cjbanning: (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
In my post on Wittgenstein's Metaethical Mysticism, I tried to outline the metaethical thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein as found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the "Lecture on Ethics." In the conclusion of that post, I noted that there are many reasons why a Witggensteinian metaethical mysticism ought to prove especially attractive to the Christian moral theologian--and in particular, to the progressive Christian moral theologian--and here I intend to take up the challenge of putting forth a couple of those reasons, with the remaining being relegated to subsequent posts.

First and most obviously, the mystical character of Wittgenstein's philosophy puts it in clear sympathy with Christianity's own deep and rich mystical tradition, seen in such figures as Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and, in the twentieth century, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. Wittgenstein's notion (cf. TLP 6.522) of a mystical element at the limits of our language about which we are unable to speak, but which can be shown ("makes itself manifest"), holds much in common with the via negativa of Christian apophaticism, in which God is only able to be defined by that which God is not. "I would be speaking as incorrectly in calling God a being as if I called the sun pale or black," says Eckhart. "God is neither this nor that."

Fr. Robert Barron notes:
The twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner commented that “God” is the last sound we should make before falling silent, and Saint Augustine, long ago, said, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand, that isn’t God), All of this formal theologizing is but commentary on that elusive and confounding voice from the burning bush: “I am who am.”
Furthermore, Wittgenstein's metaethics takes our moral intuitions seriously without reducing ethics to simply "what feels right." In the "Lecture on Ethics," Wittgenstein noted that while he believed our moral intuitions and beliefs "run against the boundaries of language" he also believed that they represented that "which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it." This is important to the Christian for whom our moral sense is some combination of the reflection of the divine image in us and/or the movement of the Holy Spirit on our hearts. "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight," St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans,
but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (2:15-16, NRSV)
At the same time, of course, our Christian faith teaches us that we are fallen into sin and thus prone to error, and that therefore what is good and bad cannot be directly reducible to what feels good or bad:
If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:14-16, NRSV).
Wittgenstein's metaethics allows for this in his distinction between relative statements of value (which are not philosophically problematic) and "the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable" which can only be understood mystically.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
A theology of the Atonement must, like any other theological endeavor, have as its starting place Who Christ Is, firmly rooted both in the hypostatic union and in the Holy Trinity as perichoretic dialectic. Without a firm appreciation of the full humanity and full divinity of the One who is God's Eternally Begotten, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the full meaning and power of the Cross simply cannot be hoped to be grasped: " the Cross was required for the world's redemption [. . .] because of the transcendence of the very bounds of sense which the Cross represents: the death of the immortal, ever-living God; the helplessness of the omnipotent Ruler of the Universe while undergoing cruel torture; the questioning cry from the omniscient Overseer" (as I put it in my 2010 post, On Atonement).

Here's Tony Jones:
Am I just too evangelical, looking as I am for cosmic import and redemption in the death of at Galilean peasant two millennia ago?

I think not.

If Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity — which I believe he was — then his crucifixion matters. And it matters more than as an example of someone who demonstrated “a Jesus-like revolutionary resistance in relation to a culture of unprecedented social inequality—and of unprecedented and appalling economic, racial, military, penal, environmental, and psychological violence.” (Oh, wait, that quote was about us, not Jesus.)
Amen!

Atonement theologies insufficiently rooted in these mysteries end up subject to what I think of as the "Life of Brian problem." I first proposed this thought experiment--based of course on Monty Python's 1979 comedy film The Life of Brian in which a man named Brian lives a life strangely parallel to that of Jesus Christ--while I was in undergrad reading René Girard's The Scapegoat. Why is Jesus' death on a cross salvific when Brian's is not?



