Posted on: January 4th, 2024 Against Mainline Protestantism

For at least a quarter of a century, the phrase “mainline Protestantism” has given given me the heebyjeebies.

When I hear that phrase, I come close to throwing up in my mouth a little bit.

The last thing in the world I want is to be a minister in a “mainline Protestant denomination.” The very existence of “denominations” is from the pit of Hell.

I want more than anything to be a minister, a priest, a presbyter, in the Catholic tradition.

Now, I love the Reformers. Well, I don’t always love them … but I do insist that they have a role. They bear witness to something important, even if the Reformation was a necessary evil, a mixed bag, full of destructive and demonic impulses and instincts which, after the fact, have polluted western culture and can never be healed or remedied.

Calvin’s idea of our mystical union with Christ and his pneumatic Eucharistic theology are needed and are both biblical and beautiful. Luther’s Christian existentialist psychology reminds us that without Christ—and Christ alone—we are truly fucked, and is, properly understood, balm to the weary and afflicted soul.

And the Anglican Reformers, especially Cranmer & Hooker! They are the gold standard of Christian theology and spirituality, even if they are largely, even mainly, “Reformational.”

So, I’m down with being a certain kind of alternative Protestant. OK, yes.

The best term for this is the term “Anglican.”

But mainline Protestant? No thanks.

If you were to ask me: “Matt, you have to choose between being a ‘white evangelical’ and a ‘mainline Protestant,'” I’d run away in horror.

In short, I’m not a mainline Protestant. I refuse to be that.

I’m a Catholic Christian, a Reformed Catholic.

I’m Anglican, baby.

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Posted on: February 13th, 2023 God as Double-Negation

It is well-known in philosophy & theology circles that, for thinkers such as Pseudo-Dionysius and his followers (such as Thomas Aquinas), we cannot know or say what God is; we can only know or say what God is not. This approach to thinking about God is known as negative, or apophatic, theology.

For example:

  • God is not embodied.
  • God is not material (or materially constituted).
  • God is not spatially extended.
  • God is not subject to change.
  • God is not subject to temporality.

But what I learned by teaching Intro to Philosophy to undergrads for a number of years (especially when teaching Parmenides, the first metaphysician in the West) is that each of those negated predicates (“embodied,” “subject to change,” etc.) is itself a version of finite being, that is to say, a reality that is already negated.

In fact everything we see around us is finite. If it were not finite, we’d not be able to see it … or (more precisely) there’d be no “it” to see. The infinite reality would not be recognizable as a chair, a tree, an iphone, a mitochondria, a human being, or anything else. It would not be recognizable at all, for there would be nothing to recognize. In order to recognize anything at all, the object in question must have limits. For example, a pencil does not extend to infinity in any direction. The matter that constitutes it is bounded. Bounded at the point, bounded at the end of the eraser, bounded all along the sides. It is (in part) by virtue of these boundaries that we can recognize the pencil as a pencil.

Everything in the world that we can sense by way of vision, hearing, etc., is like the pencil. Every thing in the world is an instance of finite being. Every thing in the world is always already “negated.”

But not God. God is infinite, in-finite, not finite, not bounded or limited.

God is doubly negated.

God is no thing in the world; God is being itself.

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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: 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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