31 January 2006

i am the lord your god

i am the lord your god

After the spate of comments on that last post, I'm reticent to say anything lest I stir up another whirlwind of debate. I do, however, hope to post more on the topic of the covenant of works at some point, but not until I get some other projects off my platter.

Somewhat related to the covenant of works, I've been recently reading some of the essays in I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandements, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz (Eerdmans 2005). The book is a collection of essays from an array of authors representing a variety of Christian traditions: Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist, Roman Catholic, and Reformed. All the essays address the topic of the Ten Commandments, either in general or in connection with specific commandments, with an eye to contemporary ethical issues, civil society, and Christian catechesis.

While not all of the essays are of equal interest (at least to me) there are some real gems thus far, for instance, David Bentley Hart's bracing essay "God or Nothingness." Other essays are intriguing, though I'm not sure I would wholly agree, for instance, with Christopher Seitz's "The Ten Commandments," which presents a more negative assessment of natural law traditions than I would be inclined to make.

Oddly, not all of the commandments are specifically covered, "Honor your father and mother" being noticeably absent from focused discussion, though it is taken up to some degree in Bernd Wannenwetsch's essay on killing. Other commandements receive attention from more than one essay, sometimes presenting alternative perspectives on a particular aspect of the commandment. In particular, William Cavanaugh provides an essay on killing that complements Wannenwetsch's, while both Braaten and Reinhard Hutter address issues of the tongue.

On the whole, however, what I've read of the book thus far is excellent and thought-provoking.

28 January 2006

calvin on credit

calvin on credit

Bill DeJong, pastor of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Kansas City, points out the following quotation from Calvin as having a bearing on how Calvin might view the place of merit in the covenant of works:

If we desire to make an honest examination of ourselves we shall find not only that God is in no way our debtor, but also that we are all answerable to His judgment. Not only do we deserve no favour from Him, but we are more than worthy of eternal death. Paul concludes that God owes us nothing on account of our corrupt and depraved nature, and also asserts that, even if man were perfect, he could bring nothing to God by which to procure His favour, because as soon as man begins his existence, he is already by the very law of creation so bound to his Maker that he has nothing of his own. We shall, therefore, fail if we endeavor to deprive God of His right to do freely what He pleases with the creatures whom He has made, as though it were a matter of mutual debt and credit. (emphasis added)

The quotation is from Calvin's commentary on Romans 11 (verse 35). While Calvin's sentiments here are, perhaps, overly voluntarist in some respects (e.g., his wording suggests that the way in which God is free to treat creatures is logically prior to and unconstrained by God's nature and character), it does provide some insight into the way in which Calvin understood notions of debt, credit, and, presumably, merit.

27 January 2006

vanhoozer on doctrine

Though I bought it awhile ago, I've only just begun to pick up and read Kevin Vanhoozer's recent volume entitled The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach To Christian Theology (WJKP 2005). It's refreshing to read a book that is focused on the importance of Christian dogmatics, even if it presents the doctrinal task in somewhat different categories than are conventional.

My own interests are in the general ballpark of systematics (as I mentioned below), though my approach tends to be eclectic since I'm not only very fond of some of the early Fathers, as well as medievals such as Aquinas and Bonaventure, but also enjoy (yes, enjoy) the Reformed scholastics and a variety of more recent theologians. I'm hoping Vanhoozer will fit somewhere into the mix.

Further, I fully expect that he will. Having only read about 35 pages into the book, it caught my attention that his footnotes seem to reference a cross-section of what looks like my personal library and favorite authors. Skimming through the rest of the book, I find more of the same. Given our rootedness in an significantly overlapping theological matrix, I'll be intrigued to see what Vanhoozer does with them and where he takes their thought.

bishop bennison again

On Wednesday, I think, the Diocesan Standing Committee of the Diocese of Pennsylvania unanimously voted to request that Bishop Charles E. Bennison to resign or retire by March 31. The Bishop, however, has decided to stay.

While I doubt the Standing Committee's decision regarding the bishop was primarily theological (although, unfortunately for my Episcopal friends in Philly, Bennison has a penchant for heresy), various fiscal, interpersonal, and leadership problems were more than enough for the Committee to request his resignation.

Read more in a local news article: "Episcopal bishop says he'll stay."

