Posted on: May 22nd, 2024 Beyond Representation: Barfield on Participation & History (Saving Appearances #2)

Note: this piece is part of a larger series on Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances. For the first installment see here. Also for a youtube discussion of it see here.

In chapters IV through VI of Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield discusses how his four stages of representation (perception, figuration, alpha-thinking, and beta-thinking) give rise to a distinctive view of history and what philosophers in the wake of Plato call “participation.”

Chapter IV, “Participation,” involves a discussion about “contemporary primitive” and “historically early” man, in other words people, groups, & tribes, for example native American tribes (who believe in such realities as mana and waken [page 32]) as well as totemic peoples. Barfield sides with the non-English sociologists such as Levi-Bruhl and Durkheim, who oppose those earlier, English sociologists such as Taylor (who wrote a book called Primitive Culture [page 29]).

The question of this chapter is: What led the these culturally “primitive” groups to worship totems, to attribute reality to non-physical, mystical forces such as mana and waken, etc.? What led them to embue nature with what we moderns would call “supernatural forces”?

Taylor’s view—which no doubt is the “default view” that (functioning in the mode of ideology, I’d argue) is dominant in the commonly held assumptions of most people in, say, the U. S.—is that such primitives engaged in the same kind of discursive reasoning as we modern western people do (that is, that they engaged in alpha-thinking); this is why they held such “irrational” and “mystical” beliefs as alluded to above. In other words, they were seeking an intelligible cause for certain natural phenomena (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.), and the result of their inquiry was (supposedly) that these were due to “spiritual forces.”

Against this view, Levi-Bruhl and Durkeim want to say that, no: it’s not the case that these people think like we do (in this alpha-thinking kind of way rehearsed above, which reasons from cause to effect, for example) Rather, while seeing with the same eyes as we have, “they do not perceive with the same minds.” To translate this into Barfield’s distinctive vocabulary, they are practicing a different figuration. Not a different alpha-thinking (pace Taylor), but a different figuration.

What is the main difference between their figuration and ours? There are two. First, they experience an extra-sensory connection with the phenomena. Second, they are consciously aware of it. They are consciously aware (unlike us) of their active participation (i.e., of this extra-sensory connection) in the phenomena. (One more difference between them and us: they are not Kantians. That is they do not assume the phenomena are “inside of them.” No: they assume that they are “outside of them.”)

Three additional quick notes about chapter IV. First, Barfield makes it clear, by way of his use of “attention” (page 30) that he is a phenomenological thinker. Second, Barfield thinks that the “totemic stage” he is treating in this chapter is “pre-mythical” (that is, myth for Barfield is already an early form of alpha-thinking). Third, he makes it clear that figuration is “pre-thought” and that it is recognition (page 34).

Moving now to Chapter V (“Pre-history”). The upshot of this chapter, exactly as the title states, is the way we think about the history of the cosmos prior to the emergence of human beings onto the scene. (Note that Barfield here is presupposing the truth of something like Darwinian evolution.) To project our own distinctive mode of thinking, or mentally interacting with the world (which, by the way, is alpha-thinking, since we moderns are habitually and characteristically unaware of figuration) onto the way the cosmos would have appeared to human beings, say, ten billion years ago, is the same mistake as that of Taylor, above. That is, if we are not justified in our assumption that “primitive” peoples (Sioux indians in North America, for example) see or recognize the world as we do, then we are not justified in privileging our own way of seeing over that of other peoples, in our putative description of, say, stellar evolution or the formation of the Atlantic ocean or the Amazon river (events which are purported to have taken place before the emergence of sentient beings on the evolutionary timeline).

Further, Barfield states (rather radically) that any description of such processes—his example is H. G. Wells’ Outline of History—necessarily “never occurred” (37) because there were no human beings (or, to be more precise, sentient beings) to constitute the phenomena. (There are no phenomena, by definition, independent of consciousness; there is only the “unrepresented.”)

He concludes the chapter by turning the tables on Francis Bacon (39). Bacon haughtily derides the idolatry of medieval thought: the idol of the cave, the idol of the tribe, etc. Yet, the situation of our idolatry, Barfield argues, is far worse than that which Bacon criticized: the nature and limits of our (new) idols has not been forgotten; the situation is far worse: they have never even been noticed. (What are our idols? From the context it seems like the answer is: the notional, mathematical models of modern physics.)

In Chapter VI Barfield claims that what distinguishes our phenomena from that of “original participators” is that we are not (we are no longer) aware that we are participating.

He also posits a new term: the “represented,” by which I think he means Platonic form. This is “whatever is correlative to the appearances or representations” (41).

Barfield states that a shift takes place at “the end of the nineteenth century” (43): this is when a certain scientific project (studying “the phenomena to the extent that they can be grasped as independent of consciousness”) ran out of steam. What gave rise to this last gasp? The “implication of the observer” back into the (observed) phenomena. (He must be talking about things like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the developments leading up to the double-slit experiment of 1927.)

Two final points in this chapter: 1) “Systematic alpha-thinking” began historically with Greek speculation about astronomy (43–4). There are good reasons (regularity among them) why they would assume that, unlike “sub-lunar phenomena,” the celestial bodies were independent of their consciousness. 2) We can see the evolution of consciousness in the “linguistic fossils” of such terms as λογος and νους. To project our assumptions about the meaning of these terms back onto ancient writers such as Plato, Aristotle, or the Bible is to fundamentally misunderstand these writers/texts.

