26 December 2005

merry christmas

Liturgically speaking (as most folks know from the song), Christmas is a twelve day celebration, lasting until January 6th, the feast of the epiphany of our Lord commemorating the arrival of the wise men to honor the Christ child. All that's to say, I'm still very much in time to wish you all a very happy Christmas.

Since gift-giving and receiving features so prominently in our American celebrations, it's always interesting to reflect upon the more unusual gifts received (at least the gifts one didn't pick out for oneself) and try to figure out what they say about the givers' perception of who one is and what one might enjoy.

My three-year-old daughter, for instance, is now probably one of the few toddlers in the world to have her own Starbucks member card, with $10 on it and the possibility of adding more. Grammy and Gramps, evidently, are quite aware of her fondness for sitting around the coffee shop sipping vanilla milk or strawberry-banana smoothies while her Daddy treats himself to some strong coffee.

Indeed, the other day, while sitting at a counter in a downtown location, Claire turned to me and observed, "I think they have a Starbucks in the Hundred Acre Woods now. When Pooh goes there, he orders honey." I suppose that when many of us were kids, it might have been a special trip to McDonalds that we begged for, but with Claire it's Starbucks. That in itself, along with my proclivity for Guinness and inability to avoid words like "narrative" or "missional," likely marks us as an "emerging" family, for better or worse.

As the primary cook in the house, I received some nice new cookware from my lovely wife: a non-stick griddle, a large saute pan, a silicone turner, and a nice new whisk. (This reminds me that I have been exceedingly delinquent with keeping up my cooking blog, but since I've cooked and baked a lot over the holidays, perhaps I'll be able to remedy that in coming weeks.) I've already used the griddle, turner, and saute pan, so I'm a happy camper. I also know that Laurel must still enjoy my cooking.

Laurel herself received a variety of gifts, included among them a CD entitled "Rhythm Tree" by a group called Baka Beyond. Though the music was for both of us, it suits Laurel particularly well since the group combines Celtic sounds (a long love of hers) with African rhythms (a fit interest for a former percussionist).

I hope everyone else had a great holiday. A blessed Christmastide to all.

24 December 2005

milbank on development of doctrine

While John Milbank's recent paper on sophiology (Word doc) didn't leave an entirely favorable impression, he did make a number of insightful points along the way. I thought the following quotation was thought-provoking:
...orthodoxy is an always unfinished task. This is not only because new heresies may negatively pose to the Church new questions, but also because existing doctrinal formulations may enshrine unresolved problematics, as much as they successfully resolve old ones. It is also because, as Henri de Lubac says in his essay on the development of doctrine, the narratives and symbols of the Bible and Liturgy always contain a surplus of mysterious meaning that is infinitely in excess of our achieved speculative comprehension. There always remains pre-discursive material, or even blocks of such material, not yet done justice to. And any reflection on this material will involve a renewed engagement with philosophical resources that is able not just to borrow from these resources, but also to modify them in light of the data of faith.
I thought this quotation, though brief, brought together nicely the notions of developing doctrine in response to new errors, new insights, and new philosophical resources. Much to ponder there.

23 December 2005

conversion of the imagination

As time has permitted, I've been working my way slowly through Richard B. Hays' helpful work, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel's Scripture (Eerdmans 2005). In some respects the book serves as a follow-up to his earlier Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, though this book has a number of unique elements and is more a collection of articles, thematically related.

Hays is most well known for his approach to intertexuality in Paul's writings, particularly all the ways in which Paul quotes, alludes to, and echoes Old Testament texts and what this reveals about Paul's hermeneutics. Moreover, Hays draws significant attention to the way in which a passing quotation, allusion, or echo can sometimes draw in the entire context of the text from which the intertextual referece is drawn (metalepsis).

Hays' second essay, "'Who Has Believed Our Message': Paul's Reading of Isaiah," he helpfully expands upon and further explains his previous treatment of intertextual echoes. I want to draw attention to several of those items.

Hays begins with the caution that idenitfying allusions and echoes "is not a strictly scientific matter lending itself to conclusive proof, like testing for the presence or absence of a chemical in the bloodstream" (30). Rather, he notes, identifying such allusions is more of an "art practiced by skilled interpreters within a reading community that has agreed on the value of situating individual texts within a historical and literary continuum with other texts" (30).

As such, the hermeneutical task involves acts of judgment or discernment that are aesthetic in character and involve sensing the "fittingness" of a particular reading. This doesn't mean the tast is arbitrary and can be carried out willy-nilly, but that there are standards "internal to the practice" upon which competent practioners can largely agree.