26 January 2006

new encyclical

A commenter on the previous post asks if I have any comments on the recent encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). To be honest, I've not read it in its entirely and have heard very little discussion of it on campus as of yet.

I have read through the first part of the encyclical, however, and it is a wonderful theological, pastoral, and philosophical meditation on the biblical concept of "love." The Pope unfolds the notion of love in relation to the wider traditions in which the biblical tradition grew up, all the while emphasizing the newness of the biblical revelation of God as love, particularly as that comes to its culmination in the person of Jesus Christ. The opening sections of the second part, reflecting upon "the Church's charitable activity as a manifestation of Trinitarian love" are also profound.

I look forward to perusing the rest of the encyclical where Benedict appears to apply this biblical perspective on love to the concrete issues of Christian charitable activity in the contemporary world.

25 January 2006

benefit concert

For those of you in the Philly area who enjoy indie/hip-hop sort of music, there will be a benefit concert Saturday, 28 January (9pm-midnight) to benefit Liberti PCA's Community Ministries.

The benefit will feature Nouveau Riche and will happen at the Five Spot at 5 South Bank Street, Old City, Philadelphia. The entrance donation is $10.

24 January 2006

blog post categories

I've noticed (and a blog post elswhere just reminded me) that a lot of blogs categorize posts with a variety of different tags. After much thought and extensive discussions with others regarding the problems and promise of taxonomy, I am considering the following categories as possible ones that I might use:

1. Shorter than my favorite bread recipe
2. Containing the letter "q" at least 5 times
3. Written while overly tired and cranky
4. Not your grandmother's blog post
5. Involving a child, a cactus, or an aardvark
6. Conceived while out of state
7. Potentially giving Lig Duncan a seizure
8. Composed to the tune of Andy Williams' "Happy Heart"
9. Reminds me of my favorite episode of Firefly
10. What an angst-ridden 13yo girl might say

Further suggestions are always welcome as I continue to consider this matter seriously.

random baptism quote

Henry Hammond was a Anglican divine (1605-1660), a brilliant scholar, and well-known orator in his day. While nominated to the Westminster Assembly of divines, he did not participate, having just taken part in a rising in support of King Charles.

Regarding the baptism of infants he writes in "Sermon 27":
That makes a man to be truly regenerate, when the seed is sown in the
heart, when the habit is infused; and this is done sometimes discernibly, sometimes not discernibly...Undiscernibly God's supernatural agency interposes sometimes in the mother's womb...but this divine address attends most ordinarily till the time of our baptism, when the Spirit accompanying the outward sign infuses itself into our hearts, and there seats and plants itself, and grows up with the reasonable soul, keeping even their most luxuriant year within bounds; and as they come to an use of their reason, to a more and more multiplying this habit of grace into holy spiritual acts of faith and obedience; from which it is ordinarily said that infants baptized have habitual faith, as they may be also said to have habitual repentance, and the habits of all other graces, because they have the root and seed of those beauteous healthful flowers, which will actually flourish when they come to years. And this, I say, is so frequent to be performed at baptism, that ordinarily it is not wrought without that means, and in those means we may expect it...
Even if Hammond himself was not "Reformed" in a Dort-bounded way, such a perspective was a common one among various English Reformed divines, such as Cornelius Burges, Anthony Tuckney, Daniel Featley, and others.

22 January 2006

new additions

I've added some new blogs to my blogroll in the past weeks, though I can't remember what all of them are. I do, however, want to highlight a few of them.

For those of you interested in philosophy and theology, Cynthian Nielsen's "Per Caritatem" has been providing some stimulating reflections on her recent reading.

Scot McKnight's "Jesus Creed" always provides something of interest, even if I don't always share his perspective. McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago and an increasingly well-known New Testament scholar.

And over at "Religiocity," my friend Matt Boulter provides an alternative angle on political theology in the city.

why i do what i do

In an email exchange awhile ago, I was asked about my interests in theology, sacraments, and ecumenism, given that I am, by profession, a philosopher. I thought it would useful to that conversation to give some sense of where I'm coming from in terms of wider context, interests, and motivations.

Since I'm not up to blogging anything more substantive at the moment, I thought I'd pass along the gist of that email as providing some context for what I do here.

[1] My primary areas of professional expertise include "philosophical theology," which is something like systematic theology with a philosophy emphasis.