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Posted on: April 6th, 2024 Beyond Sexual Difference (a brief statement)

When God made the Human on “day 6,” the Human was not a mammal.

When the Human sinned, he descended into the nature (or essence) of a mammal; he became a rational animal.

But prior to this, he had a different nature. According to I Cor 15, it was like unto the nature of an angel.

Upon falling into this mammalian nature, human beings began to behave like animals. In particular they began to propagate their species by way of sexual reproduction. This sexual reproduction, then, is part and parcel with death, biological death. Prior to the fall, there was no (involuntary) death on the part of the Human. Hence no need to propagate. Gregory of Nyssa is quite clear about this in On the Making of Man.

Also part and parcel with death and sexual reproduction (and hence of the fall) is sexual difference. Prior to the fall there was no sexual differentiation, which is why Jesus says in Mt 19 that in heaven there will be no giving & receiving in marriage, and which is why Paul encourages his readers in Corinth to imitate him in his celibacy. Realizing this—that the eschatological status of humanity is a return to its creational, Edenic state—Christians from very early on began to conceive of the Christian life as a life of virginity, a life lived beyond the economy of the sin-produced death of the animal kingdom. (Aristophanes’ myth in Plato’s Symposium, then, contains large grains of truth, as certain church fathers realized.)

For these premodern Christian virgins, the fully divine life  of the human person in Christ was to be lived (perhaps not exclusively) beyond sexual difference.

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Posted on: March 23rd, 2024 Courage & the Stable “Subject”

For years I’ve grappled with the question/issue of whether the human being—not one’s body, but one’s soul, or what modern folks sometimes refer to as the “subject”—has a stable form or not.

For example Alasdair McIntyre writes about “man as a functional concept.” This is one version, I think, of affirming that human beings have (something of) a fixed nature. On MacIntyre’s side (in super broad strokes, also limited to modern culture): Hegel (hence Marx), most “conservatives.” In opposition we have Nietzsche & Foucault (to name just two thinkers about whom I have a modicum of understanding), as well as the existentialists, for whom “existence precedes essence.”

I want just to register one little “data point” in favor of the stable soul/subject/essence/identity: courage. I do firmly believe that courage is the baseline virtue. That is, all the other virtues (moderation, prudence, justice, as well as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love) are off limits to the human being who lacks courage/fortitude.

We cannot alter or bypass or deny this reality … and what that means is that there is some kind of structure, some kind of givenness, some kind of stability or fixed essence, to the human being or subject.

Now, is that all there is to say? By no means! This little indication of “fixed structure” leaves much to be determined. To name just two examples: deification and autopoiêsis (which are related, by the way).

Deification. The vocation of human beings is to become divine (which might sound resonant with “fixed nature”), but the only pathway to this destination is paved with the necessity of human freedom. In other words there is not deification part from the free choice, the free decision, in a thousand different ways, of the human being.

Autopoiêsis. Following thinkers like Hadot & Foucault, but also so many Christians monastics down through the centuries (from Evagrius to Merton), human beings are called to relate to themselves artistically. We have the ability, the calling, the drive, to create something out of ourselves. To live our lives as a project of becoming something beautiful, disciplined, strong, and (again) god-like.

So these—deification and autopoiêsis—are qualifications (while, strangely, also serving as confirmations) of the basic point above that there is something fixed about human nature, namely that courage is the doorway to, the necessary condition for, the other virtues.

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Posted on: January 25th, 2024 Chrysostom as a “Single-Speed Guy”?

For about three-and-a-half decades now I have had a dear friend and theological soulmate named Nathan. He & I have literally been conversing for 35 years on philosophy, theology, the Bible, culture, and more.

One of the many many common “foundations” we share is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which came out in 2007 and wh we have both read. In that book one of Taylor’s nifty intellectual nuggets is his language of “one-speed” (or “single speed”) and “two-speed.” In brief, “single speed” Christians or thinkers hold (or assume) that all Christians are called to live a life of radical, uncompromising holiness, whereas “two speed” advocates think that some Christians (namely monks and nuns) are called to a higher (in some sense) standard, that they are obliged to live a life that is in some sense more radical, less enmeshed in the messiness of the world, more wholly and singularly devoted to God strictly speaking, in contrast to, say, all the ways that the Reformers taught that God is mediated to us in the everyday life of the world (vocation, sex/marriage, & children, for example).

Now, am I one speed or two speed? Not sure. (As Nathan has recently suggested, I think, some folks in our Anglican patrimony—for example Jeremy Taylor and George Herbert—could perhaps be considered “one-and-a-half speed”.) Suffice to say that I am currently “pushing back” on (what I perceive to be) Nathan’s simple two-speed posture.

OK, that leads me to the following quotation (featured in Michel Foucault’s mind-blowing Confessions of the Flesh: Volume IV of the History of Sexuality) from St. John Chrysostom:

For ought the man who lives in the world to have any advantage over the monk, save only the living with a wife? In this point he has allowance, but in others none, but it is his duty to do all things equally with the monk.[1]

Wanting to resist any oversimplification, I am nevertheless led to ask: “Does this not make it seem like Chrystostom is a “one speed guy”?

