Tag Archives: David Bentley Hart

This Postmodern President

I’m trying to re-read David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Inifnite. Or, more accurately, I am re-trying to read it, since I began it as an undergraduate and found it too difficult to ever finish. Every sentence I read that I understood struck me as incomparably profound, but the further I read in the fewer sentences I seemed to understand. It’s been many years (and many degrees) since then, and I’m now ready to give it another shot. Only a few pages in–and still not sure I’m understanding quite everything–I came across this quote:

Perhaps [Milbank] is right; if nothing else, good intentions rarely retard the effects of malign metaphysics, and the ethical strain in postmodern thought is usually its emptiest gesture. Milbank merely echoes (among other things) Dostoyevsky’s prognostications of post-Christian “nihilism’s” ineluctable antinomianism, and if his language regarding the inevitability of fascism may be hyperbolic, he still correctly grasps the inescapable amphiboly of any “postmodern ethics” or “politics”: if being is not also the good, but only “eventual,” then force or tenderness, retreat, conquest, or charity are all equally “true.” And power enjoys a certain greater eminence.

This more than anything has helped me make sense of the current presidency. When I hear media personalities (and primary candidates) complain about the demise of truth, of decency, of morality, I look on those laments with a certain measure of cynicism. There has never really been truth or decency or morality in politics. At the same time, though, I cannot deny a certain measure of nostalgia and morning myself. Because whatever my conscious conviction was about the nature of politics, I always took some unconscious comfort in the civility of American politics.

Hart makes the argument–or at least concurs with John Milbank’s argument–that if civility, morality, and truth have not disappeared from contemporary ethics and politics then they have at least been reordered in a great postmodern democratization of value. Power (or would it be more illuminating to say “potency” or “efficacy”) has at least as much theoretical value and a fair bit more immediate and visceral appeal. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president lies. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president breaks the moral, social, or legal rules. If anything, this merely confirms his potency. He doesn’t need your approval or your legal sanction. He continues to effect himself. He is, in his own words, “winning.” And, however much many of us may hate to admit it, he’s doing so much winning that we are (as predicted) getting tired of it.

The irony, according to Hart, is that most postmodern theorists espoused “some form of emancipatory, ‘left-wing,’ and pluralists politics.” Postmodernism is the cultural and political language of the left. It has taken the hammer of Nietzsche’s philosophy and smashed everything gleefully to bit with it, freeing people from antiquated conventions in favor of unfettered self-actualization. In a postmodern age, however, the best self-actualizer is the tyrant, who’s will is actualized purely for the sake of the self and without consideration for the other. Politics by potency is not a break with the trajectory of American life; it is the culmination of it. Time will tell whether or not the genie can go back into the bottle, but it is safe to say that–contrary to apocalyptic predictions from the left–the current president has not changed American politics forever. The current president is the change in American politics.

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John Gray’s Chaotic Taxonomy of Atheism

John Gray Seven Types of Atheism (cover)During my formative intellectual years, atheists were my favorite people to talk to. Unlike Christians, the majority of whom had been raised in less polemical denominations than I had, atheists were fellow dogmatists, many of whom had arrived at their conclusions as a conscious act of will rather than by way of intellectual inheritance. Empowered by the ascendance of New Atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris–who stocked the young atheists rhetorical arsenal with a bevy of state of the art weapons–many of these atheists were itching for a fight every bit as much as I was. Time and experience taught me early, however, that for every budding knight on a crusade against God, there was another atheist who read more of the Dalai Lama than of Daniel Dennett and who was a little disconcerted but mostly bored by the religious zeal of his irreligious fellow traveler. Atheism had all the intellectual diversity of Christianity even if it lacked the institutional structures and neat taxonomy that made Christians so much easier to classify.

So I was delighted to see that philosopher and outspoken atheist John Gray was publishing what appeared to be a clear articulation of the diversity of atheist thought and a taxonomy for navigating its various types. Seven Types of Atheism is a brisk and enjoyable read, under two hundred pages in print. Gray manages to squeeze an incredible demonstration of his breadth of knowledge into that short span so that I left the book feeling, if not better informed, than at least securer in my grasp of information already glancingly encountered elsewhere. To a certain extent it even achieves what it sets out to accomplish, though not in a way that is complete or entirely satisfying.

It may be best to begin with what Seven Types is not, namely a lengthy repudiation of New Atheism. In fairness, the book never claims to be this outright, but much of the marketing seems intent on presenting this as a broadside against the most popular form of contemporary atheism. The New Atheists get their mention in Gray’s text, but it is fleeting. He disposes of them quickly and cleanly, with all the attention he (and I) think they’re due, before moving on to spend most of the book talking about any number of other atheisms that deserve his attention. (To his credit, he states this up front: “[New Atheism] contains little that is novel or interesting. After the first chapter, I will not refer to it again.”) I confess, I had gone in hoping to find a secular counterpart to David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions, but that was never the purpose of Seven Types.

