30 November 2003

new year

The church year begins anew today with that season of anticipation and preparation: awaiting the second coming of our Lord when he will set all things aright and deliver us finally and fully from the world of sin, the flesh, and the devil.

But we also await the celebration of his first coming, as those who live between the times and, unlike the patriarchs of old, know God as the Incarnate One in whom all God's promises for humanity have already come to fulfillment and remain "yes" and "amen."

And we also wait and watch and pray, for Christ comes to us even now in the word of the Gospel, holding out God's forgiveness to us as those baptized into his life and as we continually meet Christ in absolution and blessing, proclamation and preaching, the bread and the wine, the stranger and the hungry.

advent and christmastide calendar from
liturgy training publications

Advent is also a time when domestic customs and rituals of the Church year begin afresh: calendars covered with little doors to open day by day, fresh greens to liven the house in the midst of late autumn decay, and purple candles on the advent wreath to push back the rapid descent of night. And so we pray:O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing thy praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Thou art worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified though all the worlds.
The peace of the Lord be with you all this season.

collect for Advent 1

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

28 November 2003

can it be true?

I just saw an ad on TV for dark chocolate Hershey's kisses. I can't find any info on their website and maybe I was just having a momentary fantasy.

But I hope it's true. Dark chocolate kisses. I could die a happy man.

27 November 2003


Let us give thanks to God our Father for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea.
We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ,
We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends,
We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
We thank you, Lord.

For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity,
We thank you, Lord.

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,
We thank you, Lord.

For the communion of saints, in all times and places,
We thank you, Lord.

Above all, we give you thanks for the great mercies and promises given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord;
To him be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

26 November 2003


I've spend the better part of the day thus far cutting and inserting long batts of fiberglass insulation into the ceiling joists of our unheated basement.

The fiberglass comes in 15 inch wide batting, though, unfortunately no two ceiling joists are the same distance apart, instead ranging from 6.5 to 19 inches.

Of course, the worst part isn't the cutting or having to wear gloves and a mask. It's the itching.

No matter how well you cover up--long sleeves stuffed under the gloves, a hat, glasses, etc.--little bits of fiberglass manage to work themselves under your collar or up your sleeves.

At least our fuel bills should be better and our downstairs wood and tile floors ought to be warmer this winter.

25 November 2003

speaking of wine...

I live in the fascist commonwealth of Pennsylvania. All alcohol sales in the state are regulated by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

This means that all retail sales of wine and liquor occur in state-owned stores. Beer sales occur at separate establishments and, unless you're buying a six-pack at a convenience store with a license, all beer must be sold in full cases as packaged by the manufacturer.

As you might imagine, the wine selection is pretty idiosyncratic. I've had almost zero luck finding anything interesting recommended in a magazine like Cooking Light or even Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast. While things have improved over the years with the establishment of some specialty shops and the possibility of special-ordering, the average wine shop is dismal.

Fortunately, where I live in Pennsylvania, the state of New Jersey is only about 20 minutes away and has some very nice and inexpensive specialty shops with a good selection. Thankfully, it is legal, though inconvenient, to purchase alcohol out-of-state in limited quantities to bring back to PA.


As some of you may be aware, I do most of the cooking here at home, not because Laurel can't or doesn't have the time, but because I really enjoy it and, to be honest, I'm better at it. :-)

I've subscribed to a number of cooking or cooking-related magazines over the years--Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Martha Stewart Living, Better Homes and Gardens, etc.--but I've found Cooking Light to be the best and most consistently interesting one among them. The ingredients are generally not overly difficult to find nor particularly expensive and, what's better, all the recipes are oriented towards healthy diet.

This week I've used several recipes from the magazine: Marsala-glazed winter vegetables, chicken thighs over roasted apples with garlic, cinnamon and dried fruit sweet rolls, chicken thighs with an Indian spice rub, sweet and sour pork stir fry. Later in the week I hope to make a cranberry-white chocolate cheesecake and a pork loin stuffed with jasmine rice and olives.

Cooking Light has also improved in the past couple of years with the addition of a full-page column on wines, as well as ongoing recommendations paired with select recipes.

