February 21, 2010

he accepted to be described

"On the basis of the musical heritage of Byzantium the defender of the legitimacy of icons in Christian worship, Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople (ca. 758-829)–commenting on the Trisagion, the "Holy, Holy, Holy" sung by the angels appearing to Isaiah in his inaugural vision (Isa. 6:3)–spoke of the "theological knowledge" conveyed by the images. They were, he said, "expressive of the silence of God, exhibiting in themselves the ineffability of a mystery that transcends being. Without ceasing and without silence, they praise the goodness of God, in that venerable and thrice-illumined melody of theology."

–Jaroslav Pelikan, The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary

February 19, 2010

not all

Lent brings this to mind:

"It is said, Not all are apostles, nor all prophets, but this is not now heeded in many of the churches. For many, still in need of being purified from the way they have lived, unwashed and full of spots in their life's garment and protecting themselves only with their irrational sense, make an assault on the divine mountain. So it happens that they are stoned by their own reasonings, for heretical opinions are in effect stone which crush the inventor of evil doctrines."

–St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (trans. Malherbe & Ferguson)

February 18, 2010

uncoercive propagandizing?

I like books that I can read in a reasonably short trip to the bookstore or library, and yesterday I found myself reading B.R. Myers's The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. If you have much interest in North Korea, the book will be compelling, and if you have interest in propaganda and marketing, it will be doubly so. Myers's interpretation is sometimes explicitly Freudian, but I do not think that undermines the overall usefulness of the book; he obviously has more interest in what North Koreans actually think than many Korea-watchers (an expertise which seems primarily interested in justifying various political ideologies), He builds a case that the DPRK is not a communist or Confucian dictatorship, focusing instead on the racial ideology inherited from propaganda efforts during Japanese rule. I am no expert (or even well-informed amateur) on the question, but I find his arguments to be fairly compelling, especially on the matter of whether or not Juche represents an actual ideology or the semblance of one.

A repeated refrain throughout the book is that the regime actually enjoys a level of support among normal North Korean citizens; Meyers backs this up with evidence and anecdote. What I found odd, though, was a single caption, which noted that the regime enjoys a level of "uncoerced support" denied by most Western observers.


For a book that spills so much ink on the ability of carefully selected propaganda and imagery to massage and mold human minds and feelings, it seems very odd to make the casual assertion that support garnered in such a matter is "uncoerced". This works with a definition of coercion which requires the threat of physical harm; however, when a government, or system, enjoys uninhibited, unpreventable access to the human subject, the views conditioned through such are coerced. I would even go so far as to say that certain marketing/propaganda modes are always coercive in a way that is immoral (especially when applied on children), but "free speech" ideology has seemed to have prevented many Americans from thinking reasonably about what sort of things are political speech and what sort of things are deliberate programming. Imagery has an effect on the human passions that the newsprint of the Founders's day could never have; the emerging research on the poisonous effects of pornography on human minds, and the actual addictive effect it has, could not be more relevant, here.

"the main thing to avoid in fasting…"

"…is eating one another."

[Found here.]

February 1, 2010

analogy, monarchy, etc.

This recent post on Logismoi provides a useful jumping off point to what I have to say on the article of Geréby's recently discussed at the Ochlophobist. I say this because Aaron's earlier post over the Nativity season on the Church's use of the Augustan Peace as both image and preparation for the saving mission of Christ was something at the front of my mind when reading Geréby's article. The comments are quite good, as well.

When Aaron upholds the legitimacy of Christian interaction with secular culture, this also upholds the legitimacy of Christian interaction with political culture, despite the argument put forth by Peterson (or Geréby via Peterson) of the inability of theology to properly influence political thought. While Orthodox Christians should certainly not argue from the nature of the Godhead to the form of politics, I am unsure if this is what is happening in the cases Geréby describes (despite the words against analogia entis in the final pages). I am, however, especially interested in the claims regarding the legitimacy of monarchy, or the capability of theology to legitimize it. (To lay out my suspicions before justifying them in my lateral fashion: I do not think that theology can universally justify monarchy, but not for the reasons that seem to be presumed by the article, or at least by an interpretation of it.)

