31 May 2003

there is another king: ii

Continued from a previous post.

Deconstructing the “Secular”

In order for the politics of the Gospel to be heard and grasped, it is first necessary to dismantle some of the assumptions that are often brought to discussions of civil order and faith, assumptions that may well distort what is meant by the claim that the Gospel is politics. These assumptions are typically “modern”—the “modern” referring to those varying perspectives that have been widely operative since the 17th century and which share many common themes and notions, ranging over the realms of politics, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics.

Such assumptions include: the conception of the “secular” as a particular social space as opposed to the religious; a limiting of the “political” to that secular space and conceiving it primarily in terms struggle for power; an abstract opposition between “society” and the “individual” or the public and the private. These assumptions, in turn, are tied up with more evidently theological ones: a separation of reason and faith; a sharp division between the order of nature and that of grace or the natural and supernatural; a dichotomization between the exterior or objective and the interior or subjective; and so on. Moreover, it is arguable that this entire set of assumptions involves relations of mutual support and thus comes together as a single “package.” I will explicate some of these assumptions and dynamics presently, while leaving the rest to be addressed in my more positive account.

We can begin by noting that the “modern,” arguably, has its roots not merely in certain philosophical thinkers of the Enlightenment, but (perhaps more importantly) earlier in the late scholastics (e.g., John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham). Thereby, the “modern” also affects in differing degrees the thought of both various varieties of Protestantism as well as Tridentine Catholicism, including the ways in which both developed their overall theologies, including their theological reflections upon the state and politics in relation to the church and faith. The full story of the construction of the “modern”, with its varying assumptions, however, is beyond the scope of this present essay, but a few brief gestures toward a more complete genealogy may prove useful in questioning its suppositions and categories.

29 May 2003


Claire began to climb the stairs today. Life as we once knew it is now over.

september conferences

I'm planning to attend two interesting conferences this September, which will both focus on the intersection of philosophy, theology, and postmodernism.

The first conference is Creation, Covenant, and Participation: Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, which is being held at Calvin College, September 11-13, hosted by Jamie Smith of their philosophy department and is part of their ongoing series of seminars in Christian scholarship.

Plenary speakers include: Plenary Speakers include: John Milbank (University of Virginia), Graham Ward (University of Manchester), James H. Olthuis (Institute for Christian Studies), Robert E. Webber (Northen Baptist Theological Seminary), and James K.A. Smith (Calvin College).

The second is Religion and Postmodernism 4: Transcendence and Beyond, which is being held at Villanova University, September 18-20, coordinated by Jack Caputo and Michael Scanlon.

The two main speakers are Jean-Luc Marion (University of Paris/Sorbonne) and Gianni Vattimo (University of Turin). Other speakers include Richard Kearny (Boston College), Catherine Keller (Drew University), Fergus Kerr (Edinburgh University and Blackfriars, Oxford), James P. Mackey (Edinburgh University and Trinity College, Dublin), Sallie McFague (Vancouver School of Theology), Calvin Schrag (Purdue University), Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza (Harvard Divinity School), and David Wood (Vanderbilt University).

I'll report back, of course, after each of the events.

28 May 2003

burns on milbank

Rob Burns' "Extra Ecclesia Non Salus Est: Defending John Milbank’s Ecclesiastical Metanarrative" is a fascinating and helpful defense of Milbank against both postmodernist (Coles, Hyman) and anabaptist (Yoder, though Hauerwas might fit in here as well) critiques of what some might perceive as Milbank's overly "constantinian" metanarrative.

I'm not sure who the author, Robert W. Burns, is, but he appears to have written this paper as an undergraduate political science major at Wheaton College a couple of years ago. Impressive.

pcusa ga

We should remain in prayer for all our brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian Church USA, which is currently holding it's annual General Assembly, this year in Denver. The denomination continues to be fraught with deep divisions despite what seems an overall drift toward orthodoxy and post-liberalism.


For Gideon Strauss or any others out there who may know, a hopefully simple question: With regard to Herman Dooyeweerd's notion of "soevereiniteit in eigen kring" ("sphere sovereignty"), does he see the internal structure, functioning, and typology of each sphere as analogically (and/or perspectivally) related to all the others?