In any case, I'd highly recommend the magazine. It would make a nice Christmas gift for a relative who likes to cook. We usually renew it through one of our nephew's school subscription drives.

nic fits

You know, it's weird. I've only ever smoked one cigarette in my life and didn't enjoy it all that much.

And yet, when I'm in a smokey cafe or pub, relaxing with friends or listening to a band, I get these serious cravings. My fingers begin to fidget with something not there and I think to myself, "Damn, I could really go for a cigarette."

I definitely should never smoke. If I'm this way as a non-smoker, I can't imagine how many packs a week I might burn through as a smoker.

24 November 2003

banner ads

I pay to not have blogger's banner ads at the top of this page. But the spoof ads from Valley of the Geeks are hard to resist.

23 November 2003

and now for something completely different

Derrida's Of Grammatology has a section in which he discusses Rousseau on the topic of masturbation (this should get me some interesting hits in search engines).

What I've written here in the past on Derrida has typically concerned more his overall philosophy of language, presence, and difference. But in the second part of Derrida's book, he engages in an extended interaction with Rousseau on the issue of language. In the course of that discussion, Derrida does talk about Rousseau's writings on masturbation, in part, because Rousseau uses the same terminology to discuss it as he does to discuss the nature of language (e.g., "supplementation," "absence," etc.).

Here are a few thoughts, beginning with some historical context since everything, even wanking, has a history.

Starting in the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophy, literature, and science produced a huge literature on masturbation (in philosophy and letters: Voltaire, Kant, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Swift, among others). In the 1720s, a Swiss physician named Samuel Tissot wrote a 400 page book on the topic as a medical problem, suggesting that the practice could have all sorts of terrible consequences for bodily health.

His book was highly influential and the topic came into the literature, often intertwined with all kinds of other issues, philosophical and medical, Kant, for instance, gave an extended discussion of its irrationality and concluding that masturbation is both absurd and ethically worse than suicide.

The issue thus quickly turned from one of sympathetic pastoral concern to something that occupied a large place in modern medicine, educational practices, psychological liturature, and was accompanied by the introduction of various forms of regulation and monitoring, as well as a huge anxiety that was actually quite a new thing, historically.

As part of postmodernism's critique of the modern, and the Enlightenment in particular, there has been some attention to the issue (e.g., in Foucault's History of Sexuality), especially the question of why it came to occupy such a large place in the modern mind (as opposed to the premodern) and how this is intertwined with wider issues of epistemology, ethics, and so on.

Commentators, of course, have long explored the connection between modernist philosophy and the kinds of chauvanism and misogyny that were typical of many Enlightenment figures. For instance, it is a commonplace that Descartes' skeptical attitude toward that which is "other"--the world of nature, traditionally conceived in feminine categories--has significant implications for the sterility and misygony of modernist epistemologies (one author uses Othello's growing doubts concerning Desdemona as a way of painting Descartes as a philosophical Iago).

The way in which these issues arise for Derrida is in his discussion of Rousseau. Derrida is discussing the tradition that speech is somehow more basic than writing, attempting to undo the binary opposition in which speech and writing are opposed to one another and speech is then valorized over writing.

To review, on the traditional perspective, writing is a sign pointing to speech and speech is a sign pointing to thought. Speech, therefore, was traditionally considered as better than writing since it was more immediate and connected with the personal presence of the speaker, clearly communicating his own mind, while writing was a way of preserving speech in absence of the speaker. Moreover, speech was traditionally thought to remain interior to or in the possession of the speaker, while a written text is exterior to the author and can be wrested free from his intentions.

But this privileging of speech over writing presupposes what Derrida calls a "metaphysics of presence," whether the presence of meaning to the mind (as with Descartes' clear and distinct ideas) or of objects to the senses (so the mind can transparently mirror the world). This is a desire for a "transcendental signified," something that exists outside of all signifiers and is transparently referred to by them.

According to Derrida, however, reality is constituted by what he calls "differance," a word he coins that plays on the French terms for "differing" and "deferring"--a pun, by the way, which is evident in its writing, but unnoticable in speech. Derrida uses the term, among other things, in order to suggest that for something to be what it is, it must be different from something else. Yet that difference is registered only by a "trace" of those things from which it is different, marking the presence of those things even in their absence. Thus there is no possibility of either absolute presence or absolute absence, leaving an interplay in which absolute presence is continually deferred.

