25 February 2002

Also, note the addition of a couple of newer links to the left: neocalvinism today and fellowship.

Yikes. It's be over a week since I blogged anything. In part that's because I'm trying to cut back the amount of time of spend on-line. In part it's because I've been unusually busy the past week.

The busy week is due to one of my colleagues in the philosophy department here at La Salle having a mild heart attack on the 15th (he's doing just fine). I've had to jump in as a substitute teacher for his class for two weeks. Also, my church had an arts festival on Friday night and I spent most of Thursday evening helping set up.

Once I get through this stack of grading that has piled up in the meantime, I should have some time to return to blogging and reading blogs.

15 February 2002

An Irishman moves into a tiny hamlet in County Kerry, walks into the pub and promptly orders three beers. The bartender raises his eyebrows, but serves the man three beers, which he drinks quietly at a table, alone.

An hour later, the man has finished the three beers and orders three more. This happens yet again. The next evening the man again orders and drinks three beers at a time, several times. Soon the entire town is whispering about the Man Who Orders Three Beers. Finally, a week later, the bartender broaches the subject on behalf of the town. "I don' mean to pry, but folks 'round here are wondering why ye always order three beers?"

"Och, aye. 'Tis odd, isn't it?" the man replies, "Ye see, I have two brethers, and one went to America, and the other to Australia. We promised each other that we would always order an extra two beers whenever we drank as a way of keepin' up the family bond."

The bartender and the whole town was pleased with this answer, and soon the Man Who Orders Three Beers became a local celebrity and source of pride to the hamlet, even to the extent that out-of-towners would come to watch him drink.

Then, one day, the man comes in and orders only two beers. The bartender pours them with a heavy heart. This continues for the rest of the evening: he orders only two beers. The word flies around town. Prayers are offered for the soul of one of the brothers. The next day, the bartender says to the man, "Folks around here, me first of all, are sorry fer ye troubles and want to offer condolences to ye for the death of yer brether. Ye know--the two beers and all..."

The man ponders this for a moment, then replies, "Ye'll be happy to hear that my two brethers are alive and well. It's just that I, meself, have decided to give up drinkin' for Lent."

13 February 2002

This made me chuckle. On his blog, Peri Doxas, AKMA observes how unwarranted is the sharp distinction some people make between "merely knowing someone on-line" and "really knowing them face-to-face," as if knowing someone on-line wasn't really knowing them at all.

But, writes AKMA regarding his on-line presence:This is me. This is what I'm like when you can't see my face, or hear my voice, but can make out the words I'm scrawling on your computer screen and can tell from the color scheme and logo that I teach at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.Quite right.

I recall a conversation I had with a student who was complaing about how petty and superficial his roommate is. He said he wished he could get to know the "real" person. I suggested that, despite a century of Freudian psychology, maybe pettiness and superficiality are the real person. Even if those things are masks, donning a mask can be as much a part of who you are as cultivating one's interior life.

Of course, when that happens, it is sad since we have a conception of what a fully human life should look like and the potential for something more.

12 February 2002

Fat Tuesday, Donut Day, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, whatever you'd like to call it, it's today. Have a nice big fastnacht and enjoy!

11 February 2002

Whoa. Dude. Half-pipe. Awesome.

I've been thinking about the Reformed doctrine of election as of late (what else is new?), as well as some related topics such as how the distinction between "visible church" and "invisible church" seems to sometimes function in Reformed discussions.

If that weren't enough, various sources I've run into in the past several days keeping bringing the issues to my attention.

Here are some web-based discussions, thoughts, and resources for reflection, for interested parties, particularly those coming from a Reformed perspective or background and enmeshed within the dynamics and questions of that tradition.

(The inclusion of any particular resource here does not necessarily imply full endorsement.)Aurelius Augustine, "On Rebuke and Grace"

John Barach, "Baptism and Election"

S. Joel Garver, "A Brief Catechesis on Covenant and Baptism"

Mark Horne, "Of The Church: An Exposition of Chapter XXV of the Westminster Confession of Faith"

Mark Horne, "Reflections on the Importance of Predestination in the Christian Mindset"

Addition: Rich Lusk, "Hebrews 6:4-8: New Life and Apostasy"

Wayne (Toshikazu) Olson, et al, 11 February 2002 post and comments, Toshikazu blog

Telford Work, "Annunciation as Election"
I also recommend John Barach's tape from the Pastor's Conference that was held at Auburn Avenue PCA this January.