[1] Foucault, Hist of Sex IV, 194b. Chrysostom, 7th Homily on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 7; Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life, III, 14.v.

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Posted on: January 25th, 2024 Freedom & the Law of the LORD (Ps 139)

For the last several years I have had a growing love and appreciation for Psalm 139, a psalm dedicated to the extolment of God’s law. If I had to articulate one reason for this growing attraction, I’d say that it (the Psalm) compels me to admit that aligning my will, my imagination, my life with the “things of God” is the path to true fulfillment, to the satisfaction of my desires.

Over the last couple of mornings, as I’ve meditated on Psalm 139, the longest Psalm in the Old Testament (I pray the Psalms according to the 30-day cycle in the Book of Common Prayer), I’ve noticed a deep connection between God’s law (do keep in mind that the Hebrew noun for law is torah, תורה) on the one hand and freedom on the other.

Now, the BCP Psalter does not use the word “freedom”; it uses the term “liberty.”

Two verse in particular:

  • Ps 119:32—”I will run the way of your commandments / for you have set my heart at liberty.”
  • Ps 119:45—”I will walk at liberty / because I study your commandments.”

Now, freedom or liberty are what you might call “abstract concepts.” They are not “physical things”; they are not characterized or constituted by matter or materiality, and the thing about the ancient Hebrew is (as thinkers such as Owen Barfield and Mark Vernon have been convincing/reminding me) that it is not very abstract. So when I went to my Bible software (and its built-in lexicons) to look at the Hebrew noun (and cognate forms) for this word that gets translated “liberty,” I was both surprised and not surprised to find that it means “wide” or “broad” (as the two pics below indicate).

In other words, following God’s law infuses our lives with liberality (which is the older and better, more original meaning of the word “liberal”). It makes us free. It enlarges our hearts and minds. It makes us great-souled (megapsychikos).

Is there much (or at least something) that is “lost in translation” between the Hebrew, and the English used in the BCP? No doubt that there is. But is a happy loss, a happy (if messy) (mis)translation.

For liberality, freedom, liberty, is nothing if it is not wide, broad, and spacious.

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Posted on: December 4th, 2023 Why run? (Derek Olsen, Discipline, & Contemplation)

In the afterword to his thoughtful (and highly recommended) book Inwardly Digest: the Prayer Book as a Guide to a Spiritual Life, Derek Olsen returns to one of the most common themes that runs through the entire book: running.

Olsen, you see, is committed to the activity of long-distance running. This is a commitment to which I deeply relate, as a 51-year old, life-long runner myself.

And yet, Olsen’s description of his practice of running differs slightly (though crucially) from my own.

Olsen says that his “big picture goal” is “to enjoy good health with his family for as long as he can.”

To many ears, this will sound like a laudable goal, and yet for me it rings hollow, or shallow.

For some deep reason I will not delve into now, neither health nor family strike me as profound enough. They are not profound enough a reason to meditate.

Oh, wait: I forgot to say that for me, running is a form of meditation. I think of it as “praying with my body.” It’s an occasion for me to listen deeply to my breathing, to observe the different hues of the light based on (among other factors) the position of the sun in the sky, to ponder fragments of Scripture, to confront my limits, to be present to my feelings (“good” or “bad,” pleasurable or painful).  

Yet, while meditation is all of these things, it is more than just those. In a long tradition of spiritual thought and practice, I believe that meditation is the activity—the activity par excellence—of becoming divine. In the Orthodox tradition this is called deification or theosis, and it goes all the way back at least to Aristotle.

Aristotle who wrote in both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Metaphysics that contemplation is that unique, human activity which promotes and nurtures the divinity that is within us. Why is contemplation unique and (in an important sense) superior? For Aristotle it has to do with its connection to final causality, or purpose. What is the purpose of contemplation? Not anything external. This activity is performed for no external reason/end/goal/purpose, but always and only for its own sake.

My running, then, is connected to my attempt to practice contemplation or meditation. This activity, which is also a longing for communion with God, is vastly superior to family or health.

For me, running is not done primarily for family or heath (though these penultimate reasons are good, and sometimes do show up in my motivation).

First and foremost it is an opportunity to pray, to long for God, to touch ultimate reality deep down inside myself.

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Posted on: September 5th, 2023 DBH & the Paradoxical, Transcendental Structure of _Geistliche_ Reality

I’m almost finished re-reading David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, and near the end of the penultimate chapter (on bliss) he stresses the “transcendental structure” involved in our human interactions with reality, in our experience of the world.

Our experience, that is, of spiritual reality, since all reality is spiritual. And yet, I choose “geistliche” instead of spiritual, for that latter adjective in English has many sad connotations. I do not mean to conjure up sentimental “mountain top” experiences of spiritual “high’s,” nor do I wish to evoke feelings associated by praise & worship music or “Precious Moments” figurines or Thomas Kincaid paintings.

Rather, I mean the reality of the mind, the way that we humans experience, process, interpret the world around us, including all the assumptions that condition the way we “see” the world—what Owen Barfield might call “collective representations.” Geistliche, from the German Geist.