As I write elsewhere:

My primary academic interest is philosophical theology in service to the church.

Philosophical theology - at least as I do it - is a kind of combination of systematic theology, historical theology, and biblical theology, bringing the tools and perspectives of philosophy to bear upon issues of faith, particularly in terms of meta-issues of how our assumptions (in terms of ontology, epistemology, and so on) affect and shape theology and where they fit in the unfolding history of theological thought.

Moreover, I see this interest as one that is best nurtured in the context of a liturgical piety rooted in the word and sacraments, in conversation with the wider traditions of the Christian church of all ages.

Other interests include postmodernism, moral theology/philosophy, and epistemology.
More specifically, I've found sacramental theology a fascinating and helpful lens on a range of philosophical and theological issues such as [a] the relation between nature and grace, [b] the ontology of divine causation in the world, [c] the epistemological implications of how the sacraments function as assuring seals, [d] the nature of "signs" and performative acts in a social context, and so on.

[2] I also do a lot of work and teaching in medieval and early modern intellectual history, particularly some of the transformations and shifts that were introduced in the wake of later medieval philosophy (post-Scotus), the effects of philosophical nominalism, and the rise of "the modern" - particularly as we look back upon that from the standpoint of "postmodernism."

In part, my interests lie in how we can deploy a more pre-modern catholicity (as that was transmitted, retrieved, and adapted by the Protestant Reformers) in order to respond effectively to the postmodern condition. Part of that requires an appreciation of the nature of signs and actions as effective means by which identity and community are formed, sustained, and reproduced.

[3] My own personal history and experience leaves me with a strong ecumenical impulse. I can go into that in more detail if anyone would like. Suffice it to say that I've been forced to face the history of sad divisions within the church and to work closely together in ministry with Christians from various traditions.

A number of major figures in the Reformed tradition, not least Calvin himself, maintained a deep and abiding interest in pan-Protestant unity and, thereby, formulating Reformed doctrine in a way that would leave the door open to greater rapprochement between themselves, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc. A number of Reformed divines saw such doctrinal and institutional unity among Protestants as an important step in their continuing witness to what they saw as errors in the Roman church and, they hoped, an eventual move towards the reunification of western Christendom.

Such an ecumenically orthodox Protestant perspective is particularly important today, I think, as various forces (e.g., secularism, versions of postmodernism, open theism, some aspects of emergent and post-conservative thought, etc.) tend to water down more comprehensive confessional expressions of the faith. Moreover, as denominational identities are held more loosely than ever, greater unity among classical Protestants can have an important missional role, especially on the local level.

I'm not sure if this makes for a particularly interesting blog post, but perhaps it helps illuminate some of my interests and concerns.

18 January 2006

four things...

Alastair (at my prompting) has tagged me for the following:

Four Jobs I Have Had:

Philosophy professor
Substitute elementary art teacher
Waiter at a retirement home
Social studies teacher at a juvenile facility

Four Movies I Could Watch Over and Over:

There are some movies I love and appreciate but wouldn't really want to watch over and over since they are too demanding emotionally or in terms of length. So, instead of those, I'd pick:

Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Lion King
Blade Runner

Four Books I Could Read Over and Over:

Hmm. There are many books I go back to again and again, reading particular sections, but ones I could read over and over in their entirety is trickier. I'll say:

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest
Flannery O'Connor, Complete Stories
God, The Holy Scriptures

Four Places I Have Lived:

East Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, PA
West Germantown, Philadelphia, PA
Wissahickon, Philadelphia, PA
Syracuse, NY

Four TV Shows I Watch:

I very seldom watch TV, especially in recent months, but when I do I watch:

Firefly (on DVD)
Gilmore Girls
Antiques Roadshow
some Saturday "how to" show on PBS

Four Places I Have Been On Vacation:

Most recently:

Washington, DC
Baltimore, MD
Elysburg, PA (Knoebel's Grove)
Kentucky and Tennesee

Four Websites I Visit Daily:

Other than for email and my own (for the blog roll):

yahoo.com (News)
imdb.com (Internet Movie Database)
google.com (Search engine)
missionstclare.com (Daily Office)

Four Favorite Foods:

Golly, I love food, so this is tricky. Is good single malt scotch a food? In any event, foods I can't imagine doing without include:

Pennsylvania-made pretzels (Utz ultra-thin)
Good quality port (usually what's on sale)
Cheeses of all kinds (especially smoked gouda, brie, and cotswold)
Summer melons

Four Places I’d Like To Be Right Now:

I'm assuming this doesn't involve being drawn and quartered, so we're not talking four places at the same time. In that case:

The Continental cocktail lounge, Old City, Philadelphia
The Bodelian Library, Oxford, UK
The Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City, Canada
A Tuscan villa in Italy

Four Bloggers I'm Tagging:

Laurel Garver
Mike Vendsel
Mark Traphagen
Rob Hatch

17 January 2006

more on wheaton

Regarding the professor at Wheaton who became a Roman Catholic, our curmudgeonly friend over at the Japery of the New Pantagruel offer us this post. The New Pantagruel, one should also recall, is a publication to which the Wheaton professor in question contributes.

Nevertheless, it is an intriguing and challenging post, largely expanding upon some similar comments that had been made on my earlier blog entry. He makes some valid points, I think, about the pitfalls of an evangelicalism that embraces "mere Christianity," particularly a version that has drifted so far from historic Protestantism's catholic moorings.

I guess I would fall into his category of "separated brethren in the magisterial reformed traditions" who "continue to exist in tide pools and rowboats where they valiantly adhere to the catholic Christianity of their forbears." Of course, I don't take quite as dim a view of my rowboat as our author might, particularly since, from what I can see, we've got a nice shipbuilding project going on at the nearby dock.

At any rate, I'd be interested in folks' comments on the New Pantagruel post.

16 January 2006

a new semester

Classes begin tomorrow and I'm still putting some finishing touches on my syllabus for them, particularly the one for "Problems of Knowledge," which I haven't taught since 1999. Unfortunately, I've misplaced my materials from when I last taught it, so I'm having to start over again, more or less from scratch.

In other news, I note that all the way at the bottom of this page, my hit counter is nearing the 200,000th visitor mark since the time I installed it. I wish I had some way of telling who that hit will be, because I almost feel they deserve some sort of prize or at least recognition.

And now, I'm off to build with legos until it's Claire's bedtime and I can get back to school work.

Update: We've passed the 200,000 hits mark, and it seems that Daniel Stoddart is the lucky fellow who did it. Be sure to remind me, Daniel, that I owe you a Guinness next time you're in Philly.

14 January 2006


Since seeing Gurinder Chadha's wonderful riff on Austen, Bride and Prejudice, I've been enjoying exploring Indian and, especially, Punjabi pop music, one major genre of which is called "bhangra." Through my university, for a nominal fee, I am able to get access to unlimited streaming RealRhapsody audio, which contains a wide variety of music, classical and popular, western and world.

Bhangra is Punjabi in origin, growing out of mostly Sikh folk music traditions designed to celebrate harvest time. As the music evolved into a more urban context and was cross-pollinated with western pop music devices (synthesizers, guitar, hip hop), it took on its contemporary form. Nevertheless, it retains a joyous festive edge, with a spirited beat and raucous vocals.

It's very difficult not to like even though my lack of proficiency in Punjabi means I don't understand a word of it, except for the occasional song in English.

philly weather

One thing that is always predictable about Philadelphia is that the weather is never predictable. This morning, 14 January, the temperature is approaching 62F with scattered thunderstorms. But by this evening the temperature will have dropped to 30F and the precipitation will turn over to snow. After a cold day tomorrow, with some snow flurries, the temperature is expected to fall to 23F Sunday night. Freaky.

13 January 2006

wright and the emerging church

Regarding the "emerging church" conversation, I'm certainly no expert, though I've read several of Stanley Grenz's works, along with at least a bit by Robert Webber and John Franke. I've benefitted from what I've read of them, even if I don't necessarily agree with all they have to say. I am, however, considerably less familiar with Brian McLaren who at present seems to be a topic of considerably more conversation than some others associated with emerging sensibilities.

On the other hand, I'm more familiar with the writings of N.T. Wright, having been involved in a couple of book groups that have worked through some of his writings, though (despite current rumblings) I've seldom blogged much concerning them. As far as I can see, Wright's work on the New Testament (as he himself has intimated) largely functions within the same general universe of discourse as Ridderbos, Vos, Cranfield, Gaffin, van Bruggen, and other Reformed scholars who take a broadly (so-called) "redemptive-historical" approach - though Wright obviously takes more time to interact with, respond to, and often critique the interpretation of Second Temple Judaism given by E.P. Sanders, et al, and its bearing upon New Testament exegesis.