This is not to say that Gray doesn’t have a bone to pick with what he considers flawed atheisms. Though he foreswears evangelism, he admits that his “own preferences will be clear” by the end of the book. Gray proves true to his word, taking on contemporary atheism in broad and uncompromising terms early on:

While atheists may call themselves freethinkers, for many today atheism is a closed system of thought. That may be its chief attraction. When you explore older atheisms, you will find that some of your firmest convictions–secular or religious–are highly questionable. If this prospect disturbs you, what you are looking for may be freedom from thinking. But if you are ready to leave behind the needs and hopes that many atheists have carried over from monotheism, you may find that a burden has been lifted from you.

We’ll set aside how clearly that last line smacks of proselytizing and allow that, while he spends much of the book criticizing the flaws of lesser atheisms, Gray stops short of advocating for his favorites outright. His diagnoses of the various atheisms popular in the present and recent past are clear, rigorous, and damning, but this doesn’t stop much of the book reading like a “No true Scotsman” style policing of the boundaries. The evident longing for an atheism cleansed of monotheism is a clear appeal to purity that strikes a sour note in a text calling on atheists to examine their unspoken, religion-dependent assumptions.

This does not, however, preclude Gray achieving his primary tasks: demonstrating the diversity within atheism (past and present) and proposing a system of categorization to bring order to that diversity. It is in this first task that Gray is on much stronger ground. Seven Types offers a clear picture of an intellectual world in which the absence of God does not require the absence of ideological difference. Particularly in the Christian West (the region and time period that Gray’s expertise seems to confine him to), the assertion of atheism almost always involves the repudiation of God rather than God’s mere absence. The result is that the repudiation of God takes on different significances for different thinkers, entails different consequences for society, for ethics, and for individual fulfillment. Seven Types assembles an impressive cast of characters to illustrate this diversity, rich with quotes, anecdotes, and character studies to who how atheism has real and consequential differences that are every bit as irresolvable as the differences between religious sects.

Classifying those differences, however, proves a much more daunting task for Gray. True to its name, Seven Types does suggest a seven part typology for considering atheist thinking: New Atheism, secular humanism, faith in science, faith in politics, misotheism, atheism without progress (a kind of affirmative nihilism), and mystical atheism. The titles Gray assigns are a little unwieldy at times, but had he defined them clearly and illustrated them succinctly, they would have been a very productive start to make sense of the chaotically diverse catchall of “atheism.”

But Gray has a principled disinterest in drawing clean borders for his categories. The name of his book, significantly, is modelled after William Empson’s 1930 Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Ambiguity, [Empson] suggested, is not a defect but part of the richness of language. Rather than signifying equivocation or confusion, ambiguous expressions allow us to describe a fluid and paradoxical world. Empson applied this account of ambiguity chiefly to poetry, but it is also illuminating when applied to religion and atheism.

Gray celebrates this ambiguity in his treatment of his own categories, bearing out his introductory observation that, for Empson, “there could be no such thing as ultimate clarity.” The seven types of atheism overlap and intermingle. They bleed together historically and theoretically. Most (five at least) suffer from a common defect of proposing God surrogates. “Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means.” It’s hard to pin this lack of clarity on Gray, since for him it is clearly not a defect but a feature of his method. It may excuse Seven Types, but it doesn’t make its chaotic taxonomy any more satisfying. Or useful.

A final quibble, already alluded to, relates to the narrow focus of Gray’s argument–a function probably of the narrow nature of his expertise. Though nods are made to the atheisms of religious systems like Buddhism, very little concentrated attention is given to atheism beyond the confines of Euro-American philosophy. Rich traditions of atheism exist beyond these spheres, particularly given Gray’s loose definition of the term “atheist” to mean anyone who has “no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world.” This describes more than post-Christian philosophers in Parisian salons and American academies. Whether the rest of the world’s, the rest of history’s atheists fit into Gray’s taxonomy must be a task for a thinker with a different set of qualifications and skills.

As I await that project and a more detailed secular refutation of New Atheism, I am left to judge Seven Types on its own merits. What Gray offers is a critical consideration of the great variety of atheist thought as well as a trenchant critique of those who would mindlessly juxtapose religion and atheism. For these reasons alone, it is worth the brief amount of time necessary to read.

