December 22, 2009

panentheist watch

Over at Crunchy Con, we have a sighting of pop-panentheism.

Dreher is right when he discusses the appeal pantheism has in our culture, but it was not popular as de Tocqueville had suggested; rather for the "spiritually" inclined mild intellectual sort in our culture, pantheism is a tempting sort of compromise religion. We can have God, but God has the same lack of positive meaning as metaphysical materialism, it is just that it gives us some warm feelings.

What baffles me is that Dreher could post this material and then rehash lazy claims that panentheism is some sort of Orthodox doctrine, and not a distinction without difference dreamed up in the 19th century German academy. And I mean, "without difference" because for the mass of persons, there is no difference, and even the distinguished definition does not hold well for the idea that the idea can somehow be saved for Orthodox usage. Journalistic skepticism should have suggested that the popularity of "panentheism" as a term describing Orthodox view on creation (often by non-Orthodox authors doing us no favors) is due to a need among mild intellectuals in our culture to envision "Eastern" Orthodoxy as being this sort of mysterious religion–those strange, chanting, hirsute folk–who have a religion that is just like they are.

To use some broad strokes, the distinction between pantheism and panentheism (when one is actually intended, and the latter is not simply used as a supposedly acceptable epithet for the former) is one between metaphysical monism and dualism. In the first case, there is one spiritual (or, rarely, material) substance, god. For the latter, there are two substances, god's mind/soul/etc. and his "body", i.e. everything with extension.

A professor of mine once called panentheism the lazy out for Christian philosophers of science. This sort of identification of the universe as just a body God is getting used to in some ways was a way to smooth over the philosophical road of reconciliation, despite its vacuousness. To be fair, these writers are almost all Protestants and Catholics, and the only Orthodox working in that neck of the woods I can think of who uses the term–Alexei V. Nesteruk–does try to bracket away many bad implications of the term, but the necessity of that makes you suspect either A) the utility of the term at all or B) the honesty of the writer in giving these caveats. (I do not claim to have enough of a grasp on Nesteruk to make a guess as to whether he is doing B. I've only read one work of his, Light from the East, and it wasn't particularly memorable and gets lost in my mind amongst the other reading I was doing at that time. I did go back to the underlines and notes I made on his use of panentheism, however.)

That said, I think that Nesteruk's sort of "yes, but" case for the term is probably the best that can be made for Orthodox use of it, but that brings up questions of what makes the use of terminology alien to the Church, valid.

I mentioned before wanting to write a more thorough post on the topic. I have come to admit my own current short-comings, and this will have to hold in its place for now.

December 15, 2009

false prophets

But more than this, it also gives rise to numerous outlandish attacks and far sweeping slanders against parishes, priests, and jurisdictions which preach and maintain an Orthodoxy which does not fully cohere with the easy-going, Protestantized ideas of Orthodoxy that some believe needs to be accepted as normative in order for the Church to “grow roots” and “develop” in the U.S. These people take issue with the P-word; they don’t care for its polemical character and that’s understandable. What they do in response is substitute the word “American” for “Protestant,” believing—as so many Evangelical Christians do—that the two concepts are and should forever be interchangeable. “American Orthodoxy” thus allows for Protestant concepts, forms, and ideologies to be imported into the Church and remain off the table for serious questioning.

I recently found a very cheap copy of the first collected volume of Marvel's comic adaptation of Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet. When I first read the book, I was amused at how remarkably Mormon the whole thing was, even as it deeply appealed to me on some level. Later, I would discover some deeper oddities about the whole thing–how a book that had involved some research on American folk magic had been written by a man who believed in a religion that, in some ways, grew out of those practices, or how the idealized "salvation" of American-Indian relations fits in with a Mormon counter-mythology which sees the temporary alliance (and some conversions) with Indian tribes in and around the Utah War as God's true plan for America.

I have long thought that Mormonism is the natural religion of the American people. The Latter-Day Saints teach authoritatively what many religious Americans already believe: that the US Constitution was divinely inspired, that the self-dependent atomic family is the core unit of civilization, that the Law is constantly under a process of revision and revelation, the bodily nature of all reality*, bourgeoise striving as a religious virtue (as long as you tithe, or intend to do so).… I could go on. Add onto that the appeal of a secret society (for such vanities are as far as elitism goes in a democracy), and you have a very appealing mix. I can only suppose that the relative weakness of Mormonism in the US has been due more to some of the stranger teachings and a popular memory that dwells more on plural marriage than the business-like sensibility of the Quorum. Mitt Romney's Mormon characteristics are the source of both appeal and fear for the American right.

So, I suppose, in some ways, it may even be unfair to label as "Protestant" much of those characteristics we pass off as "American" and therefore necessary for evangelism. "Inculturation" as a buzzword means to accept a culture whole-cloth and make weak edits; a Christian understanding would recognize that the good in non-Christian (or, perhaps in our case, un-catechized) cultures is probably around the ratio of volume of baby to bathwater. (Assuming one of those big old washtubs.)

I am not suggesting that Protestantism has played no role in the American religious consensus; that'd be foolish. So I really do not care if that is the rhetoric. It certainly is more true to say "Protestant" in the general case than "Evangelical". I was amused, in the sort of way I can be sometimes, when a commenter on the AFR kerfluffle said that converts from liberal Protestantism would disdain Evangelicals for the same reasons they did when they were liberal Protestants, while I–as someone who has never been an Evangelical or a liberal Protestant–was left wondering what the real difference between the two is on the basis of the assumptions they take with them into the Church. There is broad agreement on a praxis of "engagement" and marketing in American Protestantism; that holds for my mother-in-law's PCUSA church or "Affirming Catholics" as much as for Southern Baptists, "Non-Denoms", the Church of the Calvinist Scenester or Evangelical Episcopalians.

America's religious heritage is both frighteningly complex and stupidly simple. It always trends towards regional means, because of the pressures of both democratic conformity and marketing. If Methodism was the great compromise religion of the American frontier (it sucked in ancestors of mine who had variously been Jews, Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and near-heathens), today's is the mega-church. It comes in flavors, sure, but but they come off to me as having the substantial difference of Urban Outfitters vs Abercrombie and Fitch. They're still in the same damn mall, after all.

A number of reviews of Red Prophet that I have read used something along the lines of "America gone right". Apparently that is an America where magic keeps us from exploiting the Indians, an accident of history keeps slavery outside of our borders and those nasty Puritans stay with England. Basically, nearly everything embarrassing and uncomfortable about American history is writ-out by fiat. I am not saying this makes the book a bad piece of fantastic fiction, but it does make the emotions it elicits curious.

There is a tendency–natural to everyone in a nation saturated with nationalist marketing–to see the "true" nation as only the good parts. This explains the pathos of so much writing on the Civil War. It needs to whitewash in one of three ways: Defending the CSA, Defending the USA or making it have the ethical content of Homer, which is not much. Shelby Foote wasn't right about the Civil War being America's Illiad and Odyssey until he made it so, I think. Similarly, when we say that the Church needs to let us be "Americans" that either comes with the "only the good parts" understood, or worse, a tendency to make the foul fair because it is "American". Even if nations were to have a true form in the eye of God, we cannot assume that there is anything about being American that excuses us from the harsher messages of the Gospel.

I am only really concerned with one major change to the Church in order to accommodate the American: I want to hear the Liturgy in beautiful, formal, poetic English. Not the everyday, but a language clearly meant for worship. That does not preclude the use of other languages as appropriate, but it is of a much bigger concern–evangelically–than any number of projects. (Secondly, good choirs, but let's do this one-at-a-time.)

*Contra Harold Bloom, I do not think that gnostic spiritualism is America's natural religion. There may be a narrow-band where that is true–the 19th century elite and their descendents–but American beliefs on the body and spirit have far more to do with material monism; we're angels in heaven because angels are bodily beings, too. Etc.

December 8, 2009


There is, of course, a person who is writing here, and that person is one. I am not a committee, even if one may appear to belong to me.

From a young age, I noted my inability to get over the awareness of having a self, and that self having some sort of beginning and (possibly) an ending. When I was seven, I recall my mother telling me that–if there were no afterlife–it hardly mattered as I would not even recall living at all. I already had thought of this, but the thought that anyone found such a thing comforting was repellant. Let there be some memory; and if not for the gods, then for men. I was first catechized a Christian, then, by temperament–I hated death, instinctively.

Never for me, then, were the old gods of my race. Like Lewis, I loved Balder before Christ, but his brethren repelled me. Better the gods of Olympus (trimmed in adolescence, like a good philosopher does, of their humanistic barbarities and turned into divine forms)–a Hellenist from the beginning–better the gods that nurtured Plato, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius.

This awareness had another curious side-effect I found when I got older. At those moments when most shed their normal personas for ones of relaxation, I would observe the others at a distance, and then the persona worn by the self who was navigating through those strange waters.

I would wonder (I do wonder) whether the persona was a creation of observation. Some strange quantum mechanics of the human being was at play, perhaps, or maybe even an uncertainty principle: I could no more be aware of myself and embrace my persona at the same time than I could measure position and momentum. My father would find such precision most arbitrary, and told me so, once.