While Wright is occasionally critical of some of the exegetical trajectories of various reformational traditions, he isn't necessarily any more so than others within those traditions and his proposals, even when questioning the particulars of exegesis, almost never unsettle the basic reformational theological paradigm, except perhaps to deepen and enrich it. Thus it seems to me that there is much of profit to be found in his writings, even if I wouldn't concur with his every conclusion.

At any rate, over on the Reformation21 blog, Justin Taylor made the observation that N.T. Wright's recent book on the authority of Scripture carries endorsements by two emerging church figures, Brian McLaren and John Franke, and solicited comments on what affinities there might be between Wright and the emergent folks. While I suspect endorsements on the backs of the books have much more to do with marketing than theology, several figures associated with the emerging church have admiringly cited Wright as influential, so the question is fair enough (even if the admiration and influence might not be wholly reciprocal).

I'm generally rather skeptical of the kind of armchair sociology that Taylor was calling for and imagine the contributors at Reformation21 would be rather less happy if the same method were applied to them. So I'll refrain from comment on most of what was said.

Nevertheless, as with Theodore Roosevelt's famous quotation regarding patriotism, sometimes one must criticize those individuals and organizations for whom one holds a sense of loyalty and affection, and sometimes failure to criticize is treasonous. In that light, I find it difficult to ignore Richard D. Phillips's comments on the matter of Wright and the emergent church.

Phillips writes:

Both Wright and the Emergents have set their sails to catch the wind of post-modernity, so despite any differences, they are being blown into the same port. The emergents are enraptured by new paradigms (e.g. Maclaren's New Kind of Christian), and Wright is the champion of the New Perspective. New wine and new wineskins go together. In this respect, I would suspect that the Emergents are attracted to NTW's rhetoric more than anything else. Imagine the emergent glow when Wright compares today's theological conservatives to soldiers who long after the war has ended are "still hiding in the jungle, unaware that the world has moved on to other matters" (Challenge of Jesus, 99).

First of all, perhaps Phillips meant "post-modernity" in the strict sense of the historical era in which we all find ourselves. But if he meant something more like "postmodern thought," then it is worth noting that Wright has generally been highly critical of what he understands to be "postmodernism," rejecting its relativizing influences and seeing it as, in many respects, fundamentally nihilistic and pagan.

Second, the quotation from Wright is taken out of context. It doesn't refer simply to "conservatives" in general. Rather, it refers to partisans in a particular scholarly theological debate from the 1950s and 60s regarding the divinity of Jesus, a debate that included both liberals and conservatives on opposite sides. Wright's point is that in the world of scholarship the conversation has moved on and the way in which the question was posed and debated half a century ago no longer has much traction in the academy. Thus, trying to continue the debate in those older terms, from either a liberal or a conservative stance, is not going to get one very far and, besides, in hindsight there might turn out to be better ways of having the discussion.

Moreover, Wright goes on directly to deny the radical discontinuity that his earlier metaphor might be taken to suggest, asserting instead that "the new battles are not totally different, of course, from the old ones," even though he thinks there are new possibilities for moving forward (99, emphasis mine).

Whether or not one thinks Wright is correct here in his assessment of the progression of debate over the past half-century on this topic, his point is perfectly understandable: if liberals are no longer giving the kinds of arguments they were once giving, then there's not much point in still responding with the same replies.

Phillips then goes on to say:

The admirers of both Wright and the Emergents feed off the excitement of being radical and daring. Somehow, neo-intellectual Evangelicals let Wright get away with saying that Jesus did not know he was God, but rather that in him "we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life." Wright adds, "One can maintain Jesus' 'divinity' only by holding some form of docetism" (Challenge of Jesus, IVP, 121-122). Oh, how radical and exciting! So along come these Emergents who are intellectually and emotionally opposed to the hard theology of conservative Evangelicalism, and who want a softer view of God, and how heady this must be to them.

There are several difficulties here.