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Hart Casts More Pearls Before Swine

David Bentley Hart has a new article out in the January edition of First Things, so naturally my heart is all a-flutter. My first impulse is obviously to take this brief thousand-or-so word article and compose a voluminous, multi-part series on its many strengths and weaknesses. Since, however, I only just completed one such exercise in shameless intellectual fawning, I will try to condense my reflections on “The Precious Steven Pinker” to a single entry.

As the title suggests, Hart’s article is responding to Steven Pinker’s latest effort, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. At its core, this work is essentially the antithesis of Hart’s earlier Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Pinker’s aim is to demonstrate how, contrary to popular perception (and Hart’s academic conclusion), the world is actually a safer, less violent place than in dark times past. Further, Pinker wants his readers to believe that the cause of this improvement has been the rise of “reason” and the abatement of religion. Hart deftly identifies three core problems with this assessment.

1) The Myth of the “Dark Ages”

Pinker, being himself a psychologist and not a historian, falls all to easily into the common fable in the popular canon of historical myth that there was such a time as the “Dark Ages” when everything was horrible, all the advances of classical civilization were lost, and blind, corrosive faith reigned supreme. In Hart’s own words, Pinker’s “almost cartoonish” treatment of the Middle Ages consists in him presenting them “as a single historical, geographical, and cultural moment” easily encapsulated in the caricature which dominates vulgar discourse. In truth, the Middle Ages (inappropriately so-called) were a diverse time both of great progress (whatever that may mean) and great tragedy, depending on when, where, and of whom we are speaking.

[Pinker] says nothing of almshouses, free hospitals, municipal physicians, hospices, the decline of chattel slavery, the Pax Dei and Treuga Dei, and so on. Of the more admirable cultural, intellectual, legal, spiritual, scientific, and social movements of the High Middle Ages, he appears to know nothing. And his understanding of early modernity is little better. His vague remarks on the long-misnamed “Wars of Religion” are tantalizing intimations of a fairly large ignorance.

It is difficult to write a history of violence without at least some firm grasp of history.

2) The Myth of the secular “Enlightenment”

Pinker will make the same error of two dimensional thinking with his reconstruction of the Enlightenment. He sees “not the dark side of the “Enlightenment” and the printing press—“scientific racism,” state absolutism, Jacobinism, the rise of murderous ideologies, and so on—but the nice Enlightenment of “perpetual peace,” the “rights of man,” and so on.” There is a greater error that Hart exposes in Pinker’s treatment of the Enlightenment, however, and that is the assumption that its positive advances (and there were many) were somehow purely secular. He ignores that many of the ideas of the Enlightenment had their root directly and relevantly in religious, “unreasonable” concepts which preceded them. Pinker acknowledges know sense of continuity, no genetic association between the thought of the “dark ages” and that of the Enlightenment.

Pinker’s is a story not of continuous moral evolution, but of an irruptive redemptive event. It would not serve his purpose to admit that, in addition to the gradual development of the material conditions that led to modernity, there might also have been the persistent pressure of moral ideas and values that reached back to antique or medieval sources, or that there might have been occasional institutional adumbrations of modern “progress” in the Middle Ages, albeit in a religious guise.

Polemicists–particularly those who are not historians–make this error in almost every attempt to marshal history to an ideological cause. Consider the ongoing argument in American politics about whether or not the country was founded on Christian ideas. The question should not be–though it too often is–was Benjamin Franklin an agnostic or James Madison a deist? The issue is with the proximate and ultimate cultural sources of ideas such as “perpetual peace” and “the rights of man” which characterize the Enlightenment and encapsulate the core principles of the American experiment.

3) The Flaw in Comparative Statistics

Perhaps the most pernicious of Pinker’s errors is not historical but statistical. There is an ongoing debate which centers around whether or not to adjust statistics about violence to account for population figures. Pinker is of the school of thought that violence should be measured statistically as a figure of violent deaths per capita. This certainly has an objective reasonableness to it. After all, it would not due to say that the total combined wealth of the United States in the 1920s was ten billion dollars, that it was one hundred billion dollars in the 2000s, ergo people are ten times wealthier now than they were then. That is, however, precisely the problem. Pinker’s argument understands human life in the same way that it does money. In truth, we intuitively realize that a single human life has an absolute value which cannot be comparatively reduced. Pinker’s statistics leave no room for this distinction.

But statistical comparisons like that are notoriously vacuous. Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents. Obviously, though, a remote Inuit village of one hundred souls where someone gets killed in a fistfight is not twice as violent as a nation of 200 million that exterminates one million of its citizens…In the end, what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion.

Hart points out other flaws in Pinker’s statistical methods as well, including the increased life expectancy and decreased infant mortality, each of which Hart believes skews the numbers in support of Pinker’s theory.