It's been a while since I've read Dooyeweerd in any great depth. Honestly, I kept finding the costs of studying his writings to significantly outweigh what I took as the rather slim benefits: helpful insights, most of which could be readily found elsewhere, buried within a great mound of post-kantian apparatus and highly questionable historiography. Then again, mabye Dooyeweerd is just temperamentally too alien for me.

In any case, I'm curious how Dooyeweerd might answer my question.

26 May 2003

recent and forthcoming

Looking at Canon Press's online catalogue, it appears there are a number of interesting new releases.

I'm looking forward especially to perusing Jeff Meyers's The Lord's Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship, which I hope will advance important discussions on Reformed liturgics that are already underway.

Peter Leithart also seems to have been busy with his Against Christianity, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel, and From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution all slated for publication. Peter's books are always profitable, spanning across ecclesiology, biblical studies, and liturgics.

Mark Horne's commentary, The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel, will prove a helpful guide to that Gospel, a Gospel in which I too have particular interest.

Finally, Ralph Smith has produced an ambitious pair of books on Trinitarian theology which will, I'm sure, prove helpful to discussions of Trinity and covenant in Reformed circles: Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity and Eternal Covenant: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology.

23 May 2003


I've added a new page of pics.

21 May 2003

there is another king

For months now I've been trying to finish an article on political theology, though unfortunately I have had almost no time to give to it. Here is the introduction:


When Paul and Silas were accused by a mob in Thessalonika, among the charges brought against them was that they proclaimed that there is another king, this Jesus (Acts 17:7). Whatever the intentions of the mob may have been, this incident shows us that the Gospel message heralded by Paul was easily and credibly heard as a political message in the context of the ancient world. This was even so when those bearing that message were busy with what we would see as “church work”: proclaiming Jesus, explaining the Scriptures, and baptizing converts.

And yet, in our world, the Gospel is often heard primarily as a message about personal salvation or about distant events in a distant history or the promise of a new kind of spiritual experience. Even where the Gospel leads to political involvement, more often than not it is seen as the intrusion of religion or the church into secular space, either by projecting one’s private religiosity into the public square or by dangerously colluding with the powers that be or by attempting to wrest their power from them.

In the following essay, I will argue that the way things now stand is deficient and that the Gospel does not merely lead Christians to enter into and engage themselves within secular political space. Rather the Gospel is politics, a politics moreover that questions the very constitution of any social space as “secular” or the relegation of politics to that space. The Gospel, thereby, begins to redefine what we mean by “politics.”

I will begin by examining and deconstructing the notion of the “secular” as an artifact of the Enlightenment, noting how it has come to constrain the ways in which Christians and the church have seen themselves as related to the political. In the second half of this essay, I will attempt to sketch the ways in which the Gospel refashions politics around itself through its very message about a new King and new Lord, through the establishment of the church as the center of God’s reign, and through new practices—in particular, baptism and eucharist—which are themselves politically transformative.

berek gone

Safe journeys, my friend.

17 May 2003

thoughts on giussani

(from comments I made at the IIC)

There is much in The Risk of Education that resonates with me as Christian philosopher, teaching at a Catholic university. Thinkers such as Gadamer or Hauerwas, as well as various kinds of postmodern thought, have stressed the way in which we are all situated within particular communities and narratives, which inform our experience of the world and from which there is no possibility of ultimately extricating ourselves. Indeed, being traditioned in these various ways is necessary for the possibility of knowing anything at all.

We can thus understand the Christian narrative as one that can "out-narrate" others, but does so from the standpoint of a community and practice in which that narrative can be shown to be more attractive, to call forth an almost aesthetic response from the human subject. In this way, Christ is known as Lord.

Having said this, I must also address what I see as a possible terminological or theoretical difficulty with regard to some of the ways in which Fr. Giussani (or perhaps his translator) expresses himself, as least in terms of how he is likely to be understood by an American audience. While The Risk of Education strikes me as somewhat less tightly argued and organized than some other books by Giussani, that is not my primary concern. Rather, I worry that the terminology of "experience" and "verification" could be profoundly misleading, at least within certain contexts, particularly within certain pragmatist, subjectivist, consumerist, and positivist tendencies within American philosophical thought and popular culture.

Within that context, for instance, "experience" is too easily read as "my own personal experience" and so can function as a means by which belief-systems are commodified and subjected to the whims of the sovereign consumer. Likewise, "verification" can take on an empiricist tone, in which raw sense data must be compiled, organized, and experimentally proven.