First, Wright never says that "Jesus did not know he was God." What Wright actually says is, "I do not think Jesus 'knew he was God' in the same sense one knows one is hungry or thirsty, tall or short. It was not a mathematical knowledge" (121; emphasis mine).

For Wright even to say that "It was not a mathematical knowledge" presupposes that Jesus did, in fact, know he was God. The question is one of the character of that knowing. Moreover, lest one think this is unclear, Wright goes on directly to say that Jesus' knowledge of his divinity

was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge that I have the sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful; like the knowledge of the musician not only of what the composer intended but of how precisely to perform the piece in exactly that way - a knowledge more securely possessed, of course, when the performer is also the composer... (121-122)

One might not like Wright's choice of metaphor or one might think that a rather different christological epistemology is entailed by Chalcedon, but to assert that Wright says "Jesus didn't know he was God," full stop, is simply an unvarnished falsehood.

Second, just to be clear here, when Wright says that in Jesus "we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life," he is not, as Phillips seems to suggest, doing something less than maintaining the full deity of Jesus Christ. In the context of Wright's treatment, it is instead to say that the New Testament identifies Jesus with YHWH. This is to maintain the highest sort of christology, even if the categories are ones of narrative and identity before they are ones of substance or essence. On this point, see Richard Bauckham's God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament for further, helpful elaboration.

Third, Phillips quotes Wright as saying, "One can maintain Jesus' 'divinity' only by holding some form of docetism." But this, again, is taken completely out of context, making the tail end of a much longer sentence appear as a straightforward assertion.

Wright had been explaining his view that Jesus' awareness of vocation is a helpful way of thinking about his messianic self-consciousness. The full quotation is as follows:

"Awareness of vocation" is by no means the same thing as Jesus having the sort of "supernatural" awareness of himself, of Israel's God, and of the relation between the two of them such as is often envisaged by those who, concerned to maintain a "high" christology, place it within an eighteenth- century context of implicit Deism where one can maintain Jesus' "divinity" only by holding some form of docetism. (122, Phillips's quotation underlined)

Taken in context, Wright's idea that maintaining Jesus' divinity entails a kind of docetism is premised upon a particular and rather dodgy view of God, tied up with Deism and viewing the "supernatural" in such a way that God's operation in the world is seen as the interpolation of an external force. Wright's whole point is that we can maintain Jesus' full divinity without having to fall into those sorts of theologically questionable views which end up not only undermining Jesus' full humanity in a docetic way, but also presuppose the God of docetism who is too transcendent and too distant to fully commit himself and salvation to the instrumentality of a fully human nature.

Whether or not one agrees with Wright's assessment of such views of Jesus' divinity and self-awareness, either historically or theologically, it is intellectually dishonest to tear quotations out context in order to make someone you find disagreeable look bad.

Sadly, Phillips's treatment of Wright here is not dissimilar to his treatment of Wright (and some other figures) in variety of critical essays and comments. Nor, even more sadly, is it out of character for Reformation21 more generally, if some prior blog entries and articles are to be taken as representative (Helm's "review" of Franke comes to mind). If Phillips and Reformation21 wish to maintain what credibility they have (let alone live up to the "positive" and "pastoral" billing they've given themselves), then they must strive to do better than this.

11 January 2006


Laurel and I have been watching through late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's series of ten short films called Dekalog and finding them haunting, subtle, moving, and provocative.

Each of the ten films, originally created for Polish television, focuses in upon one of the ten commandments following the biblical order (using the Catholic division), though recognizing that the commandments are intertwined and that breaking one commandment entails breaking others. The breaking of the commandments often occurs in unexpected ways, sometimes on the part of more than one character, and fraught with various ambiguities and open-ended questions.

The interest of the films lies in part in the spareness of the exposition, which forces one to pay close attention in order to discern precisely what it is that is going on, with earlier clues often find fulfillment and come together in unexpected ways. Another aspect of the film's interest is in the banality and everydayness of much evildoing, the ambiguity of many of our actions and the fragility of goodness, humanly speaking. All of this is carried out, moreover, in a context that assumes at least vestiges of Polish Catholicism.

The films hold together as a single, exactingly constructed ten-part work through the careful direction of Kieslowski who has the films set in a single, dingy concrete apartment complex, with characters or plot lines from one film occasionally crossing paths with those in others. There is also one character who, while doing very little (except carrying some sort of burden) and speaking no lines, appears in most of the films, observing the events as they unfold, with a look of irremediable sadness, never interfering, though sometimes seemingly causing pangs of conscience in those he sees.