It may be so.

Because of all this, I thrive in pseudonymity. It is not to say that the distance of pseudonym and author results in true authenticity. I am not even sure if that applies, in any case. The pseudonym is as likely to be ironic, obtuse or even facetious as its author, but it does these things as a pseudonym.

Except for a very few (and one or two others who may suspect), no one who encounters these writings has any real idea of the person behind them, other than what is stated by the pseudonym. Every reader becomes a sort of New Critic, and for him the authenticity of the personality matters far less than the words, themselves. This may be devilry, so I apologize.

If there is an authentic persona, please God, I pray thee that it be the person who seeks only to praise thy wisdom and none other. For if I am a philosopher, let it be as a true friend of wisdom, which can only be a friend of Christ ever since the Oracles went silent upon the death of the Son.

This is not to say that I am coming out as some sort of Orthodox Cartesian (at least, I hope not). It may be very true that I am post-Cartesian, but I am concerned more with the proposition that what I think about exists than the proposition that I exist because I am thinking. When I consider the self, perhaps things do get a bit confused, but I will have to allow that as being inevitable with the modern self.

I had considered, before beginning this blog (quite by accident, I should add, the whole purpose of this blog was to take to the advice of a friend that I should get a real blog to publish the thoughts I began this work with on McIntyre and Aquinas), writing under several pseudonyms at a single blog. Not, of course, to create any true image of multiplicity, but rather to abolish any sort of notions of a unitary persona. I have not abandoned the idea (the blog lies in wait for me to use it), but it is probably too ironic, even for me. (I have ever been boastful or ironic; I have never found that Aristotelean mean).

There is one final, important thing: As a pseudonym, I employ myself.

Post-Script: Before my unexpected hiatus, I had mentioned a post regarding the Orthodox use of the term "panentheism". That post was about half-completed, and has remained in limbo, because I was unsure I was giving the arguments of my opposition full-credit. That is not to say that I think the term is correct or proper, but it is to say that the rebuttal of the usage I had initially prepared was unfair. I lost momentum on thinking about that, but will likely return to it as soon as someone gets me going, again.

November 25, 2009


O Lord, how manifold are thy works: In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy beauty.
Yonder is the sea, wide and great: Therein are things innumerable– living things, both small and great.
There go the ships, and there is Leviathan, whom thou hast made to sport therein.

November 24, 2009

i shouldn't spend so much time in the car

He is the best of all who knows each thing for himself,
and he too is worthy who is persuaded by another's good counsel;
but, he who neither knows for himself, nor takes to heart
counsel from another is a useless man.


i am become advertisement…

My impulse is to write off committee-crafted "public statements" as being written mostly for their writers, but it is clear that the Manhattan Declaration could have been something a little different, at least for what it does not say.

The positive mentions of "liberty" are almost entirely in the context of "religious liberty", which here is held to be the liberty of conscience and religious affiliation. There is no mention of "democracy" in it, other than a note in the preamble about Christianity's role in forming some of the basis for modern democratic forms. (The preamble is what it is. It is ecumenical boilerplate combined with some knowing rejections of the secular black legend.) The only mention of "freedom" outside of the context of "religious freedom" is a note about a "culture of freedom", which perhaps is part of the problem (at least as we understand those words, today), but others have covered that ground well enough.

I was exposed to cable news for the first time in a while this evening, and I saw Bill O'Reilly spinning the Manhattan Declaration. Maybe this is unnecessarily reactive of me, but I feel that if Bill O'Reilly is comfortable with this thing, they probably weren't trying hard enough. I kid myself, though, the writers of this thing were trying exactly hard enough, because they want these media mouthpieces to feel comfortable spouting it off. You can see the clip here (I do have to say that the combox makes me want to sign the thing, myself–now that's unnecessarily reactive, did you feel the strings as well, dear Judy?).

Whatever hopes I might have that there is an implicit understanding in the document that we will lose this game called democracy (for it long ceased being a mode of governance) are probably unfounded. The taste of that is to heighten the drama, and while I could agree with it enough to sign it if its crafters really meant it, I have no reason to believe they do. These things come up, the committees use them to push themselves into the public eye, gather more donations, and then they are reminisced about later as a great coup; they are rarely admitted to be just another ad, for another product, another service. "Calms your conscience with a special blend of bureaucracy and truth."

Republican and Democrat are largely demographics created by advertisement. I was driving today, caught some Rush Limbaugh passing through the dial, to hear a caller deride Obama as unserious about government and only interested in fantasy. This is probably true. And when liberals said it of Bush, it was probably true then as well, but when political passion is coerced in the same fashions that result in you putting a decal of Calvin urinating on a Ford logo in the back of your truck, well… Fantasy is all we have.

There is, yes, some insinuations about civil disobedience. Will the signees visit those in prison who throw their bodies in the cogs? Oh yes, some will. Bishops JONAH and BASIL are two of our best, and I refuse to believe that they would have signed this petition with anything but the most sincere of motives. But, for many signees, this is positioning. If it shocks a bit, all the better, but not so much that we can't get it talked about on Hannity.

For our new, democratic man, political passion is little different than that which results in my rooting for one NFL team, while my friend roots for another (to our mutual amusement). This is well and good (more healthy than expecting those who have no deep interest to be citizen-experts), and it would be better if the level of participation such men had in politics was equivalent to the level of involvement I have in defensive play-calling on Sunday afternoons (we all have opinions…). But as long as politics is essentially advertisement, good men will always be fruitlessly putting their names to the ephemera of the professionals; they will cry out for sanity, and that cry will just be more grist for the mill.

May it pass, soon.

November 23, 2009

split your lungs

I found this while looking for more images of Rockwell Kent's brilliant illustrations* for Moby Dick (which are preserved in the the Modern Library edition I have been reading), and this is another way to put it:

It is a tribute to Melville's genius that he managed to make such a boring book so compelling. In the hands of a lesser author, the seemingly endless digressions and meditations on whaling and life at sea would be intolerable. But Moby Dick is like a long, utterly mad, epic poem…

*To illustrate future posts, of course.

"unmercenary" readings, reviewed

It seems that the symposium at Unmercenary Readers has ended. There were more reviews (four) than comments on reviews (three), which is not a good sign. Participation was very low. Some blame may be put on the book being an odd combination of unsuited for its role, level-headed and somewhat bland. It was not bad, nor was it particularly good. I think this also is an artifact of its (likely) construction and condensing from previously written material. I suppose I will never get confirmation on that suspicion; though, reading the full book, if I could ever get my hands on it, would go a long way towards that goal.

Much of the blame may come from it being on a totally separate blog, with no particular "big names" (in the small world we are talking about, here) participating. Maybe some blame lies on the too-cute "rules" for the site putting off some readers and writers. (I for one am thankful they were not followed to the letter.) Some blame also may be laid on the fact that none of the reviews–and I include my own–had anything terribly interesting to say about the book, perhaps because there was little to say. A selection of the dozen or so great lines in the book would probably have been the most lively offering possible, but that is not so much a review as a substitute for the work entire.

My guess is that future symposia would be better organized by one blogger or another, inviting other bloggers to take part in a discussion to take place on a particular day or week in the future. Posts would go up naturally, later posts could take into account prior ones, and there could be some more of the "organic" development that our medium is suited for. Just a thought. I certainly welcome discussion on this point, because I do think that such gatherings on topics or books are fruitful uses of the internet.

November 22, 2009

i'll smoke no more

I am disappointed in myself that I ever let the prejudices of others hold my eye from Moby Dick. It really is a stranger book than anyone dared describe to me before, and far from boring. It may have been some disdain for the 19th century as a whole, but I let myself be swayed, and saw Melville as this place I would not go.

The religious (and areligious) atmosphere of the book is strange to me, born out of a New England milieu that my own ancestors never (to my knowledge) were a part of, and a later, romantic outgrowth from it. Trying to recapture the mental world which informs Moby Dick is likely impossible, a sobering realization for those of us who sometimes think of far more distant pasts as things next door. I have heard the novel called countless times a romantic novel, or a highlight of "American romanticism", but the novel has more to do with the end of romanticism than its birth or apex. The whale manages to both at once be the wild collapse of romanticism under pagan terror reborn (with the whale as both Lord Vishnu and that destructive Babylonian deep) and a subject for scientific classification. Ishmael may be a romantic, but the world in which he inhabits is not.

The allegories and symbols shift wildly, Melville never seems to rest within his book. In that way, he accomplished by craft what many modern author attempts through cynicism and artifice. All the more praise to him, and all the more damnation to them. The asides break not narrative, but serve to make the Pequod and crew more real this reader. With every discussion of whaling as science or industry, the stage for the drama becomes real again, only to collapse again under Leviathan's weight. This is all due to Melville's gifts as an author, the beginning of the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg is touching it its realism, but he can also work well within the uncanny or the descriptive. The prose may read stilted at first to some readers, or needlessly difficult or allusive (I have used my iPhone far too many times to unwrap allusions to places and things once important, now gone), but it all fits as the novel grows.