08 February 2002

The two films we've seen in the cinema most recently are The Royal Tenenbaums and Gosford Park.

The former was the very quirky, but likable story of a laywer father estranged from his family, an archaeologist wife and three children (a businessman, a playwright, and a tennis player), and how he comes to reconcile with them. The film is amusing and touching, quirky not only in its characters and plot, but even in its cinematography, devices, and sets. While the various characters are at first difficult to identify with in their eccentricities, and the plot appears to be overly disjointed, by the end of the film it all weaves together as we are drawn in by the pain and distance between the family members and their need to experience healing.

The latter film is a very well-acted murder mystery and comedy of manners set in a upper-class English household of the 1930s, seen from the perspective of the servants. It is suspenseful and illuminating with regard to British class relations of an earlier era and with regard to the kinds of abuse to which men in power are prone. The mystery of the film moves from the typical "who-done-it" to "why" and therein lie the central themes. In addition to many marvelous performances by a number of seasoned British actors, the script is both smart, funny, and insightful.

More about Caputo. Wednesday afternoon he led a really fun seminar comparing how Heidegger and Derrida have each responded to the Confessions of St. Augustine.

It's really amazing to what degree 20th century philosophers have continued to be obssessed with Augustine, especially the Confessions, from Arendt to Foucault. Indeed, Heidegger's Being and Time grew, in many respects, out of a 1921 lecture course on "Augustine and Neoplatonism" in which he saw a distinction between the "factical" Augustine who struggles in Christian trial and temptation coram Deo and the neo-Platonic Augustine who contemplated the divine being as the summum bonum. These lectures had followed Heidegger's previous lectures on Paul's letters to the Thessalonians, which also finds the authentically Christian life in the eschatological tension of the earliest church, awaiting the end of the world.

For Heidegger, then, Augustine's notion of struggle, the good Christian soldier, comes to be grafted together with the Socrates who stands his post (from the Apology), translating it then into more formal and Greek conception of Dasein that is called to fight the good fight in resolute self-possession.

This all stands in contrast to Derrida's reading of Augustine in his Circumfession, according to Caputo. The title here is a play on "confession" and "circumcision," for, like Augustine, Derrida is a transplanted north African, but he is also Jewish. The text of Derrida's book, indeed, involves Latin quotations from Augustine interwoven with Derrida's own autobiographical journals. While Heidegger entirely ignores the figure of Monica, Augustine's mother, Derrida takes her as central, drawing a parallel with his own mother, Georgette, both weeping mothers whose sons are born of their tears and whose deaths form an integral part of the respective texts.

While Heidegger is interested in the self-possessed soldier that is Dasein, Derrida focusses upon the phenomenology of weeping as authentic to the human experience. Where Heidegger notes Augustine's eyes (concupiscentia oculorum) disciplined to duty and not led astray by desire, Derrida notes the eyes of Augustine and Monica blinded (aboculus) by tears.

At this point Caputo turned to Derrida's Memoir's of the Blind, a book that grew out of an opportunity granted by the Louvre to leading intellectuals to gather together exhibits from among their collections. Derrida chose paintings depicting blindness, noting that men are depicted as blinded in exchange for a higher vision, whether St. Paul on the road to Damascus or the Greek oracles. Women, on the other hand, are mostly depicted as blinded by tears, particularly at the foot of the Cross. Thus, Derrida notes, tears involve a blinding that is not an exchange for a higher vision, but are a prayer for something we cannot see, for which we only can implore and weep.

Derrida thus sees Augustine's Confessions as a "great book of tears," for the weeping eye is the organ of confession, mourning, prayer, misery, and joy. This stands in contrast with the Greek (phallocentric) desire to see, to gaze upon the truth in contemplation. Derrida remains even in contrast with Heidegger's own dynamic of lethe and aletheia that is still stuck in the grip vision and sight, even if fleetingly.