Almost all the characters are lonely and introverted, and the films, though sometimes sparse with dialogue, nonetheless open a glimpse into the interior life of these characters. And the overarching themes of the films don't emerge easily from any single film, but build up by bits throughout the series, themes of compassion, mercy, empathy, and charity.

The films are beautiful and a stunning achievement, well worth the ten hours of their viewing.

09 January 2006

WSJ article

This is an interesting article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal regarding Wheaton College's letting go of a faculty member who converted to Roman Catholicism on the putative grounds that he could no longer affirm the school's "Statement of Faith." The interesting thing is that the Catholic-convert professor insisted that he could while Wheaton's president refused to accept that, it seems.

Joseph Bottum makes some helpful comments over at First Things, though the one that struck home most clearly to me was his observation that:

The problem, really, is the difficulty in crafting a faith statement that can be signed by every Protestant—from the highest of high-church Anglicans to the lowest of low-church fundamentalists—but can’t be signed by any Catholic. In the end, all such things are likely to run on a wink and prayer, which says a great deal about the incoherence of some Christian disunity.

This story led me to go read over Wheaton's faith statement and I think Bottum's point is a good one. The statement seems to me to be broad and vague enough as to be relatively acceptable to almost any Christian holding to Nicene orthodoxy.

Wheaton is certainly free to exclude on theological grounds whoever they would like, but it seems to me that either they need to make the exclusion of non-Protestants explicit or they should tighten up their faith statement.

Of course, I'm in rather the opposite position from the Wheaton professor, as a confessional Protestant teaching at a Roman Catholic university. The American implementation of the Vatican's policy on Catholic colleges (Ex Corde Ecclesiae) specifies that such colleges seek to assure that the majority of the faculty are Catholic and that all faculty understand and sympathize with the school's mission as a Catholic university. Catholic theological faculty, however, are held to a tighter standard and must be approved by the bishop in some manner.

None of this, however, requires faculty to affirm a statement of faith akin to what Wheaton and many other evangelical colleges require. Some Catholic schools do require faculty to sign some kind of promise to uphold Christian moral teaching and not be openly and overly critical of the Catholic church. But this sort of thing varies from school to school.

Ironically, some of my colleagues joke that I, as a confessional Protestant, am a better Catholic than many of the supposedly Roman Catholic faculty. Unfortunately, there's some truth to that, though it certainly isn't at all true across the board.

In any case, I think the events at Wheaton and the articles raise some important and tricky issues about the character and boundaries of an education that attempts to maintain and pass along a particular religious tradition.

Institutions that require subscription to an established confession (at least to be full-time or voting faculty), though they can have difficulties of their own, at least make these kinds of issues relatively clear. And there is something to be said in favor of an education that seeks to operate within a specifically circumscribed tradition rather than a broader and less defined "evangelicalism" or the like.

On the other hand, there are also advantages to a looser holding of boundaries such as one finds at many Catholic institutions or places such as Baylor University or, in a somewhat more narrow manner, Wheaton. Such schools provide an education within a broadly Christian tradition while, at the same time, exposing students to a variety of perspectives from those who actually hold to those views and know and understand them from the "inside."

Perhaps the resolution here is to recognize that a variety of institutions serve a variety of different goals and needs and that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Maintaining a distinctive theological identity in the context of a secular culture, however, always remains a challenge.

07 January 2006


We just returned the second DVD of the sci-fi series Firefly to Netflix. We've both been enjoying the series a lot and are looking forward to the rest of the episodes.

The scripts are engaging, funny, and thoughtful. The characters are complex and quirky. And the setting is, well, intriguing - a future world where the division between the power-brokers and the commoners plays out in terms of a high-tech cosmopolitanism over against a rural, low-tech frontier life. Thus the series is partly a Western set in space, but much more as well, including many elements of Chinese and Asian language and art making for a eclectic cultural amalgam that involves the passing along of faith traditions as well.

I'll be interested to see how some of the theme will be developed throughout the rest of the series and in the film Serenity.

05 January 2006

toddler breakfasts and complexity

My three year old doesn't believe in Ockham's razor...or at least she doesn't believe in whatever the practical equivalent of Ockham's razor might be. As you might recall, the principle in question has to do with giving explanations, suggesting that the best explanation is the one that posits the fewest entities in order to explain the phenomenon in question. The practical equivalent of Ockham's razor, I suppose, would be the idea that the most efficient way of accomplishing any task is the best.

If so, however, then Claire certainly has little interest in it. Breakfast this morning involved two bowls, a small Tupperware pitcher, a container of vanilla yogurt, a sippy cup of apple juice, corn puffs, cinnamon coated cereal squares, dried cranberries, some banana slices, and four spoons. Remarkably, she ate it all.

Come to think of it, Claire has little interest in the more explanatory version of Ockham's razor. Three year olds, of course, are natural philosophers, still filled with that wonder at the world that Aristotle saw as the beginning of philosophical reflection. They also have an explanatory creativity that does not rule out any explanation as too byzantine or lavish.

A random siren in the distance, for instance, can lead to a story about an imminent resurgence of dinosaur activity in the Philadelphia region, ending in a dissertation on the dangers of sharptooths with their red beady eyes. And I've been told, on good authority, that there is decisive evidence of heffalump activity in the woods near our home, perhaps even a whole group of them, with a woozle or two thrown in.

The upshot of this is that principles such as Ockham's razor must be learned. They aren't simply wired into our constitution as human knowers, but must be acquired. Moreover, they aren't inherent to the ordinary course of being human in the way that speaking a language is or using gestures or walking upright or expressing emotion. Rather, they are more like coming to understand art or interpreting poetry or developing a taste for sherry.

That suggests that Ockham's razor is, among other things, an aesthetic criteria. This isn't to say that it is mistaken or merely a matter of taste. Aesthetic fittingness properly developed, if this is a case of it, is typically disclosive of the nature of things. Moreover, there are certainly contexts in which Ockham's razor functions as a useful principle, particularly within artificially constructed or experimental contexts in which one is controlling various data in order to isolate and test a particular explanation.

But as an overall approach to the world, the principle appears, perhaps, as a penchant for barren landscapes, a preference for Bauhaus over Victoriana.

I also wonder if there is something about the ontological liberality of childhood that reveals an important truth about the nature of the world and what it means to enter the kingdom like a little child. Suppose the cosmos is not merely the atomized machine that Ockham (and his Cartesian descendants) tended to imagine. Suppose, rather, that it is the analogically articulated manifestation of the divine as the transcendent source and end of all things, a revelation of the excess of the processions of Father, Son, and Spirit.

In that case, the world is a place of plenitude, an overflow of meaning, forever subject to further explanatory unfolding and elaboration, often in the most unexpected and surprising ways that, upon reflection, are found to be apt and fitting to all that was already there. Moreover, our desires and actions - whether bringing together a childish hodge-podge of a breakfast or forging a lasting relationship - nevertheless tend to ebb away from us, streaming out into a significance that exceeds our intent, though always able to be recovered and re-narrated as our own.

And the imagination of a child, while in need of intellectual discipline and maturing rigor, nonetheless reveals something of the wonder that the world contains since the world is always already more than what is there. If, as Thomas Aquinas says, in every thought and action, God is implicitly known and desired, then I suspect that not only the dependence and trust, but also the exuberance of a child's mind makes explicit the character of faith.

02 January 2006

new years

A blessed New Year to all.

Sorry for not blogging for a while. Our DSL connection went down several days ago and I wasn't able to troubleshoot the problem very easily. It turned out that one of the internal phone lines in our house had a problem and needed to be replaced. So now things are back in working order.

If you've emailed me, I'm still catching up. Except for a brief check on my laptop at a Panera Bread cafe (free, open wireless!), I've not be able to keep up.

I did, however, just get back from jogging 3.5 miles with the dog, which was very invigorating. After a month and a half of sedentary living (grading, wrapping, visiting, concerts, illness, etc.) and of having plates of various culinary delights pushed in front of me (cookies, candies, cheese dips, deep-fried hors d'ouevres, etc.), it was good to get active again. I'm not going to make any New Year's resolutions, but I do think the dog will also benefit from more exercise.

We're about to grab lunch and then run some errands. My mother-in-law is also staying with us for several days. So I'm not sure when I'll get back to blogging regularly again, but it'll be soon.