In terms of language and meaning, part of what this suggests is that the meaning of texts is something that only arises through the articulation of difference among words and other texts. But this, in turn, indicates that meaning is never absolutely present, but is continually deferred as it plays itself in relation to other absent texts, which are present in traces by the very registering of their absence.

Derrida's point about writing and speech, is that on the traditional picture, writing is second-rate because it is at a double-remove from ideas in the mind of its author: ideas turned into speech turned into writing. Thus writing, on the traditional view, consists merely in signs pointing to yet other signs.

But, if Derrida is correct about differance--about the nature of signs and meaning and language in general--then all language is "writing," that is, signs pointing to yet other signs. Speech cannot be privileged over writing, since even the spoken word is fully implicated within a system of signs that pre-exists the speaker. Presence and absence are at play in speech as much as in writing and (finalized, fully expressed, comprehensive) meaning is deferred.

Rousseau is relevant to this because he discusses the topic of speech and writing himself, representing the wider tradition, speaking of writing as a "supplement" to speech, something designed to substitute for and make up for the lack of speech due to the absence of the speaker (and thus writing can become--in his view unfortunately--necessary). But writing, insofar as it is a kind of perverse addition to speech, does nothing to add to, change the nature of, or affect speech (and thus becomes superfluous). This tension is apparent in the French term "supplement," which can mean not only a "substitute" but also an "addition."

But Rousseau uses all this same language in his discussion of masturbation as well, speaking of it as a "dangerous supplement," a perverse addition which does not affect the nature of normal sexuality. Thus it substitutes for, or takes the place of, normal sexual activity in the absence of the other. But given how Rousseau uses the terminology of "supplement," it would seem that logically, autoerotic activity could also be seen as a necessary extension of sexuality, something that could even replace its normal expression and in which the other would be present in even absence. Indeed, Rousseau, in Emile, discusses this danger, suggesting that unless children are stopped from engaging in these practices, they will never marry.

Derrida uses the example of Rousseau's discussion of speech and writing, as well as his discussion of masturbation, to show the ways in which Rousseau's own terminology and way of framing things tends to undermine itself at some point, or slip off into meanings or implications that Rousseau didn't intend. So, while Rousseau seems to want to say that these supplementations are purely negative, his way of saying it seems to say otherwise. For instance, his critique of writing is, after all, written and his discussion of sexuality allows for supplementary practices to be fulfilling.

Derrida uses this dynamic to critique Rousseau's approach to language and support his own way of seeing things regarding language, his notion of "differance" and what he also terms (deploying something of a pun, given the context), the "dissemination" of meaning.

Theologically, I think there is something to be learned from Derrida's discussion here, as well as the history of the past 400 years or so. Much of Derrida's linguistic point is well taken, particular by Christians who do have a written text as central to our whole way of life, even if that text is also one that must be proclaimed and heard and enacted (which I've discussed here before).

Even on the issues of sexuality, Derrida may well be helpful in better thinking through how we frame issues of morality, placing them in a larger context. For example, as has been pointed out by a number of theologians, Romans 1 seems to present the rejection of the sexually "other" and "different" as of the essence of original sin, a created reflection of the rejection of the ultimate "otherness" of God and the "difference in unity" that is the Trinity. Thus, medieval Christian confessional manuals were correct in seeing all forms of sexual sin (fornication, promiscuity, etc) as incipiently "homosexual" in their structure, unless redeemed through marriage and openness to procreation. Otherwise, the object of sexuality is turned into an anonymous and narcissistic object that is, in principle, exchangeable with any other, thereby effacing its "otherness."

If it is indeed the case that our modernist epistemologies and ontologies contain the kinds of deep ambiguities that Derrida suggests with regard to "otherness" and "supplementation," then it may be no accident that, as those assumptions have moved into their phase of decadance, that they have given rise to an increasingly pornographized and sexually narcissistic society and culture. There are issues to explore there, but I haven't yet thought them through sufficiently, though there is a significant literature on the topics.