This works itself out in a different assessment of death between Derrida and Heidegger. Heidegger's "being-towards-death" that is typical of Dasein remains a resolute readiness that participates in soldierly mastery and self-possession. For Augustine in the death of Monica and for Derrida in that of Georgette, however, the death in question is not one's own, but that of the (m)other. The death scene in Circumfessions is slow, with running bedsores, and an old woman's blank, unrecognizing stare. Derrida draws a connection between his own tears, those of his mother when he was ill as a child, and those of women at the foot of the cross, seeing all of these as a portrait of the human condition. And in all of this, our tears point beyond the mourning of the other, to that greater mourning that is a desire for the Other, for God.

This desire for God in Derrida is not what Heidegger took it to be--the end of all questioning, a final truth--but rather a throwing of everything into question, our own blindedness in tears (cut off, circumcised from phallocentric desire). It is not a matter of "knowing" the truth (in a Greek fashion), but desiring it; not seeing, but confessing; not possessing, but doing (as Augustine says, veritatem facere).

07 February 2002

Caputo's two talks yesterday were quite good. He's always able to take complicated ideas and texts (even Derrida!) and present them in an accessible and engaging fashion.

His lecture, "The Gift" actually spent most of the time focussing on the phenomenology of giving, attempting to get the audience to talk through how giving works, aiming his remarks at the undergraduates for the most part. In many ways, though he didn't say so explicitly, his remarks were reflecting some of the thinking of Levinas, Marion, and Milbank. The question is what precisely we mean by a "gift".

One might try to define a gift as the giving of something to another unconditionally, with no expection of return or reward. The giver (let's call him A) gives up something (we'll call X) and the receiver (let's call him B) receives something. A loses and B gains. But, of course, that's just not true. Consider a case where the gift X is very generous, B loses something too, because B suddenly has a debt of gratitude and feels that he must, at some point, do something comparable for A. If this happens A will gain as well. But in the meantime, A still gains because A may find joy in the giving of X and in imagining the pleasure X will bring to B. And if A continues to give but no recipient shows any gratitude, then chances are A will feel that his generosity has been abused.

Thus there is really no such thing as an entirely disinterested, unconditional gift, with no expectation of return. This is the case even if the giver and/or the receiver are anonymous. This is even the case in self-sacrifice to the point of death, even by a person who doesn't believe in an afterlife or a final resurrection. If A gives his life for the sake of B, A may still do so with a sense of satisfaction or even joy in that last final moment before death.

But none of this is to say that giving is some kind of contractual arrangement. Far from it. Giving involves exceeding expectations, not specifying proper returns, a kind of abundant surplus of reciprocity. That is part of the logic and phenomenology of giving. That was Caputo's main point.

He went on to apply this in several ways. First, it is an example of "deconstruction." The notion of "gift" deconstructs itself by creating an exchange that fails to fit the paradigm of what we ordinarily think of as a "gift".

Second, this can be applied to the study of literature and interpretation. The author gives a text which the audience receives. Now, is this giving governed by a strict contractual logic, in which the recipient must only give back to the author in her reading precisely what the author intended to be received? In that case, a text is not really a gift. Instead, there must be a surplus of meaning, something new that the recipient finds in her receiving of the text that exceeds authorial intention.

Third, Caputo turned to the ethics of forgiveness. If forgiveness involves the giving of a gift, then it cannot demand that the recipient of forgiveness meet a particular set of requirements in order to be forgiven. Rather the forgiveness must be offered, perhaps hoping that a response will come and with the expectation of enjoyment in the reconciliation that will happen should the forgiveness be received. But these cannot be demanded where forgiveness is genuine.

Finally, Caputo gestured towards some theological applications of this analysis for our theology of atonement and the like. Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point in order to go teach a class, so I'm not sure where he went with it.

For an interesting and deeper treatment of this whole line of thinking, see Milbank's The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice that appeared a few years ago in First Things.

Later, perhaps, I will say something about Caputo's seminar on Augustine, Heidegger, and Derrida.

I handed back the quizzes to my students yesterday with the question about the final resurrection on them. They weren't very happy. A number of them actually began to question me, whether or not I had marked the quizzes correctly. Student: I went to Catholic school all my life and I was always told you go to heaven when you die and that's it.

Me: In that case you must also have gone to church all your life and said the words of our Creed, "I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." That means being raised from death in renewed bodies in a renewed world.

Student: I thought it just meant going to heaven when you die...I was always taught that only Jesus got to rise from the dead like that.

Me: Yes, there is a sense in which Jesus' resurrection is unique, but Paul's entire argument in 1 Corinthians 15 is that we will be raised on the last day with bodies just like Jesus' body...walking, talking, breathing, eating, bearing the marks of this life, and recognizable as our own.

Student: That's weird. I never heard that before.

Me: Well, that's what "resurrection" means and how the church has historically understood it. And that's what I taught you guys a couple of days ago. Whatever your other teachers may have said, either you misunderstood them, they were unclear, or they got it wrong.

Student: Oh... I think theology is just way too confusing. Whatever.
Not the best exchange I've ever had. But I'll keep trying.

Good news. Graham Ward, of the University of Manchester and a proponent of "radical orthodoxy", is busy translating Henri de Lubac's Corpus Mysticum: L'Eucharistie et L'Eglise au Moyen-Age for Blackwell.

I've often been frustrated that this important work of history, theology, philosophy, and liturgics has remained untranslated since its initial publication in 1949. As the subtitle indicates, Corpus Mysticum is a study of the relationship between the eucharist and the church in the middle ages, with particular reference to the notion of the "mystical body" of Christ. De Lubac argues that from the early middle ages to the late middle ages there is a significant shift in how these realities are thought about and experienced, a shift that has been detrimental to both Protestant and Catholic theology (though authors like de Certeau, Pickstock, and others have drawn out the implications more than de Lubac did).

De Lubac's entire argument is difficult to summarize, but I give it a try. The term "Body of Christ" can have three referents: [1] the historical body of Jesus that was crucified and raised again, [2] the Church united to Christ as her Head, and [3] the sacramental Body of Christ received in the eucharist. De Lubac notes that in the early middle ages, [2] and [3] were closely aligned with one another and distinguished from [1], but over time [1] and [3] came to be aligned and distinguished from [2].

This is evident in the use of terminology such as "mystical body" and "true body." In the earlier period (starting really with the Fathers) the term "mystical body" referred primarily to the eucharist, though it could also be used in reference to the church, because the two were mutually constitutive. That is to say, the church gathers as the Body of Christ in order that the eucharistic Body of Christ be presently enacted and received, and in receiving the eucharistic Body of Christ, the church not only receives Christ, but also receives one another as his Body. The receiving of Christ in the eucharist is an ecclesially-embedded event, a liturgical action in time that also is the process by which the church herself as Christ's Body continually comes-to-be. In a fundamental way, the church constitutes the "true body" of Christ in which the eucharistic body is manifest and received in the communion of the church, sacramentally receiving one another.

In the later middle ages, this whole complex shifts and flips around, so that by the end of the 13th century it is the church that becomes the "mystical body" of Christ and the eucharist that is thought of in terms of the "true body" of Christ (corpus Christi verum). This shift represents a theological development in which the confecting of the eucharistic presence of Christ's body becomes the foundation for the reality of the historical church, rather than the two being mutually interdependent. Moreover, it de-temporalizes the relationship so that the eucharist is thought of less as an event, an action of the gathered church, and more as a thing, a miracle that can be positively and spatially located, fetishized, and marked out by particular consecratory words.

This gives rise to the late medieval understanding of "transsubstantiation" against which the Reformers were rightly objecting as an inauthentic interpretation of biblical faith and patristic (and early medieval) tradition. This does not, of course, absolve Protestant thought from its own problematics, for in many respects the Protestant reaction against the emerging Roman Catholic position was just as much caught up in the matrices of late medieval (and early modern) concepts.

Where the post-medieval Roman Catholic tendency was to see the eucharist as the "real" presence of Christ of which the church, as the "mystical" body was only a (juridically and hierarchically produced) metaphor, Protestants tended to see the church (produced by an act of faith in a juridical and propositional revelation) as the "real" body of the Christ to which the eucharist only points as a symbol. In a more extreme and individualized version, this Protestant tendency came to focus upon the individual believer's interior "receiving of Christ" through faith as the real of which the eucharist was only a symbolic expression.