The most enjoyable part of Hart’s article is certainly his surgical evisceration of Pinker’s argument, but Hart concludes on a milder note, praising the stream of Pinker’s thought for not succumbing to the crushing weight postmodernism. He waxes poetic, as he so often does, about the beautiful, inviolable faith of those who pretend to be faithless. In truth, the above does not begin to mine the riches which I believe are embedded in all of Hart’s prose, but I will leave it to interested parties to read the remainder of the article. It is certainly well worth it.

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The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 4)

After spending days parsing my thoughts on Jenson, Hart, and Hart on Jenson, all that remains is to share with you the memorable wisdom David Bentley Hart imparted:

Well, theology is a particularly savage business (at least when it is done right), and one that it is never too early to discourage one’s children from entering.

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The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 3)

As is inevitably the case when the conversation turns to classical descriptors for God (e.g. impassible, immutable, eternal), the question of whether or not true faith was corrupted by the evil of Hellenistic philosophy arises. It is a the common calumny of almost every contemporary Protestant theologian that at some point during its development, Christian doctrine sold its soul to “Hellenism.” During the course of his discussion of this belief, in which he gladly embraces the early Christian conversation with Platonism as “the special work of the Holy Spirit,” Hart uses an illuminating term to characterize this Protestant understanding of God: “Teutonism.” There seems to be a common delusion among Protestant scholars–and I encountered this most recently in Paul Hinlicky’s Divine Complexity–that if they can only reject the corrupting influences of Hellenism, they will automatically return to an authentic Biblical (sometimes termed “Semetic”) worldview. What Hart deftly points out with this term is that this new brand of thinking is not some genuinely detached return to unblemished biblical thought (which incidentally arose in a Hellenistic context); it is deeply dependent on another extrabiblical philosophical paradigm, German Idealism. It was German historical and systematic theologians who reconstructed an early Christian narrative in which a simple faith gradually gave way to a philosophical one, who declared that this acquiescence was fundamentally unsound, and who devised a philosophically “independent” theology of God in response. (It is strange that this had never occurred to me before, especially given how much time I spend thinking about the Restorationist delusion that they were reconstruction authentic biblical Christianity rather than formulating a new Baconian Christianity.)

Without declaring either “Hellenism” or “Teutonism” superior (though it ought to be obvious from my previous posts where I fall), it seems that Hart’s disposition toward philosophical “intrusion” into one’s worldview is the only honest one. We must be aware of, admit, and embrace our philosophical heritage rather than laboring under the pretense that we attempt theology in a void.

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The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 2)

It is so rare that I disagree with David Bentley Hart, and when I feel compelled to do so it is always with the utmost trepidation. Nevertheless–in spite of the fact that, as Stanley Hauerwas put it, “The sheer delight that David Bentley’s turns of phrase invite tempts me to agree with anything he writes–almost”–in reading his endorsement of Robert Jenson’s Christology, which stresses the inseparability of the Son and Jesus, I wonder if Hart does not go too far.

Jesus is not an avatar of the Logos, a mask the Son assumes in a transient or extrinsic fashion, or a part he plays in some grand cosmic charade. When God becomes man, this is the man he becomes–and there can be no other. That is why it is silly to ask the questions that bad theologians, or casual catechists, or well-meaning Sunday School teachers have sometimes felt moved to ask: whether the Son might have been incarnate as someone else-as a Viking, or a Nigerian, or a woman, or simply another first-century Jew. The Logos, when he divests himself of his divine glory, is this man: between this finite historical individual and the eternal and infinite Son of God, there is no caesura. Jesus is not a manifestation of the Son, but the Son in his only true human form.

I certainly sympathize with Hart’s general point, that the person of Jesus was not a triviality in the divine plan. There is no person of Jesus apart from the Incarnate Word (and, as far as both Jenson and Hart are concerned, no Word apart from its incarnation in Jesus). I even agree with the rejection of trivial musings like “could Jesus have been a Viking” or the more common “could he have been a she”–though this is more because I think they are unproductive than fundamentally unsound.

Where I find myself forced to dissent, however, is in tying every particular of Jesus to the eternal Son. Hart seems to insist that the Son could not have come as a different ethnicity or a different gender not for pragmatic reasons but for essential ones. This leads to other trivial (but I imagine damning) questions, like “if Jesus were an inch taller, would he cease to be divine” or “if he were balding” (instead of having a full head of flowing chestnut hair, as we all know he had) “would he no longer be the Son?” There is of course a sense in which it is true that the Son became incarnate as he did, the way he did, because that was the perfect time and the perfect manifestation for the perfect purpose of God. At the same time, to tie those contingent realities to the eternality of the Son seems to contradict Hart’s normally strong rejection of any limitation or finitude in God.

Perhaps he wouldn’t disagree with this (though there is nothing in the above quote to make me think he wouldn’t), but I would think it safer to say that the Son could have come in any way he chose but, being perfectly obedient to the will of the Father, chose freely to come as he did, when he did, for the purpose he did. That does not, I think, mean that I believe Jesus was merely an “avatar of the Logos.”

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The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 1)

Perhaps my favorite thing about David Bentley Hart is that it hardly matters about what he is writing. If he puts ink on paper it is more or less certain to be witty, engaging, and intellectually provocative. I was reminded of this recently when I realized that it had been months since I dusted off the large section of my bookshelf dedicated to Hart and allowed myself to be immersed in his prose. To correct this, I picked an article at random to read: “The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok: On the Theology of Robert Jenson.” The essay took the form of a response to criticisms–which Hart considered legitimate–about his hasty treatment of Jenson’s work in a recent publication. In response, he made an effort to summarise, praise, and disagree with Jenson in the matter of a few short pages.

Most of Hart’s disagreements with Jenson are philosophical and theological in nature, and they are criticisms I certainly found compelling. There was one area in which, in my estimation, Jenson’s theology went uncritiqued, perhaps because Hart lacked space or perhaps because he doesn’t give the line of argument much currency. There is, however, a degree to which Jenson’s anthropology is unconvincing because it is emotionally unsatisfying. This does not, of course, preclude the logical possibility that Jenson is correct, but inasmuch as theology is an encounter with the divine and, in the words of Vladimir Lossky, it is impossible to totally separate “personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church” it is impossible to affirm teachings which are so existentially destructive as to nullify any positive experience of God.

Hart himself recongizes that “summary is usually invidious,” and I admit that to make a critique based solely on someone else’s summary is even more odious. With that said, however, here is what Hart has to say about Jenson which has so disturbed me:

Who God is, therefore, subsists in the Father’s loving concern for the Son and the Son’s loving obedience to the Father, and in the freedom of the Spirit who–as unending divine futurity–makes this relation eternal. In Jenson’s rather daring formulation, the Spirit “frees” the Father and the Son for the adventure of this love, and for the infinite possibility that is this love’s perfection. As for us, our place in this drama is that of the compaions of the Son: we are included in the story of God’s freedom because Christ is the man who is for all men, and so for the Father to have Christ as his Son he must ahve us as well; for there is no Son apart from him who said “Father, forgive them.”

Hart will object that Jenson’s construction removes any Logos asarkos (a Word apart from the incarnation in Jesus) and that Jenson’s admirable focus on Christ’s uniqueness is meaningless without a classical understanding of transcendence which Jenson rejects. For my part, what struck me is just how trivial I become in this narrative and not just me but you too. All of humanity becomes incidental, the happenstance of this eternal love and becoming. That the Son happened to be man for all men, that he should happen to need or desire or will companions, that he would be predestined to say “Father, forgive them” means that there must be an object for that being, that desire, that phrase. God does not create us out of love or out of an ontological impulse to create or out of a desire to share the beauty of otherness (which, as best I recall, approaches ideas expressed by Hart himself), but merely so that the Son who was always determined to the Son incarnate needed a place and a body and a community into which to incarnate. We are all no more than the industrial by-product of God’s mechanism of becoming, and I for one find that thought deeply disatisfying. Perhaps it is theologically naive of me, but I have always been inclined to believe that the Incarnation was for the sake of creation and not creation for the sake of the Incarnation (which Jenson’s systems seems to suggest).

In the course of a few short pages, Hart gave me innumerable quotes worth sharing and provoked a wealth of theological thought, but in the interest of not being any more longwinded than I already have, I will save those thoughts for another entry.

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#100

In honor of this, my one hundreth entry, I present the top ten quotes of the previous ninety-nine entries:

10) David Lipscomb from The Wisdom of David Lipscomb. As tempting as it was to quote Lipscomb on the question of civil government or pacifism (issues about which I feel strongly), this quote is infintely more compelling to me.

And it may be set down as a truth that all reformations that propose to stop short of a full surrender of the soul, mind, and body up to God, are of the devil.

9) Bill Burton from Muslims: Do They EVER Pray?. I have comment on a number of obscenely stupid news articles, and this quote typifies them all.

The president is obviously a Christian. He prays every day.

8) Symeon the New Theologian from An Earnest Prayer For Taking the Eucharist. It is hard for me to read this and not think that I am missing something every Sunday morning when I pass the Lord’s Supper down the aisle.

You have vouchsafed me, O Lord, that this corruptible temple, my human flesh, should be united to your holy flesh, that my blood should be mingled with yours, and henceforth I am your transparent and translucent member. I am transported out of myself. I see myself such as I am to become. Fearful and at the same time ashamed of myself I venerate you and tremble before you.

