant God is never evoked or even countenanced in the First Critique. That is, for Kant’s system of thoeretical reason, God is regarded as completely unnecessary. Kant’s theoretical system, then, assumes a methodological atheism.

God becomes a crucial plank in Kant’s thought, only with the moral philosophy of practical reason (the Second Critique). As Günter Meckenstock puts it (Kaplain 179 n 38) the concept of God is “bound to the apodictic validity of the moral and rational ethical law.” As Kaplain puts it on 44, “God is posulated as a being who makes the world of nature and of morality correspond.” You see, while the phenomenal world for Kant cannot affect the noumenal world (that is, the free will of the human person), the noumenal can and does affect the phenomenal. But in order for this to be compelling (since it cannot be observed), we need God to serve as a kind of placeholder or guarantor.

In other words, in his elaborate attempt to safeguard the freedom of the will (in the face of the Newtonian suggestion that all of nature follows fixed, mathematical laws), Kant must invoke the concept of God as a placeholder. For Kant the human will must be autonomous, following its own free choices and determinations, and in no way conditioned by external factors or laws. Heteronomy bad, autonomy good.

But this God, this role for God in human knowing or the grasp of truth about the world, is a far, far cry from God as creator, who has made a world which somehow reveals him (Ps 19:1). This “god” is a mere corollary of practical reason, since for Kant (and Fichte) theology is done only after practical philosophy (see Kaplan 47ff.).

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Posted on: December 12th, 2020 Milbank, Bonaventure, & History/Eschatology

“Thus time for Bonaventure … begins and ends in God.”—John Milbank, “There’s Always One Day,” in Theologies of Retrieval, ed. Darin Sarisky (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 24.

So claims John Milbank, and I agree with his read of Bonaventure here (despite my qualms with what I left out in the above ellipsis: the word “literally”). My dissertation is an sustained attempt, during which I stumble upon and share many epiphanies, to defend Bonaventure’s stance regarding temporality. I try, that is, to show how—given certain hermeneutical planks, ancient and modern, propounded by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Heidegger, Ricœur, Gadamar, Péguy, and Pickstock—one needs to say that time begins and ends in God. If, that is, we are to make sense of history.

A fundamental premise, following Ricœur, Péguy, and Pickstock, is that history, pace Aristotle, must be regarded as a story or (to use the ancient Greek term) a mythos.

Why is this the case? It has something to do, among other reasons, with the structure of human mind, a structure which—as Augustine shows with his point about the Psalm in Confessions XI—is, in an important sense, irreducibly temporal.

Resisting, however, any hint of process theology, I deny that time is “in” God. Instead, as Plato has it in the Timaeus, time is a moving image of (God’s) eternity. Don’t forget: nothing is more real than an image. This created movement which is time, then, is really and truly a participation in God’s movement, “of one piece” with it.

Here, perhaps, is the beginning of a new and truly postmodern ontology: an ontology of fiction. Hence, regardless of Milbank’s take on Bonaventure’s alleged “literalism,” time’s beginning and end in God, while absolutely real, is anything but literal.

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Posted on: July 10th, 2020 Notes on sin, death, sacrifice (a brief sketch)

If there is a contradiction between modern evolution and orthodox Christian theology, it goes something like this:

Christianity (the biblical story) says that humans die (and suffer disease) only because of sin (e.g., Rom 8:10). But evolution says that animal and biological death was a necessary condition for the evolutionary emergence of the human being.

This seems like a contradiction (or something like it), because in order for both the biblical story and evolution to be true, one must must hold that without sin, a death-filled process led up to the emergence of a creature who was never going to die, who was never “intended” to die.

Unless. Unless what my friend Nathan Jennings implies in his book Liturgy and Theology is true. For there he suggests that what God has always wanted (and had always wanted) from humanity is sacrifice, including self-sacrifice. Just as Paul in Rom 12 urges Christians to “present your bodies as living sacrifices,” so also Adam (not intended merely literally) was always supposed to lay down his life in sacrifice to God (and others?). Then and only then, could God raise the human up (or resurrect the human) to an even higher kind of life.

(Nathan develops this idea, among other ways, in terms of the significance of the creation of the human on Day 6, and making some connections about eating.)

If this is right, then it means that we can have both evolution and the biblical story, for death has always been part of God’s plan. For lower creatures, it was part of the process leading up to Adam; for Adam (or humans) it was intended to be in the form of pre-resurrection self-sacrifice.

In conclusion, then, we can say that what the Fall (or the entrance of sin into the world) brings about not death, not even human death. Rather, it brings about involuntary human death.

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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: July 3rd, 2020 Premodern Human “Perfection”

I grew up in a wonderful family with a mom and a dad who loved each other, loved Christ, and were healthy in the sense that they were always repenting, always striving to be more faithful to Christ and to each other.

And yet … it was, in truth, a fundamentalist family. So some of the thematics would frequently emerge were, well, distinctive to that culture.

One example. A frequent tirade on the part of my father against “sinless perfection.” Apparently some Christians believed that it was possible to live a life in total utter obedience to God, with not a single shred of sin in one’s life. (Frequently my dad identified the precise target of his ire as followers of John Wesley and the occasional Baptist “Arminian.”) One interesting case study in this context was C. S. Lewis: while my family in general revered him with awestruck admiration (which, to this day, I still do), at times he seemed to imply a high view of “Christian perfection.”

What?!? Did he not get Luther’s point about semper justus et peccator?

It turns out—or so I’d argue these several decades later—that here as elsewhere Lewis was actually faithfully channeling a deep current of Catholic sensibility.

For premodern thinkers of the kind that Lewis strove to represent—thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas—”perfection” has a connotation somewhat different from my dad’s apparent grasp of it. It really begins with the notion of telos, since in Greek “perfect” is teleotês. It really just means a substance (in Aristotle’s technical language) doing its “work” so as to fulfill its purpose. When an acorn successfully becomes an oak tree, it is teleotês; it is fulfilling its purpose. Same for when a car gets you from point A to point B.

Yet no one in the premodern world would say that that acorn or the car is “perfect” in every respect. After all, the air conditioner in the car might be broken. Yet, if it gets you to point B, it is fulfilling its telos, and in that sense is “perfect.”

Now for most premodern thinkers after Aristotle, human beings are like acorns and automobiles: they have an objective purpose. (This is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “functional concept.”) Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, or “happiness.” He thinks, and Aquinas and C. S. Lewis agree, that humans are able to achieve happiness (in some sense).

One example of many would be St. Thomas’ Summae Theologiae, I-II, Q. 71 A. 1. There he states that

Virtue implies … a disposition whereby the subject is well disposed according to the mode of its nature: wherefore the Philosopher says (Phys. VII.17) that virtue is a disposition of a perfect thing to that which is best, and by “perfect” I mean that which is disposed according to its nature.

Note the way he speaks of perfection in this passage.

Does this make them “Arminian”? Not at all: it just means that the imagined something different from what we do when they thought of perfection.

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Posted on: July 3rd, 2020 Theology Necessary for Philosophy

In an insightful article on Bonaventure’s Hexaëmeron, Junius Johnson writes:

Bonaventure believes that human understanding in its natural state ought to be able to arrive at the contemplation of God as the first principle. This is Bonaventure’s version of natural theology. Yet philosophy recognizes that to attain this [ultimate] science the virtues are necessary. And so natural reason must be exercised in the exemplary and Cardinal virtues. At this point it looks as if the text is progressing directly to understanding elevated by contemplation, and yet this is the 4th vision, not the second. The problem is that, because of the fall, the virtues are not able to reach their end apart from grace. But the knowledge that the human soul is fallen and the consequent knowledge that the effect must be healed and satisfaction made before the virtues can be truly exercised cannot be reached by reason, but requires faith. Understanding endowed by nature thus naturally arrives at the second vision, understanding elevated by faith.[1]  

This is a clear and succinct argument for how and why philosophy needs theology. If the emergence of something like contemplation (I’m thinking here of Bk. X, ch. 7 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) is native to the very endeavor of philosophy, then theology is required. Why? Because contemplation requires virtue (as even the philosophers admit), which is why this topic appears only at the end of the Ethics. And yet, for someone like Bonaventure, after the fall full virtue (or the virtue required for the purposes of this discussion, at least) is off-limits to the human being, apart from “theological givens/gifts” such as grace, revelation, and faith.

By the way, I see an analogy in St. Thomas with this line of Bonaventurian thinking, in the Angelic Doctor’s treatment of sapientia in the Summa Theologiae. There he treats wisdom twice, in two different contexts: not only is it an intellectual virtue (in line with Ethics VI) that applies science or scientific thinking to the highest causes/realities (I-II, 57.2), but it is also a divine gift (II-II, 45.3). The upshot here is that full sapientia—surely part and parcel with ultimate contemplation—requires grace.

[1] Junius Johnson, ““Unlocking Bonaventure: the Collationes in Hexaëmeron as Interpretive Key,” The Thomist 83 (2019): 277–94, at 286.

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Posted on: June 9th, 2020 St. Thomas & “what the heart desires”

I remember, sometime in the mid 1990’s (when I was an undergrad at UT Austin), hearing R. C. Sproul say that, for Thomas Aquinas (one of Sproul’s intellectual “heroes”), reason takes precedence over desire. This statement really caught my attention, and I can honestly say that I’ve been pondering it for two and a half decades. (Side note: while in seminary at Westminister Theological Seminary, where the approach to apologetics is determined by Cornelius Van Til, I realized that Van Til’s “presuppositional apologetics” would like not agree with Thomas here, although what’s more likely is that proponents of that “school” have rarely thought about this issue, sadly.)

Fast forward to about three years ago, when, in a YouTube video, I heard Ashley Null make the following statement (also, I think, in his book on Cranmer’s doctrine of repentance), credited to Phillip Melancthon:

What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

Now, at a certain level I really like this statement. It resonates: our desires (including our sinful or illicit desires) are so often “justified” in retrospect by our “rational mind.” We “go after” what we want, and then we justify it ex post facto. At a basic level, that strikes me as a profoundly accurate assessment of the human condition after the fall. (My friends at Mockingbird ministries, Ashley Null included, would certainly agree.) The fallen human being is radically characterized, that is, by the libido dominandi. Truth.

By the way, this latter perspective is ratified by almost all modern thought: one thinks of Soren Kierkegaard and David Hume, the latter of whom said, “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any office but to serve and obey them.” (Alasdair MacIntyre has a nice treatment of all this in After Virtue.)

Thanks to Nicholas Lombardo for this connection with Hume.

And yet, in my research for a book chapter on Aquinas’ view of anger, I’m realizing that St. Thomas, on this issue, really delivers the goods, and is superior, in my opinion, to Melanchthon, Hume, and Kierkegaard (and even St. Bonaventure, who here as elsewhere can be viewed as an incipient, prototypical forebearer of these modern strains of anthropology).

On Thomas’ account (as he has it in the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae, Question 82 on the will), the intellect does take precedence over the will in the specific sense that the human person always seeks happiness and hence always seeks (albeit frequently in misdirected, sinful ways) the good. But in order for the human person (that is, the will, or the desire/appetite) to seek the good, he first must recognize the good, and this is an intellectual activity which performed by the mind. So, yes: intellect is priviledged over desire in this specific sense.

Yet in another way, the will leads and directs the intellect, since, as Thomas says, the will is “in charge” of every “active faculty” in the animal (rational or otherwise). I take this latter point to mean that, when I decide to focus on or to “intend” a tree as an object of my attention or to a memory of the past (or any other “object”), it is the will which makes this “choice.”

And so, I draw two conclusions from all this. First, I’m confident that any disagreement between these two schools is more “smoke than light,” that at bottom all (for the most part) would potentially agree. Thomas would say (and does say) that sometimes our desires are not guided by reason (or at least are irrational in some ways), and even that in our disordered, sinful state we sometimes rationally justify our own sin. Yes, he’d agree to that.

