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.