I am in no way evaluating the book's moral content–for one, I am not finished–but rather its author's achievement. It has turned me from skeptic to friend quicker than I could have guessed.

unnatural law

I was surprised when, of all places, First Things was offering a piece headlined on the cover as "Why Natural Law Falls Short", seemingly disrupting one of their typical refrains.

Rather, the piece is about the unnatural nature of fallen desire (a them familiar to anyone who has encountered our forefather Adam as the fully natural man) , and it says that the unnatural state of human desire (or should we say passions?) propose a problem for natural law theory, but what that problem is is not clearly stated. There is a brief mention of the fact that natural law often speaks of "natural" and "unnatural" desire; maybe it is because I was never confident that such use among modern proponents of natural law was anything but rhetorical, but I do not see that such issues of desire, in themselves, pose a dire threat to natural law.

It is actually in the last two paragraphs that there is presented a philosophical case that would undermine natural law, but it does not naturally follow from the earlier depiction of desire (though the vice versa is likely true). Griffiths gives an image of the human person that has no particular essence, rather, we are "hovering over the void from which we were made" and that only by viewing and being seen by God do we have any form (knowing God and being remembered by God would be more familiar terminology). Now, if only that were the essay!

Oddly, I have found little treatment in natural law circles of the obvious, unnatural origin of law in the Biblical and patristic traditions. Law comes to the Israelites in the height of drama at Mt. Sinai, the law itself is a revelation of the strangeness of a God who does not belong to the natural order in the fashion of pagan deities. The very same Law is both fulfilled and made small in the wake of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Some would object to my use of the term "natural", but I do not think it is ever a very term, anyhow: Adam is "natural" in that he held human nature as it really should be, Christ is natural in that sense, but unnatural in that we see our God who creates ex nihilo as being beyond the natural world. This is because "natural" is burdened with having to discuss things relative to the created order ("nature", in the biological sense) and the realm of the human soul ("nature", in the anthropological). When discussing the latter, we even infer that Christ has a "natural" and "unnatural" nature, when we use those words to talk about the "natural" order! (For while creation belongs to God and is to be oriented to his glory, God does not belong to the created order.)

Natural law theorists typically speak of a law that is either A) inherently part of the natural order or B) known to "natural man" by reason. I think it fails on both accounts, but I do concede some ground. Scripture does speak of a Law communicated by Grace to all men: Within this we can understand such things as the traditions surrounding the seven laws of Noah, or the claim by St. Paul that men are defenseless if they claim not to know God by Creation. The latter example bears some discussion, because that text is one of the chief sources of claims that natural reason can know a natural law (and many other things besides, as evidence in the "rational theistic" claims of some in the Intelligent Design movement). Perhaps a fully natural (that is, without sin) reason does only see the work of God made clear through the workings of the cosmos, but that is only speculation. It is evident enough that the reason which we mass of un-chastened men do possess does not necessarily see the work of God. And as it is grace which restores us to our "natural" state, it is grace, that gift from the Creator beyond creation, that makes any sort of "natural law" possible. Which, of course, would seem to remove it of much of its philosophical (and more importantly, for most of its proponents) political weight.

It is sad that the second commenter would worry that, in questioning natural law, that Griffiths was discarding of all reason and logic, and even more, discarding the Catholic position. For if the Catholic position is undermined by Catholic anthropology (as Griffiths holds), well…

This talk of a God who is beyond Creation brings me to another topic I have been considering lately, that of the fashion of panentheism, which I have encountered twice in recent weeks being taught as "the Orthodox position" by folks on the internet. More on that later this week (I hope).

November 18, 2009

the russell symposium…

…has begun over at Unmercenary Readers, and my offering has recently been posted.

I am disallowing comments here in the spirit of the symposium having a particular locale.

November 17, 2009

not off-topic…

From Fr. Stephen Freeman:

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

As always, read the whole post

frankenstein's monster

From the conclusion to an essay from the New Atlantis:

Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein at a time when science, the modern representative of reason, was moving toward world-making and away from its traditional world-representing role. The more powerful applied reason became, the more creative became the rationalists’ work. Dr. Frankenstein marks the moment when the work of reason threatened itself with success. Mary Shelley’s novel stands as a living critique of pure reason, in which the very power of human reason undermines its claim to address a single reality, unchanged by the manipulations of individual consciousness. In its Romantic fervor, Frankenstein announces a new stage in the very old history of creation, a paradoxical stage we still stride, where growing anxieties about determinism accompany growing suspicions that human subjectivity, whether exercised by poet or scientist, is the sole determinant of reality.

The whole of the essay is really worth reading, and I find the contrast with other critiques of the place in which the novel stands for or against science to be very much in its favor. What gives Frankenstein its power is the sort of prophetic role it has in seeing the great power which science would later assume.

I was reminded a Stephen Jay Gould essay (collected in Dinosaur in a Haystack) that decried the later interpretations of Frankenstein as a novel about scientific hubris. He focused on how the "monster" transformed from Shelley's erudite, feeling creation to the lumbering patchwork ogre of Karloff. In it, there was some talk about the general move, especially in film, towards such depictions of science as ready to kill us all. (More fruitfully, he applied the contrast to that between the book Jurassic Park and its film.) Gould's critique seems a little flat to me, looking back on it, but it was really influential in how I saw the literary treatment of scientific progress as a teenager.

In the end, Gould saw a conflict between narratives where human fobiles undo scientific progress's promise and those where the progress itself was evil. It is easy to try to project either view onto Shelley's novel, and I find that the New Atlantis piece finds an interesting middle-way. Unfortunately there is no discussion of the novel's subtitle–"the Modern Prometheus"–as the figure of Prometheus is a strange juxtaposition to the Dr. Frankenstein it describes. Gould would have us see Frankenstein as a Prometheus undone by personal evil (which, for a man who was never quite separate from his parents's Marxism, often has some sort of economic underpinning), while Kessler's essay would find the figure of Prometheus as an uneasy fit to the novel's moral universe. (Perhaps the scholars see the subtitle as one of the suggestions of Mr. Shelley, but I am not that educated on the novel.)

The freshest (to me) part of the essay is the discussion of Frankenstein's creation as suffering from the same dreads as all creations; he turns the "monster" into a sort of existential everyman. This is a rewarding turn of thought, and I leave it to you.

November 11, 2009

next time, we do this alexander-style

Brian Switek of Laelaps writes a typically great post on the strange geological theory of P.H. Gosse, a 19th c. British naturalist and creationist. Gosse's theory was simple (and not without repetition, today): The earth had been created with all the appearance of time and age, but this was all just an appearance.

If the God of Gosse's theory had some of the bombastic nature of a G.K. Chesterton–Behold! the God who worketh superfluous wonder, enraptured with the joy of creating!–he may have met some more success. Even with my patience for 19th c. scientific prose (one of my favorite activities at the undergrad lab was to read old texts, rather than make any progress on my current project), this is really bad. Nothing livens it up.

I have to admit some fondness for the attempt as such; as a new Christian I once dreamed that as the Fall and time progressed, creation was shaped anew to how man needed it to be, history came into being from the front-end, plowing backwards into the millennia, a Fallen man needed a world that did not need God. (Already you can see a certain distaste for "intelligent design".) I quickly dropped such speculation as poetic fancy, but I see a mad version of part of myself in Gosse's unpoetic theory.

I am not sure, however, that it can be so easily dismissed as simply making a "trickster" of God. It would be one thing if the intent of God was to fool men–as it is in the "God put the bones in the ground as a stumbling-block to wicked men" version of this theory. Given Gosse's real concern with geology, it is evident he does not see a vindictive God warring with the atheist man of science. Rather, you could paint this as a work that God gave for human imagination and ingenuity: Genius sub-creators painting a picture of possible pasts based on the dim spyglass of the geomythos. Historical geology, perhaps more than any other scientific discipline, lends itself to story-telling: A road-cut can provide enough material for an epic.

Rather, a theological rejection of Gosse's theory relies more on attacking the assumptions of the necessity for such a theory at all. While I genuinely believe that evolution and geological history provide for challenges to certain views of the Fall, there is no particular need to protect positivist views of the first chapter of Genesis. Furthermore, our God is a God who works in history, through history and past it; the wish to make the past into a glorious illusion has more of the air of the monist than the monotheist.

November 8, 2009

the seducer's billboard

Excerpted from here:
The mainline churches which were culturally dominant until the 1950s are not even the majority among American Protestants, who themselves are only at bare majority. This may pose problems, as I agree with Winnifred Sullivan’s argument in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom that one of the ways in which the American religious injunction toward neutrality was made practicable was that religion qua religion was fundamentally shaped by a belief-centric (orthodoxy) Protestant model. Why did Roman Catholicism and Judaism not change that model? Because both of these religions in the United States were heavily “Protestantized.” The vast majority of American Jews do not adhere to the orthopraxy, a system of behaviors and actions, which defined Judaism for nearly 1,500 years. Rather, their Judaism is defined by an unadorned monotheism, a small set of rituals, holidays and taboos, and a “culture.” Similarly, American Catholics are very hard to differentiate from mainline Protestants in their beliefs & practices; the Americanist won over the long haul. In fact, they would no doubt be shocked at how Protestant American Catholics had become in their outlook.
This really isn't news, but it is interesting to see a source like this proclaim it openly. It used to be that secularists were very quick to note their debt to Protestantism–we may be Marxists, but we're Protestant Marxists!–but it isn't so usual, anymore.

However, the realization that American "tolerance" (such that it is) is founded on Protestantization is key, here, and the power Protestant modes have over other religions in America is notable. Orthodox often seem to believe in some sort of historical immunity from this; Protestantism is part of "the West" and the historical narrative that drives many conversions to Orthodoxy places much faith in some assumed immunity to Western problems. This is not just found in vulgar forms, either, but in highly intellectual ones as well; as much as I love Aristotle East and West, there is a problem with Dr. Bradshaw's confidence, displayed in the epilogue, about the roots of modern atheism being found due to the rejection of the Latin, rather than the Greek, conception of the Godhead. The fact that these movements took hold, and are taking hold, in Orthodox, as well as Latin, nations can only be partly explained by some sort of narrative of the Latinization of Orthodoxy. The confidence of some sort of inviolability worries me: Renaissance Neoplatonism-cum-Neopaganism was a Greek gift to the West, not vice-versa.

Similar confidence can be found among Catholic writers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The crypto-Protestants are outliers, they will tell you, Rome with her magisterium, tradition, etc. are a solid bulwark against such hogwash. If they could see things now, you can hear the reaction: Then again, maybe not.

The author goes on to say that America's tolerance is fictional, actually bound together by confessional similarities, a broad agreement which creates the "fiction" of "Judeo-Christian"ism. There are problems with the details of this analysis, but the big point is salient. (The author's embrace of the importance of confessional unity while simultaneously dismissing such unity as being based on "nothing real" is worth another discussion…)

Recently, I heard a priest say that we are not here to fight for the formation of an "American Orthodox Church", but a single "Orthodox Church in America". He did not mean this as some sort of endorsement of the OCA (even though he is an OCA priest), but as standing against the idea that we are to be Americans, in the sense of conforming Orthodoxy to the "American experience" on points where that experience is opposed to Orthodoxy.

Marketing culture is the uniquely seductive aspect of American culture; it is why our low culture has nearly conquered the world. It knows how to divide, conquer, and then unite all in one big embrace of the banal: buy this to show you mean that.

Naturally, Orthodox Christians have every right to be worried when marketing culture is adopted for Christian ends. The medium isn't the message, but it changes the state of mind. I find myself aware of this too often when blogging, and at times, I have slipped up.

Blogging encourages the quick, the reactive, the unfinished over the considered. While one of the strengths of blogging as a medium is the ability it has to shape and mature ideas by putting them to contest, that contesting mode can subvert any pursuit of wisdom that might be had through discussions in the blogosphere.

Similarly, the mode of marketing promotes–in both its enactors and its recievers–the perception that what is being marketed is just another product. It is the idea of religious confession as "product" that is perhaps the highlight of American ur-Protestantism. We choose from a marketplace of religions and denominations the one that best suits our "needs". As we continue to market our faith's lifestyle, or unique historical narrative or whatever, we first surrender the idea of its particularity, and then can surrender its Orthodoxy, preferring the bland confessional baby food of the American scene. (No offense meant to infants, who deserve better, as well.)

By my prior post on this topic, I did not mean to launch a personal attack on anyone, including the listener who wrote the objectionable material. Rather, I see that person as being not unlike the man I mentioned in my post, trying to posture their faith as a subculture and then using the "lingo" they were taught to express religious feeling in, whether the language is applicable or not.

American Evangelicals do not realize how parochial their uses of language are, and how silly they sound to outsiders*. That this behavior is carried into Orthodoxy, by conversion and by the influence of American modes on "cradles", is no surprise, but it does not make it neutral. That perhaps certain marketing trends within Orthodoxy support such abuses of language, such as using it simply as a marker of subcultural identity.

Simply put…

The idea that talking about these problems can be somehow illegitimate (especially by invoking some variant on the common Evangelical fallacy of "if only one person finds their personal relationship…") is ridiculous.

*Frequently, I have to turn to my wife for a translation of such talk.

October 27, 2009

orthodoxy and development

To continue a bit from my first post

Today, while everyone else was otherwise occupied, I came across a copy of Orthodoxy And Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday on my friends's bookshelves. I took a look at the table of contents, and noticed that Andrew Louth* had an essay in there entitled "Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?".

Fr. Louth correctly notes that development is implicit in the Western view of history, and therefore also in historical theology that is conditioned by Western historical practice. As he notes, much of modern Orthodox theology is done in a historical mode: Lossky, Meyendorff, Schmemman (or, for a name he does not mention, Afanasiev).

He notes early that, if Development is to be understood as making us "wiser than the Fathers", it must be rejected by Orthodox Christians. However, Newman's senses would seem to suggest just that, especially his claim that the Development of Doctrine is truly progress.

Interestingly, Louth finds that the Doctrine "strangely" anticipates Darwin's work on evolution. I do not find this strange at all. Louth correctly notes Newman's grounding in his time by mentioning his Romanticism and his similarities to Hegel. While Darwin's On the Origin of Species post-dates Newman's Essay by fifteen years, they were both coming from similar cultural sources. Evolution in no way began with Charles Darwin, and while Newman may have been more apt to follow Paley, evolutionary concepts were thick in the air for the entire 19th c. It is not strange at all that Newman would resemble Darwin (or Hegel).

Newman's Development rules out any conception of doctrine merely 'evolving' through logical accretion. Not only is the application of new technical language, as I put it, not Development by Newman's standards, but neither would be the development of new rhetoric be. Much of the power of the Fathers is in their rhetoric; it is no accident that we remember most the most literary of them.

Louth has examples of correct uses of historical relativism to understand the history of Christian doctrine; I love his note that the Cappadocians knew more of Origen than we, and Origen more of Greek philosophy (this is true simply by their greater access to texts, and greater access to a living tradition of both schools). However, he notes the folly of attempting to relativize long-standing theological disputes into mere misunderstanding (I think that this is most evident in the monophysite controversy).

Interestingly, Louth notes two cases where ideas of history would help lead to a better understanding of theology: The essence/energies distinction as found in Palamas, and the veneration of icons. I hope to touch on the former when I review Fellow Workers With God for the upcoming symposium. The latter I am too ignorant of, but I think that Louth has an interesting case in his discussion of St. Basil the Great's treatment of unwritten tradition that occurs near the end of his essay.

As he notes, Basil's examples of unwritten tradition are Liturgical: So the doxologies anticipate the formal declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example. This is a supreme example of the Liturgy as the source of theological knowledge for the teaching of the Church. That image and veneration could also be part of such unwritten tradition is no stretch; no one who has visited the Roman catacombs could doubt the early Church's relationship with visual art.

The last part of the essay is a useful reflection on the meaning of the term theology. Theology is properly the the inspired writings of sacred Scripture: St. John being the exemplar. The central task for the theologian, as it certainly was for the Fathers is "to interpret the writings of the theologoi, that is,the Scriptures, in light of the mystery of Christ".

That very mystery into which we are baptized into and feed upon.

*I regret to note that I have never read anything of length by Fr. Louth before. This is a lack that I've felt acutely the past week or so, ever since reading this review of his Discerning the Mystery. After reading this essay, I shall have to get my hands on that book as soon as I can afford a copy.

October 21, 2009

mind and heart, cont'd

A comment to the last post*:

Can you clarify your phrase "silent gnosis"? On the tail of theology being a task accomplished by grace and man's works, how can this knowledge be silent? Is silence the pinnacle of theology? I read somewhere that speechless wonder is the end of philosophy; is this the same with theology?

"Silent gnosis" was maybe redundant, but I wanted to make the meaning of the term as it is used in theology a bit more clear than if I had just said "gnosis". Translating it into philosophical English is difficult, but using words like "silent", I believe, helps define its non-linguistic character. The experience of the divine light is gnosis; the encounters with our Lord in the sacraments of the Church–most supremely in the Eucharist–could also be called gnosis.

In the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes of one (traditionally taken to be himself, a fact lost on me until I read St. John Chrysostom's homilies on the letter) taken up into paradise where he hears "unspeakable words" (as the KJV puts it). The "new names" given in Revelation are another sort of direct apprehension, God's true naming of each human person.

(The joke could go that Wittgenstein was right about one thing.)

This sort of theological silence obviously does not apply only to the divine essence, which cannot be apprehended, by the examples above. Language does not give us the experience of the uncreated light; language does not give us the experience of Communion with God in the Eucharist.

As for the second question, the question really becomes one of understanding "theology" in terms that, while lacking analytic rigor, give some scope of the craft**. Pop-theological views of the differences between "positive" and "negative" theology have led to another meta-narrative, one that is furthermore not improved by an artificial synthesis of an artificial division. No experience of God is without impact on the language we have. The direct apprehension of the guidance of the Holy Spirit found in the Church guides the Church to reject false theology and recognize the true. Neither form ever exists totally without the other; the fathers demonstrate both.

Yet, if epistemic theology is not grounded in an encounter with the living God in the Church, it is a science of idols. Is that a grim picture of human cooperation with Grace in the craft of theology? I think not. It says much about the insufficiency of language before God, but little against man: Gregory of Nyssa writes that it is not blessed to know things about God, but to have Him, that we have within ourselves (for the Kingdom of God is within us) the ability to apprehend the divine things, as God made us in his image, with the likeness of his glory. We speak about God to guard the teachings of the Church (and to help lead persons to her), and that is an enormous task for human cooperation.

There are certainly tendencies to make this gnosis into a justification for a gnosticism, but language is failing me on describing where this point may be seen. I should pray, read or sleep, rather than speculate.

A few thoughts about the final question:

Where the "end" of philosophy is has to do with the question of its source and beginning. If philosophy is truly to be the love of wisdom, and not simply a will to question everything (as for Pieper, who used the latter definition to keep space between Christian philosophy and theology), then its beginning and end are found in Wisdom itself. If true philosophy can not be other than Christian philosophy, it should not surprise us: like St. Athanasius said, since when did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God was made manifest?

*When a reply is going to be longer than a few sentences, I usually would rather write it as a new post.

**Fair play: I sometimes use the term "philosophical theology" to distinguish that part of theology which is expressed in language. It's not really a good general-use definition, but I do it, anyhow.

October 19, 2009

mind and heart

A late commenter to my first post writes:

Looks like this discussion has been over for a few days, but I can't help posting a remark. Perhaps the heart of Newman's mistake is in the language used here: "development was simply the fact that no idea was expressed in its fullest form". Doesn't this betray an Enlightenment assumption, namely, that what we're after is clearly defined ideas and the more fully expressed the better? As an Orthodox Christian I'd suggest that nothing is more pregnant with meaning than the image of God on a cross, that this is the "fullest form", and if this is too murky and inarticulate for Enlightenment Man, so much the worse for him. Or perhaps the scene described in Revelation 5 is the "fullest form" and only the purified heart can take it in, rather than the rational mind alone.

I think that this is an important sort of comment to make further remarks on.

In part, I agree wholly with the author: I was getting to a very similar point when I mentioned later that the Gospel is the "fullest form", and our glosses are not "development". I may disagree with him in part, though.

In the later part of his comment, I think that he accepts–at least in part (he modifies this with "rational mind alone", which is important)–the division of rational and mystical thought (or the division of mind and heart) that is set in our culture by the narrative of Enlightenment vs Romanticism. Rather than seeing them as halves of a cultural whole, we rather accept the definitions.

This leads to a certain anti-philosophical bias amongst Orthodox commenters on the internet (of a certain sort). Because the councils are the councils and the fathers are the fathers, we rarely hear condemnation of their usage of philosophical terminology (unless the father has the misfortune to be St. Augustine), but the use of it in modern contexts is seen as illicit. This is in part a wholesome reaction to the sorts of Christian philosophers who think that Heidegger or something is going to lead us to a deeper understanding of Christian metaphysics by some method other than arguing against him, but it is also simply Romantic anti-intellectualism–or, more accurately, anti-expertism*.

The question of the role of episteme in Christian theology is a long-standing one, one that's history walks between the temptations of gnosticism on one side and a sort of intellectual Pelagianism on the other, where fallen man can apprehend theology through his natural reason, alone.

If theology is a task accomplished by both grace and the works of man, then its highest knowledge is a silent gnosis, but this is not a gnosis that separates initiates from non-initiates, but one that is revealed through the teachings of the Church and her Liturgy. We all participate with that gnosis in the mystery of the Church, however much worms we may be.

*In any case, romanticism likes to move between opposing the common man or the enlightened man against knowledge, which says a lot about what it tacitly accepted from the Enlightenment.

October 17, 2009


I finally have a desk intact, here, but mentally I'm only prepared to share some more Jesse Stuart:

Good-By, My Land!

Good-by, my land! Good-by to hill and shadows!
Good-by to water falling over rocks!
Farewell, my streams that flow by little meadows!
Farewell, my stubble fields and fodder shocks!
If I had chosen my place of birth
I might have chosen fertile, level space
And not these acres of upheaved earth
Where mountain wind put color in my face
And climbing mountain paths that made me lean
Against the wind and lift my feet up high;
Good-by to paths and valleys deep and green,
To friendly mountain sheep etched on the sky.
Farewell to land I love as I depart
To, level fertile space that is less fair;
I'll search the album of my brain and heart
To visit here if I get homesick there.

Stuart's output as a poet was highly inconsistent, and this probably is not one of his best, but I re-read it when I was packing up and it suddenly came alive to me.

October 15, 2009

another book

Moving has taken just about everything out of me the past two weeks, and likely will continue to for another week or so. I look forward to a long visit with close friends coming up, and then I will have to find a new routine in a place with another rhythm.

My wife and I took separate routes to get here. She went visiting, and I went wandering. I needed the time alone, and we had to get two different cars here one way or another. I cut a path through the plateau, through the ridge and valley and into western Maryland. I went to Antietam, and pondered. I went to Gettysburg, and was turned away by the crass town and the preachy museum. Better still those old, black War Department signs that litter Antietam.

If Gen. Lee said that it is a good thing that war is so terrible, that we should grow too fond of it, it was because he had no idea what a wonderful marketing technique that terror can be. The Civil War is–variously–tragedy, holy war, epic or what-have-you. Rarely is it the slaughter some of my ancestors hid up in the hills to avoid fighting on either side. It was a sort of ideological madness that America is lucky to have only had go fratricidal once.

Oh, it was more than that*–but let me be cranky for a little bit longer.


I let myself get into an unfortunate discussion today–about theology, what else–that really bothered me. I love the person I was talking to, but he has that ever-so-common habit today of denying all sort of formation. You can never question a man's assumptions anymore, because he has none. His thoughts, he holds, are wholly sui generis, but if you would accuse him of that, he would only say that he would never say that.


I finally decided to read Moby Dick, recently. I was turned off by the protestations of family and friends that it was nearly unreadable, and by some distaste for how the book had been so thoughtfully interpreted for me by English professors and the like. I often page through "classics" before reading them–I already know the story, what could be spoiled?–and I am set back by the mastery of the language. Reading prose like this lets you understand that the novel is a τεχνη, even if we shrink at that, today.

Maybe I'll be brave enough to read Hawthorne, next.


I am nearly done with the schizophrenic Earthly Powers, which is worth reading enough to where I will read the sequel, even if it is less likely to have new information for me once the Great War draws to a close. It is a strange book, though, in how it criticizes liberalism while frequently accepting its assumptions. While Andrew Sullivan should have long disabused me of any notion that only in America could Edmund Burke be seen as a bastion of conservatism (pace, all ye Kirkeans), it really is there. It's the Edmund Burke notion of the right: The French Revolution was a bridge too far, the Bourbons were treated nastily, but democracy and all that are really still good in and of themselves. Burleigh is deeper than that, but it is easy to see why the books were so warmly received at First Things, now.

*Even ideological madness is not a sufficient cause, but we can overdetermine the Civil War for weeks.

October 8, 2009

upon leaving my country…

I didn’t have any choices as to where I was born,
But if I had had my choice,
I would have chosen Kentucky.
And if could have chosen wind to breathe,
I would have chosen Kentucky wind.
With the scent of cedar, pinetree needles,
Green tobacco leaves, pawpaw, persimmon and sassafras.
I would have chosen too,
Wind from the sawbriar and greenbriar blossoms.

–Jesse Stuart, from "Kentucky is my Land"

The pastures may be "greener" elsewhere, but they aren't mine. Here's to turning my way back home again, someday.

I should say that that part of Stuart's poem has always particularly got to me: I was not born to Kentucky, but Kentucky was where I became nearly everything that I am today.

October 2, 2009

natural reason and revelation

Out of my comments to the last post:

The problem of natural reason and revelation is certainly not new to Orthodoxy, and it is not a problem that is going to go away. Just this evening I had to disagree with a fellow parishioner who asserted that the Latins were the sole cause of atheism. There's a lot to be said for the assertion that atheism in its current form exists in a space granted to it by Christianity, but I do not see how those conditions are unique to the Roman and Protestant churches. In any case, Orthodoxy has provided no sure cultural inoculation against the philosophical horrors of the last 200 years, so I do not know why we'd brag about it.

"Because the Church said so" was never a great line to begin with, because the teaching authority of the Church in Orthodoxy is not understood in the terms of a Magisterium. That is to say: We believe the Creed because the Church confesses it, but there was the use of natural reason in formulating it. What the Church protects us from is the self-defeating, insular use of the reason against its own products, which tell us nothing.

The amount of room to discuss and debate within the Church is sometimes frightfully large, especially to those who maybe saw Orthodoxy as a refuge from the total voluntarism of our modern condition (unfortunately, when voluntarism is the default option, it is hard to "escape" it). We're like children who have been allowed infinite license: We desperately want the adults in charge again.

I should add that I am not in any way denying the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the councils which gave us the Creed. However, I do not think that the precise wording of the Creed was inevitable; reason and the products of philosophy shaped it, and not just in the use of homoousios (though that is probably the most important example, at least because of its prior history in theology at that time).

To say that the precise Creed was inevitable would be akin to the idolatry that says there is only one true language, or true text, for Scripture. Scripture is understood in the context of the Church, especially in its use for the Liturgy. The concern for a "truly literal translation" or the constant pursuit of "the best" Greek text (even at the expense of all reason) is a sort of madness.

One of the few good fruits of current philosophy is the increasing number of persons who realize that no text exists independently of interpretation; we have, however, a whole basis for ours.

September 30, 2009

american political religion

One necessary lack (because he is talking about Europe) in Burleigh's Earthly Powers is much discussion (amounting to a few paragraphs) of American political religion, and its consequences. Generally, Burleigh seems to adopt the Burkean view of the American Revolution–that it was about the restoration of traditional rights and liberties–and leaves it at that. There is some discussion about American exceptionalism later on, and a bit about slavery, but that gives a rather poor outline of the role of political religion in the US, not that it needed to do more.

However, I'd like to provide an outline for talking about the history of political religion in the US. I find that the term "civic religion" is fairly useless in American discourse. We use it both to embrace typical usage of rhetoric and themes from the dominant religion of the country, and actual exhortations of a special role, ethics or place in the cosmic order for the US. What follows is not particularly deeply considered, I would like to call it a collection of notes on the idea of American political religion.

In recent times, left-wing writers have used the term "civic religion" as a contrast to Republican messianism; right-wing writers are only now using this same contrast to the messianism of the Obama administration. Our current and prior administrations have both been well within the parameters of American political religion as it has developed over the years–apostasies among their followers notwithstanding.

If modern Evangelicals and their atheist opponents are equally confused as to the religious backing of the American experiment, they can be forgiven for both using the blunt instruments of trying to match current religious expectations to the past. It is hard for us to imagine today how Enlightenment expectations conditioned the attitudes towards religion across the elite classes of Europe and North America. (In France–for an example–there was little resistance amongst the elites and bourgeoisie to the dissolution of the monasteries by both the kings and their revolutionary successors. The vita contemplativa had no place in the Enlightenment sensibility.) This is why it is hard for us to distinguish between the uses of religious rhetoric between a relatively orthodox Anglican figure like Washington, a radical like Jefferson or a still-half-Puritan Unitarian like Adams. Much like many Christians today, traditional Christians of the educated classes in the late 18th c. conformed their traditional theologies with Enlightenment ideological positions.

This means that it is hard to separate the more traditional invocations of a Washington from the more secular, political religion, inherent in a Jefferson. The tenants of this American political tradition have changed in emphasis over the years, but we can list a few dogmas (sharper folks out there can probably list many more):

1. America is good, a "city on the hill" with a unique mission to broadcast its goodness to the world.
2. It is America's destiny to expand
3. Democracy is the natural form of government because people naturally will the good and the best.

And so on. All of these have gone through significant changes, but the second and the third have been the most notable. The second initially focused on the American destiny to dominate the continent: Jefferson in particular saw a grand march of history ending in US domination of North America, its native inhabitants either to conform ("mix" their "blood with ours" to dominate the continent together as he once put it) or die away. Today it is primarily expressed, not in territorial annexation, but ideological annexation. Bush and Obama both proposed it; they differed on the means.

Americans, I believe, tend to ignore the role of actual political religion versus our imagined "civic religion" (outside of narrow applications for partisan warfare), because of the general lack of a conservative party and of a radical one. We are, generally speaking, all Enlightenment liberals, and our political debates happen within that tradition, where the role of political religion is strong, but largely without self-consciousness (in this country: view France or risorgimento Italy for examples of self-conscious liberal political religion). Furthermore, Southerners typically blame American political religion on New England, and New Englanders on the South. Today we are treated to the spectacle of Southern apologist-libertarians ridiculing Yankee paternalism and moral uprightness, and New England liberals commenting about Southern expansionism and religious justifications of various freedoms from Federal interference. Neither understand the common territory.

It is also because we believe that our political religion has not claimed victims. I think I have a reasonable counter-examples in the form of Indian Removal (which is probably the first major conflict between the wings of American political religion, as well), the religiously-infused bloody-mindedness of the Civil War (on both sides), Theodore Roosevelt's ideological presidency (which has a strange cathedral in the form of the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History), the rhetoric surrounding US entry into WWI, and so on.

However, I would also contend that the political religion of the US–on both wings–has reached a state of decadence. It can no longer clearly articulate itself ideologically, and has lost much of its previous power to motivate the masses. This is why those handful of demonstrators who seem to worship the idea of national healthcare seem like such oddballs (and are primarily populated by remnants of the older upper classes, like Episcopalians), rather than an expected part of the political scene. The Tea Partiers seem to largely represent followers of the Jeffersonian wing of American political religion. (Enjoy the irony: The followers whose beliefs most resemble Christianity now follow the wing of American political religion that initially had the least to do with Christianity.)

Any additional thoughts? I'm out on a limb, here.

September 28, 2009

that curious race

I read this book about a month ago, and was somewhat underwhelmed–insofar as its having success in regards to its main subject matter–but it was still worth reading. This line, however, from the opening, made me laugh and will stand here as an excuse for whatever strange things I do or write.

"…since I am a philosopher by trade, I belong to that race of people who are a bit obtuse, and for whom one must really 'just spell out' even the clearest things–Being, the Good, the City, Man, and some other supposedly self-evident notions."

–Rémi Brauge, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization

September 25, 2009

two rival accounts of dueling traditions

One thing really interesting about the MacIntyrean account of the history of ethics is how he uses a lot of modern, Kuhnian terminology on an Hegelian framework. This may lead some to suspect that Kuhn's account in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is also Hegelian or semi-Hegelian. It is not.

The Kuhnian model is, in outline, very simple:

1. First, we have a "normal science". The classic example is Newtonian physics.
2. Next, we have anomalies which are difficult to account for within the boundaries of the normal science. These often lead to complicated resolutions, like epicycles in the Ptolemaic cosmology.
3. Eventually, we have one or more competing models which seek to usurp the current paradigm and better account for its anomalies. These models are incommensurable with the former model, and each other.
4. Finally, a "paradigm shift" occurs, which eventually is resolved into a new period of normal science.

Note the clear lack of antithesis and synthesis. The former model is replaced. Darwinian evolution took no prisoners with the Lamarckian*. The only reason Newtonian mechanics are still around is because they're a lot easier to learn and work well enough for nearly all human endeavors. Classical uniformitarianism was left behind after the (rather quick, and some say inspired by Kuhn) paradigm shift to plate tectonics.

Compare this also to Newman. Thesis and antithesis are not there, but his picture of the church often feels like the late-Hegelian state channeling the world-spirit. That certain Catholics, in light of Vatican I, have reread Newman in the voice of Hegel–"The Pope is the Holy Spirit on horseback!"–isn't shocking.

Now, Kuhn's work was a philosophy of the history of science. (It was not a philosophy of science, as it was unconcerned with a number of the classic epistemic problems in that branch. Professors who teach it as being a competitor to other philosophies of science, or worse yet, as being "postmodern", be warned.) That means that it is not going to fit well for other forms of human endeavors, like ethics. Even in science, it is not an excellent description for history as we have it, but very useful for coming to understand it, and to critique our conditioned notions of it.

Using the terminology was smart, and in many ways, MacIntyre's accounts of ethical traditions really resemble Kuhnian normal sciences. It also serves to couch the Hegelianism in trendier terminology.

I complained of the Hegelian portion of his model in trying to understand Aquinas: Aristotelian thesis, Augustinian antithesis, Thomist synthesis. In a quasi-Kuhnian interpretation of Aquinas, you could have Augustinian normal philosophy interrupted by an Averroist exploitation of its weakness, which is then followed by a Thomist model which usurps them all and becomes a new normal philosophy. (Obviously, that did not happen, but this is philosophy of history, and we shan't let facts disturb us long.)

This is also a poor description of what was happening.

Rather, the Church has seemed to have had a long and successful trial of straining babies from bathwater when it comes to its encounters with philosophy. We see it in late antiquity with (primarily) Neoplatonism and Stoicism. The debts to the former fall primarily in metaphysics and terminology. The debts to the latter in areas of "practical wisdom" like morals and the law.

But this was not synthesis. It was a willingness to take what was good from the world around it, without undue fear of it (we cannot grant it power). It did not only happen then, both the Greek and then the Latin worlds absorbed fruitfully Neoplatonic revivals on their soil in the late Middle Ages, though in markedly different ways.

This does not solve the essential MacIntyrean problem of incommensurability between rival traditions. I think this is a real problem today, but it does not map to history very well. While issues such as Sophism opposed to Socratic/Platonic philosophy were ones of deep conflict, there is also evidence there of a shared pre-philosophic foundation that made discussion possible. MacIntyre's account of this conflict, which focuses on an idea that they were divided by favoring, respectively, goods of effectiveness or the goods of excellence (I cannot remember if he uses that precise shorthand) says more about MacIntyre's model than Athenians. (Interestingly, another comment about the concept of rhetoric vs the concept of dialectic is introduced only as an aside.)

The question of incommensurability, however, may just be a question of pride, and confusion regarding the role of philosophy. We've held philosophy to strange standards, which have likely been further reinforced by what MacIntyre (rightly) decries as its professionalization. The good thing about incommensurability is that, properly considered, it can lead us back to some epistemic humility.

*This is why it is somewhat amusing when we talk about "neo-Lamarckian" evolution, such as with ideas that dormant genes may be "activated" in offspring due to environmental pressures on the parent(s). This is only remotely related to Lamarck, and the fact that we can call it that shows that the steam has gone out of the prior debate.

September 24, 2009

the rights of history

Here are some good comments made in reaction to my contention that the Development of Doctrine is crypto-Hegelian:

Of course, we can argue until the cows come home about how viable the “traditional” perspective is from the point of view of the “historical evidence”. Perhaps the early Church did not have indulgences, or didn’t have the name “Purgatory” kicking around, or paid little attention to what the Bishop of Rome said. But to think that you can destroy all such historical doubts with a theoretical sleight of hand is ambitious but equally unviable. All you have done is hit the target by moving it somewhere else, and such an exercise is based more on will than on intellect. Then again, that is what the romanticist metanarrative really is in the end: it is an attempt to impose a gargantuan ideological structure on the sloppy and unruly data of history. At least Marx was honest enough about this when he wrote in his famous thesis on Feurbach: “Philosophers have only tried to interpret the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” For advocates of this type of theology, there is no historical problem that a good meta-theory can’t fix.

First off, I love the subject of this post: "Romanticist Metanarrative" is certainly a good description of both Hegel's and Newman's projects. (And, perhaps, what we have of MacIntyre's, as well.)

I have been reading Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers recently, and his coverage of the period immediately following the Napoleonic Wars has had me thinking about the relations between the new monarchism of the post-war era, the conservatism of Hegel, the faux-medievalism of much of the arts of that time and later… all were about a desire to recapture a sense of historical place, which is not uncommon a reaction to a sort of ahistorical rationalism run amok.

I am not totally without sympathy here, either. These sorts of gropings towards an organic connection with a past can create real fruit and actual art. We all stand in some degree of relation to the past, and as human beings, that relation will be in some sense an artifice, a craft, perhaps even a τεχνη.

But, Americans are part of a Protestant culture, and that culture can infuse a desire to sterilize or compartmentalize the past in the way also found in the Reformation. Even those of us who have never been Protestants can find the temptation to fall into that dominant mode. Now all histories sterilize to a degree: Otherwise there would be no narrative. But the past itself is not sterile.

I am skeptical of claims that rationalistic talk about theological differences will solve the problems between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Thank goodness that Abp. Hilarion and the MP seem to avoiding that route: There is the possibility of that necessary groundwork, a common history, in the proposed cooperation on social issues. This is far more important than yet another talk about the filioque or Roman primacy at an Amalfi villa, yet very small to the sorts of persons who salivate over such proceedings.

Among Orthodox and Catholics in this country, we have similar desires to sterilize history. They are more severe for the Orthodox because we are a much smaller community, so a few bloggers and intellectuals seem like a far greater presence in Orthodoxy to outside (and even many inside) observers, while Catholicism can be defended from stereotype by waves of obvious diversity.

Orthodoxy is the faith of the fathers; but, it is also the faith of those Greek grandmothers who seem to use icons for sympathetic magic; it is also the faith of those working-class converts that cannot seem to avoid Evangelical fad books (but have seven-plus kids and stand devoutly in every service); it is also the faith of those Russian migrants with their frustrating, to me, combination of piety and lackadaisical attitude that my wife & I worshipped with in Italy. And we don't cast those folks outside the Church. The Church, rightly seen, is big enough, important enough, is the Body of Christ enough to take in all of these things and allow all sorts of persons to work towards their salvation. And all of these things are our history.

And what stands between Orthodoxy and Catholicism is not so much debates about the papacy or doctrine as it is history. History that many wish could be pushed under the rug, "just for a moment", so we can get to the important things.

Orthodox and Catholics need to learn to live with each other, to be with each other, to sing and have festivals and bring in the harvest with each other. No true union would come without that.

The problem with philosophies of history is that they are near-uniquely suited to serve as intellectual idols. Because of our relation to history, systems that define its course, through our lives and others, are going to drive us insane if we take them as the One Answer. This is why, for Kierkegaard, the best method to use against the Hegelians was theatre and ridicule.

We cannot do without them, though. Human beings are always in relation with the past, and working out that relation is a craft. And all crafts find their roots in knowledge and wisdom. The trick is to hold our philosophy humbly.

the second translated address

This is a translation of the address that Abp. Hilarion gave to the press and the community of the Russian Orthodox Church of S. Caterina, which is (as far as I can tell) on the outskirts of Rome. This one is a bit more interesting, though it does have some repeated material.

Sirs and Madams, Brothers and Sisters:

This morning I met with Pope Benedict XVI.  Many times in passing I have had the occasion to meet him, but this was the first time that I  met with him in my new position as Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarch of Moscow. In fact, it was only a few months ago that I succeeded Patriarch Kirill in this post, which he had occupied for twenty years before his election to the Patriarchate.

The visit of our delegation from the Patriarch of Moscow to the Catholic Church began on Wednesday the 16th.  In these past few days we have met with Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Chrisitan Unity, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, and with other authoritative representatives of the Catholic Church.  Today, finally, I had the opportunity to meet the Pope.

The scope of this visit is to continue, strengthen, and develop the dialogue with the Catholic Church which was undertaken by my predecessor, who is now Patriarch Kirill.

The Orthodox Church of Russia bears great esteem for His Holiness Benedict XVI.  We fully support the Pope in his commitment to the defense of Christian values.  We support him even when his courageous declarations elicit negative reactions from politicians and public figures, and when they are opposed–and sometimes misinterpreted–by the media.

We believe that the head of the largest Christian church does not need to care for being "politically correct"; he does not need to conform himself to the present, dominant mentality, or seek to be liked.  We believe that he has a duty to bear witness to the truth, and we are with him even when his words meet with opposition.

Today I told the Pope that we must develop our collaboration in all fields, collect and bring to fruition the enormously vast possibilities for cooperation which are open to us at the present time.  It is evident to us that today, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church can no longer be competitors, as we have been in the past, but on the contrary, we must be allies, open to cooperation.  Before us stretches a vast field, in which the Lord has called us to work: Today's de-Christianized world.  Moral relativism, practical materialism, militant secularism, hedonism, unbridled consumerism, and secularism are all coming to a climax; all these characteristics of thought, and even more of contemporary ethos, are challenges which society is sending against all Christians.

To these challenges all Christians, and particularly we Orthodox and Catholics, can and must respond together. Together we can bring to the world the spiritual and moral values of the Christian faith.  Together, we can offer our Christian vision of the family, of procreation, of human love formed on more than pleasure; we can affirm our commitment to social justice, of a fairer distribution of resources, of a commitment to safeguarding our environment, for the defense of human life and human dignity. 

We are convinced that many of the ills and problems of the contemporary world are nothing other than the direct result of the abandonment of Christian values.  The current demographic crisis of of all the First World countries can be linked to this: The loss of Christian family values, of fatherhood and motherhood as gifts of God.

Today, the Church finds herself caught in a dialogue with the secular world which has become more anthropological than theological.  We believe that the outcome of this controversy will determine the future of the human race, and perhaps even the continuation of life on Earth.

The Church is not a spiritual supermarket; we are not occupied simply, as some claim, with "satisfying the spiritual needs of the people."  Helping man to find meaning in his own existence, the Church inevitably makes a man's life both more fully human, and more fully divine.

This is the common task of Orthodox and Catholics today.  In all these questions, our Church has nearly the same positions.  We strongly hope that soon, the Catholic-Orthodox relationship will develop to the point where the problems that still exist between the two traditions will be overcome.

Personally, I hope that sooner or later we will realize the long-awaited meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow.  Presently, I cannot predict the date or place of this meeting; but, I can say that on both sides there is commitment to it, and a desire to prepare carefully for the meeting, for it marks a leap forward in our relations.

There is a lot to digest, here. Perhaps more cooperation than seemed evident to skeptics, but obviously no overnight union is in the works here (pace, y'all). I imagine just agreeing on a spot for Pope and Patriarch to meet will take some time longer.

address of abp. hilarion to the community of s. egidio

The day before yesterday, the Department of External Church Relations for the MP posted two speeches given by Abp. Hilarion while in Rome. Unfortunately, they are in Italian. Fortunately, my wife is conversant in the language. (She does the living tongues, and I the dead. It is a fruitful division of labor.) Here is a (fairly literal) translation of the first address, given to The Community of Sant'Egidio (Saint Giles). If you have any severe issues with the following, blame me: I was editing.

My dear friends, brothers and sisters in the community of S. Egidio!

It is with great joy that I have come this evening to be with you.  I am happy to find myself again among you all, and in particular to see my friends, professor Andrea Riccardi and Bishop Mons. Vincenzo Paglia.

Thank you for the invitation to attend at your prayers.

I happily salute the bishops present, and all of you, who have come tonight to this church, and through you I greet the community of S. Egidio across all the world.

Before anything else, I would like to bring you the greetings and blessings of His Holiness the the Patriarch of Moscow.  Both in his name and in my own, and on behalf of these others present here, I wish to tell you of the esteem and love which we have for your community.

First of all, we have great esteem for your commitment to tradition, for your aid to the poor and needy, for your actions in this and in other cities to feed the homeless, for your aid to the disabled, the sick, the orphans, and the elderly, of the attention which the community of S. Egidio has for those who are at the margin of society: prisoners, refugees, immigrants.  With your commitment to this social work, your Christian diakonia towards the disadvantaged, you put the Gospel into practice.  In the face of a suffering man, you see the image of your Savior, for as you serve the poor, you serve him; as he said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."  (Matt 25:40).

And so, we have a great consideration for your contribution towards the dialogue between Christians, and also with the faithful of many other religions. But in particular, we are very satisfied and happy with the relationship of mutual understanding and esteem that has been established for years between your community and the Russian Orthodox Church.

We live in a de-Christianized world, in an era which some would call "post-Christian."  Contemporary society, with its consumerism, hedonism, practical materialism, and moral relativism, poses towards we Christians a serious and difficult challenge.  The future of humanity, and perhaps also the future of all life on the Earth, depend on our Christian response.  It is a challenge to all of us, and so we must also respond together.

Only together can we bring to the world the spiritual values and morals of the Christian faith.  Together, we can offer our Christian vision of the family, of procreation, of human love formed on more than pleasure; we can affirm our commitment to social justice, of a fairer distribution of resources, of a commitment to safeguarding our environment, for the defense of human life and human dignity.  These moral values are traditional, affirmed by Christians for twenty centuries, and have formed our European civilization and culture.  But at the same time, they are new and modern, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is eternally new and modern, eternally young.

Before this communal challenge which the contemporary world has launched, today more than ever, we Christians must work [“be”] together.  It is the hour to pass beyond conflict and competition, to solidarity, mutual respect, mutual esteem.  Or in other words, I will say without hesitation that we must pass to reciprocal love.   When he gave us his new commandment to love one another, Christ said: "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."  (Jn 13:35).  Here is the way that our Christian preaching can be effective and convincing to the modern world: They must see, in life, the love that we share as Christians.

With these sentiments, I thank you again for having invited me and I repeat to you my happiness at being here with you.  And to express, concretely, our brotherly love for the Community of S. Egidio, I would like to give you this Russian icon of the Madonna.

And with this I pray to the Mother of God to bless you, protect you, and sustain you  always as you seek to love the Savior, serving him in all others, particularly the disadvantaged.

I would also like to give this pectoral cross to Bishop Paglia, our dear friend, and with it, wish him every blessing of the Lord.

Hopefully we'll have the other done later today, which was given after his meeting with the Pope.

September 23, 2009

like a thief in the night

Certain Catholic friends of mine have been passing around this link today. Downshot: Because the pope re-communicates a certain Holocaust denier, the New World Order is going to force the "Three Romes" to reunite suddenly, and soon.

I don't blame you if you're lost; I'm totally confused.

The Zenit article Moynihan cites in full also got posted by the usual suspect, and the discussion there has a reasonable point of departure: The issue of Pope Benedict XVI's "Newmanism", or not. I'll come back to that. (Preview: I think not.)

While driving up to visit family, today, I was talking to my wife about what I had heard and thought about the recent meeting between Archbishop Hilarion and the Pope. I thought that expressive hopes that the silence was particularly meaningful were misplaced, but I generally feel more comfortable with Abp. Hilarion and the Patriarch of Moscow engaging in these sorts of ecumenical discussions than the Ecumenical Patriarchate, mostly because the power differential is not as great. Since the 14th century, Constantinople has had an unfortunate habit of being necessarily in a disadvantaged position vis-a-vis Rome. (I found it interesting that some claimed to catch in the video release about it that the Pope requested to speak in German and Abp. Hilarion requested English, instead. This is likely not only about Abp. Hilarion's greater comfort in English–if he is more comfortable, I do not know–but also about the power differential inherent in the Pope being able to converse in his native tongue while the Archbishop would still be speaking in a second language.)

There are real issues on which Rome and Moscow can speak effectively together. Not only against the continuing "secularization" of the West, but also regarding ethics and faith to the whole world. Seeing a political trend that may very well lie in ashes in a century as being able to "force" reconciliation is a strange philosophy of history. The Church moves with the Spirit.

Now, at heart, I'm an ecumenical sort of person. I am an American, and I live in the West. Furthermore, I imagine that reconciliation of these old and difficult divisions would be a miraculous signal–an icon of the reconciliation the Church brings between human beings every day in her Liturgies, and obviously so, because communication involves that very same reconciliation.

That said, I'm a pessimist, and I'd be less surprised that the government of America suddenly became interested in governance than I would be about a few back door talks causing real and effective reunion within a matter of weeks, from nearly nothing (and, believe me, decades of ecumenical statements have left us with nearly nothing).

This is not to say that, for Orthodox, there are not real and hopeful things about the papacy of Benedict XVI for our relations with Catholics. (And I do not simply mean the fact that he isn't Polish.) What I am talking about is his genuine interest in and familiarity with Orthodox theological tradition. What other pope would have given sermons on St. Maximus or St. Symeon that are recognizable to the Orthodox? There is, in his theological sensibilities and ecclesiological leanings (versus the prior pope in particular), a certain friendliness and availability of common ground from which good things can come. I am uncertain how much we can hope from them, though.

The book of his I always recommend to friends is Truth And Tolerance. (The book I recommend to everyone else is Jesus of Nazareth, which I really liked.) I cannot really do his arguments justice in short form, but in it, the then Cardinal Ratzinger gives us three modes of moving out of the mythological world-view: Mysticism, Enlightenment and Monotheistic Revolution.

This is the Pope's essential philosophy of religion, and if there is an author I would compare it to, it has more in common with René Girard than John Henry Cardinal Newman (I should note that much of Truth and Tolerance represents a period before Girard ever published Violence and the Sacred, and there is no clear borrowing of either author's themes by the other. Rather, there is a similar tone). The only relation would be in the overall move towards a "provisional" understanding of pre-Christian religion as preparatory to Christ, which bears some similarity to the development of doctrine, I suppose, but that's a horrible stretch.

Rather, like Girard, Ratzinger sees a pre-rational, pre-revelation humanity with a "mythical" worldview primarily based on sacrifice and primitive magic (though I do not know if Ratzinger used those terms). There is not the essential violence found in Girard, but there is a definite tone to this mythological world that makes it clear that mankind must move beyond it. The mode of mysticism is rather like that found in late-paganism or Hinduism (as opposed to the mysticism of Christianity, though it sometimes slips into the heresy of obliteration at the hands of το Ον). The mode of Enlightenment is that of rationality, like that of the Greek philosophers or the later Enlightenment. The Monotheistic Revolution is peculiarly Jewish, and then Islamic. Despite roots in Monotheistic Revolution, however, the typology of Christianity given by Ratzinger is not wholly contained by that category. Where it touches Mysticism as described in the book is not entirely clear. I may be misremembering the book at some level, here: I have not read it a few years and I'm without my copy. But the contact with Enlightenment is different: Hellenic philosophy granted unto Christianity not only useful theological terminology, but also the anchor of natural reason. And this is not simply an instance of a rationalistic West versus a mystical East: Ratzinger seems to understand that reason in a way that would not be alien to the Cappadocians, for example, though he may claim more power for it.

This model, however, with its high claims for the deposit of revelation in religion is not temperate ground for the Development of Doctrine (which is a philosophy of religion, rather than an ecclesiology). And as it is the Development of Doctrine that Orthodox should most be worried about when understanding a person as a follower of Newman, this should encourage.

Where we might see an influence would be in epistemology, but I have no clear idea if the Pope has one (and if he does not, it may not be a bad thing). Newman's epistemology is not simply the caricature found in the blogosphere–the Pope resolves all epistemic angst–so it is not entirely unfriendly. The Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is well worth serious attention.

However, all this to understand the Pope vis-a-vis the Orthodox gets us only a little further. So, he respects us. So, his philosophy of religion is perhaps very compelling. So, he is not a supremacist in the manner of prior incumbents. But does that make miracles likely? Obviously not.

But it is good to hope and to try to understand the man with whom we talk.