Now, I think I know what Fr. Giussani intends by these terms and that his intent is something more pre-cartesian, not limited to the horizon of the individual subject, but situated within actions, events, community, and dialogue by which reality can be truly encountered, unveiling itself to a properly receptive knower, in an event which is as ethical and aesthetic as it is epistemological. The ontology presupposed here is therefore more Thomist and personalist than modernist. Still, I think the way in Giussani (or, again, perhaps his translator) brings this perspective to expression in The Risk of Education is liable to be misunderstood.

Finally, setting aside this more theoretical difficulty, Fr. Giussani’s educational perspective raises several practical difficulties for me as an educator. First, the contemporary university is not conducive in a number of ways to the kind of educational vision Giussani proposes. Students are ill-prepared for college level work, curricular requirements regiment course content, academics tend toward overspecialization, and teaching loads preclude the kind of time commitment one would like to give. As a result, excessive classroom time is taken up attempting to equip students with some of the most basic academic skills. Broader perspectives and deeper questions of meaning are pushed aside by departmental and curricular demands. Professors with narrow specializations often lack the wider knowledge and training in their fields which are necessary to open larger questions. And increased course loads and administrative roles for full-time faculty, along the proliferation of adjunct teachers, place demands on time that could be otherwise spent cultivating community.

Second, universities—even Catholic ones—do not often embody the kind of respect for traditions that Giussani suggests is necessary, lacking any kind of institutional cohesion. The problem is not so much one of actual relativism or skepticism in the classroom, since most college professors do possess clear commitments and agendas, which they communicate to their students. Rather, the difficulty is the fragmentary nature of the modern university in which respect given to particular traditions and beliefs in one classroom may well be undermined in another. Thus, students receive mixed messages, without the tools and stability to discern where truth may be present. And so, as Giussani suggests, skepticism and relativism can ensue.

This difficulty is particularly pressing when it comes to the Christian claim, which, along with other forms of life, is reduced to simply one claim among others. This is particularly disastrous when this kind of ideological competition is taking place in the context of a modern liberalized universal reason that tends to tame and police theological narratives, relegating them to the realm of the individual, privatized, internalized, and moralistic, rather than (what is understood as) the realm of truth.

Finally, returning to something I mentioned in passing earlier, it is often very difficult to foster the kind of community that would be necessary for Fr. Giussani's vision to function fully. The kind of interpersonal connection between teachers and students, dialogue and friendship, supported by the wider educational community, which Fr. Giussani seems to suppose, is one that is difficult to attain, though one does occasionally and happily find it emerging, despite barriers. Ideally, I think, a Catholic college would intentionally and proactively shape itself into a spiritual community, an ecclesially formed society, and would do so in ways that go beyond just requiring courses in religion and philosophy or an emphasis upon service-learning, however important those elements may be. Still this kind of fostering of community does not easily happen. Individual professors can do their part, but without wider institutional support, the project falters, even if as teachers we do what we can to remain connected to and rooted in the spiritual resources of our own parishes.

Even with these sometimes daunting difficulties, I would hope that books like Fr. Giussani's would contribute to a discussion of these topics in educational circles—particularly Catholic and more broadly Christian ones—in a way that would actually come to transform our educational practice. The Risk of Education constitutes a challenging and important part an any such discussion.

14 May 2003


I must say that I quite impressed so far with the content of Meshereth Magazine.

13 May 2003

still sick

I've got a wicked sore throat, lingering from last week's virus, mixed with allergies, no doubt. I'm also in the midst of a three day teaching workshop.

Remember my health in your prayers, should you think of it.

the risk of education

In April I was involved in two events that involved Liugi Giussani's book The Risk of Education. Giussani is the founder of the Roman Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, a movement that began in Italy in the 1950s and with which I have been tangentially involved over the past several years.

I understand Fr. Giussani to be making four central claims in his book. First, he proposes that education must be oriented toward what Giussani describes as an experience with total reality in which Christ can come to be seen as fulfilling what it is for us to be authentically human.

Second, Giussani posits a respect for tradition as a necessary precondition for the possibility of education, since it is only from within the concrete specificity of a person's location in a family, culture, and society that one can face the question of reality and engage it in a truly critical way.