This seems to me an important observation for interpreters, suggesting that a more purely "scientific" approach to intertextual hermeneutics is going to miss out on a significant reservoir of meaning. But this doesn't entail that interpretation has no criteria or limits, just as other kinds of performance (e.g., musical, stage), while perhaps not scientifically analyzable, nonetheless can be judged as good or bad interpretations of the texts involved.

Hays, in fact, lists seven criteria that together can help us discern whether a particular intertextual interpretation is warranted. While these criteria yield results that are not mathematically precise, they do provide some controls upon the practice. The criteria are: [1] availability of the source text to the author and his audience, [2] the volume of the echo in terms of its explicitness, [3] recurrence or clustering of allusions or echoes from the same text, [4] thematic coherence with the line of argument, [5] the historical plausibility of finding an intertextual reference given the original situation, [6] the subsequent history of interpretation finding the echo, and [7] the satisfaction given by the intertextual reference in reading the surrounding text (34-45).

While Hays had listed these same basic criteria in his earlier book on echoes, he elaborates upon them in this essay, particularly the criteria of "volume," of which he highlights three aspects: [a] verbatim repetition of words from the source text, [b] the distinctiveness, prominence, or popular familiarity of the precursor text, and [c] the rhetorical stress placed upon the phrase in question (35-37).

Hays gives some helpful examples that would work for us to help illustrate how these matters might work in Paul. When Paul, for instance, writes in 1 Corinthians 8:6 that "there is one God, the Father...and one Lord, Jesus Christ," the echo of the Jewish Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4 is evident. Hays compares this to how, in contemporary America, the phrase "Our Father" would evoke the Lord's Prayer, "self-evident truths" would evoke the Declaration of Independence, or "I have a dream" would evoke the speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. (36-37).

I look forward to reading this book further and would commend Hays discussion thus far to any who are interested in Pauline hermeneutics with respect to the Hebrew scriptures.

22 December 2005

schindler on marion

Earlier, in the autumn, I attended a philosophy conference at Notre Dame where I was commenting on a paper. Among the other sessions I attended was a satellite session sponsored by the International Institute for Hermeneutics on the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

While all the papers presented were strimulating and helpful, I thought that David C. Schindler of Villanova University presented an especially lucid Balthasarian critique of Marion's critique of onto-theology, a paper that was especially interesting in light of other papers that linked Marion and von Balthasar more closely. Of course, one can distinguish between Marion's earlier work (e.g., God without Being) from the more Balthasar-friendly directions in which he later headed.

Schindler began with Heidegger's famous argument that the project of metaphysics generates an onto-theology, that is, a way of doing philosophy that subjects God to human reason, making the God of reason into a mere idol. Thus Heidegger, on one reading, embraces the finitude and limits of reason in order to allow room for the demands of faith.

But Heidegger's approach here is not without problems. First, Schindler noted, a vigilant godlessness of human reason and thought presupposes the neutrality of reason, that reason is not intrinsically ordered towards God. But such a supposition is hardly neutral.

Second, as Marion notes, reason imposes its own conditions of possibility to faith, thereby confining God to a space outside of reason. "Being" ends up being defined prior to an independent of God and thus (of course) God can only appear as a being.

Third, Marion therefore suggests that God must be conceived without being or beyond being and as non-phenomenal. God is impossible (in terms of the conditions of possibility that reason imposes), both in terms of what God is in himself and how God is known to us. If that is so, however, any purported knowledge of God leaves us with either an idol (a God who is a phenomenon of experience) or an unknown X.

A rejection of onto-theology, therefore, in which reason and metaphysics is excluded from any approach to God, is at least as problematic as any onto-theological idol that poses as God.

Schindler identified two presuppositions that underlie the approach of (the earlier) Marion here. First, Marion assumes that "Being" is only defined "from below." Second, he assumes that human reason is inherently immanentizing. Neither of these assumptions, however, is necessarily justified.

The thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Schindler suggested, offers a different approach to the question of Being and of human reason that outwits both of Marion's assumptions. For von Balthasar, Christians are to be the guardians of metaphysics and philosophy poses no obstacle to faith since, otherwise, faith would always remains irrational and arbitrary. Instead, the glory of God elevates and intensifies the glory of Being and of the human reason by which Being is known.

Thus, there are three primary areas of difference between Marion and von Balthasar, according to Schindler:

First, with regard to Being, von Balthasar emphasizes a divine transcendence in which God is not merely beyond Being, but also insists that self-transcendence (ekstasis) is proper to Being. In von Balthasar's understanding of the analogia entis, therefore, Being is determined from above rather than below.