I never really figured out in undergrad whether Girard's theology held an answer to the Life of Brian problem or not. But Tony Jones' description seems to indicate that it does--and that that answer is located precisely in the hypostatic union: "the scapegoat is not one us us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself [sic] enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices"--although I still don't claim to understand how exactly it all works. In particular, the explanation seems to conflate Jesus' divinity with Jesus' sinlessness; Wikipedia states that "the difference [. . .] is that [Jesus] was resurrected from the dead and shown to be innocent"--is the only difference between Jesus and Brian that Brian committed some (presumably fairly minor) sin? (Or is crucifixion considered to be in some way some sort of reasonable response to the mere stain of original sin?) I don't get it--which ultimately says more about me than Girard, perhaps.

One way for non-Trinitarians and other holders of unorthodox Christologies to escape the Life of Brian problem is to ground the uniqueness of the Cross of Jesus in Christ's sinlessness or in a sort of quasi-divinity rather than in full, actual divinity. But for an orthodox Trinitarian, I think any answer to the question "Why is the Cross of Jesus special?" other than "Because Jesus is the Begotten One of God, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit" is indicative of an atonement theory which is somehow deficient. It might perhaps provide us with a true and important piece of the puzzle, but it will also be lacking in some major way.

One example of this which seems particularly clear for me is the "moral exemplar" theory. Here's Tony's description:
So God sent his [sic] son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a moral life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message, and his death is as a martyr for this cause: the crucifixion both calls attention to Jesus’ life and message, and it is an act of self-sacrifice, one of the highest virtues of the moral life.
I think Tony's way of phrasing here is telling: "God sent his son." Now, this is a perfectly orthodox way of phrasing the relationship between Jesus and the one Jesus called Abba--it had better be, after all, since it's the main way of phrasing it used by the Christian Scriptures themselves. And if Tony is right that this "view of the atonement was the first post-biblical view articulated in the very earliest, post-Apostolic church" then I suppose we shouldn't be surprised it doesn't depend on an elaborate, sophisticated account of the Trinity which stresses Jesus' consubstantiality with God the Parent. But I do think that ultimately proves to be a weakness. While the moral exemplar theory is certainly true so far as it goes, it fails to adequately capture the fullness of the Atonement precisely because it fails to capture the fullness of Who Jesus Is. You can replace "his son" with "a prophet" or "an angel" or whatever and the sense of Tony's description isn't really changed.

Perhaps strangely, I think the most popular types of atonement theology--substitutionary theories, which include both the classic "ransom" view and the Reformed view of "penal substitution"--also fall prey to this criticism (as well as other logical criticisms we'll examine in future posts). As far as I can see, there is nothing preventing a Unitarian or quasi-Arian from holding a substitutionary account of the atonement; indeed, Jehovah's Witnesses typically advocate a version of the ransom theory. (And there is no contradiction I can see between the quasi-Arian understanding of Jesus as angel with penal substitution.) This indicates that these views, too, are ultimately lacking something crucial.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Recently, I took a train up to New Brunswick to attend a young adult retreat hosted by the Diocese of New Jersey. There's a lot I could say about the event: I had a blast, came away renewed, and we did a lot of great hashing-out of the notion of original sin during the Ask-a-Priest period (in response to a young woman's question about the RCC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) that ties into thoughts I've been thinking in such a way as to merit a post of its own. (Of course, at this point the topics which merit posts are legion, and the actual posts, not so much.) But for the moment to want to write a bit about a subject which came up during our lunch conversation.

Possibly in response to one young woman's giving up Facebook for Lent, we were discussing all the multitude of ways technology has shaped out lives. When one of our retreat leaders, the Rev. (and always awesome) Gregory Bezilla, asked if we ever thought about how Christianity fit into it all. I replied that I've often wondered just what what the implications are of Facebook (and of Dreamwidth and Livejournal and the cyberspace age in general) on the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body (affirmed in the Apostle's Creed, the creed of the baptismal covenant): if our body is that part of our selves which has extension in physical space, then isn't our Facebook, which can extend that self to a computer in California or Boston where a friend sees one's status update, part of our body? And insofar as it extends us through "virtual" space the way our physical body does through physical space, then doesn't it represent a "virtual body" just as real and as legitimate as is our physical one? Doesn't this blog allow me to express and/or mask what I am thinking in much the same way as my face does?

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger discussed a concept similar to this in his notion of Zuhandanheit ("ready-to-hand") in which a tool, through the experience of the user, is fused with the body. Heidegger argued that in using a tool (like Facebook, or the Dreamwidth blog I'm writing this) it becomes experientially invisible to us, an extension of our selves. The technology disappears completely as we focus on the immediate performance of the tool. (Full disclosure: most of the previous paragraph is recapitulated, often verbatim, from various websites, in particular this slideshow. It's been a couple of years since I picked up my Heidegger, although I do remember my professor, Tom de Zengotita, explaining this particular point.)

As I wrote above, I don't know what the implications of these thoughts are for the resurrection of the body, if it means that we should perhaps imagine the Facebook servers rising from the ashes on the day of the general resurrection. I don't know--but I do think the notion merits serious consideration

Now it is of course possible to think of information and communication technologies as something completely alien and foreign to our bodies and souls, as "the machine" which oppresses us. We can--but I don't think we should; indeed, I think doing so is seriously damaging to our Christian spirituality. We are not called to be alienated from that which God and/or human beings have created; at most, we are called to redeem it when it has fallen into sin.

There is a "strong" sort of transhumanism--where our humanity, and in particular our human bodies, is literally something to be transcended, escaped--which lies in conflict with our values both as feminists and as Trinitarian Christians, both of which should encourage us to celebrate our embodied natures. As feminists, we understand that the denial or devaluing of our embodied nature often represents a devaluing or erasure of femininity, femaleness, and/or womanhood (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article Feminist Perspectives on the Body for a comprehensive overview) by declaring it either irrelevant or inferior. As Trinitarian Christians, the above-referenced doctrine of the resurrection of the body tells us that our physical bodies represent a key component of the whole human person without which we are incomplete, that we are not destined to live out eternity merely as disembodied spirits. And the doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that Jesus glorified our human bodies by becoming one us, a human being, with a physical body which suffered and died on a cross. Indeed, it was the Gnostics of old who heretically denied Jesus's humanity, asserting that the Christ existed as a spirit only and that the death on the cross was an illusion.

In contrast to that sort of transhumanism, I'm thinking of a sort of "weak transhumanism," something more along the terms of Donna Harroway's cyborg feminism--a "Cyborg Christianity," if you will--in which, rather than allowing us to transcend our humanity and escape our human bodies, technology allows us to dissolve the dualism between our selves and our bodies and more fully, rather than less, live out our embodied humanity.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Is X necessary for salvation?

In some ways, there's a tension between two ways of asking this question, revolving around what we mean by "necessary" and what we mean by "salvation." The question "is X necessary for salvation?" where salvation is defined as "not going to Hell" is, essentially, an attempt to game the system: it's trying to find out what's the absolute least we have to do without "losing the game," so to speak. For those of us who find the doctrine of eternal damnation problematic to begin with, it's asking the wrong question.

(On reflection, it's not eternal damnation per se which is the problem so much as the Reformation doctrine that we inherently deserve eternal damnation as a result of our total depravity, rather than damnation being something we bring onto ourselves by actively and knowingly opposing God and separating ourselves from God. I think the latter understanding is perfectly compatible with the orthodox understanding of original sin being our tendency to choose evil as a result of our wounded--but not totally depraved--nature, and with a robust counter-Pelagianism.)

The other way of asking the question is "what am I called to do in order to become my most authentic self (as a Christian)?" (where "becoming my most authentic self" is essentially what we mean by salvation) without assuming that falling short of becoming our most authentic selves is going to result in us being poked by pitchforks forever and ever, amen. In response to that question, I don't think there's anything absurd in noting that Church tradition is fairly clear in teaching (for example) that, yes, "a pubic display in which a little cup of water is poured upon your head" (whether as a child or an adult, and of course never denying that full immersion represents a valid sacrament as well) is necessary, that baptism by water is the fullest and best enactment of the sacramental infusion of regenerative grace, a good and rightful and necessary thing.
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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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