To be fair, I should point out that figures like Calvin, Bucer, Cranmer, and others (at least on their best days) did try to call for a return to something like the patristic and early medieval view. But the forces of modernity that were already afoot, perhaps as early as the thought of Duns Scotus and certainly in the thought of these very Reformers, were too pervasive for much progress to be made.

In any case, I look forward very much to the publication of de Lubac's Corpus Mysticum so that English-speaking readers may finally directly benefit from his insightful study.

06 February 2002

Another theological blog has come to my attention: clutter. It's the blog of Telford Work, a professor of religious studies at Westmont College.

(link courtesy of jim hart)

The philosophy department where I spend most of my time teaching is sponsoring a series of lectures, conversations, and seminars this spring at La Salle University. The topic is "Postmodernism and Faith."

The first talk is today at 1pm. John Caputo (Villanova University, philosophy) will be giving a talk entitled, "The Gift." I'm assuming that his remarks will likely be presented against the background of Jean-Luc Marion who speaks of God as being-as-given (or as "gift"), in light of the phenomenological concept of "the given". This, of course, can function in turn against the background of classical Christian trinitarian thought as we see in Pseudo-Dionysius or Aquinas, in which God's own being is seen in terms of the totally giving-over of each Person of the Trinity to the Others. Milbank and his radically orthodox colleagues have also spoken much of "donation" as a central metaphysical concept.

Later in the afternoon, Caputo will also be leading a seminar on "Heidegger, Derrida, and the Confessions" (of St. Augustine). It will be interesting to see how he traces out the connections. As some may know, Derrida has become increasingly concerned with religious concepts in recent years.

On February 26, there will be a conversation between Dave Efroymson (La Salle religion department, emeritus) and Fred van Fleteren (La Salle philosophy department). The topic is "Has Augustine Done More Evil than Good for Christianity?" Dave is a Catholic convert from Judaism and can be rather testy and provocative, with no patience for neo-platonism. I'm assuming he is taking the affirmative position. Fred, on the other hand, is a leading Augustine scholar and will be sure to give the Church Father a vigorous defense. This should be an interesting (and fun!) dialogue.

On March 21 Merold Westphal (an elder in the Reformed Church in America and philosopy professor at Fordham) will be lecturing on "The Religious Uses of Postmodern Philosophy." Several days later, on March 26, Bettina Bergo (Loyala College, Maryland, philosophy) will be talking about "Responsibility and Anxiety as Ethical 'Moods': Returns of Religion in Kierkegaard and Levinas."

John Caputo will return to finish off the series on April 17 with a lecture entitled, "Cyber-Spirits" and a seminar on "Postmodernism and Catholicism."

I'm certainly looking forward to the entire series and will report back as it progresses.

Outside of conservative Reformed and popular evangelical circles, I haven't been able to find many theologically-oriented weblogs (well, Jeremy has that Orthodox thing going and Brian is seeking greener pastures). But I haven't spent loads of time looking, either.

Fortunately, AKM Adam somehow managed to stumble across my site and has linked to me. For those who don't know, the Rev. Dr. Adam is a professor of NT at Seabury-Western Seminary, an Episcopal seminary in Illinois. He's the author of numerous articles and books, many concerning postmodern biblical studies, including What Is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (Fortress, 1995). To be honest, this last item is the only thing by him that I've read, though the two volumes he's recently edited look quite useful.

Now, if only he can hook me up with some other good "theoblog" links, I'll be a happy camper.

04 February 2002

I was just grading my students' quizzes from Friday for my class "The Human Person". The fourth multiple choice question was:

In the biblical picture of human nature, our ultimate destiny is:
a. bodiless life in heaven
b. bodily resurrection
c. bodily death
d. detroit

Now to their credit, no one answered d. detroit. But out of 18 students, only 3 answered correctly: b. bodily resurrection. Most people went with a.

And this was after spending over half of the previous class looking at 1 Corinthians 15, with a class of students almost entirely from Christian backgrounds who grew up reciting the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds.

Has Platonism pervaded our popular theology that much?

St. Louis lost to the Patriots. Awwww. Poor St. Louis. How sad.