Second, with regard to human reason, von Balthasar posits reason as also ecstatic, having a dramatic character that responds to a call from outside and beyond reason itself.

Third, with regard to theology, von Balthasar places it prior to metaphysics, but witout supplanting a properly theological metaphsics.

That's all too brief a sketch of Schindler's paper (which I hope will make it into a journal at some point), but for those familiar with both Marion and von Balthasar should suffice to evoke the trajectory of his argument.

21 December 2005

brief trip

We've been trying to get together with a friend of mine from high school for a few months, now that he and his family have moved to the DC area. We were able to pop down there (a 2-hour and 40 minute drive, if traffic is cooperative) for a quick overnight visit.

It was great to see an old friend again and visit some places of interest in DC.

On Tuesday afternoon we toured the National Cathedral, a beautiful Gothic structure, with a 500 foot long nave and 300 foot central tower.

While I've been there on several occasions, Laurel had never been there and we arrived in time to catch the end of a choir concert.

We also enjoyed watching the Altar Guild greening the church with various lush arrangments of berries and branches, and exchanging the Advent blue for the white and gold of Christmas. Claire, in particular, enjoyed the children's chapel and a display of creche sets from around the world.

Today we visited two parts of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of Natural History, with its dinosaurs, taxidermic specimens, and hands-on exhibits, and the National Air and Space Museum, with its space capsules, lunar modules, and airplanes.

While the grown-ups didn't get much chance to linger over any exhibits, Claire had a great time, very excited about the animals and aircraft.

After a stroll on the Mall and some picture-taking (particularly of the architecturally striking National Museum of the American Indian), we took a meandering car ride, giving the little one a chance to nap.

We drove around the Capitol, saw the Folger Shakespeare Library and nearby Supreme Court, then headed up towards Catholic Univeristy with the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and back to our host's apartment in Falls Church, via the Adams-Morgan neighborhood and Dupont Circle.

I'll post some pictures in this entry later on. Sorry to all you DC-dwellers who might have enjoyed a visit. Maybe next time.

19 December 2005

presbyterian history

This winter term our adult Sunday School program is offering 12 weeks of classes entitled, "A Brief Survey of Presbyterianism in the Philadelphia Region," running from December 11 through February 26. The classes will cover the period from 1706 to the present day, a fitting program in light of next year's 300th anniversary of the formation, in Philadelphia, of the first American presbytery.

The class is being taught by a variety of teachers whose scheduled topics include "The 'Great Awakening' and the Old Side/New Side Schism" (D.G. Hart), "Presbyterians in the Revolution and John Witherspoon" (George McFarland), and "J. Gresham Machen, Westminster Seminary, and the Fundamentalism/Modernism Debate" (Stephen Nichols).

Darryl G. Hart's introductory lecture, overviewing Presbyterian history in the Philly area from 1706 to 2006, opened the class in a very helpful (even if occasionally provocative) way. This past Sunday George McFarland provided an interesting narrative of William Tennent, the Log College, and the eventual founding of Princeton. While, for an Old Side sympathizer such as me, McFarland's account was a bit too biased toward New Side distinctives, it was nonetheless an interesting and challenging presentation.

If anyone is in the Philadelphia area on a Sunday over the coming weeks, the class meets at 9am in Tenth PCA's Fellowship Hall west.

18 December 2005

library thing

A couple days ago I finally started to catalog my books with an online site called LibraryThing - dumb name, but useful technology.

I've only entered about half of my books and I'm not sure when I've get around to finishing it, but you can browse my personal catalog online. One feature that I think is kinda cool is the "author cloud" that adjusts the font size of an author's name in proportion to how well- represented that author is within one's catalog (though note that I'm not done, so my "cloud" will continue to evolve as I add more books).

The website also enables one to connect with others who share similar taste in books, which is useful in terms of perusing their libraries in search of items that might be of interest. The technology isn't perfect (e.g., an overlap with another's library might be missed if different editions are owned), but it is still interesting and fun.

It's possible to catalog up to 200 books for free. After that it's either $10 per year or $25 for a lifetime.

17 December 2005

i'm baaaack

That was a pleasant enough break, though busy.

I don't think I want to teach 17 credits worth of classes in a single semester again. But after 14 hours of grading over the past several days, I'm done. I've only to turn in the grades electronically on Monday and I can put it all behind me.

At any rate, blogging wasn't going to happen in the midst of the rest of the demands on my time and energies. I'm still a bit weary, but looking forward to the holidays.

See you online.