cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
Yes, I'm still working on my Wittgenstein and metatheics series. (And my atonement theology series, too, for that matter, although at present the metaethics one has the precedence.) I promise.

Fred Clark wrote about patripassianism recently, and got an "Amen!" from Tony Jones. I share their instinct that God the Parent can known, and more importantly has known, suffering, but am uncomfortable with Clark's description of Trinitarian theological reasoning:
one is “allowed” to recite the lawyerly formulations of the Athanasian Creed, but if you stray at all from that narrow path or attempt to say anything more — any positive statements, clarifications, analogies, applications — you’re screwed. [. . . T]his doctrine creates so many different ways in which you can be screwed that it’s hard not to suspect this was the intention — a doctrine more useful for generating and then condemning heresies than for avoiding error.
A lot of this comes down to Clark being much more Protestant than I am, so traditional notions of heresy and orthodoxy don't hold the same authority for him as for me. But I do think the best articulation of the pure theology of the Trinity is found in the Athanasian articulation (although admittedly it's light on the practical implications), and that it's important to be mindful of the ancient heresies precisely because God defies the categories we are liable to try to place God in if we're not eternally vigilant.

Insofar as patripassianism is by definition a form of modalism, confusing or conflating in some sense the distinction in persons between God the Parent and God the Begotten, then it represents a damaging heresy and should be denounced. That strikes me as pretty straight forward. But does it?

I think it's possible to meaningfully still speak about God the Parent being present with and sharing the suffering of God the Begotten upon the Cross (or, if our theology requires God the Parent to forsake God the Begotten in order for God to experience the absence of God, then surely the Parent suffers in the act of forsaking the beloved Child!) without falling into modalism, without confusing the distinction in persons between the Parent and the Begotten. The question then becomes a defitional one, whether a suffering Parent still constitutes heretical patripassianism even when it isn't modalist. I suspect the answer should be no, but the trail goes pretty much cold at the Wikipedia article, and without reading the primary texts in which member (or better yet, ecumenical councils) of the early Church denounce the heresy it's impossible to say.

In a talk on theodicy, Roger Olson says, "Well, theology has four criteria: revelation, including Jesus Christ and Scripture, tradition, reason and experience." Now, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to the world. That's central to my faith. But I don't know how much sense it makes to talk about Jesus Christ as a subcategory of revelation when we are talking about criteria of theology. The revelation which was the historical Jesus is mediated to us through scripture and tradition. And the revelation of the Risen Christ is mediated to us through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience--the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a variation of the Anglican three-legged stool. So I'm not sure what sense it makes to talk of Jesus as a separate revelation when we're talking about our work as a theologians. In a sense, what Christian theology does is precisely try to arrive at the revelation of Jesus Christ through the tools of scripture, tradition, reason, experience, etc.

Furthermore, the way Olson formulates the Quadrilateral implies that tradition, reason, and experience are not also forms of revelation. I suppose I can understood why a non-liberal ("post-conservative") evangelical Protestant wouldn't classify them as such, but as a post-liberal Anglo-Catholic I absolutely would. Again, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are the means we have by which we come to terms with the revelation of God to the world: the person of Jesus Christ.

My twitter feed seemed to be, well, a-twitter with comments about Christological and/or Messianic themes in Man of Steel, the Superman mythos in general, and the superhero genre even more in general. I'll put forth Five Reasons Why Superman Isn't Jesus and Five Reasons Why Jesus Isn't Superman, both from Pop Theology at Patheos, as semi-representative. I tend to think the question is mostly silly (although the theology is usually right-on). No, Jesus isn't a superhero. He certainly isn't the "first superhero"; Gilgamesh and Herakles not only fit the "superhero" mold much better than Jesus, but they pre-date the birth of Jesus by several centuries.

At the same time, it's silly to think that how we tell superhero stories isn't influenced by the story of Jesus. I haven't seen Man of Steel yet, but the fact that there will be parallels, both in terms of imagery and of plot, between Superman and Christ, is pretty much inevitable. That doesn't make Jesus a superhero. It doesn't mean Snyder was somehow blaspheming in creating the movie, or that we are in seeing such parallels. It does mean that the great secular myths of the postmodern era do--as arguably all myths do--have a complicated, messy relationship with what Lewis famously called the "true myth": the Christian narrative.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
Over at Patheos Evangelical, Kermit Zarley asks "Is Trinitarianism Monotheistic?" and comes to a negative conclusion. My main reaction to this is a healthy helping of apathy: certainly there is a sense in which Trinitarian Christianity is monotheistic primarily because we have defined our terms in such a way as to make it so. If Zarley wants to use a different definition of monotheism, one which requires not only unity of being but also unity of hypostases, then obviously there's nothing that you or I could possibly do to stop him.

Nor would I argue that Trinitarian monotheism is the same thing as the strict monotheism of Judaism. It clearly isn't, although I would point out that the oldest parts of the Hebrew scriptures seem to draw from a henotheistic worldview rather than a strictly monotheistic one. I'm also curious how such a strict monotheism makes sense of passages such as Proverbs 8. But these are sidebars; I'm not arguing that the Hebrew scriptures teach Trinitarianism in any direct sense. Heck, I'm not even arguing that the New Testament does so.

However, it's unequivocally incorrect to say that orthodox Trinitarians believe in three gods. No matter how you parse it, that's just false. Maybe there's something subtle I'm missing to the distinction Zarley wants to make between a "unity" and "numerically one," but it seems to me pretty clear that in orthodox Christian Trinitarianism God is not only a unity, but numerically one. There is only one God. Period. Anything else is heresy (from an orthodox Trinitarian perspective).

Zarley seems to be taking advantage of a confusion between our ordinary language use of the word "person" and the specialized theological usage as a translation of the Greek hypostasis. The Trinity are not (in orthodox Trinitarianism) three separate people who together make up God, the way three members of a family might make up that family. Instead, the hypostases of the Trinity share a unity of essence: they are all, quite literally, the same metaphysical entity, in a way which is avowedly paradoxical and mysterious. The "persons" of the Trinity are not their own separate gods--on this point, Trinitarian theology is absolutely and unrelentlessly unequivocal.

And this isn't just true of abstract theology. When actual Christians get confused about the Trinity and fall into heresy--which, admittedly, happens fairly often--it's almost always either modalism or partialism, and hardly ever tritheism.

Now, I suspect that Zarley would take this as evidence of us either being disingenuous (because we're not using his definition of monotheism) or, more charitably, that Trinitarian Christians are confused about what they actually believe. (And of course, given the abysmal state of catechesis in the Church today, the latter is almost certainly true!) But given the utter clarity with which orthodox theology teaches that there is no division in being within the Godhead, I don't see how one can argue that Trinitarians understand God as being even "numerically three."

I suspect Zarley might argue something along the line that Trinitarians cannot simply declare by fiat that a distinction between separate persons doesn't require a belief in different gods. But if Trinitarians cannot define what our own theology is, who can? One can argue that the Trinity as a doctrine is incoherent--and I might even agree with one; there's a reason why we call it a "holy mystery"--but saying that Trinitarians believe in three gods is just flat-out incorrect, and seems to willfully misrepresent what orthodox theology teaches.

In many ways, the Trinity is a good example--indeed, I would argue that for the Trinitarian Christian it is the prime example--of the sort of reason-defying doctrine that Theo Hobson quite rightly defended in the article I posted about yesterday. (And note that the Trinity is not a claim about "the supernatural" as I define it!) Indeed, I fear that Zarley's antagonism towards Trinitarism on some level stems precisely from the sort of modernist hyperrationalist theology--the attempt to "iron out" Christianity and to make it "make sense"--of which both Hobson and I despair. (And note that such hyperrationalism finds a comfortable home in evangelicalism, which already eschews the ritualism of so-called "liturgical Christianity.")
cjbanning: "Saint Clare of Assisi Vanquishes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (Saint Clare)
Over at the Guardian, Theo Hobson is questing for an authentic liberal Christianity, and has come to the conclusion there are really two separate "liberal" Christian traditions.
One sort of liberal Christianity edges away from supernatural belief, and church ritual: it presents Jesus as a great moral teacher, the first humanist, through whose example we can learn to mend our world. It assumes a basic harmony between Christianity and the rational Enlightenment.

The other sort of liberal Christianity affirms political liberalism – the ideal of a state that rejects theocracy and protects people's liberties. But it does not seek to reform Christianity in a rational-humanist direction: it understands that such "reform" undermines this religion, falsifies it.

Very simply, the latter sort of liberal Christianity is the only authentic version; it must be rescued from the deathly embrace of the former sort. Only thus can liberal Christianity be renewed.
As a post-liberal Anglo-Catholic mystic, you might guess that I, like Hobson, would prefer the "ritualist" version of liberal Christianity over the "rationalist" one. And insofar as that goes, that's right. But I see a couple of problems with Hobson's binary division of liberal Christianity:

1.) Both versions are firmly rooted in the same Enlightenment project, so much so that it strikes me as naïve to just assume they can be separated out from each other. I share Hobson's distaste for "Christian-tinged humanism"--what I've often called "ethical Jesus-ism"--but am skeptical of his refusal to similarly critique the Enlightenment values that underlie the modernistic liberal political project:
I studied theology, and learned that cutting-edge thought was strongly "post-liberal"; it sought to purge theology of Enlightenment corruption, and restore its autonomy. I largely agreed with this agenda, but retained a nagging sense that such theology over-reacted against liberalism.
Hobson describes the rise of political liberation and the growth of rationalism as two separate trajectories that just happened to occur at the same time:
I found that the Reformation gradually gave rise to two forms of liberal Christianity. One of these was deeply involved in the first phase of political liberalism, in the mid-17th century. Its clearest theorist was the poet John Milton. He said that the Protestant Reformation, launched a century earlier, had now entered a new phase. God willed a new sort of state, with no official church enforcing religious unity. Instead, the state should protect people's freedom to believe and worship as they wanted (as long as they did not threaten the new political order).

He criticised any authoritarian church, established or not, that tried to impose moral and religious rules on people (he pointed out that St Paul had attacked such rules). This is the liberal Christian tradition that I affirm. It is a religious vision that entails a political vision, of the post-absolutist state, in which the ideal of liberty unites people.

But something else happened in the 17th century. Protestantism gradually absorbed rationalist assumptions about the need to reform Christianity away from both ritual and supernatural belief. This was a disaster.
But this ignores the way that both the turn towards political liberty and towards reason were part and parcel of the same modernist moment, the same historical dialectical processes, born of an emerging paradigmatic shift which changed humanity's understanding of themselves, their place in the universe, and the nature of knowledge.

Hobson wants to dethrone the modernist worldview when it comes to faith and ritual but leave it firmly in place when it comes to politics. Sorry, but it doesn't work like that. If we're going to reexamine the role of reason in our theology--and we should!--then we're going to have to do it in our politics too.

2.) Hobson's desire for a "nuanced liberal Christianity – one that affirmed political liberty, but also understood that authentic Christianity must be rooted in faith and ritual practice" is my own desire; after all, one of the reasons I identify as Anglo-Catholic is because I recognize the power of ritual. I find little to disagree with when Hobson says:
For authentic Christianity cannot dispense with faith, nor with ritual expression. If it cuts itself off from the basic, rationally unjustifiable practices of worship (prayer-speech, communal cultic action), it commits suicide. One need only recall that this is a religion that makes regular use of (what might be called) fake blood – that involves the drinking of fake blood!
But in his statements that rationalist liberal Christianity "edges away from supernatural belief" and that "Protestantism gradually absorbed rationalist assumptions about the need to reform Christianity away from [. . .] supernatural belief" (resulting in disaster) Hobson seems to assume that "faith" must require belief in the supernatural. That seems to me to be both a musunderstanding of the original Pauline understanding of what Christian faith ought to be, and wrong (or at the very least undemonstrated) on its own terms. Now part of this might just fall to differing definition of terms; I do after all affirm the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which seems to be Hobson's example of the sort of rationality-defying practice which is necessary for faith. But I don't consider such a thing to be supernatural; instead, I'd classify it as transcendental. No one--at least no one properly catechized--actually believes an empirical change (a change in the accidents) is effected in the Communion elements; instead, the change is mystical, or metaphysical (a change in "substance," to use Trent's problematic neo-Greek metaphysics).

The problem with supernaturalism as I define it--which includes bleeding statues and ghostly apparitions but not purely spiritual transformations--is not that reason causes us to deny it. Drawing on Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and the insights of postmodernity in general, I'm perfectly comfortable recognizing the limits of our reasoning and turning to religion to fill in the gaps. It's that even when he have done so, belief in the supernatural remains unmotivated.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
As part of his "Questions That Haunt" series, Tony Jones has taken on the question of theodicy and come to a startling conclusion (emphasis his):
I know this: No one — not the Jews, not the Romans — was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. God was was ultimately responsible. That blood is ultimately on God’s hands. God could have stopped it; God didn’t. And so we’re all left to wonder about God’s responsibility for that act of evil, and for all acts of evil.
First off, I find Tony's disavowal of human responsibility for the crucifixion perplexing. It doesn't follow obviously from anything else he says (as far as I can tell) and, at least for me, seems to me to undermine the power of the Incarnation, the entire point of which was for God's Begotten One to enter into our human suffering and become vulnerable to human evil. Even if we were to agree that God were ultimately responsible, it's not at all clear to me how that absolves Judas of Jesus' betrayal or Pilate of Jesus' condemnation.

The question of God's responsibility, however, is much more interesting and challenging. Here's some more of Tony's logic:
God is ultimately liable for the evil in the world. On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors. The fact that God doesn’t, implicates God.

Does this make God less than perfectly benevolent? Maybe. Maybe God also abdicated “benevolence” at creation, or at least perfect benevolence. Or maybe God’s all-in-allness means that our conception of “goodness” and “benevolence” is swallowed up in God’s fullness.
I think much of this is at least partly right. Certainly it is probably a mistake to think of God's omnibenevolence as just like human benevolence, only better. But I think a lot is also caught up in the word "could." Could God step in and stop evils and horrors? At first glance, it seems like to deny this is to deny God's omnipotence; of course, God could, because God can do anything and, being the highest authority, answers to no authority higher than Godself.

But God is answerable to Godself, to the perfect goodness of God's own nature which requires God to respect the dignity and free will of God's creatures created in God's own image. This is no more to speak of a limitation on the part of God than it would be to say that God "cannot" create a stone so heavy that God "cannot" lift it. In both cases, the true limitation resides in the ability of our language to describe that which lies past its limits. Instead, to speak of God's "inability" to act contrary to God's nature is actually to speak of the very perfection of divine freedom; there is no division in God's will and thus no force which could possibly coerce God into acting against Godself.

Of course, without getting needlessly metaphysical, the above does assume there is some sort of enduring character to God's goodness, that God cannot and would not simply decide today that respecting human dignity and free will is a good thing and decide tomorrow that it is bad. This, then, is against what Roger Olson calls "nominalistic voluntarism," the claim that "“Whatever God does is automatically good and right just because God does it":
[The nominalistic voluntarist believes that] God does not have an eternal nature of character; he [sic] is pure power and will. God is whatever God decides to be. The result is that the “good” is whatever God commands and God does not command anything because it is good. It is good only because God commands it.

[. . .]

This makes God truly monstrous because God, then, has no virtuous character. “Good” becomes whatever God decides and does and, ultimately, becomes meaningless because it has no essential connection with anything we know as “the good.”
Drawing then on the scriptural truth that "Ever since the creation of the world, the eternal power and divine nature of God, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made" (Romans 1:20), I affirm that the enduring nature of moral goodness is discernible, if imperfectly, by human beings through the dialectic of human reason and history, as I note in my blog post on Liberalism and Moral Absolutes and perhaps most fully in my essay History and Christ. While our understanding of what is good and evil is always evolving and improving through history as it is led by the Spirit, good and evil themselves do not change, and certainly not at the whims of a capricious deity. So when the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts
As to whom we are to obey, there can be no doubt that first we are bound to offer an unreserved service to Almighty God in all His [sic] commands. No real difficulty against this truth can be gathered from putting in juxtaposition the unchangeableness of the natural law and an order, such as that given to Abraham to slay his son Isaac. The conclusive answer is that the absolute sovereignty of God over life and death made it right in that particular instance to undertake the killing of an innocent human being at His [sic] direction.
I simply cannot go there with it. If God had allowed Abraham to kill Isaac at God's direction, God would have revealed Godself to be a moral monster unworthy both of worship and of obdeience. Following a line of throught I encountered (if I remember correctly) in Elie Wiesel's Messengers of God, I tend to assume that Abraham knew this too. By going ahead and carrying out God's outrageous command, Abraham was calling God's bluff, so to speak--putting the Lord God Almighty to the test.

Does this understanding of the relationship between God and goodness require us to posit some independent existence for goodness in some Platonic heaven in order for God to perfectly embody it? Of course not, and I plan soon to write a post on Wittgenstein's metaethical mysticism to gesture towards how we can talk practically about enduring good and evil without getting needlessly caught up in metaphysics.
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
Ever since the creation of the world, the eternal power and divine nature of God, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made. (Romans 1:20)
My assumption always is that, while the Holy Scriptures do indeed contain all that is necessary for salvation, if "there is anything at all that is morally universal" (to paraphrase Brian MacArevey), then it can be determined independently of Scripture. (I'm sure there's a good quote of St. Thomas Aquinas' to invoke at this point, but I honestly can't be bothered to look it up.) Kantian deontological ethics (and other systems of secular moral philosophy) may have its flaws, but I don’t see that those flaws are any greater from a philosophical perspective than a meta-ethic of “Whatever the Bible says, is good.” Generally, speaking, liberals and post-liberals--whether their post/liberalism be theological, political, social, or some combination thereof–-are not relativists; indeed, their--our!--post/liberalism motivates and is motivated by some very strong normative claims about human dignity.

The continuing, ongoing, and Spirit-led dialectic between scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (which is, as I have often noted here, a reflection of the perichoretic dialectic which is the Triune God) will always be allowed to override any “newly universalized viewpoint.” This, I believe, is how the Spirit moves through history, as I have already discussed at length in my essay History and Christ.
cjbanning: (Default)
Over at The Piety That Lies Between, Eric Reitan responds in two posts (On Heresy and Universalism and On Heresy and Universalism, Part 2) to Roger Olson's question How serious a heresy is universalism? by deconstructing the question through examining Olson's understandingh of heresy and orthodoxy. In the first post, Reitan writes:
Olson does offer a brief definition of heresy in a parenthetical remark, saying that heresies are "theologically incorrect beliefs," but he doesn't consider the adequacy of this definition in the face of alternatives. A "theologically incorrect belief" is presumably a belief about God that doesn't correspond with the way God really is.
Now, it's not actually obvious that this is right. It might seem like an unnecessarily pedantic quibble about grammar, but a "theologically incorrect belief" does not mean the same thing as an "incorrect theological belief." The latter noun phrase simply calls out a belief which is both incorrect (under some epistemological understanding of "incorrect") and theological. As Reitan points out, if this is what heresy consists of, there are some rather strange conclusions to be drawn:
But the reason why this definition of heresy (and the contrary notion of orthodoxy) has these implications is because it makes the objective nature of reality the standard by which beliefs are judged heretical (or orthodox)--and it seems inevitable that each of us will, in our beliefs about ultimate reality, get some things wrong. But I think this way of understanding heresy has deeper implications that Olson (and other evangelical Christians) would be unhappy to accept. Consider: on this definition, if atheists are right about the nature of reality then all Christians of every stripe are heretical in all their theological beliefs, since all their theological beliefs would then be wrong.
But in the actual phrase Olson uses, "theologically incorrect belief," theologically isn't an adjective modifying belief, but rather an adverb modifying incorrect. Which is to say, there could be a special of type of (in)correctness distinct from "objective (in)correctness," called "theological (in)correctness," and it would be by this standard (not our regular epistemological criteria, whatever they may be) which theological claims would (and/or should) be judged. I think this is actually the much more intuitive reading for many of us, precisely for the reason that, as Reitan shows, the alternate reading leads to an absurdity.

However, there is actually some support for Reitan's reading, because Olson goes on to say:
Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy--according to all major branches of Christianity. The Catholic church allows hope for universal salvation but not confident affirmation of it. But, of course, as Luther demonstrated, all branches of Christianity can be wrong. That is why I reject paleo-orthodoxy and any appeal to absolute authority of tradition. Tradition gets a vote but never a veto. The Bible trumps tradition.
By allowing (through an overconfidence in Luther) that "all branches of Christianity can be wrong," Reitan seems to be assuming a standard by which the theological correctness of a belief can be judged which is extrinsic to the discipline of theology itself. He's even quite clear what that standard should be: the Bible--and of course, if the Bible is perfectly perspicuous and inerrant in all things, or at least all things pertaining to faith and/or morals (and I don't know if Olson thinks it is these things or not, but obviously many Christians do), then the distinction between "biblically correct" and "objectively correct" actually collapses in upon itself.

Yet as Reitan notes in his second post:
Scripture, by virtue of its tensions and complexities and ambiguities, is a much more slippery standard that may require an interpretive hermeneutic in order to be applied effectively (which may mean that what is really operating as the standard isn't Scripture as such, but Scripture as read through a particular interpretive lens).
"A similar problem arises," Reitan notes, "when attempting to test a belief against a theological tradition."

Now, for the theologicall liberal, be they Emergent ex-Evangelical or Mainline Protestant, this apparent problem really isn't. Whether using the Anglican formulation of scripture/tradition/reason (the "three-legged stool") or the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture/tradition/reason/experience (and I think the distinction between the two is ultimately one without a difference), we understand scripture, tradition, and reason (and experience) to be in dialectical conversation with each other (as modeled by the perichoretic dialectic of conversation which is the the Triune God) and the fact that this cannot provide us with any hard and fast, final and ultimate answers to our questions is seen as a feature rather than a bug. There is always room for the Spirit to move us further in our understanding. Or as Reitan says using even bigger words (impressive, isn't it?):
this serves as part of a broader Hegelian project of preserving the internal integrity of a system of beliefs so as to make it possible for it to evolve in the face of the lived encounter with ultimate reality.
But that's dealing in abstraction. What does it mean in practice to evaluate the orthodoxy or hereticalness of some particular claim, such as universalism?

what IS heretical )

what is orthodox )

the value of orthodoxy )
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
"[Tolstoy] is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men [sic] talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism; they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men [sic] sane." -- Chesterton, quoted here
The subtitle to Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You, our book club book and the subject of a couple of recent posts, is Christianity Not As a Mystic Religion But As a New Theory of Life. Implicit in this title seems to be a conflation of mysticism and supernaturalism which is endemic throughout the text and seriously weakens Tolstoy's ability to engage with the religion, for it causes Tolstoy in his quite correct (in my opinion) resistance to supernaturalism to throw the baby out with the bathwater and also reject the core of Christian mysticism which runs throughout Scripture and Tradition, leaving him only with a weakly modernist set of humanist ethics.

Tolstoy's version of Christianity, then, falls into a type of angel worship by de-throning the mystic, living, Risen Christ who works in history via the Spirit. Tolstoy writes in the third chapter, "The Church as a church, whatever it may be--Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian--every church, in so far as it is a church, cannot but strive [. . .] to conceal the real meaning of Christ's teaching and to replace it by their own, which lays no obligation on them, [and] excludes the possibility of understanding the true teaching of Christ." By asserting a "true teaching of Christ" Tolstoy thus limits Christ to a human doctrine, trying to place God within the categories of human beings.

Tolstoy thinks he does so in the name of reason and science, but it is not Christian mysticism which lies in contradiction thereto, but Christian supernaturalism. Supernaturalism represents the claim that some set of empirical phenomena operate in a manner which is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "beyond the order or laws of the whole created nature" (ST I:102:4). (For further thoughts on the supernatural, see my post here.) Mysticism, on the other hand, makes no falsifiable claims about creation, and thus cannot find itself in tension with science. Instead it attempts to provide insight into that which cannot be said when we have come up against the limits of our language, and attempt to perceive that which is made manifest in experience. The Trinity, the Real Presence, and the Unity of the Church are examples of mystical doctrines, not supernatural claims.

Tolstoy joyfully skewers those who place their faith solely in tradition (his caricature of Roman Catholocism and Eastern Orthodoxy) or in scripture (his caricature of Protestantism)--and of course he is right to do so (for there are of course Christians of all brands who do indeed live up to the caricatures). But his own modernist account of what Christianity ought to teach similarly elevates reason as its sole authority. There's nothing wrong with this, per se: certainly being reliant on reason is far superior to a slavish, unthinking devotion to either scripture or tradition alone, and I don't have any real argument, yet alone a proof, that scripture and tradition represent legitimate sources of revelation when used in moderation, or that Tolstoy should recognize them as such, anymore than I have an argument against sola scriptura (well, other than that the doctrine of sola scriptura is nowhere to be found in the Bible).

And yet the truly catholic option is to allow scripture, tradition, and reason to enter into dialogue with each other--the "three-legged stool" of Anglicanism. (Add in experience and you get the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) And it is precisely this sort of relationality which lies at the very heart of Trinitarian Christianity.

On Ineffability

Monday, 8 November 2010 08:05 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
"It's true that I can't directly tell you what it is that can't be said." -- André Kukla
The ineffability thesis, when construed as a thesis, is of course self-refuting: it contends to possess knowledge about the ineffable which under its own rules is impossible. Of course, the natural thing for the ineffabilist is to deny that she is asserting a thesis; the so-called ineffability thesis is simply a bastard sentence, leading to a throwing-away of the ladder, and that claim about the ineffability thesis is also a bastard sentence, and so on unto infinite regress.

At this point the pure philosopher is liable to, understandably, throw up her hands. The ineffabilist has admitted to speaking nonsense, and while she may claim that nonsense may somehow point the way to a higher truth, she has admitted also that even that claim is nonsense! Why should the philosopher take her at all seriously?

At this point, the ineffabilist puts forth both a positive and a negative claim: no one has put forth a claim about truth that does make sense (she would argue), and furthermore by the logic of the pure philosopher, they cannot.

The pure philosopher will no doubt fear that the ineffabilist has introduced an irrational element which threatens to undermine philosophy. The ineffabilist has abandoned any requirement for intellectual rigor, the pure philosopher will argue, by referring everything to an ineffable standard.

This is, of course, true, at least in a sense. But the truth is also that the ineffabilist can assume the standards of intellectual rigor proposed by the pure philosopher, if only deconstructively. She can demonstrate that the philosopher's claims to intellectual rigor are themselves exaggerated. This motivates a deflationaryism towards metaphysics, but this is nothing new.

What separates the ineffabilist from the pragmatist (or more specifically, the neopragmatist) is that the pragmatist, to some degree or other, is a quietist and the ineffabilist is not. By the pragmatist's account, there should be no such thing as pragmatism, or at least no such thing as an overarching thesis of pragmatism. To be sure, she can be involved in specific deconstructive attempts to show a certain way of talking about X has fallen into error by the standards of those doing the talking, but she cannot make the claim that we should stop talking about X. Any coordinated effort to stop talking about X represents a betrayal of pragmatist principles.

But insofar as the extrarationalism of the ineffabilist frees her to speek, it may seem to provide her what might look like an overbroad freedom: there is nothing she cannot say. Again, the pure philosopher finds it hard to take her seriously, to care what she has to say. But the ineffabilist does not expect to be taken seriously, except when she is deconstructively engaging in the language games of her peers. Otherwise, she simply wants to be able to be left to her extrarational appreciation and engagement in peace.

And that's where (transcendental) religion enters the picture. Ineffability, of course, lies at the center of the Christian faith. The Athanasian Creed lays out the Trinitarian doctrine of the Church thusly: "the Parent-God incomprehensible, the Child-God incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, and yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible."

Yet transcendental religion is not irrational in the sense of requiring the religionist to hold propositions as true which reason requires her to reject as false. (Or vice versa.) In Christianity, after all, reason is traditionally regarded as one of the primary sources of authority, a leg not only of Anglican's three-legged stool but also of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. Instead, it is extrarational in that transcendental religion steps in with something to say at precisely those moments when reason's limits are themselves met.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in God's image; in the image of the gods, God created them; male and female God created them.
Needless to say, the interpretation of Genesis 1:27 I give in my recent post On Being Straight is not the only interpretation which exists in the cultural sphere. All too often, I think people read it as actually affirming binary gender as something which is somehow divinely ordained--that God personally, actively, and deliberately separated the human species into male and female, all by Godself. But I think that's a bad interpretation.

Now admittedly, the hermeneutic criteria I take with me to Scripture--that an interpretation of Scripture is true (good? correct? best?) if and only if it is empowering to oppressed classes (women, queer people, the impoverished, etc.)--rules out the "divinely ordained binary gender" reading right from the get-go. But I don't think you need to be actively seeking to re-vision the text as I am in order to recognize that that interpretation doesn't really make sense when viewed in the greater context of what Genesis 1 is attempting to accomplish.

Some background: the reference to the imago dei in Gen. 1:27 comes towards the end of what is the first of two creation narratives in Genesis. Gen. 1:1-2:3 is called by scholars the "Priestly" account; Genesis 2:4-25ff is called the "Yahwist." Both stories represent the result of many generations of oral tradition which were ultimately compiled together in the work that would come to be known as the Book of Genesis.

The primary purpose of both narratives, but especially the Priestly account, is etiological: it explains how and why the world came into being. I don't think it's intended to explain what came into being at all; the ancient Hebrews simply could look around to see that. Of course, the "what" needed to be described in order to discuss the how and the why, and the ancient Hebrews did so in the languuage which was available to them, but I don't think the Priestly account is really making an ontological point at all. The Priestly account doesn't tell us that God created birds on the fifth day in order to explain that there is a such thing as "birdness" which all those flying things have in common (leading one to wonder whether non-flying birds like ostriches, and fying mammals like bats, were created on the fifth or sixth day); it does so to explain where all those flying things (whatever we want to call them and however we wish to classify them) came from. Trying to force metaphysics onto the myth seems to be doing it a great disservice, especially if one believes (I do not) that ideologically-neutral "textualist" or "functionalist" readings are available to a reader.

I'd argue that the mention of gender in 1:27 is functionally equivalent to the mention of avians in 1:20-24: "men" and "women" were categories which were already experientially present to the ancient Hebrews. That men and women existed was already stipulated, rightly or wrongly; they didn't need oral tradition to tell them that. The creation narrative would thus have functioned to explain where both genders came from--from God--rather than to assign them some type of eternal, unchanging essence.

If we assume the opposite, that Gen. 1:27 is detailing some sort of deliberate "creation" of gender and/or gendered differences (prominent marriage equality opponent Maggie Gallagher describes it as "the idea that God himself [sic] made man [sic] as male and female and commanded men and women to come together in a special way to image the fruitfulness of God"), then we're left with the uncomfortable question of just what was the deal with all those birds and fish that were created (the story goes) on the fifth day. Did the ancient Hebrews assume they just sort of existed genderlessly until the sixth day?

Why mention gender in 1:27 at all, then? Part of me thinks this question is wrongheaded--we might just as well ask why 1:20-24 mentions birds specifically. But insofar as we read Genesis as making a more profound point about men and women than it is about fish and sea creatures, I think the point is to make it explicit that men and women shared equally in the imago dei. Granted that the overall culture would have been a patriarchal one, I don't think this reading is in any way anachronistic, or at least not inherently so. Since Genesis is a compilation of often contradictory oral traditions, we shouldn't be surprised to find a proto-feminist sentiment lurking among the patriarchalism. Furthermore, there's plenty of patriarchal notions which are simultaneously deeply sexist but still (arguably) compatible with the notion of equal participation in the imago dei--for example, the notion of two separate but equal spheres.

Of course, as moderns and postmoderns we do not look to Genesis as etiological in the same way as did those who were actually shaping those oral traditions. For us, the spiritual truth testified to in Genesis 1 that all of creation is God-breathed is in some sense divorceable from any sense of Genesis 1 (or Genesis 2) as historical or scientific fact. But the spiritual truth is still a truth about a relationship between God and the world--that God is the ground and source of all being--and not one about the contents or structure of that world.

We don't construct our taxonomies of nature based on a division between "flying birds," "sea creatures," and "land animals," but based on (if you accept evolution, which I'm hoping you do) DNA and evolutionary processes and so on or (if you don't accept natural selection) fundamental similarities in anatomic structures, so that (for example) bats and whales are both mammals, ostriches and penguins are birds, etc. We recognize that the storytellers which passed down the Priestly creation story were expressing a profound spiritual truth using a pre-scientific language.

Furthermore, we don't consider even our more scientific classifications to represent ontological essences, but simply convenient ways of structuring our knowledge of the natural world. That the platypus is a mammal which happens to lay eggs isn't something that many lose all that much sleep over, nor should they. It's an example of the limitation of human systems of categorization, not a transgression against some law of nature, be it divine or scientific.

It seems to me that the same approach is appropriate in terms of gender. Male and female are categories which we use, for good or ill, to structure the way we think (and which the ancient Hebrews certainly used to structure the way they thought) of human (and non-human animal) diversity, in much the same way that "bird," "fish," and "mammal" are used to structure our understanding of a different type of animal diversity. But these are no more divinely-ordained categories than are "bird," "fish," and "mammal," and nothing in Genesis 1 should make us think that they are. Rather we recognize that they were using their own flawed patriarchal language, lacking the concepts of "intersexed" and "genderqueer," to express a powerful truth as best as they were able, that every human being--male, female, intersexed, and/or genderqueer--is reflective of the divine.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
As preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City, at their Morning Prayer service on the 8th of August, 2010. . . .

Proper 14 (Sunday Closest to August 10), Year C

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Many of my friends, including all of my housemates, are members of a nearby congregation operating under the Brethren in Christ, so most Sunday evenings I find myself worshipping with them at their weekly Public Meeting. Their style of worship there is fairly different than ours here; sometimes it seems that they think it is more important for sacred music to be loud than pretty. It’s really not at all my style of worship at all, really, and at times I find myself more alienated than uplifted.

Back during Lent, I was at the public meeting, and I’m surrounded by these energetic figures, fellow twenty-somethings who are just exploding with their love for Christ, and I’m left completely cold. And then I was blessed to look over to my right and I see a married couple I know, about my age, and on the husband’s lap is their then-eight-month-old daughter, gleefully smiling and clapping.

Holy Scripture talks about the hardening and softening of hearts. I think that’s the best way of describing what happened: the Spirit softened my heart. Seeing that baby girl take such innocent joy in worshipping the Lord helped me recenter my focus away from my own own nitpicks about the theology of the lyrics or the aesthetics of the melody, and back towards God.

When I got home, I got on my computer and posted a status update to my Facebook: “Cole Banning has been inspired by the faith of a child.”

It got me thinking about what that means, the faith of a child. The phrase is of course biblical: Jesus tells us in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that it is a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But what is it, exactly?

Often it seems we use it to mean a totally uncritical acceptance, belief without doubt, so-called “blind faith.” But that’s not what happened in the case of Baby Lydia. Her faith was far from blind. Instead, it was a response to what she saw and heard in front of her. Even as a baby, even prior to her acquisition of language, she was able to recognize the goodness of God’s creation and respond by giving praise to glory to God in the simple ways available to her, by participating in our worship, in what our Psalm today calls “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

I wonder sometimes where that notion of a child’s faith being blind or uncritical comes from. I’m not a parent, but one thing I know about children is that they’re constantly questioning. It’s an iconic image: the young child, incessantly asking “why?” Why this? Why that? And when given an answer, responding to that answer with the question “why?” and if one is willing to answer that too, once again meeting the answer with “why?” unto infinite regress. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” This is not an uncritical faith but rather a faith which seeks to learn, to grow, to challenge what it is told.

In our epistle reading, the author of Hebrews talks about the great faith of Abraham and Sarah and their family. I think that Abraham had the faith of a child. When we think about Abraham, we tend to think about his obedience, obedience which was important and a right and goodful thing. But I think we can appreciate the passage from Hebrews best if we remember that Abraham’s faith was larger than just obedience, a relationship with God that consisted of more than just Abraham following commands.

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, there is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which the Torah tells us God destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone. The Torah also tells us that Abraham argued with God over the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah: he negotiated, bargained. “Will you save the cities if there are 50 righteous people to be found?” “Will you save the cities if there 45?” “What abouty forty?” Talk about the faith of a child! I’m reminded of a child at a cookie jar: “Can I have a cookie, Mommy? Can I have two cookies? Three? Three and a half?”

Abraham, while always remaining obedient to the will of God, was at the same time willing to challenge God, to question God, in his attempt to understand God’s will.

Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson whom Isaiah also mentions, wrestled with the angel of the LORD at Penuel. When God revealed Godself to Moses, the descendent of Abraham and Sarah and the great leader of Israel who only saw the promised kingdom from afar, Moses too argued. He said, “I don’t think I can do this, God.”

And God said, “Okay, I’ll send your sister and brother with you to help you.” That’s dialogue: a process which consists of both give and take for both persons involved.

Moses constantly negotiated with God on behalf of the people of Israel. Indeed, we think of Sinai as this place where God’s will was committed to human beings, but it’s instructive to remember that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Sinai before he brought down the Decalogue: they had a lot to talk about up there.

Isaiah writes: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.” The underlying metaphor in the Hebrew is that of a law court: Israel is standing trial for its sins. But it presents us with a call to enter into dialogue with God. The Inclusive Bible translates the line as “Let’s look at the choices before you,” while it is rendered in the New American Bible as “let us set things right”: this dialogic encounter with God opens an opportunity for a process of self-discovery that allows us to set order to the way in which we live our lives.

This then is, I think, the picture of authentic Biblical faith which Scripture provides us: a relationship with God which is primarily experiential, rooted in our encounter with the divine: in prayer, in service, and of course in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood -- back next week!

Thomas Merton reminds us that “faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.”

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff makes a similar point when he writes that “[f]aith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from the outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others.

“Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling -- the heart, the intellect, and the will.” “Close quote.”

I think this type of response, described by Boff, is the type of response which Jesus describes in our Gospel reading today, being “dressed for action” and having our “lamps lit,” making our treasure in heaven by our works of mercy and charity, through our voluntary poverty. So too in Isaiah when God tells Israel, and us, to cease evil and learn to do good; to seek justice and rescue the oppressed; to defend the orphan and plead for the widow.

This Wednesday is the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. Now, Clare is my favorite capital-S Saint because she’s the patron saint of television, which makes her in an indirect sort of way the patron saint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Clare, who ran away from her aristocratic family to join Saint Francis in his example of God-devoted poverty, also models for us the Gospel call we’ve heard read today.

But let’s be frank: the type of response we hear called for in today’s readings, that we see in the life of Clare, is not one that can come out of obedience alone, a response only to the mere commands of a perceived spiritual authority. All the threats in the world will do no more than compel us to do -- reluctantly -- the very least of what is called of us.

And that’s not good enough. Isaiah tells how the Israelites’ offering of sacrifices and their keeping of festivals brought no delight in God, for the people had turned away from God’s will in spirit.

The radical commitment we’ve heard described is only possible through being transformed by the Spirt so that we may abide in the love of Christ Jesus. This transformation is the legacy of our baptism, but it is not a free ride. Neither is it some massive mystical revelatory encounter where Jesus appears and sets all our doubts to rest. God knows I wouldn’t mind one of those, but it’s not necessary.

No, instead it takes active participation, both by us and by God, in an authentic encounter grounded in the activities of our everyday lives: coming to church on Sunday, listening to Father and meditating on his words--without necessarily always having to agree with them; praying and reading Scripture throughout the week; performing service for all our sisters and brothers and siblings here on planet Earth through our works of mercy and justice-seeking social action; engaging in conversation and discussion with other members of the Body of Christ--a process which should begin at coffee hour but not end there.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We must work to develop our faith lives, to question why we believe what we say we believe and why we do what we do. We cannot be afraid of the difficult questions, or be ashamed of those doubts which are a natural element of a mature faith.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We are called to challenge too-simple truths, to reject fallacious authority, to argue with our God. God does not need or want yes-men and yes-women and yes-persons: God is God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God wants and needs a family of sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ--a communion of saints.

My hope and prayer for us, therefore, is that we may be inspired by the incredible faith of those who have gone before us that we may be empowered to follow the examples of the matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, and saints: that of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, of Clare and Francis, and -- perhaps most of all -- of that annoying little child, incessantly asking . . . “Why?”


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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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