7) G. K. Chesterton from The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton (Excursus 1). Chesterton, among other things, revolutionized the way I thought about love. His was by no means the only voice as I began to reconsider how I understood the affirmation that God is love, but his was very likely the initial voice. These are a pair of related quotes to illustrate his points.

Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

A man’s friend likes him but leaves him as he is: his wife loves him and is always trying to turn him into somebody else.

6) David Bentley Hart from Recommendation: Atheist Delusions. The full quote–and for that matter, the entire book–is very enlightening, but in the interest of brevity, I will include only the introduction.

There is, after all, nothing inherently reasonable in the conviction that all of reality is simply an accidental confluence of physical causes, without any transcendent source or end. Materialism is not a fact of experience or a deduction of logic; it is a metaphysical prejudice, nothing more, and one that is arguably more irrational than almost any other.

5) Georges Florovsky from The Wisdom of Georges Florovsky. This opinion of the role of history in theology (particularly in churhces like the Orthodox Church) stands in stark and refreshing contrast with the lifeless formalism and repitition which is at least the stereotype of so many tradition oriented churches.

This call to ‘go back’ to the Fathers can be easily misunderstood. It does not mean a return to the letter of patristic documents…What is really meant and required is not a blind or servile imitation and repetition but rather a further development of this patristic teaching, both homogeneous and congenial. We have to kindle again the creative fire of the Fathers, to restore in ourselves the patristic spirit.

4) Rene Descartes from Descartes, Unexpected. It was hard to choose a single quote about the foolishness of using logic to limit God, but Descartes stands out as something of a surprising (at least to me) spokesman for the “irrational” position.

The mathematical truths which you call eternal have been laid down by God and depend on him entirely no less than the rest of his creatures…In general we can assert that God can do everything that is beyond our grasp but not that he cannot do what is beyond our grasp. It would be rash to think that our imagination reaches as far as his power.

3) Vladimir Lossky from The God of the Square-Circle. No less than the inability of logic to limit God, the limits which reason imposes on human knowledge have enticed me. It would be easier, and perhaps more appropriate, to cite a fourteenth century hesychast on this point, but Lossky sums it up nicely nevertheless.

The only rational notion which we can have of God will still be that of His incomprehensibility. Consequently, theology must be not so much a quest of positive notions about the divine being as an experience which surpasses all understanding.

2) James A. Garfield from A Sentiment Plagarized from James A. Garfield’s Journal, June 14, 1853. This quote, while seemingly devoid of content, expresses shockingly well my attitude about the way I have spent the better part of the last two years.

I sit down to insult my journal by making a few senseless marks upon its page – merely stating that this day shared the fate of its predecessors, and perhaps brought no more to pass.

1) Helmut Thielicke from The Wisdom of Helmut Thielicke. This quote takes precedence for me over all others I have posted because, as much as the previous quote described my actual experience, this quote describes what I continue to hope for in pursuing theology as an occupation, as a obsession, as an act of devotion to God.

Theological thinking can and ought to grip a man like a passion.

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Language and the Corruption of Meaning

It is interesting (which is, in this particular context, a euphemistic way of saying “tragic”) the way the dynamic and cultural nature of language can completely transform the meaning of words. Specifically it is “interesting” how Christians have been able to constantly reinterpret the Bible and the rich theology therein—at times under the conscious aegis of contemporary contextualization but more often entirely unconsciously and thus uncritically—with a ceaselessly shifting cultural lexicon. Words which have a very specific meaning have crossed time and language, arriving at the present only semantically equal to the original with the meaning totally lost. The form persists while the function is obscured. There would be little cause for alarm if, as many seem to think, the problem could be solved merely by opening a dictionary of ancient words. In truth, the dictionary only compounds the problem: explaining ancient words with modern glosses or, at best, drawing tenuous parallels to modern concepts.

That is perhaps all too vague to be much of a complaint. An example: Vladimir Lossky has suggested to some acclaim that the formula “one substance in three persons” has been corrupted by the modern understanding of personality. Speaking of the Father, Son, and Spirit as “persons” was filtered (and thus altered) immediately into Latin where the term carried with it a connotation of “mask” that is entirely absent in the Greek. The concept was further altered in the West as culture embraced a radical form of humanism in the Renaissance and, even more dramatically, in the Enlightenment. Western culture (and this embraces the Eastern Church) now understands the person in terms of radical individualism, the thing which makes the “me” actually “me” and not “you.” Contemporary culture lacks not only the appropriate language to speak about the hypostases of God but lacks the appropriate concepts to grasp the personhood in theology. The solution for generally embraced in theological discourse is to abandon the corrupted terms (something that the preceding sentence demonstrates that I am guilty of as well). Instead of the three “persons,” English theology reverts to a transliterated form of the Greek: “hypostasis.” This by no means solves the problem. Simply changing the word to more nearly resemble the original does not automatically attach to it the original concepts. Even as theologians strain to unravel the mystery of the original terminology, how the ancients conceived of hypostases is continually colored by how moderns conceive of personhood. In its extreme form, this tendency produces literature like The Shack where God is depicted as three people with different voices, different senses of humor, different tasks, and different interests, in short, different personalities. This, for Lossky and later for David Bentley Hart, represents a fundamental reversal of the way conceptual transformation ought to work. Christians are constantly allowing the changes in the concepts conveyed by language to alter the original concepts: modern personhood explains theological personhood. Hart suggests that rather than altering the language (i.e. using “hypostasis” instead of “person”), people ought to be rethinking the concept of modern personhood. A true understanding of theological personhood ought to have radical effects on how Christians conceptualize human personhood. In the most basic terms possible, instead of thinking that God is persons in the way humans are persons, people ought to understand how they are persons by thinking about how God is persons.

The problem is not restricted to the esoteric fields of theology proper and anthropology, nor is that my primary concern in arguing this point. In fact, the specific problem which is the catalyst for this thought was actually inspired in part (heaven help me) by the pope and in part by the Jars of Clay song, “Love Song for a Savior.” The pope, several weeks ago, warned a group of children that the “love” which was being peddled on the Internet and in popular culture was not really love at all. I agree, but, while the pope may recognize (at least in speeches) that “love” as expressed in the contemporary idiom is not love in the true sense, in the Christian sense, the secular definition of love has crept into our religious thought and corrupted our understanding of love as God intends it or as the biblical authors mean it. Case and point is the aforementioned Jars of Clay song, the first verse of which describes a girl in a rosy haze thanking Jesus for flowers, running into his arms, and singing over and over: “I want to fall in love with you.” This picture of “true love” is contrasted to those people who sit in church and ignore the sermon. Someday, they too will sing the young girl’s chorus: “I want to fall in love with you…my heart beats for you.”

It could not be more evident (to me at least) that this is a clear permeation of the secular idea of love into what ought to be a truer, more theologically sound conception of love. Jars of Clay is by no means the lone, or even the most egregious, offender. This idea of Christians “loving” Jesus and God “loving” us has seeped into our hymnography, into Christian pop music, into sermons, and into the popular consciousness. The idea is pervasive that the way God loves mirrors in some way the sentimentality of the contemporary understanding of love and that we should, therefore, reciprocate that “love” in kind. The statement “I love Jesus” is more likely to denote nothing more than a positive affection for the Savior than it is to suggest any concrete reality that aligns itself with biblical or historical theological perspectives on love. The affirmation that God loves us is likewise diluted beyond the point of substantial meaning such that God might just as easily be caricatured as our Heavenly Father who carries pictures of all His children in his wallet.

It may be alarmist of me, but I would suggest that the contemporary contextualization (which is, in this particular context, a euphemistic way of saying “rape”) of the meaning of “love” is the root of a number of significant theological problems. I wonder, for example, if the “faith alone” mentality which understands faith as the mere desire of Jesus to “come into my heart” is possible with a more concrete, less romantic view of what it is to love God and be loved by Him. More certainly, this false idea of love stands behind the overwhelming majority of objections to Christianity which begin, “How can a loving God” and end with a description of behavior which we would never permit from our spouses or relatives or friends—as if that were some kind of objective measure of love. Still more troubling are the manifold “loveless” marriages that people are stuck in. Love, rightly considered, is not something that is fallen into our fallen out of so much as it is something which the lover consciously chooses to express to the beloved through certain behaviors and dispositions. If God could fall out of love with humanity, then we would all be quite doomed. For just this reason, I object to the language of Jars of Clay about wanting to “fall in love” with Jesus, not—as with Dr. John Stackhouse—because it gives me the “homoerotic creeps” but because loving Jesus is not something which I fall into anymore than love (properly so-called) is something which I fall into with my wife.

The problem is not, as I said, so much with the words. We have preserved the right language. God should be spoken of as three persons and our basic stance toward Him ought to be described as love. The problem is the direction of meaning transformation for our words. Rather than allowing love rightly understood through divine guidance to determine how we ought to love both God and neighbor, we allow how we love apart from divine guidance to influence what we think is expected of us in the greatest commands. Human personhood ought to be defined relative to divine personhood, and human love ought to be define relative to divine love. In reversing these, our “contemporary contextualization” of meaning has led us into an unbelievably “interesting” modern problem.

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Marriage: A Tabernacle of Truth

In reading (and inevitably rereading) David Bentley Hart, I have grown very fond of his explanation of a concept he typically refers to as “difference” within the Trinity, but which might be more familiar to the typical Christian as a theology of relationality or community. (I realize that in making this connection, as with others that will follow, I am being painfully imprecise in a way that would likely infuriate Hart. Nevertheless, because the concept of community is so prevalent in theology at the moment and because I believe that the emphasis on community arises from the same spirit as Hart’s stress on the priority of difference I think some profit may be derived from equating the two, if only provisionally for the sake of simplicity.) In contrast to the “perverse and sinful fiction” that is contemporary understanding of personality, the Trinity as dogma demonstrates the absolute priority of difference (and again, I know that the imprecision of my language will not do justice to Hart’s theology) against the illusion that a person exists as, in any sense, a self-contained autonomous self. Trinity affirms that relationality is not fundamentally the interaction of independent beings but actually the foundational makeup of Being itself, the essential substance of truth.

To highlight this, Hart makes reference to the analogies used by the early church to comprehend the Trinity. Particularly instructive are the social analogies of the Cappadocian fathers and the psychological analogies of Augustine. Rather than one being more fitting than the other, it is important to realize that both balance each other to create an ineffably distant analogy to the Trinitarian life. The relationality of the Trinity manifests both as an interior reality within the unity God (as in the psychological analogy) and as actual difference manifest in distinct persons (as in the social analogy) – though these persons are always understood in terms of the constant interplay of giving and receiving and giving again.

Thus Hart writes:

As the Son is the true image of the Father, faithfully reflecting him in infinite distance, and as the Spirit forever “prismates” the radiance of God’s image into all the beautiful measures of that distance, one may speak of God as a God who is, in himself, always somehow analogous; the coincidence in God of mediacy and immediacy, image and difference, is the “proportion” that makes every finite interval a possible disclosure – a tabernacle – of God’s truth.

In general, the very nature of humanity can be understood as one of these tabernacles of God’s truth, a window into the infinite Trinitarian reality subsisting in perpetual unity in difference. As with the aforementioned analogies for Trinity, relationality makes up the essential character of all humanities being. There is no need to demonstrate the social nature of the human experience of difference, but Hart argues that even within ourselves there is interior difference. Humans experience themselves within themselves as an “exterior” object. Even in saying “I am…” we necessarily remove ourselves as the speaker, speaking about ourselves as we would an object that could be externally observed. Hart words it better:

…do we really possess identity apart from relation: is not even our “purest” interiority reflexive, knowing and loving itself as expression and recognition, engaged with the world of others through memoria and desire, inward discourse and outward intention (hence the genius of Augustine’s “interior” analogies)?

Or consider:

…knowledge and love of neighbor fulfill the soul’s velleity toward the world, and so grant each of us that internally constituted “self” that exists only through an engagement with a world of others; but that engagement is only possible only in that the structure of interiority is already “othered” and “othering,” in distinct moments of consciousness’ inherence in itself.

It was after reading and synthesizing this understanding of the Trinity (infinitely superior to other “community” themed explanations of the Trinity which I have lately been made to read) and its significance for anthropology that I saw an immediate and fantastic application to marriage as understood through the creation accounts. It struck me that marriage is also one such tabernacle of Trinitarian truth in which humans could “at infinite analogical remove” (to borrow from Hart) participate and understand the incomprehensible divine dynamic of difference. The dance – an Orthodox analogy – of experiencing the self as other and incorporating the other into the self without negating its otherness fits neatly into the language of the garden and the creation of woman. Eve is she who was taken from Adam (his rib) and formed into the other but who Adam immediately takes back into himself (as bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh) without ever negating her complimentary nature. The unity in marriage, the ideal unity perhaps inaccessible in this life of sin, is not a unity of purpose or will, not an exterior contract willingly accepted by two autonomous parties but the embracing of the other into the self so that, without negating the difference, there is separation of will or purpose. It is replaced by a unity of giving up self and embracing the other into self.

If this is true, then some of Hart’s most beautiful language about the Trinity applies, however equivocally, to the marital relationship as an analogy of the divine life. Marriage is that relationship “of self-oblation according to which each ‘I’…is also ‘not I’ but rather Thou.” It is a symphony of mutual joy – the joy of knowing and of loving – which consists of a perpetual self-giving to the different other who is nevertheless self. It is the “fullness of shared love,” a perpetual expression of the “dynamism of distinction and unity.”

That, I think, is a beautiful image of marriage based analogically on a beautiful image of the Trinity. After all, as Hart reminds, we can always affirm that “God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures.”

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