Any approach to what Christianity does or does not have to say about the legitimacy of monarchy must begin with the Old Testament, and thus with seeing Christ in the light of kingship, especially David's.

Much has been made by liberal Christians of the words against kingship given to Israel through Samuel, and the comparison of the Davidic monarchy with the form of government given to Israel under the Judges. If I can be excused coining a word, the depiction of Judges by these theorists is a sort of aristo-anarchism, where God reigns directly as the only true sovereign, and the only legitimate authority are certain aristoi chosen by God for a particular task, who then fade away when said task is done. Joshua becomes a hero of liberty for these persons, and the state of Judges is seen as one that represents God's true intentions for mankind. As tempting as this view may be in light of the Old Testament narrative, it does not follow from how the New Testament sees Christ in the light of kingship, especially in the Psalms. While it is correct to point out that kingship is allowed as a concession to the wishes of the Israelites, not on the basis of its rightness as being a type of God's interior monarchy, it would be dangerous to ignore the role that kingship plays in the Bible–and the Liturgy.

Geréby's article makes much of assertions of Peterson's that Patristic notions of monarchy in the Godhead would have had political implications for contemporary readers. He provides very little evidence that this is so, and even his supposed definite example, from St. Gregory of Nyssa seems to be, once again, simply theological. I am not enough of a scholar of ancient texts to know for sure, but I do not know of any texts that attempt to use divine monarchy as a justification for earthly, or the lack thereof as an argument against it. Even the more overtly political of the late Platonists, such as Iamblichus and Julian argue for the fitness of theurgic Platonism for Empire and vice-versa on grounds that are primarily moral and hierarchical, not based on analogy to a sort of alien sovereignty possessed by a monarchic Godhead.

Even the case in favor of monarchy in the Godhead and in the political sphere from Aquinas stems more from the fitness of monarchy for humanity than from the presence of monarchy in the Godhead. In the passage in question, Aquinas reasons that the governing principle of the Trinity is monarchy because that is the best governing principle of human society for ordering said society to the Good, not vice versa.

In fact. Geréby's words against the analogia entis may be a red herring as far as understanding Peterson goes, because he presents Peterson's argument against the ability of theology to support monarchism as being due to the fact that a proper Trinitarian theology provides no analogy to earthly monarchy. This line of reasoning assumes, rather than undermines, the value of the analogia entis.

In fact, it assumes it to such a degree that Geréby claims that, for Peterson, "any correspondence [between the political and the theological] was precluded in principle". This seems to me to be claiming a rather impoverished view of the ways in which theology can comment upon politics, even considering Peterson's conception of the Church itself as a political community.

For the Orthodox Christian, considering the role in our Nativity hymnography, Geréby's claim that Christian claims that the Augustan peace paved the way or in some way imaged the saving work of Christ and the founding of the Catholic Church, involved "Romanizing" Christ in some illegitimate fashion must be contested. In fact, Gereby's argues against a relatively extreme case, where the reign of Augustus is portrayed as an utopia, one that actually "fulfills the promise of the heavenly Jerusalem". Even the extremes of Eusebius do not seem to make this strong of case, much less the hymnography of the Church. To claim that the claim that the "many kingdoms of the earth" had come to an end under Augustus was understood literally and not typologically would be arguing for a sort of ignorance among early Christians that is unsupportable. As Aaron points out, this does not claim the reign of Augustus as a golden age, but rather its prefigurement.

Geréby uses Augustine as support against his claims of an improper assumption of Augustus or the Roman Empire by Christians. This would be quite valid, but it is hard to argue that such a case was really made during the Patristic age, but rather that the most extreme claims for the role of the Roman Empire are of medieval vintage, especially in the rhetoric of Ghibellines in support of the Holy Roman Emperor. (An example of this extreme case can be found in Dante, with his use of the betrayal of Julius Caesar as a type of the betrayal of Christ in the shared punishment of Judas, Brutus and Cassius.) As far as this goes, I do not think that Orthodox need be worried that our hymnography falls under the critique offered. As far as the "Romanizing" of Christ goes, no example is offered, and I am left suspecting that the worry is largely one of modern scholarly categories, where "Romanization" is something inherently illegitimate, without need of explanation.

What is left out is the ability of the moral and anthropological dimensions of theology to comment upon the legitimacy or illegitimacy of certain forms of governance. While (as the quote from St. Augustine supports) the Church is no respecter of customs, but rather obeys them, it does have things to say about the laws of men. There is no case I can think of where the conversion of a people or its rulers is not also followed by a change in the laws to better image the Christian ethos. The lack of this discussion may be purposed: Geréby seems to be deeply affected by the reasoning of Schmitt on the role of Christian theology in legitimizing secular absolutism, and thus needs a firewall between theology and political philosophy in order to save Christianity from being "discredited" by the "disasters" of 20th century political absolutism. While there is certainly something to be learned from such a deep disturbance (as I hold that there is something to learn from David Bentley Hart's deep disturbance at the claims of power and truth in postmodernism), we should be careful to also step outside such a defense from a particular disturbance to prevent poisoning ourselves with the antidote. There is always a temptation to resolve the conflict between Christianity and society with either quietism or theocracy, and both must be carefully avoided, it seems to me.

Geréby's claim that the end of history is not a part of history is certainly true (how else does Christ return like a thief in the night?), but it is not true that the end is not imaged in history. Nor is this imaging somehow political: the use of the Roman Empire as an image is not an endorsement of the empire, and the use of Christian morals to influence the law is not necessarily an image.

Geréby's later claim that "the political and the strictly orthodox theological can be independent from each other, but unorthodox theologies cannot" is rather more interesting. I would relate it to claims regarding philosophy as the source of all heresies, while still admitting of the usefulness of philosophy in both the refinement of the intellect and for the use of by theology. For Orthodoxy, I would argue, such independence stems not from total separation, but from a lack of being determined by the political. As for the dependence on the political for heresy, I would note that while cases from Arianism to Monophytism to Liberation theology make a case for that identification, it is important to remember that heresy is easily overdetermined, because all sin is a mess of fallen motive and never pure. Heresy lives in a world where the nihilist dialectic of power is really real, with Peterson, I would claim that theology is above such enslavement.

A number of readers have commented on the role of the insufficient Trinitarianism of Western theology in the formation of political absolutism in the West. This certainly seems reasonable, but must be met with the caveat that once absolutism was birthed, it was able to exist on its own terms, slowly removing itself from its reliance on theological concepts. Absolutism–whether of the state, market or individual–has infected the Orthodox world as well, and we must be on guard to not allow its concepts to flow backwards into our theology.

However, by comparing (implicitly) modern absolutist regimes with the Roman Empire or monarchy in general, the paper does some violence. Certainly, Christianity cannot support absolutist regimes, they always violate that concern of Christian political theology: That any regime is legitimate insofar as it does not prevent the free practice of the religion of the Catholic Church. Christianity is beyond favoring particular regimes (for, following St. Paul, we are all cosmopolitans of a sort, with our absolute loyalty going to no earthy city) and always understands all sovereignty as being a subset of the only real sovereignty belonging to God alone. However, Christians certainly can support a monarchy, and even support monarchy over other forms of governance as being better suited for the nature and dignity of man or even better suited for the free practice of the Christian religion. Such discussions fall outside the realm of theology, to be sure, but they are informed and infused by them in a fashion that is not necessarily illegitimate. What would be illegitimate would be an argument from the nature of God to the fitness of monarchy, thus bringing the political within theology, proper. (Or worse, arguing from the fitness of monarchy to the existence of monarchy in the Godhead, as in the selection from Aquinas.)

This critique standing, I found much of use in the essay, and any sort of extended critique is always an indication that there is value in the work, even if only in a negative sense, which is not true. There is much useful corrective in Geréby's summation of Peterson's case, even if I believe that case (at least as presented here) to be extreme. This is not an exhaustive critique, either, and I welcome discussion and expansion.