Third, he suggests that the Christian community must play an important and intentional role in education by providing an ecclesial environment in which Christ is made known in our relationships and actions.

Finally, Fr. Giussani sees the teacher as embodying the experience of reality in a particular way, with a coherence that carries with it a certain kind of authority, though not one that is perceived as external or imposed.

All of these claims constitute education as something inherently risky since it values and nourishes the freedom of the student, calling upon the student to verify the content of teaching through his encounter with and experience of reality.

The first event that discussed the book was a conference at Georgetown that centered on the topic of Christian education, with a focus on the university level. The three main speakers were Stanley Hauerwas (Duke Divinity School), Bp. Antony Schola (the Roman Catholic Patriarch of Venice), and Mary Katherine Tillman (University of Notre Dame). Though the majority of the participants were Roman Catholic, most of them would place themselves within the de Lubac/Balthasar tradition of Catholic theology, and thus were thoroughly orthodox, though ecumenically-minded.

The talks were all really good and for each of the three 45 minute talks they had scheduled in 90 minutes of very lively audience discussion (the conference was by invitation and only had around 50 participants), which allowed for very extensive interaction.

Hauerwas (erudite, funny, and abrasive as usual) spoke on the necessity of being distinctively Christian in education, rooting it in the ecclesial community, and situating education within the Christian narrative. Bp. Schola placed education in the context of a wider Christian philosophy of the human person and the revelation of God, so that all areas of study be considered in relation to the meaning of reality as a whole. Tillman made a comparison between the writings on education by John Henry Newman and those of Luigi Guissani.

Later in April, I was a panelist on a book discussion of The Risk of Education at the International Institute for Culture here in Philadelphia. Other panelists were Msgr Lorenzo Albacete and Mark Henrie. Albacete has taught at the John Paul II Institute in DC and at St Joseph's Seminary in NYC, as well as writing for things like the New York Times Magazine. Mark Henrie is an editor for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and also edited Doomed Bourgeois in Love, a recent set of essays on the films of Whit Stillman.

I hope to post some of my reflections on Giussani's book here soon.

12 May 2003


Given that I'm blogging again, the proper term for going on a hiatus is no longer "going garver" but is now "going garner."


If I don't have your blog listed on my blog roll, I may have simply forgotten it or not know about it. Drop me a line if you'd like me to consider adding it.

summer evermore succeeds barren winter

My hiatus was a wise one.

This term was probably the busiest and most stressful I've had: still adjusting to being a dad, acting as primary childcare two days a week, supporting Laurel with her work-related stresses, teaching a full load of doubled courses plus a large overload course, attending departmental meetings, keeping up with household chores, and so on. In addition, I managed to fall ill three times: once with a stomach flu and twice with respiratory infections, each of which put me out of commission for a week and set me further behind. And all this was sometimes darkly interwoven with my tendency toward seasonal affective depression.

I'm finally beginning to feel that darkness lift and to catch up on a number of projects that have been languishing amidst my other work.

Still, even in the midst of winter there was much for which I was and continue to be thankful. My darling little girl, Claire, has been a continual joy as I've watched her grow and develop, now seeing her pull herself up to stand, her reaching out curiously to grasp at her world, and her developing mind as she begins to understand what Laurel and I say to her. Though she can take up much time and energy, it is all well spent and received back in manifold rewards.

Another brightness has been having Berek living with us, particularly as he has been such a tremendous help around the house with daily chores and his care and affection for our little daughter. I've enjoyed and grown through our independent study in philosophy, as well as other discussions of theology, culture, and life, sometimes late into the night. Laurel and I have come so much to depend upon Berek's support and presence, as well as the place this delightful young man has gained in our hearts. When he leaves next week, we will miss him very much.

Even in these past busy days, I did find the time to attend some concerts, campus events, and local venues and to visit Princeton, Gettysburg, Antietam, and elsewhere. In addition I participated in a Christian education conference at Georgetown and sat on a panel discussing education at the International Institute for Culture. I'll blog more about these last items at some later point.

Fortunately, this summer will be the first time, I believe, since I was 18 years old that I won't be spending the summer teaching. I look forward to resting, writing, participating in some conferences, traveling, blogging, and especially spending time with my lovely wife and dear little girl.


It would appear that I am back.