20 November 2003

baptism doth also now save us

So writes Peter in his first epistle. And Reformed soteriology readily agrees. But how can that be, since it is faith alone that saves? It is because in baptism the Gospel--that is, Christ and all his benefits--is truly offered and received.

Charles Hodge in his Commentary on Ephesians writes:How is it that baptism washes away sin, unites us to Christ, and secures salvation? The answer again is, that this is true of baptism in the same sense that it is true of the word. God is pleased to connect the benefits of redemption with the believing reception of the truth. And he is pleased to connect these same benefits with the believing reception of baptism. That is, as the Spirit works with and by the truth, so he works with and by baptism, in communicating the blessings of the covenant of grace. Therefore, as we are said to be saved by the word, with equal propriety we are said to be saved by baptism...A baptism received in obstinate and hypocritical unbelief, of course, is of no benefit, but only condemns. Yet it is not of the essence of baptism to condemn, any more than it is the intent of the Gospel to bring condemnation. Rather, it is only an "accidental" effect in the face of unbelief.

Calvin writes concerning the intent of the Gospel, "It is only accidentally that the Gospel happens to be a source of death, and accordingly it is merely the occasion of it rather than its cause; of its own nature the Gospel is salutary to all" (CO 78, 42). Or as he writes elsewhere, "The Gospel is preached for salvation. This is what properly belongs to it, but believers alone are partakers of that salvation. In the meantime, its being an occasion of condemnation to unbelievers--that arises from their own fault" (Commentary on 2 Cor 2:15). The same applies equally to baptism, as Hodge already said.

This basic approach, I think, helps resolve the difficulties some might see in how the sacraments fit into Reformed soteriology.

18 November 2003


25 years ago today, 914 people died after drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch in the mass suicide instigated by pastor Jim Jones in his Peoples Temple movement at their village commune in Guyana, South America.

It's one of the few news events in my childhood that really lodged itself in my memory, particularly the photos of all the dead, including all those children victimized by their parents.

17 November 2003

marion 2

Turning to Scripture, the only concept Marion finds that is both a name of God and expresses his intention, is "Love": "God is Love" (1 John 4:8). Marion sees love as "unthought enough to free, some day at least, the thought of God from the idolatry" of onto-theology. And this is for two reasons.

First, the notion of love does not undergo any loss by being unthinkable and beyond expectation or from having no conditions upon it. Rather, love is enhanced and deepened by these very absences. Unconditional Love, which loves simply because it loves, is the love of God so that God is love, unrestricted, without conditions, and beyond limit.

Second, love is not based on philosophical understanding, but upon faith. God's love is given to us as something we neither deserve nor comprehend nor possess as something we can dispose over. Humanity necessarily responds to this divine Love, since it is given without limit and condition. We have no other option in the face of such love but to receive or to refuse it.

Unlike an idol, love circumvents any limitation or fixation proceeding from the gaze of the recipient. It does not present itself as an object, a thing, to be grasped and admired unto itself. Instead, love turns the beloved's gaze to the Lover who gives the love and is its subject. As such, love makes no pretension to wholly grasp or present the invisible, rather allowing the beloved to encounter the lover through love's giving over of itself.

It is in this connection that Marion begins discussing the notion of "gift," with particular reference to the parable of the prodigal son who wants to possess the goods of his father. He doesn't want to receive them as a gift, but demands his inheritance, to possess it, dispose of it, and thus to owe nothing to his father. But in the end of the story, the father gives the gift all over again without concerning himself with the squandering of the earlier seized gift. Love itself turns prodigal.

That's all too brief, but I want to move on to Marion's theological hermeneutics in my next post on the topic.

16 November 2003

jean-luc marion

As a French Roman Catholic, Marion is one of the leading lights in Christian engagements with postmodern thought, whose writings have been largely preoccupied with the notions of God, the icon, and gift. I'll try to give something of a sketch of his thought.