But I also think that his posture is the superior one, since it does full justice to the basic metaphysical principle that all creatures pursue their telos: rocks, oak trees, elephants, and humans. But in our case, that telos is to seek happiness, beatudo, eudaimonia. And that is a rational activity (since we are rational animals).

Besides, it is nihilistic to absolutize the libido dominandi, surely.  

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Posted on: April 16th, 2020 NT Wright on History & Eschatology

NT Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures are well worth grappling with, as is the book-form version of the same, History and Eschatology. While I take issues with his historiographical methodology (wh is a bit too positivistic), I think that his presentation of the actual view of first century Jewish thought is absolutely superb.

If we ask the question, “What is history, and what are its contents?” then the Christian can start with St. Paul & the Gospel writers (that is, the apostolic teaching of the NT itself).

But before we can ask, “What do the NT writers think history and its contents are?” we must investigate the historically conditioned character of their minds.

Ah, but before we can ask about the historically conditioned character of their minds, we must first ask about the historically conditioned character of our minds (that is, of the minds of modern interpreters, especially those who practice historical-critical method of biblical interpretation).

There are, then, three levels of history in view in NT Wright’s lecture series (and his book History and Eschatology):

  • the history which conditions the modern mind (which NTW rightly describes in terms of Epicureanism);
  • the history which conditioned the ancient (first century) mind (predominantly, at least in this lecture series/book, second Temple Judaism with its biblical themes of Temple, Sabbath, & Image);
  • the history which those ancient writers took to be real and determinative: the redemptive history—which is always already eschatological—of God’s covenant people.

After each of these investigations has been made, it is theoretically possible finally to ask: Can we ourselves adopt the apostles’ same position on history, namely the embrace of the historia salutis as narrated in Scripture? The striking reality is that, given many strands of postmodern theory (themselves neoplatonic in inspiration) this latter possibility is (in the spirit of Ricœur’s “after the desert of criticism we long to believe again”)  actually quite plausible and attractive.

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Posted on: April 13th, 2020 Milbank on Theurgic Neoplatonsim

In the introduction to Gregory Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul, John Milbank lays the foundation for his insistence—an insistence which is part and parcel of his genealogical method—on the distinction between the “Iamblichan/Proclan” stream of Neoplatonism versus that of Plotinus. I here want to rehearse his argument in my own words, and to articulate why it matters.

The Plotinian error which Milbank wants to rebuff (since orthodox Christian theology rebuffs it) is its denial that matter is able (in the terms of John of Damascus) to “work [one’s] salvation.” Milbank thinks that the ultimate source of this Plotinian error/denial is its view of (what I will call) “diminished emanation,” or the notion that as the emanations of the One exit and disperse themselves out into the material world, less and less of the divine is communicated as the series, or hierarchy, continues.

In contrast to this view of “diminished emanation,” the Iamblichan account of things sees the One as fully communicating itself to the lower level. Now, the One does this, in Milbank’s terms, “impossibly.” That is, there is something supremely paradoxical about this complete self-giving (which one can see in the Christian theological insistence that the son is ontologically equal with the Father): it assumes or implies absolutely no continuity between the first element (the Father/the One) and second (the Son/Nous). That is, it is totally discrete, totally “free.” Put it another way: the second element has no claim on the first; it (the second element) is completely “suspended” from the first. While in one sense (the level of grace?) the two elements are related by conjunction, in another sense (the level of nature?) they are related by total disjunction (contra Plotinus); they are totally discrete.

Why is this “giving” impossible? It is because of the “simple nature” of the first element. That the Father is “simple” means that it cannot share itself, “by nature.” (This is what Milbank means by “absolute reserve,” xvi.) It is, to use the neoplatonic terminology, “imparticipable.”

Yet the first element does give himself to the son, even though this giving is “impossible.” Good thing, too (the impossibility): otherwise, it would not be “the entire substance” which is communicated. In other words, if the giving is not impossible (due to simplicity), then the giving ends up being diminished. It is precisely because of this “impossible giving” that the Father is able to give himself completely to the Son.

Now, one corollary of this total discreteness, this radical disjunction (by nature) is that the second element is unable to “rebound” back to the first element. Unless. Unless it does so through a third element. It is this third element which participates (as in participans), rendering the second element participated. And yet, while this third element “rebounds” to the second, it also rebounds to the first. And since it is the whole “self” which the higher communicates to the lower, this means (to use Trinitarian language) that the Son does participate in the Father, but only through the Spirit, the gift of the Spirit.

The Father gives himself to the Son, impossibly. The Son gives himself to the Father, by giving himself to (and through) the Spirit.

The upshot of all this is that, for Milbank’s Iamblichus (and Auustine, and John Damascene) matter—the “bottom” or last of hte series—is able to “rebound”—as the Spirit does—back upward. It can, thus, work to bring about our salvation (since it, for the Damascene, “is filled with divine energy and grace”).

In sum, it is the paradox of the “impossible giving” which allows Christian theology (utterly biblical, also seen clearly in Denys) to affirm both “descent all the way down” and “participation all the way up.”

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Posted on: March 21st, 2020 Peterson on Church & Prayer

This paragraph from Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor is so good I must quote it in full.

I remembered a long-forgotten sentence by George Arthur Buttrick, a preacher under whom I sat for a year of Sunday … sermons while in seminary: “Pastors think people come to church to hear sermons. They don’t; they come to pray and to learn to pray.” I remembered Anselm’s critical transition from talking about God to talking to God. He had written his Monologion, setting forth the proofs of God’s existence with great brilliance and power. It is one of the stellar theological achievements in the West. Then he realized that however many right things he said about God, he had said them all in the wrong language. He re-wrote it all in [the] Proslogion, converting his Language II [discursive language] into Language I [the language of intimacy]: first person address, an answer to God. The Proslogion is theology as prayer.

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Posted on: February 20th, 2020 Augustine on passionately returning to God

This section of the Confessions (XII.ix.10) blows my mind (not least b/c it occurs in nestled within a rigorous interrogation of the cosmology presented by the Book of Genesis).

May the truth, the light of my heart, not my darkness, speak to me. I slipped down into the dark and was plunged into obscurity. Yet from there, even from there, I loved you. “I erred and remembered you” (Ps 118:76). “I heard your voice behind me” (Ezek 3:12) calling me to return. And I could hardly hear because of the hubbub of the people who know no peace. Now, see, I am returning hot and panting to your spring. Let no one stand in my path. Let me drink this and live by it. May i not be my own life. On my own resources I lived evilly. To myself I was death. In you I am recovering life. Speak to me, instruct me. I have put faith in your books. And their words are mysterious indeed.

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Posted on: May 2nd, 2019 Kierkegaard & “Recollecting Forward”

At one point in his Repetition, Kierkegaard says that repetition is “recollection forward.” (By “recollection” here he means Platonic anamnesis.)

I’ve always struggled a bit with his notion, but recently in a coffee shop I had a little breakthrough. For some reason, after I purchased my coffee, I had to wait for about fifteen minutes for it to be ready. But I noticed that this delay did not irritate me at all.

Waiting for the coffee for about fifteen minutes did not bother me at all, whereas, on the other hand, I have noticed that if I have to sit in a meeting without coffee, even for a shorter period than fifteen minutes, it can feel like sheer hell. (I really hate doing certain activities without coffee: meetings, reading, working in my office, for example.)

Why is this? Why is it that, in the coffee shop I was not irritated by my lack of coffee, but in a meeting of shorter duration I almost always am?

The explanation is quite simple. It has to do with anticipation. In the coffee shop, while I was reading Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity, I was not feeling irritated because I knew that my coffee was coming. There is something about anticipation which changes everything, and not only makes the interval of waiting OK, but also in some way is even better than having the real thing / experience itself.

I suspect that, even for Kierkegaard not all repetition is recollection forward, but only some. Perhaps, then, “recollection forward” is this: anticipation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.25.

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

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

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

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.26.

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

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


Augustine, Confessions, I.xv.24

And again:

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

Augustine, Confessions, I.xviii.28
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Posted on: March 5th, 2019 Dissertation Progress & Outline

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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