But how is the human experience “transcendental”? Well, before I answer that, let’s take “paradoxical.” The human experience of the world is paradoxical, according to DBH, in that the world, or reality, never actually delivers to us what we seek. It never fully gives us what we seek in terms of the rational desire for knowledge, in terms of the ethical desire for goodness, or in terms of the aesthetic desire for beauty (spiritual or geistliche realities, all). I might long for full and final knowledge or to have an experience of beauty that consummates my desire, but these desiderata are always, in the final analysis, elusive. And what this means, in turn, is that they are not the ultimate thing(s) we are striving to find or to have or to grasp. No: to quote C. S. Lewis’ “The Weight of Glory,” they “are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited….”

Our desire for them, that is, is paradoxical: it is never fully satisfied in this world.

But it, or the context in which it occurs, is also transcendental in its structure. What does this mean? It means that, without this never-fully-satisfied desire, this never-finished quest for that which is beyond all we can find or achieve or experience, we would never strive for anything at all. We would never seek out a lover. We would never read a book or engage in a research project or scientific experiment; we would never lift a finger to grab a glass of water or a snifter of Belgian ale.

God, or being, or goodness, or beauty, is “that without which not.” God is the condition of the possibility for any other striving: for knowledge, for justice, for beauty. God, and our desire for God, is transcendental.

In sum, our “spiritual” experience of reality (intellectual, ethical, esthetic) is both paradoxical and structurally transcendental.

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Posted on: August 9th, 2023 Protected: The Sun & the God Trunk: a Community “By Which”

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Posted on: August 1st, 2023 The Narrow Way

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:13-14.

As a recovering evangelical/fundamentalist, it is so easy for me to hear this passage as saying, “The majority of the human race is going to hell; a few elect folks, however, will make it down the narrow path to salvation.”

Yet, what if Jesus has something else in mind? Granted, the passage itself does explicitly make a statement about “numbers.” But it can also be read with a different emphasis. This narrow gate, this difficult and treacherous way: what if it is something like the pilgrimage of those Hobbits as they make their way, in The Lord of the Rings, from the Shire to their ultimate destination (Mordor, where the ring will finally be destroyed)?

Time and time again in that story, the weak, fearful little Hobbits are making their way along a steep, rocky mountain trail, or through a dark wood densly packed with Orcs and all manner of evil creatures, or though a boggy marsh populated by the dead.

Truly, the “way” or the path of these pilgrims is difficult. Oftentimes it is literally quite narrow. At a non-literal level, it is “narrow” in the sense that their odds of success are quite slim indeed.

But they pass along that winding, dangerous path. They do indeed, time and time again, choose to walk through the “narrow gate.”

For me, this reminds me so very much of my life, my ministry, my family, my parish, my own journey to find “salvation,” or the integral shalom of God.

So often, the way seems treacherous. The odds of “success” are apparently scant. Any vision of a victorious outcome is well-nigh impossible. And yet, Christ beckons us down precisely this road, this narrow pathway.

The point is not about numbers, quantities of people who will perish or succeed. The point is about the treacherous narrowness of the path itself, and about how the Lord delights in our Hobbit-like efforts courageously to put one foot in front of the other, journeying toward the light, in hopes not simply of “victory” or “success,” but that Christ will see us through (much like Gandalf in LOTR often swoops in and “saves the day”).

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Posted on: July 21st, 2023 New Testament on Christ & Angels

I have now realized that when the NT stresses that in the Incarnation God did not become an angel, it might mean: “God did not become like pre-lapsarian Adam (with an angelic body, a zoê body), but rather like *fallen* Adam (w/o sin of course), with an animal (bios) body.”

It’s possible that, my whole life, I’ve been misunderstanding this point. The NT is not talking about what premodern thinkers call “intelligences,” or about creatures like Michael the Archangel … but rather like God’s image in the garden.

Much of my current work is on Gregory of Nyssa (thanks, DBH) and his view that sexual difference in Eden is in some sense the result of (God’s foreknowledge of man’s sin/fall). Much of Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol 4 (published 5 yrs ago in French) is related to this.

If this is so, then it certainly makes sense of conundra such as Lk 20:35-6, 1 Cor 15:42ff, & 1 Cor 7:1.

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Posted on: January 2nd, 2023 Thoughts on Political Philosophy

Although I have big time criticisms of a book I am reviewing for the Genealogies of Modernity site, it has nevertheless clarified some extremely basic issues for me. My erstwhile ignorance of these issues leads me, in turn, to reflect back upon the nature of my intellectual formation over the past 3+ decades.

So, what I did not clearly see (til reading this book, Redeeming the Law of Nature by Simon P. Kennedy) is that for early modern thinkers like Hobbes (whom I read in grad school) and Locke (whose political thought I have, to this day, never actually read), natural rights are native to the “state of nature.” The state of nature, in turn, is ruled by the so-called natural law or law of nature (now reduced drastically from Thomas’ version to little more than self-preservation), which unfortunately is neither observed nor enforced.

This is what leads to the need for civil government: “Civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature,” says Locke. (Kennedy, 148)

In my review I will argue, pace Kennedy, that the shift from Thomistic natural law to something non-participatory and voluntaristic (including Calvin) is way more important than any other factor in this decline, and also that it is wrong to oppose “divine origin” and “human origin” as Kennedy does.

Still, this book has clarified much basic material for me, which is more than I can say for either my secular (philosophy) undergrad or my Reformed masters-level (theological) education. (Sadly, in my Ph D program I was deluged by Straussiasm, which did nothing but murkify my mental waters.)

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Posted on: December 1st, 2022 Stable but not Bougie

About five months ago I decided to become the rector (i.e., senior pastor) of a funky, urban parish (i.e., church) in East Central Austin.

Today is my three month anniversary. It has been a wild twelve weeks.

As I was telling a friend last night, I’ve experienced many shifts in my being: shifts in marriage, shifts in ministry, shifts in routine, shifts in identity.

Shifts can be like waves when you are swimming in the ocean. They can be turbulent and volatile.

In the midst of the shifts and waves, however, we can strive for stability, or that virtue so prized by the Benedictine monastic tradition, stabilitas.

For me this means praying/meditating, being in authentic relationships, sleeping sufficiently, exerting myself physically, and being present in my work (relationships, tasks, leadership, etc.).

Finally, stability is not bourgeois. One can be stable and bohemian. In fact, that’s the best way to fly.

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Posted on: November 11th, 2022 David Bentley Hart on Gender & Sexuality

About six years now I read a book that changed my life: The Experience of God: Being, Consiousness, and Bliss, by David Bentley Hart. (And not just mine: I know of several folks who, upon reading this book, actually made significant life decisions based on it.)

Since then I have followed him on his Substack (as much as I’m able). I have also read a couple of his other books, most recently his riveting and scintillating Roland in Moonlight, which I reviewed here.

More recently, through the reading of Michel Foucault’s posthumous, radically untimely released fourth (and final) volume of his History of Sexuality project (see here), I have become aware that the basic posture of the Eastern Church Fathers (and Mothers) diverges starkly from the dominant stance in the West on the issue of gender and sexuality, in particular their role or presence (or lack thereof) in creation. I have blogged about this latter issue here.

Well, it just so happens that the keynote speaker at my Diocese‘s clergy conference a couple of weeks ago was none other than DBH himself! (Thanks, Bishop Doyle!) His talk was an iteration of an earlier one he gave at my Alma Mater (Maynooth University) on Christian tradition and the future (this latter notion being the theme of clergy conference this year), and I could not resist the opportunity to ask him a question from the floor after his lecture. Here is the exchange:

Dr. Hart, it seems to me that you’ve written relatively little about issues of gender and sexuality, and so … I wonder if you could apply your talk to those issues? In particular I’m thinking about the fact that we need to allow the eschaton to shape our understanding of orthodoxy as much as the sacred deposit does and in light of what the Scriptures say (in Matthew 19 about how there is no “giving and receiving in marriage” in the eschaton). Also I’m thinking about people like Gregory of Nyssa and Eastern Fathers who say that there was no sexual difference in the garden. I just wondered if you could apply this vision of orthodoxy to the area of gender and sexuality.

—Matt Boulter

It’s interesting, isn’t it…. I mean, one of the things that happens in early modernity with the evermore literal acceptation started by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation is that readings like Gregory’s or Origen’s—things that remain possible well up into the fourteenth os fifteenth century, even, suddenly become forbidden. It then becomes just a set of positivistic oppositions….
… [T]here were actually these early church fathers who didn’t place the garden or the fall within history, and they didn’t believe that sexual hierarchy was inscribed into the eternal divine order of reality, but actually said shockingly antinomian things at times. These were actually the early generations of Christians.
For Gregory he speaks … of the acquisition of sexual difference as a kind of providential economy of creation for fallen spiritual beings, not because he is trying to erase or efface sexual difference. He just means that this is not what it means to be in the image of God, this is not therefore what it means to live the life of Christ. But how you appropriate Gregory or Origen in the present is hard to say, because the issues have shifted, haven’t they.
So, no, I have not written very much about it. I’m not very imaginative sometimes on certain topics, and don’t know how to go about bridging the questions of the fourth century and [those of the] twenty-first in a way that isn’t purely tendentious. But you are right: as long as we are stuck in … the modern dilemma of the purely fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and that has been the pattern now for 500 years—do you follow any of these arguments online where I am attacked for being a heretic for believing that God is love and other evil things like that?
You know, you can cite the church fathers on these issues, and be told that you are a heretic, because so remote is this other world of reading Scripture, that the very notion, not only that it can enter into the present, but that it even has any purchase in Christian history, just seems like pure nonsense to ppl who are funadmentalists, and among the fundamentalists I include not just the white evangelical fundamentalists, I mean a lot of the Thomists I know. They might not be six day creationists, but they read the Bible as a set of propositional algorithms for constructing social reality. They don’t read it as the inspired occasion of reading that requires interpretation, tact, speculative daring, and the sense that there is the law of love, and the law of the spirit, without which the text slays.
I wrote a translation of the New Testament. One of the translations for which I got attacked by a very good man was when I translated the verse as “the Spirit gives life, but the Scripture slays,” but that is actually what Paul is saying. The Scripture slays when it is just what is written on the page. “The Spirit gives life, but the letter slays.” What letter is he talking about? He’s talking about Torah there. Now he’s a pious Jew. He does not believe that the Torah is wrong, but he believes that it slays, when it is read under the veil without the Spirit.

—David Bentley Hart
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Posted on: November 13th, 2020 The Psalmist goes “meta”

Have you ever heard a theologian say something like the following:

It’s not that God is beautiful; God is beauty itself.

It’s not that God is good; God is goodness itself.

It’s not that God is true; God is truth itself.

When the theologian speaks this way, the theologian has gone “meta.”

I once heard a sermon in which Tim Keller does not say that Jesus revolutionizes the economy, or that Jesus revolutionizes politics or that Jesus revolutionizes marriage. No. Instead what Keller says is that Jesus revolutionizes revolution. When Keller said this, he went “meta.”

In a similar way, in Psalm 68 the Psalmist goes “meta.” In verse 18 of that Psalm (BCP), he says,

You have gone up on high and led captivity captive.

He does not say, “You have led the terrorist captive,” or “You have led the enemy captive,” or “You have led the Pharaoh captive.” No. Instead, the Psalmist goes “meta,” saying, “You have led captivity captive.”

Best of all, St. Paul quotes this “meta statement” in Eph 4:8, applying it to the victory of Christ in the Ascension:

When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”

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Posted on: April 9th, 2020 Dissertation Lecture

I’m looking forward to this! All are invited!

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Posted on: January 8th, 2020 Peregrinatio Discussion Group

There is a new discussion group starting up this month in Tyler, TX: “Peregrinatio” … which means “journey.”

We will meet on the 3rd & 5th Thursdays of the month, 6:30-8:30, at least through May, at True Vine Brewery in Tyler.

We will read two short stories by James Baldwin, CS Lewis’ “the Weight of Glory,” sections of Augustine’s Confessions, (Books I, VII, X–XIII) and Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ.

The Lewis essay is easily found online in PDF form; just google it. For the Baldwin shorts (and my notes on “The Weight of Glory”), as well as our reading schedule go here.

Please read the Chadwick translation of the Confessions.

For our first meeting (Jan 16), be ready to discuss Baldwin and Lewis.

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Posted on: November 21st, 2019 Tim O’Malley on Contemplation

Very thankful for Tim O’Malley’s article this morning.

The middle paragraphs on contemplation are extremely well-stated: terms such as “marinate” and “takes time” are deeply satisfying to me.

Of course, even Plato’s Line (end of Bk VI of the Republic) makes it clear that nous (intellectus) is distinct from dianoia (ratio), and this has huge implications for Christian contemplation. CS Lewis has a good section on this in The Discarded Image. (The good strains of 20th-century philosophical hermeneutics are allies here, IMO, especially the likes of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricouer, who emphasize meaning over scientific rationality.) Augustine’s portrayal of the time-laden process of reading a Psalm (Confessions XI), further, shows the Christian emphasis on textual (possibly even narratival) “dianoia” (moving through one element at a time, in the spirit of Thomas’ componendo et dividendo), an aspect to which O’Malley alludes.

Good stuff. Thanks be to God!

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Posted on: November 21st, 2019 Coakley, Theology, & Wigan Pier

I find Sarah Coakley’s program of theologie totalé scintillating and encouraging. Her emphasis on the necessity of ascetic contemplation for theology, together with her sober admission of the validity of various modern, secular critiques is just what is needed for theology to remain vital and credible today.

And yet I do have a couple of questions, which emerge from chapter two of God, Sexuality, and the Self. In particular I have qualms about her schematization of three theological positions which she aims to criticize: from most “conservative” to most “revisionist,” they are represented by Pope John Paul II (now Saint John Paul) and Pope Benedict XVI (a.k.a., Joseph Ratzinger); John Milbank; and Sallie McFague (see 74 n. 6).

Coakley thinks that these three theological approaches are like the Wigan Pier near Manchester, England (derided by Goerge Orwell), in that they are, to put it simply, fake. They try to ignore the receding of the “sea of faith” away from the shores of culture, heralded by Matthew Arnold in his 1867 poem Dover Beach, promoting themselves are “the real deal.” Just as Wigan Pier is a false sea-side resort, then, these three theological approaches are mere imitations of real spirituality, implies Coakley.

Coakley associates the first two positions in their purportedly blind rejection of modern, secular philosophy and the sociology upon which it is built. (This “post-Kantianism” agrees with Kant that God cannot be known “speculatively in a ‘scientific’ metaphysics” [77 n. 8].) While Coakley herself is not simply a proponent of McFague’s (third) approach or indeed the post-Kantianism upon which it relies, she does take the first two positions (above) to task in their (purported) blunt denial of secular critique, the first on the basis of anti-relativism (a moral objection) and the latter on the basis of more intellectual criticisms. Coakley thinks that this shared posture results in a refusal to acknowledge the often embarrassing “messy entanglements and detritus” of the lived experience of actual religious communities, in which oppression occurs, often in the name of normative “orthodoxy.”

Yet I have two qualms with–or at least questions about–Coakley’s categorization: one regarding Radical Orthodoxy (the second position) and the other with respect to Ressourcement theology (with which Ratzinger, a figure head for Coakley’s first position, is closely allied).

Consider Graham Ward’s essay, “The Displaced Body of Christ” in Radical Orthodoxy, published in 1999. I will not here describe that essay, but Ward’s emphasis on the transient suffering and abuse of the poorest of the poor–with whom, argues Ward, Christ identifies–surely strikes a chord distinct from Coakley’s characterization of RO. Or again, what of William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, with its extended and harrowing exposé of the ecclesiastically sanctioned Pinochet regime in Chile? True, Cavanaugh is no liberation theologian, but his description is surely not guilty of turning a blind eye to the suffering and the “lived experience” of those wounded by Pinochet’s evil hypocrisy.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Coakley seems to forget the fact that, as Milbank states in the introduction to Theology and Social Theory, RO speaks with the voice of Nietzsche. Coakley suggests that RO is deaf to the hermeneutics of suspicion, yet Nietzsche–arguably the inventor of such criticism–is a chief muse of this movement!

For these reasons Coakley’s characterization of Radical Orthodoxy fails to persuade me, despite my profound respect for her overall project.

My second qualm concerns Benedict XVI, who has been shown to have close ties to the Ressourcement movement of such luminaries as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthassar. This connection is clear among other ways in the common involvement in the founding of the Communio journal on the part of all three 20th-century theologians. Further, does Coakley think that these Ressourcement architects of Vatican II are so fearful of moral relativism that the resulting stance is one of obscurantism? (Such a claim would be odd, since during the Vatican II discussions, many accused these thinkers themselves of relativism.) If not, then it would appear that Ratzinger is vindicated, since he himself threw in his lot with them (see Ayers, Kelly, and Humphries, “Benedict XVI: a Ressourcement Theologian?, in Flynn and Murray, eds., Ressourcement: a Movement for Renewed Twentieth-century Catholic Theology).

In short, I support Coakley’s vision, especially with its passionate insistence on the necessity of contemplation. I even admit that RO needs to hear and heed this call. Yet in her attempt to provide foils against which to perceive her own stance, I fear that she has painted with too broad a brush.

(One final thought: I’d suggest that the posture of Ratzinger, de Lubac, Balthassar, and Milbank, in their attitudes toward post-Kantian secular critique of tradition is infinessimally alined with someone like Paul Ricouer, himself a hair’s breadth, I’d argue from Gadamer. Would Coakley be critical of him in the same way she is critical of the former thinkers? I see that she cites Ricoeur twice later in her book. Thus to this issue I will plan later to return.)

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Posted on: September 4th, 2019 End of the World (my own positions)

“The end of the world” means: the termination of chronos. The giving way of chronos to some other kind of time. Bonaventure in II Sents posits 4 kinds of time, including “angelic time” (Kohlbinger, Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas). Augustine agrees on angelic time.

Why do I think that there will be some kind of time, something like time, after the end (or, what Josef Pieper calls “the transposition” in The End of Time)? Because I am committed to the resurrection of the body, which surely entails the ongoing presence of materiality. (I am willing to say that departed souls are completely outside of time, but language fails here.)

What about aeternitas? Do I not concede that, since God is non-temporal (without qualification), one must say that God is absolutely not in any temporal realm? Yes, I do concede that. Hence, I suspect that after the transposition we will oscillate between the two “realms” of (alternative) temporality and God’s timelessness.

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Posted on: August 14th, 2019 Hebrews 11 & “a heavenly country.”

Last Sunday (in accordance with the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer) I preached on Hebrews 11, verse 16 of which speaks of “a better country” which Abraham and company desired and sought, a better country with is also “a heavenly one.”

Verse 16 speaks of a “homeland” (Gk. patrida) which informs the medieval obsession with the notion of patria, the homeland which is often associated with beatific vision which Christians will enjoy as the final purpose of their very existence.

In my sermon last Sunday, I said (as I have done, surely, every time I have preached on Heb 11 over the past 19 years I’ve been a minister in the church) that this “heavenly country” for which Abraham and company were hoping and waiting is, in reality, the Church, the Body of Christ.

The main point I want to register in this blog post is just how strange this idea is. Just how difficult it is for folks in the 21st century West to grasp and believe this. If one is strange enough to take her faith seriously in the first place, it is almost impossible not to hear “heavenly country” as referring to “heaven, the place you go when you die and will float on the clouds like an angel.” Or something like that.

Instead, what I tried to say last Sun in my sermon, is that this “heavenly country” the church is the portal between heaven and earth. I feel that I did not do a very good job of convincing folks of my point.

And, what is worse, I failed to connect my point to the last verse of chapter 11, verse 40 (not included in last Sunday’s reading, in my defense) which is surely clear: since the object of Abraham’s hope “has been provided for us,” such that “without us they will not be saved” … surely it is clear that the “heavenly country” which Abraham and company were looking for … surely it’s clear that this refers to the church! (Right?)

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Posted on: May 3rd, 2019 Kristeva’s Western Metaphysical Destiny

This paragraph in Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity just blew my mind:

[Kristeva] suggests that the West has a ‘metaphysical’ destiny, because it has always been afflicted by an overwhelming sense of something missing: ‘is not our life on earth a shadow?’ (Job 8:9). As a result, she argues, cultural and philosophical processes become a question of how this missing thing is to be conveyed in time and space. By comparison, she suggests, Chinese culture has always concerned immanent, cosmic transcription, via a ceaseless repetition of signs. But the closed and all-sufficient character of this process confines such repetition to a variation of the same figures and tropes, though this is rather more than mere ‘rotation of crops’. And in consequence there tends to be an absence of language for personal grief, dissapointment, dispossession, and ontological anxiety.”

Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity, 171–2.
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Posted on: May 17th, 2018 Book Note: Hunting the Divine Fox (Capon)

Despite the fact that I’ve spent a grand total now of about 90 minutes reading from two different Robert Capon books, I can tell that he is a good writer. Two important samples:

Answering theological questions [I might change this to: “discussion theological topics”] is like trying to straighten up a totally unmade bed: The only way to do the job is to strip the problem all the way down to its basic elements and start again from the beginning. Unfortunately, most inquirers–like most bed wetters–are in such a rush to get results that they simply make a casual pass at the lumpy dilemma in front of them and then cover it over with any tattered theological bedspread they can put a hand to.” (Preface)

And again:

For after all, only a fool of a lover ever tries to change his beloved; it is only after we have lost the thread of our love that we start giving orders and complaining about life styles. For as long as we follow it faithfully, it is always a matter of, “I could never have invented you; how should I know how to change you?” Outrage at the beloved is possible, of course. But in a wise lover, it is never outrage at anything but the beloved’s destruction of herself. Inconvenience, pain, sleeplessness–even rejection–are nothing. The beloved is all. (38)


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Posted on: October 6th, 2017 Phlsphy of Rlgn: Starting Points

If I were to teach an intro to philosophy of religion course (which I’d love to do), I would approach the course in the following way:

I.  God according to “Natural Reason.”

A. Parmenides on Simple Being.

B. Aristotle’s Qualified “hi-5” to Parmenides.

 • “P., you think you’re describing “Being,” but really you’re describing God.”

• “Yes, ultimate reality is simple, but we must respect sense perception.”

C. From Aristotle to Plotinus. Teasing out threeness from Divine Oneness.

II. God (& creation) according Revelation (or the Hebrew Scriptures).

A. Tautologies & Jewish Jibberish: “I am what I am”. Huh?!?

B. The opposite end of the cosmological spectrum from God: the tôhu vbôhu, terra vacua et inanis of Gen. 1:2. Sounds like “prime matter,” devoid of form & logos.

III. Putting it all together, both legacies fulfilled: the logos becomes flesh.



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Posted on: January 16th, 2017 Month 2 of Mission: Good Problems

Well, as the dust settles from the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan (the metaphorical version, that is: see last week’s Crucifer article) dozens of us at Christ Church South are beginning to catch our breath, and we are trying to settle into a routine.

Things continue to go well, and to be a huge encouragement. Literally dozens of new families continue to visit for the first time, to express interest, and to return the following Sunday.

We do have two problems which I wanted to make you aware of, however.

First, it seems that we have an issue with our offering plates. You see, in an effort to be a good steward of the finances which God has intrusted to us, I made the decision a while back to re-use the same offering plates down south that he had been using for five years in the Epiphany Eucharist on the fourth floor of Christ Church. To that end, a few weeks before our launch I asked a very skilled “layperson” to stain the plates in a dark mahogany / cherry color which would go well with our Christ Church South sacred furniture. (I’m looking at you, Tony Patterson!)

So far so good. Except for one little problem. Our ushers have been consistently complaining that the offering plates are too small! They tell me that the checks, envelopes, and bills are overflowing over the edges of the plates, and falling onto the floor. Indeed, this report “meshes” with the chaotic scenes I have witnessed from the sacred altar out of the corner of my eye as I prepare the elements of bread and wine: on a couple of occasions, I have noticed a chaotic flurry at the back of the Great Hall as little bit of paper float to the ground, only to be picked up and stacked back onto the plates. (Thanks be to God for a dedicated usher team, who has been making sure not to lose one red penny.)

Second, we are apparently out of nursery space! On at least two different occasions, we have had reports of concerned parents who say that their littlest ones are a bit too crowded in that dedicated space for the children of the Lord. Please pray that we will find a solution, so that young families with children will be confident that, at Christ Church, their little ones will have the best possible provisions for their safety and growth in Christ.

So, there we have it. Things are going well, but we do have these two problems: offering plates that are too small, and a nursery that is bursting at the scenes.

To say the least, and to state the obvious, these are very good problems to have. Thanks be to God!

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Posted on: September 24th, 2016 Plato, Patriotism, & the Polis

One of Plato’s dialogues which I assign for my undergraduates is also a text appearing on my upcoming comps exams at UD: the Crito.

In it, Socrates’ friend pleads with him to escape (with the friend’s own help) from the prison where he is being held. Time is of the essence: the one month grace period (resulting from a sacred season of non-violence and mercy toward convicts) is about to end.

In the end, Socrates turns down his friend’s persuasive offer to rescue him and spare his life. Why? There are many detailed reasons and arguments that Socrates gives, including that to escape death would be to renig on an agreement that he had implicitly or tacitly made with city (a kind of social contract). But for me the most compelling motive for Socrates’ resistance has to do with a kind of patriotism, which for Socrates, is constitutive of his identity.

For Socrates, that is, no longer to be Athenian is to be no longer Socrates. There is not such thing as non-Athenian Socrates. For him, the political community to which he belongs is so important that it makes him who he is. For him, the political community is prior to the individual.

Sometimes, this kind of “priority of the corporate” is true for modern people (for example, members of a street gang such as the Crips or the Bloods, or members of extremely tight-knit families, such as the Sopranos family in the HBO series of the same name from a decade ago), but even then it is almost never a political community which takes precedence, thus forming the identity of the individual.

And even though I do sometimes say that I am Texan before I am American, neither of these political entities hold the same sway for me as Athens did for Socrates.

To my mind this leads in as straight line to the sole political community which truly is constitutive of human identity, and only one from which alienation seems worse than death itself: the Church of Jesus Christ.

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