Bruce Benson points out that there are four main influences that lie behind Marion's account:

1. Nietzsche on the "death of God" – the idolatrous god of onto-theology
2. Husserl’s aporia in which phenomena provide their own logos while still being grounded in the transcendental ego
3. Levinas' approach to the "other"
4. Heidegger's criticism of onto-theology

Thus, Marion's thought functions largely within phenomenology, though also breaks out of some of its confines. "Onto-theology," by the way, can be defined roughly as attempts to think about or experience God that either [a] suppose that God can be thought and experienced on our own terms and within our preconceived categories or [b] that press a notion of God into the service of the modernist philosophical project.

Marion spends a great deal of time discussing the distinction between an "idol" and an "icon" – though these terms aren't to be take too literally. While actual idols and icons are in view here, for Marion the "idol" is primarily the god of onto-theology, while the "icon" will be explained primarily in terms of Christ, the scriptures, and the eucharist.

The idol presents itself to the human gaze, a representation of the divine, offering knowledge of its invisible referent. Yet, it is the gaze of the subject that projects such qualities onto the idol, rather than the object itself (as seen in the biblical polemic against idolatry). We ourselves, therefore, remain the original model for our idols and we create them in our own image and thus, in gazing upon the idol, ultimately only see ourselves in self-induced deception.

The icon, on the other hand, rather than resulting from the gaze aimed at it, draws sight to itself by allowing the invisible to saturate the visible, but without any attempt or claim of reducing the invisible to the visible icon, therefore, in reality, showing nothing. The iconic gaze thus never comes to settle upon the icon itself, but instead "rebounds upon the visible" into the infinite.

Theological names for "God" are typically idolatrous since they attempt to reveal God at the expense of limiting God. So, for instance, when onto-theology subordinates God to a philosophical conception of "being," being becomes an idol through which we claim to see a portion of the invisible true God.

Marion gives Colossians 1:15 as an alternative, where Paul proclaims Christ "the icon of the invisible God." Christ is thus is the only visible icon of God, though God remains invisible, not because we are blinded by the idols of onto-theology, but because, Christ as icon, shows God’s invisibility as such.

While one's own gaze and intention give content to the idol, the opposite is the case in the icon: the icon's own intention and gaze leads to contemplation of the invisible so that we are open to the distance of infinite depth. Since this distance can only be rightly understood as infinite, it remains completely indeterminable by any (philosophical and idolatrous) concept.

Thus the icon is a "saturated phenomenon" (building on Husserl), an appearance of something that goes beyond the appearance, containing much more than what appears. The consciousness is surprised, drawn up short, shaken. This also is making a Levinasian move, speaking of an "other" that comes to us in a way that is not contained by any prior determination, creating its own logos and subjecting us to it.

When God reveals himself in this way, philosophy cannot tame God with its own concept of "being"—the logos of philosophy—and so God must be thought "outside metaphysics." Thus we cannot ascribe "being" to God: God is God without or beyond being (as one of Marion's most well-known books is entitled).

Well, that's a start on Marion. More later.


I haven't been posting much substantive content recently. Since I'm still in the midst of the semester, I haven't the time to compose anything much of that sort.

Nonetheless, I've got several things I've written--half finished essays, various notes, and stray thoughts--that could certainly provide some decent material. So, I'll try posting some of that in the near future.

14 November 2003

wish i could go

A Conference on Contemporary Augustinian Scholarship, Villanova University, December 4-6, 2003.

Alas, it overlaps with the last day of classes for the semester and $75 doesn't seem worth it if I'm going to miss half.

11 November 2003


Laurel's back home. Grief will be a process. Claire is a sweetie. I love her giggles.

Got a new used car. It's a station wagon. Allergies bad.

Working on new philosophy department website. Still teaching an overload. Field trip Wednesday to view mural arts.

Coping with seasonal affective blues. Find many theological squabbles depressing.

Got some good friends. Distressed by some old friends.

Have a caffeine withdrawal headache. The weather is cold and gloomy.

Soup sounds good.

06 November 2003


I scored a 135.5.

02 November 2003

herbert francis webster

Almighty God, we remember this day before thee thy faithful servant Herbert; and we pray that, having opened to him the gates of larger life, thou wilt receive him more and more into thy joyful service, that, with all who have faithfully served thee in the past, he may share in the eternal victory of Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

01 November 2003

all saints

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen